Bulking The complete guide

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To build muscle, your body must have sufficient building blocks and energy. That means you have to eat enough. But how much is ‘enough’?

Key points:

1.   To build muscle, your body needs protein and energy. Therefore most natural bodybuilders, except for beginners and returners, need to create a small calorie surplus in order to grow. This is what we call bulking, even though it certainly doesn’t mean you have to overeat.

2.   Because your body can only build a limited amount of muscle mass in a certain time, you should limit the calorie surplus during the bulk. Calories that you eat in excess are stored as fat.

3.   Nevertheless, it is almost inevitable that, in addition to muscle growth, there will also be some increase in fat mass. You can cancel that later by cutting.

4.   In most situations a calorie surplus of 10-15% of the maintenance level is sufficient. Advanced users may want to go even a little lower. With such a relatively small calorie surplus, you can build muscle almost as much as possible, while keeping the increase in fat mass to a minimum.

5.   Metabolic adjustments can sometimes increase your maintenance level once you enter a calorie surplus. As a result, you have to go even higher with your calorie intake, even though the calorie surplus actually remains the same.

6.   You can never know exactly what your maintenance level is, how many calories you exactly burn with strength training and which calorie surplus is optimal for you. Therefore, keep a close eye on the scale and adjust your calorie intake if you gain too much or too little. With a surplus of 10-15% you should gain ~0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week.

7.   Some consciously opt for a slightly larger calorie surplus. As a result, the fat mass will increase faster, which could be beneficial for strength performance and recovery. But an excessively high fat percentage is actually disadvantageous. In addition, you will have to cut much longer after the bulk, after which the question is whether you have built up muscle mass faster on balance.

8.   In addition to sufficient calories, you also need the right macronutrient ratio for muscle growth. That mainly means eating enough protein: 1.6 to 2 g per kg of body weight per day. In addition, you eat 1 to 1.5 g of fat per kg of body weight daily. The rest are carbohydrates, your main source of energy during exercise.

CONTENT


WHY BULK AND CUT?

Bodybuilders often talk about bulking and cutting. And sometimes about body recomposition. To explain these terms from weightlifting jargon, let’s look at the role of diet in muscle building.

PROTEIN

Proteins are the building blocks of your muscles. Bodybuilders therefore have to ingest them in much larger amounts than ordinary mortals. For optimal muscle building , a scientific recommendation of 1.6-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day applies xliii ] .

In summary:
To be able to build muscle optimally, you need to get enough building materials, namely proteins. Aim for 1,6-2 g/kg/day.

ENERGY

In addition to proteins (building blocks), your body also needs energy for the process of muscle building.

It is an old misconception that you always need a calorie surplus for muscle growth. Muscle building and fat loss are two separate processes and in theory they can happen at the same time. So you can even build muscle mass with a calorie deficit, albeit that in practice it only works well in specific cases:

  • If the strength training provides such a strong growth stimulus that less anabolic support from food is needed – for example in beginners, returners or people who start a decent training program after years of ineffective training;
  • With a high fat percentage (> 20%). In that case, the body can extract energy for muscle growth from the fat reserves.

In the above situations, and certainly in a combination of the two, it is therefore possible to simultaneously build muscle mass and lose fat mass for a longer period of time. This is also called body recomposition, the holy grail of natural bodybuilding.

Although in theory body recomposition is also possible with more advanced bodybuilders, it is difficult to achieve in practice. After the initial phase of a bodybuilding career, where you can already ‘grab’ about 2/3 of your total muscle growth potential, building muscle becomes increasingly difficult. If you also apply a calorie deficit, you will probably make muscle growth virtually impossible. Eating slightly above your maintenance level can provide your body with the calories it needs to facilitate muscle building xliv ] . Read in this article how you can accurately calculate that maintenance level.

Building muscle over a longer period of time with a calorie surplus is called bulking.

In summary:
To build muscle optimally, a calorie surplus is usually required: you have to eat more calories than you need for your daily activities (bulking). Only beginners, returners and people who are very overweight can build muscle in a calorie deficit and thus lose fat at the same time (body recomposition).

NUTRIENT PARTIONING

Okay, you’re going to have a calorie surplus. Unfortunately, in practice it is impossible to eat exactly as many extra calories every day as is necessary for maximum muscle mass building. If you eat too little, you will not achieve maximum gains. If you eat too much, the extra calories are inexorably stored as fat.

This is based on the process of nutrient partioning: your body can either use a surplus of nutrients for muscle building (proteins as building blocks, carbohydrates and fats as fuel) or store it as body fat. When all the calories needed for muscle growth have been used, the rest end up in your fat reserves.

In practice, in addition to muscle mass, you will usually also gain some fat mass when you are bulking, or you already have to handle a very limited (and therefore possibly insufficient) calorie surplus. The natural bodybuilder clearly differs in this from the steroids user, who can build muscle mass very fast and at the same time remain very lean.

In summary:
Nutrient partioning is the process by which your body either stores excess calories as fat or uses it to build muscle mass.

THE P RATIO

The extent to which your body uses nutrients for muscle building or stores it as fat is also expressed in the P-ratio (partitioning ratio). That is simply the rate at which the body gains protein relative to the total weight gain.

The P-ratio depends, among other things, on the amount of stimuli from strength training: the greater these are, the more reason there is logically to use energy for muscle protein synthesis , the process that underlies muscle repair and building. In addition, the level of calorie intake and the distribution of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) are important. The timing  of nutrition and meal frequency may also play a (small) role.

Finally, there are genetic and hormonal factors; in one case, the body has a greater tendency to store food as fat than in the other. Because of that genetic aspect, you can never fully influence your P-ratio yourself. There are also supplements that could positively influence your P-ratio, but their effect has not been proven xvi ] .

P-RATIO AND FAT PERCENTAGE

It is often claimed that a high fat percentage (> 15%) has an unfavorable effect on the P-ratio, or the extent to which you can build lean muscle mass. Three arguments are usually given for this, each supported by scientific research:

  • the fatter one gets, the lower the insulin sensitivity xxi ] ;
  • the fatter one becomes, the more the body tends to store energy as fat xv ] ;
  • the fatter one gets, the less well one recovers from strength training xlvii ] .

For these reasons, bodybuilders are often advised to stop bulking at 20% fat, and then cut to 10-15%.

Yet it remains to be seen whether a high fat percentage is really so detrimental to muscle growth. The practice seems to show otherwise.

Coaches and researchers Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler made a meta-analysis of relevant studies for their journal MASS xlviii ] . Strikingly enough, it emerged that with a higher fat percentage it is easier to build up lean muscle mass than with a lower fat percentage. In fact, overweight people often lose fat mass when they build muscle, i.e. they succeed in doing body recomposition.

Nuckols concludes:

Gains in lean mass are basically the same for everyone, but lean people tend to gain some fat (suggesting they are in a surplus), and heavier people actually tend to lose some fat.

Overall, the fat percentage does not seem very relevant for building muscle mass, although there is still a lot of discussion about this.

Although you may build lean muscle mass a little more easily with a higher fat percentage, we can think of good reasons not to go higher than 15-20%.

In the first place, a high fat percentage means that you will have to make a long cut to get muscle definition. It is better to interrupt your bulk with some ‘minicuts’.

Secondly, a high fat percentage means that your body is ‘under construction’ for a long time. You gain muscle mass, but it remains hidden under the fat. That can be demotivating.

Third, there is more to life than just bodybuilding: being overweight adversely affects your health and well-being.

In summary:
The extent to which your body uses nutrients for muscle building or stores it as fat is also expressed in the P-ratio. You can partly positively influence this ratio yourself by optimizing training and nutrition. The rest is genetically determined. The level of the fat percentage appears to have only a limited influence on the P-ratio. Nevertheless, it seems sensible not to let the percentage rise too high, ie not higher than 15-20%.

AFTER BULKING COMES CUTTING

As a bodybuilder you strive for muscle definition. That is why the (little) fat that was added by bulking must also be lost over time. Training for fat loss while preserving muscle mass is called cutting.

As an average or advanced bodybuilder, you cannot build muscle mass while cutting. You should even be careful not to lose muscle mass. All the more reason not to get too fat while bulking, as we saw already.

In summary:
Some increase in fat mass is inevitable during bulking. You have to lose that fat later, without losing muscle mass. This processe we call cutting.

MORE FOOD = MORE MUSCLE MASS (?)

It goes without saying that the more you eat, the more muscle mass you build. This is also supported by research, for example from 2016 v ] :

A significant correlation between total energy intake and gains in lean mass (…) was demonstrated. v ]

An obvious condition is that you take enough protein, otherwise the energy surplus will mainly result in fat gain vi ] .

Eating more means more muscle growth. Well, to a certain extent. As a natural bodybuilder you can only build a limited amount of muscle mass within a certain time. Beginners can gain about 1 kg of muscle mass per month with optimal training. Advanced often no more than half a kilo. It logically makes no sense to feed your body even more when the maximum muscle growth has been reached. Eating more protein than the aforementioned ‘protein quotum’ is also pointless.

FAST VS SLOW BULKING

Yet bodybuilders often tend to eat (much) more than is strictly necessary in a bulking phase. And yes, if you eat a lot, you can be sure that your body has enough energy to realize maximum muscle growth. But more is better only  applies to a limited extent for muscle growth, both in terms of training and nutrition. Only bodybuilders who use steroids can train and eat more or less unlimitedly, and reap the benefits.

A 2012 study of 39 experienced athletes who also did strength training shows us the differences between a ‘slow’ bulk and a ‘fast’ bulk[ vii ] . The ‘slow’ group ate 3000 kcal per day, the ‘fast’ group 3600 kcal. Fast bulking indeed resulted in more muscle growth, but also a significantly greater increase in fat mass, as you can see in the figure below.

Fast versus slow bulking, according to research by Garthe et al., 2012 vii ] . The white group ate 3600 kcal per day, the black 3000 kcal. LBM stands for Lean Body Mass. (source: Sci-fit.net )

We see that the increase in fat mass with a fast bulk is disproportionately large to say the least. According to the Dutch coach and scientist Menno Henselmans, with a calorie surplus you quickly end up unnecessarily high. In his experience with clients, it doesn’t really matter how big the calorie surplus is for muscle growth: according to him, the training stimulus is the most important driver. In a recent podcast he says:

Being in an energy surplus is big advantage for hypertrophy, at least anecdotally. But once you go in a surplus, there is very little difference in muscle growth rates, but big difference in fat gain rates. viii ]

In summary:
Eating more means more muscle growth, albeit to a certain extent. If you get into calorie surplus, you will quickly store fat instead of building muscle.

HOW MUCH CAN YOU GAIN AND IN WHAT RATIO MUSCLE:FAT?

How much muscle mass can you gain within a certain period of time and how much fat is added, in the most optimal situation? In other words, what ratio of muscle growth: fat gain is feasible?

Coach and author Lyle McDonald thinks a 1:1 ratio should be possible, at least for beginners i ] . As a newbie in the gym, he says you could gain 4 pounds (1.8 kg) on ​​a monthly basis, half of which is muscle and the other half is fat (not counting weight gain from fluid). More advanced athletes may only be able to gain half that amount of muscle mass within that time frame.

The findings of McDonald will more or less correspond to the estimate of coaches Mike Israetel and Eric Helms, that an average bodybuilder (man / woman) in a regular bulk can gain 0.25-0.5% of his body weight per week xxxvii ][ xlv ] . That is not only muscle, but also fat.

MEASURING IS KNOWING

An increase in fat is not always easy to see in the mirror, especially if you also gain muscle mass at the same time. So keep a close eye on the scale. During a bulking phase, your weight gain should be gradual and fairly linear. So you should see a small, steady increase on the scale. If you make too big jumps in weight, you are probably too high with your surplus. Or you don’t stick to your diet consistently. For the latter, it is essential that you use a calorie app.

It is ideal if you can also keep track of the development of your fat percentage while bulking. We use a relatively cheap Medisana scale for this. Although in principle this may not indicate the fat percentage very accurately, in our opinion it is sufficient to keep track of the evolution of the body composition.

Also take into account your training level and the muscle growth potential that comes with it.

In summary:
During a bulking phase, your weight gain should be gradual and fairly linear. As an average bodybuilder, assume a weekly weight gain of 0.25-0.5% of your body weight. Therefore don’t eat instinctively, but use a calorie app.

HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU EAT AT LEAST?

What is a good guideline for the calorie surplus while bulking? We first try to find the answer pragmatically, by calculating how many calories are needed to gain one kilogram of lean muscle mass.

A kilogram of muscle tissue consists of 100-125 grams of proteins, a large amount of water, glycogen and intramuscular fat, together good for about 600 kcal. You may think you can deduce from this that you also only need to consume 600 kcal extra to gain one kilogram of muscle mass, but nothing could be further from the truth. Eating 100-125 grams of extra protein will also not give you a kilogram of new muscle tissue. Not every calorie or gram of protein goes straight to the muscle. But how much should you eat?

We don’t have solid proof, but based on our personal experiences we estimate that to gain one kilogram of muscle tissue, you will have to consume about 5000-7000 kcal extra. We continue to calculate with 7000 kcal.

How does this translate to the overview above? Well, simple. Take the average beginner, who gains one kilogram of muscle per month, which requires 7000 kcal. Divide 7000 by the thirty days in a month, and you get at 230 kcal per day, on top of your maintenance level.

In summary:
According to a freehand calculation, you should eat at least around 200 kcal above your maintenance to be able to grow.

WHEN DO YOU EAT TOO MUCH?

Eating 200 kcal above your maintenance may not be enough to achieve maximum muscle growth. But if you immediately sit on a surplus of 300-500 kcal, you may be too high.

We have already seen that a calorie surplus from a certain point results mainly or exclusively in an increase in fat mass. We also call it the spillover point. You can find it by starting with a low calorie surplus (eg 100 kcal) and increasing it step by step. Menno Henselmans about this:

I think you quickly get into the spillover point. The best way to go about it is to find that spillover point and stay just at that at the border. The way you do that is keep pumping up your calories until you’re spilling over into fat gain. viii ]

Summarizing:

What you want is the highest rate of weight gain and ideally also strength gain, without spilling over into fat gain. viii ]

THE INFLUENCE OF TRAINING

Your spillover point is not fixed. It partly depends on the effectiveness of your training that day. The more overload in your training, the more growth stimuli, the more nutrition you need to convert those stimuli into muscle growth. If you create little or no overload, so barely use more weight and/or repetitions than last time, you also need almost no extra calories to facilitate muscle growth.

It becomes even more difficult if you work with increasing overload during a training cycle. That means that you increase your calorie surplus, for example, from 100 kcal to 400 kcal in the ‘peak week’ before the deload iv ] .

In summary:
From the spillover point in your calorie surplus you achieve (almost) no muscle growth. The calories beyond that point therefore mainly lead to fat storage. Exactly how many calories that is depends on, among other things, the amount of growth stimuli from your training. It takes some experimentation with calorie intake to find your average spillover point.

SO, WHAT IS THE BEST SURPLUS FOR LEAN GAINS ?

First and foremost: there is no such thing as the ideal calorie surplus. It is too personal for that. But based on a scientific review by Eric Helms, among others, a surplus of 10-15 percent of the maintenance level should be sufficient for most naturals to achieve almost maximum muscle growth with a small increase in fat mass, in other words for a weekly weight gain of ~0.25-0.5 percent of body weight xlv ] . In practice, that means for most people that they have to eat about 200 to 400 kcal above their maintenance level.

Note: this calorie surplus does not include the calories you burn with strength training. With half an hour of strength training, an average person burns 100 to 200 kcal, depending on how intensive the training is.

If strength training is not included in your maintenance level (which we recommend), you must add your calories for strength training to your maintenance, for example 200 (calorie surplus) + 300 (strength training) = 500 kcal.

In summary:
For most bodybuilders, a bulk surplus of 10-15% of the maintenance level is sufficient. This does not include the calories you burn with strength training (~100-200 kcal per 30 minutes).

SHOULD ADVANCED USERS EAT MORE OR LESS?

We already saw that muscle growth is much slower in advanced users. You can therefore build less muscle mass within a certain time frame, which is why it seems logical to also use a smaller calorie surplus. But for lack of scientific basis, scholars disagree on whether this is actually the best approach xxxii ][ xiii ][ xxxvii ] .

It is also quite possible that when muscle building is more difficult, (relatively) more nutrition is needed to achieve it. Just like gradually more anabolic stimuli from training are needed. Mike Israel on this:

Older individuals might be so resistant to anabolism that they need I real big anabolic signal for muscle growth. xiii ]

But Eric Helms and colleagues write in a review from June 2019 that more experienced strength athletes should probably go a little lower with their calorie surplus (lower than 10-15% of their maintenance level):

Advanced bodybuilders should be more conservative with the caloric surplus and weekly weight gain. xlv ]

Again, by looking for the spillover point, you will automatically find the calorie surplus that matches your training status.

In summary:
Advanced bodybuilders may be able to suffice with a lower calorie surplus.

METABOLIC ADAPTATION

You may recognize this scenario: you have finished your cut and slowly increase your calorie intake again until you are near your maintenance level. Then you start your bulk and you obediently add 300 kcal on top. Yet after a few weeks it appears that, despite a thorough training, you have not gained or even lost weight! Does that mean your calorie surplus is too small? Possibly, but it is probably mainly because you have underestimated your maintenance level.

Maintenance is not a fixed value, but a range xlvi ] . An important cause of this is metabolic adaptation, which simply means that your body adjusts the energy consumption to your calorie intake. If you suddenly eat significantly fewer calories, it will be more economical. If you suddenly eat a lot more, it will loosen the reins a bit and therefore use more energy. The latter increases your maintenance level. In our example that means that you are no longer in the plus with 300 kcal, but maybe only 100 kcal, or that you even have no surplus at all!

Metabolic adaptation occurs much more strongly in some than in others. It is especially noticeable in people who naturally have difficulty gaining weight xlvi ] . They therefore have to eat even more to create an adequate calorie surplus.

In summary:
Under the influence of metabolic adjustments, your maintenance level during the bulk can become higher than normal. As a result, you may not have an adequate calorie surplus. Monitor your scale to determine if you’re gaining enough weight (~0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week) and increase your calorie intake as needed.

WHAT DISTRIBUTION OF MACRONUTRIENTS?

In addition to a calorie surplus, you also have to use a certain distribution of proteins, carbohydrates and fats for optimal muscle growth, or in other words, distribute your macronutrients (‘macros’) correctly.

PROTEIN

We already saw that you should always get enough protein, whether that is for muscle growth or for muscle maintenance. In addition, it is somewhat important to spread those proteins over roughly four or five meals, spread evenly throughout the day and ideally between two meals with the training .

How much protein should you consume daily? According to science, 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is normally more than enough to achieve maximum muscle growth. But it’s okay to eat a little more just to be on the safe side.

However, don’t eat more than 2 g/kg/d (with exceptions), because that will unnecessarily be at the expense of the amount of carbohydrates you can consume. And carbohydrates are in fact just as important for muscle growth as proteins (see below).

In the cut you may need a little more protein to maintain muscle : 1.8 to 2 g/kg/d.

CARBOHYDRATES

The question is whether it is best to eat relatively many carbohydrates or relatively many fats in addition to proteins.

For muscle adjustments after strength training, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether you eat a lot of carbohydrates or a lot of fats, as long as your body has sufficient energy – calories – available xli ] . So you don’t have to consume carbohydrates immediately after training , as was often claimed in the past xl ] .

Carbohydrates are very important as an energy source for strength training, namely in the form of glycogen, which is converted into ATP. At this point carbohydrates are superior to fats, which are a much less efficient form of fuel for strength and endurance training xxviii ] . It is therefore best to eat as many carbohydrates as possible in addition to proteins.

FATS

You need fats from food for a good absorption of vitamins, and to promote the production of hormones, including testosterone. In order to fulfill these functions, your body needs at least 0.6 g of fat per kg of body weight every day xlii ] [ xxxix ] [ xxix ] .

In the bulk you can safely go a little higher, in order to optimize the mentioned functions. According to a review it is best to use a lower limit of ~15% of your daily food intake xliv ] . For most people this amounts to 1-1.5 g per kg of body weight.

Eat different types of fat. For healthy hormone levels it is important to eat saturated and monounsaturated fats. And for your overall health, you would do well to also eat polyunsaturated fats.

THUS

So how do you split your macros as a bulking bodybuilder? Well, like this:

  • protein: 1.6 to 2 g/kg body weight
  • fat: 1 to 1.5 g/kg body weight*
  • carbohydrates: the rest
* of which 25-50 percent saturated fat, and the unsaturated fats evenly distributed
In summary:
Calorie surplus (10-15%) and protein quota (1.6-2 g/kg body weight/day) are by far the most important aspects of nutrition for muscle growth. But the right distribution of carbohydrates and fats can also help you optimize muscle growth. Aim with your intake of fats at 1 to 1.5 g per kg of body weight per day. The rest are carbohydrates.

HOW LEAN SHOULD YOU BULK?

We all want to be as muscular as possible and most want to stay as lean as possible in the meantime. Lean bulking seems to meet those needs to some extent. We already saw that for this you have to use a calorie surplus of at most around 20 percent of your maintenance level.

Still, some are in favor of a less ‘pure’ bulk. They take the increase in fat mass into the bargain, against the guarantee of maximum muscle growth (‘guarantee’ provided that the training program and recovery are optimal). They ‘cut’ the excess fat away later.

Let’s compare these two approaches.

DISADVANTAGES OF BULK FAT GAIN

1. The fat also has to come off
The fatter you get while bulking, the longer you eventually have to cut. And you can’t build muscle mass while cutting. In addition, long-term cutting is not an easy task, which can also be accompanied by loss of muscle mass.

2. Your body is ‘under construction’ for a long time.
You gain muscle mass, but it remains hidden under the fat. That can be demotivating.

3. A high fat percentage is harmful to health
There is more to life than just bodybuilding: being overweight has an adverse effect on your health and well-being.

BENEFITS OF EATING A LOT / FAT GAIN IN THE BULK

1. You know for sure that you get enough nutrition for muscle growth
If you use a large calorie surplus while bulking, you will gain fat faster, but you are also assured of maximum muscle growth – provided that training and rest are optimal, of course.

2. You perform and recover better
Eating more means more energy for strength performance in the gym and for your recovery. And more fat on the bones may mean you’re stronger. Many strength athletes (both bodybuilders and powerlifters) experience being stronger when they have not only more muscle, but also a little more fat xvii ] , even though the relationship between fat mass and strength is unclear xix ] . A fat percentage below 10% can be at the expense of your training performance xviii ] . But that also applies to a high fat percentage (> 20%) xlvii ] . The latter is under the influence of less favorable hormone values.

3. Losing fat is easier than building muscle
Although you will have to cut longer after a large fat gain in the bulk, some prefer that disadvantage over the possible extra muscle gain. And it’s true: losing fat is a lot easier than building muscle. And if you master the art of cutting (which only involves a few simple rules) you’ll have that fat off pretty quickly, without having to sacrifice muscle mass xxxi ] .

CONCLUSION

Nutrition and body fat facilitate exercise performance and recovery. If mass is your main goal, maintaining a relatively large calorie surplus, combined with some increase in body fat, therefore seems to be a sensible strategy. However, a too rapid increase in body fat is counterproductive and means that you have to cut unnecessarily long after bulking. With a limited calorie surplus this is not necessary and you also stay in shape .

FOUR WAYS TO BULK

Depending on your time and goals, you can actually bulk in four ways. The difference is mainly in the size of your calorie surplus.

1. LEAN BULK

Lean bulking means that you are very conservative with your calorie surplus and start with 5% of your maintenance level, for example. Based on what the scale indicates, this can then be gradually increased.

The main argument for such a ‘cautious’ surplus is to remain lean; you want to gain no or as little fat as possible when building muscle mass. The advantage is not only that you stay in shape while bulking, but also that you do not have to cut or only have to cut for a short time. This way you can focus on muscle building for most of the year.

The biggest disadvantage of lean bulking is that you may ‘miss out’ muscle growth. If you train optimally, but only use a limited calorie surplus, your body may not have enough energy to fully convert the training stimuli into muscle growth.

Lean bulking often also means making predominantly healthy food choices. That is why it is also referred to as clean bulking (see below). Bulking thus seems to be part of an integral healthy living approach. Keep in mind, however, that for body composition, in principle, it doesn’t matter what you eat, as long as your calories and macronutrients are in order ( If It Fits Your Macros, see also below) and as long as you get enough vitamins and minerals in the basics .

2. REGULAR BULK

Regular bulking is the golden mean for the natural bodybuilder. You’re eating about 10-15 percent above your maintenance level, which may be slightly past your spillover point. So you will also gain some fat.

At the same time, regular bulking is no guarantee that you will achieve maximum muscle growth. Maybe you eat just a little too little for that, but that depends very much on the amount of anabolic stimulus from your training.

Regular bulking may be a suitable strategy for hard gainers, people who have difficulty building muscle mass (quickly) due to genetic conditions.

3. BEAR MODE

Bear mode is a period of bulking in which you have a higher calorie surplus than normal: 20-40 percent of your maintenance level or even more. Eating a lot is intended to achieve maximum gains in strength and muscle mass. In addition, you look bigger and stronger than normal during bear mode.

Bear mode differs from a dirty bulk (see 4) in that you slightly regulate the intake of calories and macronutrients. You therefore ensure that you do not eat above a certain number of calories and you pay attention to the proportions of proteins, carbohydrates and fats (see below). In addition, you also make sure that you are getting enough micronutrients, even though you may not always eat healthy.

The disadvantage of bear mode is the disproportionate increase in fat mass as a result of the large calorie surplus; you eat much more than is strictly necessary for muscle growth. Some also speak of a dreamer bulk: yes, you grow, but it is mainly your fat mass that grows.

But according to proponents of bear mode, the extra fat makes you stronger during training. And because of the large amount of food you may have more energy and recover better.

In our opinion, bear mode is at most worth a try if you don’t want to be ripped, but especially want to be big. Many bear mode bulkers prefer a massive look over a defined look and find a relatively high fat percentage therefore also aesthetically okay.

In any case, never stay in bear mode for too long, don’t overdo it with calorie surplus, keep track of calorie intake and macronutrients, keep your fat percentage within the 15-18 percent range, and eat as healthy as possible.

4. DIRTY BULK

The old dirty bulk means eating without restrictions. You eat as much as you want, and whatever you want, just with the aim of getting as much nutrition as possible and thereby realizing as much muscle growth as possible.

This strategy is completely pointless. Dirty bulking only leads to a much too rapid, unnecessary increase in fat mass. In addition, you probably eat way too much fat, at the expense of proteins and carbohydrates, the macronutrients that are much more important for muscle growth than fat. Finally, you may not be getting enough vitamins, minerals and other important micronutrients. Prolonged dirty bulking can even harm your health.

Even if you have difficulty gaining weight, for example because your metabolism is high, we do not recommend a dirty bulk. You can safely snack on your calories, but continue to monitor your food intake.

lean bulk regular bulk bear mode
small energy surplus (5-10% of maintenance) moderate energy surplus (10-15% of maintenance) large energy surplus (20-40% of maintenance)
no maximum muscle growth almost maximum muscle growth maximum muscle growth (provided the fat% does not increase too quickly)
limited increase in fat mass some increase in fat mass much increase in fat mass
slow weight gain fairly rapid weight gain rapid weight gain
In summary:
How far you go past your spillover point in your surplus depends on how much fat gain you can or want to afford. If you want to be somewhat in shape all year round, you need to bulk up lean (+5-10%). With this method you have to cut relatively little and you can therefore usually focus on muscle building, even though the process may be slightly slower than with a slightly larger surplus. If some increase in fat mass is okay for you, choose the regular bulk (+10-15%). You will then have to cut for a longer period of time, so the question is whether you will eventually gain faster/more muscle mass. If you don’t build muscle that easily (anymore) and you don’t have to be in constant shape, you can also go for bear mode (> 20%). However, do not do this for too long and not too much, and continue to monitor your intake of food. Avoid dirty bulking.

HOW CLEAN SHOULD YOU BULK?

Until now, it has always been about the quantity of food: the amount of calories and their distribution to macros. Not for nothing, because quantity is the decisive factor for muscle growth. You can eat as healthy and varied, if you don’t use a calorie surplus and/or don’t eat enough protein, you can’t build optimal muscle mass. Picture it as three cylinders side by side: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. At the end of the day, all three should be filled to a certain height. With which substances the tubes are filled, does not matter much for muscle growth, as long as the quantities are correct.

Is the quality of food not important at all for muscle growth? Not that anymore. What you eat is especially important for acquiring micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals), which have a direct effect on your health. But indirectly and certainly in the longer term, micronutrients are also important for muscle growth. After all, good overall health and resistance will only benefit your training and recovery. Vitamins also play a role in muscle protein synthesis. And minerals (such as iron, magnesium and zinc) are important for energy supply, healing and growth, metabolism, absorption of nutrients, building bones and cartilage, and hormone production. All things that have to do with muscle growth directly and indirectly.

Viewed in this way, we think the principle ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM) is too short-sighted. Yes, the quantity is decisive, but try to eat as healthy as possible. Healthy eating and drinking plenty of water also ensures that you do not retain too much fluid, so that your body looks sharper.

Keep in mind that healthy eating in itself does not cause muscle growth, despite the fact that many hip YouTube and Instagram coaches would have you believe this. By focusing too much on healthy eating, people sometimes forget that the macros are decisive. And all the more so since healthy food often has a fairly low calorie density, they create an energy balance that is too low and they can therefore not build muscle mass.

Also see evidence-based bodybuilding coach Eric Helms xx ]’ s nutrition pyramid below.

Eric Helms’ food pyramid. Calorie intake (a positive or negative energy balance) and the distribution of macronutrients are by far the most important for muscle growth.
In summary:
Building muscle is above all about using the right amounts of calories and macronutrients. Micronutrients are especially important for your health, although they indirectly also have some influence on exercise performance and muscle growth. So try to eat healthy as well as enough

CALORIE CYLING: STRATEGICALLY VARYING YOUR SURPLUS

Until now, we’ve been talking about daily calorie intake. But you don’t necessarily have to strive for the same energy balance every day. If you’re not exercising daily, you may be able to reap benefits from  calorie cycling.

The most obvious form of calorie cycling is that you aim for a lower energy balance on non-training days. If all goes well, you will already eat ~300 kcal less on those days because you are not training (we assume that you burn ~150 kcal per half hour of training). In addition, you can use a smaller calorie surplus on that day or even no surplus at all (you eat at maintenance level). You go one step further if you use a calorie deficit on rest days.

We do not recommend the latter in principle. Even on rest days, your body is still busy (re)building muscle mass. Depending on your training status, that process usually takes 24 to 72 hours (48 hours for average bodybuilders) xiv ] . We also call this the anabolic window of opportunity. As long as that ‘window’ is open, it is better to keep using a small calorie surplus. But it can safely be a bit smaller than on training days.

Example in someone with a maintenance level of 2000 kcal:

  • Monday – Wednesday (training days): 2000 + 300 (training) + 200 (surplus) = 2500 kcal
  • Thursday (day of rest): 2000 + 100 (surplus) = 2100 kcal
  • Friday – Saturday (training days): 2000 + 300 (training) + 200 (surplus) = 2500 kcal
  • Sunday (day of rest): 2000 + 100 (surplus) = 2100 kcal

If you sometimes step out of the anabolic window during your training week, for example because you use two rest days in a row, you can create a calorie deficit, if desired. One window intermittent fasting is a very efficient method for this. With the calorie deficit you can partially or completely compensate for any fat mass that has unexpectedly arisen during the past bulk week.

Example in someone with a maintenance level of 2000 kcal:

  • Monday – Friday (training days): 2000 + 300 (training) + 200 (surplus) = 2500 kcal
  • Saturday (day of rest): 2000 + 100 (surplus) = 2100 kcal
  • Sunday (day of rest): 2000 – 200 (deficit) = 1800 kcal*
* You may also be recovering from your training week during the day on Sunday. Therefore, make sure that you only create the calorie deficit in the evening, or, for example, by means of an intermittent fasting window from Sunday midnight to Monday afternoon (assuming you start training again on Monday evening).

Make sure to keep your protein intake high at all times, regardless of your calorie intake in a day.

In summary:
Eat fewer calories on rest days. Eliminate the calories that you normally burn with strength training (~300 kcal/hour). You only delete the calories from your surplus if you go outside your anabolic window of opportunity (for example on the second rest day if you rest two days in a row). You can, however, use a slightly smaller surplus on rest days.

IN SUMMARY

1.    To build muscle, your body needs protein and energy. Therefore most natural bodybuilders, except for beginners and returners, need to create a small calorie surplus in order to grow. This is what we call bulking, even though it certainly doesn’t mean you have to overeat.

2.    Because your body can only build a limited amount of muscle mass in a certain time, you should limit the calorie surplus during the bulk. Calories that you eat in excess are stored as fat.

3.    Nevertheless, it is almost inevitable that, in addition to muscle growth, there will also be some increase in fat mass. You can cancel it later by cutting.

4.    In most situations a calorie surplus of 10-15% of the maintenance level is sufficient. Advanced users may want to go even a little lower. With such a relatively small calorie surplus, you can build almost muscle as much as possible, while keeping the increase in fat mass to a minimum.

5.    Metabolic adjustments can sometimes increase your maintenance level once you enter a calorie surplus. As a result, you have to go even higher with your calorie intake, even though the calorie surplus actually remains the same.

6.    You can never know exactly what your maintenance level is, how many calories you burn with strength training and which calorie surplus is optimal for you. Therefore, keep a close eye on the scale and adjust your calorie intake if you gain too much or too little. With a surplus of 10-15% you should gain ~0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week.

7.    Some consciously opt for a slightly larger calorie surplus. As a result, the fat mass will increase faster, which could be beneficial for strength performance and recovery. But an excessively high fat percentage is unfavorable. In addition, you will have to cut much longer after the bulk, after which the question is whether you have built up muscle mass faster on balance.

8.    In addition to sufficient calories, you also have to use the right ratio of macronutrients for muscle growth. That mainly means eating enough protein: 1.6 to 2 g per kg body weight per day. In addition, you eat 1 to 1.5 g of fat per kg of body weight daily. The rest are carbohydrates, your main source of energy during exercise.

REFERENCES

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