How to Bulk Up for Beginners

What is Bulking?

Someone who is bulking is purposely eating more calories than they need to gain size and strength. Progressive, intense training breaks down you muscles and drives positive adaptations via eu-stressors.

But the only way to continue to gain muscle is to be in a calorie surplus, as the excess calories (specifically protein and carbohydrates) allow your body to recover faster and more efficiently.

This aids muscular hypertrophy and the excess calories help prevent overtraining. Typically people bulk over the Winter months as you will gain some additional fat, which isn’t ideal for beach season.

Shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold getting into it

Should I Bulk or Cut?

If you’re looking to gain size and strength, you’d want to bulk as you need to be in a calorie surplus. If you’re looking to reduce your body fat and lose weight whilst maintaining muscle mass then you should cut because you need to be in a caloric deficit.

It’s impossible to gain muscle in a calorie deficit (unless you’re a true beginner) and it’s much easier to get stronger when you’re in a calorie surplus, because your body has more fuel to burn.

Traditional bulking plays a key role in getting bigger and stronger for the average man, but it will increase your body fat percentage.

In terms of quality of calories it absolutely does make a difference, but that difference is completely individual. There will be those of you who perform better on a high carb, high protein, low fat split.

Some that find low carb, high fat, high protein diets promote better digestion and allow them to lift more weight, run faster, swim for longer etc. And that’s not even taking into account specific diets like:

  • Vegan
  • Ketogenic
  • Atkins
  • Carb Backloading
  • Caveman

What I think is important is that you do it in as enjoyable a way as possible. For those of you who have never bulked before, bulking is fun for a month or so, then it becomes a bit more of a chore.

So you need to find the simplest, most cost-effective bulking method for you and your schedule. I like 4 sizable meals of around 750-1000 calories each because that means I only have to think about food maximum of 6 times a day. Topped up with 2 snacks if needed.

Meal prep fit for a king
Meal prepping like a champion

Now Read: How to Start Powerlifting

Bulking vs Cutting

In simplest form, bulking just means eating enough to be a calorie surplus (typically around 500 calories above maintenance) whilst training.

The added calories over your nutritional maintenance allow you to train harder, lift more weight and gain more muscle given the excess in fuel and nutrients.

Dirty bulking is a fairly recent phenomena and obviously started when someone wanted a good excuse to eat more greasy foods, hence the name ‘dirty bulk.’

And rather than eating a normal diet (70-80% ‘clean’ as I suspect most of us here do), you supplement the excessive calories with more calorie dense options.

This is definitely an easier way to get calories in than eating another meal of chicken, rice and vegetables, but in my opinion dirty bulks cause more problems than they solve:

  1. Toilet Trouble: Your digestive system isn’t used to higher fat, lower quality foods consistently and obviously the more you eat the more you need to use the toilet.
  2. Higher Fat Gain: In my early years of bulking, I would just eat greasier food and pass it off as bulking without paying attention to input vs output of calories. You don’t need to eat far over your maintenance calories to gain muscle and there’s only so much muscle you can gain off steroids. So excessive eating = meaningless fat gain.
  3. Food Stagnation: When you’ve been bulking for a significant period of time, food loses it’s allure. What you once would’ve killed for is now mundane. Burgers and milkshakes don’t cut the proverbial mustard and you either crave even greasier things or lose interest. Either way keep treats for treats.

Cutting is the exact opposite. To be in a cut, you need to be at below maintenance calories for an elongated period of time with the sole purpose of losing body fat.

This beginners guide to cutting should help you understand.

Typically you’re around 10-25% under your maintenance calories over a 6 – 12 week period, starting around 10% under and employing incremental increases every week to consistently drop 1-2lbs of body fat a week.

To ensure you don’t lose muscle mass when you’re cutting you need to keep you protein intake sufficiently high, usually around 0.8g / gram of bodyweight.  The quality of protein is always talked about, but as a meat eating, dairy lover I don’t find it difficult to get enough quality protein. Although it is expensive. But that’s not something you need to worry about in a calorie deficit.

So how can I Gain Muscle effectively?

For starters (excuse the pun), you need to be in a calorie surplus. It’s almost impossible to gain muscle without gaining some fat unless you’re an absolute beginner or your entire life is centred around working out. And that’s not what we encourage. Working out should improve your life, not take over it.

If you’re a beginner and unsure which one to try first here’s a rough guide to each:

Bulking: If you’re an ectormorph (skinnier fella) or someone who struggles with their more slender physique, then eating 10 – 20% above maintenance can help you gain muscle. If you need to gain weight for sport or your own mental wellbeing, then bulking is for you.

Maintenance: If you’re happy with the way you look and don’t necessarily want to gain size and / or weight, but would like to steadily gain strength in the long-term without getting much larger, eating around (or just above) maintenance is ideal.

Cutting: Typically for endomorphs (larger fella) you’d want to cut to begin with. You need some muscle for cuts to be effective, but it’s easier to gain muscle than lose fat for most of us so typically you’ll benefit from cutting back to begin with.

So bulking, cutting or maintaining are your three most viable options. If you’ve decided you want to gain muscle, then chances are you are thinking about bulking. Then you need to establish what program or workout protocol you’re going to run and how much to eat – this is where counting calories comes in.

Do you need to to Count Calories when Bulking and Cutting?

You need to count calories because you need to understand what a calorie is. It’s more important when you’re trying to stay in a calorie deficit that you track your calories because there’s not much margin for error.

But when you’re trying to gain weight you need to make sure you’re in an appropriate calorie surplus. Otherwise you won’t gain weight.

I’m not saying you need to count calories for ever, or even everyday. I personally find it very restricting and it negatively impacts on the rest of my life. But if you don’t know what 200g of sweet potato or 2 servings of oats looks like, then knowing how much you’re eating is almost impossible.

I would recommend either counting calories for 5 days a week and giving yourself the weekend off. Or counting calories for 2 weeks and having a week off. I find doing it consistently causes me to over obsess and lose focus. It’s there to help you achieve your goals and if you’re bulking you just need to be in a rough ballpark.

Then workout your ideal macros…

Optimal Macro Breakdown

If you spend a couple of weeks tracking what you currently eat, figure out what your current macros are roughly. I typically like to stick to something like the below for maintenance:

  • 45% Carbs: 335-340g – 1350 calories
  • 30% Protein: 225g – 900 calories
  • 25% Fat: 83g – 750 calories
Pie chart of macronutrient breakdown when trying to bulk
The ideal bulking macro breakdown

You also need to know that protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates as they take longer to be fully digested. Quicker acting, lower quality carbohydrates like high sugar drinks, chocolate bars or certain fruits that have high fructose levels take almost no time to be digested and burn out much quicker.

Hence the popularity of lower carbohydrate diets in the mainstream media.

But fat is 9 calories per gram (the densest caloric substance possible) and carbohydrates and proteins are only 4 calories per gram. Hence protein’s popularity with the masses. It’s lower calorie and more satiating. 

There’s no absolute guide to how much you should eat, but typically aiming for around 15kcal/lb of bodyweight is around maintenance. So for a 200lb man, that’s around 3,000 calories a day to remain at that level.

If you’re looking to bulk as a 200lb man, add 500 calories a day to begin with and see how that works.

Eating more than that will probably make you gain excess fat that might ruin your leverages when deadlifting or squatting. Take it slow and steady and add around 50 calories per week after the first two weeks. 

My Top Tips for Gaining Muscle in a Bulk

1. Good quality food: Protein quality matters. Whey is a great source of protein but it doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids you need, so don’t have it every meal.

  • Lower quality meat and fish (i.e. pre cooked & store bought) is fine, but you’d be better served in terms of recovery and growth with better quality produce.

2. Don’t overdo it: Compound lifts are very taxing on your body’s CNS. If you’re a beginner or not accustomed to deadlifting and squatting consistently, then you’re going to push yourself too hard at some stage.

3. Consistency wins: Overall volume is king. Trying to go to the gym everyday or twice a day isn’t a long-term solution and allows no time for recovery which is when your muscles repair themselves.

4. Meal prep: Food gets tiring after a while bulking and you need to consistently hit your macros goals. I’m not saying do it everyday or even every meal of the day, but it makes your life much easier if you have a protein shake and one meal prepared per day at work (or school).

5. Snacks: I love to snack. Who the hell doesn’t? But snacking is a great way to grab some additional calories if you struggle to hit your macro goals each day. If you find it hard to eat more fat, some nuts, seeds and dried fruit are a great snack.

  • As is trail mix or pre-cooked quorn sausages. If you love pulsin bars or particular smoothies, then have them. All I would say is eat what you love.

6. Compound movements: Deadlifts, squats and heavy presses (especially the bench press) have always built better thickness than any higher rep movements.

  • Compound lifts are definitely taxing, but they utilise more muscles with heavier weight that stimulates myofibrillar hypertrophy.
  • That type of hypertrophy increases the size of muscle fibres and the number of them You don’t have to squat and deadlift, but your physique will be far more limited if you don’t.

7. Hypertrophy: Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is typically associated with bodybuilding style workouts. High rep, lung busting sets that increase the volume of fluid in the cells – positively impacting the muscle’s glycogen storage and temporarily causing an increase in the cell size.

  • That’s ‘the pump.’ These higher rep sets increase muscular endurance, size in the long-term, muscle quality and reduce the risk of injury.

8. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid): Sorry to use a business acronym but don’t be on e of those guys that does 15 different exercises each session.

  • You should have a core number of exercises for muscle groups that you stick to consistently.
  • Progress is quite boring and the better you get the more boring it can be.
  • But testing your 1RM or seeing how much size you’ve put on can make it all worthwhile. Or not if you’ve done a pisspoor job.
Powerlifter in a red vest deadlifting towards the end of his training cycle with greater specificity and weight
Compound movements like deadlifts rock for bulking

How to Bulk if you’re Skinny or a Hardgainer

As a hardgainer the chances are you’re young with a relatively fast metabolism but little muscle or proficiency in weight training. At the most basic level your calories in need to be greater than your calories out.

The same principle applies if you find it hard to gain muscle mass. You’re not eating enough or training hard enough. It really is as simple as that.

But there’s no doubt it’s easier for some to gain weight than others. I am an endomorph. I find it easy to gain weight and keep it on. Both muscle and fat. I think 95% of people would rather be skinnier to begin with with a faster metabolism, so count yourself lucky.

But you still want to gain muscle, so here are my top tips for bulking if you’re skinny or a hardgainer:

1. Eat more: This sounds so stupid, but if you’re finding it hard to gain weight then you need to eat more calories.

  • You might think you’re eating enough, but if you’re not gaining weight then you need to up your calories – hence why calorie counting and having a base understanding of how many calories are in x is important.
  • If you only eat 4 meals, add another one. It’s really that simple.

2. Eat higher calorie foods: Fat has 2.25 x more calories than carbohydrates and protein. If you struggle with getting calories in, then nuts, nut butters, avocados and oily fish are great go-to snacks or additions to meals.

  • Fast acting carbohydrates like cereal and higher fat milk provide potentially high calories snacks that your body absorbs quickly.
  • I personally like high fat greek yoghurt, dark chocolate, fruit, nut butter and honey as a snack when bulking as that can be an easy 1000 calories.

3. Snack: If you already eat 4 or 5 meals a day and don’t want to add more in, I hear you. I don’t either. So I snack. Add in a mid morning and mid afternoon snack or one before you go to bed.

  • Like the above I love cereal, fruits, high fat greek yoghurts, protein bars (as long as they’re not disgusting and I highly recommend pulsin) and smoothies because they’re easy and effective.

4. Liquids: Like smoothies, liquid calories are easy to get in. You can make a 1000 calorie smoothie or shake in a few minutes and it basically won’t fill you up for more than an hour or two.

5. Protein: You should aim for 0.8g / gram of bodyweight and I would say that’s more important when cutting because you’re going to get a lot of protein if you’re bulking and carbs and fats are more effective energy sources.

  • If you struggle with that amount (like I do), then definitely use protein shakes to supplement because the quality of protein is still very high.

Now Read: The Best Supplements for Weightlifting

6. Use compound movements: Compound movements force you to utilise more muscles than any other lifts. You need to press, deadlift and squat heavy to fire up your metabolism and increase your hunger. Bicep curls and chest flies for me don’t give that thickness that you’re looking for. And they definitely don’t make you want to eat like deadlifts do.

7. Set goals: Not just for your lifts, but for your weight. Take progress pictures every week or 2 so you can see how far you’ve come. Nothing is more powerful than tangible progress. Evidence that you’re on the right track is motivation to do more. You want to deadlift 200kg? Great, the more muscle you gain the easier that becomes. So have a goal weight for yourself and the bar.

How to Bulk without getting Fat?

You can definitely bulk without getting fat and I would advise it. You’ll put on a little weight, and so you should. Your abs won’t show much (if at all), but it’s a much easier way to enjoy your life and not obsessing over calorie tracking.

Old school bulking dieters (GOMAD – Gallon Of Milk A Day for example) believed that any calorie was useful as it would benefit their recovery. Which it would technically – the more the better.

Pouring milk from a jug to a glass
You will literally GOMAD. Milk’s not that great.

But the new school of thought tends to be eating above maintenance, but not by much and upping it slowly week by week. Almost like reverse dieting but for bulking.

I would follow the below steps in order to ‘clean bulk:’

1. Calculate your maintenance calories: Use the steps above to work out roughly what your maintenance. 16kcal / lb of bodyweight.

  • Then add around 15% on top of that to start with, ensuring it’s in a macro split (carbs, proteins and fats) that your body digests with well and allows you to perform.
  • So a 200lb man with a maintenance of 3200 calories would have a beginning calorie allowance of 3680.

2. Create a rough meal plan: I don’t mean eat the same thing over and over again. But think about your macros and protein intake. What’s the easiest and tastiest way to get in enough calories throughout the day.

  • I like to have three main meals and three snacks. Snacks I can eat on the go and three larger meals mean I enjoy my food.
  • But above all I’m a fan of simplicity, so shakes, on the go snacks and simple meals play a big part in my life.

3. Enjoy your food: Don’t just eat junk food. There’s no problem with having one or two meals a week where you eat unadulterated rubbish.

4. Adapt your calories and foodstuffs: You may find that the programmed calories are too little to gain muscle or too much and you end up gaining excess fat.

  • Be intelligent and adjust your calorie intake and type of food.
  • If you find that excess pasta, white bread and starchy carbs interfere with your digestion, swap the carb types out for wholemeal variations or vegetable focused ones.

How to Bulk Cheaply?

You need to plan your meals. If you’re a student or recently started work, chances are you won’t have much money available, but you need to eat enough calories. So bulk buy good value food at the beginning of each week and have an eye on what you’re going to cook.

Eggs frying gloriously on a flat top
Eggs are a brilliant source of protein for bulking

The best value foods for clean (ish) bulking are as follows:

  • Eggs: Great value and an incredibly high quality protein source. A whole egg is typically 6-7g of protein and 5 of fat.
  • Whey Protein: If you find a deal, then good quality whey protein is arguably the best value way to get high quality protein. Even if it isn’t a complete source of protein. 
  • Tuna: Tins of tuna can be as low as 50p a tin in the UK and have over 20g protein per 100g. As they’re such low fat I usually add mayonnaise (insert condiment of choice) to increase the calories.
  • Greek Yoghurt: I’m a faje man. £2 for 500g of yoghurt which has 50g of protain and up to 25g of fat is exceptional. Add some chocolate, dried fruits and nut butters for what we in the business call ‘a paste.’
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Oats: Slow release energy that you can make as porridge, bars, overnight oats. A great sweet alternative that’s cheap as chips.
  • Cottage Cheese: Not really a fan, but high protein and very good value.
  • Turkey Mince: I love turkey thigh mince. Usually 7% fat and about 20-25% protein, it’s better value than beef and frankly supermarket quality beef is disgusting. So turkey’s my man all year round.
  • Nuts, beans and legumes: Now nuts and plant based protein sources aren’t complete proteins and aren’t digested anywhere near as well as meat or dairy based protein sources. But everyone loves nut butters.
  • Bacon Medallions: High protein, £2 a pack and low fat, which means you can use whole eggs all the time.

Should I do cardio when Bulking?

I think you should always do cardio. The health benefits are so prominent and it clears the mind:

I could go on. But feeling (and being) fit is a great feeling and it does translate to weightlifting when executed properly.

You can use it as a recovery tool to increase blood flow to affected muscle groups and increase the amount of nutrients and oxygen they get. Or you could use conditioning as a way to improve your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume). I like to use both – I always cycle to work and it’s a sort of hobby. And I’ll always add in some conditioning a couple of times a week.

If you do add some in, remember to up your calories accordingly. 200 calories of conditioning requires an additional 200 calories on top of your bulk if you’re looking to gain weight.

How to Bulk without Weights

If you really don’t have access to any weights then it’s definitely going to be more difficult.

Upper body is still fairly easy as you can do all sorts of bodyweight exercises – push up and pull up variations, bodyweight dips and handstand push ups form a pretty solid upper body foundation.

But lower body is another story…

Outside of pistol squats I’m not confident in suggesting what the best lower body bodyweight exercises are. I don’t see how you could create enough stress in a reasonable tie period outside of cramming in volume on bodyweight squat variations.

But the best advice I can give for bulking without weights is to cram in volume, as you simply won’t stimulate growth with heavy enough weight after a while.

But it’s a fantastic base to build from. But I would recommend lower calories than if you were performing compound movements as it’s simply not as stressful.

Can you Bulk and Cut at the same time?

This is a ridiculous question I get asked. No. Obviously not. They’re literally the exact opposites. One requires a calorie deficit and the other a calories surplus. As a beginner you can gain muscle and get leaner at the same time purely because your body isn’t used to the additional stress and you gain muscle quickly.

But pick one and stick with it the full way through. If you’re bulking you should be doing so for at least 20 weeks if you’re serious about it. If you cut I never go past about 8 weeks because I don’t have the patience or drive anymore, but anywhere up to 12 weeks is fine.

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