To build muscle you have to put in the work, inside and outside of the gym! You have to follow a training program that aligns with your fitness goals, and has a nutrition plan as well! When it comes to gaining muscle mass, lifters start what's called a bulking phase. Bulking phase, as opposed to its counterpart, the cutting phase, involves eating in a calorie surplus in an effort to maximize muscle gain. It's a pretty simple concept, but one that many have an issue with... following a bulking diet leads to weight gain, which is expected since muscle mass is heavy. However, bulking the wrong way can lead to too much weight gain, which comes from a bigger increase in body fat than anticipated!
Fat gain is unavoidable while bulking, but being smart about your nutrition plan can make a huge difference in how much fat mass and how much muscle mass is gained! So, if you've just made the decision to enter a bulking diet in an effort to maximize serious muscle growth, then it's time to strategize – and we're going to help you! Keep on reading to learn about the two types of bulk, and how to enter and exit a bulking phase with minimal fat gain!
Lean Bulking vs Dirty Bulking
Bulking seems like a pretty simple concept, you increase the number of calories you're eating and follow a heavy weight training program, and bam, the muscle gain results start coming in! Well, there's more to it than just that, proper nutrition is a crucial part of bulking. And coincidently it's the main difference between dirty bulking and lean bulking!
A dirty bulk involves a calorie surplus, but the approach to that surplus is quite different from a lean bulk. Dirty bulking involves meeting your daily calorie needs by any means necessary to promote serious muscle mass gain. It's also paired with a strength training program to complement the adaptations. Basically, there are no foods off-limit!
Why you should lean bulk instead
A dirty bulk involves taking in an excess calorie intake by any means necessary. This means if you need an extra 500-800 calories at the end of the night, you can go for a few servings of your favorite ice cream. However, that ice cream (even the sugar-free or diet-friendly ones), is not filled with nutrients that your body could use that aid digestion, help insulin sensitivity, and help you recover from your heavy weight lifting sessions! There's no harm in indulging in a cheat meal or dessert from time to time, but doing it consistently simply because you're bulking will cause you to gain weight, but not in the way you had hoped. You'll experience a higher body fat percentage as opposed to doing a clean bulk which results in more muscle gain!
Following a clean bulk diet plan will give your body what it needs to fight inflammation and recover so you can bounce back into the gym faster and get effective results. It's like following a weight loss dieting plan, but one that involves eating more food, specifically nutrient-dense foods! However, a clean bulk doesn't have to be clean 100% of the time. You can still enjoy an occasional cheat meal or dessert, but the rules aren't as loose as it is with dirty bulking - a clean bulk won't let you eat a bowl of ice cream or a sleeve of cookies every day!
How to bulk properly
To avoid gaining excess body fat and to place a greater emphasis on muscle mass gain follow a clean bulk! To help get you started on the right track (and stay on it), follow our tips below...
Find the optimal calorie surplus
The first thing to do is find your sweet spot. This means finding the optimal calorie surplus to gain no more than 0.5-1 pound of body weight a week! This gives most an even split between muscle and fat gain, so for each pound of fat gained you'll gain a pound of muscle too.
So, how many calories should you eat to stay within that range?
The last thing you should do is increase your calories too much! A small surplus of 5-10% above your maintenance calories is enough to get you sustainable muscle growth. This essentially means that if your maintenance calories are 2,000 then you'll only need to eat an extra 100-200 calories a day - doesn't seem like that much, right? Yup, most are surprised by how small the surplus actually is! This is why many people experience too much fat gain with bulking because they eat an excessive amount of calories, and with no additional benefits because eating way over your maintenance will only lead to packing on more fat, not muscle.
To do a clean bulk, stay within a 5-10% caloric surplus, and instead of doing the math, use a macro calculator to help calculate your surplus in conjunction with other important factors like body fat, activity level, etc. You can use the Fit With Iulia Macro Calculator to find your target macros! They will give your target macros based on only the most important information, and rest assured they'll find the perfect surplus for your body type and needs.
Fill up on healthy carbs and protein
It's not all about calories! Remember, when bulking you want to prioritize nutrient-dense foods over processed junk. That said, even if you prefer a high-fat low-carb diet, eating enough healthy carbs and (like ones high in fiber) is the best way to bulk without packing on excess fat!
A high protein diet should also be obvious considering the amino acids found in quality protein sources are responsible for positive muscle-building effects, amongst other health benefits. The best part is that both foods tend to be filled with other nutrients that are essential for recovery, and they're typically dense in calories. So, prioritizing both of these macros is a great way to fill in those extra calories you'll be consuming in a way that will benefit your goal to build muscle. However, this doesn't mean you should neglect healthy fats! Adding fats to your food is a delicious, and nutrient-dense way to increase your calorie intake.
So, what kind of carbs and protein should you fill up on?
Focus on eating carbs that are high in fiber like leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, sweet potatoes, legumes, oats, quinoa, brown rice, and sprouted grains. Fruits that are considered simple carbs, like bananas and berries, make excellent muscle-recovery food, so don't neglect those!
As for protein, it depends on your dietary needs. For vegans and vegetarians, eat high protein sources that have all (or close to) amino acids. Quinoa and chia seeds are good sources since they are considered complete proteins, but other good options are, beans and legumes, seitan, tofu, tempeh, and plant-based meats. For those who don't follow a plant-based diet, fill up on animal proteins like dairy products, red meat, poultry, fatty fish, on top of other good plant-based sources to mix things up!
Supplement... but be smart about it
In a perfect world, you'd get all the important nutrients from whole foods. It's quite possible when you're in a calorie deficit for fat loss or eating at maintenance, but supplements can help increase your macro and calorie needs, while also enhancing your performance and/or recovery. However, this doesn't mean you should buy every single supplement you see. Focus on the ones that actually do as they claim and that align with what your needs and goals are. In fact, we have an article that breaks down workout supplements for you so you can get the facts on whether they do as they claim or not!
When it comes to bulking, we suggest having a protein supplement and one that helps with recovery and/or performance, like creatine or pre-workout. When it comes to a protein supplement, the most popular is protein powder. On your search for the perfect protein powder look at three things – the amino acid profile (make sure it's a complete protein), grams of protein per scoop (at least 20 grams), and added sugars. You want your protein powder to be mostly protein, meaning fewer fillers and additives and more protein! Whey protein powder is the best type for those who don't follow a dairy-free diet. It contains all amino acids and it's especially high in leucine, the most important BCAA (branched-chain amino acid) for muscle-building! For those needing a vegan protein powder, we suggest going with a blend of split pea protein powder and rice protein, it's been studied and shown to have similar effects to whey protein!
A protein supplement is a must! Now, if you want something to improve your training performance consider getting a good pre-workout that suits your needs. You can choose a non-stim pre-workout if you prefer something non-caffeinated, or get one with added creatine for an extra muscle pump. There are various types of pre-workouts to choose from just make sure to get one that is not a proprietary blend – or else you won't know how much of each ingredient you're actually consuming!
Remember, don't rely on supplements heavily and use only the ones that align with your needs and goals. These are simply suggestions, but only you know what's best for you.
Give yourself a break by calorie and carb cycling
You'd be surprised, but you might get tired of eating so much food! Even just eating an additional 200 calories a day can get tiring. Give yourself a break, and train smarter at the same time, by calorie and carb cycling. This involves eating more calories, specifically from carbohydrates, on your training days and eating fewer calories on your rest days.
Now, it doesn't necessarily matter when you eat your calories as long as you're eating the same at the end of the week. But cycling your calories and carbs can give you a break from your usual eating plan to prevent diet fatigue. And research has also shown that eating more carbs on training days led to better performance from endurance and strength athletes!
So, if you're feeling like your bulk is becoming overwhelming or you just want to optimize your workouts, adjust your macros on your rest days so that you can eat more calories and carbs when you train.
Don't neglect cardio completely
Although resistance training is the best for bulking, you shouldn't throw cardio away completely! Cardiovascular training improves your heart health, it also helps improve your endurance which can with your weight training! If you want to build lean muscle with minimal fat gain, implement at least two to three 30-minute sessions of cardio each week. But remember, you're bulking, so be smart about the type of cardio you do. HIIT, running, and sprinting, may not be the best to bulk because they could potentially lead to muscle loss (only if you're not eating sufficient calories). Stick to low to moderate intensity cardio like jogging, walking on an incline, cycling at a moderate pace, hiking, etc. Find a cardio workout you enjoy and do it, don't force yourself to do it if you don't actually enjoy it!
Build muscle the right way
The last piece of bulking advice, prioritize your recovery by taking care of yourself outside of the gym and the kitchen. What we mean by this is manage your stress levels by doing some form of self-care, and aim to get good, deep sleep every night - at least 6 to 8 hours! Deep sleep is when the muscle-building magic happens, so if you want to maximize your training and your diet then get good sleep!
Now you have the tools to get started on your bulking journey the right way! To each their own, but following a clean bulk is the best way to ensure you're building muscle as effectively as possible while maintaining good health. Once you're done bulking, go back to eating at maintenance or consider entering a cutting phase if you want to lose some of the fat that was gained.
Who are we?
We're 373 Lab Supplements – hello! Founded by Iulia Danilova (Fit With Iulia), and with a team filled with fitness enthusiasts, we've worked hard to bring a trustworthy supplement to the market! Supplements that are designed to help you achieve your fitness goals by giving you only the nutrients you need – no unnecessary fillers or additives! Whether you're bulking or cutting, or simply maintaining, we have the supplements you need to help make your journey an easier and healthier one.
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