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Bulking to Build Muscle: What You Need to Know

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In This Series 

Know What Your Body Needs 

“The principle of bulking is to achieve a calorie surplus, where you consume more than you burn off, and converting it to muscle with smart training,” says doctor and bodybuilder Emil Hodzovic. If you’re a “hardgainer” – someone with a rapid metabolism who struggles to gain weight – that can mean chowing down a tonne of food. First, identify how many calories you need by working out your basal metabolic rate using an online BMR calculator (opens in new tab), then slightly exceed your calorie target the clean way, eating whole food sources like steak, eggs and milk. Here nutritionist Matt Lovell describes the daily macronutrient totals for both hardgainers and those who have no such problems.

Protein per kg of bodyweight3g2g
Carbs per kg of bodyweight5g2g
Fat per kg of bodyweight1g1g

So for a 75kg hardgainer, the amount of protein is calculated as 3 x 75 = 225g.

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Fast Food Doesn’t Mean Dirty Dining

Have you ever tried eating 6,000 calories’ worth of chicken breast and broccoli in a day? Hodzovic has, and he doesn’t recommend it. That’s when loading up on convenient high-calorie fast food can seem an appealing solution. “But feasting solely on nutritionally weak junk food can cause you to lurch way beyond your calorie requirements and get fat, risking a host of illnesses from diabetes to heart disease,” Hodzovic says. It’s important not to compromise on quality. Go for grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and eggs and chemical-free nut butters – and there are even good-quality pot noodles called Quick Sports Meals from Sport Kitchen (opens in new tab) for a fast but clean hit.

Have Some ‘Strategic Overfeeds’

It’s the new way to do cheat meals. Lovell, who advises the Football Association and works with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, prescribes these to youth footballers to help them get big enough to survive the intensity of the Premier League. The rule: eat clean 80% of the time and afford yourself an “anything goes” policy for the remaining 20%. For example, most of your breakfasts should look like the “clean” omelette drizzled with omega 3-rich extra virgin olive oil and packed with veg, turkey and chorizo on the left, below, but one in five times you can cut loose with a plate of these “dirty” bacon and blueberry pancakes – but fry everything in coconut oil for bonus healthy fats, and don’t skimp on quality.


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Keep Doing High-Intensity Exercise

“If your calorie intake is high, your training intensity has to be higher,” says Hodzovic – otherwise bulk will turn to bulge. Lifting heavy with big multi-joint compound moves will create the stimulus for muscle synthesis, while occasional high-intensity intervals on the rower or bike will keep your body fat low.

The hardgainer who incinerates calories even when resting should replace calories lost during a session with a carb and protein shake before and after a workout. Wear an activity tracker that monitors your heart rate to identify how many calories you burn in a session.

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Squat Every Day

Or at least every workout. “Squats are an epic exercise and they build a hell of a lot more than just your legs, including a mental toughness that you just won’t get doing endless biceps curls,” says Hodzovic. There is a time and place for a bodybuilding muscle-group split but, to take advantage of the calorie surplus of a bulk, full-body workouts are key.

Take it Easy

Working out a plan of endless drop sets, negatives and supersets will probably take longer to do than the workouts themselves, and it’s not time well spent. Instead stick to Hodzovic’s tried-and-tested solution, “controlled movement with slow tempos and rest-pause sets”.

Try this tempo rest-pause set with biceps curls: lift your ten-rep max at a tempo of two seconds up, four seconds down until failure. Rest for 15 seconds. Lift again for two seconds up, two seconds down to failure. Rest 15 seconds once more, then do a final set of as many reps as you can muster at a faster tempo. Then shake off the agonising lactate. And never forget – you grow while you rest.

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Go Beyond Pasta

chocolate milkshake

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If you’re training hard, you’ll need a hefty dose of carbs with your protein and healthy fats to speed up muscle recovery. A University of Connecticut study identified 470ml of chocolate milk, which provides all three, as the best post-workout antidote. But the rest of the time you shouldn’t just stick to bread and pasta. “Shake up your carb sources constantly,” says Lovell. “Cycle between wholewheat, rice (especially basmati, wild and Thai black rice), oats, barley and quinoa for a huge variety of nutrients to help you grow healthy as well as big.”

Eat the Rainbow

As with carbs, you should keep your sources of fruit and vegetables varied. “Eat green leafy veg, bright tropical fruit, dark berries, the full spectrum,” Lovell says. It’ll provide all the micronutrients you need. Bulk up your meals with pulses and legumes so you don’t have to buy so much expensive meat. “Don’t compromise on this,” says Lovell. “All-cause mortality drops by 5% for every daily portion of fruit and veg you eat.” That’s a decent trade-off.

Watch Your Blood Sugar Levels

Your body is a control freak – in a good way. It’s excellent at controlling your blood sugar with hormones such as insulin. “But scoffing sugary foods on a ‘dirty bulk’ causes blood sugar spikes, which carries risks for type 2 diabetes,” says Hodzovic. One jam doughnut won’t tip you over the edge, but a few might leave you feeling sluggish when your blood sugar drops after spiking. Regular exercise can offset some of the risks, so save the cakes for big training days.

Get Help From Supps

Matt Lovell reveals the essentials

Fish oil: To fire on all cylinders for maximum growth, your cells need essential fatty acids from pharmaceutical-grade fish oils. Get yours with added vitamin E.

CLA: Fats like conjugated linoleic acid help your body manage the glucose you’re taking on from carbs so that it goes to your muscles and isn’t stored as fat.

ZMA: If you’re taking care of the eating and training parts of the growth triumvirate, this combo of zinc and magnesium aspartate will aid your demand for the third – sleep.

Probiotics: For immunity support and gut function to tolerate the high demands on your CNS and digestive system from heavy-duty eating and lifting.

Digestive enzymes: You can’t afford a slow digestive grind. Look for the word “proteolytic” on the label for supps that aid protein breakdown for max muscle.

R-ALA/blueberry extract: Like CLA, this insulin sensitiser helps shuttle sugar into muscles and less into fat stores.

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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix (opens in new tab). Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.