From a nutritional standpoint, bulking may seem like a fairly simple concept. After all, the only thing you need to do is eat a lot of food and lift heavy weights, and you can pack on as much muscle as you want, right? At least that’s what the YouTube videos seem to indicate. However, this train of thought couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth is, proper nutrition is just as critical for bulking as it is for weight loss. In fact, some experts even indicate that perhaps nutrition is more important for bulking. After all, if your macronutrients or caloric intake are off even by a little bit, you may find yourself packing on fat instead of quality muscle.
Whether you are bulking to improve your physique or you want to increase your strength, it’s actually a fairly complicated topic. However, it doesn’t have to be. We’ve taken the time to explore some of the most common mistakes that people tend to make when it comes to bulking. If you intend to optimize your bulking phase, you should avoid these mistakes.
10 Tips to Optimize Bulking
Following are 10 tips to help you make the most of your bulking phase. We’ll explore them below.
- Don’t go on a “see food” diet
- Make sure that you’re eating enough
- Don’t skip the carbs
- Make sure you’re consuming fiber- but don’t overdo it
- Use supplements, but don’t go overboard with them
- Drink shakes for a caloric boost
- Consider intermittent fasting
- Set realistic goals
- Think about calorie/carb cycling
- Don’t bulk at all
Don’t go on a “see food” diet
While experts do acknowledge that how much you eat will give you results, the quality of what you eat determines how easy or hard your journey is. Foods are packed with micronutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that facilitate a variety of bodily functions from reducing inflammation to sending signals to your brain that your stomach is full.
For example, let’s say it’s the end of the day and you’re lacking about 500 calories. You could grab a pint of ice cream- but a better alternative may be some lean protein and whole wheat pasta. After all, the ice cream will fill your stomach, but the protein and pasta is packed with nutrients to help with digestion, facilitate insulin sensitivity, and improve your body in a variety of ways.
According to the experts, bulking should come from a whole food diet that is rich in nutrients. When you are bulking and your body is working to create new muscle cells, it requires protein and metabolic energy. In addition, your body is undergoing mitochondrial biogenesis and DNA synthesis. All of these require vitamins, minerals, and hormones.
It’s also important to keep in mind that exercise is inflammatory and in addition to vitamins and minerals, our bodies need antioxidants and phytochemicals to facilitate recovery and reduce joint pain. These nutrients are rarely found in snack cakes or multivitamins.
Most bulking plans do not allow junk food at all, but if a bulking plan does allow it, only about 10% of your calories can come from junk food. Of course, this has a lot to do with what your goals are. For example, Eddie Hall, 2017 World’s Strongest Man is purported to have consumed a family-sized cheesecake for a snack every day- but he was not preparing to compete on the Mr. Olympia stage.
Make sure that you are eating enough
Many times, newbies to bulking often feel that their caloric goals are too high and don’t eat enough to put on the weight they need. Typically, you should be adding 200 to 400 more calories per day than what you normally would eat. However, depending on your goals, you may need more or less.
If you have never tracked your calories or macronutrients- that is, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates- it may seem like a lot of food.
For example, a 6-foot tall male weighing 180 pounds may need at least 2,500 calories each day. If you’ve been sticking to whole foods and proteins without tracking your caloric consumption, you may be shocked to learn how much food that is. Two pounds of cooked oatmeal isn’t even ¼ of your daily intake and it’s not even one full meal.
As long as you’ve invested the time and energy in determining your calories and macros based on your preferences, activity level, and body composition, the process is guaranteed to work. Your significant other may look at you funny when you’re diving into a plateful of chicken and rice after dinner, but that’s okay- there is a method to your madness.
Don’t skip the carbs
Even if your preference is a high-fat diet, carbs can help with bulking- without increasing overall body fat. Whether you perform better with more fat or carbs depends on your body composition. However, carbohydrates should be a priority for a variety of reasons.
For example, carbohydrates trigger insulin spikes, which send glycogen to your muscles, making them appear fuller. According to research in Frontiers in Physiology, the higher your glycogen levels, the higher your insulin sensitivity, which means the lower your risk of accumulating body fat. This is wonderful news to those who are trying to bulk.
Make sure you’re consuming fiber- but don’t overdo it
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, when it comes to fiber, men should be consuming 38 grams daily and women should be consuming 25. Fiber is critical for overall health and can prevent hunger pangs. That being said, if you consume too much, you could end up with loose stool, constipation, intestinal pain, and more.
Fiber is not something that should be avoided. After all, it digests slowly, keeps you feeling fuller longer, and maintains insulin sensitivity. In addition, fiber promotes healthy levels of gut bacteria, which results in a better immune system.
However, this is a common concern of those who are trying to bulk because fiber is often found in carbs- which are an integral part of a bulking plan. Therefore, if you are trying to consume 300+ per day, there’s a good chance that the fiber content can make you feel too full to want to consume more calories.
Make sure that you are hitting your recommended daily requirement, but don’t forget things such as white rice, fruit juice, and carbohydrate supplements. These will help you increase your carbohydrate consumption minus the fiber.
Use supplements, but don’t go overboard with them
Ultimately, your nutrients need to be coming from whole foods. However, if you’re consuming a lot of additional calories, you may need to add supplements to your routine- but that does not mean you need to buy them all.
You want to avoid supplements such as testosterone boosters, muscle volumizers, growth hormone boosters, and such. These particular supplements need to be prescribed by a professional.
Instead, you need to stick with supplements that are proven to build muscle, such as protein powders and creatine. Both of these have been extensively studied and vetted by professionals in the health and fitness industry. Below, we’re going to take a closer look at each one of these:
When you start shopping for a good protein powder, be sure to choose one with at least 20 grams of protein per serving and take the time to look at the amino acid profile. Amino acids are what make up protein molecules. There are a total of 20 amino acids- 9 of them are considered essential, which means your body doesn’t produce them. Amino acids are involved in bodily functions and muscle development and, if a protein powder is low in amino acids, it’s probably not worth spending the money on.
Also, make sure that you are aware of other ingredients in your chosen protein powder and avoid those with additional sugars, artificial sweeteners, and other unnecessary, unhealthy additives. While it may make them taste better, these only add extra calories that will not help with bulking.
Finally, it’s important to note that some protein powders contain heavy metals that can be toxic to humans if consumed in large doses. You can find out if your protein powder is on the list by checking out Clean Label Project’s website.
Creatine is a chemical that is naturally produced in your body, found in several sources of whole foods, and can also be found as a supplement. It is used to create adenosine triphosphate, which is a source of energy for your body. ATP improves muscle contractions and improves your athletic performance. In addition, it increases lean muscle mass and optimizes muscle recovery following an intense workout session.
Bodybuilders and athletes around the world endorse creatine. In addition, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, it is the most effective nutritional supplement on the market at this time for athletes, with the intention of increasing HIIT capacity and lean body mass.
Experts recommend that you get 3 to 5 grams per serving.
Drink shakes for a caloric boost
If you’re having difficulty justifying consuming so many extra calories or you’re having a hard time consuming additional calories because you’re full, blending food is a great way to do it. Perhaps you should try replacing 1 meal each day with a high-calorie shake.
Meal replacement shakes are a great option, as long as they are made from whole foods and don’t contain excess sugars. Another option is to blend together combinations of spinach, frozen bananas, coconut oil, peanut butter, berries, oatmeal, avocado, and protein powder. Of course, the recipe will depend on your personal preferences and your macros.
A shake makes it a lot easier to consume 500 to 1,000 calories- but at this time, it’s not clear whether or not it makes you feel full or not. There is some belief that shakes are less filling because you don’t need to digest as much. On the other hand, some believe a shake makes you feel fuller because your stomach empties liquids before solids- but it’s blended, so it’s hard to do that.
Some experts believe that blending fruits destroys the nutritional value. While it’s true that cutting/blending fruit and not consuming it immediately can result in vitamin C being lost- research in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry indicates that when cut fruit is left in a fridge for up to 9 days, it only loses 10 to 25% of their vitamin C.
Consider intermittent fasting
When it comes to weight loss, intermittent fasting is one of the most popular, most effective strategies. Therefore, most of the time, individuals who are trying to bulk up avoid it because it’s hard to fit 2,500 to 3,000+ calories in a short window. However, that does not mean it can’t be done.
One of the possible advantages of intermittent fasting when bulking is that it reduces feelings of hunger. This is a very complex topic and whether or not it’s a good idea for bulking depends on how you feel about it. However, there is one thing that is sure: when you have a lot of calories to consume and less time to consume them, it’s really hard to get it all in.
Set Realistic Goals
Regardless of how much you are eating or how hard you are training, it’s impossible to gain more than 0.5 pounds of muscle each week. In fact, the truth is that more advanced weightlifters are lucky to gain that much in one month. Any additional weight is most likely due to fat instead of muscle.
As a general rule, the most fat you will lose in one week is 1 pound- which really is a lot- and some people believe this means you can gain 1 pound of quality muscle mass in 1 week. You’ve probably seen the online claims. There are people out there who claim to have gained 10 pounds of solid muscle in 10 weeks- but for most people, this is not the case.
When you are bulking, you need to be smart about it to maximize muscle building. You need to be counting your macros and prepping your meals. In this way, the process should be very similar to the process for cutting. You must determine how many calories you need to maintain and then slowly increase your caloric consumption by 5 to 10 grams here or 5 to 10 grams there until you are gaining an average of 0.2 to 0.5 pounds each week. This allows you to minimize fat gain and maximize muscle gain.
Think about calorie/carb cycling
When you are bulking, the goal should be to consume more calories and carbs on training days than on rest days. There are lots of people who will say that as long as your calories are the same by the end of the week, it doesn’t make a difference when you consume them. However, if you want to optimize your muscle and strength gain, calorie cycling may be beneficial. Research indicates that endurance and strength athletes perform better when they consume more carbs on training days because it keeps glycogen at prime levels. There is some belief that short term overfeeding along with exercise may help maintain hormonal and thyroid health.
Eating more when training may make you stronger and help you train harder than you normally would, which means muscle gain is increased.
Don’t Bulk at All
Here’s a wild idea: perhaps you shouldn’t be bulking at all. There are some experts who believe if you already have a substantial amount of body fat, bulking may not be the best idea.
If this does describe you and you attempt to bulk up anyway, it will be almost impossible to determine whether the weight you’ve gained is muscle under the fat or just more fat on top of the fat you already have- which will be the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
That being said, try getting started on your beach body by slowly dropping some of the extra body fat. This will set you up for better progress in the long run.
There are also some advantages to losing fat prior to bulking: when you have less body fat, insulin sensitivity is increased. Therefore, it may be easier to gain muscle and absorb nutrients after you’ve lost weight. Plus, if you do have a lot of body fat, you will end up looking more muscular after you slim down than when you started your bulking journey.
When it comes to managing macronutrients, hunger & satiety, and muscle gain what works for one person may not work for someone else. You really have to figure out what works for you personally. Therefore, the most important advice for bulking is to make sure you’re getting an appropriate amount of macronutrients and to pay close attention to your energy balance in a way that will give you 0.2 to 0.5 pounds of muscle per week. The timing and source of nutrients is secondary- just make sure you are real in your expectations.