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Bulking refers to the process of gaining weight — mostly from muscle — with training and a high-calorie diet.
Competitive bodybuilders commonly perform a bulk to gain as much muscle as possible in the off-season before trimming down for competition during the cutting phase.
But beyond competitive bodybuilders, a bulking diet can be helpful for teenagers, women, or skinny guys looking to build mass.
This article explains everything you need to know about a bulking diet, including what to eat and limit, how to calculate calorie and macronutrient targets, and which supplements are beneficial.
What is bulking?
The process of bulking requires that you maintain a calorie surplus — meaning you eat more calories than you burn.
To ensure those extra calories are used primarily for building muscle rather than being stored as body fat, a good training program is necessary.
Your training should focus on progressive overload, which is when you gradually increase the weight, the number of repetitions, or training frequency over time.
Most people bulk for several months but the length of time you should bulk will depend on your goals.
Following a bulking phase, physique athletes follow a cutting phase to lose excess body fat before peaking for their show.
Calories and macros
A bulking diet involves more than simply eating more calories.
For an effective and successful bulk, you must first calculate your calorie goal and determine your macronutrient — protein, carbs, and fat — or macro targets.
Here’s how to determine your calorie surplus and macronutrient targets for a bulking diet:
A slight calorie surplus is necessary for bulking.
You should consume 200–500 calories above your current maintenance calories — the number of calories you need to maintain your body weight.
If you’re leaner or less advanced with training, your calorie surplus can be on the higher end of the range, whereas if you’re more advanced with training, your surplus should be on the lower end (2).
If you don’t know what your maintenance calories are, you can use an online calorie calculator like this one.
For example, if your maintenance calories are 2,500, your daily calorie goal should be in the range of 2,700–3,000.
You should aim to increase your body weight by 0.25–0.5% each week.
This equates to 0.4-0.8 pounds (0.2–0.4 kg) per week for a 150-pound (68-kg) person (2).
It’s best to weigh yourself daily or at least multiple times per week and take the average to determine your rate of weight gain rather than weighing yourself just once per week since your weight can fluctuate.
If you’re gaining too quickly or not gaining as quickly as you would like, you can adjust your calories as necessary.
After you calculate your calorie surplus goal, you can determine your macro targets.
Of the macros, protein is the most important since it supplies the amino acids necessary to repair and build new muscle tissue.
Some research suggests it’s best to distribute your protein throughout the day, but other research argues that protein distribution isn’t important as long as you meet your daily protein target (5, 6).
In either case, distributing your protein throughout the day across several meals and snacks is likely best since it can be difficult — if not impossible — to meet your daily protein target in only a few meals.
Next, you can set your fat and carb targets.
At least 20% of your calories — or about 0.4 grams per pound (0.9 grams per kg) of body weight — should come from fat.
The remainder of your calories should come from carbs.
Foods to eat and limit
A bulking diet allows for more flexibility with your food choices than a cutting diet due to the extra calories, but it’s still important that your diet consists primarily of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods.
This will help ensure that you meet your calorie and macro targets.
Foods to eat
Here are foods to eat when bulking:
- Fruits: apples, avocado, bananas, berries, grapes, honeydew melon, plums, kiwifruit, oranges, peaches, pears, watermelon, etc.
- Vegetables: asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, corn, cucumbers, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, etc.
- Whole grains: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, farro, oats, popcorn, quinoa, rice
- Beans and legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, peas, pinto beans, peas, peanuts, and soybeans
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts
- Dairy: cheese, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt, and plant-based milk alternatives
- Lean meats and poultry: beef, chicken, duck, goose, lamb, and pork
- Seafood: bass, cod, crab, herring, mackerel, mussels, oysters, salmon, scallops, shrimp, trout, and tuna
- Beverages: coffee, tea, water, and other calorie-free beverages
Foods to limit
You should limit foods that are highly processed or contain a high number of calories relative to the nutrients they contain.
Examples of foods to limit include:
- processed meats, like salami, hot dogs, lunch meat, and bacon
- sugary drinks, like regular soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, sugary coffee drinks, and sweetened tea
- bakery items, like muffins, rolls, cookies, pies, and pastries
- fried foods, like fries, onion rings, cheese curds, chicken, and fish
- packaged snacks and treats, like chips, fruit snacks, crackers, cookies, and candy
- frozen entrees, like pasta dishes, pizza, and burritos
- ice cream and other frozen desserts
- alcohol and non-alcohol drinks and spirits
While you don’t necessarily have to restrict these foods, you should limit the amount and frequency in which you consume them, otherwise, it can be more difficult to meet your calorie and macro targets.
Following an 80/20 approach works well for many people. It allows you to eat healthy 80% of the time and indulge 20% of the time.
Sample bulking diet menu
Here’s a sample bulking diet menu to give you an idea of what your meals and snacks should look like.
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs with spinach, and oatmeal topped with blueberries
- Lunch: chicken breast, whole-grain pasta, and green peas
- Snack (pre-workout): Greek yogurt, almonds, and a banana
- Post-workout: whey protein mixed with milk
- Dinner: salmon, roasted potatoes, and veggie stir-fry
- Snack: vanilla ice cream and a vanilla casein powder shake
Here’s a vegetarian version of the same menu:
- Breakfast: tofu scramble with spinach, and oatmeal topped with blueberries
- Lunch: roasted veggie and tofu brown rice bowl
- Snack (pre-workout): veggies with hummus and a banana
- Post-workout: pea protein mixed with soy milk
- Dinner: black bean and quinoa bowl loaded with avocado and pico de gallo
- Snack: chia pudding made with unflavored pea protein powder
Helpful supplements for bulking
There are several supplements that can help you get the most out of your workouts and maximize your bulk.
Creatine is a compound naturally produced by your body.
It’s also naturally found in animal proteins, including meats, poultry, and seafood.
Supplementing with creatine has been shown to enhance muscle size, strength, and power by 10–20% (7).
While creatine is effective for all people, from teens to older adults, it’s particularly beneficial for vegetarians who naturally have lower creatine levels from avoiding animal products.
The most studied form of creatine is creatine monohydrate — it also tends to be the most cost-effective compared with other forms.
You can supplement with creatine using a loading phase or by taking a maintenance dose.
The loading phase requires that you take 20–25 grams of creatine daily for 5–7 days followed by a maintenance dose of 3–5 grams. Larger athletes may require a maintenance dose of 5–10 grams (7).
Or you can skip the loading phase and just take the maintenance dose.
Both ways are equally effective, but it takes about four times longer to experience creatine’s benefits if you take the maintenance dose without loading.
Creatine is not time-dependent, meaning you can take it any time of day.
Buy creatine monohydrate online.
Taking a protein powder supplement is an effective, safe, and cost-effective way to promote gains in muscle mass and strength while also helping you meet your daily protein target (3).
The two most popular types of protein powder are whey and casein.
Both are derived from milk, but whey digests much faster than casein making whey protein ideal for around your workout.
Owing to its slower digestion rate, casein is a good option before bed.
When it comes to whey protein powder, there are three types: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
If you’re lactose intolerant, you may be able to tolerate a whey protein isolate since it contains much less lactose than the other types.
There are also several plant-based protein powders available, including pea, rice, wheat, and soy protein. These products may contain only one of these proteins or a blend of them.
Most studies suggest animal-based proteins like whey and casein are better at promoting muscle gains due to their contents of essential amino acids but some studies report that supplementing with plant-based proteins like soy or pea protein is just as effective (8, 9, 10, 11).
You can take protein around your workouts or in between meals if you’re running short on time.
Caffeine is stimulant naturally found in tea leaves, coffee beans, cacao beans, and yerba mate leaves, among other plants.
It’s also a key component of pre-workout supplements and many popular drinks like soda and energy drinks.
Caffeine decreases fatigue perception and increases pain tolerance, allowing you to train harder and longer (12).
An effective dose of caffeine for adults is 1.4–2.7 mg per pound (3–6 mg per kg) of body weight taken 60 minutes before exercise (12).
This equates to 210–405 mg of caffeine for a 150-pound (68-kg) person.
Pre-workout supplements contain anywhere from 150 to 400 mg of caffeine.
A good alternative to pre-workout supplements is coffee, which contains about 100 mg per 8-ounce (240 mL) cup (13).
Teens and adolescents should limit their caffeine to about 100–175 mg per day (14).
Mass gainers are supplements that contain anywhere from 500 to upwards of 1,200 calories per serving.
They usually have around 50 grams of protein, 50–250 grams of carbs, and 5–10 grams of fat per serving.
Additionally, they may contain several vitamins and minerals as well as other beneficial ingredients like creatine, but in small amounts.
While mass gainers aren’t for everyone, they can be useful if you have trouble meeting your daily calorie goal from food alone.
Because they pack so much nutrition per serving, it’s best to mix them with 24–32 ounces of water and blend to prevent clumping or being overly thick.
Shop for mass gainers online.
The bottom line
A bulking diet involves eating more calories than your body burns so you can add size.
You should consume 200–500 calories above your maintenance calorie level and calculate your macro targets.
Your diet should consist primarily of whole, minimally processed foods, but you can still indulge some of the time.
Several supplements including creatine, protein powders, and caffeine can help you get the most out of your workouts. Mass gainers can be useful if you have difficulties meeting your calorie goal from food alone.