When you come off a caloric restriction like the one we use in Hack Your Fitness, there are two things you’re itching it do: Eat like there’s no tomorrow and bulk up. Now that you’ve got your abs chiseled, you want to get your chest jacked.
But before you go out and buy 10 pounds of protein powder and a stack of Flex magazines, let’s review three important points and set appropriate expectations for your bulk:
- It’s actually very difficult to build lean muscle.
- If you’re a guy, you need to hit 10% body fat before bulking. For women’s, it’s 20%. If you bulk before you cut down to those levels, you’ll end up fat jacked.
- Always remember the hallowed law of energy balance: calories in vs. calories out.
Seems simple, right? Let’s make it a little more nuanced and dive in deeper.
To Hack Bulking, Change Your Ratio
When you go on a bulk, you’re in a caloric surplus.
In a caloric surplus, roughly 80% of your excess calories get stored as fat and 20% feeds your muscles. The Hack Your Fitness bulk attempts to push that ratio more in our favor:
- 70% of the surplus goes to fat gain
- 30% goes to your muscles
This shift is the key to keeping your body fat percentage under control as you bulk.
To trigger this shift, you must keep in mind two important principles.
1. Mind Over Matter
Being in a caloric surplus is like winning the lottery.
When we’re given more of something that we previously didn’t have enough of, human psychology tells us we’re going to squander our new excess on anything and everything.
Lottery winners go to the club and make it rain or buy a new mansion.
Bulkers with a caloric surplus eat a whole birthday cake in one sitting and think they can get away with it.
Just like the washed-out lottery winner who’s found smoking crack in a whorehouse two years later, you can’t eat like there’s no tomorrow and get away with it. Or, if that analogy is a little hardcore, picture a kitten eating their cute little way into a food coma:
Practice the good eating habits you observed during your cut. Remember that a dedication to fitness requires a lifestyle change in your fundamental diet, not a temporary fix.
2. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Building is hard and it takes time. You’re not going to become Jay Cutler overnight.
Even at a 10 to 15% caloric surplus, the human body has a maximum amount of fat and muscle it can build in one day and in one week. Be patient and stay the course.
Don’t resort to “dirty bulking” and think you can simply give maximum effort on all your lifts to offset all those extra calories of junk you’re consuming. The only thing that will get you is fat.
After all, the best way to minimize fat gain during a bulk is to maximize muscle gain.
Exactly how many calories should you be consuming on a bulk? Let’s do some math!
How To Track Calories While You Bulk
Start your bulk by calculating your maintenance calories once again.
If you recall from our counting calories piece, maintenance calories start with your BMR:
Men = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
Women = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
When you have your BMR, multiply it by your activity factor. If you’re doing strength training like in Hack Your Fitness, the activity factor to use is 1.2.
The final piece is to add 10% to your total maintenance calories. We’re taking a measured and intentional approach, which is why we start with a modest 10% caloric surplus.
Coming off a cut where you operated at a deficit of 3,500 calories a week (if not more), getting those calories back plus 10% will leave you feeling full at all times.
To tilt the ratio away from fat gain on your bulk, look to gain no more than a pound of bodyweight per week.
What to Eat When You’re Bulking
How you manipulate your macronutrients on a bulk is counterintuitive. Our instinct is to eat more protein so we can build more muscle, but that instinct is wrong.
Keep your protein intake at 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
You ate more protein on a cut to help with satiety and to preserve your muscles. When you’re building muscle during a bulk, you need more carbs.
Carbs keep your muscles full of glycogen, which is your body’s primary source of energy after an intense workout when you’ve broken down your muscles.
The more carbs you eat during a bulk, the better your progress will be. Once you adjust your protein level, fill the rest of your caloric budget with fat and carbs.
You can start with an even split between the two and make adjustments later.
The Psychological Struggles of Bulking
So far, we’ve talked about the math behind bulking. Approached this way, a bulk can seem very simple. Simply eat the right foods at the right quantity, and you’ll get bigger.
However, one of the hardest parts of bulking is the psychological aspect of it. While you’re on a cut, your goal is simple. You want to get leaner. There isn’t a great deal of emotional conflict when your goal is so simple.
When you’re bulking, things get complicated. You have two competing emotional drives:
- You desperately want bigger muscles.
- You are terrified of getting fat.
Neither one of these are unfounded, but they need to be handled correctly in order to succeed in your bulk.
1. Trying To Bulk Too Quickly Will Just Make You Fat
The classic method of bulking is known as the dirty bulk.
By gaining as much mass as possible—most of it fat—in as little time as possible, the theory is that you’ll be able to lift more and quickly add new muscle.
Dirty bulkers describe eating two quarts of ice cream a day and guzzling gallons of whole milk. It’s not exactly ideal, from a health perspective.
I won’t deny that both forms of bulking involve gaining weight that you previously lost during your cut. A clean bulk isn’t magically going to keep you from gaining weight.
It’s also true that both forms of bulking allow you to add new muscle.
The crucial difference is that a dirty bulk disregards your body fat percentage in favor of new muscle gains. You end up jacked, but you’re also fat. You’re fat jacked!
The goal of the clean bulk is to minimize the amount of fat you gain. When you finish a clean bulk, you’re not skinny fat or fat jacked—you’re just jacked!
If you quantify your bulk by how many weeks of cutting it will take to shed your excess fat, clean bulking comes out way ahead, saving you weeks if not months of precious time.
2. Don’t Let Yourself Gain Too Much Fat—But Accept Some Weight Gain
The hardest part of bulking is the psychology of getting fat again.
After working so hard to lean down and seeing your body in peak shape, it’s emotionally draining to see day by day the fat creeping up on your body.
I was depressed when I started bulking because my beautiful shrink wrapped abs were taken from me!
Take comfort in the fact that you’re intentionally gaining fat, and as long as you follow this guide, you’ll minimize the long-term damage and build a lot of lean muscle in the process.
The positive side of bulking is that your lifts go up dramatically because you have more food energy to burn. On my first proper clean bulk, all my lifts hit levels I’d never reached before.
Aside from managing your negative emotions, the key to hacking your bulk is to manage your calorie intake and shift the fat storage to energy burning ratio in your favor.
Final Note: Track Your Progress With Your Body Weight
Your body weight is the best metric for tracking your progress during a bulk.
We know you’ll be hitting new highs on your lifts, but if you’re not gaining weight, it means you’re not eating enough. Bump your calorie surplus up a few percentage points up from 10%.
On the flip side: If you’re gaining weight but your lifts aren’t going up, you’re eating too much and should cut your surplus back to 9 or 8%.
When your body fat creeps over 15% (25% for women), you need to stop bulking and go on another cut. Sadly, the road to Jay Cutler’s physique is not a straight line. You must slowly zig-zag your way to the body of your dreams.