Most people will go through a bulking phase with the sole intention of building lean muscle mass. Regardless of what bulking approach you take (clean, dirty, lean), the process is usually for aesthetic reasons with some fat gained during the process but hopefully more muscle mass (1-2lbs per month) if done right.
For all the surplus calories, gained weight, and abundance of energy that you get during a bulk, some people start to wonder, does bulking make you stronger as well? It does sound like an obvious side effect after all…
Bulking involves consuming a calorie surplus, this calorie surplus provides your body with an excess amount of macronutrients and calories which facilitate strength training sessions leading to more muscle growth and an increase in strength.
If you aren’t too concerned with any of the science or methodology behind bulking making you stronger, the bottom line is that for most people it will. This has to be an intentional bulk alongside resistance training though, you can’t just eat a calorie surplus without exercise and expect to get stronger. The result of that would instead be obesity!
If you are more interested in why bulking makes you stronger, read on and I’ll cover some of the more reasons why as well as how you can optimize your bulk to build the most muscle and increase your strength all whilst avoiding excess fat gain.
Though some fat gain is inevitable on a bulk…
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Do You Need to Bulk to Get Stronger
Just to circle back to the basics of bulking, the way a diet can be classed as a bulk is if you consume a “calorie surplus”. A calories surplus basically means you consume more calories than what your body expends in terms of energy and what it needs to function on a daily basis.
I won’t get into the specifics, but before knowing what you need to consume to be in a caloric surplus, you first need to know how many calories you need to consume on a daily basis just to maintain weight. This is known as your maintenance calorie requirement.
I have a dedicated bulking guide for beginners on this site that walks you through working out your maintenance calorie requirements and how to set your bulking calories based on this.
The reason why I mention this is because most beginners-intermediate lifters can get stronger on any diet. The increase in activity through resistance/strength training, a new stimulus for the muscles, and untapped ceiling for how much weight you are capable of lifting (once trained) mean diet plays a lesser role in the early stages of training.
When I say diet plays a lesser role, it’s specifically in relation to gaining strength as a beginner. A fundamental principle in strength training is that you need to provide your body with enough calories and nutrients to recover and grow.
This is just one factor of strength though. Muscles can grow and become stronger without a surplus of nutrients and arguably one of the most important factors that people don’t take into consideration when it comes to getting stronger is the Central Nervous System (CNS).
Your CNS plays a crucial role when it comes to recruiting muscle fibers to lift weights or display any form of strength and the CNS pathway is complex. My favorite example of this in effect is the following:
(You may require a second person though this can be tested on yourself).
- First, take your dominant hand and grasp your non-dominant arm by the forearm.
- Now squeeze your grip and see how tightly you can grab your other arm (not too tight that you feel pain). I just want you to get an idea of how strong your grip feels.
- Now, repeat this step but will squeeze your forearm, also tense and squeeze your abs at the same time.
- If done correctly, you should feel that your grip is tighter than the first time you did it.
- Finally, repeat the first two steps (grab your forearm while tensing your abs) and this time also squeeze your glutes together tightly. Now, you should be squeezing your grip, abs, and glutes tightly (though again not so tightly that you feel pain).
- You should notice your grip strength is noticeably stronger when you also squeeze your abs and glutes.
The above example is relevant in strength-based training too. Powerlifters on a bench press will squeeze their glutes and press down into the bench to generate total body tension and utilize the CNS to lift more weight.
The main point is that the CNS contributes greatly to strength, especially as your body learns a movement pattern and is better able to recruit muscle fibers and contract your muscle groups. Your CNS allows you to become more efficient when it comes to strength.
Therefore, before diet is ever a factor in strength, most beginners have the potential to increase their strength even on a poor diet because their CNS is not efficient, movement patterns are not ingrained, muscles are usually tight and understimulated, and nutrients are not fully optimized by the body.
This is a rather basic overview but not something that is off-topic. The reason I bring it up so early is that beginners may feel the need to get carried away with calorie intake in an effort to get stronger whereas there are other steps that first need to be addressed and worked on.
Correct form, learning the movement patterns, training your body to maximally recruit muscle fibers, and attempting progressive overload each session will all contribute to improvements in strength for most people even before diet comes into play.
Does Bulking Make You Stronger
Now that I’ve covered the basics of getting stronger, I’ll move on to the main topic of this article which is the effect that dieting has on your strength and if bulking makes you stronger. As a very straightforward answer, the process of bulking will make you stronger.
This is most noticeable once you get used to a training routine and start to hit some training plateaus. It’s natural for beginners to see progressive gains in strength over the first 6 – 12 months of training but once genuine plateaus start to happen, a surplus of calories is often needed to take your strength to the next level.
Below are just a few of the reasons why bulking can make you stronger:
1. Bulking Keeps Energy Stores High
Muscle glycogen is the primary fuel source for strength training for most people. Muscle glycogen stores are created/replenished through the consumption of carbohydrates and having an excess supply through a bulking diet means that glycogen and energy stores are consistently high to support heavy and intense weight training.
Low energy and muscle glycogen mean that you can fully utilize strength, it’s not that calories from bulking make you stronger, rather it allows you to utilize your current level of strength. If you can lift heavy weights consistently due to full energy stores, you’ll keep getting stronger.
2. Bulking Helps you Recover
Training is done with the intention of causing microscopic tears to your muscles. This is done to then eat, rest, recover, and grow back larger and stronger than before. Bulking gives your body a surplus of calories to utilize for both recovery and muscle growth.
As you replenish muscle glycogen, have ample protein intake to repair muscle tissue, and also have enough macro and micronutrients for hormonal functioning, you’ll recover and improve strength at a much quicker rate than if you neglected your diet and were unable to recover between strength training sessions.
3. Bulking Helps you Gain Weight
Heavier people are stronger. You have a more stable base to generate force, are able to generate more force, and research and studies back this up to say that heavier individuals are stronger than those of normal or average weight.
As the aim of bulking is to build muscle and ultimately gain weight, while larger muscles do not necessarily mean your relative strength is proportional to the size of your muscles, but having more mass, in general, will make you stronger (with the exception of this being pure fat mass like you get with obesity).
This is why the world’s strongest man competitors can move an incredible amount of weight but much lighter Olympic lifers are stronger pound for pound stronger (they can utilize their CNS, technique, muscle fiber recruitment, and other factors outside of just total body weight).
I’ve skimmed over and summarized these points but the bottom line is that bulking provides more calories for energy, recovery, and muscle growth whilst also increasing body weight which is known to correlate with an increase in strength.
As mentioned earlier in this article, dieting is only one factor of overall strength but when you give your body the nutrients to fuel heavy lifting, you ultimately become stronger as a result.
Does Dirty Bulking Make You Stronger
To perform at an optimal level, you need to consume an optimal diet. When bulking, the aim is not to add a significant amount of body fat in an effort to gain strength, even when I mentioned strongmen lifters earlier, the top competitors have a significant amount of muscle mass.
Most do carry excess body fat but just Google Mariusz Pudzianowski in his prime and you’ll see that there is a big difference between them having body fat and being fat.
Something I will say though is that dirty bulking will make you stronger. With dirty bulking, you’ll be consuming a steep calorie surplus and most will be consuming foods that are not dense in macronutrients as these are more satiating.
A dirty bulk typically involves consuming a high proportion of junk food and while I don’t like to use that term, that’s essentially what a dirty bulk is and it will mean that people gain more body fat on this type of bulk. With more body fat comes more total body weight and this combined with a consistent strength training program will mean that you’ll get stronger on a dirty bulk.
The key to any type of bulk and to take advantage of the weight room. Consuming a calorie surplus without weight training in place will mean people can get stronger due to the impact of having more total body mass but the impact will be minimal, the real strength progress from bulking comes when it is combined with a weight lifting regime.
When it comes to the question, does bulking make you stronger? The answer is yes, but mainly when the surplus of calories is used alongside a dedicated weight training program.
While gaining weight alone can contribute to increases in strength, the overall impact is minimal, especially when it comes to the majority of the weight gain coming from excess body fat. Bulking is a dieting strategy to build muscle mass and increase strength so should not be confused with simply overeating, which has very few if any benefits.