Whether you are looking to improve your body composition or grab some serious gains, your calories and macros play a major role in what you get out of your hard work in the gym. With the wrong approach to bulk dieting, you might end up gaining more than what you intended - like body fat. And your strength performance could take a major hit.
Instead of flying blind when it comes to nutrition, here is your complete guide to hitting your muscle gain goals with the right lean bulking macros.
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What is Bulking?
When it comes to bodybuilding, there are two common diet phases people tend to go through: cutting and bulking.
In a cutting phase, the goal is to lose body fat while maintaining as much lean mass as possible (aka get shredded).
In a bulking phase, the goal is to gain weight, primarily muscle mass while minimizing fat gains.
Weight loss requires a calorie deficit while bulking requires a calorie surplus.
Cycling through cutting and bulking phases is often used as a way to systematize and fine-tune your fitness approach. Since a bulk can result in somebody's fat gain, most will follow this with a cut to slim down and shed any unwanted body weight, while maintaining lean mass.
What are the Benefits of Bulking?
Many find gaining weight can feel like the opposite of what they are looking for in their health and fitness goals. But bulking can benefit just about everyone.
Bulking just means more muscle, not always getting “big”. And every pound of muscle on your body is really worth keeping around. The top reasons to think about trying a weight gain diet include:
- Increased lean mass
- Improved strength and performance
- Easier weight maintenance
It’s no surprise that feeding your body can benefit your performance. The more fuel you give it, the better your workouts start to become, helping you reach your full fitness potential.
The more lean tissue you have, the better your body composition typically is. Moreover, lean mass is more metabolic than fat, meaning your resting energy expenditure (RMR or BMR) and daily maintenance calories increase.
Translation - you can eat a lot more food and stay the same size.
Plus, muscle takes up 15% less space than fat so you can weigh more and actually look more toned.
More lean tissue is also linked to better health outcomes as we age, decreasing our risk of injury, improving recovery time, and decreasing the risk of certain chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes (1,2,3).
How to Bulk
This goes without saying but eating more calories is only one part of building muscle. You can't just gorge on junk food and expect to see gains.
To maximize muscle gain you'll need a combination of the following:
- More Calories
- Macronutrient balance
- Good nutrition
- Adequate strength training
Calories will determine the amount of weight you can gain or lose, but your macro ratios play a key role in determining the type of weight - lean tissue vs fatty tissue.
Furthermore, your nutrition intake is important to fuel your engine properly - helping to support your workouts, aid in recovery, and minimize fat gain.
Here are the best foods for building muscle.
A bulk diet that emphasizes quality, nutritious foods is commonly referred to as clean bulking or lean bulking. Whereas dirty bulking emphasizes calories and quantity over quality.
Lastly, your muscles won’t grow unless you put all that excess food to work with weight lifting for hypertrophy (muscle growth).
How Long Should You Bulk?
You shouldn’t plan to be on a bulk or a cut long-term or permanently for that matter. Try using 12-week blocks to cycle through each phase of your diet: bulking, cutting, and maintenance.
Twelve weeks (or 90 days) give you ample time to see progress, but it isn’t so long that you’re going to burn out or overdo it.
Each season is also about three months, making it easy to divide up your year according to your goals. Winter is a popular bulking season since most people don’t mind putting on pounds this time of year.
4 Steps to Calculating Macros for Muscle Gain
The easiest way to calculate macros is using a fitness tracking app or online macro calculator that does the math for you.
Or, to understand how each macro plays a role in your fitness, here is exactly how to set your ideal macro ratio for a lean bulk.
Step 1. Determine Your Bulking Calories
While it is possible to build muscle in a calorie deficit, these gains tend to be minimal. Thus, increasing the amount of food you eat is a great starting place for any bulk.
You can figure out how many calories you need a day for weight gain by learning what your current daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is. This would be the number of calories you would need to eat to maintain your existing weight.
Remember to account for any strength training you plan to do as this will increase your daily calorie needs.
From here, you can add a calorie surplus of 5 to 15% percent to promote a gain of ~0.5% to 1% of your body weight per week. Which for most people would be ½ a pound to 2 pounds of muscle a week.
The amount of lean weight you can gain and how quickly is based on your starting body fat percentage, training experience, genetics, and much more.
If you are newer to bulking, starting at a lower calorie amount and slowly increasing every 3 to 4 weeks will help you add healthy weight. But if you’ve got a good amount of lean muscle, to begin with, or have a hard time gaining weight, you may need to start at a more aggressive amount.
Step 2. Estimate Your Fat Needs to Lean Bulk
Fat is calculated first because a set percentage is typically used -typically around 30% of your calories.
For example, if you need 2,500 calories/day to bulk, your fat goal would be 83 grams a day (1 gram of fat = 9 calories).
- (2,500 x 0.30) / 9 = 83 grams
Because fat can be an easy source of the energy needed to gain weight, increasing fat intake is one way to support muscle growth. However, too much fat (over 30% of calories) in some people could end up causing more body fat gains.
Additionally fat doesn't seem to play quite the supportive role as carbs and protein do since it is mainly just used for energy.
That being said, how well you handle a high-fat diet is dependent on your unique metabolic needs.
Also, the type of fat you eat might impact potential fat gain - with some research suggesting saturated fats are more likely to cause increases in fat storage compared to unsaturated, healthy fats in a calorie surplus (4).
Aim to keep your fat intake at 20 to 30% of your daily intake to get the potential health benefits, but not overdo it. And opt for more healthy fats from plants and seafood where possible.
Step 3. Calculate Your Protein Needs to Gain Muscle
Consuming enough protein is essential when it comes to muscle gain since it is the sole source of amino acids needed to build lean tissue.
It is also crucial for post-workout recovery, helping to repair muscle damage and support existing muscle mass.
In addition, protein is the least likely of all the macronutrients to be stored as body fat in a calorie surplus - potentially helping to reduce body fat increases.
The amount of protein you need to build muscle is determined by your fitness level and existing muscle mass - essentially, the more muscle you have, and the more you use it, the more protein you will need.
It is recommended to eat one gram of protein per pound of lean mass to maintain existing muscle, and slightly more to add mass.
According to the research, a high protein diet - anywhere from 1 to 1.5 grams of protein a day, per pound of body weight, is suggested to support more muscle growth and less body fat gain in a bulking diet (5,6).
For example, A 200-pound adult would need 200 to 300 grams of protein per day, with 800 to 1200 calories coming from protein (1 gram of protein = 4 calories).
Of course, the exact amount that works for you can depend on various factors. It is not always necessary to eat hundreds of grams of protein daily to see muscle gain.
Aim to get about 1 gram per pound and increase up to a 1.5 gram per pound max as needed.
Step 4. Determine How Many Carbs You Need for Bulking
While protein is essential to building muscle, carbs are also pretty crucial.
Carbohydrates can supply energy for your muscle-building workouts, and may also support muscle growth in other ways - such as supporting exercise recovery and the prevention of further muscle breakdown (7).
A higher carb might also be ideal for weight gain, with some studies suggesting that high carb intake is less likely to promote fat storage compared to high fat intake when calorie needs are exceeded (8,9).
Of course, this always depends on the person and how well/often your use carbs for energy.
To get a precise estimate, you can figure out your daily carbohydrate needs by calculating your protein and fat needs first (1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories).
For example, a 200-pound adult who needs 2500 calories, 83 grams of fat, and 200 grams of protein, would need
- 2500 calories - (83g of fat x 9) - (200g of protein x 4) = 953 carb calories /4 = 238 grams of carbs per day
Counting Macros for Weight Gain
Calculating your exact macro needs is only half the battle. In order to get optimal results, you’ll need to track your macros using a macro-friendly app.
This can take some discipline and often means logging everything you eat and drink, as precisely as possible. Otherwise, you are just guessing when it comes to your nutrition.
Tracking macros is the best way to ensure your daily macro split is on point and that you are sticking to your diet consistently - which ultimately leads to results.
Want to make counting macros feel like a breeze? Download the Trifecta app to easily log the macro content of all the meals and foods you eat each day from your phone. Plus, get custom macro and nutrition recommendations based on your individual fitness and health needs.