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Bulking Up - The Right Way

One of the most common aims of avid trainers over the off season or during winter for the non-sports person is to bulk up and put on some mass before reducing their body fat percentage down prior to competition or summer. As with exercises performed in the gym, there are right ways and wrong ways to carry out the movement. Similarly, there are right ways and wrong ways to bulk up. So to bulk up effectively and with fewer negative long-term consequences, follow these top 7 tips:

1. Eat More

As simple and obvious as this sounds, it’s surprising how many people make the simple mistake of not eating enough to gain weight. Gaining or losing weight isn’t as easy as it appears. Our body is very adaptive and will respond metabolically during a period of overfeeding or underfeeding. That is, our body will often increase or decrease its total daily expenditure via our metabolic rate in response to extra or less food in order to keep our weight stable. In order to bulk up successfully, as a general rule of thumb, you need to at least eat 500-1000 additional calories per day to gain between 0.5-1kg per week. Remember these are additional calories over that of what your body requires for weight maintenance and after factoring the additional energy needed due to your exercise and activity levels.

2. Afraid of Getting Fat?

“I want to put on lean muscle mass and not too much fat.” One of the most common statements spoken by anybody training and wanting to gain mass. So many people however are sabotaging their own weight gain due to their fear of gaining a bit of fat. Unfortunately, any period of overfeeding will increase both lean muscle mass and fat mass (both subcutaneous and visceral). So if you’re serious about gaining mass, don’t be worried about gaining fat. Leave that mentality behind and be assured that if you’re training, dieting and supplementing appropriately, you can minimise fat gain.

3. Getting Your Macronutrients Right

In terms of bulkers, there are those who attempt to bulk cleanly and watch their diet while there are those who believe they can eat anything under the sun as long as they make their daily energy requirements. It is important to realise that not all calories are created equal and overfeeding requires a careful manipulation of carbs, protein and fat. For example, simply overfeeding on carbohydrates will lead to an increase in carbohydrate oxidation and energy expenditure with about 75-85% of the additional energy being stored. On the other hand, overfeeding on fat leads to minimal increases in fat oxidation and energy expenditure resulting in 90-95% of the additional energy being stored. In addition, overfeeding on fat can cause adverse changes in hormone levels such as leptin and insulin which can precipitate future issues such as obesity and diabetes. In terms of macronutrient proportioning, make sure you are getting plenty of protein at between 15-25% of your total daily intake, fat at an upper limit of around 30% (10% saturated maximum) and the rest being carbohydrates.

4. The Importance of Protein

Protein during periods of fasting have been shown to help preserve lean muscle mass. Protein also becomes important during periods of increased energy intake. Having a higher protein macronutrient distribution in your diet will help ensure that a good proportion of the weight gained will be lean muscle mass rather than fat. While you will still put on some fat mass, you can cut this down to a minimum. Furthermore, higher protein contents during periods of overfeeding or increased energy intake can also help increase your total daily energy expenditure, which can come in handy during the initial stages of leaning up. Ensure you are getting at least 2g/kg/day of protein or 25% of your total daily intake to maximise the above effects.

5. Feeling Full

Eating an extra 500-1000 calories sounds like a walk in the park. Who doesn’t like eating right? However, eating 500-1000 additional calories in food can often be quite filling. Many people trying to bulk for the first time often fail to comply with their new diet for an extended period of time simply because they feel too full, bloated and uncomfortable. To make overfeeding easier try separating the extra intake over a couple of meals and reducing the overall fibre content of your meals. While having a high fibre diet is beneficial and encouraged for a variety of positive health benefits, having too much fibre during your bulking phase can make eating those extra calories amazingly difficult. While being fuller for longer has its benefits, reducing fibre intake during your bulking phase will help you reach your goals faster. Using high energy liquid supplements is also a great way to make up your additional calories without affecting your appetite for your other meals.

6. Train Harder

There’s no point eating all those extra calories and not changing the way you are working out. Ideally for most people, you want to gain predominantly lean muscle mass and to increase hypertrophy as well as strength. As such, it is important to use this period of time of additional energy to really increase the amount of weight lifted and intensity that you are working at. Your bulking period is the perfect time to perform heavy resistance training. Aim for a weight with which you can manage around 6-8 reps with slightly longer rest periods of between 1-2 minutes.

7. Maintain Cardio Fitness

While looking big and muscular may be an ideal for the modern man, maintaining your cardiorespiratory fitness is equally as important for longer term health. While the bulking up phase is not the right time to be focusing on your marathon ambitions or upping your cardio training, it is important to maintain a healthy level of cardiorespiratory fitness as it is an area of fitness which degrades extremely quickly during periods of discontinuation. Avoid being the guy who can’t run to save his life and perform 2-3 short 10 minute bouts of high intensity interval training to keep up the cardiorespiratory fitness during your period of bulking.

Enjoy Yourself

Remember, this is usually an immensely enjoyable time for most bodybuilders and trainers. They are allowed to eat more and be more free with their diet and let’s face it, who doesn’t like to eat? However, by following some of the few above tips and bulking relatively cleanly, you can save yourself less hassle in the future during your cutting phase and prevent any unwanted long term changes.

1. Horton TJ, Drougas H, Brachey A, Reed GW, Peters JC, Hill JO. ‘Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage.’ Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Jul;62(1):19-29.
2. Tam CS, Viardot A, Clément K, Tordjman J, Tonks K, Greenfield JR, Campbell LV, Samocha-Bonet D, Heilbronn LK. ‘Short-term overfeeding may induce peripheral insulin resistance without altering subcutaneous adipose tissue macrophages in humans.’ Diabetes. 2010 Sep;59(9):2164-70. Epub 2010 Jun 14.
3. Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, Xie H, Rood J, Martin CK, Most M, Brock C, Mancuso S, Redman LM. ‘Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial.’ JAMA. 2012 Jan 4;307(1):47-55.
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