How To Bulk – Bulking Workout And Nutrition Plan, Per Experts – Women's Health
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“It’s one of the best investments we can make in terms of our long-term health.”
Take a scroll on IG or TikTok, and you’ll see women crushing P.R.s on
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hip thrusts, deadlifts, and other super impressive lifts. These major strength transformations take dedication and hard work. So, what’s going on BTS?
There’s a solid chance it’s bulking. For one, the hashtag #bulking alone has over 2.1 billion views on the app. (Yes, with a B.) Bulking just means putting on major muscle, per Laura Girard, NASM-CPT. It’s a term central to certain sport communities, like bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, she adds. But, it definitely shouldn’t stay there.
Meet the experts: Laura Girard, NASM-CPT, is an online fitness and certified nutrition coach and founder of The Energy Academy. Jason Machowsky, CSCS, is an exercise physiologist and board-certified sports dietitian.
“We should all want to bulk,” Girard says. “Building muscle is necessary if your goals are strength or general fitness. It’s one of the best investments we can make in terms of our long-term health.”
That said, bulking requires some careful consideration in both the weight room and the kitchen. Here, experts explain what bulking is, how to bulk effectively and safely, and whether it’s right for you (and, that key muscle-building tweak you’re probably missing in your routine!).
Bulking consists of two parts: resistance training and fueling—both done in abundance, says Jason Machowsky, CSCS, exercise physiologist, and board-certified sports dietitian.
“First, you need a stimulus for muscular development, which is usually resistance or strength training,” Machowsky says. “Bulking then involves eating adequate protein, extra carbohydrates, and extra calories to provide your body with the additional fuel required to build more muscle via protein synthesis. The protein is the ‘building blocks’ and the extra calories and carbs are the fuel your body needs to use to do the building.”
So, what protein synthesis boils down to: Consume enough calories to stay energized during workouts and take in enough protein to fuel muscle growth.
“Our bodies are constantly breaking down proteins into amino acids to build up tissues in the body,” Girard adds. “The breaking down (catabolic) and building up (anabolic) processes are always happening at the same time, so if we want to build muscle, we want to perform activities that support the anabolic process, like resistance training, eating enough, and getting adequate sleep.”
Muscle growth takes place during recovery periods (so, going hard in the gym and eating won’t necessarily fuel the bulk alone), per Girard. And, surprise, surprise: Much of that recovery takes place during sleep. Exercisers who receive fewer than six hours of sleep per night have less strength than those who get seven or more hours of sleep nightly, per a 2017 Chinese study from the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions. (Ding ding ding!)
How long it takes for a person to bulk up (in other words, see muscle growth) is largely dependent on how fast their metabolism is and how many extra calories and grams of protein they’re adding to their diet, per Machowsky.
If you train hard and consume foods carefully, seeing weight gain in lean muscle mass of o.5 to 1 pound per week is ideal, he notes. “People should start to notice some changes within four to six weeks,” Machowsky says.
There are a lot of variables in the mix beyond training and fueling that can impact timing. Keep in mind that muscle growth is based on a wide swath of factors, including your age, hormone levels, and metabolism. And, in addition to a person’s genetics, certain health conditions and hormonal disorders have been found to affect a person’s metabolism. (So, don’t think of the timeframe above as set in stone.)
That said, beginners should expect to see muscle growth faster than, a seasoned bodybuilder or longtime weight room regular, Girard notes. “You’ll see this referred to as ‘newbie gains,’” she adds. “They tend to taper off after about a year of training. The more advanced you become, the longer it will take to gain noticeable amounts of muscle.”
Is there an ideal length for a bulking period? Unless you’re a competitive athlete, there’s not really a must-adhere to timeline, says Machowsky. “Most training phases last six to 12 weeks, though there’s no hard and fast rule about how long you need to spend bulking,” he says.
Bodybuilders often bulk during their off-seasons from competing, as the sport requires them to have very little body fat at the time of a competition. For everyone else, you’re free to schedule your bulking when it works for you!
Putting on muscle mass is in everyone’s best interest, experts agree. Asking yourself why you’re wanting to bulk in the first place is important, though, says Machowsky. That’s what helps you determine success and progress along the way.
Key questions to ask yourself are: “Is it [for] strength in the weight room? Sports performance? Physique? Overall health?” he recommends. “I would suggest choosing two to three markers of success independent of weight.” Then, focus on those when you’re looking for results.
For example, he notes that a marker of success might be the weight you’re able to lift during your bulking period, your speed or sport performance, or your body composition (i.e. what a tape measure will tell you as opposed to a scale). Sticking to one, or multiple, measurements can help you track success.
That said, if your goal is to compete or train specifically for a sport like bodybuilding where you need to lose the “bulk weight” quickly, enlisting the help of a certified sports nutritionist and trainer is crucial. Putting on muscle mass is typically safe for everyone, but quickly shedding weight (or cutting) after a period of muscle mass gain can be dangerous without expert guidance.
Now that you understand the science of building muscles, you know it takes serious fuel. And, you’ll likely need to adjust your diet to during your bulk. “You should be consuming more calories than you are burning in order to put on mass,” says Katie Valdes, RD, assistant director for sports nutrition at the University of Southern California’s Department of Athletics.
Here’s how she recommends you plan your caloric and protein intake during your bulking period:
Pro tip: Don’t feel as though you need a diet overhaul during a bulk—just continuously feed yourself foods and snacks throughout the day that are high in carbohydrates and protein.
Eating enough calories can be a challenge when putting on muscle mass, Valdes notes, so try to aim for simple foods that contain both ample amounts of carbohydrates and protein. A few of her favorites: deli sandwiches, chocolate milk, protein bars, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
If you’re still struggling to hit your nutrition targets, you might beeline for the supplements aisle. However, Valdes urges exercisers to proceed with caution. “We want to prioritize a food-first approach, as supplements are not a replacement for eating whole foods,” she says. “Supplements should only be considered if energy needs are being met as well as proper nutrient timing is utilized.”
Protein powder (preferably one with a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein) and creatine are both supplements that can help facilitate muscle growth, per Valdes. Again, they don’t necessarily spur muscle growth necessarily any better than whole foods could—it might just make hitting your macros easier to do.)
The other key component of bulking is strength training. Here, Machowsky walks through his top tips for anyone on a bulk (a.k.a. simply wanting to add muscle mass):
Give yourself a pat on that very strong back, you did it! But, this can be just the beginning. Muscle growth can (and should) be a continuous journey, so long as you fuel yourself adequately. Try not to stop training entirely following a bulk, says Machowsky. “It’s a bit easier to maintain your gains than to build new mass, so you could reduce your overall training volume a bit [following a bulking period] if you need a break, but don’t stop all together.”
If you reduce the intensity of your training, yet continue to eat the same number of calories that fueled your bulk, it could lead to unintended weight gain, says Machowsky. He says you can fix that by reverting the number of calories you were consuming prior to the bulk.
Keep in mind that cycles of bulking and cutting can potentially be harmful if you’re not a high-level athlete, per Girard. “We can all benefit from building muscle, and we should consider the many risk factors associated with weight cycling," she says. "Hyper-focus on numbers can lead to a host of health problems, both mental and physical.”
Bottom line: Everyone can benefit from bulking, or gaining muscle. The basics of a bulk include consuming enough protein and calories and hitting the strength room hard along with recovering with ample sleep.
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