Your Complete Guide to Bulking
The societal idea that dumbbells and strength-training machines should be reserved solely for gym bros and their entourages is as dead and buried as the myth that rest days are for the weak. But even though the weight room has become a sweaty haven for all, the idea of bulking up and becoming muscular AF is still thought of as a practice for wannabe Arnolds and shredded bikini bodybuilders.
In reality, bulking can be a useful strategy in your fitness journey, whether you’re a gym newbie or have hit a wall with your PRs. Here’s what you need to know about bulking, including how to bulk up the healthy way, plus diet tips and workout recommendations that will help you make major gains in the muscle department.
What Is Bulking?
Simply put, bulking involves increasing body weight and muscle mass by increasing your caloric intake and doing frequent strength training over a specific period of time, says Ryan Andrews, R.D., C.S.C.S., principal nutritionist for Precision Nutrition.
The reasons a person might want to bulk up varies, but it’s common to take up the practice to reach a specific weight for a sport, such as CrossFit, weightlifting, or bodybuilding, or—in the case some women—to build a booty, says Jaclyn Sklaver, C.N.S., C.D.N., L.D.N., founder of Athleats Nutrition. “If you want to build a butt, you are going to have to eat—you have to feed it,” she says. “And a butt doesn’t just come from doing banded workouts.”
How Bulking Works
Understanding how to bulk up requires understanding the science of muscle growth. Muscle growth is a strenuous activity on your body, and calories provide the essential energy to make the process happen. To create muscle, you need to be in an anabolic state, meaning the body has enough fuel and energy to build and repair tissues, including muscle. When you're not in a caloric surplus, you run the risk of going into a catabolic state (when your body is breaking down fat and muscle) and gluconeogenesis (when your body uses non-carbohydrate sources, like protein from your muscles, for fuel), explains Sklaver. "The more calories you eat, the more fuel you have and less of a chance to become catabolic," she says.
Plus, when you're at a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than you're burning), you can put stress on the body, which can cause the body to produce cortisol—a catabolic hormone that lowers testosterone and can be a cause for the breakdown of muscle protein, adds Sklaver. When you consume more calories, you're also consuming more nutrients that play a critical role in the muscle-building process, says Andrews. (Though it is possible to grow muscle without being at a caloric surplus, Sklaver notes that it usually only occurs in novice lifters because the stimulus of lifting is new to their body and will lead to a much slower rate of muscle growth.)
In order to turn those extra calories into muscle mass that lasts, you need to be strength training. FYI, when you strength train, you actually cause damage to your muscles; as a result, your body starts the repair and growth process of muscle known as muscle-protein synthesis, says Skalver. During this metabolic process, the hormones testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1 , a hormone that promotes bone and tissue growth and development) tell satellite cells (precursors to skeletal muscle cells) to go to the damaged muscle and to start rebuilding it with protein. "Without strength training, you will find it difficult to build or retain muscle mass," she says. (FYI, you can build muscle with bodyweight exercises, too, it just takes some more work and careful training.)
How Long Does It Take to Bulk Up?
Just like the reasons for bulking, the amount of time a bulk lasts depends on the person. If before this endeavor, you’ve never stepped foot into the weight room and are used to eating a moderate diet for your body, you might see results more quickly than a pro because these changes are completely new stimuli on your body, explains Andrews. “Introducing strength training and eating more nutrient- and calorie-dense food, the body can just start to click, and you gain weight a little bit easier than someone who’s been training really hard for a really long time and their body has already made a lot of the adaptations,” he says.
In general, though, a bulking period typically lasts around three months, which allows you to gradually gain weight (including muscle mass) *and* go up in weight at the gym, says Sklaver. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science showed that doing three full-body strength training sessions a week for eight weeks led to just a 2 lb increase of lean mass, an 11 percent increase in chest press strength, and 21 percent increase in hack squat strength. That’s why it’s essential to eat and train consistently to gain visible muscle and also to work your way up to bigger weights, she explains.
How Do You Know If You Should Try Bulking?
Bulking isn’t for everyone. Before you increase your calories and hit the gym day after day, you need to have some foundational habits in place. If your diet is super inconsistent and you’re living off of fast or processed food—not quality protein, fiber, and a variety of fruits and vegetables—consider working to create those healthy habits first, says Andrews.
“Bulking is a little bit different, and you have to go against some of your body cues sometimes where you’re eating, like continuing to eat when you feel full,” says Andrews. “So if somebody’s not in a good regulated, balanced state, it can just lead to some ups and downs and wild swings in eating.”
And if you have a history of disordered eating or are prone to it, Andrews highly recommends working with a health professional you trust to make sure you bulk safely and without any aggressive, sudden weight changes.
What Does a Bulking Diet Look Like?
The first step in how to bulk up includes looking at your nutrition. In order to make huge #gains, you need to be at a caloric surplus, meaning you’re consuming more calories than you're expending on a daily basis. And to ensure that additional energy transforms into muscle, you need to stick to a strength training program, explains Sklaver (but more on bulking workouts in a bit). For women, that means eating an additional 250 to 500 more calories every day of the bulking period, but it all depends on your metabolism. “Some women can eat 2,800 calories a day, and some bulk at just 2,200. It all depends, but you definitely have to be at a surplus,” she says. (To figure out your total daily energy expenditure—TDEE, or the number of calories you burn daily based on your height, weight, age, and activity level—before you start bulking, try an online calculator.)
To hit those new calorie goals, Andrews recommends starting with slow, simple changes rather than completely overhauling your diet. “Most people tend to do a little bit better when they just need to worry about one thing vs. their whole day and whole life being different from now on,” explains Andrews. The first step: Eating until you’re full at every meal. If you’ve finished your meal but still think you could eat a little bit more, go for it. For some people, that might be enough to start bulking up, he says.
If that doesn’t do the trick, though, start adding one more serving to your breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack. Having a sweet potato for dinner? Drop another on your plate. Chugging a protein shake after a workout? Drink an extra four ounces. Then, measure your progress and decide if you need to take a more aggressive approach, he says.
If going with the flow isn’t your jam, you can take a more methodical approach to bulking by keeping track of your calories and macros. Follow Sklaver’s simple formulas (or an online calculator like this one or this one) to learn your nutritional needs while bulking:
- Calories: Bodyweight in lbs x 14 or 15
- Protein (g): Bodyweight in lbs x 1
- Carbohydrates (g): Bodyweight in lbs x 1.5-2.0
- Fats (g): The remaining calories
But stuffing yourself with that many calories can feel like a chore (not to mention, it may feel unpleasant for you). That’s why both Sklaver and Andrews recommend eating healthy fats, such as nuts, coconut cream, grass-fed butter, and avocados because fats have double the amount of calories per gram as protein and carbs. Translation: You’ll pack in more calories with less food filling your stomach.
“If somebody eats a really big raw kale salad with a bunch of different chopped up raw vegetables, that’s a lot of food and they can feel really full, but it provides very little calories and protein overall,” says Andrews. “Compare that to a bowl of trail mix that’s full of nuts and dried fruits—something that’s more calorie-dense and protein-dense—that can be easier to eat for some people.” (Also focus on these other healthy but high-calorie foods.)
On the flip side, it’s not a free-for-all to eat all the processed and fried foods you want. You still want to follow the core principles of healthy eating—hitting your protein quota, getting a plethora of micronutrients, and making sure you’re getting enough essential fatty acids, says Sklaver. “You’re not becoming a human garbage disposal,” she says. “Heart disease is still a thing. Cholesterol is still a thing if you’re bulking.” So when you choose which fats are deserving on your plate, opt for lean cuts of meat and plant-based fats, adds Sklaver. (Related: The Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding Meal Prep and Nutrition)
With all this munching, you’ll probably notice some changes in your digestive system, including feeling full more often and having more bowel movements, says Andrews. Plus, you will likely have an easier time hitting your fiber quota and getting key micronutrients you might have been lacking previously, adds Sklaver.
When you’re bulking, Sklaver always recommends taking a protein supplement that has at least 25 grams of complete protein per serving, which is the amount needed for your body to begin using the protein to build and repair muscle, a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). If you’re using a plant-based protein supplement, Sklaver suggests supplementing with leucine, an essential amino acid that kickstarts MPS that is found in lower quantities in plant-based protein sources than in animal-based, according to a study in the journal Nutrients.
You shouldn't save your protein shake just for your post-workout routine, either. While bulking, you want to have an ample amount of protein spread throughout the day, says Sklaver. She recommends having a whey protein shake during breakfast, within 30 minutes of finishing a workout, or before bed to prevent catabolism while sleeping, an important repair process for your body (and for building muscle) that requires protein and energy, says Sklaver.
But if you forgot to pack your powder and aren't able to make an on-the-go shake, don't beat yourself up over it. "I'd rather see someone consuming evenly spaced meals throughout the day, every day, that are rich in protein, rather than prioritizing a protein shake immediately before or after workouts," says Andrews. And remember: Supplementing with protein isn't a requirement, but rather a quick and easy way to work your way to hitting your quota, says Andrews. (See: Here's How Much Protein You Should Eat Per Day)
Creatine can help you meet your swole goals, too. The supplement can help people train harder, potentially helping them gain more muscle, and can carry water into muscle cells, which can promote weight gain, says Andrews. To snag those perks, take 3 grams of creatine each day, says Sklaver.
Do You Need to See a Nutritionist When Bulking?
The short and sweet answer is definitely. Even though you can find plenty of information about bulking and nutrition (hi—right here!) on the internet, a specialist will give you personalized, accurate diet plans—and so much more. “They’re going to help you diversify your foods, hold you accountable each week, talk to you about challenges you may be having, give you new recipes, and focus them around your workout,” says Sklaver. “Some people just go in and do a bulk and think, ‘I'm just going to eat whatever I want to put weight on,’ and that’s just not the way you do it.”
What Does a Bulking Workout Routine Look Like?
Sorry, you can’t just eat more calorie-dense food and cross your fingers that you become as buff as Jessie Graff—you need to be working out and lifting heavy regularly too, says Sklaver. In this case, cardio works against you and your goals while you bulk, as the more calorie-burning cardio you do, the more food you’ll have to eat to make up for it, she explains. (Note: Cardio might not be good for bulking, but it is a crucial part of keeping your heart healthy.) While, yes, you can build muscle with bodyweight-only workouts, they aren’t the best way to meet your bulking goals. “You’re not going to want to bulk and [only] do yoga,” says Sklaver. “Then [those calories] can easily turn into fat mass rather than lean body mass.”
The types of workouts you’ll do each day depends on the amount of time you have free to spend pumping iron. If you can only carve out three days a week in your schedule to train, you’re best off doing a full-body workout every time to hit each muscle more frequently—a key step in getting your muscles to grow, says Sklaver. If you’re planning on four or more workouts a week, it’s perfectly fine to split it up and work your legs, shoulders, core, back, and so on separately—as long as you train each muscle group more than once a week. (Check out this complete guide to bodybuilding workouts and guide to creating a muscle-building workout plan.)
And there’s no easier way to see the results you’re aiming for than by following a personalized, professionally made program. Sklaver recommends meeting with a trainer who has a background in strength and conditioning or exercise science—individuals who understand the scientific principles behind muscle gain and strength training. “Just going into the gym and working out is great and all, but once you follow that plan [from a professional], that’s when you see the magic,” she says.
The magic? Stronger muscles, easier lifts, and new PRs, says Sklaver. With those changes in the gym, you might notice some changes in the body too. The number on the scale will likely go up, and your pants might be tighter around your quads or other parts of your body from the increased muscle mass. But again, the results differ from person to person, and if you’re a naturally lean person bulking, you could still be on the lean side at the end of it, she says.
Tracking Progress While Bulking
Sklaver doesn’t want bulkers to look at the scale as the be-all and end-all of the progress you’ve made, but she does recommend weighing yourself twice a month to see if you’re on track if you’re striving for a particular weight. But her go-to is taking measurements: Measure your waist, chest, hips, thighs, and arms to put an exact number to your muscle growth. And to see your total-body changes with your own eyes, take photos once or twice a month. When you look at them side by side, you’ll have a visual representation of the improvements you’re making, she says.
In the gym, make sure you write down how much weight you're lifting for each exercise every single time you train. This will help you track your progress, and most importantly, show you if you’re lifting more weight, adds Sklaver. (Related: Women Share Their Non-Scale Victories)
What Happens After You Finish Bulking?
Once you’ve hit your goals—whether it be a stronger booty or a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson-like figure—it’s time to go into a maintenance phase. If you took Andrews’ approach to bulking and made small adjustments to your diet, just take those changes out of the equation, he says. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and don’t add more food to your plate than you need (aka intuitive eating).
If you focused on your calories and macros, you’re going to want to cut back on calories to the amount you need to keep your weight steady, says Sklaver. If you gained 10 pounds, your caloric needs are going to be different than what they were before the bulk, she explains. At this point, your nutrition expert or coach can help you figure out what that new intake looks like for you. You can expect to lose some of the weight you gained when you reduce your calorie intake, and if you still stay the same weight, there could be a deeper problem at hand with your thyroid, cortisol levels, or sex hormones, says Sklaver. (Related: How to Know When You've Reached Your Goal Weight)
But if you're an elite athlete, physique model, or bodybuilder, there's another option you can take after you finish bulking: cutting. In this process, you'll reduce your caloric intake by 15 to 20 percent of your TDEE, but it depends on the specific person, their lifestyle, goals, and metabolism, says Sklaver. However, doing a cut too quickly or drastically runs the risk of muscle breakdown from gluconeogenesis, as well as increased cortisol and potentially lower testosterone levels, says Sklaver. "It's a tricky process that can lead to negative repercussions, both physical and mental," adds Andrews.
That's why he recommends doing a more gradual version of a cut with the help of a trained health professional or dietitian if you're dead set on doing it. And if you don't have a specific goal or deadline, Sklaver recommends going to maintenance calories after bulking to reduce these risks. So as you complete this final step, you'll finally see the defined results of your months of hard work—a stronger and badass body (not that you weren't badass every step of the way).