Anyone who has started to take weightlifting, bodybuilding, or the pursuit of building muscle seriously will know that acne is a very common and real side effect that comes with this level of hard training and dieting. There is a range of factors that can cause acne and diet can be one of the single biggest factors.
One of the most noticeable times that you’ll get acne when lifting is during a gaining phase when you are on a bulk. It’s always good to look at correlations and whether there is cause or coincidence, so, can bulking cause acne?
Bulking can cause acne due to the surplus of food you are consuming. For most people, the high amount of processed sugar, dairy (especially milk), protein, and fried food will all contribute to an acne breakout whilst bulking.
Diet, or more specifically food choices, is something well known to be a leading cause of acne and when bulking you are more likely to be consuming a higher quantity of foods that can cause acne.
In this article, I’ll run through the reasons why bulking can cause acne, which foods are more likely to cause acne when bulking, and what you can do to avoid/prevent it.
Table of Contents
Can Bulking Cause Acne
The key with bulking is to consume more food (calories) than your body needs to maintain weight in order to facilitate muscle growth. Depending on your type of bulk, a likely side effect is gaining excess body fat which is well known and has multiple strategies to avoid it like taking a lean bulking approach.
Another factor that is often less considered/discussed is that bulking can also cause or worsen acne. There are countless factors that can cause acne and I’m not an expert in the subject, therefore, for a more general overview of causes, symptoms, cures, etc.. I’d recommend checking out an expert in the subject like Mayo Clinic.
When it comes to training and bulking though, there are definitely some factors that you can identify as leading causes of acne. Diet, hormonal changes, and blocked pores (sweat, oil, skin irritation) are the main issues.
When bulking and pursuing muscle growth, you will consume more calories which means more foods that can be known to cause acne (more on this later). You’ll also be training more or at a higher intensity which will lead to more sweating and potentially blocked pores, especially around your back and shoulders.
Finally, you will be impacting your hormonal balance with a bulk and this is one of the leading reasons why bulking can cause acne. Unfortunately, this is the one factor that you can’t influence as you want certain hormonal changes to facilitate muscle growth.
During my last bulk (at 27 years old) you can see that the diet and increase in hormones were causing acne and this was just an accepted side affect and part of the process for me.
The main one is an increase in testosterone production. A rise in testosterone is a key facilitator for muscle growth but rising testosterone levels will also lead to an increase in cases of acne. This is most observed in teenagers going through puberty when testosterone levels rise and it’s a similar situation when bulking.
As this can’t be avoided and workout-related effects are easier to rectify (clean clothes, shower after working out, etc…), the key focus to reduce acne when bulking should be on your diet.
What Foods Cause Acne When Bulking
Before going any further, it’s worth noting that everyone will respond to food differently, especially when it comes to how food impacts your appearance and skin. Therefore, the foods that cause acne are those that are known offenders for a large number of people.
Some foods impact a large group of people and it just so happens that a handful (or more) of these particular foods are also those that people consume more of when bulking…
Therefore, below is a small list of foods that could cause acne when bulking. If you are consuming a large quantity then you should look to swap them for alternatives as this will likely improve any acne outbreaks.
I would say that milk is the biggest culprit when it comes to acne on a bulk and this is by far the most go-to calorie source for a lot of people on a bulk. Milk is high in calories and is calorie-dense in terms of carb, fat, and protein macros.
It’s also a recommended way for skinny hardgainers to bulk up with some easy calories. Beginner strength plans like Starting Strength actually recommend drinking a gallon of milk per day when doing their programs. This to me is unnecessary and you’ll also find milk is the mixer of choice for a post-workout protein shake.
The reason milk is such a prime target to eliminate is that experts show that it contains growth hormones. This is a good thing for bulking and muscle growth and is another reason why milk is a good option for bulking but when it comes to acne, the increase in hormones and androgen receptors can definitely contribute to acne in a large percentage of people.
Alongside milk, cheese, and other high-calorie dairy products are a leading cause for acne when bulking so try switching milk to almond or coconut and limit your cheese and yogurt intake. I know dairy is an easy source of calories but your skin will not appreciate it while bulking.
2. Carbohydrates & Sugar
This is going to be the most difficult one to read as carbohydrates are close to essential for bulk (though not completely essential) due to the impact they have on muscle glycogen and impact as a fuel source for heavy lifting. Unfortunately, after researching into this the side effect is that a high carbohydrate intake could also be a cause of increased acne.
Carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, bagels, pastries, pasta, and wheat-based carbs all seem to be leading culprits whilst simple sugars like chocolate and sweets are also linked to acne issues.
Eliminating dairy and carbs from your diet is knocking out a huge chunk of potential calories and I know from personal experience how necessary some of these food groups can be during a bulk. I recommend high-calorie shakes that use milk and whey protein, easy digesting meals like peanut butter bagels, and high carb meals like pasta and rice.
Therefore, as you read through this list you will need to weigh up the pros and cons of eliminating food sources against the severity of your acne. Reducing milk intake might be enough to allow for a higher carb intake whereas bread might cause particular flare-ups.
It’s difficult (or impossible) to give a recommendation, everyone responds differently so try reducing or substituting certain foods to see how it impacts your skin. A good option can be changing your carb intake to rice, potatoes, and gluten-free options.
As foods like bread and sugary snacks are the main culprits, you might respond much better to different carbohydrate sources so don’t take this to mean you need to eliminate all carbs from your diet as that is not the case.
3. Whey Protein
This ties in with dairy so I won’t get into it too much but any whey protein or mass gainer (with a whey protein content) is usually a staple in a bulking diet. It’s a very easy way to increase your protein intake to aid muscle recovery and growth whilst also being easy to consume for those with a low appetite when bulking.
Unfortunately, whey protein is an after product from the production of milk so can cause a similar reaction when it comes to acne. This is especially true if you are having 2, 3, or even 4 scoops per serving.
This isn’t a big issue to navigate though as there are plenty of whey protein substitutes on the market. These whey substitutes include:
- Pea Protein
- Beef Protein
- Soy Protein
- Hemp Protein
- Egg Protein
- Lactose-Free Protein
4. Fried Foods
Lastly, we have fried foods. I know people consume these when dirty bulking and I’m not against the occasional fried meal as everything is ok in moderation but acne aside, you shouldn’t be consuming much fried food when bulking for a number of reasons if building a physique is your end goal.
Fried food just doesn’t provide the nutrients and beneficial macros to benefit muscle growth so should be kept to a minimum anyway.
While fried foods do not directly cause acne, they are often foods high on the glycemic index so usually come with a substantial carbohydrate quantity. It’s here that the main issue lies in terms of acne but as stated above, you should be minimizing fried food on a bulk anyway if you want optimal progress.
Frequently Asked Questions
I have a few more topics that are related to bulking and acne but they are really separate points and more for interest rather than importance. Therefore, below are a few FAQs that I’ve come across in relation to this.
Can Mass Gainers Cause Acne
Mass gainers can cause acne for two reasons. The first is that the main source of protein for a mass gainer is whey protein. As whey protein is derived from milk and dairy, many people either have a form of intolerance or the impact on hormones can lead to acne.
Therefore, if you are worried about acne when taking a mass gainer, your first option should be to look into a mass gainer that does not use a whey protein as its base protein source. Instead, consider a plant-based or beef protein variant.
The second, though less likely reason why a mass gainer could cause acne is because of the other ingredients used which include a high carbohydrate/sugar content through products like maltodextrin or dextrose. While people will respond differently to carb and sugar sources and intakes, this could be a cause for acne with mass gainers.
Can Too Much Protein Cause Acne
Carbohydrates, dairy, and fried/fatty foods are all contributors to acne for many people but can too much protein also cause acne? When looking into this in some detail, it doesn’t appear that too much protein, or protein intake in general, has any direct or indirect impact on acne.
What does seem to be evident from dermatologists and experts on skincare is that it’s not the protein consumption but rather the type of protein that causes inflammation and acne with the biggest cause being whey protein powder.
I’ve mentioned this a few times in this article and it seems to be a recurring theme that the hormonal impact of whey protein alongside an intolerance to dairy-based products has a significant correlation with acne. Too much protein is not shown to cause acne but the reference to whey protein intake is a good indication that it can be a factor.
So, if you are bulking and experiencing acne, there are a few things that could be happening and it’s important to eliminate variables one by one to continue with a successful bulk whilst also keeping your skin clear and in good condition.
The first factor to consider is age. If you are <20 years old, hormones are going to be playing a big part in both acne and muscle growth so your diet might not be the biggest contributor. Secondly, look into your specific diet and try to eliminate some of the foods that I’d listed earlier to see if this had any impact on your acne.
Finally, try to make some changes that are not directly related to bulking or training. Sleep, stress, clean clothing/bed sheets, and all of the other generic things that can help with acne. It could be the case that these are worsening acne rather than the bulk.
In general, though, a bulk will likely cause acne to some extent for most people. The increase in testosterone, food intake (for acne prevalent foods), and blocked pores through sweat are all common factors on a bulk, and unfortunately, some just can’t be avoided in pursuit of a better physique.