There comes a point in bodybuilding where you must bulk to gain muscle, and not everyone wants to or can do it with gear. Winter and late fall is when most bodybuilders choose to start their bulking phase, so that eating more and training heavier isn’t done during beach season or competition season. In order to have a successful bulk while staying natty, your plan needs to be precise and executed properly.
A lot of people take “bulking up” as eating everything and trying to lift as heavy as possible, hoping that all of the weight gained will be muscle. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Being precise in your bulk helps prevent excessive fat gain.
After a long period of dieting, your body will go into overdrive in absorbing the extra nutrients you will supply in a bulk phase, which is why after a cut or extended diet might be the best time to bulk. Since your body has not been getting a high influx of nutrients in your cutting phase, you will start to perform at peak efficiency.
If your body fat % is still too high to see your abs (usually >10% bf), you might want to consider extending your cutting phase or diet. At the very least, you should be able to see your first top row of abs before starting a bulk phase, otherwise you may end up with more fat percentage than you hoped for. Ideally you would be able to see your full abdominal wall (around 6-7% bf) when you start your bulk and increase your calories.
No matter how lean you start your bulk, expect to gain some fat. As much as we all want those gains to be pure muscle, its just not going to happen. However, by eating nutrient rich foods and a variety of whole foods, vegetables, grains, and high-quality meat, you can minimize the fat gain as long as you are tracking your calories.
Eat at Maintenance and Gradually Add in Calories
The best way to minimize your fat gain during a bulk phase is to be mindful of calories. So if you’ve just come off of a long cut or diet, going in to maintenance for a period will help you reduce the fat increase. Try eating at maintenance, and watch your lifts change immensely than from when you were dieting. When your lifts start to plateau, or you’re not noticing much change in definition or on the scale for a week or more, then it is time to add in some calories.
Start by just adding 100-200 calories at a time beyond maintenance. You will reach a point where you’re in a heavy surplus in no time. But by starting off slowly, you’ll gain less unwanted fat. And remember to take progress pictures along the way. The scale might be showing a large increase with no noticeable muscle growth, or vice versa. Take those pics – 1 month from now, you’ll be glad you did.
Increase Your Lifting Frequency
If you’re only lifting 3 days per week, now is the time to change that. During your bulk phase, you want to be getting as much out of your food intake and workouts as possible. Now is the time to increase the number of days you lift, unless you are already lifting 5-7 days per week. You don’t necessarily need to be doing 2-hour workouts each time, in fact 60 minutes of heavy lifting 5-6 days per week should suffice. More time than that in the gym, and you risk increasing your cortisol levels.
Allow Your Muscles to Properly Recover
If there is ever a time to let your muscles properly recover and heal, it is during a bulk. Yes, you may be used to “powering through the pain” with DOMS while in a cut, but now that you are trying to BUILD, it is important to allow your muscles do that – recover and grow. So if that means taking 2, 3, even 4 days off from a muscle group, do it. Which leads me to my next point…
Be Creative With Your Split
So maybe you’re used to following a cut and dry routine. But now that you need to let your muscles heal and grow, you might need to make some adjustments. Say you normally train chest on Mondays and Wednesdays. Back on Tuesday and Friday. Legs on Thursday and Saturday. Or whatever you do. If its time to train a muscle group again, and you’re still sore, tweak your routine. Train the next priority muscle group. So what if you need 3-4 days to recover from your leg workout. Let your muscles heal and grow and train some arms instead (or whatever your aesthetic priority may be).
Continue to Intensify Your Training Over Time
If you’re lifting only as heavy as you were when you were dieting, you might be doing something wrong. The extra calories you’re now consuming should be a much bigger fuel for your workouts, so don’t skimp out. You should be training the muscle to failure by the end of your last set. And if you’re allowing your body time to recover, you should be able to lift heavier. So keep increasing the weight and pushing yourself. Remember to never train beyond form failure or risk an injury for yourself. So train smart.
Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Protein and Carbs
The exact amount of protein you need while in a bulk is debatable. Generally, a good rule of thumb for maintaining lean mass while strength training is 0.7 - 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight (or 1.6 - 1.7 grams/kg). However, when bulking, its necessary to increase your protein so that your body can use it to repair and grow muscle after training. Recent studies recommended intake such as 0.8 – 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight (1.8 – 2.0 g/kg). In fact, a more recent study suggests that anything over 0.72g/pound (1.6g/kg) is more than sufficient.
Now this may actually seem like less protein than you think (I know that I was confused, I have always heard for a bulk to do 1.5g/pound). So, you might want to experiment and start with what’s recommended or see if you’re a genetic freak who requires more.
You should still be getting your protein from lean sources such as:
• Lean red meat
• Egg whites
You also want to make sure you’re consuming adequate carbs. Increasing carbs keeps your energy levels high, fuels your workouts, and helps shuttle the amino acids from your proteins into the muscle tissue.
The key to minimizing fat gain when consuming more carbs is to ensure most of them are from low glycemic sources, such as brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, etc.
Higher glycemic carbs are better for after your workout, when the body needs fast released carbs and proteins in order to replenish glycogen stores in the muscles and liver and start the recovery process.
Splitting your carbs to the time your body is most receptive to them is crucial. These are usually in the morning and post workout. The carbs consumed in the morning should be mainly complex low glycemic carbs; the post workout meal should be half simple and half complex; and the remainder can be split between your remaining meals. Some suggest you take in 50% of your carbs between the morning and post-workout meals, then the remaining 50% divided how you please in the remaining meals for the day.
You also want to make sure that you’re getting adequate fiber when choosing your carb choices. Having enough fiber allows the digestive process to continue moving smoothly, which is especially important if you will be adding in more protein. Usually 20-25 grams of fiber per day is sufficient.
Now is Not the Time to Increase NEAT and TDEE
Increasing your calories burned during a bulk phase is pretty counterproductive. While doing cardio is important for heart health, you don’t need to be in the gym for hours a day doing cardio. Get your heart rate up for a short time, and just focus on your lifts (unless you are advised by a doctor to do otherwise).
Your NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis… aka calories burned while not doing exercise) also plays a role. If you ever wanted an excuse to take it easy and not do your nightly stroll around the neighborhood, your bulk phase is the perfect time. I’m not suggesting go full couch potato, but you don’t have to be moving around as much in an attempt to burn calories like you were in your cutting phase. Focus on muscle-building activities instead.
Manage Your Stress
Something often overlooked in life is stress. When you’re really stressed, your cortisol levels skyrocket, you often get weaker, and you lose muscle (especially if you’re natty). Stress can wreak havoc on your body. Try to manage your stress and be mindful of your stress. Let the little things go, and try to work on mental toughness when it comes to the big things. Don’t stress about everything, and work on your overall stress levels. It’s going to be really hard to build muscle as a natty if your stress isn’t managed well.
Have High Quality Protein Before Bed
If you’re natty, sometimes it may feel like you lose muscle overnight. The best way to end your food intake for the night is with a high-quality protein. Slow digesting protein can prolong the duration of muscle protein synthesis, and can take full advantage of the overnight spike in growth hormone and maximize muscle gains. A protein shake (now is your time to shine, Casein) is usually sufficient, but if you’re looking for an excuse to have something heartier, having a 3 – 5 oz grass-fed steak and 2 -3 eggs will help you feel satiated and give your body what it needs to continue building.
Overall, growing muscle and getting stronger is hard when natty, but it is possible.