Bulking – All You Need To Know
A Primer on BULKING
What is Bulking?
Bulking refers to dedicated period of time spent trying to actively increase bodyweight, with most of this weight being muscle. The term “bulk” a noun, a verb, and an adjective with the fitness lexicon.
He’s bulking (verb)=as in training to expressly increase his physical size.
He is bulky (adjective)=describing the appearance and physical structure of someone with a substantial amount of muscle mass
He carries a lot of bulk (noun)=referring to a large physical quantity of muscle
Bulking is a popular topic, and the somewhat more technical term for it would be “mass gaining”. Unbeknownst to most people though, is that the fact that the modern conceptualization of “bulking” is somewhat of a modern phenomena.
A History of Bulking
The term “bulking” appears very early in musclebuilding literature, being used by Eugen Sandow, Arthur Saxon, Bernarr McFadden , and Charles Atlas. So the word itself has been in use for over 100 years.
However, the context of usage is different from day. Prior to the Classic age of bodybuilding (1940s-1950s), physique contests did not start until 1922. “America’s most Perfectly Developed Man” was held in Madison Square Garden, and won by Charles Atlas (although he did not really have any competitors).
At the time of the contest, Charles Atlas was certainly a well built individual, but he was NOT “ripped” by any means. Such a level of conditioning would not exists until the 1960s. By our standards of today, he was only “lean”, and he would be called fat and topheavy if he got on a bodybuilding stage today. The very idea of “dieting” for a physique concept was entirely foreign. Men that were “physical culturists” walked around at whatever their walk around bodyfat percentage was. Some were very lean, but many were not. It was lifestyle and genetics that led to some being much more defined than others.
In the years that followed that first physique contest, many more were held, and the AAU Mr. America title would become the most prestigious “bodybuilding” title to win by the the time the 1950s rolled around.
During that 30 year interim from the 1920s to the 1950s, the term “bulking” simply meant muscle gain. It didnt refer to a period of overfeeding, and it does not fit into our modern framework of “bulk and cut”. Being cut was not even a thing until the late 1940s.
Steve Reeves, the winner of the 1947 Mr America Title, and the 1950 Mr Universe, he wa the first bodybuilder to approach “being cut”. Along with Reeves, another bodybuilder emerged, Reg Park. He was the forerunner to the modern “mass monster”, weighing around 250 pounds. He popularized the “bulky” look at the same time Reeves was pushing the envelope on aesthetics.
Ironically for Reeves, his sharper look was criticized by some for being too defined, for looking “all show and no go” and for having a physique that was more “Apollian” in its proportions, with his small waist and ridiculous V-Taper.
How does that make any sense? By today’s standards he’d be an amazing mens classic physique competitor.
By our standards yes, but the stardard’s of the era, he stood out for different reasons.
- He trained with moderate to high reps-Most bodybuilders were also weightlifters and strongman, they focused far more on low reps than high reps. Reeves rarely went below 8 reps in his training, and ONLY trained for bodybuilding. He was made fun for being “weak” all the time.
- He used isolation exercises, and was very much into “sculpting” a physique that fulfilled an aesthetic idea. While this idea originated in Ancient Greece, focusing exclusively on aesthetic was unheard of. He was made fun of for this too
- He trained VERY fast, and his training would be called “metabolic” today. He used very short rest periods, lots of supersets and trisets, and he would also train for 2-3 hours. His workouts were cardiovascularly intense.
- He walked on his non training days to get leaner. Or he would ride long distances on his bike. This was when the idea of doing cardio to lean down was still a very novel idea.
- He dieted. He ate 3 times a day, but he would cut out breads, sweets, and fruits leading into a competition. His diet was very protein heavy. Again, this idea of “dieting” to get lean was novel. Most guys at the time just went by whether they felt hungry or not, and would under-eat, if they really dieted at all. Broscience was all anyone had to go by
What does all this mean? Steve Reeves was the first bodybuilder to be “cut”. Alongside the popularity of the “bulky” Reg Park, both men ended up contributing their half to the bulking and cutting concept.
Vince Gironda was the next man to take the concept of “bulking and cutting” forward. Gironda never won a big competition, but he was RIPPED. Even by today’s standards he got down to single digit bodyfat and was vascular and defined. Like Reeves, he was criticized as no one knew what to make of this look. However, he pushed the envelope on the bulking and cutting concept. Being a bodybuilder and training like a bodybuilder meant you had to grow through periods of growth, and periods of fat loss. In the 1950s is when you finally start to see defined bodybuilders who clearly have dieted for contests. Additionally, nutritional knowledge at this point had increased greatly as well, so there was a bit more education available as to how to eat and what a diet entailed.
Gironda never had great success as a bodybuilder, but as a coach he became immensely famous. His first star pupil was Larry Scott, the first Mr Olympia in 1965. Scott was the biggest star in bodybuilding from 1960 to 1966 (he retired at the age of 28), and Gironda made sure he came in ripped for every contest.
In the 1960s as well, this is when Joe Weider started his magazine empire. Protein powders and supplements to help one “bulk” were heavily promoted. The late 1960s also saw the emergence of Arnold Schwarznegger and Sergio Oliva. By this point, bulking and cutting were in full swing. BUT, and this is important; no one ever got “fat” in the offseason.
While the more prevalent usage of anabolics allowed guys to gain more weight than before, and to get bigger than they had ever been, there was still no such thing as being “fatjacked” or turning into pig slop in the offseason. Almost all competitive bodybuilders still walked around relatively lean, and this was the era when “aerobics” was popular and doing regular cardio was considered an essential part of anyone’s workout routine. No one was turning into an offseason fluffy fatass.
Up until the 1990s, this remained the norm, but then it all changed with Dorian Yates.
Steve Reeves was around 205 lbs when competing, as was Larry Scott. Dave Draper pushed the scale to the 220s. Oliva pushed it to the 230s onstage. Arnold was in the high 220s in prime condition, but then Lou Ferrigno jumped it up to 250lbs. Lee Haney was around 250 as well, and was the biggest of his era.
Yates though, Yates was 260 on stage, in his breakout year in 1992, and Yates rewrote the definition of HUGE. He outsized everyone, and after that, every bodybuilder that hoped to be competitive had to step up the size game. The Mass Monster Era started, and offseason bodyweight started creeping up the the 300 range. Being conditioned year around was no longer a thing, rather the goal was to get as big as possible.
What did all this mean for the recreational lifter and bodybuilder?
If you grew up lifting in the late 1980s through today, you believe in BULKING. In gaining weight, sometimes a lot of weight. And then cutting down to reveal the muscle you have built.
You’ve always been a bit misled.
Bulking in CONTEXT
In light of the whole history I just gave, we can glean some important pieces of information
-Historically up until the 1990s, most bodybuilders did not excessively bulk. They would stay lean most of the year, progressively adding muscle, and then diet leading to a contest
-Prior to the introduction of anabolics, no one aggressively tried to gain weight for long periods of time. You would get fat. “Lean Gains” was the modus operandi year around
-Bulking was largely considered a beginner concept when it first appeared, what we would equate to novice gains today. Past that stage, bodybuilders simply trained for hypertrophy
-From the 1940s up to the early 1990s, everyone did cardio regularly, regardless of time of year. During the Mass Monster era, cardio got pushed to the competition period. Subsequently, everyone got fat and fluffy
So in concise a wrap up…
-Don’t get fat in the offseason. Do your cardio. Train for hypertrophy year around. And respect that muscle growth is a long term process.
Who Should Bulk?
If you desire to dedicate a period of time to weight gain, consider the following as approximate guidelines. Credit to Eric Helms, Mike Israetel, and John Meadows for their contributions to this knowledge.
1-Athletic bodyfat percentage-You do not want to try to bulk if you are over 12% bodyfat for a man. For a woman, If you are above 24% bodyfat, that would be about the limit as well. The reason for this rule is because most the weight gained beyond those composition thresholds is almost entirely fat mass. So you are just making yourself unhealthy, and worsening your insulin sensitivity.
2-Experienced trainee-A beginner does not need to truly prioritize bulking, they simply need to lift progressively and eat appropriately. Dedicated training and nutrition will build the muscle, not hypercaloric excess.
3-Body type-“fatjacked” bulking is not suggested for most people, and especially if you have an “endomorphic” bodytype. If you are naturally lean and/or muscular, your ability to gain weight and have that be “lean” weight is likely to be much better
Historically, bulking was and has done by elite bodybuilders, but the genetic advantage the anabolic steroid advantage they have is rarely accounted for. Unless you have exceptional genetics, gaining a lot of weight and then losing a lot of weight is not going to be healthy, and is likely to age you more than anything else.
Especially for women, going up and down in weight ages the skin faster and especially if you are busty, your breasts tissue integrity will be affected.
And something that is rarely ever discussed, but it affects women and even male bodybuilders-Loose and sagging skin.
Dieting down to super low bodyfat is not healthy for the skin, nor is regaining tons of weight.
An extreme example, but to make a point-YoYo dieting as its called is never really advisable for anyone, regardless whether its mass gain or fat loss.
All this said, let’s assume you are metabolically healthy. My typical suggestion on how to conduct a mass would be about 3 months. If you are very lean, and you know you stay lean, you could go 4 months.
1. Insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning
-The more weight you gain, the more likely that weight is to be fat. As your weight increases, insulin sensitivity lowers, and more of the food you eat goes to fat storage. Around the 12 week mark, your muscles are largely “soaked up” and have taken in as much extra nutrition as they can handle. For most people, any weight gain beyond that point is just pure body fat.
Again though, this depends on how lean you are and genetics. Starting off lean gives you advantages
-The leaner you are, the longer you can gain muscle. If you start off at 6% body fat, you could mass gain for quite some time months. If you start at 12%, you’ve got 3 months at most before you get sloppy fat.
2. Mass slowly
–People have WAY unrealistic expectations with bulking. I go with the Eric Helms recommendations. A healthy range of weight gain is 1/4 to 1/2 pound a week. A WEEK. So if you bulk for 16 weeks, that’s 8 pounds. Lets say 10 just to be loose with it. 12 weeks is 6 pounds. Gaining a pound of weight a week is a setup for being fat and then having to lose excess fat when you diet. Keep the gain reasonable
3. You probably don’t need as big of a surplus as you think
–This is very generalistic, so dont argue. For a male, having an extra 500 calories is a very reasonable surplus to start with. For a girl, have 200. That’s it. That a protein shake and peanut butter, or just some peanut butter. Unless you have a ridiculously fast and inefficient metabolism, you do not need to eat start eating 5,000 calories a day to gain weight. Maybe if you are 250+, but unlikely for anyone under 200 lbs (barring an outlier).
4. Still try to control your body fat
-Use “cutdown” days, 3-7 day periods where you dramatically under eat. Cut your calorie to basal metabolism levels, up the cardio, and lose the labil fat. This strips off short term fat gain and helps keep your insulin sensitivity up. Especially if you gain weight too fast, you may need to dial it back.
5. Train with VOLUME
I swear to god, every week I get questions about if 5×5 training, or 3×5 training is good for muscle gain, and it’s the same answer
YOU ARE DOING 25 REPS. DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT WILL GROW SLABS OF MUSCLE????
The answer of course is a “fuck no, it doesn’t.”
If your goal is muscle mass, which should be the goal of every human being who wants quality of life, longevity, and a body to go with it, you train for MUSCLE. That means 6-15 reps, multiple sets, and lots of volume and variety.
Here’s how to set up such training (again, suggestions, not the 10 Commandments)
Month 1-10-12 sets per muscle group per week, 6-8 reps
Month 2-14-16 sets per muscle group per week, 8-15 rep range
Month 3-16-20+ sets per muscle group per week, 12-20 rep range
Month 4-10-12 sets per muscle group per week, 5-8 rep range
Now, that is just ONE example. Another way could be the following
Month 1-10-16+ sets per muscle group per week, 12-20 rep range
Month 2-16-20+ sets per muscle group per week, 8-12 rep range
Month 3-20-24+ sets per muscle group per week, 6-10 rep range
You could also use ALL THE REP RANGES in every month of training. Which is extremely effective, and for anyone that’s used my programs, or signed up for the Workout Newsletter, it’s something I do very very often.
Hopefully this illuminated a few things for you.
And One more thing
Women can bulk too. So if any ladies are curious on whether the above applies to them, YES, it largely does.
About the Author
Alexander is an outlier in the fitness world, coming from an artistic background as a trained dancer with degree in performance choreography. After injuries took him away from his dream of being a principal ballet dancer, he heavily investigated training, rehab, and what it meant to become stronger and achieve better health. In 2009, he began personal training part time, and he realized he had a passion for teaching. Since that time, he relentlessly focused all his efforts on improving his professional skillset and becoming the best asset he can be to his clients. His content can be found on elitefts, in his bimonthly column, as well numerous fitness websites, in mainstream magazines, and his own website. Having worked under John Meadows as a coach, and maintained a constant high volume training clientele for almost 8 years, his maverick perspectives and practices distinguish his place in the industry.