By Les Willis aka MuscleTalk Moderator 'Big Les'
What is bulking?
It is usual to define the bulking phase of a bodybuilder's diet by what it is not; however it is simply 'a systematic attempt to gain muscle'. If you want to add 'and strength' to that sentence then that's fine, just remember you can get stronger without adding muscle, but you can't add muscle without getting even the smallest bit stronger.
Bulking and cutting are the productive phases of bodybuilding; bulking is the addition and cutting the subtraction. When cutting you are removing body fat while trying not to lose muscle – conversely in bulking you are trying to add muscle without adding too much fat.
What about lean bulking and clean bulking?
You will hear these terms over and over again, they are purportedly ways of not adding fat while maximising muscle mass, or even the holy grail of losing body fat and adding muscle at the same time. They are certainly very attractive, but they are not the most effective! Simply put, you cannot serve two masters; focus on two things at the same time and you limit the possibility of gaining success at either. Not to say there is nothing good in the systems that fall under those headings; a concentration on healthy foods and an avoiding excess fat gain are at the foundation of any good and proper bulking program. However, the difference is that a properly constructed bulking program recognises that we are human beings not machines, there are limits to both physiology and sanity, we have taste buds, and that even Jay Cutler takes a break sometimes.
What is dirty bulking?
More often than not a poor excuse to eat a lot of junk food!
Okay, so bulking is the systematic addition of muscle tissue, and a bulking diet is one that supports this in the best way possible through the use of quality foods designed to maximise muscle gains, minimise fat gain and support maximum effort in the gym and a healthy life outside of it.
Now we know what it is we are doing – let's do it!
The building blocks
Food comes in many forms; every food is a protein, carbohydrate, fat or a combination of those three. Some foods also are nice enough to contain alcohol for extra calories and a buzz factor. As bulking bodybuilders our first priority is to get enough of these macronutrients, i.e. protein, fat and carbohydrate, into our bodies to be the behemoth of our plans.
Protein is the subject of more debate than can ever possibly be imagined, the amount of spilled ink and hours spent is truly phenomenal. Battle lines are drawn; wars are fought over just how much we need – which seems a bit of a bother to me. We don't actually know how much we need, we can measure certain requirements in others, or have them done on ourselves, but when it comes to us as individuals training our butts off and living our normal lives on top of that – really and honestly – no one knows.
Don't despair though; for years bodybuilders have wrestled with this very problem and combined with a bit of science it gives us more than just a little insight into what works for most people. And that is always the best place to start, never re-invent the wheel unless you really have to! The net result of this received wisdom is a recommendation of: 1.5g of protein per lb of lean mass (estimated), or if you are very lean or light: 1.5g per lb of bodyweight.
Protein is important and emphasised for bodybuilders because it is involved in almost every biological process in the human body. Not only is it required to make muscle, it is needed to make enzymes, hormones and for proper immune system function, and for the formation of body tissues.
- Only protein creates muscle: only amino acids from protein can be incorporated into new muscle tissue. Protein is the critical nutrient when it comes to repairing muscle tissue
- Protein enhances insulin release: insulin is the number 1, big daddy anabolic hormone of them all; not only that, it helps make muscle glycogen from carbohydrate, improves protein uptake, and prevents muscle breakdown
- Protein boosts the immune system: without protein you cannot make antibodies, no antibodies – no immune system. Arginine, glutamine and histidine are the three big players in the function of the immune system, run short of these three and you quickly become catabolic instead of anabolic
- Protein provides glutamine: this is really a massively important amino acid, it has multiple roles from proper gut function, to immunity, but it also promotes water retention in muscle and liver cells – supporting protein synthesis and warding off catabolism
And that is just scratching the surface of the metabolic importance of protein. Packing the protein in really should be a no-brainer, after all successful bodybuilders from current Mr Olympia Jay Cutler to the very first Larry Scott back to Eugene Sandow and beyond have done it to be their best, (darn it even Rocky did it!).
If ever a nutrient has had a bad press it has been dietary fat. Responsible at one time for making people gain weight, to the rise and fall of communism, fat has hardly ever been the dietary good guy. Many people are simply fat phobic, and the health conscious are often the most pathological of those suffers. Fat has been making a comeback, studies on omega 3 oils, the Atkins diet and much more besides have put fat back in the dietary news. The question is – what role does it have in our bulking diet?
There is no doubt fat is important, read any nutrition text book and you find that there are essential amino acids found in protein, and there are essential fatty acids in fat. Essential is shorthand for the fact that human body cannot make these nutrients itself, we have to supply them – usually that's by eating or drinking them. Fats are essential to health, but we don't need a lot of them, we simply need the right ones. The nutritionally savvy may know of optimum ratios – and if you want to go down that road, feel free, but for now getting the good ones and avoiding the bad ones is the first and most important step before you go anywhere.
So what fats do we go for? Firstly omega 3 fatty acids derived from fish, fish oil and flaxseed oil. Your omega 6s and 9s will come from a good quality diet, as will most others such as gamma linolenic acid, alpha linolenic acid and such like. Secondly avoid saturated fat and trans fatty acids; and thirdly monounsaturated fats are fine – just remember they are calorie dense so use sparingly.
Carbohydrates appear last for a reason; in macronutrient terms they are not essential, you can make energy from protein and fat. Optimum, well even sensible nutrition, says you need carbohydrates for energy; however, they also have other important roles.
Firstly, it goes almost without saying, that if you are using protein for energy you are not using it to grow muscle, so a bulking diet spares protein for growth by giving you plenty of energy for intense workouts and our busy modern lives. Secondly good carbohydrate foods come with masses of other health and, therefore, growth benefits from fibre to the multitude of micro nutrients they have.
The key to a good carbohydrate intake is for it to be around 2 to 3 times that of your protein intake, made up almost entirely of non refined, unprocessed sources. We are talking fruit, and more importantly lots of vegetables. The anti-oxidant constituents combat the inflammation of hard training and even help confer benefits in terms of reducing the risks of cancer and heart disease. By sticking to unrefined carbohydrates you control insulin levels keeping your energy levels stable and minimising unwanted fat deposition to boot.
Putting it all together
What does that all mean? Here are the key pointers:
- 1.5g protein per lb of lean mass
- 2-3 times protein intake of carbohydrates
- Carbohydrates – unrefined, unprocessed and colourful
- Fishy fats are best
This means the best bodybuilding diet is actually a very healthy diet, it emphasises lean sources of protein especially fish, quality carbohydrates with lots of vegetables and doesn't over do the fats but has all the good ones for health in plentiful supply.
The bodybuilder's favourite is chicken breast, but when bulking as long as you cook with the skin off any part will do, same holds for turkey. Steak is great, beef is beautiful, the only but is no white stuff. The best beef cuts are deep and red with virtually no fat remember that. Quality mince of chicken, turkey or beef is great – but read the label – not all minces are created equal. Pork is not a bodybuilding staple despite my own love of the bacon sandwich. There are more exotic meats that are high in protein and low in fat – ostrich and buffalo are just two – give them a try. Off the land and into the sea, shellfish is high in fat per protein punch, so its not a staple, salmon, cod, sea bass, red snapper, herring, are great choices, as are tuna and swordfish steaks. If you can get it orange roughy is great – the only thing to do is make sure you get what you ask for – use a reputable supplier.
Brown rice is preferable, basmati is next best although it lacks the fibre of the brown variety, white rice especially the easy cook is heavily milled and has nutrients added back in to make its nutritional values worth the effort of boiling it. With pasta again plump for wholewheat varieties, next fresh egg pasta is best and plain old dried is at best someway behind that, but still a much better choice than plain white rice. Oats are great, go for the simple steel cut ones without lots added, remember the smoother and sweeter the more processing required - unprocessed is what you are after. Don't forget other sources such as couscous or quinoa either as they can be a welcome variation.
For potatoes sweet potatoes rule the roost for bodybuilders, always eat the skins, and that counts double for white potatoes. Finally cold potatoes are less digestible than hot ones so if you want energy eat them hot hot hot.
Fruit and Vegetables
Eat them frequently and eat a rainbow, as a bulking bodybuilder it's almost impossible to overdo these two. The only thing is to make sure you don't fill up on veggies until after your protein and carbohydrate requirements have been met.
For the bodybuilder most dietary fat is from their protein sources, however condiments and sauces should not be shunned. Food should be enjoyable, sensible sauces; marinades and the like make good food great! With these avoid those high in sugar, trans fats and saturated fats, if possible make them yourself, or when buying read that label carefully.
What about junk food?
The 90-10 rule is a good place to start – that is 90% good hearty healthy food and 10% junk. Personally I recommend eat enough to stay sane and have a social life, that will usually be more than enough to satisfy.
Bulking is a great time to try new foods and new ideas, the staple ingredients may sound simple – but remember chicken veg and rice could be grilled plain chicken breast, boiled green rice and some broccoli – but it is also a chicken curry – be creative.
How much to eat when?
We now have an idea of what foods we are eating, we have a massive choice available even if it isn't on the ready meal aisle. Picking the right foods is great but if you don't eat enough of them then it amounts to nothing, or more precisely your muscle mass will! Bodybuilders are notorious for two things, eating a lot, and eating often – and as a bulking bodybuilder you will be doing both.
This is an almost impossible question to pin down, the answer is enough to grow but not so much that we look like the Michelin man when we have finished. Hitting the 1.5g of protein per lb of lean mass and 2-3 times that in carbohydrates will give you a starting point. The key is 'starting point' if it doesn't work you will have to eat more; there is a lot of truth in the old adage that if you want to look like a 250lb bodybuilder then you have to eat like one. Your body is like any building site, things go quicker if there is plenty of material. Unlike a building site your body can store the leftovers – as fat. So if you are building muscle a little fat is inevitable. Which is why we emphasise protein – it leaves the least leftovers.
Your body can only process so much at once, eat too much and it's going to get stored. That is why you need to eat a lot, but also eat often, your body can efficiently utilise what you feed it, send it to where it needs it, and only store what it is essential to be stored. Your body is better at working this out than you can ever imagine. Eat frequently and you deposit less fat than if you dump it all in a big meal or even three big meals – and you will certainly feel better, as well as perform better in the gym by spacing things out.
What this translates to is if you have just eaten, then in 2.5 to 3 hours time you will be chowing down again. And if you wake up naturally in the night you may just have a munch then as well. (Never set an alarm to eat in the night!)
What about after a workout?
A lot has been written about the importance of post workout nutrition and quite rightly so. At this time your body is incredibly receptive to the nutrients you provide it. That receptive state does not last forever – so we hit it with the following strategy:
Straight after the workout we glug down a rapidly digesting protein and a simple sugar to maximise insulin response and the cellular uptake of nutrients. After about 30mins and inside the hour of that we have a protein and carbohydrate rich meal.
This method is both simple and effective in maximising workout gains.
Finally – what does a typical day look like?
Here is a simple example day. I have included a rough guide to calories, protein and carbohydrate levels – bodybuilding is not a maths class after all – and your diet doesn't have to be either!
The bodybuilder in question has 200lbs of lean mass by rough estimate and trains in the evening.
300ml of egg whites – 25g protein
30g whey shake – 25g (at least)
100g oatmeal – 80g carbs
2 slices of granary toast – 35g carbs
Some cheese in and vegetables to make an omelette with the egg, raisins, and honey to taste in the oats (made in water) with a splash of skimmed milk to taste, and low fat spread on the toast
Add beverage of choice and that's around 600 calories for Breakfast
200g cooked chicken – approx 45g protein
130g brown rice – approx 100g carbs
Some vegetables mixed in, splash of something to help it down the hatch
Add a piece of fruit
And that's in the region of 650 calories depending on what you add.
300g tinned tuna – 40g protein
150g wholemeal pasta 100g carbs
Add a bowl of salad and some extra light mayo mixed in with the tuna and pasta with a nice dressing on the salad
And you have another 600+ calories
Same as Meal Two or Meal 3
Post Workout Shake
50g whey protein
In water, down the hatch
Meal Five – less than an hour later:
200g steak – 45g protein
250g sweet potato – 100g carbohydrates (make nice baked fries or wedges with these – especially if you melt mozzarella on them before you serve)
Add in heaps of veg and your condiment or sauce – another 600 calories
Final meal of the day:
250g salmon – 40g protein
100g cottage cheese – 10g protein
4 slices of granary bread – 70g carbs
Another 600 calories or so in that meal
The totals are
Calories at least 4000
Protein – 315
Carbs – 640
If you are not training then add a meal to suit your requirements instead of the post workout shake – for some this means their mealtimes vary between training and non training days, which is a good little bit of variation too.
And that's bulking in a rather muscular nutshell!