How to bulk on a student budget? To bulk on a student budget you first need to calculate how many calories you need per day with a macronutrient breakdown. Once you know this figure you can allocate funds to each macro and look for the most nutrient dense foods at the cheapest price.
To bulk up you need to be eating in a calorie surplus, that sounds straightforward enough in that you just eat more than you burn off everyday to gain weight. The issue for some is that this starting figure can be incredibly high, especially if you already tip the scale at 225lbs and over and need to be eating in excess of 4000kcal!
Eating that much food for some will be a challenge in itself but a very real issue that comes with bulking is the cost of the food itself. If you are a student, in a low paying job or don’t have very much income then the cost of a bulk might make it unachievable for some (super noodles at 10p leaves a lot more money for going out than a £5 pack of chicken breasts).
There is actually a science (kind of..) that can be used to work out how much you need to spend in order to have a successful bulk and it starts with working out your calorie requirements.
When going on a bulk you can eat as much as physically possible all day in order to put weight on, this can definitely work but it also isn’t optimal for gaining muscle which should be the goal and this method would definitely be more costly in the long run if you are just eating until you are full constantly.
To start with you need to work out your daily maintenance calorie amount, this is basically the number of calories that you need to consume on a daily basis just to function and maintain your current weight. It’s difficult to get an accurate reading for this as numerous factors like training and activity at work can affect this so just do an online calculator to work this out.
You can google an online maintenance calorie calculator, just check that it is one that includes your TDEE to have a good baseline.
Once you know your maintenance amount then to bulk you simply need to increase this by 200 – 500 calories so if your maintenance amount is 2500kcal to bulk you will do 2700kcal – 3000kcal per day. It’s a misconception that you need to eat until you can’t eat anymore in order to grow, if you eat in a consistent surplus then over time you will gain weight in the exact same way that eating in a calorie deficit will see you lose weight.
Once you have this amount you adjust it over time based on whether or not the scale goes up, I wouldn’t trust most scales for an accurate reading but they are good for tracking weight changes, if it’s been two weeks and you haven’t gained any weight then up the calories by a few hundred.
By following this method you can stay in a muscle building state whilst minimising any potential fat gain (putting on some fat is a part of bulking and you just need to accept that for a while you’ll have more fat than you want to be carrying around).
To work out daily calories and macro targets we’ll base it on the following macro breakdown which is a conservative and balanced split:
- Protein – 1g per pound of body weight
- Fat – 0.45g per pound of body weight
- Carbohydrates – fill remaining amount with left over calories
For the simplicity of calculating the macros we’ll use an example body weight of 200lbs so if you weigh 200lbs and your surplus amount is 3000kcal then your daily macros will be the following:
- Protein – 200g (1g per pound body weight)
- Fat – 90g (0.45g per pound body weight)
- Carbohydrates – 348g (made up from remaining calories)
Cheap Protein Sources
For people on a bulk and looking to build muscle then protein is going to be your first priority, this is needed to not only build muscle but repair after a gym session which is just as important. There’s an abundance of good quality protein sources to choose from which include poultry (chicken & turkey), red meat (beef), lamb, pork, eggs, fish and nuts. These are just some of the typical options that you’d use to have in your meals.
I’d always recommend a good wholesome, nutrient dense food source as a diet staple however on a student budget your first choice should be to get some whey protein. Most brands have a 25g scoop that will provide a 20g serving of protein, if you save up and get a bulk pack that weighs 2.5kg – 5kg then the cost per scoop can be as low at 25p in some brands cases (Myprotein and Bulk Powders tend to do a lot of promotional offers and the protein quality is also good considering the low price you can get them at.)
Fortunately, writing for the supplement industry means I get a monthly supply of protein however, if that wasn’t the case and I was working off of a budget then a whey protein would be my first staple purchase.
Then next protein source you are going to want to consider is tinned fish (tuna, salmon and mackerel are the go to options in the uk). Of these three options tuna is the cheapest with some cans coming in at 50p when bought in bulk, most contain 20g – 25g of protein and go with most carb sources in rice, pasta and potatoes. Not only is tinned fish a cheap option for protein but also combines omega 3 fatty acids and some options are done in sunflower oil so you can up your fat intake at the same time.
Chicken breast is the next cheapest and probably most popular protein option with a lean 200g breast costing around £1 and packing 30g – 40g depending on the source. Personally I’d include this for one meal per day for the price, however when bulking chicken is mainly a protein source and doesn’t offer much in the way of the other macronutrients so is usually a preferred option to cut rather than bulk. You can however get a cheaper option in thigh/leg on the bone, these have more fat content but also come in cheaper than a lean chicken breast with similar protein numbers.
The final key staple that I’d look at is red meat, this is the most expensive protein source however red meat has a higher fat content which makes it more ideal for a bulk. Something to consider on a student budget is the fat content, particularly for the minced beef. If you look at the options for minced beef then the difference between them is usually the fat content ranging from lean 5% mince (by far the most expensive) all the way up to 20% (by far the cheapest option).
A simple minced beef hack which takes a bit more cooking effort but will save you money is to purchase the 20% fat option, then during cooking you will drain the fat a few times in a colander and cook it in stages. Simply brown it off, drain the fat, rinse with water, cook again and repeat this process a few times to lower the fat content and get some leaner mince at the cheapest possible price.
Cheap Fat Sources
Fats tend to be the most expensive macronutrient however they are also the most nutrient dense, 1g of fat is equal to 9kcal whereas 1g of protein and carbs are equal to 4kcal, therefore you don’t need as much fat to hit your calorie amounts. Quite a few products that are high in fat are also a good source of protein so consuming these nutrient dense foods will make it easier to high your macro targets for the day.
As mentioned above you can get some of you fat macros by combining them with a protein source, eggs are the cheapest option and are not only high in protein (7g per large egg) but when eating the yolk also provides essential fats (around 4g per large egg).
Nuts are another great source of fat that also have a high protein content, in general nuts are on the more expensive side of a budget however a budget friendly option is peanut butter. A 25g (tablespoon) of peanut butter will provide 13g of fat and 7g of protein, with a 340g tub in most supermarkets available for less than £1 this should be an absolute staple in most students bulking budget.
Virgin olive oil is also an excellent source of fats as you can literally cook meat and eggs in it or pour it over a salad to up your fat intake (the hardcore can even just drink some). It works out at roughly 1g of fat per 1ml so adding a tablespoon to dishes is an easy way to add 10g of fat per day. A 750ml bottle is around £1.50 but this will last you a few months. Coconut oil is also a good option but double the price of olive oil so I wouldn’t be rushing to purchase that as a student.
Dairy products would be my final recommendation for a cheap route to getting in your daily fats. Milk, cream and butter are all cheap and can easily be combined with most carb sources. The fat content for these can vary wildly depending on numerous factors like whether the butter came from grass fed cows or if you prefer semi skimmed milk to whole milk so it’s worth checking the fat content of the product you prefer to see what the most budget friendly option is. 200ml of whole milk for reference provides 7g fat, 7g protein and 9g carbs so is actually a well balanced option.
Cheap Carbohydrate Sources
Carbs are by far the cheapest and most versatile macronutrient, they go with almost all protein sources and are very easy to cook in bulk. All carb sources listed below can be purchased in bulk for less than £1 so your weekly carb cost can come in at less than £5 for the week leaving plenty of money left over to invest in good quality protein sources.
I’ve listed protein as the top priority however when budgeting it’s best to get your carb sources first and see how much you have left over as this will decide the quality of protein source you get.
Rice should be your go to option as a student, 1kg bags of white rice at most supermarkets can be bought for as little as 40p and should make between 5 – 10 meals depending on portion size. Rice is probably the most versatile carb as will and can be made as an accompaniment to most protein sources in terms of meat and fish. With only 10 minutes cooking time it’s not only cheap but time saving and can be cooked in bulk and used over multiple meals.
Potatoes would be my next recommendation as a budget carb source and comes close to rice in terms of value. A convenient option is frozen jacket potatoes which can be microwaved in 3 minutes so are a real time saved, a box of 4 is around £1.50 though this is not the cheapest option. You can get anything from a 1kg bag to a 2.5kg bag of white potatoes for £1 in budget supermarkets like Aldi & Lidl (Aldi once had a promotion on that was a 2.5kg bag of white potatoes for 18p, how were they even making money at that price!) Sweet potatoes are another good carb source and have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes
The next best carb source is some good old fashioned oats. You have a few options, rolled, steel cut, instant.. Whichever you prefer is likely the best option because they can all be purchased in bulk with 1kg bag coming in between 50p and £1. You can have them for breakfast, pre workout, post workout, before bed or all of these options depending on how tight your budget. You can also combine them with other macro options that are budget friendly like peanut butter and flavored whey protein.
The final cheap carb source you should consider is pasta, a 500g supermarket own penne can be as cheap as 25p and will get you 2-3 meals depending on portion sizes. The only reason this ranks as my last choice as a carb source is because some people struggle with digestion and it can cause bloating. When bulking you want to be bloated as little as possible so this option would depend on how well you digest it.
Cheap Bulking Supplements
If you went for the cheapest options above and have some budget left over then you might be able to stretch to some budget supplements to support your bulk (though the options are limited and most supplements are not cheap!).
Whey Protein – This was mentioned earlier and should be your priority purchase as far as supplements go, no supplement is essential however getting adequate protein intake is essential and whey protein is a convenient and cheap way to ensure your intake is high enough.
Creatine Monohydrate – Creatine is possibly the most used and recommended supplement within the health and fitness industry and it also happens to be one of the cheapest. In terms of a bulk it will help you retain water within your muscles and will also add an extra few pounds of body weight due to water retention. It is also used to replenish ATP stores which is the primary energy source for muscular contractions so ensuring these are at optimal levels is essential during a bulk when you will likely be lifting heavier weights than usual.
There are a surprising amount of new creatine formulas on the market however a standard creatine monohydrate will do the job and is incredibly cheap as far as most supplements go.
ZMA – If you are engaged in physical exercise and weight lifting then it’s likely you are either deficient in magnesium, zinc or both. This isn’t a generalization, studies show that not only athletes but the general population are deficient in both minerals and this is an issue because they play such an important role in testosterone production. There this is a better safe than sorry supplement and has the added benefit of improving your nights sleep which will in turn aid recovery.
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