How to Bulk Without Getting Fat
For decades bodybuilding enthusiasts have wanted the answer to one overarching question.
How can you build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
In short, this process is unfortunately unachievable for the vast majority of us. Exceptions may include those who are brand new to resistance training, and those who utilize performance enhancing drugs.
Even these individuals will most likely end up spinning their wheels though if their goal is to accomplish both tasks simultaneously. However, if you take a smart approach to your off-season, it is very possible to severely limit how much fat you will put on your physique, while still packing on lean tissue.
This approach is what you should strive for, not only for maintaining a look that is presentable to the public (aka your face isn’t a bloated double chin disaster), but maintaining higher insulin sensitivity by limiting your body fat levels will actually promote more lean tissue growth.
The general keys to a healthy off-season are a slight (and when I mean slight I stress the word slight) caloric surplus, consistency in your program (for at least a few months in my opinion), and using the mirror as your guide when addressing potential changes that you may need to make to your regimen.
Obviously within those keys, there are several tiers of knowledge that must be used to encourage muscle growth such as what food sources to get your calories from, how you should train, how often you should be resting, how your training should differ during a bulk phase as opposed to a phase dedicated to a cutting phase, how much cardio you should be doing while bulking, etc.
But if I covered all of those subtopics this article would easily become an essay, so this will be a Part 1 of a series I will be doing on the subject as a whole.
Most bulking guides out there will tell you to find your total daily energy expenditure (total calories burned per day) and then add 500 calories to that and start there. Hell, some guides and “knowledgeable” individuals will tell you to throw 1000 calories on it and start from there.
I’m telling you right now, if you aren’t a 225 pound+ bodybuilder, it is very unlikely you actually need more than 4000 calories to grow, yet you see 150 pound kids walking around saying they’re pounding 8000 calories per day and not growing.
These individuals who make these staggering claims are either straight up not counting their actual caloric intake and are bullshitting, or are a genetic phenom with an absurd level of hunger and dedicate way too much of their time each day eating.
When I first started trying to gain weight I was a 140 pound “hard gainer”. I threw the kitchen sink at my body food wise off the bat, pounding weight gainer shakes and copious amounts of food thinking the more the better and easily pushed 4500-5000 calories daily.
While I did gain muscle, I gained so much unnecessary fat.
I recommend starting with a 200-300 calorie surplus at most, and reassessing after a week or so
Now, with a 210 pound physique and around 7% body fat almost 6 years later, if I want to push the scale up and start gaining I will usually start my bulk phase at around 3200 calories, and that is sufficient for me to start making gains.
Once I plateau, I will add another 100 calories of carbs around my workout when my body demands the extra energy, and continue accordingly, while using the mirror as my guide for if I need to adjust something.
Your body uses calories as a source of energy, if you are taking in more than your daily expenditure of calories, you will store the excess as fat. Using a very slight caloric surplus reduces the excess calories that your body isn’t actually putting to use to recover and rebuild muscle tissue from your resistance training, consequently limiting your overall fat gains.
In addition, if you go off the bat with a huge caloric surplus, the only direction you can go with your calories is up if you want to continue to gain weight. Your body will eventually plateau on the level of calories you are taking in, and you may soon find yourself trying to push 4500-5000 calories of clean food into yourself everyday just to make the scale go up.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the greatest appetite and getting in even 3500 calories of totally clean food can be a huge struggle.
Getting into the 4500 calorie+ zone is where a lot of guys are forced to start incorporating junk food into their diets daily to get the calories in they need to keep the scale going up, and ideally, you don’t want to be throwing garbage into your digestive system on a daily basis.
Use the mirror as your guide
If you are gaining weight, but you are looking much worse, why would you continue to eat the way you are eating? Some people are so concerned with the scale weight that they get incredibly biased towards their own physique and just assume they are gaining lean tissue if the scale is going up.
I can’t stress this enough, USE THE MIRROR AS YOUR GUIDE. If you are getting fat, you need to take a step back and look at your diet, your training, your rest, and see what could be adjusted or changed to address the issue.
The amount of fat you gain should never eclipse the amount of muscle you are gaining as the scale goes up, and when that starts to happen, you are probably overeating, or your insulin sensitivity has taken a dive and it’s time to do a mini-diet to reset your sensitivity.
That is a whole different topic that I will cover soon though, as insulin sensitivity is probably one of the most unaddressed concepts in bodybuilding and is a common issue in wrecking your body composition.
If your insulin sensitivity has taken a total dive from abuse of carbohydrates in your off-season diet, injecting too much insulin too often, or a myriad of other causes, then you absolutely MUST take action to improve your sensitivity to continue your off-season in a productive manner.
Guys with low insulin sensitivity will pack on fat easily and have a much harder time putting on muscle, not to mention the health implications that could result from it *cough* Type II Diabetes *cough*
I digress though and encourage you to not only keep an eye on the mirror, but your abs as well.
They should never totally disappear in the off-season, and if you literally can’t see them at all anymore, it is a good indicator you have let yourself gain too much fat and you need to cut back down.
I sure as hell don’t bust my ass in the gym and eat the way I do to walk around not looking like I’m in shape 365 days per year.
The image I added above from the end of one of my bulk phases is a good example of being very close to the fattest I would let myself get before I would know it's time to diet down again. Abs are still in, although really blurred and soft from the excess fat (and shitty picture quality). On the right is my current look and what I try to walk around at the majority of the time. The difference is evident, but I don't let things get out of control even during a bulk phase with a direct focus on adding size and making the scale go up (favorably of course).
The vast majority of individuals use their off-season (a duration of time dedicated to putting on new muscle) as an excuse to consume exorbitant amounts of calories, thinking that it will simply equate to more muscle gained, and they will worry about stripping the fat off at a later date.
I am guilty of this in my past, and I’m not going to say this method doesn’t work, but it certainly isn’t optimal and it is extremely unhealthy.
I remember when I bulked up to 250 pounds a few years back and my blood pressure got up to 150/100 at one point, and I was getting winded just walking up my staircase at home, not to mention my sleep apnea got sooooooo much worse it was ridiculous.
When you walk around at a very high weight, your heart and lungs need to work that much harder to provide oxygen throughout your body to support all the extra weight you are walking around with. I think I had a resting heart rate of almost 100 it was terrible.
In short, don’t do this.
Consistency Is Key
Sticking to a strict diet and training regimen can be tough for some, but the real results shine when you are consistent. Anybody can have a perfect day and feel good that they followed their diet and training and cardio regiment to a tee, but the real physique changes come to those who can have that perfect day, every day, for a long duration of time.
I get a lot of guys on the goodlookingloser forums asking me about short mini-bulk phases, and the truth is, those don’t work. Sure you can do a short intense cut and lose a lot of fat, but if your goal is to build an appreciable amount of NEW muscle, you need to set aside a large portion of time (many months) dedicated to slowly packing on new size, while keeping your body fat levels as low as possible.
Your body simply can’t build any appreciable mass of good composition (mass majorly comprised of muscle tissue) in a 4 week bulk or something along those lines. All the weight you pack on will most likely just be stored glycogen filling you out after a cut phase, water weight, increased blood volume, large amounts of food in your stomach from the big meals, with a bit of muscle in there and some fat. In short, the weight probably isn’t comprised of majorly the good weight we want.
If I wanted to gain 5 pounds of MUSCLE for example, I would probably set aside at least 4-6 months to a very focused bulk/off-season. If you’re a newbie or haven’t really committed yourself to a strict program ever, you will be able to make a lot more progress quicker than someone like me who has been lifting for 6 years, but it still isn’t an overnight thing at all.
By no means am I saying if you gain even a little bit of noticeable fat then your bulk is completely shot and you need to start cutting back down, you will inevitably gain a bit of body fat as you gain muscle. I don’t think anybody should be out of striking distance range of 10% body fat even at their fattest point in the off-season though, and if you let your body fat creep up to 15% or upwards of 20%, you are simply shooting yourself in the foot embarking on a bulk phase at that point.
Get down to single digit body fat levels, and then slowly bulk up until you notice you are getting to the 13-14%+ range, and then cut back down. Rinse and repeat.