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How to Bulk Up: The Exercise and Nutrition Advice You Need

MetaDescription: When learning how to bulk up, take a holistic look at your diet and exercise habits. Start by improving your macros and balancing cardio with strength training.

Excerpt: As you learn how to bulk up, you’ll see how to improve your diet and exercise routine. Start with these do’s and don’ts.

Different people work out for different reasons. And while we’ve all heard plenty about the importance of diet and exercise for weight loss, you also need the right diet and exercise plan to gain muscle mass in a healthy way. So, if you want your soon-to-be acquired bulk to come from muscle, not fat, you need to learn how to bulk up the right way.

We’ve got tips to help you increase your body mass with sustainable changes for your workout routine and your entire lifestyle.

So, let us “flex” our fitness knowledge so you can start flexing your muscles. Here’s how to bulk up.

How to Bulk Up (and How Not To)

When you bulk up, you gain bodyweight in one of two ways: through fat or through lean muscle mass. Gaining muscle will keep you healthier than gaining fat, all while improving your strength, balance, and coordination. 

As many people will tell you, it’s easy to gain weight by eating a steady diet of cake, cookies, and fried foods. But, we are NOT going to do that. (Sorry, we know it sounds fun.) This diet would lead to fat gains instead of muscle gains — so, even a gainer diet should be designed with health in mind.

And besides, there are a chosen few who seem to be able to eat all the junk food in the world and not gain weight. But, even those of you with a super speedy metabolism can make steady gains by sticking to these dos and don’ts when you create your diet and exercise plan.

DO: Calculate Your Calorie Intake

If you want to lose bodyweight, you need to consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight. If you want to gain weight, you need to consume a greater number of calories than your body needs. This is called a caloric surplus.

When you consume excess calories, your body can use the caloric surplus to build muscle — as long as you pair your higher caloric intake with muscle building exercises.

There’s just one teensy, little problem: While scientific literature confirms that extra calories can increase muscular hypertrophy (science speak for muscle building), they don’t know exactly how many excess calories is ideal.

So, What Should You Do?

To get a broad idea of your ideal number of daily calories, use a calorie calculator. Under “weight,” enter your target weight. This will give you an idea of the number of calories you should consume to reach that weight. 

But, everybody (actually, we mean every body) is different. If you have an especially fast metabolism, you may need to eat more than a calorie calculator recommends. For a slower metabolism, you’ll need to consume less. Increase or decrease your calorie intake as needed until you reach your goal.

And remember, you’ll only need to consume a caloric surplus during the bulking phase, or the period when you’re trying to gain weight through increased muscle mass. Once you reach your target weight and muscle increase, you’ll need to decrease your calorie intake to stop the weight gain.

DO: Watch Your Macros

There are three types of macros or macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Conveniently, these are also the nutrients that provide calories. (Micronutrients — think vitamins and minerals — are not associated with calories but are still essential for your health). Every healthy diet includes a balance of all three macronutrients, and the exact balance affects your body composition.

To decrease your fat gain and increase your muscle gain, you need to up your protein intake — ensuring you get not only enough protein, but also all nine of the essential amino acids found in protein. It can be hard to get all of the amino acids if you’re on a plant-based diet — so, if that’s you, talk to your doctor about whether you should take supplements for this (and which ones to focus on).

When you’re trying to gain muscle, you should eat between 0.45 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.

Notice, there’s a max amount of protein. If you eat too much protein, it can lead to a nutritional imbalance and have negative health consequences, including (gulp) kidney damage. So, stick to a balanced diet and get the rest of your calories from a combination of healthy fats and carbs.

DON’T: Rely Solely on Shakes  

A lot of fitness fanatics take the easy way out and rely on pre-workout protein shakes to provide the extra protein they want in their diet. We’re not here to hate on protein shakes — throwing a bit of whey protein powder and some peanut butter into a blender is an easy way to increase both your protein and calorie consumption. Plus, shakes can be especially helpful for people who struggle to gain weight because liquids are less filling than solid foods, which makes it easier to consume more calories.

BUT (and this is a big but), adding a protein shake to your day will not make up for an otherwise unhealthy diet.

Look at your entire diet holistically. Make sure the majority of your calories come from high-quality whole foods, and make healthy swaps by replacing processed carbs, like white bread and baked goods, with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. In addition to the protein you get from your shakes, make sure you’re including lean-protein sources like fish, chicken, and eggs.

DO: Add Strength Training Workouts  

You can’t build muscle without training your muscles. But, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with endless bench presses and deadlifts (unless you enjoy them!).

Weightlifting isn’t the only way to work on muscle growth. You can do plenty of anabolic exercises at home with little to no equipment, and a workout routine that you can do anywhere will make it easier for you to stay on track.

Start your strength training with these exercise programs:

Pro tip: While only one of these workouts requires you to lift weights, you can turn any exercise into a weight training program by holding a set of dumbbells as you go through each movement in your resistance training program.

DON’T: Skip Leg Day

Unless you want to turn into a walking meme, you should target all your muscle groups evenly. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on one area, like just your chest or arms. Not only can this make your body look imbalanced — it can lead to a literal strength imbalance, which increases your risk of injuries. 

Our favorite way to keep our workouts balanced is with compound exercises, like squats, push-ups, and tricep dips, which tone multiple muscle groups at once. But, you can also devote different days of the week to different muscle groups by incorporating an upper body day, lower body day, and core day into your workout routine.

DON’T: Only Do Strength Training

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they want to bulk up is focusing solely on strength training. This can lead to an overly bulky look. (Picture the bodybuilder whose shoulder muscles have completely engulfed their neck.) And even more importantly, it can lead to injury.

Bulk up in a healthy way by incorporating both cardio and stretching into your routine. Cardio protects your heart health, and stretching can help you build lean muscles, improve your flexibility, and prevent injury.

DO: Enlist an Accountability Partner

It’s a human instinct: We don’t want to look bad in front of other people. By enlisting a friend or family member to regularly check in on our progress, we can keep ourselves motivated and continue building muscle.

If you don’t have a reliable fitness buddy, work with a personal trainer. Not only will a trainer keep you on track, they can also help you choose the best exercises and find an ideal rep range to help you reach your goals.

And when you find your personal trainer through Kickoff, you can start training for as little as $3 per day.

DON’T: Try to Bulk Up Fast

We get it — no matter what our fitness goals are, we can’t wait to reach them. But bulking up quickly, a process called dirty bulking, is bad for your body and bad for the long-term success of your goals.

If you try to put on too much weight too quickly, you'll more likely gain fat than muscle. And if you try to put on too much muscle too quickly, it’s more likely to lead to injury because of overtraining — working out beyond your capacity without enough rest and recovery time.

Beyond the risks, rapid lifestyle changes are usually not sustainable. Making small changes or taking micro steps, as the New York Times puts it, can lead to long-term lifestyle changes that actually stick.

Some experts say a healthy pace of bulking up is gaining 1-2 pounds of muscle per month. During a healthy program for bulking up, it typically takes 4-6 weeks to see muscle gains. However, everyone is different. Talk with your personal trainer, nutritionist, or physician about what pace is safe for you to build muscle. 

Bulk Up Better

Like any fitness goal, bulking up has its pros and cons. If you do it right, you’ll gain strength, decrease your risk of injury, and improve your overall health and wellness. But if you do it wrong, you may gain fat, increase your risk of injury, and decrease your overall health and wellness.

Bulk up in a healthy way by ensuring you eat enough protein, incorporate a full body strength training program, and make changes slowly. That should put you on the best path for sustainable results.

Now that you know how to bulk up, get the resources you need to make it happen so you can build a consistent, sustainable, and healthy routine. Sign up for a consultation with an online personal trainer.