Bulking and cutting is a widely popular and effective way to build lean muscle mass year after year.
Over the years nutrition science has evolved, with concepts like clean bulking and high carb bulking rising to the top of the conversation. While many lifters are shifting to these newer forms, beginner and even seasoned bulking pros still eating whatever and whenever they want. But, is this the BEST way to bulk for long term-success?
Can you eat anything while bulking? It is recommended that you do not just eat anything you want, and as much as you want, during a bulking phase. This is because it could lead to excessive weight gain and make the body fat cutting phase much more difficult in the future.
The goal of bulking is to systematically increase caloric surplus over the course of days, weeks, and months to allow for healthy weight gain to fuel hard training, recovery, and minimize body fat gains. While you still will gain some body fat, when done properly, a (clean) bulk with clear guidelines can make the cutting phase much easier.
In this article, we will discuss the concepts of clean bulking, energy balance vs surplus, macronutrient counting, and helpful bulking guidelines to stick to when looking to maximize your bulking plan.
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Eat Anything You Want While Bulking?
You could, yes.
But should you? No.
Bulking correctly takes planning and a firm understanding of how foods are used in the body to fuel hard training, recovery, and muscle accretion (building). Just like you wouldn’t fill a sports car with low quality gas, you don’t want to just eat anything while you bulk.
Clean bulking entails that you eat high quality, nutrient dense foods as much as possible, while mixing in more calorically dense (and often lower nutrient dense foods) to place yourself in a caloric surplus to allow for slow and steady weight gain.
When clean bulking, you want to focus on gaining weight in a slow and steady manner to minimize excessive body fat increases during this time. This is done by monitoring the rate of weight gain and adjusting macronutrients on a weekly basis.
If you struggle with eating all the calories you need for bulking, check out my article on How To Bulk With A Low Appetite.
In the below video, I discuss how to set up a clean bulking diet plan and how to monitor your progress weekly to maximize lean muscle growth and minimize body fat increases over time.
Related Article: Foods to Avoid When Building Muscle
Calories vs Macros: What’s More Important While Bulking?
Weight gain occurs when you are consuming more calories than the sum expenditures from daily life, resting, and training.
While you can certainly eat whatever you want and gain weight (assuming you are in a caloric surplus), the types of foods (macronutrients) you consume can and will impact your lean muscle growth, fat gain, and performance.
Below, we will take a quick look at the macronutrients and how you can use each during a bulking cycle. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, read our article on Calories And Macros For Bulking.
Protein is a critical macronutrient responsible for muscle recovery and growth, and is a key structural component of cells and hormones within the body.
Protein is not the preferred source of energy for hard training (carbohydrates are), however can be metabolized if sufficient carbohydrates or fats are not available.
It is recommended that you consume approximately 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight daily to preserve or increase lean muscle mass.
Related: Check out our article on the 7 Best Breakfast Ideas (With Calorie Breakdown).
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for hard training, heavy lifting (the brain and nervous system functions almost entirely off of carbohydrates), and recovery.
During the bulking process, carbohydrates are often consumed in greater proportions than most other macronutrients to allow for maximal output during training sessions and increase recovery.
Generally speaking, most individuals will consume 2-5 grams of carbohydrates per pound per day throughout a bulking cycle.
Related Article: Female Bulking Workout Plan (Complete Guide)
Fats can be a useful source of calories in a bulking process since they are over double the amount of calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates (9 calories per gram of fat versus 4 calories per gram of protein or carbohydrate).
What that means is that you can eat less volume of food and consume the same if not more calories in the same sitting than if you were to fill up on carbohydrates for example.
This is helpful for individuals who have issues consuming large amounts of food or are not gaining weight as effectively as they could. In most bulking cycles, the amount of fat you consume is determined after you determine your protein and carbohydrate needs (as these are critical to muscle growth and recovery).
You can use fat intake to increase caloric consumption at times when you find it difficult to eat enough.
What Foods Shouldn’t You Eat While Bulking?
One of the great things about bulking is that you have much more flexibility in your diet than any other time of the year.
That said, you can get away with eating higher fat, higher calorie foods as that is the entire goal of the bulk… to consume more calories than you expend to promote weight gain.
It is important to remember that feeding your body with nutrient dense, highly digestible foods is also beneficial during this time, so make sure to consume most of your calories from some of the food sources below.
Related Article: The Best Bulking Leg Workouts: 10 Must-Do Exercises
What Are The Best Foods For Bulking?
During a bulk, the first and most important variable one must pay attention to is overall caloric intake. Without consuming more calories than you expend, you will not gain weight. Period.
That said, you can and should focus on eating foods that still provide nutrients to fuel your hard training, muscle recovery, and muscle building efforts. There are instances where you can eat lower “nutrient quality” foods to help increase your calorie intake (especially important for those with low appetites or fast metabolisms). However the vast majority of your diet should come from foods that your body can use more readily and also digest at more effective levels.
Below, we will provide a short list of foods that should make up most of your go to bulking calories. If you’re interested in learning more about the healthy bulking foods, then check out our article on 16 H
ealthy Bulking Foods For Hard Gainers.
Note: that individuals differences may occur based on taste profile, food allergies, eating beliefs, and availability. If you are unsure if you should eat one of the foods below based on your health, please consult your doctor or health professional.
Related Article: 16 Healthy Bulking Foods For Hard Gainers (With Meal Plan)
Below is a brief list of lean protein sources for bulking diets. You can also use higher fat options sparingly to increase overall caloric intake.
Eggs (whole or egg whites)
Chicken (white or dark meat)
85/15 Beef, or leaner
Pork Loins, Roasts, and Chops
As discussed above, carbohydrates should be a key component of a bulking diet. Increasing calories from carbohydrates allows for hard training to take place, enhanced recovery, and improved protein synthesis (especially when paired with protein after workouts).
Potatoes (White or Sweet)
Fruit Juices (if you are struggling to hit calories or carbohydrate macros)
Fats should be consumed on a needed basis, often to increase overall calories intake. Below are a few fat sources that can be used when on a bulking diet. It is important to note that fats should not overpower carbohydrate or protein consumption during a bulking process, since most hard training and recovery news require carbohydrate and protein. While it is true your body can metabolize fats for energy, its preferred source of energy for hard strenuous training and recovery is carbohydrates.
Fats in Meats
Nuts and Seeds
Related Article: Bulking With A Fast Metabolism: How-To For Hard Gainers
Eating Frequency When Bulking
Eating 5+ meals a day is often required for more serious bulks (such as the one I am currently doing, which has me eating 5000 calories per day, and soon to be more).
Eating more frequently allows you to space out your eating so that you are not left to consume thousands of calories at one sitting, which can cause digestion problems, low energy, and poor food absorption.
Individual schedules and macronutrient amounts will vary person to person, however aim for eating at least five, if not more, meals per day.
Bulking Tip – Incorporating liquid calories such as shakes and carbohydrate powders can go a long way in increasing caloric intake while minimizing bloat and digestion issues.
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How Much Weight Can You Expect To Gain
When bulking, it is best to monitor your rate of weight gain and body fat increases to maintain some sense of control during this period.
People can put on too much body fat and body mass too fast, resulting in blunted hormonal responses to training (not putting on enough muscle as they could have otherwise) while also increasing the proportions of fat mass to lean muscle.
This only makes the cutting process more difficult, and can often lead to increased body fat levels over the course of multiple bulking and cutting cycles.
Not to mention, rapid weight gain can often have internal health adverse effects as well, which makes it ever more important to focus on nutrient dense foods and proper rate of gains.
Related Article: Should You Do Fasted Cardio When Bulking?
RATE OF GAIN
Generally speaking, most individuals can look to gain 0.5-0.75lbs of body weight per week.
Leaner individuals will often fall towards the lower end of that range. Anything greater than .75-1lb per week often suggests that most of the weight you are gaining is body fat rather than lean muscle mass, as muscle can only grow so quickly.
Therefore, if you are within those ranges, odds are your bulking diet is working. If you fall above or below those norms, you should reassess your diet for the next week.
Related Article: Bulking After A Long Cut: 8 Tips For A Successful Bulk
OPTIMAL BODY FAT RANGES FOR MUSCLE GROWTH
The cold hard truth about bulking is that you will gain some body fat in the process. Increasing lean muscle mass, especially for leaner individuals, often means gaining fat in the process.
For most individuals who are under 10% body fat, this means they will gain a few pounds of fat during the bulk, with body fat levels going upwards of 15%. When body fat levels go above 15%, it might be a good idea to maintain weight and either enter a mini cut or end the bulk.
For individuals who are bulking above 15% bodyfat, it is often suggested that they actually decrease body fat first to educate their body on how to burn fat and build muscle. When body fat levels are above 15%, the body becomes better at storing fat, which isn’t ideal when it comes time to cut.
Using the 10-15% body fat range is just one way to help plan the length of your bulking cycle.
Related Article: Should You Bulk or Cut First If You’re Skinny Fat?
SPEEDING UP OR SLOWING DOWN WEIGHT GAIN
If you are gaining weight too slowly, the most important thing to do is to eat more calories. Where those calories come from can be an increase in carbohydrates (70-100g more per day for the next week) or fat, or both. It is recommended that you increase calories by 5-10% every week until you find yourself within the adequate ranges of weight gain.
If you find yourself gaining weight too rapidly, try decreasing your calorie intake by 5-10% to see if you can slow that rate of gain down. This will help keep you on track for a longer, and less body fat filled bulk cycle; and set you up for a smoother transition into a cutting phase.
Related Article: How To Bulk Up Fast: 10 Tips For Maximizing Muscle Growth
The most important thing to remember when bulking is that you need to consume more calories than you expend to gain weight. That said, increasing weight gain by eating anything in sight, while effective, may also lead to higher proportions of body fat being gained when compared to a diet plan that follows a clean bulking process. Using the above guidelines, food recommendations, and tracking tools, hardgainers and seasoned bulkers alike should be able to customize their nutrition programs to suit their individual needs.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.