The calendar year and your favorite TV shows have seasons—and your exercise program might, too. One such season, affectionately known as “bulking season,” is a duration of time wherein an individual’s primary goal is to lift and eat in such a way that they gain muscle mass, explains dietitian and strength coach Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., COO of ARENA and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. “During bulking season, people are more concerned with future performance and aesthetics than current aesthetics,” he says.
An especially common practice amongst bodybuilders and powerlifting, bulking season is typically followed by a cutting season in which an individual works to shed any fat they put on during the bulk, leaving just newly-built, lean muscle mass behind, explains exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness Podcast.
The thing about bulking season, though, is that it has the potential to lead to more body fat gain than gym-goers would like—which is why it’s important to approach it in a way that maximizes muscle gain while keeping excess body fat at bay. Ahead, experts offer their best tips for nailing that tricky balance.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., is a nutritionist, strength coach, COO of ARENA, and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., is an exercise physiologist and the host of the All About Fitness Podcast. Jim White, R.D.N., is a dietitian, exercise physiologist, and the owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.
1. Figure Out If Bulking Is For You
To be clear: While bulking can help people meet their fitness, performance, and aesthetic goals, it’s not necessary for everyone. “Bulking and cutting are essentially extreme versions of monitoring what you consume and how you exercise based on your goals,” says Matheny. While this kind of season-based eating and exercising can be helpful for some (particularly those who are hardcore dedicated to their fitness and physique), it’s probably excessive and overwhelming for most of the general population, he says. After all, it requires vigilance around calorie and macronutrient intake.
Take a minute to really assess whether or not bulking is necessary for your particular goals. If you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or Olympic lifter, it may be! However, if you have more generalized fitness goals, simply focusing on hitting the gym consistently and eating nutrient-dense foods may be sufficient, Matheny says.
2. Know Your Timeline
Bulking seasons can last anywhere from 16 to 52 weeks, according to registered dietitian and exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. The duration of your bulk will depend on why you are bulking or what you’re bulking for (such as a bodybuilding show or powerlifting competition), he says.
Before you begin your bulk, you need to know exactly how many weeks (or months) out you are from your competition, show, or event. In cases when you’ll follow up your bulk with a cut, determine how much time you’ll need for each. Typically, people cut for about the same amount of time as they bulk, White says. Though, people who lose weight more easily or slowly may cut for longer or shorter.
Your timeline, specific muscle-gain goals, and your personal ease of gaining muscle and losing weight will all impact exactly how much you should increase your calorie intake, as well as at what rate. If, for example, your next meet is only a few months away, you might increase calorie intake super-quickly, while if it’s a year (or longer) away, you might increase it more gradually. In general, if you are looking to minimize body fat gain while increasing strength or muscle mass, a longer timeline is best, as it allows you to increase your calorie intake more gradually, White says. (More on that coming right up.)
3. Get Your Caloric Surplus Right
During a bulk, you need to consume a surplus of calories, which means that you eat more calories than you burn. “Your body needs energy to produce new muscle fibers, so if you want to put on muscle mass, it is crucial to consume enough calories,” White says. If your calorie intake isn’t adequate, your body will have to use the food you consume to fuel other bodily functions, rather than to put on muscle mass, he explains.
How much of a calorie surplus an individual needs depends on a variety of factors, such as their starting weight and body fat percentage, how long they are planning to bulk for, and their specific goal, explains McCall. In general, people consume anywhere between 300 and 700 “extra” calories per day during the bulking season, he says.
Read More: 8 Possible Reasons Why You’re Losing Muscle
The best way to figure out how many calories you should consume during a bulk to hit your goal of putting on muscle (without putting on much body fat) is to work with a sports nutritionist or performance coach, says McCall. However, if that is not accessible to you, you can use an online calorie intake calculator (like this one or this one) as a baseline.
As you move through your bulking season, White suggests monitoring muscle and body fat changes with things like an InBody scan or online lean mass calculator and making adjustments to your calorie intake as needed. If you are in too much of a calorie surplus, for example, you will notice a sizable percent increase in body fat gained and should adjust accordingly.
4. Commit To A ‘Clean’ Bulk
Clean bulking is an approach to bulking in which individuals prioritize getting their calories from whole—not processed—foods. Here, individuals don’t just focus on hitting their calorie intake goals, but on getting those calories from nutrient-dense sources, as well.
When bulking, people commonly fall into the same trap that the “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) diet is infamous for: focusing only on quantity of food, rather than quality, according to White. (Colloquially, bulking periods that prioritize calorie quantity over food quality are known as ‘dirty’ bulks). Unfortunately, this approach often results in individuals not reaching their goals because the body needs specific nutrients to effectively and efficiently put on muscle mass, White notes.
“When you’re bulking with the intention of putting on muscle mass, you want to focus on consuming nutrient-dense whole foods,” he says. Consuming a variety of nutrient-dense, protein-rich foods helps ensure that the weight you’re putting on is mostly muscle rather than mostly fat.
5. Lift Progressively Heavier and Heavier
If you want to put on muscle mass, just casually lifting isn’t sufficient; you need to lift heavy—and then heavier and heavier.
Research published in 2021 found that the act of continuously challenging their muscles by lifting heavier and heavier weights can help individuals make significant strength gains. You see, your muscles adapt to the weight you throw at them, explains White, so if you lift the same weight, at the same speed, for the same reps over and over again, you will hit a plateau. If your fitness goals entail putting on strength or muscle mass, that’s not ideal.
Exactly how much you increase your lifts will depend on your current training age and fitness regimen. People who are new to exercise will experience ‘beginner gains’, in which they put on muscle faster than an individual with years of experience under the belt, White explains. Regardless of experience level, he suggests increasing your weight by less than 10 percent at a time.
6. Make Sure You’re Eating Enough Protein
Whether you are in a specific bulking season or not, prioritizing protein intake is essential for repairing— and therefore building—muscle. When you strength train, you create microtears in the muscle fibers. Afterward, your body needs protein to help repair that damage, explains White. So, if you want to facilitate new muscle growth, you have to fuel your body with enough protein.
Further, protein helps you feel satiated. “Protein is one of the main nutrients that helps you feel full,” says Matheny. “So, if you aren’t consuming enough protein, you are more likely to keep eating and eating.” This, in turn, can result in calorie intake that goes beyond your planned surplus, which puts you at increased risk for fat gains.
Read More: 5 Health Benefits Of A High-Protein Diet
What is enough protein, exactly? According to research published in the journal Nutrients, people looking to put on muscle mass should aim to consume 0.7 grams to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Someone who weighs 150 pounds, therefore, would need to consume 105 to 150 grams per day during a bulk.
Assuming your lifestyle allows for it, White recommends making as much of your protein intake as possible be animal-based. “Animal-source protein is the best source of protein because research has found that the body absorbs them at a higher rate than non-animal sources, ” he says. Plus, animal protein sources are complete proteins, which means they contain all the essential amino acids required for your body and muscle repair. “Foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and rice may contain protein but lack all the essential amino acids needed for this process,” he says.
If you’re struggling to hit that high protein mark each day (regardless of whether or not you include animal foods in your diet), consider a protein powder and these simple tips for upping your intake.
7. Prioritize Sleep
The weight room and the kitchen can’t be the only two places you’re hanging out if you want to put on muscle mass; you also need to log at least seven to eight hours a night in bed, according to McCall.
“Sleep is when your body produces and releases human growth hormone and testosterone, which are two hormones that support muscle repair,” he says. Human growth hormone triggers the release of a protein called insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) that stimulates muscle growth, while testosterone increases the rate of muscle-protein synthesis, which is a process that supports muscle repair, he explains. Given the relationship between sleep and muscle growth, failing to sleep enough when a bulk season can keep you from reaping the rewards of all your hard work in the gym and kitchen, says McCall.
Muscle growth aside, sleeping enough is also essential for managing fat gains. One study published in the journal Nutrients found a link between inadequate sleep and weight gain. Researchers noted that sleep deprivation negatively impacted metabolic rate, which then had a negative impact on weight goals. Not ideal!
If sleep continuously evades you, try setting a firm bedtime every night, getting room-darkening curtains, removing electronic devices from your space, and avoiding caffeine before bed, per CDC recommendations. You might also help your body and mind settle down and drift off with one of these sleep-supporting supplements.