As the weather starts to cool down and we bust out our best hoodies, many a gymgoer begin to shift out of cutting mode to focus on building mass and bulking up. There are a few nutritional tactics I typically recommend for those embarking on a major bulk throughout the fall and winter. Here are the top changes to make to your plate.
1. Change The Way You View Calories
While bulking, it’s important to understand that in order to build mass and gain weight, you need to be in a calorie surplus. A calorie surplus means eating more calories than your body burns, which results in a net gain. Although fitness fanatics often try to reduce their calorie intake and shy away from higher-calorie foods in an effort to maintain or reduce their body weight, most need to do the opposite during bulking season. This time of year, it’s a must to view higher-calorie foods as an opportunity to get closer to that calorie surplus and ultimately provide your body with the fuel it needs to add mass.
That said, you don’t want to just shove anything in your face that has calories. You want to make sure the majority of the foods you eat are still full of nutrition and support your goals. That means striving for a well-balanced diet filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Don’t make the mistake of many fitness enthusiasts who get the majority of their calories while bulking from highly processed “junk”. A good rule of thumb is to try and have 80 percent of your calories come from health-promoting minimally-processed whole foods. Then, you can go for the desserts, fried foods, and whatever else with that other 20 percent.
2. Stay Steady with Protein
Protein, in particular, is an important nutrient to consider when bulking because consuming enough of it will likely lead to better muscle growth. Ideally, you want to eat around 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (that’s about 0.7 to one gram per pound of body weight) while bulking. The rest of your calories can then come from carbohydrates and fats. While you may focus on the leanest possible protein sources during a cut, you can afford to have higher-calorie protein foods during a bulk. In fact, doing so can be particularly helpful if you’re struggling to eat enough calories.
3. Incorporate Higher Calorie Versions of Your Foods
When bulking, making a few food swaps can ensure you eat enough calories to put on muscle. Here are some common swaps I recommend incorporating.
- White rice instead of brown rice. White rice is an easily digested carbohydrate source that can be incorporated into many meals. It has less fiber than brown rice, so it’s easier to eat more of because it doesn’t make you feel as full.
- Regular pasta instead of whole-wheat. Similar to white rice, regular pasta is an easily consumed carbohydrate that can be added to many meals. It’s less filling than whole-wheat pasta.
- Fatty cuts of meat instead of lean protein. To boost calorie intake, choose fattier cuts of meat like ribeye steaks and skin-on chicken thighs. These options are rich in both protein and calories, making them a good option during bulking season.
- Yogurt parfaits instead of plain Greek yogurt. Yogurt parfaits pile in ingredients like fruit and granola that make them delicious and much higher in calories than the plain Greek stuff many people eat during a cut.
- Loaded oatmeal instead of plain. Oatmeal is a fantastic carbohydrate, and adding higher-calorie ingredients like nuts, seeds, honey, nut butter, fruit, and cream makes it even better for bulking.
4. Eat More And More Often
Perhaps the easiest way to increase caloric intake and put on size is to increase your portion sizes. If you are used to eating a half-cup of rice with your meals, try increasing that to a full cup. If you are used to only eating three ounces of chicken for dinner, try increasing that to five. The more you eat, the more calories you consume and the closer you get to an energy surplus—simple as that.
From research, we know that the frequency at which we eat doesn’t seem to be all that important for physique-related goals; however, it’s important to consider that bulking will require you to eat more calories than you burn, which can be a struggle for some people. If you need to up your intake significantly, increasing the portions of your usual three meals may not be enough. In this case, I recommend eating more frequently throughout the day. Spreading out your calories more can make it easier to eat them all.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of Liquid Calories
While cutting, you generally want to avoid liquid calories, as they can easily add several hundred calories to your intake without making you feel very full. For bulking, though, liquid calories can actually be beneficial—especially for those who struggle to eat enough food to reach their goals. If you need to knock back several hundred extra calories per day, liquid calories are an easy way to do it. Maybe you use whole milk instead of skim, enjoy some 100 percent fruit juice, or sip on a mass gainer shake instead of a seltzer if consuming enough calories starts to become a hassle.
6. Track Your Intake
Just like you would during a cut, I recommend tracking your food intake on an app at least as you begin a bulk to learn on average how many calories you consume. A bulk can be pretty lackluster if you under-eat and never really add any mass, just as it can be counterproductive if you overconsume and rapidly gain a ton of fat. To avoid either scenario, you want to know objectively how many calories you are consuming and adjust as needed.
A 10 to 20 percent increase in calories above your maintenance amount is recommended for those who may tend to gain a larger proportion of body fat while bulking. For example, if you maintain your body weight at 2,500 calories per day, you’d add about 250 to 500 extra calories per day while bulking. However, if you’re a hard gainer, you may need to up your daily intake by a higher percentage to move the needle. Monitor your progress until you reach a rate of gain you’re happy with.
In general, though, the key here is to monitor and adjust your intake based on how your body reacts. If you start eating a ton of higher-calorie foods and notice that your body weight climbs too rapidly or that you gain more body fat than you would like, slow it down. On the flip side, if your weight isn’t moving in an upward direction and you are struggling to make any real progress, it’s time to see how you can add some more calories to your diet. Monitoring your overall intake and how it impacts your progress is a must. Bulking isn’t just about trying to gain as much weight as you can during a given period of time; it’s about slowly increasing your intake and providing your body with the fuel it needs to build muscle, which takes time. Remember, the more weight from fat you gain during your bulking season, the more weight you will likely want to cut when summer comes around again, so take things slow.
7. Reassess Your Supplement Routine
The Bottom Line
Embarking on a bulking journey can be rewarding and satisfying for those looking to build mass and muscle. By making strategic dietary changes, you can ensure that your body is primed for growth and that you don’t have to miss out on the edible joys of the holiday season. Remember to shift your perspective on calories and view them as allies in your muscle-building quest, rather than foes. Also make sure to monitor your progress closely so you can adjust your calorie intake as needed.
And, finally, give yourself about six months to focus on bulking to allow yourself enough time to build a decent amount of muscle mass. While you should expect to gain some fat mass while bulking, it should be reasonable, which is why it’s important to take things slow. Ultimately, a successful bulk is when you are happy with the progress you’ve made, so set a goal and work towards it!