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What is Bulking Season?
Every time fall and winter roll around, "bulking season" becomes one of the hottest topics in gyms and fitness communities around the globe. But what exactly is ‘bulking’ and why exactly is there a season for it?
When we're talking about bulking, it's impossible not to also mention the concept of a calorie surplus. A calorie surplus is what happens when you take in more calories than your body burns off in a day.
If you truly want to get bigger and stronger, you’ll need to focus on your nutrition every bit as much as your training routine. At its core, that means providing your body with an ample amount of calories, particularly in the form of protein.
In combination with the right training program, a calorie surplus is absolutely essential to making size and strength gains, especially as your training experience increases. In fact, without it, it would be very difficult to build any muscle at all, no matter how dialed in your workout routine is.
Bulking vs. Cutting
People often talk about "seasons" or "phases" when they mention bulking. That's because if you were to have a calorie surplus in your diet all the time, you might make some significant size and strength gains, but you’d also gain some serious amounts of body fat along the way as well.
That's why in order to circumvent this, many people ultimately end up alternating between "cutting" and bulking seasons. For instance, bodybuilders spend the majority of their offseasons on a bulk, trying to pack on as much muscle mass as humanly possible.
When the time to compete starts approaching, however, they transition over to the cutting phase, where the focus shifts to maintaining what muscle mass they've built and cutting any body fatthey may have gained.
Unlike building muscle, cutting body fat requires the exact opposite approach from a dietary standpoint -- a calorie deficit. As opposed to a surplus, a deficit occurs when you take in fewer calories per day than your body needs and it's ultimately the cornerstone of any effective fat loss program.
Clean vs Dirty Bulking
When it comes to bulking, there are two basic approaches. Clean bulking is the more methodical method and involves establishing clear calorie and macronutrient (macro) goals in your diet. The emphasis with clean bulking is on healthy, gradual weight gain.
Rapid increases in weight are closely associated with significant increases in body fat. The goal of any successful clean bulking season is to make measured improvements in size and strength while staying relatively lean.
On the flip side, ‘dirty’ bulking involves a more relaxed approach where not much thought is given to your macro or calorie intakes. People on a dirty bulk may have some kind of daily protein goal in place over the course of their bulking season, but, other than that, the only other goal is to consume plenty of extra calories each day.
The upside of dirty bulking is that you can eat pretty much whatever you want and you can put on some significant amounts of muscle mass if you're training right. The downside is that you'll also likely pack on a lot of fat, particularly when a large calorie surplus is involved.
The end result of a dirty bulk is often a cutting phase that takes significantly longer...and nobody wants to spend more time restricting their calories!
10 Tips To Maximize Your Bulking Season
Now that we’ve touched on some of the basics, it’s time to dive into the details. In order to get you pointed in the right direction on your bulking journey, we're sharing our top 10 most effective tips for maximizing your bulking season this time around.
1. Only Moderately Increase Your Calories
In order to pack on muscle mass, you have to be eating in a calorie surplus, but you don’t want to go too far over the number of calories your body actually burns off throughout the day.
A moderate surplus between 250-500 extra calories per day is the sweet spot for building muscle and minimizing fat gain during a bulk.
No matter what, when you eat more calories than you need, you will gain some body fat. However, finding a daily calorie goal that results in gradual weight gain is the best way to ensure that most of your gains are coming from muscle and not fat.
You may only gain something like 3 pounds a month, but after a few months, those become some serious gains, especially when we are talking about lean muscle!
Establishing a moderate calorie surplus in your diet depends on knowing how many calories your body actually needs. The number of calories your body burns off throughout the day is referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and can be easily estimated using an online TDEE calculator.
The calculator will give you an estimate of how many calories it takes to maintain your current body weight based on your age, height, weight, sex, and activity level.
From there, you can begin to pepper in some additional calories into your diet until you see the gradual weight gain you’re after. A few pounds a month is all you’re after; too much weight too quickly is a clear sign you are putting on body fat.
2. Maintain a High Protein Intake
While a calorie surplus is a good start, in order to pack on muscle mass, you also need to be taking in an adequate supply of dietary protein.
Your body builds muscle through a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is fueled by the protein you take in through your diet. Without enough dietary protein, it will be impossible to get bigger and stronger.
Research suggests that, in combination with resistance training, somewhere between 1 - 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight is the ideal range to promote maximal muscle growth. So, for example, if you weigh 160 pounds and you’re going for 1.2 grams per lb, that’s 192 grams of protein per day.
3. Fuel Your Performance With Complex Carbs
Another important aspect of maximizing your muscle-building potential lies in performing at your best during training. One of the easiest ways to do that is by incorporating plenty of complex carbs into your diet. According to the NIH, between 45 and 65% of your total daily calories should be coming from carbohydrates.
Carbs are our body’s primary fuel source; they provide us with energy during intense physical activity. While simple carbs like sugars produce quick spikes in energy, complex carbs are more long-lasting, which is ideal for powering through a lengthy workout.
Consume plenty of complex carbs 3-4 hours before your workout to maximize your energy levels in the gym. The more stress you are able to put on your muscles during your workout, the more they will grow afterward.
4. Track Your Macronutrients During Bulking Season
When it comes to macros, don't just focus on your protein intake during a bulk. Make sure that you also have a healthy balance of carbs and fats in your diet.
In addition to protein and carbs, dietary fat should account for somewhere between 20% - 35% of your calories.
While it might be tempting to severely restrict your fat intake so that you don’t gain body fat, it doesn’t quite work like that. Your body needs a healthy supply of dietary fat to support your vital organs and several other bodily processes. In fact, without enough fat, your mind and body would simply shut down.
Keeping track of all your macros will allow you to tinker with your ratios until you find the macro split that best fits your body’s needs.
For instance, if you have been consistently feeling low on energy in the gym and you know how many carbs you’ve been consuming daily, you can experiment with boosting your carbs and limiting your fats to see how it affects your energy levels.
5. Limit the Junk Food/Focus on Clean Bulking
When it comes to maximizing your muscle-building potential, you want to make sure that most of your calories are coming from clean and healthy food sources during your bulk.
The calories you put into your body should have a specific purpose -- they should be used to fuel your performance in the gym and help rebuild and recover afterward.
The objective is to minimize empty calories and focus on consuming foods that directly align with the goal of packing on lean muscle mass. Here are some good food sources to include in your diet during a bulk:
6. Take the Right Supplements
Adding the right supplements into your diet is an easy and effective way to make your bulking season even more successful. Supplements such as whey protein can make hitting your daily protein goal feel almost effortless.
On top of that, throwing some whey protein into your diet helps to spike levels of protein synthesis in your muscles, which is perfect post-workout.
Other supplements like creatine have been proven to boost the energy levels in your muscle cells, allowing you to work harder for longer in the gym. If you’re able to move more weight and do more reps, you’re going to get stronger. If you’re getting stronger, it is a good sign you’re building muscle!
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) help to promote recovery in your muscle cells following intensive training, which aids in combatting Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). A healthy dose of BCAAs helps to counter the lingering pain and soreness that many people experience after a hard day in the gym.
7. Focus on Compound Movements in Your Training
We’ve gone over plenty of tips related to your bulking diet, so now let’s talk a little bit about what kind of training you should be doing.
Compound movements are resistance exercises that involve multiple muscle groups and should be the focus of any training program designed to build muscle. That because they allow you to lift more weight, which at the end of the day, helps to break down more tissue -- more tissue breakdown means more growth over time.
This doesn’t mean that you should eliminate isolation movements like bicep curls from your routine. Instead, start out with heavy compound exercises like the squat, bench, deadlift, row, and overhead press and then move on to lighter isolation movements.
⫸Why Compound Movements?
They don’t call the squat “the king of all movements” for no reason. Squats are hailed as one of the best muscle building movements because they engage many different muscles from all over your body.
The quads and hamstrings are the most obvious, but many of the different muscles in your back and core are also engaged to stabilize and move the weight during a squat. All of this adds up to some serious size gains when you throw compound movements like the squat into your routine.
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8. Get Enough Rest
In order to grow, your muscles need to be able to adequately recover following intense exercise. It might be tempting to dramatically up your weekly workout volume, but going too crazy with your workload can lead to overtraining and injury.
Aim for 4 to 5 weightlifting sessions per week at the most. That should be more than enough to see some serious gains and it will give your body the time it needs to rebuild and recover in between training sessions.
9. Keep Your Cardio In Check
You don’t need to completely stop doing cardio during a bulk, but you will want to have a clear understanding of how it fits into your routine if you do choose to include it.
It might sound obvious, but cardio burns calories. If you are doing lots of cardio, you will have to eat even more to achieve a surplus. If you are struggling to gain weight, you may want to consider dialing back your cardio.
If you are going to include cardio in your training, make sure you are doing it at a different time than your weight training. Research shows that cardio can interfere with your ability to build muscle when it is performed in short succession of resistance exercises that engage the same muscle groups. Instead, do your cardio and weight training on different days if possible.
10. Keep Your diet and training consistent
We’ve touched on everything from calories and macros to best practices for training. Our last tip to maximize your bulking season is to stay consistent with everything we’ve discussed.
Building muscle is a process that takes time. In order to see results, you have to be hitting your calorie and macro goals day in and day out. On top of all that, your training also needs to be on point. Once you find a training routine that works, stick to it!
Now that you’re equipped with all the tools you need to make this year’s bulking season your best, get out there and make it happen!