Some say it’s useless, others wholeheartedly believe in its effectiveness. Bulking has been a controversial topic in the “fitness realm” for many years now. In this post, we’ll look at the evidence and theory behind bulking phases and see how you can take advantage of the benefits of a bulking phase without gaining excessive fat.
Why Eating More Works
Although there currently is a large body of evidence showing that muscle growth while losing fat is possible, it’s not the best approach for those who have been training for a while and are looking to maximize muscle gains.
To burn fat, you need to be in an energy deficit. This means you’ll have to feed your body fewer calories than it needs so it will break down internal body fat stores for energy.
This is immediately the reason why fat loss does not support muscle growth
The human body builds (protein synthesis) and breaks down (protein breakdown) muscle proteins constantly throughout the day. If the amount of muscle proteins you’ve built exceeds the number of muscle proteins you’ve broken down, you’ve built muscle. This is also known as having a “Positive Protein Balance.”
Since maintaining a positive protein balance is an energy demanding process, feeding your body less energy (measured in calories) than it needs is not the best way to support muscle growth. This helps explain why research shows protein synthesis rates drop and protein breakdown rates increase. when you are in an energy deficit.
When you’re consuming more calories than your body needs (like in a bulk), you’re ensuring that you’re not in a state of breakdown and therefore are not sabotaging your muscle-building potential.
Muscular Potential of Natural Lifters
Before we go into how many calories you need to eat to gain the max amount of muscle, it’s important to get an idea of how much muscle you can build as a natural lifter.
Several fitness researchers and top coaches have put together models which indicate how much muscle you can build a year as a natural lifter. I personally like the model of Lyle McDonald, it provides simple estimates for the muscle-building potential of natural lifters.
Lyle McDonald model:
|Years of Proper Training
|Potential Rate of Muscle Gain per Year
|20-25 pounds (2 pounds per month)
|10-12 pounds (1 pound per month)
|5-6 pounds (0.5 pounds per month)
|2-3 pounds (minimum gains per month)
This is probably very close to reality. You won’t be able to gain 40 pounds of muscle a year, that’s just not going to happen. I often see people shooting for 1 pound of weight gain per week when bulking. As you can see in the model, it’s very unlikely that you’ll build 4 pounds of muscle a month, even if someone is a “newbie” lifter.
By maintaining a diet that makes you gain an amount of weight that exceeds your muscle-gaining capabilities, you’re simply setting yourself up for unnecessary fat gain.
There’s research supporting this. Research by the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences divided 39 trained individuals into two groups. One group maintained a small calorie surplus, whereas the other group maintained a large surplus.
Obviously, the group that ate more calories gained more weight. But the extra weight gain wasn’t more muscle, it was body fat. The group that maintained a small calorie surplus, gained the same amount of muscle as the group that ate 600 calories(!) more a day.
So it’s not logical to gain 4 pounds (or more) of body weight per month if your body is capable of gaining (roughly) just 2 pounds of muscle per month at most.
Even if you don’t mind extra fat gain in the short-term, you’re still better off keeping your body fat stores low, as there’s research showing you tend to gain more fat and less muscle if you overeat while you are at a high body fat percentage. But more importantly, if you gain weight at an aggressive pace, you won’t be able to continue your bulk for long without feeling fat and having to transition into a fat loss phase
How Much You Should Eat During a Bulk
Consuming more calories than your body needs is not the hard part. A majority of the Western population is already eating at a calorie surplus without even knowing it! Most people go wrong by maintaining a calorie surplus that is way too high.
Your weight gain needs to be in line with your ”Potential Rate of Muscle Gain”, as seen in the graph above. Knowing this, you can easily estimate your caloric needs for effective muscle growth by using the ”3500-calorie rule”.
Roughly, the 3500-calorie rule indicates that a weekly calorie surplus of 3500 calories makes you gain 1 pound of bodyweight per week. This is definitely not a scientific fact, research has shown this. But it’s still a viable way to estimate caloric demands regarding weight gain/loss rates.
A calorie surplus of 200-300 calories is generally all you need
If you’re capable of gaining about 2 pounds of muscle a month at most, then you need a weekly calorie surplus of about 1750 to realize this. This is a daily calorie surplus of about 250 calories. Not only is this generally enough to maximize muscle growth, but it also minimizes fat gain.
This way of bulking sets you up for gaining lean body mass while maintaining low body fat percentages year-round, which is seen as ”impossible” by many.
If you currently do not have a good estimate of your body’s caloric needs, check out the end of this article to find tips about estimating your caloric needs.
Training During a Bulk
Like researcher Dr. Eric Helms once said:
Nutrition is only permissive, training stimulates muscle growth. – Eric Helms
What Dr. Helms means is that resistance training causes the need for muscular adaptations. Solely eating at a calorie surplus won’t build you any significant muscle. Eating at a surplus just “allows” you to make the most out of your training by supplying your body the nutrients and energy it needs to realize your muscle-building potential.
The best way to approach your training is by seeking constant progress in the gym. You will be putting more mechanical tension on your muscles over time, which will cause an adaptive response (muscle growth).
That’s why it’s commonly believed that progressive overload is the key to muscle and strength gains. This is especially true when you’re bulking. You’re feeding your body a surplus of energy, put this energy to good use by training intelligently and increasing your main lifts.
Learn More In My New eBook
If you are interested in learning more about maximizing your muscular potential, check out my new eBook “The Art & Science of Muscle Growth. This book translates the currently available scientific data about muscle growth in “Basic English”, so everyone can start implementing an evidence-based approach to training and nutrition.