You may want to start a bulking phase to gain muscle, but you’ve heard it can cause health issues. Still, you know you need to build muscle to get the physique you desire, so you wonder if it’s true that bulking is unhealthy.
If you’re healthy, not overweight, and don’t try to gain weight too quickly, bulking can be safe. It is especially beneficial for those who are underweight or do not have much lean muscle mass. However, bulking can become an issue if it leads to disordered eating habits or body image issues such as muscle dysmorphia.
Drastic bulking methods such as dirty bulking or performance-enhancing drugs can negatively impact your health. As such, it’s essential to bulk correctly and safely.
In this article, I’ll discuss why people believe bulking is unhealthy. I’ll also discuss whether or not bulking is healthy for certain populations and how to bulk the right way to avoid negative health consequences.
Why Do Some People Say Bulking Is Unhealthy?
1. Some Fat Gain Is Inevitable
During a bulking phase, it’s inevitable that you’ll gain some fat. Due to all of the health concerns that can result from a high body fat percentage (such as an increased risk of heart disease or type 2 diabetes), many people are afraid to gain weight intentionally.
Related Article: Muscle Weight vs Fat Weight: What’s the Difference?
2. Seeing an Increase in Body Weight Can Be Scary
People get hung up on the number on the scale and think that a higher weight means they’re unhealthy. Increased body weight is especially nerve-wracking for many women since they are often told that their bodies need to be smaller to be desirable.
High body weight can be a concern if you’re morbidly obese, have a sedentary lifestyle, or have a poor diet. But if you have a healthy body fat percentage (12-15% for men and 25-28% for women), exercise consistently, and eat a healthy diet at least 80% of the time, higher body weight isn’t always a bad thing.
3. A Bigger Body Puts More Stress on Your Joints and Tendons
When weight increases, you have more mass to carry around every day. This means more stress on your joints and tendons when you exercise or move through everyday activities.
If you stay at a higher body weight for a long period after your bulk, the extra weight can increase joint pain and reduce mobility. Even if you keep up with your workouts, these issues can make exercise more difficult.
4. People Associate Bulking With Eating a Poor Diet
For some, “bulking” means eating whatever and however much you want. This is called dirty bulking and generally refers to frequently eating fatty, sugary, carb-heavy foods. Dirty bulking for too long (several months without taking a break) can lead to increased inflammation and other health issues such as high blood pressure.
However, it’s possible to bulk without relying on pizza and cheeseburgers. Prioritizing nutrient-dense foods, even when you want to gain weight intentionally, can help prevent the health issues associated with a poor diet.
Related Article: 16 Healthy Bulking Foods For Hard Gainers
5. People Believe Bulk/Cut Cycles Can Harm Your Metabolism
Many people who bulk also cycle through cutting phases to lose the fat they gained and reveal the muscle they built. Critics of these bulk/cutting cycles claim that frequently going up and down in weight can damage your metabolism.
This is true to an extent. As I mentioned earlier, high body fat percentages can lead to issues such as type 2 diabetes. Studies also show that excess body fat can cause decreased insulin sensitivity (how effectively your body can use blood sugar).
Furthermore, research shows that frequent, drastic weight fluctuations can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, a combination of conditions such as high cholesterol and heart disease that occur simultaneously.
However, it’s important to note that these issues often develop slowly over several months or years. Bulking for a short time likely won’t do significant damage, especially if most of your diet consists of whole food sources.
6. It May Lead To Disordered Eating or Body Image Issues
Some people also claim that bulking is a form of disordered eating, especially if you rotate through seemingly endless bulking and cutting cycles.
There is some truth to this. According to a study in Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, frequently cycling between bulking and cutting phases can lead to disordered eating habits.
People who constantly feel the need to bulk may also suffer from muscle dysmorphia, a condition in which they believe they are not lean or muscular enough.
Often, individuals with these conditions need professional help to work through them. But wanting to bulk does not automatically mean someone has an eating disorder or severe body image issues. It only becomes an issue if it causes major disruptions in that person’s life.
7. People Associate Bulking With Drug Use
Lastly, some believe that anyone who wants to bulk also wants to use steroids or performance-enhancing drugs. It’s how many competitive bodybuilders achieve their physiques, so people assume the only way to build muscle is to use drugs.
What many people don’t see is that these bodybuilders are also meticulous with their training and nutrition. Drugs are not the only things that help them develop their muscular physiques.
So while some individuals who want to bulk will resort to performance-enhancing drugs, you don’t need to do so to gain muscle mass. Training and nutrition are still the most important factors for building muscle.
Is Bulking Healthy?
Gaining muscle can be good for you when done safely and in a healthy way (as I’ll discuss below). It makes everyday activities easier and helps prevent sarcopenia, an age-related loss of muscle mass. Resistance training also strengthens your joints, bones, and tendons, as well as your muscles.
For underweight individuals, bulking can help them add weight to their frames. Undereating and having too low of a body fat percentage (2-5% for men and 10-13% for women) can lead to an increased risk of depression or other illnesses. Those who are underweight can prevent these issues by bulking.
Even those who are at a healthy weight can benefit from bulking. For example, someone who is skinny fat can bulk to gain a higher percentage of lean muscle tissue. Athletes who want to improve their performance can earn a competitive advantage by gaining more muscle. Even the average gym-goer can enhance their quality of life by building muscle.
That said, bulking may be harmful to individuals with a history of disordered eating or body dysmorphia (an obsession with perceived flaws in your appearance). People who have struggled with these issues but want to build muscle may want to do so under the guidance of a health professional instead of doing it on their own.
Is It Safe for Teenagers to Bulk?
Bulking in and of itself is safe for teenagers as long as they don’t work out excessively, eat too many poor-quality foods, or try to gain too much weight too quickly. The teen years are an ideal time for adding muscle because testosterone and hormone production are at their peak.
That said, instead of worrying about a traditional bulking phase where they have to track calories and monitor their weight, teenagers who want to build muscle should focus on lifting weights 4-5 days a week and consuming a balanced amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates with each meal.
Otherwise, they can develop body image issues and a poor relationship with food that can be difficult to overcome as they get older.
It’s also vital that teenagers do not follow a bulk with a drastic cutting phase. They can alter their eating preferences, such as slightly reducing portion sizes or cutting out some snacks, to induce minor weight loss if they gain too much during a bulk. However, teenagers should not attempt to lose significant amounts of weight because it may affect their growth.
How To Bulk in a Healthy Way
1. Don’t Increase Your Calories Too Much
Use a calorie calculator/BMR calculator to find your maintenance calories if you don’t already know them. These are the number of calories you can eat every day without losing or gaining weight.
Once you know your maintenance calories, add 150-200 calories to that number. A reasonable caloric increase like this will allow you to gain weight gradually and prevent a huge increase in body fat.
Another benefit of this approach is that, unless you have a very high maintenance requirement, you likely won’t need to rely on too many poor food choices to meet your daily calorie target.
Related Article: What Should Your Calories & Macros Be When Bulking?
2. Prioritize Nutrient-Dense Foods
Ensuring your meals comprise mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods during your bulk will help you get sufficient vitamins and minerals. It can also help ensure you don’t develop health conditions such as high blood pressure.
Focus on the following types of foods:
- Lean proteins (chicken, lean ground beef, low-fat dairy products, low-fat fish like shrimp and cod)
- Healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado)
- Vegetables (including greens like spinach and kale and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes)
- Whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and whole-grain pasta)
You may find it challenging to eat enough calories if all you consume is chicken, brown rice, and spinach. It’s okay to add in higher-calorie foods like fattier cuts of meat or packaged snack foods throughout the day as long as they don’t make up most of your diet.
Related Article: How To Bulk Up Fast: 10 Tips For Maximizing Muscle Growth
3. Use Supplements, But Don’t Become Dependent on Them
Supplements such as protein powder or mass gainer can help you add calories if you struggle to eat enough when bulking. However, just as you don’t want to depend on poor-quality foods for your calorie needs, you also don’t want to rely too much on supplements. It can cause you to miss essential vitamins and minerals from whole food sources.
Mass gainers can also have 1,000 calories per scoop, which can easily put you over your calorie allotment if you don’t measure carefully or consume more than one scoop a day.
Stick to 1-2 scoops of protein powder and one scoop of mass gainer per day, and eat whole food sources of protein, fats, and carbs for the rest of your meals. You’ll easily be able to get more calories in your diet, but you won’t risk eating significantly more calories than you need or becoming deficient in key nutrients.
Creatine can also help with muscle growth and is safe to take daily. In fact, it’s necessary to take it every day if you want to realize all of its benefits. The recommended dosage for best results is 5g per day.
4. Don’t Bulk for Too Long
Eating more calories and carrying some extra weight for brief periods likely won’t do a significant amount of damage. This is why it’s recommended to bulk for a short time before moving into a maintenance phase, then transition to a cutting phase to shed the extra fat.
I advise bulking for up to 12 weeks (roughly three months). After that, spend at least four weeks at maintenance before moving into a cutting phase to shed any excess fat you may have gained.
Related Article: Female Bulking Workout Plan
5. Continue Exercising Regularly
When bulking, it’s essential to do the thing that helps you build muscle — lift weights. Yes, you need to eat more to put on muscle mass. But engaging in some form of resistance training will allow you to put the extra calories toward building muscle instead of risking excess fat gain.
6. Stay Active Outside of Your Scheduled Workouts
Doing too much cardio can hinder muscle growth, but getting enough daily movement can help keep fat gain to a minimum, even when eating in a caloric surplus.
Getting 7-8k steps daily, taking a break from work every hour to walk around for a few minutes, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator are easy ways to move more during the day.
7. Don’t Put On Weight Too Quickly
To avoid health issues resulting from gaining a large amount of weight quickly, aim for a reasonable rate of weight gain. This can be anywhere from 0.5-2 lbs per week, depending on how much weight you want to gain, your current body weight and body fat percentage, and how many bulk/cut phases you’ve already done.
If you gain more than this, you’re more likely to gain excess body fat that will be harder to lose in the future.
8. Avoid Performance-Enhancing Drugs
You don’t need performance-enhancing drugs to build muscle unless you want to become the next Olympia bodybuilding champion. Misuse of steroids, human growth hormone, and other similar drugs can cause issues such as liver damage or heart attacks.
It’s safer to avoid them and instead focus on your nutrition and training routine if you want to gain a few pounds of muscle.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Bulking is not inherently dangerous. However, gaining weight too quickly, making poor food choices, and getting caught up in an endless cycle of bulking and cutting phases can negatively impact your health.
To avoid these issues, don’t bulk for longer than 12 weeks, and increase your calories by just 150-200 at a time. Continue to prioritize nutrient-dense foods, and don’t become overly reliant on supplements.
If you’re patient enough, you’ll gain muscle without harming your health.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.