Everyone loves bulking season.
You are less restricted with diet choices, your energy is high, you lift more in the gym, and generally, feel better physically and emotionally than you do during a cutting phase.
The issue is that 90% of people trying to build muscle end up making some serious bulking mistakes!
The mentality for when bulking needs to be the same as what you have when cutting. Many people however naturally start to dirty bulk in order to eat all the food they missed during a cutting phase and simply end up gaining fat and not muscle.
Read on to discover the bulking mistakes that are making you fat and how to avoid them for maximum muscle growth and a better physique.
Table of Contents
Common Bulking Mistakes
“Eat big to get big”
This is the mantra for building muscle in a bulking phase and while this will certainly be true for hardgainers and those with high metabolisms, it’s, unfortunately, a mindset that is the root cause for unsuccessful bulks.
A successful bulking phase is one where you gain weight but keep your body fat percentage under 15%. This isn’t an exact science (yet) but if you’re gaining weight and staying relatively lean under 15% body fat, then a higher percentage will be from muscle tissue and not excess fat gain.
Unfortunately, the reverse is true for most people.
You end up finishing a bulk with such a high body fat percentage that you need to diet even harder just to lose the excess body fat. You’ll also have people who think they are eating big to get big but don’t gain any weight at all.
Below, I’ve covered the most common bulking mistakes that you really need to avoid. These mistakes lead to gaining too much body fat on a bulk and not enough muscle mass – for most people you’ll be experiencing both simultaneously!
1) You’re Calories Are Too Low
The key to bulking is that you need to be in a calorie surplus.
This means you’ll eat more calories than the number you need to consume each day just to maintain weight – this is known as your maintenance calorie requirement. Most people struggling to gain weight while bulking will say they eat “everything” and still can’t gain weight.
In most cases, people are undereating based on their daily expenditure and won’t actually be in a calorie surplus. If you don’t know what your maintenance calorie requirements are, there’s no way to know whether or not you’re consuming a surplus.
Check out our guide on bulking for beginners which shows you how to set your calorie requirements for a bulk.
Much like with cutting you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose body fat, eating everything when bulking is not enough to guarantee a surplus.
You need to follow the same method you would when cutting and calculate exactly how many calories you need to eat each day in order to move the scale.
Trust us, it’s more food than what you might think!
2) You’re Calories are Too High
At the other end of the scale, people bulking get so carried away with junk food and favorite dirty bulking foods that they end up consuming far too high of a calorie surplus.
There’s a fine line when bulking between eating enough to support muscle recovery and growth without eating so much that calories start to be underutilized by the body and end up being stored as excess body fat. This is the number 1 issue people face when bulking.
As mentioned in mistake #1, you need to know your numbers. A calorie surplus of 250kcal – 500kcal is more than enough to support muscle growth. The higher the surplus you consume, the more likely it is that you’re going to gain excess body fat as a result.
3) You’re Gaining Too Much Body Fat
This is linked to the point above but most people gain far too much body fat when bulking. Consuming too many calories is always the cause and it’s something that ruins the progress of a bulk. Gaining excess body fat is needless but it’s not actually the main issue.
The main issue is that the more body fat you have, the harder it is to build muscle. Our bodies are incredibly efficient, at a low(ish) body fat percentage of 10% – 12% we use surplus calories more efficiently. They are better utilized and shuttled to the muscles for recovery and energy stores.
The higher the body fat percentage though, the less efficiently this system works. The surplus calories start to go to body fat storage rather than the muscles and this is compounded once you get over 15% body fat.
Hormones are impacted with higher body fat percentages, you’re less sensitive to insulin (meaning nutrients are not partitioned properly) and this starts a very vicious cycle whereby the more calories you consume, the faster the rates of body fat storage you’ll see.
Therefore, keep the surplus low and try to minimize excess fat gain. Some fat gain is expected and normal when bulking but there’s a limit to this.
Related – Is it normal to feel fat while bulking?
4) Too Much Dirty Bulking
People like bulking because of the freedom that comes with the diet.
To consume a calorie surplus, some calorie-dense foods are needed. This is due to the fact that they are less satiating meaning the impact on hunger is less and also because it’s an easy method to hit your calorie targets each day.
A constant surplus can be hard to eat in but the answer to this isn’t to go crazy and eat pizza, burgers, ice cream, and sweets as your staple foods.
80% of your diet should still consist of nutrient-dense foods that support muscle growth and recovery. Lean meats, nuts, dairy, vegetables, grains, and fish should all be utilized as a priority. Other foods can then be used to reach your surplus.
If you follow a dirty bulk, you’ll just gain a lot of body fat and not much lean muscle tissue so it’s often more effort than it’s worth in the long run.
5) Bulking for Too Long
Most people should bulk for 4-8 months.
This time frame gives you enough time to gradually increase your calorie surplus, keep progressing in the gym, and ultimately maximize your muscle-building potential. Some people definitely benefit from longer bulking periods but then some people simply bulk for too long.
The issue is that you can’t actually see how much muscle you’ve built on a bulk until you cut down and lose body fat. As long as the scale weight is going up each week, you might assume you are building a load of lean muscle tissue.
In reality, bulking can become less effective the longer it lasts. Constantly pushing calories higher and higher leads to more body fat and poor nutrient partitioning – along with countless other issues like digestion and the impact on insulin sensitivity.
Try to bulk until a point where your body fat is getting too high – around 15% – and then look to consider either a mini-cut or a dedicated cutting phase. This not only reduces body fat but will also help your hormones and sensitivity to future bulking phases.
Think of this as taking a step back to take two steps forward.
6) Not Tracking Your Calories
Just because you are bulking, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat this diet any differently than a cutting diet.
The first two mistakes people make are around calorie intake (either too low or too high) so to rectify this you should still track your calories.
While you can bulk without counting calories, this takes careful planning upfront and then a relatively strict routine. If you have a set meal plan that you’ll have every day, it’s much easier to ignore the need to count calories because you’ve already determined this number.
Counting calories also doesn’t need to be a difficult task. Calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal make it very easy to track your calories and see how much you’ve consumed each day in relation to your target. Check out my tracker below as an example:
You don’t need to be counting every single macro but make sure you are tracking enough to know roughly how much of a surplus you are consuming.
7) No Progressive Overload
The purpose of a bulk is not to eat more food, it’s purely to support muscle growth.
The extra calories you consume as a surplus support muscle recovery and growth but should be utilized to push your limits in the gym in addition.
Muscle growth only occurs when your body needs to adapt to an external stimulus which is resistance training and lifting weights. Have you ever heard the saying “train the same, remain the same”?
In order to build muscle you need to give your body a reason to grow and this is done through progressive overload. If you’re not getting stronger in the gym, it’s unlikely the extra calories will be fully utilized for muscle growth.
Progressive overload isn’t just about adding more weight to the bar – though this should be a priority – you can progressively overload through more sets, more reps, shorter rest periods, longer sets, and set extending techniques.
If you’re not progressively overloading on a bulk then you won’t get the results you want in terms of muscle growth.
8) You Track the Wrong Metrics (Like Scale Weight)
Many of these points are linked and come back to gaining fat or not getting your calorie intake correct. When bulking, the key metrics you should be tracking are calories consumed and numbers in the gym. If you’re in a surplus and lifting more weight, you’ll build muscle.
What happens instead is that it becomes too easy to obsess over scale weight. I’ve done this before. When pursuing muscle growth you think the scale should be going up each day and by considerable margins each week.
Unfortunately, muscle growth is not that quick of a process and if you gain 1lb – 2lb of lean muscle tissue per month, you’re doing very well!
The key is to take a long-term approach (which is very difficult) and think that 15lbs of muscle built over the course of a year will make a drastic difference to your physique.
Most people though will try to gain this in a month and doing this will mean that 90% of the weight will be water weight, muscle glycogen, and fat.
You should track scale weight but only to make sure it isn’t going up too quickly.
This is obviously the reverse of what you think should be happening but you genuinely can only grow so much muscle and if you’ve been training for a few years, it’s going to be much less than what you think on a weekly/monthly basis.
Related – Can’t gain weight while bulking
9) Ignoring Cardio
Cardio burns calories, something you don’t want to be doing when you’re trying to gain weight and build muscle while bulking. While cardio is a very effective tool for fat loss when cutting, the real reason for doing cardio is for your cardiovascular health and ultimately your overall health.
Consuming a lot of calories and lifting a lot of weight will put a strain on your digestive systems and vital organs, especially if you’re carrying around significantly more body weight than what you are used to.
Being lethargic and bloated is common when bulking and this is usually the result of a less active lifestyle.
You can still bulk and do cardio at the same time.
Cardio will burn calories (precious calories), but it will also increase metabolism and your ability to digest food and utilize calories. Therefore, raising your calorie surplus to include cardio will often be offset but the increased appetite and efficiency of digesting your food.
You don’t need excessive amounts of cardio, HIIT a few times per week or daily walks can be enough to keep your cardiovascular health in check while bulking.
Studies even show that aerobic exercise in the form of cardio can be beneficial for supporting muscle growth.
What Are the Cons of Bulking
As you can see from the list above, there are nine common bulking mistakes that people make frequently. There are actually more and this list could be endless and many of these mistakes are because people just don’t know how to bulk properly.
There are so many resources for losing weight and building muscle but bulking is an unpopular subject. You gain body fat, look less impressive, and don’t see visual results for your progress until you start a cutting phase.
Bulking is however essential for improving your physique. It’s good to avoid the mistakes listed above but before you start a bulking phase, it’s also good to know what some of the drawbacks are when it comes to bulking.
The main cons of bulking include:
- Can lead to excess fat gain
- Difficulty hitting a calorie surplus each day (especially with a small appetite)
- Feel more lethargic
- Need to use the toilet more frequently
- Bloating and digestive issues
- Worse body composition
When bulking, there are some key considerations you need to have in order to maximize your muscle-building endeavors. Firstly, you need to get your calories/macros calculated and then start bulking with a moderate surplus (around 300kcal).
From here, you should be monitoring your weight changes each day and ensuring you don’t gain more than 2lbs of scale weight per week. Even this is pushing it as the rate of muscle growth is 0.5lbs – 1lb per week for a complete beginner.
From this point, you need to ensure you’re getting stronger in the gym each week through progressive overload and ensure that you are keeping your body fat in check – if you get up to 15% body fat it’s time to do a body recomp.
Give yourself 4 – 8 months for a bulking phase and don’t try to rush it. As long as you consume a calorie surplus and are beating your logbook each week you are guaranteed to be building muscle and having a successful bulk!