How to Bulk: Complete Guide to Maximizing Muscle Mass

Looking to bulk up, build muscle and get stronger? You’ve undoubtedly heard the popular advice, “Eat more.”

But, as with most things, the Devil is in the details, and things are no different when it comes to eating for optimal growth.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about bulking correctly, including proper training, eating, supplementation, and more.

But First: What Does It Mean to ‘Bulk’?

Bulking refers to the act of overeating in a controlled way to build muscle at an optimal rate while keeping fat gains to a minimum. The term has been around for a while, even before Arnold Schwarzenegger graced the bodybuilding stage.

‘Bulk up’ has been a common goal for many bodybuilders since the 1950s and is still popular among people looking to build muscle and strength.

It’s worth noting that bulking up doesn’t mean gaining as much weight as possible. Too many eager beginners fall for this false way of thinking, only to end up gaining a lot of fat, which takes months of dieting to get rid of.

The Nutritional Side of Optimal Bulking

Your nutritional approach is arguably the most critical piece of the bulking puzzle. How you fuel your body will determine your rate of weight gain and affect your body composition. 

Fortunately, while there are many opinions and ideas, optimal weight gain comes down to simple maths. 

1. The Calories

Optimal muscle growth depends on consuming more calories than you expend, also known as being in a calorie surplus. As a result, your body will have all the energy it needs to function optimally, and the excess calories can be dedicated to growth. 

To be clear, you can build muscle without a calorie surplus, but the process occurs more slowly and is typically only effective for complete beginners. People with training experience will struggle to build a noticeable amount of muscle without a calorie surplus.

Now, here’s the interesting bit:

You should not eat as much food as possible, thinking it would result in muscle gain. There is a limit to how much muscle your body can build; overeating too much will result in excessive fat gain.

The idea isn’t to ‘bulk up’ but to control your calorie intake closely and aim for steady weight gain month over month. 

Regarding the actual size of your calorie surplus, research recommends eating up to 500 calories over your maintenance level. For instance, if you burn 3,000 calories daily, you should eat up to 3,500. The problem is that such a high intake will also be too much for most people, likely to result in too much fat gain.

For most people, particularly intermediate and advanced trainees, a much better calorie target would be up to 300 calories over maintenance. Such an intake would result in a weekly surplus of 2,000+ calories, which is more than enough to promote steady weight (and muscle) gain.

As far as actual weight gain rates go, most trainees should aim for a monthly gain of up to one pound.

2. The Macronutrients Needed on a Bulk

Being in a calorie surplus is a great first step toward muscle growth, but it is far from the only thing to consider. How much energy you consume will determine whether you gain weight or not, but your diet composition will affect muscle growth.

First, we must pay attention to our protein intake because the nutrient is essential in muscle growth, post-workout recovery, and overall health. Once you ingest protein, your body breaks it down and absorbs the amino acids that make it up. These nutrients enter your bloodstream, and the amino acids lend themselves where needed.

Editor note: Check out our Macro Calculator!

According to the most recent scientific findings, the optimal intake is 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight. For example, a 170-lb person should aim for 136 to 170 grams of protein daily.

Second, we have dietary fats, which are crucial for hormone synthesis, brain health, the absorption of certain nutrients (e.g., vitamins A and E), the protection of major organs, and more. 

Some data suggests that controlling fat intake during periods of overfeeding, such as on a bulk, limits the amount of fat a person can gain. This is because fatty acids can more readily get stored in the form of adipose (fatty) tissue in the body. In contrast, overeating protein or carbohydrates would result in less fat gain because these nutrients have to be converted to fatty acids through a complex process called de novo lipogenesis.

Still, some fat intake is crucial for good health. The recommended intake is roughly 0.35 to 0.45 grams per pound of body weight. The same 170-lb person we used as an example earlier should consume 59 to 76 grams of fat daily.

Finally, we have carbohydrates, which have a mixed reputation among health-conscious people. Carbs are the primary fuel source for the body, and getting enough of the nutrient supports muscle recovery, athletic performance, cognition, and countless bodily processes.

Carbohydrates influence your resistance training performance, which plays a crucial role in the training stimulus you can cause and the muscle growth you can experience. Low-carb dieting can be helpful in some cases, but it often leads to excessive muscle fatigue, an inability to get good muscle pumps, and impaired resistance training performance.

As far as carb intake goes, you should get the remaining calories from the nutrient. In other words, so long as you track your protein and fat intake and stay within your calorie goals, your carbs will sort themselves out.

Final Words On Optimal Nutrition For Muscle Growth

How advanced you are plays a role in how strict your nutrition should be. More advanced trainees need to be careful with their calorie surplus because they cannot gain as much new muscle. Overeating too much would result in excessive fat gain.

In contrast, beginners and those who have taken an extended break from weight training can be more liberal with their surplus simply because they have a greater capacity to build muscle. If these people overeat, they can still keep fat gains to a minimum and gain mostly muscle. 

The Training Side of Optimal Bulking

Your nutrition is the driving force for growth because, without adequate fuel, you simply cannot gain weight and muscle. But just as you need fuel, your body needs an adequate training stimulus, which is where your workout routine comes in. So, let’s break it down.

1. Your Training Split

There are several popular options to pick from when organizing your weekly training. Most notably:

  • Push/pull/legs
  • Upper/lower
  • Bro split
  • Full body training

You should pick a training approach that fits your preferences and schedule. According to research, training each muscle group two or more times per week is ideal for hypertrophy. So, it would be best to go with a push/pull/legs, upper/lower, or full-body training approach.

A bro split can also work, but training each muscle group only once per week could affect progression.

Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Can train two to three days per week: full-body
  • Can train four days per week: upper/lower
  • Can train five to six days per week: push/pull/legs

2. Your Training Objective

Regardless of your starting point and what training split you pick, you must keep one training principle in mind: progressive overload. 

When you first start working out, almost any form of training will lead to progress. But as you gain experience and make progress, your original training plan will cease to be effective. 

Your body is in a constant state of adapting to external stressors, which includes your training plan. To keep progressing (muscle growth, strength gain, etc.), you must gradually increase the difficulty of your workouts to keep the training stress adequate.

For trainees primarily interested in building strength, progress should mainly come from adding more weight to the bar. But those interested in maximizing muscle growth should focus on:

  • Doing more reps
  • Doing more sets
  • Training each muscle group slightly more often

Training volume is crucial for hypertrophy, and focusing solely on lifting more weight could affect your ability to do enough reps and sets to cause an adequate stimulus. 

Of course, it’s worth noting that progress will rarely be linear. Beginners can see weekly improvements, but progression slows significantly as we get more advanced. Instead of focusing on seeing progress weekly, it might be better to monitor your improvements from month to month.

3. Cardio During a Bulk

Athletes often wonder if they should do cardio during a bulk. On the one hand, aerobic exercise doesn’t seem necessary because it doesn’t directly impact muscle growth. If anything, too much cardio can interfere with your muscle-building efforts by impairing muscle recovery. Making it more challenging to maintain a calorie surplus.

But, on the other hand, we cannot ignore the profound positive effects of cardiovascular exercise. Specifically, doing some cardio can be an excellent way to develop your aerobic capacity––the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use per unit of time.

Your body relies heavily on oxygen for energy production, even on more intense activities, such as a heavy set of deadlifts. Doing some cardio would make it easier for your body to produce the energy it needs to push through demanding workouts.

So, doing low-intensity cardio is beneficial––aim for up to one hour per week but make sure it doesn’t interfere with your recovery.

4. Workout Details

First, we have rep tempo, referring to the speed with which you perform each repetition and determining time under tension (TUT). There are numerous recommendations for rep speed, especially for power, strength, and similar characteristics. 

As far as hypertrophy goes, research suggests that an even tempo that allows for proper muscle activation is ideal. A good tempo is 2-1-2-1. Lift the weight for two seconds, pause, lower for another two seconds, pause, and repeat the whole sequence.

Second, we have intra-workout rest periods. Some sources recommend shorter rest periods to ‘shock’ the muscles and grow better, but research disagrees. According to numerous findings, taking longer breaks allows your muscles to recover better, leading to more growth in the long run. In contrast, shorter breaks affect performance, resulting in lower training volume (sets and reps).

As far as actual rest periods go, here are some guidelines:

  • 3 to 6 reps – 3-5 minutes
  • 6 to 12 reps – 2-3 minutes
  • 12 to 20 reps – 1.5-2 minutes
  • 20+ reps – 1-1.5 minutes

Do You Need Supplements to Bulk Up?

Dietary supplements are another hot topic, and there are countless products people recommend we take to optimize muscle gain. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. Supplements play a minor role in the equation, and most don’t even deliver benefits.

The only products worth considering are:

  1. Creatine Monohydrate
  2. Protein powder
  3. Mass gainer

Creatine is one of the best-studied supplements on the market, with research dating back to the 1970s. It is well-tolerated, safe in the long run, and effective. The supplement optimizes energy production, leading to slightly better athletic performance and quicker recovery.

Protein powder is not essential, but it provides much-needed protein and makes it easier to cover your daily needs. Instead of eating yet another serving of meat or cottage cheese, you can have one to two scoops of protein powder daily and bump your intake. 

Finally, we have mass gainer products, which are also not essential. These products can be beneficial because they provide a ton of calories per serving, making it easier to establish and maintain a calorie surplus. 

Still, most people would be better off making mass gainers at home. For example, you can mix full-fat milk with peanut butter, one large banana, and one to two scoops of protein powder. Blend it up and enjoy a calorie bomb full of protein.

Final Words

As you can see, bulking is more nuanced than simply, “Eat a lot and train hard.” Optimizing the process requires attention to detail and self-monitoring for success.

A calorie surplus is crucial, but simply overeating is not the best approach. Similarly, hard training is necessary for growth, but you must be mindful and pick the correct strategy.

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