- Bodybuilders need to eat more calories than they burn in order to gain muscle, but it’s important to do it strategically so gains are lean.
- Smart bulking is a two-part strategy involving a proper diet and nutrition plan, as well as a rigorous weight-training schedule to build bulk.
- Muscle-building and recovery supplements are necessary for helping bodybuilders to get enough clean calories and push harder at the gym.
Wanna get ripped? Great, we’re here to help! Whether you’re aiming for competition-ready strength or a perfectly carved figure, you’re going to have to start with bulking. Building muscle and tissue requires feeding the body the right nutrients and keeping yourself in a state of a controlled calorie surplus. In other words, the simplest way to think about bulking is this: You have to eat more calories than you burn.
But we all know that’s a lot harder than it sounds, and not all calories are created equal. While the idea of binging on high-fat, high-calorie foods in excess sounds great in theory, anyone who has done it knows that it’s actually not that fun—in fact, you’ll feel more like a sick slob than a svelte athlete when doing it this way—and that it’s not good for you in the long run. Gaining a caloric surplus in this manner is called dirty bulking, and it can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
On the other hand, when you bulk up the healthy way—known as clean bulking—you’re providing your body with just the right amount of nutrients to grow muscle without putting on a ton of fat. On top of that, you’ll be consuming nutrients that provide you with energy and muscle recovery support rather than empty calories that just slow you down and make you feel lazy.
The goal of clean bulking is to put your body in an anabolic state so your muscles and tissues grow. This simply means that your body is in a building frame of mind rather than a deteriorating frame of mind (the latter would be considered a catabolic state). To get your body in an anabolic state, you must eat lean to give it the physical strength and sustenance to build muscle and train hard so that it doesn’t turn the extra calories into fat.
Before You Start: Determine if You’re a Good Candidate
Unfortunately, not everyone can just dive right into bulking up. In fact, you may need to do a little cutting before you bulk. It sounds counterintuitive, but getting lean before gaining sets you up for a faster, more efficient bulk while also improving your physique aesthetic-wise. Men should have between 9 and 11 percent body fat before bulking to stay in the sweet spot of ready to bulk but not looking too skinny.
Step 1: Determine How Many Calories You Need
The first thing you’re going to want to do when starting your bulking journey is to determine how many calories you need to consume each day to successfully bulk without going off the rails. Too many calories could lead to fat development, while too few could cause you to lose the mass you’ve worked so hard to build and maintain.
There are a couple of key ways to determine how many calories to consume each day. Note that most people use a combination of factors to determine their ideal calorie intake while bulking. Here are a few good places to start.
- Calculate your TDEE – One good place to start is to figure out how many calories you typically burn per day. You can easily calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) to see roughly how many calories you burn from daily activities and exercise. You can use this handy calculator to get a good idea, but make sure to be totally honest! This will help ensure that you wind up with a caloric surplus each day so your body makes swift gains.
- Know the Standard – Every person is different, and how much you eat every day should vary greatly by your weight, your activity levels, and your general goals. However, nutrition recommendations for bulking often fall somewhere around 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day and around 4 to 7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day.
- Use Trial and Error – One of the best ways to determine if you’re on the right track calorically is to simply measure your progress and use trial and error. How do you know if your daily calorie intake is helping you work toward your goals, though? When you’re clean bulking properly, your strength and weight should be on the up and up, while fat gain should be at a minimum.
Remember that bulking takes time, and you want to slowly increase your caloric intake so you don’t put on a ton of fat. Gradually increase in increments, starting with a couple of hundred calories initially, rather than piling on the calories all at once by the thousands. One more thing to keep in mind: 100 percent of the weight you gain will not be pure muscle—there will be some fat, too—but the goal is to have the majority of the weight you gain be the good stuff. Lean gaining doesn’t happen fast, so aim for about a pound or less a week.
Step 2: Develop Your Diet and Supplement Strategy
Okay, now that you’ve determined how many calories you need to keep your body in a state of controlled surplus, it’s time to think about how you’re going to consume said calories. Most bodybuilders reach their daily nutritional goals through a combination of food and supplements, such as our protein shakes or bars, to avoid all the hassle of having to buy, cook, and plan multiple meals a day.
But food is still vital to bulking success. Diet-wise, you need to think about how you’re going to get your body the right amount of calories in the form of protein and healthy levels of fat and carbs. Remember, your body needs glycogen from carbohydrates to provide energy throughout the day so you can crush it at the gym. With this in mind, any low-carb diet probably isn’t the best choice for bodybuilding. Instead, aim for a diet rich in protein, fats, and carbs based on your specific macros.
Regardless of if you’re bulking or cutting, you should aim to get:
- 30 to 35 percent of your calories from protein
- 55 to 60 percent of your calories from carbs
- 15 to 20 percent of your calories from fat
Now for supplements. As much as we love to think that we’ll be able to meal prep our way to a perfect diet, those liquid calories from your protein powder will really go a long way in helping you reach your daily goal. You want to shoot for consuming about 30 grams of protein every three to five hours when you’re bulking. Naturally, it’s a lot easier to do this when you’re drinking your calories or taking them in the form of a supplement.
Supplements You Need for Bulking
We all know that protein powder is essential to helping us get shredded, but there’s more to the story than a little bit of whey. Here are the supplements you need to take daily when bulking.
- Whey Protein – High-quality whey protein is definitely one of the best supplements for muscle growth because it provides the body with the stuff it needs to create muscle. Think of whey protein as the building blocks of muscle growth. The amino acids in the protein are put to good use by the body when you weight train. For the cleanest possible bulk, we recommend whey protein isolate (a purer form of whey protein offering more protein per calorie), but whey protein concentrate will help you bulk on a budget. You can read more about the difference between isolate and concentrate in this guide.
- BCAA – Our bodies produce lots of new muscle mass when we bulk, and they rely on branched-chain amino acids to do so. BCAAs—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—make up a large amount of the proteins in muscle, so they help you bulk up faster with less soreness, fatigue, or muscle wasting. Take our BCAA supplement each day to keep your amino acid levels up. You may also consider a BCAA supplement with caffeine, such as Off the Chain→, for an added boost of energy.
- Creatine – Creatine is a natural substance found in the cells of our muscles that increases the body’s ability to store certain nutrients that build up muscle faster. For this reason, it’s one of the most popular supplements for muscle growth among body bodybuilders. Take your creatine supplement either immediately before or immediately after to boost its effects.
- Muscle Recovery – Think of muscle recovery supplements as a little extra something to help you push yourself further and enjoy the process a bit more. They help reduce muscle soreness and fatigue so that you feel like hitting the gym harder and harder each day and so you aren’t slowed down by a particularly challenging lifting session.
Step 3: Devise Your Lifting Plan
Eating like a bodybuilder won’t get you very far if you don’t do the building part, but there’s simply no “right” way to train for all bodybuilders. Each person is different. How you work out will depend on a variety of factors like your body type, your goals, and where you’re starting out in the process.
- Start Slow – By and large, experts agree that it’s a good idea to start your muscle-building slow, training the whole body three or four times a week, to start, and working your way up to more rigorous and frequent exercise. As you become stronger and stronger and more and more confident in the gym, you’ll discover which exercises and training styles are the most beneficial to you. From there, you’ll be able to grow and adapt your program so it’s customized to your needs.
- Make it Routine – No matter your body type or long-term goals, though, you’re going to need to commit to a realistic workout plan and stick to it. Make sure you’re lifting at least four days a week, doing three to six sets per exercise. It’s never a bad idea to get to know your fellow gym-goers or train with a partner who will hold you accountable and make sure you show up.
- Do Your Cardio – One thing to remember is that, contrary to popular belief, bodybuilding isn’t just about lifting weights. You’ll also want to do cardio—no more than a half-hour three or four days a week—in order to keep your joints and muscles strong, your heart rate up, and your muscles well-defined. We always recommend finishing your workout on the treadmill so you’re not hitting the weights feeling weak and zapped of energy.
If you want a customized workout plan that’s tailored to your specific situation, you should consider working with a personal trainer who will help you get into the proper fitness routine while also helping you maximize your diet and supplements so they work to your advantage.
Bulking Takes Time
When you do it the right way, bulking should take a bit of time. It’s not uncommon for bodybuilders to spend years bulking. It’s a slow process, but one that will serve you well in the long run and, once you have that foundation built, you’ll never have to start from scratch again. Eventually, you’ll be able to transition into maintenance and enjoy your figure without quite as much hard work and dedication.