Ultimate Guide to Bulking: How to Pack on Strength & Size Faster
If you struggle to build muscle or just want to put on serious mass fast, bulking might be the answer. Designed to deliver big gains as quickly as possible, bulking is a favourite of hardcore bodybuilders and weekend warriors alike. But what is bulking really all about?
Here we look at the art of bulking. We explore what it involves and the best ways to do it. We also go over how to get the most from it and share some of our top bulking tips.
What is bulking?
Put simply, bulking is structuring your diet and exercise program to deliver the greatest possible muscle gains. Exactly what this looks like depends on your body type and goals, but it usually means eating big and lifting heavy. It also usually means that the rules around things like what you can eat are a little looser.
A key part of bulking is giving the body the fuel it needs to grow. This means being in caloric surplus (i.e. consuming more calories than you burn) throughout the day. As such, when bulking, both what you eat and when you eat can be important.
Similarly, a successful bulk requires a workout program that is designed with maximum muscle growth in mind. This usually means traditional bodybuilding programs featuring body-part splits and set rep ranges (think Chest Day, with 3 x 10 rep exercises). It also generally means minimal low-intensity cardio, as this unnecessarily burns calories without building muscle.
It’s also important to note that bulking is usually the first phase of a two-part program. The second phase is cutting (or shredding), where you reduce your caloric intake and focus on burning excess fat. When done well, these two phases combine to quickly increase lean muscle mass without significantly impacting your body fat percentage.
How do I do a bulking cycle?
If you’re considering doing a bulking cycle, the first thing you need to do is understand your baseline. This means taking stock of where you’re currently at with things like total body weight, lean mass, and body fat percentage. It also means having a clear view of the caloric intake you need to maintain your current weight.
Once you have your baseline, you should spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve from your bulk. As part of this, consider the muscle gains you’d like and how much fat you would be comfortable putting on. Also, think about your schedule and how long you want to bulk for (noting the need for a subsequent cutting phase).
Once you’ve worked through all of this, you can plan exactly how you are going to approach your bulking cycle. This should include details of your proposed:
- Eating plan: While a bulking diet can be more relaxed than a cutting diet, you should still plan it carefully. This will help ensure you are actually hitting the calorie surplus you require for muscle growth. It will also help make sure you’re getting all of the nutrients and minerals you need to maximise your gains.
- Workout plan: Like your diet, how you train when you are bulking will have a significant impact on your gains. As such, while your workouts may be less intense than when you’re cutting, they still need to be carefully planned. This will help you make sure you’re getting the most from both your gym sessions and recovery time.
- Supplement stack: The right supplementation plan will help you maximise the effectiveness of your bulking cycle. This could be by helping you hit your target caloric surplus or by boosting your body’s natural performance. You may even want to incorporate some more specialised products to optimise your muscle gains and speed up your recovery.
The ideal bulking approach will depend on your body type and goals. As such, you should do your research on exactly what your plan should be to get the best results. To help you with this, we’ll now go into some of the details of what you should do when bulking.
Why would I do a bulking cycle?
Before we get into specifics, we want to briefly cover the main reasons people choose to do a bulking cycle. Thanks to bulking’s biggest benefit – extra muscle mass – it’s a popular option for serious bodybuilders and regular gym-goers alike. Each person who chooses to bulk has their own motivations for wanting to put on mass fast, which could include:
- Prepping for a competition or photoshoot: Bulking started out as a technique used by competitive bodybuilders and fitness models to quickly put on extra mass. Generally, they would have an ‘off season’ of a few months where they didn’t need to be as lean. Bulking allowed them to make the most of this time, packing on muscle mass without significantly compromising their physique.
- Getting into shape for summer: If you’re a gym devotee, the warmer months provide the perfect opportunity to show off your hard work. Conversely, the cooler months are the perfect time to bulk up and build your muscle mass. As such, many serious gym goers choose to do a yearly cycle of bulking and cutting.
- Pushing through a plateau: If you’ve been going to the gym for a while, chances are your progress will start to slow down. But a bulking cycle can help you break through this, pushing your body further and taking your gains to the next level.
- Being a hard gainer: If you struggle to put on muscle mass, most standard training techniques will deliver limited results. However, as bulking is specifically focused on packing on weight, it can help even the hardest gainers make progress. Best of all, cutting is usually easier for hard gainers as your body will do most of the work.
- Wanting to switch up their training style: Over time, most standard training techniques can get a little repetitive, which can, in turn, really impact your motivation levels. So, while you may still be getting decent results, a change could help reinvigorate your whole gym experience. And bulking provides a significant change of pace when compared to most traditional training approaches.
What should I eat when bulking?
In many ways, bulking is mainly about how you structure your diet. In fact, at the simplest level, it’s really just a caloric equation – you bulk by eating more than you burn. And how big this gap is will depend on how quickly you want to put on mass.
That being said, an effective bulking phase actually takes quite a lot of careful planning. As with any training approach, what you eat when bulking can have a major impact on the progress you make. After all, when you’re eating more, there’s greater potential to make mistakes with your diet.
For example, if you take in too many calories, the mass you add could be mostly fat. Similarly, if you do not get the right balance of macronutrients, you could compromise your gains.
Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to structuring your diet when bulking:
- Clean bulking: This is where you mainly eat whole, unprocessed foods and focus on increasing your protein intake. It’s generally a stricter approach with a smaller daily caloric surplus, done over a longer period. This usually means more modest mass gains but also less excess fat to be cut once you’ve finished bulking.
- Dirty bulking: This is where you try to put on the most mass possible in the shortest amount of time. It generally involves a lot of calorie-dense foods, including junk food, and a higher daily caloric surplus. This usually means larger mass gains but potentially more fat to be cut once you’ve finished bulking.
Both of these approaches are equally legitimate and could help you achieve your desired gains. Each also has its own pros and cons and will be more suitable in certain situations. As such, the best path for you will really depend on your personal preferences and bulking goals.
Whichever route you choose, the key to perfecting your bulking diet is creating a caloric surplus. Again, exactly how much this should be will depend on your bulking goals, timeline and maintenance calories. However, a surplus of between 250 calories (for a slower bulk) and 1,000 calories (for a faster bulk) is common.
Once you’ve worked out your new target total caloric intake, you can come up with your bulking eating plan. As part of this, you should focus on significantly increasing your protein intake, as this will fuel lean muscle growth. Generally speaking, when bulking, most aim for a daily protein intake of approximately 2g per kg of bodyweight.
With this in mind, bulking diets are often rich in:
- Meat and poultry: Like lean steak, pork tenderloin, skinless chicken, turkey, and eggs.
- Seafood: Like salmon, tuna, and different types of shellfish.
- Dairy: Like natural yoghurt, cottage cheese, and other types of cheese.
- Legumes: Like chickpeas, lentils, and different types of beans.
- Nuts and Seeds: Like almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and sunflower seeds.
- Oils and butters: Avocados, olive oil, and nut butters.
For more information on the perfect bulking diet, check out MAX’S Ultimate Nutrition Guide. This provides practical advice on creating an eating plan tailored to your body type and goals. It also includes example eating plans designed to suit a wide range of diet and training approaches.
How should I train when bulking?
While simply adopting a bulking diet will help you put on mass, a carefully considered training plan is also required. This should be designed to help you maximise your muscle gains while minimising the risk of unnecessary fat retention. Generally, a good bulking workout plan should include:
- Body splits: This is a bodybuilding staple that refers to the high-level structure of your workouts. Put simply, it means training different parts of your body on different days. This allows you to focus your attention and make sure you’re pushing each muscle group to maximal load. It should also help you better manage recovery periods, giving your muscles time to rest and grow.
- Set rep ranges: This is another bodybuilding staple that refers to how you structure the specifics of your workouts. Put simply, it means having a consistent number of sets and reps per exercise and planning weights accordingly. This can help you make sure you’re pushing yourself (i.e. reaching muscle failure during the rep range) with each exercise. It also highlights your strength gains which can, in turn, help you maintain your motivation levels.
- High-intensity interval training: This should be done sparingly when bulking but does play an important role in helping reduce unnecessary fat gain. This style of training has also been shown to stimulate protein synthesis, meaning it could help increase muscle growth. When planning interval training during a bulking phase, intensity is critical to make sure you’re getting the maximum benefit.
- Stretching: When lifting heavy, stretching post-workout is an essential part of the recovery process. In addition to helping you feel less sore, it has actually been linked to encouraging muscle growth. It should also help you bounce back from your workout quicker, allowing you to get the most from each gym session.
- Rest Days: Muscle growth actually happens after your workouts while your body is recovering. This is when the extra protein from your diet is synthesised to repair the muscle tissue damage from your workouts. As such, an effective training plan should include carefully planned rest and recovery times.
For more information on perfecting your bulking training plan, check out MAX’S Ultimate Training Guide. This provides practical advice on tailoring your workouts to your body type and training style. It also includes example training plans designed to suit a wide range of experience levels and goals.
What supplements should I take when bulking?
Achieving your caloric surplus through diet alone can be tough. This is where supplementation comes in, helping you achieve both your calorie and macronutrient targets. Some supplements have also been linked to increased muscle growth and faster recovery, making them great support for bulking.
With all this in mind, when bulking, you may find it beneficial to add the following supplements to your stack:
- Protein powder: A high-quality protein supplement is a great way to increase both your protein intake and overall caloric intake. Complete proteins – like whey – are a particularly good option, as they also provide all your essential amino acids. Whey protein has also been linked to increased muscle growth and improved recovery times, making it perfect for bulking. Check out MAX’S great range of high-quality protein products.
- Mass gainers: If you struggle to put on weight, or need help hitting your caloric surplus, a mass gainer could help. These are primarily protein-based products that are designed to provide everything you need for muscle growth. This usually includes high levels of carbs and fats to help boost their overall calorie content. If you’re interested in trying out one of these products, check out MAX’S range of high-quality mass gainers.
- BCAAs: BCAAs are the three essential amino acids known for the critical role they play in promoting muscle growth and health. When bulking, a product with a higher level of leucine is – like MAX’S BCAA 10:1:1 powder – is best. This is because leucine is the main amino acid involved in regulating protein synthesis, making it critical to increasing muscle mass.
- Creatine: Creatine supplements are particularly popular with serious lifters because they help fuel muscle tissue during intense workouts. As the body naturally produces creatine, any supplementation needs to start with a loading period to increase intramuscular creatine levels. If you’d like to add a creatine product to your supplement stack, we recommend MAX’S Creatine Monohydrate.
- Pre-Workout: When your training program is built around heavy weights and set reps, having enough focus and energy is critical. This is where a pre-workout can help, getting you ready to tackle each and every gym session. These products blend a range of amino acids, stimulants, and other beneficial ingredients to deliver the greatest pre-workout boost. If you’re interested in trying out a pre-workout, check out MAX’S BetaPump COMPOUND X.
For more information on planning the perfect supplement stack, check out our article on the best supplements for weight gain.
Quick tips for getting the most from your bulking cycle
Need more information on the bulking process? Here are our top tips on planning your cycle and making sure you get the possible results:
- Calculating your maintenance calories: When calculating your required calories, you should start by working out the calories you need to maintain your current weight. This will be based on your gender, age, weight, height, and level of activity. Once you know your maintenance calories, you can add on your caloric surplus to get your new target caloric intake.
- Keeping it clean-ish: While eating what you want is part of the appeal of bulking, you should still be careful with your choices. Dirty bulking can be effective but creates more work during the cutting phase, so it’s best to avoid calorie dense, nutrient light foods. That being said, including some cheat meals in your bulking diet can benefit you both physically and mentally.
- Some things you should enjoy sparingly: While your diet can be a little looser when bulking, there are some foods you should be wary of. For example, when bulking, you should still minimise your intake of:
- Alcohol: While the occasional alcoholic beverage may be OK, drinking to excess should always be avoided. If alcohol is a regular part of your diet, your sugar intake will be unnecessarily high. Alcohol has also been shown to negatively impact the body’s ability to build muscle mass, which is a particular issue when bulking.
- Fried foods: While they are high in calories (thanks to their fat content), fried foods can cause a range of health problems. Most significantly, they can increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And no amount of mass gain is worth compromising your health, so best just to avoid these foods.
- High sugar foods: Again, these are a quick and easy way to boost your calorie intake but could be harmful in the long run. Added sugar has been linked to everything from an increased risk of diabetes to affecting your skin and energy levels. As such, best to treat that piece of cake or soft drink as an occasional or special treat.
- · Planning your workout body splits: When putting together a bulking training plan, there are a few ways to approach splitting up your workouts. The right one for you will depend on the number of workouts you plan to do each week. For example, if you are planning to hit the gym five days a week, your body split might be:
- Day 1: Chest (e.g. Bench Press, Chest Flyes, Cable Crossovers, Core Exercises)
- Day 2: Back (e.g. Bent Over Rows, Lat Pulldowns, Pulls Ups, Deadlifts)
- Day 3: Legs (e.g. Squats, Leg Curls, Leg Extensions, Calf Raises)
- Day 4: Shoulders (e.g. Shoulder Presses, Lat Raises, Upright Rows, Shrugs)
- Day 5: Arms (e.g. Bicep Curls, Tricep Pushdowns, Close Grip Bench Presses, Forearm Curls)
- Planning your sets and reps: When going through your bulking workouts, you should aim to lift heavy enough weights to encourage maximum muscle growth. With this in mind, many bulkers aim to do three sets of each exercise and between 8 and 12 reps. However, higher set numbers and lower rep ranges may also be appropriate.
- Skip the low-intensity cardio: While high-intensity interval training can be beneficial when bulking, low-intensity cardio (like steady pace jogging or cycling) should be avoided. While these activities can help burn calories and could prevent unnecessary fat retention, this isn’t really required when you’re bulking. Also, unlike high-intensity interval training, low-intensity cardio doesn’t stimulate protein synthesis and, by extension, muscle growth.