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A beginner’s guide to bulking

First things first, let me introduce myself. My name is Jesper Rietmeijer and I’m a Nutrition Expert at Body&Fit. I’m also a certified dietician, personal trainer and online nutrition & health coach currently finishing my master’s degree in Nutrition and Health Sciences. My coaching experience, education and personal journey has allowed me to develop lots of knowledge regarding nutrition and training. Over the last 10 years, I've been putting everything I’ve learned into practice for myself and others — helping everyone achieve their unique health & fitness goals.

As winter is upon us, and it’s something people often do during this time, I’d like to talk to you about bulking. This is a term many of you will have heard — yet it can mean different things to different people. Bulking is quite a broad term in the fitness world, so in this blog I’ll be covering what it is, how you can approach it and for whom it is useful, along with some insights from my personal experiences and routine. I have been through many different cycles of bulking and tried out many different approaches. In this article I’ll go into all the top tips I’ve learned in my journey, and what I regularly put into practise.

What is bulking and how is it done?

A bulking phase is when you’re trying to gain muscle and weight by eating more calories than you burn (known as a calorie surplus). Your body can use this excess energy for anabolic events, such as building muscle tissue. Of course, paying attention to your calorie intake is hugely important in a bulking phase, as is getting an adequate amount of protein. Around 1.4-2.2 g per kg of bodyweight is considered the ideal amount to help support muscle maintenance and growth.

Another key factor to consider when bulking is progressive strength training. This is where you continuously stimulate your muscles to adapt to a certain level of resistance, through lifting weights, for example. You then increase the weight, sets or reps each time you work out. Consuming the right amount of food together with progressive strength training will result in strength and muscle gain over a period.

The different approaches to bulking

There are different approaches to bulking, including the dirty bulk, clean bulk, and main-gaining. When choosing the type of bulk that’s right for you, you should consider your goal, body genetics, and preferences.

The dirty bulk

The dirty bulk is all about eating as much as possible to gain a lot of weight and muscle in a short period of time. Many people eat less nutritious food such as fast-food during a dirty bulk — hence the name. While eating these foods may be fun during your bulking phase, the downside is that you’ll probably put on a substantial amount of body fat as well (not to mention the other things unhealthy food does to your body). Every lifestyle should allow some room for less healthy food, but we generally don’t recommend excess amounts even when bulking.

Gaining a large amount of body fat isn’t an issue for all people. Some are genetically built with a low body fat percentage and don’t gain weight and fat that quickly. For these people, a dirty bulk approach might be more suitable and favourable compared to other bulking approaches, although just because you don’t put on weight easily, doesn’t mean it’s healthy in the long run.

The clean bulk

A clean bulk also requires a calorie surplus, but in a more controlled manner.  You're conscious of both the number of calories that you eat as well as the types of food. The focus is on reaching your calorie and protein goals in a healthy way, rather than eating unhealthy foods to consume as many calories as possible. This approach allows you to keep fat gain to a minimum while still gaining muscle, which is of course a major advantage. Since you’re in a calorie surplus, you'll still gain some body fat, but it should be substantially less than in a dirty bulk.

Main-gaining to bulk

Main-gaining is eating just a few more calories than you normally would, creating a very small calorie surplus. To do so, you must be conscious about the types and amount of food you eat. You can main-gain without tracking calories, but most find it useful to track calories especially at first. The very small calorie surplus keeps the fat gain to a minimum, while it’s still possible to build muscle. The downside of this approach is that it usually takes longer to build the same amount muscle than in a dirty or clean bulk and your overall weight gain will be less. This is most apparent for people that have a hard time gaining weight and muscle. If you're satisfied with your weight and body fat percentage and simply want to build some more muscle, main-gaining is the way to go.

Bulking based on your body type

Your approach towards bulking depends largely on your body type and genetics. Body types can be broadly described by 3 different somatotypes based on physical traits. Although many people can categorise themselves into one of the three types, it’s not a one size fits all. Very often people have traits from multiple somatotypes and it’s even possible to switch from one somatotype to another. Overall, it is a good guideline for the kind of bulk you should choose. The 3 somatotypes and their preferred way of bulking are:   

Ectomorph and muscle gains

An ectomorph is also known as a ‘hard gainer’. Characterised as skinny, having a low body fat percentage, little muscle and a really hard time gaining weight. For these people it is probably best to either do a dirty or clean bulk. They can get away with consuming a lot of calories as body fat gain is not a big concern for them. They can approach their bulk aggressively. The struggle of getting in enough calories to gain muscle and weight can be real. For these ‘hard gainers’, I have some tips:

  • Try to eat frequently, around 6-8 times a day. That includes bigger meals and calorie-heavy snacks in between. The more frequently you eat, the more calories you can get in.
  • Eat calorie dense and (mostly) healthy foods. Try to eat a lot of calorific foods that still have a high nutritional value, such as nuts, seeds, oils, nut butters, pasta, avocados, salmon, mueslis, weight gainers, protein bars and muesli bars.
  • It’s okay to eat some ‘unhealthy’ foods every now and then. Candy bars, pastries or hamburgers are very calorie-dense foods that can help you reach a calorie surplus. Since these foods are less nutritious, try not to eat them too often. A good rule to follow is eating healthy 80% of the time and enjoying less healthy food 20% of the time.
  • Prep your food. Make sure you always have meals and snacks on hand. These can be fully prepped meals you cook before, or snacks like weight gainers, protein bars, muesli bars, and nuts. Thinking ahead makes it easier to stick to your calorie and protein goals.
  • Stock up on a good quality weight gainer that helps you get more calories in. Don't think of a weight gainer as a meal replacement, but rather as an addition to your diet. Otherwise, you're not adding extra calories, but simply replacing them, which will not help you reach your calorie target.

 

Mesomorph and muscle gains

Mesomorphs are characterised by a more athletic build and gaining muscle relatively easily. For these people, a clean bulk is most suitable. Although a main-gaining approach is appropriate as well if you want to minimise fat gain and are okay with a more slow and sustainable bulking approach. Since people with a mesomorph body type don't have the hardest time gaining muscle mass, an aggressive dirty bulk is unnecessary.

Endomorph and muscle gains

Also known as the ‘easy gainer’. Characterised as having a high body fat percentage, usually with good muscle tone underneath. Endomorph’s gain weight and fat easily and have a hard time dropping it. A main-gaining approach helps them to keep fat gain to a minimal, if that's their goal.

My personal bulking preference

I think of myself as an endomorph with some mesomorphic traits. I tend to gain weight, fat and muscle easily. On my journey to gain muscle and strength, I have tried all these bulking approaches and they all had their up and down sides; dirty bulking was fun, since I got to eat a lot of food, but I had to follow up with a strict cutting regime because of all the fat I gained. Clean bulking was better, but still caused me to gain some fat which got me stuck in a bulking-cutting cycle that I didn't like. Nowadays, I like to apply a main-gaining approach. I can maintain a body fat percentage that I feel comfortable with year-round, and I don't have to go through bulking and cutting endlessly.

NB: Cutting is a phase in which you're trying to lose body fat and, in turn, bodyweight by maintaining a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you consume).

What I eat in a day during a main-gaining phase:

I eat around 2800-3000 calories a day in a main-gaining phase, with 180-210 g of protein. Usually, I don't worry too much about the amount of fats and carbohydrates, but most of the calories tend to come from carbs. The proportion of my daily intake of macronutrients is roughly divided like this:

  • Proteins:                            25-30%
  • Carbohydrates:                 40-50%
  • Fats:                                  25-30%

My typical main-gaining bulking daily meal plan with snacks:

A day like this would give me the following calories and macronutrients:

  • 3020 kcal
  • 205 g of protein
  • 400 g of carbohydrates
  • 60 g of fat

 

This is an example of what I eat in a day to obtain my personal goals, which are generally building great strength and defined muscle. With the information in this blog, I hope you have the tools to start a successful bulk yourself. My colleagues and I are always happy to help you find the right products and routine for your unique goals. At Body&Fit, you can always talk to Nutrition Experts via our customer service channels. Reach out, or browse more blogs about lean bulking, the pros and cons of bulking, or food prepping. Finally, we wish you every success on your bulking journey.