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When it comes to packing on size and strength, there’s one thing that just about trumps everything else in terms of importance: a calorie surplus. A calorie surplus is the result of taking in more calories than your body burns off in a day. This surplus is the cornerstone of any muscle-building diet.
Unfortunately, eating a boatload of extra calories can lead to significant gains in body fat, which is not what any of us are after when we’re trying to bulk! Instead, having a clear understanding of how many calories your body actually burns off in a day will allow you to add extra calories into your diet with precision.
Simply eating in a calorie surplus however doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to put on lean muscle mass. This is where counting your macronutrients comes in to play. In order to pack on muscle mass and minimize fat gains during your bulk, you need to find a macro split that’s effective and easy to be consistent with.
In this article:
What Are Macros and Why Should You Track Them to Bulk Up?
So, you may be asking yourself, “why worry about counting your macros at all?” You’re probably aware that macros are the calorie providing substances found in food, but that’s only half of the picture. Each macronutrient actually has a number of unique and vital functions within your body.
When we’re talking about building muscle, no macronutrient is more important than protein. Without enough protein, your body won’t be able to build new muscle tissue no matter how many calories you consume or how many hours you spend in the gym.
Dietary fat and carbohydrates also perform a number of important functions within your body. Without enough carbs, it’s very difficult to muster up the energy it takes to make it through your workouts. A deficit in fats means that your body may not be able to distribute vitamins and minerals to the cells that need them.
Ultimately, having a balanced intake of all 3 macronutrients in your daily diet is the key to maximizing your muscle-building potential while you are bulking.
How to Count Macros For Bulking
We’ve talked a little bit about why you should be counting your macros during a bulk, now let’s go over how to do it. There are a few relatively simple steps you will need to follow in order to get your bulking diet dialed in and on point. The first step is figuring out how many calories your body actually burns off in a day:
Step 1: Figure Out Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
The amount of calories you expend in a day taking into account your activity level is known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). One of the easiest ways to figure out your daily calorie needs is by using an online TDEE calculator.
The calculator will give you an estimate of how many calories per day it takes you to maintain your current weight based on a number of different factors (height, weight, sex, age, activity level). From there all you have to do is slightly adjust the estimate in one direction or another until you don’t see any weight change for a week or two.
Step 2: Moderately Increase Your Calories Based on Your TDEE
Once you know your TDEE, the 2nd step is adding additional calories to your diet to create a calorie surplus. While it might be tempting to go overboard, you’re going to want to stick with a moderate surplus.
Professional strength athletes like Matt Minuth usually shoot for a surplus of between 250-500 calories per day. That’s plenty of extra calories to pack on mass and small enough of a surplus to limit fat gains during your bulk. The goal is gradual weight gain. If you’re gaining more than a pound a week, there is a very good chance you’re putting on more than just muscle!
Step 3: Figure Out A Macro Split That Works For You
Once you have tacked on the extra calories to your TDEE, you’re ready to start dividing up your calories amongst your macros. While it would be nice if there was one macro split that was best for everyone, it’s not quite that simple.
Instead, organizations like the NIH have identified a set of ideal ranges for each macronutrient. You’ll have to experiment a little within these ranges until you find a split that you like and can stick to. As long as you stay within the recommended ranges, you can split up your macros however you would like.
Between 10-35% of your total daily calories should be coming from protein. As we’ve already mentioned, you absolutely need to be taking in enough protein in order to build muscle. A very common target people shoot for during a bulk is between 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So for example, if you’re going for 1.2g and weigh 160 lbs, that’s 192 g of protein per day.
Let’s just make sure that number fits within our ideal range for protein. Let’s say our calorie goals are 2,800c per day.
2,800 x .10 = 280
280/4 = 70g
2,800 x .35 = 980
980/4 = 245g
(Protein has 4 calories per gram)
As you can see, the range we get is between 70 – 245 grams. Our calculation of 192 grams of protein per day would fit nicely within of this recommended range.
Carbohydrates should make up the majority (or close to it) of your total daily calories. Somewhere between 45-65% of the calories in your daily diet should be coming from carbs.
Focus on consuming complex carbs and minimize simple sugars in your diet for a steady energy supply rather than quick spikes and crashes. Taking in plenty of complex carbs 3-4 hours before intense physical activity is a tried and true way to make sure you have the energy you need when you need it most.
While it might have a scary connotation, you actually need a healthy supply of fat in your diet. Between 20-35% of your total daily calories should be coming from healthy fat sources.
While you do need a regular supply of fat in your diet, you’ll certainly want to keep it in check. Unlike protein and carbs, which are 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories, so it can really add up quickly if you’re not paying attention.
Step 4: Be Consistent but Don’t Bulk for Too Long
The key to building muscle mass is patience and consistency. Once you find a calorie surplus and macro split that works, stick to them for an extended period of time! It’s a gradual process — in order to make the gains you’re after, you have to put in the time, both at the dinner table and in the gym.
But don’t bulk for too long. No matter what, when you eat in a calorie surplus you will gain some fat, regardless of how good you are with hitting your macro and calorie goals. That’s why many people switch between bulking and cutting phases, where they’ll spend an extended period of time packing on muscle mass and then shift to shedding the extra fat gained during the bulking phase.
While there is no one time frame that works best for everyone, many people opt to bulk for somewhere between 3-6 months. A popular time period to do a bulk is during the fall/winter so that the time spring rolls around, you’re ready to start getting shredded for the beach.
How Much Should You Expect to Gain During Your Bulk?
As unfortunate as it may be, everyone’s body is going to react differently to a bulk. Some people may be able to pack on impressive amounts of muscle mass, while others may find it difficult to make anything more than minimal gains. While there are a number of different variables that affect your muscle-building potential, we’re going to focus on training experience.
The amount of time you’ve spent in the gym can have a lot of influence on your ability to build muscle. In general, people who have little to no previous experience with weight training are able to gain a lot more muscle mass in the same time period compared to individuals with extensive training backgrounds.
So if it’s your first time bulking, it is not unfathomable to gain 10+ pounds of muscle mass over the course of a 3+ month bulk. But if you’ve been training for over 10 years, you’ll likely only be able to put on a pound or two at the most during the same time period.