Bulking – Eating for muscle mass


Bulking is a diet term used in the bodybuilding community to eat to gain muscle mass. It has different interpretations in terms of how it works and what you can eat for the “bulk”. Some call it an excuse to eat unhealthy as much as you want, and some say they do a “clean” bulk and more of a surplus of healthy calories. When done correctly, there are 3 phases to the process to achieve having more muscle and more defined muscle.

The first period lasts 4 to 6 weeks and this the bulking phase. During this phase, you eat more than your body needs. All the extra calories are meant to give the person the energy and strength to push harder and lift heavier during workouts. Men typically consume nearly 3,800 calories per day and women usually around 3,200 calories during the bulk. The excess of calories does lead to gaining body fat during this time. The next phase is called cutting, and this is when you try to lose the body fat you gained. Now you eat less calories than your body needs. Men typically eat about 2,400 calories and women about 1,200 calories during the cut. The problem is that maintaining muscle mass during this time is difficult, but the goal is to keep what you have built and not lose any muscle.

To know how many calories you should have, it is recommended to eat 10–20% above normal intake which would result in gaining about 0.25–0.5% of your body weight per week. If someone who weighed 150 pounds normally ate 3,000 per day, they would increase to somewhere between 3,300 to 3,600 calories. As a result, there should be a weight gain of somewhere between 0.4–0.8 pounds per week. What the person eats for these calories is very important as well. It is recommended to have 45-60% of calories from carbohydrates, 15-30% from fats, and 30-35% from protein. In general, staying away from sugars and processed foods is the best way to stick to vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meats. Eating whole foods is best as well, although some people take supplements like creatine and protein powders to achieve having larger amounts of foods than normal. “Getting it all in” for people can be difficult.

The maintenance phase is the final part of bulking. This is getting back to the normal range of calories consumed before the bulk started. Many people opt to do reverse dieting to slowing increase caloric intake weekly to not quickly gain weight back and to avoid gaining excess weight back. Bulking is safe when done correctly. However, we all have a relationship with food so sometimes changes can be to our advantage or disadvantage depending on the how we respond to an eating plan like this. A diet like bulking is temporary and eating in a sustainable, healthy manner, is always the best approach to nutrition.

Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation – PMC (nih.gov)

Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review – PMC (nih.gov)


Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and… : Strength & Conditioning Journal (lww.com)

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Dr. Megan Johnson McCullough owns a fitness studio in Oceanside CA called Every BODY's Fit. She has a Doctorate in Health and Human Performance, M.A. in Physical Education & Health Science, and she's an NASM Master Trainer & Instructor. She's also a professional natural bodybuilder, fitness model, Wellness Coach, and AFAA Group Exercise Instructor. She has 6 books on Amazon too,.