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Bulking is the process of thoughtfully changing body composition and putting on muscle mass through strength training and eating a lot of calories.
Some people go for the quickest and easiest route, eating a lot of calorie-dense, not necessarily healthful junk foods. A healthier option is clean bulking, sticking with mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Because it requires more food, clean bulking means eating a lot, and a lot of the time. You’ll likely need three main meals, at least, plus high-calorie snacks throughout the day to hit your goals.
Bulking is one phase of the bodybuilding cycle, but it’s not necessarily only for bodybuilders. Bulking means eating more calories than you expend while also strength training. The purpose is to combine strength training with calories to actively grow and build muscle mass and strength.
Anyone who wants to add muscle to their frames can use a bulking strategy to get there. It requires careful planning, though. You need the right foods with adequate calories balanced with strength workouts, so you gain muscle, not fat.
Bulking is a careful balance. If you eat too much and don’t workout enough, you’ll gain weight but not the way you want. You also risk nutritional imbalances if you don’t consider the sources of calories.
Combining weight training with increased calorie intake is the basic strategy behind bulking. You need to consume more calories than your body uses to increase mass and gain weight.
This may sound like an ideal situation, but it’s not that simple. Many people find it challenging to get enough calories in while bulking. You’ll need regular meals as well as high-calorie snacks throughout the day to consume between 3,200 and 3,800 calories, the average intake for female and male bodybuilders when bulking.
High-calorie, high-protein snacks are especially important within one to two hours before and after a workout. The optimal way to take in adequate protein for muscle growth is to spread it out throughout the day. You need both meals and snacks to achieve this.
The primary focus of your workouts during bulking will be weight and strength training. You can still do some cardio, and should for heart health, but you’ll do much more strength work.
It’s best to work with a trainer, if you aren’t one, to build a smart routine for the bulking phase. Even if you are a trainer, talk to bodybuilders or other trainers with more experience bulking to get advice.
Building muscle gets more difficult with age. This guide will help you if you’re over 50 or have older clients looking to build muscle.
Bulking is followed by cutting, which means reducing calories and increasing cardio workouts to lose fat. This phase, if done correctly, should leave you with muscles you can see. You’ll keep the muscle mass you build during bulking but lose some of the fat covering them, changing your body composition. You can then balance nutrition and calorie intake with workouts to maintain your physique.
Related Article: How Long Should You Bulk For?
If you’ve done any research into bulking, you have probably come across these terms. Some bodybuilders go quick and dirty, eating extra calories from any source they can find. Others prefer to be more thoughtful and to consume healthy, whole foods.
In general, dirty bulking means consuming high calorie food often considered junk food. The purpose of this is to get more calories more quickly. Most junk foods are easy to eat and provide a large number of calories. The benefit is that you can reach your calorie goals more quickly.
Clean bulking is a more careful process of choosing more whole foods and avoiding or only minimally consuming junk and processed foods. The biggest benefit of clean bulking is that it’s better for your health.
Bulking properly requires a balance of macronutrients. A general rule for the percentage of calories for each type is:
45% to 60% carbohydrates
30% to 35% protein
15% to 30% fat
It’s easier to strike the right ratio with clean eating. So-called dirty foods provide quick weight gain because they are so high in calories, but they tend to have more fat. They also have a lot of simple sugars instead of more nutritious complex carbohydrates. Protein is lacking in many junk foods too.
The downside to clean bulking is that it requires more thought and planning. You generally need to eat more clean foods to get the same amount of calories you would from junk foods. Still, it’s an overall better strategy for nutrition, health, and minimizing fat gain.
Related Article: Building Muscle - A Lean Bulk Meal Plan
Because clean eating requires taking in more foods overall, high-calorie snacks are particularly important. Supplement three or four meals per day with healthy, minimally processed, and high-calorie snacks:
Nuts are among the most energy-dense foods you can find. Nut butters are great because they concentrate the calories even more into easy-to-use spreads. Additionally, a natural nut butter contains minimal added ingredients—if any—and has minerals like zinc, magnesium, and selenium to boost muscle gain.
A two-tablespoon serving of natural peanut butter has about 200 calories with eight grams of protein. Nuts are high in fats, but healthy plant fats. Nut butters are easy to snack on wherever you are. Spread them on bread or fruit or just eat it by the spoonful. You can even find to-go pouches of single servings of nut butters for pre- and post-gym sessions.
Another natural source of many calories is the avocado. Although it’s a fruit, the avocado is richer in fat than protein, which means it is also very high in calories for its size. A standard avocado has about 300 calories, 29 grams of fat, 17 grams of carbs, and 4 grams of protein. Avocado on bread or toast is an easy way to get in a lot of calories in one snack.
For extra protein, try this quick snack: Halve an avocado, remove the pit, and scoop out a little bit of the fruit. Crack an egg into each half and bake in the oven at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes. The two eggs add about 140 calories and 12 grams of protein.
This is a great snack for when you’re on the go. It’s easy to eat out of a container from your purse or gym bag. You can buy pre-made trail mix, but if you make your own, you know exactly what goes into it. Make the bulk of the mix nuts and seeds to optimize calorie density and add some dried fruit for extra carbs and sweetness.
Some good choices include peanuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds. Include a varied mix to get the most different types of minerals and vitamins along with fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
A piece of beef probably isn’t what you first think of when planning a snack, but it’s a great clean bulking food. If you can cook beef for a few days’ worth of snacks, you’ll have a go-to, high-protein, calorie-dense and versatile option.
Three ounces of lean beef has about 200 calories and a whopping 24 grams of fat. It also provides a significant amount of creatine, which promotes muscle growth. Eat pre-cooked steak with a whole wheat tortilla or slice of bread for additional calories and carbs.
Cereal is an easy, tasty snack you can eat any time of day. Choose whole grain cereals, like Cheerios or bran flakes to get more nutrients, vitamins, and protein with your calories. Eat it with milk or yogurt for additional calories and protein and add some fruit and nuts as well.
Among cereals, granola is very dense in calories. It makes an easy snack when you literally don’t have time to prepare anything. Some granolas have a ton of sugar, though, so if you’re looking to minimize simple carbs, read ingredient labels for added sugar.
A smoothie is a quick way to get a lot of different foods into one snack. It also has the potential to be very high in calories, depending on the ingredients you choose. In addition to fruits and veggies, use:
Full-fat yogurt or milk
Canned coconut milk
Protein powder is an easy way to add more calories and protein to many snacks. Whether or not it fits into a clean eating scheme depends on how strict you want to be. Some protein powders are better than others. Look for those with a source of protein you prefer and with minimal added sugar.
Make a big batch of a calorie-rich, nutrient-dense grain salad and carry containers of it with you throughout the day for snacking. Whole grains are great for bulking because they have a lot of carbs and calories along with some protein as well as vitamins and minerals.
A grain salad is something you can make ahead and eat all week. It gives you a good opportunity to add a diverse mix of foods for balanced nutrition and calories:
Starchy vegetables, like cooked sweet potato and peas
Legumes, like chickpeas and black beans
Healthy fats, including nuts and seeds
Nutrient-rich fruits, like pomegranate seeds and dried cranberries
Cooked lean meats, including chicken, beef, and salmon
Bulking is a careful process of consuming enough of the right calories to balance strength training and make muscle gains. A clean approach is best for your health but requires more planning. Try these snacks along with healthy meals as you work toward your bulking goals.
Become an ISSA Certified Nutritionist if you’re interested in helping clients make smarter food choices. This comprehensive program is great for current personal trainers looking to add a new skill and anyone totally new to the health and fitness industry.