People have many different definitions for what they believe a ‘bulk’ to be. Bulking up is a dieting and training phase that for the most part, is entirely focused on gaining muscle mass. The grey area when defining a bulk is of course when people bulk up to gain size.
Is it normal to feel fat while bulking? When bulking, it’s not only the case that you will feel fat due to a calorie surplus, water retention and increased muscle glycogen stores but it’s also the case that you will actually gain some body fat in the process.
Around 40% of the articles on this site are focused on bulking and cutting phases. They include the pursuit of maximally building lean muscle tissue on a bulk or burning body fat whilst still maintaining your muscle mass on a cut.
Whilst in theory it’s easy to say you need to build nothing but muscle when bulking and lose nothing but fat when cutting, unfortunately, the human body does not allow for us to pick and choose how we change our body composition.
We can certainly influence it with our actions but there are certain factors that we need to accept when on a dieting phase and gaining some body fat when bulking is one of them.
Is It Normal to Feel Fat While Bulking
There is a very unclear difference between feeling fat and actually being fat when bulking and this often comes down to a psychological trick of the mind (looking in the mirror frequently doesn’t help with this either).
A common issue when people diet down for bodybuilding shows is that these competitors often convince themselves that they are not stage ready and carrying too much body fat. The truth however is that they are more ripped than any average gym-goer could expect to be in their lifetime. That’s why these competitors need a coach, someone to monitor their physique and reassure them that they are on track.
When bulking, however, most people don’t have access to these coaches and if you start a bulk at a relatively lean body fat percentage of around 10%, you’ll likely find it difficult to accept some fat gain in the process (or you don’t care and go on a dirty bulk).
For most people it’s entirely normal to feel fat when bulking and a lot of it is based around illusions. When you have a lower body fat percentage you ironically look more muscular than when you actually weigh more.
The absence of much body fat makes your muscles look more defined and they will ‘pop’ from your body. As soon as you start to gain some body fat and hold some subcutaneous water (the water held between the skin and muscles), you’ll start to look less muscular and ‘softer’.
This illusion of size is one of the key stumbling blocks that prevent many gym-goers from really dedicating to a bulking phase as you’ll ultimately look less impressive than when you’re at a lean body mass. The whole process of gaining size is resisted because of the fact that you can end up looking less muscular in the process (despite putting on muscle mass).
That may be a little rant on my part however there needs to be some acceptance that in order to optimally build lean muscle mass you will need to gain some body fat in the process. With that said, I’ll quickly look into some of the factors that might make you feel fat on a bulk despite having nothing to do with actual body fat!
Water Retention While Bulking
Water retention is by far the biggest contributor to feeling fat on a bulk and in fact, water retention is usually the second biggest influence over how your physique looks during a bulking or cutting phase right after body fat percentage.
On a bulk, water retention is actually a good thing, particularly in terms of muscle storage (we are primarily made up of water after all so staying fully hydrated is an essential factor when working out and dieting).
This water retention doesn’t happen simply because you drink more water but rather because an increase in calorie consumption will indirectly lead to more water retention. This is because water is a vital component in digestion and shuttling nutrients throughout your body.
On average, for every one gram of carbohydrate that you store in your body in the form of glycogen in the muscles (to be used as an energy source), you’ll also store 2-3 grams of water to support this.
You have a limit to how much glycogen you can store in a muscle and this will vary from each individual depending on their muscle size as a heavyweight, 250lbs+ bodybuilder will store more glycogen than my significantly smaller 180lbs frame as an example.
During a bulk, however, you’ll most likely be coming from a low carb intake, either by choice or due to lower total calories as a whole and will be gradually and significantly increasing your carb intake to support a bulk. Therefore as a result, once you come close to maxing out your muscle glycogen stores you’ll also end up carrying a significant amount of additional water.
This water and glycogen weight will certainly add to your scale weight, this could easily give the illusion of feeling fat or you might feel more bloated as a result but water retention should not be confused with fat mass and it is much easier to lose or manipulate water weight so this is nothing to worry about on a bulk.
Excess Fat Gain While Bulking
The more important factor when it comes to feeling fat while bulking is down to the fact you will inevitably gain some body fat in the bulking process. While some might opt for a lean bulk whereby they look to minimize excess fat gain, the truth is that some fat will be gained during a bulk.
I’m a big proponent of minimizing fat gain on a bulk because the more excess fat that you put on, the harder and longer it will be to lose it again. Unfortunately, you also need to push your calorie surplus and weights in the gym in order to stimulate new muscle growth so it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation.
The acceptance of some fat gain is what will help you both physically and mentally during a bulk, 1-2lbs of fat gained over a one month period would be an acceptable amount to gain, if you see the scale weight jump but 1-2lbs in a single week then you need to take note and reduce your calorie intake in line with this as chances are you are gaining mostly body fat and not necessarily muscle mass.
How Long Should Bulking Last
Chances are that the longer you bulk the more fat you are likely to gain and the more you are likely to ‘feel’ fat in your everyday life. In order to combat this, you need to set acceptable timeframes for how long a bulk should last.
This is because after a certain point you will see diminishing returns, you won’t be utilizing calories optimally and you’ll most like gain body fat at a quicker rate. Bulking periods are typically long and can be anywhere from 3 months all the way up to 24 months.
With this in mind, it’s preferential to set a dedicating bulking period followed by a ‘mini-cut’. This would be a 2-4 week period where you reduce calories, increase energy expenditure and look to burn some excess body fat whilst priming your metabolism again.
This is similar to a training break whereby every 4-8 weeks you should take a week off or reduce the intensity in order to recover and then come back fresh again. A constant bulk can take a toll on your digestive and metabolic system and there a mini cut is the dieting version of a recovery period.
By doing this, you will minimize the amount of body fat you are carrying in the long run and will also feel much leaner after taking the break and dropping some body fat and water weight. Don’t worry too much about losing muscle mass in this period either, the mini cut should not be too drastic and just enough to lose 1-2lbs per week which will help to preserve muscle mass.
It’s completely normal to feel fat on a bulk and in most circumstances, you will gain some body fat with should be accepted right from the start of a bulking phase.
It’s just worth keeping in mind that feeling fat and actually being fat are very different things, the mirror, scale weight, water retention and full glycogen stores will all play tricks on your mind so the important thing is to keep the weight gain slow whilst factoring in some diet breaks and mini cuts.
If you keep these points in mind you have a successful bulk both mentally and physically!
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