Generally speaking there’s three different approaches to bulk-cycle nutrition. There’s the ‘anything goes’ camp; the ‘squeaky clean’ camp, and the ‘somewhere in between’ camp.
Anything Goes – The Dirty Bulk
You might have heard of IIFYM – i.e. If It Fits Your Macros. The Macronutrients, as you already know, are protein, carbohydrate and fat. The IIFYM guys eat pretty much anything as long is it fits in with their macro ratio – of about 40/40/20 (Protein/Carbs/Fats).
This kind of bulking diet can be called a ‘Dirty Bulk’. It’s basically a calorie-fest, with less attention paid to healthy eating and more emphasis on getting the energy in whatever form to increase the overall mass. Some people are going to do a very tight cutting cycle after the bulk so they decide it’s okay to let it go a bit in the meantime. Others aren’t going to go clean at all!
The problem is that yo-yoing between dirty and clean or just staying dirty is not very good for general health. This is especially the case for people who limit their cardio-vascular training during the bulk phase. What’s even more unfortunate about a dirty bulk is that it will take longer to achieve the desired goal, because more of the mass will be adipose (fat) tissue and not muscle.
Add to that the extra effort it will take to work off the the fat mass when it comes to a strength/cut cycle and you can see the proud IIFYM people might just be barking up the wrong tree.
Weight Lifter + Obsessive Compulsive Disorder = Excellent Nutrition + Great Physique. That sounds like I’m saying that this is the only way to go to achieve your goals. It’s not.
Personally I have tried calorie-counting and sticking to a strict and clean diet, but I just can’t do it. If that sounds like defeat then I assure you that it isn’t. People are just different. I enjoy some luxuries in life and usually – when it comes to food and drink – they are of the decadent, bad-for-you, kind. It’s all about moderation, in my opinion.
However…there are those who can eliminate 95% or more of the junk food/alcohol/fizzy drink etc. and even eat the right things at the right times. And go full organic.
If you’re one of them, perfect! Go for it, because you will always be able to reach your body composition goals faster with that dedication.
Be careful though – you must enjoy it, otherwise sooner or later, you will drop it.
Somewhere In Between
I think most people fall in to this camp; those that are serious about their objective, but understand there is more to life as well will have a good overall balance, and might even be the ones who keep it up. If you want to be an olympian, world champion, or generally elite, then this isn’t for you and you will need to go squeaky clean. In fact, any serious level of competition will mean that as well.
For the mere mortals, somewhere-in-between approach seems to work just fine. It’s a sliding scale but most people can comfortably sit closer to the cleaner end of it than they thought possible.
If you eat something, it’s either Carbohydrate, Protein or Fat. All of the energy stored within a gram of each can be measured in calories. Carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram, and Fat is denser with 9 calories per gram.
There’s no simple way to determine exactly how much you need, but there are ways of getting close, and of course a lot of it has to do with your desired outcome. This is about bulking, so there’s one thing you can be certain of:
To add mass you need to consume more energy than you use. Basically, you need to eat more calories than you burn during the day, and the energy becomes stored as body tissue – muscle, fat etc. That’s where a cleaner bulking diet will be advantageous, as your body will build muscle more efficiently with a better quality diet. Eating more calories than you expend is the easy part.
You can’t talk about building muscle mass without covering protein. It’s not everything though, as you will already know, and a lot of people – especially men – put so much emphasis on protein, because it is the ‘building blocks of muscle’ that they forget about the importance of the other macros.
Protein is however vital, there’s no doubt about it. This macro should make up about 35% to 40% of your daily calorie intake. The precise amount in grams is not possible to calculate. Even experts on nutrition can only come up with a basic range because the myriad factors that affect the body’s response and metabolic functions don’t allow for such accuracy on the input level.
Also, said experts don’t always agree. Somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight is a safe bet. Some pros think even 2 grams per pound on the big workout days is effective for keeping a positive anabolic environment.
Most packaged foods will have the quantity of protein on the label, which makes it easier for you to do some rough calculations for your meals. There are many foods that won’t tell you exactly, and that’s okay too, as you will find many many sources on the web to help you with how much protein is in your eggs, beef, chicken, cheese, spinach, chick peas, lentils, bread and so on. In fact, this Wiki page is a good place to start; it works by grams of protein per 100 grams food weight.
Carb rich foods are where you’ll get the lion share of the fuel for conversion into energy to lift weight and cook off some serious love-handle on the treadmill or cross trainer. They should, like protein, take up 35% to 40% of your overall calorie intake.
Again, similar to protein. About 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight is good and then about 2 grams per pound on your workout days.
Carbohydrates are essentially sugars, ranging from very simple to complex. They are further complicated by their categorization as low, medium or high on the Glycemic Index. The lower down on the GI, the slower the speed and impact by which they spike your blood sugar levels. For the most part, it is best to stay in the low to medium end of the spectrum, with fruits, oatmeal, and other complex carbs.
There are however two times a day when simple, high GI carbs are useful: (1) first thing in the morning after waking up, and (2) immediately after a workout. If you like jelly sweets like gummy bears then you are in luck, because some reliable sources suggest eating about 30 of them after a heavy workout!
Here’s another Wiki on the Glycemic Index
And here’s a good table for amount of Carbs per serving of some foods.
High carb food intake should be limited in the late afternoon and evening, with protein and fats taking up the brunt of the load. Of course, leafy and coloured vegetables (non-starchy) can be eaten by the plate load with dinner.
Fat’s got a bad rep, but it’s getting better thanks to some of the more vocal celebrity nutritionists and dominant websites out there. “Good” fats will provide a source of valuable energy, keep anabolic hormones elevated, as well as fulfill countless metabolic obligations throughout your system. Somewhere between 20% to 30% of your total daily calories should come from fat.
Find a nut butter you like – peanut is good – cook with olive oil, and use it in salad dressings, eat lean oily fish, and enjoy your eggs. These are the omega-3 fats that everyone talks about and they are really healthy and a good source of available energy, unlike some other fats.
Aim for a ratio of 3:1 with omega-3 to omega-6 respecitvely. Omega-6 (polyunsaturated) fats are also a necessary part of your diet but obviously to a lesser extent. Three times less in fact.
Avoid trans-fats like the plague, but a little saturated fat in moderation is ok. The American Heart association says about 5% to 6% of your total daily intake can be from saturated fats. I know of some people who think you can go way higher, and that saturated fats should be taken off the watch-list altogether (especially after the dietary cholesterol debacle), but until there are more definitive answers on this topic, I’d err on the side of caution.
Here’s a table with fat quantities of food. Go easy on the tartar sauce!
So you’ve got a ratio of protein:carbs:fats, but how much should you actually eat in a day to bulk up? – Well, again, the answer is not easy because of individual dynamics that affect the number.
The basic diet of an average 180 lb male, who is in the gym 4 days lifting weight, should be around 3000 to 3200 calories using the per-pound values and the ratios above. Using 3200, that’s about:
- 1150 calories Protein (~288 grams)
- 1100 calories Carbohydrate (~275 grams)
- 950 calories Fat (~106 grams)
Base metabolic rate will vary between people, as will genetic dispositions and quite a few other factors. The point is, you will have to find out through a little trial and error what the best quantities are for you and your goals.
On training days, your protein and carbs will likely be a little higher from taking on pre/during/post-workout drinks and shakes.
Garbage In – Garbage Out
Eating fast food and junk during what is essentially an athletic endeavour is counterintuitive. Whatever you put in to this is what you will get out of it. Fuel yourself with quality food at the right ratios and at the right times and you will get to each milestone that you set for yourself that much more quickly and painlessly. That said, there is nothing wrong with a treat here and there, provided you can control yourself and know when to put the stuff back in the cupboard, or walk away from the donut stand, or whatever.
I haven’t ranted on about going organic because it’s unfair to guilt-trip people into spending that much more money on their groceries. If you can do some but not all, then there are a few fresh products that are better to prioritize than others when it comes to buying organic. Thick skinned fruits and vegetables like bananas aren’t really a problem because the pesticides and other chemicals don’t penetrate to the fleshy bit that you eat. Wash everything – fruits, vegetables – the lot.
Otherwise, get choosy. The following are good to prioritize if you are on a budget as they are the most susceptible:
- Bell Peppers
Supplements can be a great addition to the bulking nutrition plan. Everything from protein shakes, amino acids and creatine to hormone boosters and stimulants can help.
On this site, we have reviewed many growth hormone boosters and other anabolic hormone boosters and testosterone boosters.
What I haven’t done is design meal plans. The reason is simple: when you give example meal plans, some people stick to them rigidly and don’t eat anything else. Be inventive and look for things to make, as the same meal over and over will get just as boring as the same workout over and over.
Some days you will be in a rush, and meal planning will go out the window. Be sure to have enough things that can be picked up, shoved in a bag and taken on the fly. Fruit, cans of tuna, protein bars, shake powder (and shaker cup), nuts etc.
Good luck, and don’t forget to take a look at our Bulking Up Training Article.