There is an old school thinking that still lingers when it comes to putting on muscle mass. “Dirty Bulking” refers to eating a huge surplus of calories in order to ensure muscular gains are achieved throughout a massing phase of a diet. Bodybuilders used to take pride in seeing how far they can push their weight in the offseason swearing it’s all muscle. What ends up happening instead is they’ll have pushed their body fat percentage from 11-12% to 20-25% with little muscle to show for it.
There is a better way to go about gaining muscle. Our bodies can only put on so much lean body mass in a given time regardless of what you feed it. Just because you eat more, doesn’t mean you earn MORE muscle. We all have a limit. So instead of gaining say 5lbs of muscle and 20lbs of fat, why not gain 5lbs of muscle and 10lbs of fat?
You Only Need A Small Surplus
The name of the game is applying the smallest change to elicit the most results. We only need a surplus of 200-300 calories a day to put ourselves in an anabolic state where we can ensure we are building muscle. Any more than that (unless you are a hardgainer) is most likely more than you need and will just result in more fat gain.
If you are worried this isn’t enough then just experiment. Start with a 200-300 calorie surplus for a week or two and see if the scale moves. If it does, keep your intake the same. If it doesn’t, go ahead and add 200 more calories. This realistically, is the best way to go about your bulk. It’s the reverse method you’d use for dieting. You wouldn’t jump to the LEAST amount of calories you could eat during a diet. You’d slowly lower your calories only as needed to get the scale moving
If you are going on a longer bulk cycle, feel free to implement mini-cuts to minimize fat gain. This would involve periods of 4-6 weeks eating at that 200-300 surplus followed by 1-2 weeks at maintenance or slightly below. The goal isn’t to shred back down your body fat but to help curb some of that excess fat gain you may accumulate during the 4-6 weeks.
Send The Right Signal to Grow
Along with being in a surplus of calories, we want to be sending your body the right signal to grow. This involves implementing a workout program with enough intensity and volume to provide progressive overload. Progessive overload is choosing a weight in a given rep range, and trying to do one more rep, or 5lbs more than the week before. It may not happen every week, but you should see consistent improvement throughout your entire bulking cycle.
If you do find you’ve been plateauing for awhile, try either changing the rep range, or program. For those that have been lifting for a while, we may not realize we spend a lot of time using the same exercises for the same reps. It doesn’t hurt to change that exercise out but keep the reps the same, or change the reps. This will not only shake up your program without drastically altering it overall, but it will provide a fresh new stimulus your body may not have experienced in awhile, which will require your muscles to work in a new way. I’ve found if I’ve been doing a bodybuilding focused program and then switch to a more powerlifting, or performance based workout, I get this newfound strength and make greater progress week to week.
Increase Your Protein Intake
Just because you are in a calorie surplus doesn’t mean the muscle will take care of itself. What we eat matters too. If one version of me ate 3,000 calories of super high carb, and very low protein diet, and the other ate a higher protein, moderate carb approach, I’d bet you the latter would end up with a better physique. That is because he is providing himself the building blocks necessary to facilitate the signal you are sending in the gym. We don’t grow in the gym, we break down muscle. We are in a catabolic state and need fuel to replenish and build back stronger. Aiming for .8-1g/lb bodyweight puts you in an anabolic state and making sure you are getting enough protein to maximize the muscle protein synthesis signal and optimizing growth.
Focus On Food Quality
If minimizing fat gain is your goal, then we want to minimize processed food consumption. The main reason isn’t to demonize processed foods but the simple fact that it’s very easy to overeat them. Try eating a bag of chips versus 3 baked potatoes. I guarantee you’ll get fuller and stay fuller longer off 3 potatoes than a bag of chips. Yet they’re the same amount of food.
On the flipside, if you are someone who struggles to put on weight, then processed food can become a tool to help you get more calories in without having to force it down.
Don’t Add Weight Too Fast
The final note I want to point out is don’t worry about putting on weight too fast. Guys particularly love to brag about putting on 5-10lbs a month, or seeing how quick they can get their weight up. Again, this is very old school thinking, and you can only build so much muscle in a given month. Instead, shoot for 1-2lbs a month depending on how aggressive you want to go, and reassess by looking in the mirror and seeing if you like the way your body is progressing. This will allow you to keep things in check without getting carried away.