The beaches of the northern hemisphere are silent as the taught t-shirts of summer get packed away. Now, the real work begins with the commencement of the annual bulk.
There are many hundreds of bulking diet plans and bulking meal plans out there, but many of them recommend debunked ideas on excessive eating to build muscle while pushing techniques only suitable for competition bodybuilders that don’t apply to everyday lifters.
This article will help you create a safe, healthy, and bespoke plan, giving you the tools to tailor your intake and some helpful supplement suggestions to make your muscle-building easier.
We’ll also provide some handy tips to help you get the most from this period and emerge the other side healthy, strong, and ready for a bigger, leaner you.
What is bulking?
Bulking is part of a commonly used approach to weight training and a major phase of the ‘cut and bulk’ strategy.
It is designed to help you peak in the summer months by maximising the improvements you make during the autumn and winter.
It takes advantage of the time of year, giving you the best opportunity to raise your calorie intake when you can afford to lose a bit of definition.
This gives you room to concentrate on upping your calorie intake to sufficiently fuel your workouts and gains.
The aim is to emerge at the end of the bulk bigger and stronger than you went in. This period is often followed by a ‘cut’, during which you concentrate on creating definition for your now larger physique.
What are the advantages of bulking?
By increasing your calorie intake, you can overcome plateaus you may have experienced in your training. This will allow you to lift more, make more gains, and get closer to the physique you’re aiming for.
What’s the problem with the traditional cut and bulk?
The cut and bulk strategy was developed in the early to mid-1960s. Since then, diets have changed along with the depth of understanding of how the body works, generates muscle, and responds to various foods.
Like Chinese whispers, aspects of bulking have been exaggerated and often misinterpreted, particularly the need to create a huge calorie surplus in your diet.
It’s origins are set in the days of bodybuilding’s bronze age, and as a technique it’s more attuned to the needs of the competition bodybuilder than the average person who strives to maintain a toned physique throughout the year.
This is why there are often mixed messages regarding the bulk and cut strategy, with some exaggerating the degree of calorie surplus.
While many of the accepted tenants of bulking are false, it remains true that you need to provide your body with a surplus to grow at its optimum rate. However, it’s not true that this should be achieved by stuffing yourself with empty calories and junk food.
Many gym goers have found to their cost that the bulk period is not a free pass for eating to excess.
While your body needs the right kind of fuel and enough of it to build the optimum level of muscle, the foods you get your calories from should be rich in nutrition. You still need to avoid junk food and overly processed foods to ensure the muscles you build are lean and contribute to your general health.
Adding a lot of excess fat or sugars will cause the body to take protective measures, including speeding up the process by which it turns excess energy into body fat. This can make it harder for you to slim down in the future.
It also means that when or if you decide to cut, the calorie restrictions you have to make won't undo a significant level of the progress you've made. This is a common issue with the 'dirty bulk', which is discussed later in the article.
Is bulking right for you?
Bulking is a weight-gaining technique and is not suitable for those who are carrying excess body fat. To enjoy the benefits of a cut and bulk strategy you should be below 20% body fat, and aiming for the region of 8 – 12% body fat for men and 12 – 15% for women. It’s advisable to cut to this level of body fat before entering into a bulk cycle.
There a number of reasons for this. Firstly, by cutting and gaining some definition you’ll find you look much better even if you’re slightly further from your target size. Secondly, with less fat tissue to deal with, your body will use nutrients in a more targeted way, building lean muscle more efficiently and quickly than when lumbered with large fat stores.
However, if you’re already within a low body fat range, you’ll find following a low calorie diet and adding muscle very difficult. This is where the bulk strategy comes into its own. If you want to get bigger, then you need to give your body a calorie surplus so it can build, combined with a heavy lifting programme to turn those extra cals into extra mass.
Creating the right kind of calorie surplus
OK, here comes some science, so get out the scales and a calculator.
If you’re in a position to benefit from a period of bulking, you’ll need two main things: a calorie surplus and an intense weights programme.
The extent of increased calorie intake for effective muscle gain is different for each individual. To ensure you gain lean muscle and not fat, you need a controlled calorie surplus that’s proportionate to your bodyweight and the amount of activity you undertake.
To calculate a bespoke increase for you, you firstly need to establish your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the amount of calories your body burns on an average day for general maintenance; things like regulating your body temperature, pumping blood, digesting food, and everyday tasks such as walking, sitting, and sleeping.
Then you need to factor in the calories you use up during exercise using an ‘activity multiplier’.
Once you have this figure, you can accurately estimate the amount of extra calories your body will need to build muscle without overeating and adding too much fat.
Calculating your calorie surplus
Calculate your BMR by multiplying your weight in kilograms by 10. Add this total to the sum of your height multiplied by 6.25. Now multiply your age by five and subtract that from the total so far. Finally, add 5 if you're male, or subtract 161 if you're female.
Men BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
Women BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) – 161
For example, a 5’11’’ tall, 39-year-old man weighing 86kg could calculate his BMR as…
Men BMR = (10 × 86) + (6.25 × 180cm) - (5 × 39) + 5 = 1795 calories per day
Now we factor in the amount of exercise you do each week:
Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
Lightly active = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise/ sports 1-3 days/week)
Moderately active = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise/ sports 6-7 days/week)
Very active = BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, or exercising 2 xs/day)
Extremely active = BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise two or more times per day, or training for marathon, or triathlon, etc.)
[Alternatively, skip this step by using a fitness tracker to find out precisely how many calories you burn during exercise per week. Work out your average daily calorie expenditure during your activity and add this to your daily total.]
So, if we take the example of the 39-year-old man above and assume his level of exercise is ‘Lightly active’, then we multiply his BMR of 1795 calories by the relevant activity multiplier, which for light exercise is 1.2.
1795 X 1.2 = 2154
This means our man expends an average of 2154 calories in total each day. Eating this many calories at his current level of exercise will mean he will maintain his current body shape.
Now for the final step.
We need to run this final figure through another multiplier to find out his calorie surplus – how many more calories his body needs to add bulk.
For the average gym goer and to achieve a lean bulk with minimal fat gain, it’s advised you increase your calories by 10%. Work out this increase by multiplying your active BMR total by 1.1.
So our man’s new daily calorie target will be…
2154 x 1.1 = 2369 calories per day.
*Make sure you keep a close eye on your body fat levels and rate of weight gain. Different bodies respond differently, so it's essential you track your progress closely and if you are adding too much weight, then revisit your figures and rate of exercise. Your priority should be to remain a healthy weight.
Types of bulking diet
Now you know how much to eat, you need to know what to eat.
There are two main types of bulking diets – the ‘lean bulk’ and the ‘dirty bulk’.
The ‘dirty bulk’ has faded in popularity over the years and has proved to be the undoing of many gym goers. It suggests that a calorie surplus means eating everything and anything, especially high calorific foods such as processed and junk foods, to push the body into muscle-making hyperdrive.
This concept has, however, been debunked by many experts and experienced lifters. Not only are its results exaggerated by gains in fat being mistaken for muscular bulk, but it has also proven to be dangerous for cardiovascular health.
The lean bulk is now the accepted method to attain a muscular and defined physique, while maintaining fitness and general health.
Bulking diet plan tips
The first place to start is increasing the protein content of your daily meals. Regular lifters should aim to eat around 2.2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight every day on average to build muscle.
Special attention should be paid to your post-workout meal or shake, with whey protein and a fast-acting carbohydrate like dextrose an ideal muscle-boosting option.
According to supplement specialist Dymatize, adding supplements like creatine monohydrate and glutamine to your post-workout shake will further enhance the effectiveness of your workout.
Increasing protein intake will increase your metabolism and help maintain your muscle mass, all of which helps with fat-burning.
However, it’s important to note that a supplemented diet doesn’t replace a healthy one. Your meals should remain balanced and nutritious, with lots of fruit, vegetables, and lean meats, for example.
By eating nutritious foods like fish, chicken, cheese, milk, beans, pulses, soy products, nuts, seeds, fresh veg and fruit, you’ll swap empty calories for hardworking nutritional powerhouses, boosting your lean muscle growth.
Eat healthy fats
Consuming enough of the good fats will actually help you lose bodyfat, build muscle, and recover faster from your workouts. Healthy fats also have myriad health benefits, including being good for your heart.
The fats should be polyunsaturated, particularly omega-3s found in fish and nuts, and monounsaturated fats found in peanut butter, olive oil, egg yolks, and fish oil.
Prioritise your rest and sleep
The quality of your shuteye contributes hugely to your body’s ability to build muscle. If you’re training intensively, you should be aiming for around 9-10 hours of sleep at least, giving your body the opportunity to make the necessary repairs.
Keep to the cardio
Cardio has a bad rep among old school bulkers who argue it uses up the calories you’re trying to turn into muscle tissue.
However, cardio is actually a good way to stop your calorie surplus turning into body fat, keeping the heart healthy, and improving your cardiovascular health which means you can train harder for longer.
It also increases your appetite so you will be able to down some extra calories to make up for the loss you experienced during your workout.
Most experts recommend around half an hour to an hour of cardio a week while bulking.
Eat six small meals per day
This is probably the least controversial advice. Eating small and often ensures you supply your body with a steady stream of nutrients for muscle building and fat burning. It also increases your resting metabolic rate.
Use compound lifts
Compound movements trigger the growth hormones in your body. It allows you to lift much heavier weights, giving you a bigger workout and more mass to shift, resulting in more muscle growth.
Isolation movements are for shaping muscles and toning, so instead stick to a diet of squats, deadlifts, barbell presses, military presses, rows, pull-ups, and similar lifts.
Key supplements for the bulk
Supplements can be a great way to effectively regulate your calorie intake and ensure your hardworking bod is getting the right amount of protein, carbs, fats, and nutrition to squeeze the most out of every training session. Here are some of the supplements most often used during a bulk.
Protein, especially whey protein, is the basic building material for muscle mass. Bulking weightlifters will aim to consume around 2.2g per kilogram of body weight per day.
Whey Better is a multi-award winning and delicious high protein 100% whey isolate powder with over 89g protein per 100g it is also packed with vitamins and minerals.
PW1 is made with organic whey and flavoured with natural ingredients.
Creatine improves high-intensity exercise performance and muscle maintenance, making it perfect for supporting a bulk.
Creapure Creatine is widely considered to a quality source of micronised creatine monohydrate. Trusted by top athletes, it's an ideal supplement to support an intense bulk.
Grenade® Essentials Creatine is 99% pure with no added fillers, providing an easily absorbed form of creatine.
BCAAs contain three essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) which activate the process of muscle growth and contribute to the building of new proteins during exercise recovery, promoting the growth of muscle mass.
Delicious and effective, Bio-Synergy's BCAA powder is ideal for before, during, or after exercise for maximum muscle recovery. Each serving contains 5g BCAA.
BCAA Perform is the latest edition to the SiS range, offering a convenient way to support the maintenance of muscle mass, in a summer fruits and pineapple flavour.
L-Glutamine is seen as one of the basic supplements in fitness sport and is often used after every workout.
Dymatize Glutamine contains 100% L-Glutamine, and due to its unflavoured taste, the powder can conveniently be added to water or juice and has great solubility through micronization.