I’ve said it a million times & I’ll say it again:
Bulking is the best thing I’ve EVER done for my physique.
It’s made more changes to my physique than anything has. You won’t get those shapely shoulders or full glutes without muscle gains.
And muscles need FUEL to grow.
If you’re a newbie, you’re lucky & you can make some muscle gains while in a calorie deficit or cut. But once you become a more experienced lifter, your main objective during a cut is to prevent LOSS of muscle with your strength training.
And newbie or not you’re unlikely to make significant muscle gains while in a cut. So if you cut down without having previously done much strength training or a bulk, you’ll be well, what we call skinny fat. Aka you’ll have less body fat on you, but you won’t have any shape since there’s no muscle underneath.
AKA if you want to make some REAL visible changes to your physique, you’ll need to eat MORE food & possibly go into a bulk to make some serious muscle gains before you cut down again.
- So what is a bulk?
A bulk, also known as a growing phase, is where you eat ABOVE maintenance calories while training your ass off in the gym to make strength & muscle gains. In order to gain muscle, you have to gain weight & yes, there is an element of fat gain along with it. How MUCH weight you gain is entirely up to how controlled your bulk is.
There are two main terms with bulking:
Lean Bulking: Lean bulking involves still tracking your macros/calories carefully to ensure a minimum amount of fat gain. You eat only in a slight surplus. For my clients choosing to lean bulk I like to keep weight gain to around 2 lbs/month maximum.
How MUCH food you have to eat depends entirely upon the individual. Everyone’s metabolisms respond differently, which is why Lean Bulking could also still be called a Reverse Diet (Here’s a link to my Reverse Dieting YouTube series) since with Lean Bulking you will still over time have to add in more calories slowly as your metabolism adjusts.
“Dirty” Bulking: This is more of an uncontrolled bulk & with it comes more fat gain than someone might want. My first bulk was more of a dirty bulk, since I only loosely tracked to make sure I was eating both enough protein & more than enough calories.
My experience with bulking:
I started tracking macros in May of 2018. I cut down to the picture on the left & was pretty dang happy with my results. Except I was low key disappointed with how small my arms were so I decided to try a bulk as an experiment over the winter. For reference by May 2018 I’d been lifting casually for ~2 years. I became more focused with my lifts & progressive overload in October 2017 & the only thing I paid attention to nutrition wise was making sure I ate enough protein.
Since I was a total NOOB to everything & there weren’t many references on bulking for women I decided to throw most of my tracking out the window. I did a mental tally in my head for protein consumption during my 5 month August-December 2018 bulk & then mentally just made sure I was eating MORE.
I look back on it now fondly. My food focus was low–this was before I was a food blogger/recipe developer & some days during this bulk it felt like an absolute CHORE to eat more. (Except for when I went out to dinner every few weeks and ate an entire dessert all by myself after my entree. Bulking szn things you know?)
I didn’t weigh myself ONCE until the very end of my bulk. I didn’t have a coach at this point. I made my own workouts based off of things I saw on Instagram & while I made MASSIVE strength gains during my first bulk I was also still scared of a couple lifts & was still probably lifting less that I truly could have for a few things, like hip thrusts & deadlifts.
I WAS an absolute beast with my upper body workouts however–and it shows in my arms in the pictures below:
The REALITY or scary part about bulking though, is that when you’re in the MIDDLE of a bulk, you’re also gaining body fat. So you can’t actually SEE much “muscle gain” until you cut down again. The pictures above were during the cut AFTER my first bulk (right around when I started sharing my journey on instagram)
During my “dirty” bulk, from August 2018 -January 2019 I put on 20lbs & not all of it was muscle.
This is why I call bulking an INVESTMENT.
I know nothing about the stock market at ALL lol, but the general gist is that you put some money away in the hopes of making a lot more later… right?
Same thing with bulking. You lose the gratification of seeing ab lines/definition in the mirror every day (which if you bulk in the winter it doesn’t matter AT ALL anyways) in order to see EVEN MORE definition and muscle the next time you cut down.
- Do you need to bulk to put on muscle?
No. You can still make small amounts of muscle gain while eating at maintenance calories, BUT the process is VERY slow. IE you could put 4 weeks of progress pictures next to each other and hardly see a difference. This process is called body recomposition, where you can lose fat and muscle at the same time.
It also helps to be at a higher body fat percentage when you attempt body recomposition. IE no way in heck would I be able to do much body recomposition while at bikini competition level leanness.
For example: I did some body recomposition in my last off season. I bulked until the middle picture & then did some body recomposition between the last two pictures:
I prefer bulking since the process is faster & the gains are more pronounced when you cut down again.
But regardless of if you recomp or bulk, you DO need to eat more food to put on muscle.
Yes, I’m talking to any of you women out there terrified to eat more than 1200-1400 calories. You MUST eat in order to GROW muscle. I would suggest starting with a reverse diet to slowly increase your calories until you reach maintenance. If you would like some help with this I’d encourage you to either message me on instagram or check out my 1:1 coaching page.
2. How do your macros change when bulking?
Generally protein stays the same, since you don’t need to eat more than .8-1.2g per pound of LEAN body mass. (General bro-science advice says 1g/per pound of body mass, which is usually MORE than enough.) Example: Based on a guesstimate off my last DEXA scans, I have approximately 105lbs of lean body mass on my frame so the maximum amount of protein I NEED is 126g per day.
I’m currently eating 140g of protein a day, which is above those levels (you don’t get more benefits when bulking from extra protein above that) but just because I weigh more than 140lbs right now doesn’t mean I need to increase my protein beyond that.
So protein can generally be left entirely alone while bulking & calories added can go into carbohydrates & fat.
Carbohydrates are preferential since carbs are stored in our muscles as glycogen, which we use during our workouts for fuel. So more carbs = more energy for the gym.
Fat is still essential for optimal hormone function for both men & women as well as for the optimal absorption of fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A & D. BUT fat slows digestion & when you’re trying to eat more food, sometimes the last thing you want is to feel extremely full all day long.
So while you DO want to increase fats while bulking too, I generally increase carbs at a higher rate than fats. But it’s also up to your personal preference!
How much to increase though? If you’re lean bulking, just bump up your carbs by 10-20g (or fat by 5g) every week or two until you start to gain! Just like a reverse diet 🙂 This does require you to be impartial with your scale data to analyze whether you’re actually gaining weight.
In my “dirty bulk” before I had my nutrition certification, I just ate 200 calories over what I assumed my maintenance was–very imprecise, but it worked.
If you’re doing a lean bulk, you might even have to increase your macros every few weeks as your metabolism adapts & you stop gaining weight & plateau (just like in a weight loss phase!)
3. How do your workouts change when bulking?
Not at all.
The same workouts that you do while cutting you should also do while bulking. The same workouts that help BUILD muscle will help PRESERVE muscle.
That said you should be following the SAME exact workout program for 4-16 weeks in a row, NOT changing it up randomly every week & flitting between program to program just because an influencer posts a shiny new workout.
For example, I almost always have deadlifts, bench press, hip thrusts, & barbell shoulder presses on my program. I will change up the “accessory” movements in my programs every 12 weeks.
Dos & Donts of training while bulking:
- DO follow the same program 4-16 weeks, doing the SAME workouts each week
- DO TRY to hit PRs every week, whether that’s adding ONE more rep or ONE more pound (this is called progressive overload)
- DO make sure you’re actually pushing yourself to failure or within 1-2 reps. (IE if you feel like you could do a few more sets of squats after your leg day–you aren’t training hard enough. Your legs should be jello & you should feel like a newborn GIRAFFE walking out of there.)
- DO train in a variety of rep ranges, but keep a majority of your lifts in the 8-12 rep range for maximum hypertrophy for building muscle
- DON’T do excessive cardio or HIIT workouts during this phase. These are not optimal for muscle building and cardio should be kept to a minimum during this phase. Cardio & HIIT take away energy you could be using towards your workouts.
- DON’T kill yourself with volume. Rest is JUST as important, if not more, since its during REST that you actually build the muscle fibers you broke down during training. Your workouts don’t need to take 2-3 hours 6 days a week.
- DON’T chase soreness. You don’t actually need to be sore to be building muscle. If you’re eating more food and recovering well between workouts, you should hopefully see LESS soreness than during a cutting phase. It’s okay to be sore, but soreness isn’t an indicator of a “good” workout.
Example Leg Workout:
- (Heavy) Sumo Deadlifts 4 sets of 4-6 reps
- Hip Thrusts 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps
- A lunge variation 3 sets of 8-12 reps (one rep = both legs)
- Something Hamstring Specific–IE RDLs 3 sets 10-15 reps
- Another glute specific exercise (IE Kickbacks, glute focused hyperextensions etc) 3x 12-15 reps
- An abductor variation 3x 15+ reps
4. How often should you expect to hit PRs while bulking?
It’s entirely up to you!
IE. How new to lifting you are. (Newbie gains are faster!)
How hard you’re actually training. (Are you even TRYING to hit PRs or are you being complacent?)
From my experience with my FIRST bulk:
I went from bench pressing 90lbs for 6 reps in August 2018 (the beginning of my bulk) to 105 for 6 reps at the end of my bulk in January 2019 (to 135 for a 1 rep PR in February–strength gains can still be made while cutting!) My barbell overhead press went from 45 lbs for 10 reps to 60lbs for 12 reps.
My squat went from 175×6 reps to 205×6 reps (& 245×2 for an all time PR since I haven’t squatted much since)
You won’t hit PRs every week though. Some weeks you might head into the gym feeling like Thor himself, other days you might be feeling blah & have a sub-par workout. It happens, but overall you should see your strength increasing over time.
5. How long should you bulk?
As long as you can. I recommend a MINIMUM of 4-6 months.
The last thing you want is to get into a bulk & then panic after a month & jump into a cut again. You need TIME to grow muscle. Stick with it & be patient.
I’ll likely spend most of 2021 bulking! I’ll throw in a few mini cuts of 4-6 weeks every few months to just keep body fat in a healthy place.
6. How much weight do you gain?
Again, it’s up to you/your coach! There are no set rules. I gained 20 lbs over my first bulk (pictures above) but I wasn’t tracking & wasn’t weighing myself.
For my own clients I like to see somewhere between 1-2lbs of weight gain per month while bulking.
But it’s also up to the individual & what you’re comfortable with.
IE I firmly believe that during a bulking or maintenance phase that people should have free meals.
After experiencing several intense cutting phases for my bikini competitions, my relationship with food got pretty… STRAINED I would say. Cutting for competitions means hitting your macros TO THE GRAM, 99-100% accuracy every day for month. No cheat/free meals ever.
So bulking/maintenance phases provide the opportunity to “heal” any damage a cutting phase might have done to your relationship with food. I encourage my own clients to have one free meal a week during these phases–going out on a date with their significant other, having a wine & cheese night with girlfriends, celebrating holidays etc.
IF you go crazy overboard with these free meals, you might gain a bit of extra weight, but that also indicates that there’s work to be done with your relationship with food and you should NOT shy away from future free meals (since ignoring the problem doesn’t solve the issue)
Here’s an instagram post I made on free meals:
7. How much muscle can you expect to gain each month?
For women the max amount of muscle you can expect to gain on AVERAGE is 1 lb a month.
8. How do you mentally handle the weight gain?
#1 FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES!
#2 Find some support systems!
- Reach out/find other people who are bulking! Either at your gym or on instagram. Cheer each other on
- Fill your social media feed with people promoting strength/muscle gains over the endless diet. My “idols” have changed over time to reflect more muscular goals. IE Holly Baxter, Lauren Simpson, & Emily King.
- Find people at your gym to support you! My guy friends at my gym are GREAT for this. They hype me up for PRs & help spot me on bench press. (Example, the day I hit my 315 deadlift PR I had no intention of going for that weight, but my friend hyped me up to do it!)
#3 Weigh & measure yourself LESS. I don’t take measurements AT all during a bulk & I only weigh myself a few times each week to get a good idea of where my average is. Also, stop doing ab checks in the mirror every time you see one.
Here are a couple posts I’ve made on the subject from THIS year:
Basically: focus on the positives of having a little more body fat & more calories to play with.
When you’re cutting you get the positives of having more definition & lines, but you’re also hungry, crabby, weaker, & have poor bio-feedback (IE poor sleep, poor libido, poor recovery etc)
Both phases have their positives–so focus on those!
9. When to expect to see changes in progress pictures?
When you cut again lol. Unless you’re doing a SUPER conservative bulk, you won’t really be able to “see” the muscle gains until you cut down again, which is why the first picture I shared was of a cut-cut after the bulk.
My first bulk brought the most dramatic changes to my physique, but here’s a picture comparing my physique a few weeks before my first competition and a year later, a few weeks before my second:
10. Importance of meal timing?
The most important thing for cutting/bulking is overall calories consumed. BUT for optimal muscle protein synthesis you want to be sure you’re consuming 20-25g of protein every 4 hours or so.
IE I make sure my main meals of the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert) all have a minimum of 20g of protein & I make sure my post-workout meal or snack has 20g protein as well.
Here’s a few FDOEs I’ve made lately. I’m not quite at bulking calories QUITE yet this year, but I’m getting close:
And one more full day of eating at high calories from February 2020:
Focus on your overall totals and you’ll be just fine!
11. Importance of food quality?
SO I follow flexible dieting & take an 80/20 approach to food “quality”
IE I try to make sure 80% of what I eat involves nutrient dense foods full of micronutrients & vitamins. (That doesn’t mean it has to be boring. I’d argue most if not all of the savory recipes on my blog are still “clean” and “nutrient dense.” I just make them fun with spices & creative sauces.
If you eat nutrient lacking foods all day long you might not be putting yourself in the best place with your hormones, nutrients, cholesterol etc to optimize your gains.
Be sure to eat some whole foods guys! Read more on flexible dieting here.
Holy cow, that was a long post!
Basically: bulking is awesome, but can be scary.
Find some support systems to help you!
If you want someone to help cheer you on I’m here for you–either as a coach or just hit me up on instagram to chat.
If you have any other questions… drop them below or DM me on instagram!