Bulking: It sounds scary but it's relatively simple. It's what athletes do when they want to gain serious muscle. They focus on gaining weight first and then go through a "cutting" phase, where they shed fat to reveal the new muscle underneath.
But if you think that bulking up is as easy as eating whatever you want, think again.
Power athletes like football players, rugby players, and hockey players especially need to bulk up so that they can become heavier, stronger, and so that they can better protect themselves from injury. Bulking is also something that weightlifters and functional fitness athletes will do when trying to significantly improve their strength.
However, some people merely resort to eating more food — and less high-quality food — just to gain weight fast. Sure, it’s nice to eat whatever you want; but on the flip side, it won't satisfy the nutrition your body needs.
These practices will still lead to bulking, but it won't be healthy.
How can one bulk and still manage to stay healthy? Yes, it largely boils down to eating more calories than usual in order to increase your body mass. But there are specific steps you can take to ensure your body continues to stay in good shape.
How to Bulk While Maintaining Your Health and Fitness
1. Determine Your Caloric Needs First
You need to eat more — but how much more?
Remember that caloric intake is different for every individual. In order to achieve your desired fitness goals, you need to understand how many calories you need to maintain your physique, which will then help you determine how many calories will make you gain.
If you don't do this math, you're going to be left guessing how much you need to eat in order to bulk. Tracking your calories with an app like MyFitnessPal will be immensely helpful.
In determining your caloric goal, bear in mind that you can't simply speed up the process by eating an extra 1,000 calories a day. The goal is to gain healthy weight that your body can still use.
Typically, the faster you gain or lose weight, the harder it is on your body (and the less favorable the results). Increase your calories in increments and aim for slow and steady.
2. Fill These Additional Calories With *Nutritious* Foods
Wait. Hold on. Put the ice cream down.
As we said earlier, healthy bulking doesn't simply mean eating more of anything. We've talked about this in the past: It's not only about calories in, calories out.
You should still make sure that you get a balance of all three macronutrients — protein, fats, and carbohydrates — in your dietary plan.
You already know that protein is a vital nutrient for muscle growth. In fact, every cell in your body uses protein to function. Carbohydrates are your body's preferred fuel source, and fat serves a number of functions, namely in hormone production and brain health.
So, if you add 200 calories to your daily intake, don't automatically reach for the Ben & Jerry's. Get those macros in, and consume more nutritious foods.
3. Consume Smaller Meals More Frequently
While research doesn't totally agree, it's widely accepted that if you want to stay lean and fend off weight gain, you actually want to stay away from eating more frequent, smaller meals. You want to give your body a chance to get hungry. And ironically, this approach can lead to overeating.
However, this means that if you're bulking, it might be in your best interest to eat more regularly throughout the day. This is especially helpful if you're having a hard time getting the additional calories in. Trying to cram them into two or three big meals might not be reasonable. But five or six smaller meals? Now we're talking.
4. When in Trouble, Supplement!
Eating more is fun at first. But eventually, it can get downright challenging choking down all the calories you need to successfully bulk.
Don't forget that in moderation, protein powder is fair game. You can also supplement with carbohydrate powder that you add to your drink.
Fat is a simple one, but if you need an idea, remember that you can add healthy oils or high-quality butter to just about anything and very easily get the fat grams you need.
5. Adjust Your Gym Programming Accordingly
This could mean a few different approaches, and the direction you take should be unique to your body, needs, and goals.
Because weightlifting burns so many calories and also builds muscle — which burns even more calories — you could tone down the lifting, if your program heavily relies on that. However, depending on how many additional calories you're eating, keeping in the lifting might help you bulk, but gain more muscle while minimizing fat gain. It really depends on the volume of your training.
Oddly, some fitness professionals will tell you to do more steady-state cardio (especially low-impact activities like cycling and the elliptical) and even bodyweight HIIT. These are good for cardiovascular and lung health but won't do much in the way of fat loss. That's why they can be safely coupled with bulking.
On the other hand, if you're an avid weightlifter trying to focus your bulking on muscle growth, cardio can inhibit this.
It sounds confusing with a lot of gray area, but you just need to take a step back and looking at your nutrition and fitness as one holistic process — because it is.
The takeaway is this: You want your body to be slightly less of a calorie-burning machine. So, those grueling 90-minute powerlifting sessions might need to go down a notch or two, if you want to pack on some extra pounds.
As you bulk, remember that this is not an overnight process. It's something that you will gradually build over the coming weeks and months. And while there are certain things you can do to encourage muscle growth over fat, you can't eliminate fat gain completely.
And on that note, remind yourself that your body gains fat where it wants to. So, if you want to bulk, you have to be willing to give up a little bit of control! Following your bulking cycle will be the cut, and that's when you'll really lean out for a more chiseled physique.
When you approach bulking with a smart strategy and under the guidance of a coach, you can maintain amazing health and continue working toward your goals.