I’ve never been fan of the term ”bulking”. Bulking implies that someone can eat whatever they want and blame it on the excuse that they’re in a surplus of calories. Sure, it’s okay to treat yourself occasionally but if you really want to make a change in your physique, you have to stop pumping your body full of unnecessary calories just for the sake of gaining muscle. Would you run regular gas in your Ferrari? No, you would want to run the highest octane fuel available to maximize performance. Your body is no different. If you aren’t considering the best foods to fuel your body, it is not going to perform or look the way you want.
The only time I would suggest “bulking” or “dirty bulking to someone” is if they are an ectomorph; someone with a fast metabolism who has a hard time gaining muscle. It is really hard to eat 3000 + calories a day if you are eating whole, clean, healthy food without adding a bunch of condiments. If you’ve always had a hard time gaining weight and muscle you will have to resort to eating higher calorie meals which usually relates to unhealthy food.
For everyone else (including me), if your goal is optimal body composition there’s is no shortcut around eating healthy. So if you’re serious about changing your lifestyle and taking your physique to the next level over the next few months, give these tips a try.
Eating in a Surplus
If you’re looking to put on some muscle and size over the next few months, this guide is for you.
The biggest question I get asked frequently is “I have a hard time building muscle, I can’t get any bigger.” I’m baffled when people ask me this and then proceed to tell me they spend hundreds of dollars a month on supplements and workout hard 5 days a week and still do not see the results they are looking for.
One of my favourite acronyms is KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid. This directly applies here; it is not rocket science, building muscle is as simple as training consistently and eating more calories than you burn. You do not need any supplements, steroids or some fitness guru’s “secret muscle building formula”. All you need to do is eat in a surplus while training 3 + days a week. Scientifically speaking your body burns a certain number of calories per day at a rest. This is called your BMR, Base Metabolic Rate. I went in depth in a previous post, Counting Calories 101 on how to find your BMR. Essentially, to put on muscle you need to eat more calories than you are burning each day. The best tip I can give anyone new to working out or who has a hard time gaining muscle is you need to eat! There is no way around this. Eat enough food for your body to build muscle with those excess calories is key. I wish someone had of told me this earlier. It took me years to figure this out. I used to think I ate really well and ate enough. It wasn’t until I decided to track my calories for a few weeks that I realized I was majorly undereating. I needed to eat 500-1000 extra calories everyday. Once I figured this out I gained close to 15 pounds of muscle in 3 months. A complete night and day difference, people thought I was on a steroid cycle. No steroids just food. The bottom line and takeaway from this section is eat more calories than you burn, I cannot stress this enough.
Watch your Caloric Intake
Now that you’re eating in a surplus it is time to watch the mirror and watch the scale. This is why I do not recommend “bulking” because everyone tends to overeat and that makes for unwanted bodyfat gain that will make it even harder to trim off later. Keeping your surplus within a max of 500 calories a day above your BMR plus your total calories burned from exercise will make sure you have enough calories to keep making substantial muscle growth and limiting unwanted bodyfat gain. Yes, you will gain some bodyfat, there is no way around that but what we’re trying to do here is put on quality lean muscle mass while minimizing the fat gain, you could even call this a “lean-bulk”. A good rule of thumb is to watch the mirror to make sure you’re not gaining too much bodyfat while watching the scale and making sure you’re not gaining more than 1 pound per week. Beginners are different but if you are an advanced natural lifter, 1-2 lbs of muscle per month is very good progress, so watch the scale and mirror carefully.
Another tremendously important tip for staying lean in the offseason is varying your intake of calories depending on your activity level that day. For example, when taking rest days you do not burn as many calories than days you are in the gym so you will want to watch your intake of food and lower your calories slightly so you are not gaining unwanted bodyfat. The days you are lifting or excersising more than norming you will increase calories and carbs on days when you are working the largest bodyparts.
When you aren’t in the gym lower your calories unless you are expending a lot of energy outside of the gym by working, playing sports or walking, etc. This is a more advanced method so I would not recommend watching your calories so closely unless you’ve been training seriously for a while.
Dropping your calories to maintenance level or a small deficit or surplus on rest days will ensure you are not gaining substantial bodyfat while still recovering adequately. For days you are working large bodyparts such as legs or back, you will need extra calories to promote adequate recovery and an increase in carbohydrates to refill glycogen stores while improving workout performance. The reason behind this is you need the extra calories when working larger bodyparts because you burn more calories working larger muscle groups than working smaller bodyparts like arms or shoulders. There is no universal formula for everyone because calories expended will vary depending on metabolism, body type and activity level.
For a full guide on counting calories and finding your BMR, Counting Calories 101
Utilize “Mini-Bulks and Mini-Cuts”
The human body is amazing at adapting to whatever you throw at it. If you stay in a surplus or deficit for an extended period of time your body will adapt to the calories taking in. Adapting to a caloric intake is not necessarily what you want. To keep your body guessing and keep your bodyfat low, utilizing mini-cuts are an extremely beneficial way to keep your bodyfat in check while decreasing cortisol and increasing hormone production such as short increases in testosterone which are elevated briefly when switching from a surplus into a deficit. Stay in a surplus for 1-2 months max and drop your calories down into a small deficit for 1-4 weeks to reap the benefits while keeping bodyfat low. The trick with keeping muscle mass is to diet on as many calories as possible. Do not just drop your calories down really quickly or you will sacrifice energy and hard earned muscle. Start in a small deficit and try to increase your activity level by walking more or doing some form of cardio for a few weeks. I like to cut down 5-7 lbs over about 2-4 weeks and then switch back into a surplus of calories.
This is a highly underrated method which has helped me maintain 8-10% bodyfat year round while still gaining muscle and enjoying eating the things I want.
Don’t let the excess Bodyfat get away from you
Keeping your bodyfat as low as possible while in a surplus is extremely important if your goal is to eventually cut down and get lean for a vacation or just for summer. Letting your weight get away will not only make losing the extra fat really difficult but it also means you will lose a lot of that hard earned muscle. The last thing you want is to lose a lot of your hard work when you went to chisel away at that fat to show off all that work you put in over the winter.
The bottom line here is to try and keep your bodyfat relatively low while in a surplus is key. Not only will you like the way you look over the winter, you will thank me later when you only have to lose 10 pounds rather than 20 or even 30 pounds.
I hope this tips can help everyone reach their goals a little faster and stay a little leaner over the offseason! Happy eating!