When it comes time to bulk, either after a mini-cut or full-blown contest prep, everyone’s goal should be to optimize performance in the gym while gaining lean tissue as fast as possible and fatty tissue as slow as possible. The extent to which your previous caloric deficit was will really dictate or fast or slow you will likely gain body fat. Obviously if you were in a contest prep situation and achieved true stage conditioning with deep separations in your glutes, it may be a good idea to gain a little bit of fat quicker to return to baseline faster. But that is not what this article is about. This article revolves around my Top 5 Essentials for Bulking. This comes from my experience of working with well over 1,000 athletes and competitors, as well as my own research and anecdotal evidence that I’ve gathered from my own physique transformations. When it comes down to making a bulk efficient you need to consider 5 things: am I lean enough to start bulking in the first place, my training periodization, my nutritional periodization, my sleep, and finally my life as a whole.
This is easily the first and highest priority on my list for a number of reasons. First, let’s look at the basics. If you are at an excessively high level of body fat, generally insulin sensitivity goes down. When that happens, nutrient partitioning also goes down. This leaves you storing more nutrients in fat cells than in muscle cells. We want to stay as insulin sensitive as possible by starting off our bulk at a proper body fat percentage. Keep in mind everyone will have varying degrees of what body fat is right to be at for the height of their bulk as well as the beginning of their bulk (base this off performance in the gym, overall energy levels, digestion, insulin sensitivity, and nutrient partitioning.) In generally, the vast majority of people should aim to get down to at least 7-8% body fat before pushing into a caloric surplus. Even furthermore than our ability to store nutrients better is our ability to now take advantage of the “anabolic rebound.” This term is often misunderstood or misrepresented. The truth of the matter is that after you have been dieting and in a caloric deficit for so long, your body is starving for nutrients and will store them at accelerated rates. The catch 22 of it is, it will store it in muscle cells as well as fat cells. This means that post-deficit, you need to systemically transition into a caloric surplus to minimize fat gain. Once you have established that you are lean enough to end your cut, you can start your bulk!
Since we’ve now established that you are lean enough to begin your bulk, we must now go through the variables that are essential to making an offseason successful. This generally begins with training periodization. I will be referring to training periodization in a more general form and not in the traditional “linear, non-linear, daily undulating” periodization that many do. What I am talking about are the three most important aspects of training. Your intensity, volume, and frequency. Typically, what happens is at the end of a cut, your training volume had to have been slightly lowered due to your low caloric situation. This low-calorie state leads many to over-training or under-recovery, forcing them to pull back on their training volume, intensity, or frequency. Fast forward now to the point where you’re beginning to increase calories and you see more energy, more strength, and generally more motivation to put in work at the gym. At this point (generally within the first few weeks of your bulk) you need to prioritize your training periodization. This means you can now increase one of those three variables to get a more robust growth response! After you increase one variable for 4-6 weeks, reevaluate how your feeling and make changes based off those notes. If you began with increasing volume and held that volume for 6 weeks but now feel beat up, you can possible lower your volume but increase your frequency of training. Obviously, there are dozens of different ways to do this including periods of “deloading” to give your body a break, but the main point of this section is you NEED to push the envelope or you will not grow. Over time you need to be progressively overloading in some fashion or growth will not occur.
After a baseline training program has been periodized and established, we move into nutritional periodization. I am referring essentially to how fast or slow you increase calories as well as where those calories come from. The hard truth of the fact is that the rate at which you add calories back into your diet depends on your goals (how lean you want to stay or how fast you want to grow), your digestion, and your genetics. Some people find that they can just keep pilling more and more food into their diet and they grow lean, while others add an extra cup of oatmeal and gain a pound of fat. This is completely dependent upon how unbiased you can be with your physique and progress. If you can tell your gaining fat too fast, stop increasing calories and hold that amount of an extended period of time. If your weight isn't increasing at all, consider higher calorie increases. Now, we can get a little more in depth with where those calories come from! Even furthermore than food sources themselves, I’m speaking more so of nutrient timing. The basis of nutrient timing is to use the fuel source you need at that time. This means that on rest/recovery days when very little energy is expended, the majority of your meals are protein/fat/vegetable meals whereas on training days, the majority of your carbohydrates are intra-workout (pre, intra, and post.) This not only keep insulin sensitivity high but keeps positive partitioning at its highest! This leads to a bigger, stronger, leaner physique! As that’s the goal with any bulk, taking nutrient timing into consideration can truly make or break your physique. On one final note, food sources year-round shouldn’t really change. You should always aim to consume the majority of your macronutrients from health micronutrient dense food sources. However, post workout is a time period where it’s almost a “free for all” (depending on your carbohydrate allotment.)
Now that the basics are covered, we move into two areas that very few consider. We’ll begin with sleep (given that our society does a horrible job at monitoring and correcting sleep patterns.) By now, you’ve all read my many articles on the benefits of sleep which include increased hypertrophy, increased lipolysis, increased energy, increased health markers, etc. But, in the same token, you know that not getting enough sleep can be horribly detrimental not only to your physique, but massively so to your internal health. You need to be sure that you are getting minimum requirements of sleep or no matter how hard you push it in the gym or how hard you nail every single meal, you will not grow. If you need to adjust your schedule or implement a sleep supplement then by all means, do so. Sleep is one thing that cannot be compromised.
We now conclude with the last, but certainly not less important aspect of your bulk; your life as a whole. What I mean by this is what exactly is going to be going on in your life over the next year? Are you getting married? Are you starting your own company? Will there be high stressors at some points over others? You need to ask yourself all of these questions so that you can plan your bulk accordingly. Let’s take this scenario for example: you just finished your cut but you’ll be getting married in two months. Would it be best to start piling on a ton of body fat? Most likely the answer is no as this is a period when stress will probably be higher causes lack of sleep and time which leads to a less than optimal period of growth. Ideally, you want to map out when your stress will be the lowest and your ability to nail every single variable will be the best. Once that time is mapped out, plan specific growth periods for those times! Then, when stress gets extremely high, you know it’s time to slightly pull back on pushing the calories and emphasize your training sessions until that stressor goes away. If more people took this aspect of their bulk into consideration, we’d see much happier people that grow more efficiently.
In conclusion of this article, I’d like to say this: everyone will vary drastically from one variable to the next and this is merely a guideline to follow. You need to know how you respond to every single aspect of each individual variable, fill in the blanks, and put together your own bulking program. If you ask yourself all the right questions, you can have an extremely successful growth period! Even more importantly, you need to remember to do what makes you happy! Personally, I stay fairly lean but not shredded during my offseason because thats when I perform and feel the best, leading to extreme muscle growth. If your someone who prefers to stay extremely lean then by all means, DO IT! Just know that muscle growth will not be occurring as fast as you potentially could. So be happy, put a program together, and bulk until you have enough muscle to cut!