Winter tends to be the off season for many athletes and bodybuilders so you’ll probably be seeing the term 'bulking' being thrown around a lot as Instagram is filled with photos of flex bowls and pizza with “#gains” plastered all over social media sites.

Off season isn’t just a clever bro-science term coined to allow athletes to eat whatever they want at Christmas, however, there is genuine necessity for the practice. Bulking allows the individual to make those all-important gains required for the competitive season, as well as playing an important role in the regulation of hormones that control important chemical and metabolic processes within the body. Let’s look at this from the perspective of a bodybuilder.

From a bodybuilding perspective the need to maintain an ultra-lean and stage ready physique all year is ridiculous. The body fat levels of many of these athletes is in the range of 5-11% body fat in the approach to a competition which if maintained over a prolonged period of time can have serious physical repercussions. In women the level of body fat regarded as essential for proper metabolic function is 20% and without this processes such as the reproductive cycle, immune system and general organ function can be affected and in some cases cease functioning all together.

There is more than one way to bulk with some athletes preferring to follow a ‘clean bulking’ programme by trying to gain as little body fat as possible while others opt for the ‘eat everything, gain everything’ approach with huge calorie increases leading to fat and muscle gains. Either way there are just a few rules regarding bulking that need to be adhered to in order to make gains.

1)      You must be in a calorie surplus

Without a calorie surplus it is not possible to gain muscle mass. The calorie surplus level depends on individual goals and how much fat you are willing to gain as well as the approach being taken to training.

The opposite of a calorie surplus is known as a calorie deficit, an almost sure fire way to impede the building of muscle. This is because body will simply not have the energy and nutrients required to synthesise the proteins involved in the muscle building process. Deficit also promotes the production of the stress hormone cortisol which has a catabolic effect whilst reducing the effect of testosterone, a major contributor to the synthesis of new muscle tissue.

There’s no need to go mad with the calories though, as long as you maintain a calorie surplus of around 10% over your maintenance levels you’ll usually build muscle whilst keeping fat gain fairly minimal.

The only time that this rule doesn’t necessarily apply is when you already have a substantial amount of body fat. Under these circumstances it’s advisable to reduce body fat levels before undertaking a bulk.

2)      Eat enough protein

How much is enough? This amount varies depending on the individual in question but a good guideline to follow is to consume at least two grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For example a 60kg athlete will need to eat at least 120g of protein per day.

Dietary protein is metabolised to amino acids which can then be used as building blocks for new muscle, hence its importance when bulking. There’s very little use, however, in consuming limitless amounts of protein as this can be converted and stored as fat if present in too much of a surplus.

3)      Lift

If you don’t train then you won’t gain muscle, it’s as simple as that. Applying the principle of progressive overload to weight training will facilitate the continual growth of muscle and help to avoid a plateau, although this will probably occur at some point. To apply the principle of progressive overload, weight, volume and intensity can all be altered. Lifting within your comfort zone should be avoided and as soon as a routine can be completed, make a change as overload is central to #gains. For example, bench pressing; when 3x8 reps can be achieved with 80kg the routine could be progressed to 3x10 reps at 80kg.


So there you have it, the three main rules for a successful bulk. Whatever you do please don’t ever tell an off season bodybuilder that they’re ‘out of shape’ or ‘lacking condition.’ They’re supposed to be holding a little extra body fat and will quickly shed it when prepping for a competition. 


- Charlotte Fisher

Nutritional Science Student