When we bulk, we want to maximize our rate of muscle gain while minimizing fat gain. (I talked about the consequences of failing to do the latter here.)
But how do we do that? To recap from my guide to bulking:
- Train sufficiently hard and often enough, so your body has the stimulus to grow.
- Eat a sufficient calorie surplus to give your body the energy it needs to do that but not so much you get fat. (Gain weight at an appropriate rate.)
- Eat a sufficient amount of protein, the building blocks of muscle.
- Consume enough carbs to fuel your workouts.
- Sleep well.
- Manage stress.
- Don’t get injured.
This article focuses on the second and third parts. If you have just started bulking, read my guide to assessing and correcting your initial calorie calculations first. This guide covers the adjustments to calorie and macro intake after that.
Bulk Phase Troubleshooting Checklist — My Decision-making Framework
When I coach people, I don’t have a formal checklist that I go through. (I’ve been doing it so long that it’s all in my head.) However, this is how I tend to think about things. See below for explanations of each point.
Notes on the Bulking Adjustment Flowchart
- You’ll notice that a calorie increase is the last thing to consider. This protects us against unnecessary fat gain, which is important for the reasons covered in the Why We Care About Mid-Diet Adjustments chapter.
- If you’ve been feeling too full:
- Swap some of your whole food for liquid calories (without sacrificing your fruit and vegetable intake).
- If you’re a slow eater, try to eat more quickly.
- Consider a higher meal frequency so that your meals aren’t too large. If you have been skipping breakfast up until now, it might be worth adding it back in.
- Manage your food environment so that you have what you need in the house and with you at work.
- “Revisit your why” means to think about your motivations for doing this. Bulking can be especially tough for those who have a hard time gaining weight, and eating can become a chore. You have to make sure you sleep well, which means making an effort to go to bed earlier and sacrificing other activities.
- Stress is the silent killer of gains and will cause you to gain more fat and less muscle than you should. As when cutting, stress will impact recovery from your workouts, meaning that more of the weight you gain will be fat rather than muscle. Consider some strategies for managing it. Again, it is not my place to guide you on specifics, but I wrote my story of how I handled a particularly stressful period in my life here.
- Poor sleep will kill your gains and cause you to gain more fat and less muscle than you should. Here’s some advice for getting a better night’s sleep.
- If your average daily activity levels have increased, you’ll probably need to make a calorie increase. However, I recommend you wait to see the effect on your rate of weight gain rather than proactively trying to adjust, because the calorie burn estimations of the apps can’t be trusted. This is the rise in NEAT that I discussed in the Why Adjustments Are Needed chapter, which explains why some people have a harder time gaining weight than others. I don’t recommend you purposefully limit your activity; just eat more.
How To Adjust Your Calories and Macros When Bulking
Option 1: Repeat the calculation from the How To Assess and Correct Your Initial Calculations chapter.
This method can give a sense of false precision, as there will be noise in the data from changes not relating to muscle and fat, so I prefer to do the following…
Option 2: Increase overall energy intake by around 5%.
For most people, this will be a 150-200 kcal bump. To save you scrolling, here’s the appropriate section from the table in the initial adjustments chapter.
Things You Will Notice As You Bulk
The First Few Weeks
The points here are of particular relevance to those who have just finished cutting and are transitioning to a bulk.
Your weight will come up much faster than you are targeting. This is due to water, gut content, and glycogen replenishment. Don’t panic. Be patient.
Your ab definition may blur due to a little water under the skin, but it won’t change as much as you’d expect, given the weight gain.
Expect a relatively large and sudden increase in the mid and lower-stomach measurements (1.5-2.5 cm). This is not fat gain. You’re eating more, so you have a higher gut content.
Expect a small increase in the chest/back and limb measurements. This is due to the glycogen replenishment, not because you’ve suddenly gained a chunk of muscle tissue.
You may look most lean and jacked a couple of weeks in.
This is because you won’t have gained much fat yet, and you’ll be glycogen replenished, so your muscles will look their biggest. Now is the time for a photo shoot if you’re into that kinda thing.
Hunger will still likely be an issue. You’ll feel like you can eat a lot more at mealtimes. Your body will still fight you for a while in an attempt to pull you back to your previous “fatter” self. This will happen even though you are now eating more calories than maintenance. Your hormones are a little out of whack still, and your hunger cues cannot be relied upon to gauge whether you are eating a sufficient amount of calories.
Your libido will gradually start to return. Loss of libido doesn’t happen for all people, but in general, the leaner you got and the more prolonged the calorie deficit, the greater the effect and the longer it will take to return.
You may perform well in the gym initially, then experience a dip. This is because you’re eating more carbs which will fuel your workouts. However, resist the urge to ramp up the loads too quickly. Your body needs time to recover hormonally and start building muscle. If you feel great but then struggle for a few weeks, that would be natural. Don’t panic.
After the First Few Weeks
Your weight will continue to rise, but more slowly. This is because the weight increases are now caused by fat and muscle tissue increases, not water, gut content, and glycogen regain. You’ll start to be able to estimate the rate of weight gain.
Fat regain will happen in the reverse order that you lost it. You’ll notice this from the lower abs upward because that is where you last lost it. This sucks, but there is nothing we can do about it. You will gradually lose your ab definition as the bulk progresses.
Your stomach measurements will start to rise very slowly. This may only be clear when looking at 6–8 weeks of data. The inverse of what I said to be accurate about the stomach measurements when cutting applies: “As a rough guide, every 4–5 pounds of fat loss will show itself with a 2–2.5 cm (~1”) reduction on the stomach in two or more places.” If you cut before bulking, use your data points from that to give you a better estimate of how much fat you may be regaining. But make sure you discount the increases in the first couple of weeks due to gut content that I mentioned in the previous section.
The increases in the chest and limb measurements will be difficult to perceive on a week-to-week basis. Muscle growth is slow and happens all over the body. Fat storage is concentrated in places like the stomach, so it’s natural to notice this first. This catches people off-guard. Don’t take this to be a sign that you aren’t doing things right.
There are no heuristics for how much your measurements should change. Or rather, I have not observed a pattern obvious and consistent enough to determine if you are progressing to plan. So, though I know you want to hear me say something like, “Your chest-to-waist-to-arm measurements should increase in no more than a 3:2:1 ratio,” this is just fanciful. If you’re training hard, sleeping well, managing stress, and eating enough that you are gaining weight at an appropriate rate, you simply have to trust that it is working as best your genetics will allow.
You may feel that you look worse as you start to lose abdominal definition. This is natural; try not to get down about it.
There will be a gradual shift away from hunger toward a feeling of constant fullness. Eating can become a chore. This is your body trying to now stop you from gaining weight.
Performance in the gym will return to normal. By “normal,” I mean as you would expect for your experience level. Additionally, here’s my guide covering how to progress, and here’s my guide on how to break plateaus.
If you haven’t already got my training book, I’d highly recommend you pick up a copy as this is a critical component of bulking: The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Training.
Thank you for reading. This was a sample chapter from my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual 📙.
Questions are welcomed in the comments and I answer daily.
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