The main purpose of a bulk is not necessarily to gain weight but should actually be to build lean muscle tissue. Gaining weight is of course part of the process but this is made up of water retention, muscle glycogen, muscle tissue growth and unfortunately fat gain.
Therefore even though you want to gain weight on a bulk, what you really want is to build more muscle mass.
It’s an important differentiation to make because anyone can gain weight, I’ll be covering that in this article but just make sure that your focus is on building good quality lean muscle mass and not on just simply moving the scale weight!
For some however I can appreciate that not being able to gain any sort of weight is a major stumbling block and over time, if you can’t gain weight then you are unlikely to be building muscle.
Can’t gain weight bulking? If you can’t gain weight when bulking then this will be the result of two specific reasons; you’re not consuming enough calories, your energy expenditure is too high or a combination of the two. Gaining weight on a bulk all comes down to energy balance.
Why You Can’t Gain Weight
There is a simple equation for both gaining and losing weight that comes down to thermodynamics and energy balance. The equation is calories consumed vs energy expenditure.
There are two ways to approach this equation from both sides. If you consume less calories and expend the same amount of energy you will lose weight, if you consume more calories and expend the same amount of energy you will gain weight.
The reverse is consuming the same amount of calories and increasing energy expenditure to lose weight or consuming the same amount of calories and expending less energy to gain weight. Finally if you consume the same calories and expend the same amount of energy each day then you will maintain weight.
This equation is universal and whatever dieting and exercise regime you look at, all will be focused around these basic fundamentals.
Atkins diet, reducing calories. HIIT cardio sessions, increasing energy expenditure. There is a saying when it comes to building a physique that everything works, the key is to find what works optimally for yourself and something that you can adhere to over time.
Everything in the human body is not so black and white so that one specific thing works for everyone, if that was the case then everyone would be walking around at 225lbs of lean muscle mass. What is true however is that if you are not seeing progress, then you are not focusing on this equation in the right way.
When it comes to someone struggling to gain weight, 9 times out of 10 the reason is that you are not consuming enough calories. You might claim to eat everything in sight but if you can’t gain weight you are likely under-eating. Especially true if you are hitting training sessions hard for 5-6 days of the week!
This is however an easy fix, once you know something then you can’t go back to an old way of thinking and that’s why I’ve created so many articles around this topic, from bulking for beginners right the way through to minimizing fat gain whilst on a bulk.
Once you know that 1+1=2 it’s hard to see it any other way and the same can be true when bulking, once you know the required steps to gaining weight you only then need to follow the plan. Hopefully after reading this you won’t go back to thinking that you “already eat as much as you possibly can”.
How Much Weight Should You Gain When Bulking
Before we get into the strategies you can put in place to gain weight it’s important to know what an acceptable level and rate of weight gain actually is.
Cutting is easy, if you lose 1lb every week or two (depending on how far into a cut you are) then this is a sustained rate for primarily fat loss. As mentioned earlier though there are a lot more factors that come into play when gaining weight, it’s not just muscle mass like you’d hope.
Unfortunately there is also not a universal rate of weight gain that people can attribute to muscle mass, it’s not possible to say if you gain 1lb every week then this will purely be muscle mass and therefore we need to reverse engineer the process.
For most you can expect to gain 1lb-2lb of lean muscle mass per month as an absolute beginner, over time this will reduce to 1lb per month and eventually after years of training you will likely struggle to gain 0.5lb of muscle per month.
It’s likely you are a beginner though when reading this so 1lb-2lb per month is a good aim. If we allow for some water retention and some fat gain in the process (unfortunately it’s hard to eliminate this without being incredibly strict on the dieting front) then you should be looking for weight gain of no more than 3lb-4lb per month.
This is hard to accept at first as you want to slap on muscle mass as quickly as possible but keep in mind bulking is a long term process and 25lbs of lean muscle mass in one year of training will drastically change your physique.
That’s why it’s important to focus on bulking with a longer timeline in mind and not try to rush this on a day to day process. If you are struggling to gain any sort of weight though then that likely doesn’t apply to you.
Can’t Gain Weight Bulking
When gaining weight there are a few fundamental things that you need to have in place and surprisingly enough this does not involve spending an eternity in the gym whilst shoveling down calories on a daily basis.
The training aspect is what most tend to focus on but training is only one part of building a physique, it stimulates muscle growth but it’s your nutrition and recovery that actually the muscle building process actually occurs.
Make Sure You Are Consuming a Calorie Surplus
As mentioned earlier, you might think that you are consuming enough (and in some instances too many) calories but still aren’t seeing the scale move. It’s important to see where this thought process is coming from.
Your first point of reference when starting a bulk should be to work out what your maintenance calorie requirements are. This is something that takes only a few minutes to work out and if you can work these out here.
If you don’t know how many calories you need to consume just to maintain weight then everything after that point is purely guess work and it always comes back to the equation of energy balance.
The more muscle mass you have the more calories you need just to sustain this weight, therefore as you build a physique you will naturally increase your caloric requirements.
If you have just started weight training then this will mean your energy expenditure has increased and you will be burning calories to fuel these workouts. You might think you are eating too much but if this is based purely on assumptions then you are likely overestimating your calorie consumption.
Just because someone goes to bed at 10pm and wakes at 7am each night does not automatically mean they get 9 hours of sleep every night. This is why making assumptions is stalling your progress.
Once you know what your maintenance calorie requirements are then you next at a conservative surplus of 100kcal-300kcal to this number and track your weight over 1-2 weeks. If on average your weight doesn’t increase then you simply increase the calorie surplus.
This is the very basic process that you repeat in order to gain weight. You need to track your calories and macros even when bulking as this is the only way that you can truly know what the impact of your calorie consumption is.
This will also change over time, as your body adapts to the demands placed on it you’ll then need to progress in both your training and up the number of calories you consume each time in small deliberate increments so that you can track it and learn what you respond to.
This will be hard work in the early stages but this is how you can guarantee gaining weight. It’s not simply a case of eating more but knowing how much more you need to consume. If you asked me how many calories you need to consume to gain weight my response would always be “how many calories do you need to maintain weight?”.
Make Sure Training Volume Isn’t Too High and That You Can Recover
The reverse part of the above equation is also too frequent an issue with those that can’t gain weight and it’s because too much emphasis is placed on the workouts and going hard in the gym but not enough is placed on actually recovering.
You may have heard sayings like “you can’t out train a bad diet”, well it’s also true you can’t recover if you spend too much time in the gym.
Resistance training causes small microscopic tears to the muscle and activates the process of protein synthesis (the hormonal response to building muscle), as you get stronger over time you create new microscopic tears from which you adapt and grow larger and stronger to handle the load in the future.
The weight training process is to stimulate the muscle groups but it’s during rest that you recover and grow. It’s often through frustration or hyped up training programs that people will spend too long in the gym, do too many training sessions and ultimately struggle to recover.
If you are training flat out 5-6 days per week with volumes of 20-30 sets per muscle group and don’t take any form of performance enhancer (you know what I mean..) then you simply can’t recover from this sort of training.
If you have a job, life stress and other energy expending activities then all of this is eating into your recovery capabilities and impacting your progress.
There is a difference between intensity and volume, if you spend one hour really pushing your body and beating your previous session weights and reps and then rest two days then chances are you will make a lot more progress than someone who spends three days straight training with high volumes and then has one rest day.
Over time you can work up to an increased training volume and in most cases it’s inevitably where you will end up but when just starting out you need to recover from your sessions in order to grow. Therefore you need to spread out your training volume and make sure you are recovering in between each session.
If you have DOM’s for 5 days after a session then you simply aren’t able to recover from this effectively and you’ll struggle to gain weight as your body will end up in a state of muscle protein breakdown. You want to stimulate your muscles and then feed them a calorie surplus whilst ensuring you recover between sessions.
You can train full body every other day or work an upper/lower split which would involve upper day, lower day, rest and then repeat. These programs will ensure you work the muscle groups with enough frequency whilst still getting adequate rest.
If you train arms for an hour and then don’t work them for another week then it’s not surprising that you aren’t seeing any growth. Frequency and recovery are key to building muscle and gaining weight whilst excessive volume is a progress ender.
It’s important to note that I’m also not talking about overtraining, if you think you are overtraining then you are genuinely not likely to be, to look into that a bit more you can check it out here.
Reduce Your Energy Expenditure
This ties in to the last point about too much volume but if you can’t gain weight then consider your everyday lifestyle and activity level. If you go to the gym 6 days per week, work in a manual labour job like construction and also play recreational sport 2-3 times per week then this could be seriously hindering your weight gain.
The higher your energy expenditure the more calories you need to consume just to fuel this, that then doesn’t take into consideration the surplus required on top of this to facilitate muscle growth. If you followed the maintenance calorie requirement link earlier then this will give you a good idea of where your energy expenditure levels are.
When I first started training I would do endless hours of cardio because I enjoyed it. I’m not too sure what my goal was at the time but a 60 minute run before lifting weights was likely not the best approach to take when building muscle.
Cardio is great for cardiovascular health and you should include it in some form in your weekly routine but it’s important to keep an eye on how much energy you expend on a daily basis. As mentioned, life stresses can also impact your recovery capabilities so having a high energy expenditure will make it hard to build any sort of weight.
While consuming a surplus amount of calories is genuinely an easy process and equation, even if you didn’t know how to do this before, calculating energy expenditure is a lot less straightforward.
If you work in construction or deliver mail then you can’t suddenly go and work a cubicle job to lessen your energy expenditure. Therefore I don’t have a specific strategy for this like the previous two points but it’s more to do with being aware of it.
If you are aware that energy expenditure is high in certain areas of your life then look at where you can reduce it in order to facilitate muscle growth and start to gain weight. It will come down to personal priorities but just be aware that having too high an energy expenditure might be what is holding you and your scale weight back.
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