We hear an awful lot about the best techniques to lose weight, but for a lot of people, intentional and purposeful weight gain, commonly referred to as bulking, is much more appealing.
It increases your physical presence, can make you feel more confident when you walk into a room, and if bulking is done well, it brings with it great associations of strength and fitness.
Gains Gains Gains
Colloquially known as gains or getting swole, the concept of bulking isn’t all that complicated: the idea is to get physically bigger, and this is done by eating more calories than you burn.
But as you might imagine, there’s more to it, since the term bulking most often implies getting bigger with muscle, not with fat.
To balance all of those additional calories and put that extra fuel to good use, you want to exercise regularly. And of course, not any exercise will do.
If you’re bulking, you’ll want to focus on workouts that are directly focused around building bigger and stronger muscles, usually weightlifting and powerlifting.
Bulking is an important part of putting on the weight and muscle that you’ll eventually refine for better definition (a companion stage known as cutting, in which the focus is on overall physique rather than growth)
The title of this article acknowledges a nearly universal feeling about bulking – it’s hard to do!
However, trying to maintain control over one’s body weight and shape is always difficult; consider that people trying to lose weight often have similar gripes.
Bulking is challenging for everyone, but over time and with patience, it can be done successfully.
How Does Bulking Work?
The human body is a complex machine, so while there are a number of factors that can influence bulking, the main things to do are eat more and exercise in ways that focus on muscle growth rather than fat loss.
Bulking requires good nutrition, or what you feed your body in order to build muscle. Obviously, you’ll need to eat more, though perhaps not as much more as you might think.
According to a 2019 study titled “Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off Season,” a good starting point for bulking is to eat 10% more calories than you’d normally eat – what’s called your “maintenance calories.”
This slight but noticeable increase is usually referred to as a lean bulk, as opposed to a dirty bulk, which can increase your caloric intake by as much as 50% but is less effective at building muscle mass.
According to “Gaining Muscle Mass in a Deficit vs. Bulking,” a 2018 research review, lean bulking is more effective for all but the skinniest novices at building more muscle without major fat gains.
When you’re eating more calories, the key is to make your additional 10% (and really, all of the calories you ingest) good calories: whole and minimally processed foods, rather than lots of sugar and fast food.
It bears repeating that the goal of bulking is not to just put on weight — it’s to put on weight in the form of muscle.
Macros Are Important
You’ll also want to pay some attention to your macro nutrients, or protein, carbohydrates, and fats, as they can play an important role in how your body responds to your additional caloric intake.
Instinct, along with casual anecdotal evidence, suggests that you’d want to eat more protein, and that’s largely true, but protein isn’t all you want to eat if you’re bulking.
You’ll want to make sure you’re eating enough healthy carbohydrates for energy and hormone regulation, and believe it or not, you want to ingest a significant amount of healthy fat as well.
Why fat? In addition to providing you with energy, healthy fats are also essential for hormone regulation. The right balance of hormones in the body is essential for building muscle.
How Much Of Each Macro Should You Eat For Bulking?
An approximate breakdown, at least to start, is 40% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 20% fat, though as you progress, you may find that you actually need to increase your fat intake and decrease your protein calories for better results.
An important thing to remember when bulking is that everyone responds to it a bit differently, so after a few weeks, you’ll want to stop and reassess.
Are you seeing positive incremental results with what you’re doing?
If not, that’s a sign that you’ll want to make adjustments, perhaps changing your macronutrient percentages or adding more calories, 5% at a time, for up to 20% over your total maintenance calories.
If nutrition is one part of bulking, the other, of course, is exercise, or increasing your muscle mass. If you’re bulking, this means skipping cardio-type activities like running, cycling, and swimming, and focusing more on weight training and resistance exercises like pull-ups and push-ups.
How does this process work? Well, we all have muscles. The more we use them, the bigger and stronger they become; the muscles we don’t use very much get smaller and weaker.
If you’re interested in bulking, you want to work your muscles in an intense way on a regular basis, which damages the muscle fibers — a good thing, in this case, since between workout sessions they build back up bigger and stronger each time.
This is why rest days are so important. If you can maintain this pattern of tear and repair, you’ll see encouraging results.
How Long Does It Take To See Weight Gain Results?
It’s important to remember that bulking is a gradual process and not a fast one, since building lean muscle does take some time.
While you’ll certainly feel stronger within a few weeks of increased eating and weight training, noticeable results can take a bit longer, maybe a month or two.
We can often be our own worst critic when it comes to changes to our bodies, and because we look at ourselves every day (and usually several times a day), it can be hard to see those minor changes.
What a lot of trainers recommend is taking a photo of yourself every week. After a few weeks, you can observe them side by side and visually track your progress.
How Often Should I Weigh Myself When Bulking?
When you start bulking, you may be tempted to weigh yourself all the time.
While you certainly don’t want to become a slave to your bathroom scale, weighing yourself on a daily basis is actually a good idea.
This isn’t to make yourself unnaturally fixated on minor increases and decreases, since body weight is dependent on a lot of factors and can fluctuate day to day, but weighing yourself every day gives you a lot of data points to work with.
Over the course of several weeks, you’ll be able to recognize patterns in your weight.
Additionally, if you also track your exercise and track what you eat (which you should), that’s a lot of raw data.
When you look at all of it together, you should be able to see which combinations of factors work best for you in your bulking endeavors.
There are a number of fitness apps and smart scales available to help you keep track of your data, and many will create charts for you, which is helpful for visualizing your progress.
This isn’t entirely necessary, though, especially if you prefer a more tactile approach; you can absolutely keep it old school and track your data in a notebook.
How Long Does it Take For a Skinny Person to Gain Weight?
In short, a while! Your body needs a lot of things to build muscle, but the main thing it needs is time.
Increasing your caloric intake substantially is also important, and if you’re especially skinny, you may have some options here.
While the 2018 research review cited above suggests that very skinny people can bulk a bit faster by eating much more than 20% above their maintenance calories, you still run the risk of adding more fat that muscle if you’re not exercising enough.
A 2019 study titled “Effects of Different Dietary Energy Intake Following Resistance Training on Muscle Mass and Body Fat in Bodybuilders” affirms that trying to bulk too quickly often results in more fat gain than is desirable.
Bulking takes real commitment, it takes great intention, and it takes a remarkable amount of patience.
This is not a fast process, nor should it be. If you have all three of these attributes, you’ll slowly but surely achieve your bulking goals.
Bulking is Not Forever…
While bulking for two or three months at a time can be good for weight and muscle gains, you don’t want to always be bulking.
Once you’re satisfied with your short term gains, you’ll want to back off on how much you’re eating so you can focus on cutting, or refining your muscle definition.
And as always, before you start bulking or making any significant changes to your diet and exercise, we recommend discussing your plans with a physician for personalized guidance and advice.