Cutting season comes to an end, maybe you just finished a bodybuilding show, are giving your body a break from dieting or want to build some muscle and get stronger quickly. It’s bulking season!
To some, this will look like eating whatever you want and as much as you want to gain weight as fast as possible. Well, that’s not going to be the most efficient or healthy way to put on quality lean mass. Some attention should still be given to your calories and macronutrients.
So, what should your calories and macros be when bulking? You should be in a 10% caloric surplus, with 2-2.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight, 4-7g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight and 0.5-2g of fat per kg of bodyweight.
As a nutritionist, I have done extensive research on the most optimal caloric and macronutrient intake for people with a goal of adding lean mass or bulking. The above recommendations are only general ranges for active individuals. In this article, I will provide a detailed step-by-step guideline so you can understand what will work best for you.
Step 1: Determine How Many Calories You Should You Eat When Bulking
If you are taking in more calories than you are burning in a day, you will be in a caloric surplus that will lead to muscle and/or fat gain.
The purpose of a bulk is to increase your body mass. So in order to do this, a bulk requires eating in a caloric surplus so that your muscles have a strong environment to grow in.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on a ‘clean bulk.’
This assumes you want to focus on increasing your lean mass (muscle) and limit the amount of body fat that you add in the process.
So how much of a caloric surplus is required in order to successfully ‘bulk?’
You’ll want to start with a caloric surplus of at least 10%.
This would mean you would have to calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and increase that number by 10%.
To calculate your TDEE, you can simply input your personal stats into an online calculator like this one.
For example, if my calculated TDEE came out to be 2,500 calories, I would want to start my bulk at 2,750 calories (2500 calories X 0.1 = 250 calories).
This calculation is not entirely accurate though.
Calculating your caloric intake based on your theoretical TDEE is just that, theoretical.
To get a better understanding of what your true TDEE is, we need to have a look at trends in body weight, physical changes, body fat percentages and training progressions. We’ll get into this a bit later on, but this is why you only want to increase your intake by 10% of your TDEE before you’re able to collect enough data to identify trends in your progress.
Now, setting your calories is one thing, but not all calories are necessarily created equal.
That’s because the way that the body digests and metabolizes energy from carbohydrates, protein and fats is different. Therefore the ratios of your macronutrients are also very important for the success of a bulk.
Related Article: What To Eat After Fasted Cardio? (5 Things To Know)
Step 2: Find Your Macro Ratios For Bulking
So what is the best ratio of macros to use when bulking?
Let’s start with protein.
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Protein is essential for building and preserving muscle mass, and therefore very important during a bulk.
You want to start by setting your protein intake because it should be set based on your bodyweight, rather than a set ratio of your calories.
The recommended protein intake for most healthy individuals doing a bulk is 2-2.5g/kg of bodyweight.
For someone who weighs 80kg, that would mean 160 – 200g of protein.
Related: Check out our article on the 7 Best Breakfast Ideas (With Calorie Breakdown).
Carbohydrates are very important for a bulk, as they are our body’s primary energy source and used to fuel training sessions, which is where the muscle building happens.
That being said, carbohydrates can turn easily to fat if we eat more than we need to fuel our daily activities. Because we are focusing on bulking lean mass, with minimal fat gain, we want to make sure that we still somewhat control our carbohydrate intake.
The biggest factor in setting your carbohydrate intake is going to be your activity level:
For someone who is not very active, the general rule of thumb is 2g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight.
For someone who is considered a high-performance athlete, recommendations increase to 7g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight.
If you consider your activity levels moderate-high (which I am assuming that most of you will if you are trying to bulk), the recommended intake of carbohydrates would be 4g per kg of bodyweight.
For someone who weighs 80kg, that would be 320g of carbohydrates.
Another way to set your macros would be based on the percentage of your total caloric intake.
For bulking, you want your carbohydrates to be somewhere around 40% of your total caloric intake.
For example, if your bulking calories are 3,000, 40% would be 300g of carbohydrates.
Related Article: What Cardio Should You Do When Bulking? (3 Options)
Fats are extremely important for a bulk, as they are a great source of energy as well as essential for proper hormone function (and hormones play a huge role in building muscle).
Your fat intake during a bulk will be dependant on how many calories you have left after calculating your protein and carbs, but you want to make sure your fat intake is at least 20% of your overall caloric intake.
For example, if you are 80kg and your bulking calories are 3,000 we already know that your protein will be between 160-200g and your carbohydrates between 300-320g. Let’s take the mid ranges for those numbers: 180g protein and 310g carbohydrates. That’s about 25% protein and 40% carbohydrates which leaves 35% left for fats, which is well above the 20% minimum. That would mean 116g of fats.
Another way to calculate your fat intake when bulking is using your bodyweight. The general recommendations are 0.5 – 2g of fats per kg of bodyweight.
For our 80kg example, that would be anywhere from 40 – 160g of fats. Essentially, you wouldn’t want to go below or above that range.
Related Article: Want some healthy options for bulking? Check out our 16 Healthy Bulking Foods
Step 3: Track Your Progress
it’s important to track your progress so that you know if what you’re doing is working.
You’ll want to track three main things:
Body fat percentage
Progressions in the gym
Related Article: Female Bulking Workout Plan (Complete Guide)
When you start bulking, measure your body weight every day for at least the first two weeks.
There are a lot of different factors that can affect your scale weight day-to-day, so in order to get an accurate representation of your progress you’ll want to collect as much bodyweight data as you can to pull trends.
At the end of the first two weeks, If your weight stayed within 0.5-1 percent of your body weight or if you lost weight, this means we aren’t eating enough calories. So, add an additional 10% onto your caloric intake.
Related Article: Struggle with your appetite? Check out our article on How To Bulk If You Have A Low Appetite.
BODY FAT PERCENTAGE
If you’re able to get body composition scans done, do one at the start and every 1-3 months following the start of your bulk.
But who has access to body composition scans? Don’t worry, most people won’t.
There are actually special scales that can measure your bodyfat that you can purchase off Amazon. They do a pretty good job at estimating body fat percentage, which will just help you measure whether you’re trending in the right direction.
Just search for something like “body fat scale”, and you’ll find a range of brands in the $20-25 price range.
Why is it important to track body fat percentage?
Measuring your bodyweight only tells us your scale weight and doesn’t take into consideration any changes in body composition (i.e. is the weight you gained muscle or fat?).
Here’s the important thing to understand: It is completely normal to gain some body fat during a bulk. However, you will want to make sure you aren’t gaining more than 1% of body fat per month during your bulk. You also want to see if you are gaining muscle mass, which, depending on your experience level could be anywhere from 0.25 – 2lbs per month.
Related Article: Bulking After A Long Cut: 8 Tips For A Successful Bulk
Track your workouts so you are able to see your progressions in strength. A great way to do this is through an app like the Fitbod App.
Fitbod fills in the sets, reps, and weight for each exercise based on strength-training best practices. As you get stronger or master exercises, Fitbod adapts to push you a bit harder in your next workout.
By using an app like Fitbod, you’re able to ensure that your training is optimized to the goals of your bulk.
Sign up for 3 free workouts HERE.
Related Article: Can You Eat Anything While Bulking?
Step 4: Minimize Fat Gain And Maximize Muscle Growth
Now that we understand the ideal calories and macros for bulking, we can’t forget that our muscles also need nutrients in order to recover from workouts and grow bigger and stronger and avoid any unnecessary fat gain.
Consuming the wrong foods or not enough of the right ones can make it harder to see the results we want from a bulk.
To minimize fat gain and maximize muscle growth during a bulk, you will want to focus on consuming whole foods and limit your intake of processed foods.
You will want to limit your intake of:
Packaged or processed food offers very little nutrient benefit and can lead to overeating because of a lack of volume and fiber;
Alcohol can interfere with the process of building muscle as well as burning fat;
Added sugars offer no nutritional benefit and are typically very high in calories.
You will want to increase your intake of:
Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, kale, asparagus, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, beets.
Seeds and nuts: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, almonds, cashews, walnuts
Meat, poultry, and seafood: beef, chicken, turkey, salmon, cod, halibut, shrimp, biltong
Fruits: bananas, apples, berries, oranges, mango
Whole grains: oats, rice, pasta, quinoa, granola
Starches: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams
Related Article: The Best Bulking Leg Workouts: 10 Must-Do Exercises
Benefits of Bulking
There are many benefits to bulking regardless of your fitness goals.
The main benefits are:
Increase muscle mass
Avoid hormonal dysregulation
Setting yourself up for success long-term
Increasing your muscle mass is the main goal of a bulk, and for good reason. More muscle means not only a stronger body but a stronger metabolism as well. In other words, the more muscle mass we have, the more calories we burn daily.
The more calories we burn, the more we can eat – the more calories we can eat, the easier it is for us to gain muscle!
If we are continually in a caloric deficit, it can be difficult for our hormones to function properly. This can affect our sleep, recovery, strength, ability to build muscle and burn fat (not to mention other health implications). Doing a bulk once every 1-2 years can help ensure your hormones are always functioning properly and you are able to achieve the results you want.
Lastly, after a bulk your body is in a much better position to burn fat and continue to build (or at least preserve) muscle mass. This will set you up for much more success in the long-term, particularly if your goals involve fat loss and leaning out.
Related Article: Bulking With A Fast Metabolism: How-To For Hard Gainers
When You Should Start a Bulk
There are many times at which it would be beneficial to start a bulk, and this does not only pertain to bodybuilders or other avid fitness go-ers.
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YOU ARE PLATEAUING
If we aren’t eating enough, it will be nearly impossible for us to build muscle and therefore increase our strength. If you find that you aren’t able to increase your weights in the gym, it might be time for a bulk.
As well, if you are trying to lose weight but aren’t having any success, this could mean that your hormones aren’t working properly and you should do a bulk to regulate them so that you can successfully lose body fat down the road.
Related Article: The Best Bulking Chest Workouts: 7 Must-Do Exercises
YOU ARE AGING
Adding muscle becomes even more important as we age. Around our mid-thirties, we begin to lose muscle mass and it also becomes even more difficult to lay down lean mass. Doing a bulk when we are older will help make the process of building muscle a bit easier.
YOU ARE NEW TO THE GYM
The younger our training age, the easier it is to gain muscle and strength. If you are new to the gym and lifting weights, you might want to take advantage of this and also do a bulk, so you can get the most out of these ‘beginner gains.’
Related Article: The Best Bulking Back Workouts: 8 Must-Do Exercises
What To Do After a Bulk
Typically people will bulk so that they are then in a better position to cut, as they will have more muscle mass and their metabolism will be firing.
However, you don’t want to go directly from a bulking phase to a cutting phase, because this will significantly increase the chances of losing the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build.
Instead, you’ll want to transition into a maintenance phase, which will look like a slight reduction in calories, no more than 10% of your total caloric intake at a time. The goal here is to be maintaining your weight and body composition. This should last for about 4-6 weeks before you begin to reduce your calories more and enter the cutting phase.
Even when you are ready to start your cutting phase, you’ll want to take a gradual approach to ensure you are preserving your muscle mass and not causing any hormonal dysregulation.
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When it’s time to bulk, you need to focus on your nutrition to help fuel the gains you’re trying to make in the gym. This involves setting your calories 10% above your TDEE, and then having an approximate macronutrient breakdown of 40% carbs, 25% protein, and 35% fat, or 4-7g of carbs per kg of bodyweight, 2-2.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight, and 0.5-2g of fat per kg of bodyweight.
About The Author
Maggie Morgan is a level 1 PN certified nutritionist who specializes in sport, exercise and performance nutrition, a strength training coach, and an elite level athlete. Maggie has competed in bodybuilding, and is an international-level powerlifter. Currently undertaking her Masters in Counselling Psychology, Maggie is not only able to lead others in strength and aesthetics through her personal experiences and scientific nutritional foundations but additionally by addressing the psychological and behavioral implications of exercise and nutrition. Through her writing and work with clients, Maggie works to provide information that’s responsible, rational and backed up by research, science, and fact within the health and fitness industry.