The warmth goes pretty quickly here in Canberra and winter is just a few weeks away. In the fitness world, a lot of people use the colder months for bulking. In saying that, so many people get this fundamental process that should be about growing muscle wrong.
With the unofficial bulking season just around the corner, we thought we'd take a look at what some of the most common mistakes are, how to avoid them and how to do it right.
What Is Bulking?
I am sure everyone knows's what bulking is, but let's just quickly define what we are talking about. The process of 'bulking' is associated with one thing, which is: consuming an excess of calories to gain mass. This mass is ideally comprised of lean muscle mass and minimal body fat.
More specifically bulking requires a caloric surplus. A 'caloric surplus' can be defined simply as consuming more calories than your body burns on a daily basis. You can be in either one of these states at any time when it comes to your diet:
Caloric deficit: This is dieting, or 'cutting'. In this state, you are burning more calories than you are consuming on a daily basis for a prolonged period to lose weight or more specifically body fat.
Maintenance: Also known as 'maintaining'. In this state, you aren't really gaining or losing weight; you are eating just enough calories per day to maintain your current body mass.
- Caloric surplus: As mentioned before, a caloric surplus is bulking. This is the state that you want to be in if you want to gain weight or more specifically muscle.
The reason I defined these simple terms is that it leads into the discussion of mistakes people make when they are bulking.
Bulking The Wrong Way: Common Mistakes
Now we know exactly what bulking is, we'll discuss some of the biggest mistakes people make when they try to bulk.
- Too many calories: Probably the biggest mistake people make when they try bulk is that they consume too many calories and get too far into a caloric surplus. Yes, you want to consume enough calories to gain muscle, but consuming too much just leads to the wrong kind of gains. While the scales may be going up, it's mostly body fat that you have gained; not muscle mass.
- Too little calories: On the opposite end of the spectrum from the above, the next most common mistake people make is they don't eat enough calories. People get scared of losing their hard earned abs and won't include enough calories in their diet to be in a caloric surplus and gain mass. Instead, people end up just maintaining their current body weight, and while they still have abs, they have no more mass to show for their bulking efforts.
- Dirty bulk: To be honest I have never liked this term, and the whole concept is vague and silly. This point leads into the first common mistake of too many calories but brings its own set of problems. Essentially, a 'dirty bulk' is a bulk where you use the fact that you are trying to gain weight as an excuse to consume an unrestricted amount of junk and high-calorie food. You gain weight, yes, but is predominately fat and it is bad for your health. This practice borderlines on an eating disorder and creates an unhealthy relationship with food.
How To Bulk The Right Way: Gradual Gains
To do things right when it comes to bulking, you have to create a caloric surplus that is high enough for you to maximise muscle gain by providing your body with enough nutrients to gain muscle mass; but not so high that you gain an excess of body fat.
To do this, you need to work out what your maintenance calories are - as mentioned before; this is the number of calories you need to eat on a daily basis to maintain your current bodyweight. There are a lot of calculators on the internet that can help you get a gauge on what this number may be, but ultimately the only way you will know is tracking your weight and calories. If the scale hasn't budged for a week or two and you've been eating the same amount of calories daily, then you are probably eating at maintenance calories.
Maintenance can vary a lot based on factors such as body weight, muscle mass, metabolism, activity and so on. For example, some ectomorphs may need to consume between 5,000 - 6,000 calories per day to sufficiently gain weight.
As a rule, for bulking, people tend to consume +10% on their maintenance calories. But again, this is just a gauge, and the only way to know is to track your calories and weight and see if the scale is progressively going up. If 10% is getting you gradual weight gain, then that should be the sweet spot. If not, then you need to add more calories.
Ultimately, bulking the 'right way' comes down to gradually making increases in the number of calories you consume to ensure you are gaining muscle and not body fat. That's it.
As for macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat), people have their personal preferences - some like higher fats and protein - while others like higher carbs. Personally, I am a fan of increasing carbohydrates when it comes to bulking and lowering protein slightly to 1 - 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight. This is because as you are in a surplus of calories, there is less risk of muscle loss and you can afford to drop protein a little.
The key to bulking the right way this winter is finding out what your maintenance calories are, adding about 10% to that and then going from there. Track your weight, and see how you are increasing. If you are gaining weight too fast and feel it's predominately body fat, take it back a bit. Conversely, if you aren't gaining anything, add some calories. Track and adjust accordingly.