What Is a Bulk
This guide focusing on bulking for beginners is focused around making sure you have surplus calories for building muscle without gaining excess fat
If you are just getting started in the gym and want to improve your physique then one of the first things you will consider is whether you should bulk or cut and the answer to this will of course depend on your starting point.
A bulking phase is a period of time in which you dedicate purely to muscle growth, your diet and training plans will be focused on maximal muscle growth and you will therefore not be concerned with fat loss (though as a beginner it’s very much possible to build muscle while losing body fat).
The key point for a bulk is that you will eat in a calorie surplus each day, in simple terms you will consume more calories than what you expend through energy (workouts, daily tasks, work and even basic bodily functions contribute to this).
To determine your starting point for a bulk you will want to look at your starting body fat percentage and make sure that it is an optimal point to start a bulk. For this you should be looking at a body fat percentage less than 15% and the ideal starting point will be between 10% – 12%, if you are over these figures then your focus should immediately be on losing body fat before you even consider a bulk.
One of the common side effects of a bulk is that you will gain excess body fat as a result, I’ll discuss later how you can minimise this but it’s important to note that you should start a bulk at as low a body fat level as possible for this reason. Not only does a higher body fat percentage negatively impact the muscle building process from a hormonal viewpoint but if you start a bulk from a level of high body fat it will actually be easier to store more fat making your eventual cutting phase twice as hard/long as it needs to be!
Therefore if you’ve read this and are currently over 12% body fat then there is no need to read on, you should instead turn your attention to a cutting guide and come back to this once your ready and primed for a dedicated bulking phase.
If however you are fortunate enough to be starting at the lower end of the body fat spectrum (perhaps you’re a skinny guy who is looking to put on size) and are not sure how to go about starting a bulk and putting on some size then this guide will walk you through the process step by step.
Different Types of Bulk
This might be one area which has caused you the most confusion when looking to start a bulk and that is the fact that there are different schools of thought about how you can bulk. Much in the same way as there are numerous ways to diet (keto, low carb, paleo) there are actually different types of bulking strategies, though some are more effective than others!
The below are the three most common types of bulking methods that you will come across, the first two divide opinion massively and have a psychological relationship with the food whilst the last is my personal recommended approach.
As mentioned earlier the key point for a bulk is to eat in a calorie surplus, a clean bulk is named so because the majority of the food you consume on this diet will come from ‘clean’ food sources. The term clean when it comes to dieting is not making sure your food is free of pesticides and dirt (though that’s preferential) but rather that the foods are nutrient dense whole foods and free from preservatives and additives.
The food choices from a clean bulk should have as little modification as possible and should be naturally grown and available in the wild. They should comprise of food groups that have a short shelf life as well because the longer the expiration date on food the more preservatives it has.
Common ‘clean’ foods can be categorised as follows:
- Plant based – leafy green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale
- Fruit and berries
- Nuts and seeds
Consuming nutrient dense foods (which are all under the above categories) will always have a beneficial impact on your physique development and body composition. One of the key issues in today’s society is the addition of sugar and fat into everyday snacks, these significantly raise the calories but often have low macronutrient value.
I’m sure you’ve seen posts and info graphics comparing the calories in a chocolate bar to those in a salad or some other form of comparison, I don’t like people to have a restrictive mentality around food as this causes a bad relationship with food however I do agree that 80% of your diet should be made up of nutrient dense ‘clean’ foods.
** Note – I will keep singling out the terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ because I don’t like the phrase, in place of clean I prefer nutrient dense and for dirty I won’t even provide an alternative as very few food sources are truly bad for you when consumed in moderation
A dirty bulk as you might now have guessed is a bulk that involves consuming high calorie, less nutrient dense foods that have now become known as cheap meals.
Common ‘dirty’ foods can be categorised as follows:
- Takeaway and fast food meals (due to the high fat content)
You’ll notice many of these options are prevalent in the diet of people who struggle to control their weight and put on fat easily. These options are high in calories but low in nutrient value and therefore make it very easy to gain weight.
Of course you can make and buy versions of the above with a very good nutrient profile however for the purpose of this article most people go on a dirty bulk to indulge in foods that they might have been restricted on during a previous dieting phase.
It’s a very popular tactic to justify these meals on a bulk and say you need the calories to build muscle however for the majority it is very much an excuse to eat whatever they want and ignore a structured bulking diet plan.
I personally favour balance so don’t agree with this mentality of either approach, if you start to categorise food as good and bad then you will develop an unhealthy relationship with food that can lead to eating disorders further down the line.
This is my personal favourite approach to bulking, the focus is less about what foods you consume (though again aim for 80% being nutrient dense sources) and more about the size of the calorie surplus that you are on and controlling your daily intake. I have previously covered how you could lean bulk without an emphasis on counting calories however this approach is not recommended for beginners.
When dieting to lose body fat the best results come from those that track their calorie intake and stay consistent with it, when it comes to bulking however this process gets ignored in favour of the eat as much as you can approach. This mentality comes from and old way of thinking whereby people would just eat until the scale weight moved, this is of course effective if you want to put on weight but not so much if you want to build more muscle than you put on fat!
I’ve not mentioned it yet but there is a limit to how much muscle you can build in a certain period of time of chasing scale weight should not be your first approach. As a beginner you can expect top end results of 1lb of lean muscle gained over a two week period and that’s top end, it may not seem like much but that can make up 25lbs of muscle built in a year. This is the time to take advantage of beginner gains and therefore you want to be in an optimal position body composition wise to benefit.
A lean bulk therefore puts you in a calorie surplus that is slightly over your maintenance calorie requirements, this will mean that you are in enough of a surplus to facilitate muscle growth but not so high that you put on unnecessary body fat.
Do Beginners Need To Bulk
All beginners should bulk unless their body fat is above 15%. Beginners and untrained individuals are the most receptive to muscle growth and new training stimulus and a bulking phase could see a beginner add 25 – 35 pounds of lean muscle mass within their first year of training.
As you can see by the above statement, bulking for beginners is not only beneficial, it’s arguably essential!
The reason I state that you shouldn’t bulk above a body fat of 15% is that your body will not be primed to properly utilize a surplus of calories. At this body fat range and higher, you’ll already have excess fat storage and for most people, consuming a caloric surplus will add to that rather than being utilized by the muscles.
In this instance, it’s better for beginners to go through a body recomp. Here, you’ll consume a calorie deficit and cut but when combined with a resistance training program, it is possible for beginners to still build muscle while consuming a calorie deficit due to the training stimulus acting as a “shock” to the body.
This is a concept widely discussed but really, only true beginners can benefit from a body recomp and it comes with having a higher body fat percentage at the start.
Except for the instance of body fat percentage, all beginners should start with a bulking phase and it should also be a continuous bulk lasting 6,12, 18, or even 24 months. You should be looking to take advantage of your sensitivity to training and nutrition in these early stages as you never be this receptive to lean tissue growth again.
As you progress, the amount of muscle you can build in a month (or even a year) decreases greatly so as a beginner, take advantage of the surplus calories and try to maximize your muscle growth potential.
How to Start a Bulk Step by Step Guide
If this is your first ever bulk and you don’t know where to start then this step by step process will walk you through everything you need to know to get started on your muscle building journey. For some this might be easy and for others it may prove difficult but if you stick to the process laid out then you should see significant progress in your physique in a matter of months and start to really put some size onto your frame.
Determine Your Maintenance Calorie Requirements
This is without a doubt the most important piece of information that you need to know when it comes to any sort of diet whether it be a cut or bulk and it’s what your daily calorie requirements are. Your daily calorie requirements are basically how many calories you need to consume on a daily basis just to maintain weight and is calculated based on your current weight and daily energy expenditure.
Your body needs calories and expends energy just to perform the general bodily functions that can go unnoticed from controlling body temperature to digesting the food you eat, everything requires energy and calories provide this.
It took me a long time to come across this concept, when I first started lifting weights I started getting stronger and got some muscle development but didn’t really gain weight or put on visible size. It didn’t matter how much I ate, the scale weight barely moved from month to month and while I wasn’t actively trying to get bigger it was obvious that diet and not purely lifting weights is what puts on size.
Weight training is just the trigger, recovery and proper nutrition is the key to building muscle and putting some size onto your frame.
I’ve bulked on an all you can eat approach before and the difficulty is not knowing at what point your actually in a surplus and for all the reading I’d done on the topic it wasn’t till late on that I came across someone pointing out that you need to identify a starting point from which to base your surplus.
A very simple formula that I use to calculate your maintenance calorie requirements is the following:
BMR x TDEE = Maintenance Calorie Requirements
To work out your BMR simple take your body weight in kilograms, times it by 15 and then add 700 (this is a conservative estimate).
BMR = (Body weight (kg) x 15) + 700
My BMR calculation – (80 x 15) + 700 = 1,900
Next you want to calculate your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure), you can do so using the table I’ve designed below:
You need to be honest in your assessment with this, if you lead a lifestyle with minimal activity then pick the cautious option.
My TDEE would be 1.55 so to work out my maintenance calories I’ll times this by my BMR
1,900 x 1.55 = 2,945
My maintenance calorie requirements are therefore 2,945kcals per day just to maintain weight.
This calculation is crucial and is what you should base all calorie related goals from, If I were to start a bulk as a beginner I would simple add 300kcal on to my maintenance requirements and start my bulk with 3,245kcals per day.
This is by no means an exact science and will require monitoring and adjustments as you go along but I’ll cover that shortly, for now do this calculation based for yourself and get your calorie requirements.
Determine Your Macro Requirements
The next step is setting your macronutrient requirements, earlier I spoke about nutrient dense foods and those with a less than ideal nutrient contents and this is where your food choices will be important (but remember it doesn’t need to be restrictive!).
When it comes to building muscle, there are certain guidelines that you should follow for optimal results. These are not set rules and should only be taken as a baseline from which you can start from and adjust based on how you react, everyone is different and therefore you need to find what works best for you.
Having said that the following are good guidelines to start from:
Protein – 1g per lb body weight
Fat – 0.45g per lb body weight
Carbohydrates – Make up from remaining calories
My macro split would look like this on a bulk:
Determine Your Goal for the Bulk
This may sound a stupid question to ask, you obviously want to build muscle and put on size but at the same time that isn’t a very tangible goal, you instead want to look at specific goals like gaining weight whilst consuming a set number of calories.
Many people will rush into a bulk with the motivation of putting on size and set and arbitrary number, if you used my weight as an example then you could set a goal of getting to 90kg. Whilst this is good for initial motivation it will leave you chasing the wrong goal, too much focus on scale weight will lead to excessive fat gain as a result and the worse part is it’s easy to mentally trick yourself into thinking that the weight is muscle.
As mentioned you can only build muscle as a certain weight so whilst scale weight should be a good indicator of progress it should not be your primary goal. The goal I recommend you set whilst on a bulk is not physique based but rather performance based and it’s is to lift heavier weight each workout in the form of progressive overload.
Lifting heavier weights for more reps over time will force your body to adapt and grow, the calorie surplus on a bulk will simply facilitate this. You need to stimulate the muscle group and then ensure there are sufficient nutrients available to recover and build muscle.
Therefore instead of focusing on the scale you should focus on your training and then let the calorie surplus take care of the rest.
How to Monitor Your Progress
All of the above information is based on guidelines and estimates to get you started, the only real way to progress however is to track your progress and make adjustments depending on how you respond. If I start on the planned 3,245kcals per day but gain 2lbs within a week then this estimate is clearly too high and needs to be pulled back or I’d be on course to gain a lot more body fat than muscle.
It’s never been easier to track progress before, we have scales that not only track weight but also body fat percentage (I never trust these to be accurate but again then can be a good guide) and countless apps to assist you.
Bulking can definitely be overwhelming at the start and one of the easiest tools available to help you track is myfitnesspal. This free app will let you scan the barcode of the food you eat in order to track your daily calorie intake and macronutrient breakdown. This is a real time saver when it comes to hitting your target each day and will give you real time data of what you have consumed for the day as well as a macro breakdown.
With it you can also save meals to easily add again if you consume them on a frequent basis, this app is well regarded for tracking calories on a cut but should not be ignored when it can be so effectively used on a bulk as well.
Now that the absolute basics are covered I’m going to run through some bulking topics that you might not have considered, heard of or even thought it would be an issue!
You don’t need to worry about being overwhelmed with information though, these are just some useful tips based on general queries and as long as you follow the points listed above you’ll be doing 95% of the work needed.
Can Bulking Make You Tired
Have you ever finished eating a big meal like Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving and needed to take a nap? Well there are actually a few reasons for this and the more you eat on a bulk the more tired you are likely to be.
When consuming a large meal it’s the case that the more food you eat and need to digest the more blood flows to the digestive system in order to breakdown and digest it, this slows down other areas of the body that require blood flow including the brain and this is one reason for drowsiness after a big meal.
Eating certain foods also cause certain chemical reactions, foods high in protein like poultry and eggs contain tryptophan, an amino acid that releases serotonin (the feel good chemical) and can cause drowsiness, high carbohydrate meals can also cause the release of serotonin.
When looking at the above two examples of large meals that are high in protein and carbohydrates is easy to see that these are the staples of a bulking diet and therefore not surprising that you’d be tired after eating on a bulk.
The best way to combat this is to therefore consume smaller meals throughout the day but more frequently, this will manage your digestion and hormonal balance whilst still allowing you to hit your daily calorie requirements.
What If You Can’t Eat Enough to Bulk
Another common issue is that people struggle with a small appetite when bulking. Eating high calorie meals that contain nutrient dense foods can not only be difficult on the digestive system but also be time consuming in terms of prepping the food and then eating it.
If you’re struggling to eat enough on your bulk then try a few of the following tactics:
- Add high calorie shakes – high calorie shakes are quick to make and easily digestible, if you are having three large meals per day as an example then you can add in two high calorie shakes as ‘snacks’ to up your total calorie intake. There are plenty of 1,000kcal> recipes online and most include simple ingredients like oats, whey protein, nut butter, honey, berries and any type of milk to suit taste.
- Eat a larger breakfast and post workout meal – These are the two periods when your appetite will be highest and you should therefore take full advantage of this by having your largest (highest calorie) meals in these periods. As a side note It’s a good idea to add a large quantity of your carbohydrates for the day into you post workout meal as they will be better utilised by your body and in particular muscles.
What If You Eat Too Much on a Bulk
In direct contrast to the above there are those that eat way too much on a bulk and end up putting on a lot of unnecessary fat as a result. It’s very easy when on a bulk to overindulge and massively exceed your daily calorie targets that should be to stay within 300kcal – 500kcal of your maintenance calorie amount. It’s also even easier to mentally ignore it and convince yourself that the extra calories will be put to good use which is unfortunately rarely the case.
If you find you are eating too much on a bulk then you can look into a few of the following points:
- Are you gaining weight or even losing weight – If your energy expenditure is very high (you have a high TDEE and also workout frequently) then your initial calculations for a bulk might be off. One reason for increased appetite is you body signaling that it needs more nutrients, if your scale weight has gone up in a while then this might mean you are not hitting your surplus requirements and could be the reason for increased appetite
- Include more fiber into your diet – Foods high in fiber take longer to digest and because they stay in your digestive system for longer you will not release hunger signaling as frequently. This is a very simple but often effective tip to reduce satiety and appetite.
- Drink more coffee – Caffeine is an appetite suppressant and is an excellent tool to use when dieting to prevent hunger pangs. It fortunately works just as well if your appetite is too high and you over consume. Drink 2 – 3 cups of coffee per day and this will help to suppress your appetite.
- Have smaller meals more frequently – This is a tip for those that struggle to eat enough on a bulk but is equally effective for those that eat too much. Having smaller meals spread out into more frequent sittings will mean that your digestive system will be active for longer, you will spend less time with an empty stomach which will reduce signalling to the brain and you’ll still be able to manage your daily calorie intake.
Will Bulking Make You Fat
The number one issue that prevents beginners from getting started on a bulk is the fear that you will get fat as a result. Will bulking make you fat? You will get store excess body fat on a bulk but only if you fail to follow a strategic, calorie controlled diet that does not put you in too much of a surplus.
There is no other way around it, if you don’t control your calories, even on a bulk then you will at some point put on excess body fat. The best way to prevent this is to follow the lean bulk approach from above and make sure you track your weight and calorie intake daily so that you can take preventative measures early and really optimise your bulk for muscle growth.
Will It Be Expensive to Bulk
As soon as you are required to eat more than you normally would it’s only natural that you will spend more money as a result, eating more will in turn mean that you need to buy more. Bulking however does not need to be expensive, the more you need to eat on a daily basis you more you should be shopping around and buying your items in bulk.
Some of the best bulking foods are also the cheapest, especially when it comes to carb sources. Oats, rice, potatoes and pasta top this list with bulk bags of each available for under £1 in the UK. For protein sources tinned fish should be a go to purchase along with eggs and poultry (chicken is the cheapest option). Fat sources come in a bit more expensive but nut butters and oils will cover these bases and can last a fair few meals.
When bulking it’s best to start out on as basic a diet as your taste buds can tolerate, start with the cheapest products and then add more items once you get used to having these foods in daily meals. I also cover some of the best value bulking foods here
Will Your Clothes Still Fit on a Bulk
This is the strangest issue you will come across when bulking but if you are a true beginner and follow an optimal bulking and training plan then it’s very likely that you will grow out of your current clothes (providing you don’t wear very baggy clothes to begin with).
It’s an extreme example but as a beginner you should be aiming for 20lbs gained in body weight in your first year training, combine this with the added water weight that you will store and you should comfortably go up a clothing size within one year of training. I’m not saying that you need to dedicate a year to a bulk but within a few months you should start to see noticeable changes.
Once you fully commit to a bulk it’s advised that you invest in some over sized hoodies, t-shirts and trousers, especially for your training gear so that you can workout in comfort.
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Also check out:
Guide to bulking up fast