Bulking is a term commonly thrown around by bodybuilders.
It generally refers to a progressive increase in the number of calories consumed beyond your body’s needs in combination with intense weight training.
Whereas some people claim that bulking is unhealthy, others insist that it’s a safe and effective method for gaining muscle mass.
This article explains everything you need to know about bulking, including what it is, how to do it safely, and which foods you should eat and avoid.
Bodybuilding is both a recreational and competitive sport that rewards muscle size and definition.
The three main phases in bodybuilding are bulking, cutting, and maintenance. Among competitive bodybuilders, preparation for their contests can be considered a fourth phase.
Bulking is the muscle-gaining phase. You’re meant to intentionally consume more calories than your body needs for a set period — often 4–6 months. These extra calories provide your body with the necessary fuel to boost muscle size and strength while weight training (
To varying degrees, body fat tends to accumulate during bulking due to excess calorie intake (
Cutting, or the fat loss phase, refers to a gradual decrease in calorie intake and increase in aerobic training to reduce excess body fat from the bulking phase, allowing for improved muscle definition (
During the cutting phase, bodybuilders eat fewer calories than their bodies require, which puts them at a disadvantage for building muscle. The goal of this phase is generally to maintain — not gain — muscle mass (
One review found that the average calorie intake of bodybuilders during the bulking phase was 3,800 calories per day for men and 3,200 for women, compared with 2,400 and 1,200 calories during the cutting phase, respectively (
Bodybuilding consists of three main phases — bulking, cutting, and maintenance. Generally, bulking is meant to increase muscle mass and strength, whereas cutting is intended to shed excess body fat while maintaining muscle mass.
Bulking requires consuming more calories than your body needs.
You can estimate your daily calorie needs by using a calorie counter, which considers your weight, sex, age, height, and physical activity level to estimate your daily calorie needs.
For example, if you need 3,000 daily calories per day to maintain weight, you should aim to consume 3,300–3,600 instead, depending on your experience level. For a person who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg), this equates to an increase of 0.4–0.8 pounds (0.2–0.4 kg) per week.
While novice bodybuilders who have 6 months or less of weight training experience should aim for the higher end of this calorie range, bodybuilders with several years of experience should target the lower end to limit increases in body fat (
If you’re gaining less or more than 0.25–0.5% of your body weight per week, you should adjust your calorie intake accordingly.
Once you establish the number of calories you need for bulking, you can determine your macronutrient ratios.
Macronutrients — carbs, fats, and proteins — are the nutrients that are needed in larger quantities in your diet. Carbs and protein each contain 4 calories per gram, while fat packs 9.
- 45–60% of your calories from carbs
- 30–35% of your calories from protein
- 15–30% of your calories from fat
For example, if you decide you need to eat 3,300 calories per day, your diet would contain:
- 371–495 grams of carbs
- 248–289 grams of protein
- 55–110 grams of fat
You can use calorie tracking apps to help you stay within your calorie budget and macronutrient ranges.
Experts recommend consuming 10–20% more calories during bulking than your body needs. Carbs should comprise the largest percentage of your diet, followed by protein and fat.
Many people view bulking as unhealthy because it can increase fat mass, particularly when your calorie surplus is too high.
While bulking, some bodybuilders also tend to eat calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are typically not consumed during the cutting phase, including sweets, desserts, and fried foods.
However, proper bulking is not about extreme overeating or giving free rein to every craving.
It can be performed in a healthy manner if you maintain a proper calorie surplus and focus on eating nutrient-dense foods. These foods contain a high amount of nutrients for their calorie count.
Remember that bulking is also intended to be followed by a cutting phase to decrease your fat levels.
When bulking, it’s easy to eat high calorie, nutrient-poor foods like desserts or fried foods to rapidly achieve a calorie surplus. Yet, healthy bulking is possible as long as you focus on nutrient-dense foods.
Your diet is essential to bulking the right way. Remember that just because a food is high in calories and will lead to a calorie surplus doesn’t mean that it’s great for muscle gain — or your overall health.
Foods to eat
Including nutrient-dense, whole foods in your diet ensures that you get adequate vitamins and minerals, healthy fats, and quality protein.
Here are examples of foods that should comprise the majority of your diet:
- Fruits: apples, avocado, bananas, berries, grapes, kiwi, oranges, pears, pineapple, and pomegranate
- Vegetables: asparagus, arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots, collards, cucumber, kale, mushrooms, and peppers
- Starchy vegetables: arrowroot, jicama, peas, potatoes, rutabaga, and yam
- Grains: breads, cereals, corn, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, and rice
- Seafood: cod, crab, lobster, salmon, scallops, shrimp, tilapia, and tuna
- Dairy: butter, cottage cheese, cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Meats, poultry, and eggs: ground beef, eye of round steak, pork tenderloin, skinless chicken, sirloin steak, turkey, and whole eggs
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, and pinto beans
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, chia seeds, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and walnuts
- Oils and nut butters: almond and peanut butters, as well as avocado, canola, and olive oils
- Beverages without added sugar: coffee, diet soda, unsweetened tea, and water
Beverages with added sugars, such as sweetened coffee, tea, or regular soda, can be enjoyed in moderation.
Foods to limit
While a bulking diet allows for most foods, some should be limited because they contain very few nutrients. These include:
- Alcohol. Alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to build muscle, particularly when drunk in excess (
- Added sugars. Added sugar, which is common in candy, desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages, is linked to several negative health effects when eaten in excess (
- Fried foods. Regularly eating fried foods may increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Fried foods include fried chicken, onion rings, cheese curds, and fish and chips (
These foods don’t need to be avoided completely but should be reserved for special occasions and events.
Supplement use is highly prevalent among bodybuilders (
- Caffeine. This ubiquitous stimulant decreases sensations of pain and increases focus, allowing you to exercise longer and harder. It’s commonly added to pre-workout supplements (
- Creatine. Creatine provides your muscles with additional energy to work harder and lift more. Studies suggest that creatine monohydrate may be the most effective form (
- Protein powder. While it may not directly affect performance, animal- or plant-based protein powders offer an easy and convenient way to meet your daily protein targets.
What’s more, mass- or weight-gaining supplements tend to be popular among people looking to bulk up. They come in powder form and are mixed with water or milk.
These supplements can pack over 1,000 calories per serving and boast sugar, protein, and several vitamins and minerals.
While they’re a convenient way to increase your calories, they’re often poorly balanced, containing too high a percentage of carbs compared with protein and fats.
While occasional use is fine, most people shouldn’t make them a regular part of your routine.
When bulking, be sure to include a variety of nutrient-dense foods in your diet to support muscle growth and overall health. You should limit alcohol, added sugars, and fried foods, though certain supplements can be useful.
Bulking is a technique used by bodybuilders to increase muscle size and strength.
It involves consuming 10–20% more than your daily calorie needs in addition to weight training.
To make bulking healthy and effective, you should ensure that your calorie surplus isn’t too high and that you’re limiting highly processed, nutrient-poor foods.