Ahh, tis' the season to be bulking. In this article I am going to discuss what bulking is, the problems with it in the fitness industry, and finally how to set up a productive bulk phase.
If you know a bro who is bulking, please, share this with them- it just may save their life.
What bulking is commonly known as
A period of time, usually stretching from early fall to early spring, where bros all across the world gorge on as much food as they can possibly handle in order to get the ever elusive gainz. A substantial amount of fat will be put on in the process, but it's OK because "gainz bro". Being in a caloric surplus is mandatory for muscle gain just as a caloric deficit is mandatory for fat loss. The guideline most commonly used is to gain one pound per week while bulking. Bulking was popularized by "enhanced" bodybuilders who took the weight gain to the extreme during the off season. Come cut time, the "enhancements" allowed them to shed all of the excess body fat very easily while maintaining all of the muscle they gained. Hence the phrase "you gotta eat big to get big" was born. Even I have drank the Kool Aid before, as recently as last year, packing on 25 pounds while bulking.
Why the mainstream bulking concept is flawed
First off, there is a whole binge eating/eating disorder aspect to bulking that everyone seems to ignore but I'm not getting into that here.
My main focus is on muscle to fat ratio in a bulk, as there is a cap to how much muscle we can gain if not "enhanced." If you are on the sauce, feel free to stop reading here as none of this applies to you. If you are all natty, our potential muscle gains are depressing after the newbie gains we get during the first year of weight training. Here's an overview from Lyle McDonald's website, www.bodyrecomposition.com (if you are unfamiliar with Lyle, check out his site. It's awesome). The majority of experts out there have very similar numbers to his.
Years of Proper Training Max Muscle Gain/Year
- 1 20-25 lbs (2 lbs/month)
- 2 10-12 lbs (1 lbs/month)
- 3 5-6 lbs (.5 lbs/month)
- 4+ 2-3 lbs (.25 lbs/month)
If you've been lifting for 4+ years, 2-3 pounds of muscle gain/year MAX (.25 lbs/month) is all you can expect. And this is if you are doing EVERYTHING right (being in a calorie surplus year round, progressively overloading in your weight training, sleeping 8+ hours, etc.). While it's depressing to see numbers that small, you have to just accept the facts and plan how to maximize it.
Most people who are reading this are most likely in that 3+ years of training category. Knowing that the MAXIMUM amount of muscle you can gain is .25-.5 lbs/month, why would you want to gain 1 lbs/week during a bulk? That would be 4 lbs/month of which .5 is muscle and 3.5 is fat (see the problem?). Let's play this out over a full bulking cycle from September-February and assume that you are hitting muscle growth of .5/lbs month.
5 month bulking phase @ +1 lbs/week
- Total weight gained: 20 lbs
- Total muscle gained: 2.5 lbs
- Total fat gained: 17.5 lbs
- % gained from fat: 88%
Yup, that innocent little 1 lbs/week gain just made your cut months longer. And for what, a barely noticeable amount of muscle? Again, 2.5 pounds of muscle would be BEST CASE SCENARIO and is most likely less. As you get fatter, insulin sensitivity drops meaning that nutrients aren't being shuttled into muscles as efficiently as they were when you were leaner. This equates to less muscle growth. So once you hit that 15-17% body fat mark, it's likely that any weight gain is going to be fat.
That 17.5 pounds of fat is going to be a pain in the ass to cut off to get you ready for that big Memorial Day weekend party. At 1 lbs/week fat loss (safe and healthy pace for fat loss) you are looking at 4.5 months of cutting. Yeah, that doesn't get you ready in time to play shirtless beer pong at that party. So, you decide to get more aggressive and lose 2 lbs/week. Similar to how we can only gain so much muscle in a week, we can only lose so much fat in a week as well. Once you hit that 2 lbs/week mark, chances are you are tapping into muscle as well to burn as energy. So as sad as it sounds, you may actually lose most, if not all, of that 2.5 lbs of muscle and be exactly where you were when the bulk started.
Here's an idea- don't get so fat during the bulk. I know it's fun to eat entire pizzas and thousands of calories in a sitting but there's a better way to gain muscle while keeping the fat gains to a minimum.
How to set up a proper bulk
How do I know if I should bulk?
If your body fat percentage is currently 15% or higher, you should not be bulking. Cut down to ~10% body fat and then bulk. To test body fat you can buy a body fat caliper or literally just google "body fat percentage" and there will be picture charts of people at different body fat percentages. This should give you a rough idea of where you are at. Also, it should go without saying that you shouldn't be bulking if not lifting weights. Your muscles need a stimulus to grow (resistance training) so without that stimulus any weight gain will just be fat.
How much should I gain per week?
Beginners (no weight training experience): Gain 1 lbs/week
This is the only category of lifters that I would recommend gaining 1 lbs/week. The newbie gains only come once so you should be maximizing that potential and thinking long term, not about short term fat gain.
Everyone else (1+ years weight training experience): Gain .5 lbs/week
Yes this will still come with some fat gain but instead of putting on 17.5 lbs of fat from the above example it would be 9 lbs instead. That can be taken care of in a 6 week cut. .5 lbs/week will promote muscle gain while keeping fat to a minimum.
How much food should I be eating?
This comes down to calories. First step is finding your maintenance calories (amount of calories where your weight holds steady for 2 weeks). This is going to be different for everyone but a good starting point is to take your body weight and multiply it by 14. So, for a 180lb dude that would be ~2,500 calories. If you lose weight at this intake, add 100 calories/week until your weight holds steady. If you gain weight at this intake, subtract 100 calories/week until your weight holds steady. It's important to chill out at maintenance for a few weeks because that's where your body is most comfortable and will allow all of your hormones to stabilize before entering into an extended caloric surplus. Make sure that you are getting 1 gram per pound of body weight in protein (180g if you weigh 180 lbs) or roughly 30% of your calories. The remaining calories can come from carbs and fats.
After 2 weeks of being at maintenance, simply add in 100 calories/week until you start gaining .5 lbs/week. You will hit weight gain plateaus as your body adapts to the new calorie intake. If your weight holds steady for a week straight (plateau), bump your calories up another 100/week until you start gaining .5 lbs/week again.
How long should I bulk for?
Everyone is going to have different goals but I would gain until the earlier of:
A) The date you want to begin your cut
B) When you hit 15-17% body fat
Point B is very important. As discussed earlier, higher body fat percentages are associated with lower insulin sensitivity which is going to blunt your muscle gains. Also, body fat ranges above 15-17% means a long cut to lose the added weight.
Remember, there is a way to make your bulk productive by keeping fat gain to a minimum while adding lean muscle. I hope you found this helpful and remember to share with a bro who is bulking- it just may save their life!