Dry, crunchy leaves cover the sidewalks and it’s finally time to layer up those sweatshirts. Bulking season is officially upon us. It’s a time to get strong, get big, and not worry so much about how you look in a swimsuit. Most bodybuilders rejoice at this time of year, as it means they can eat something besides chicken and rice, for once. However, some of you may not be as excited about this… your whole life has been “bulking season” and you don’t have as much to show for it as you would like to. Yes, genetics do play a bit of role, but everyone can get lean and everyone can gain muscle-- it just takes extra work for some people. I personally have way more fun bulking up, so I’m here to share some of what I do to make sure I keep growing.
You can’t grow if you can’t recover. This is the most important part of gaining muscle, but it is often the most overlooked. You only gain muscle when your body recovers from the muscle breakdown that you induced during your workout. Because of this, eating and sleeping are vital parts of muscle growth. Sounds like a good deal, right? Eat a lot, sleep a lot, and make gains!
The only problem is, that’s easier said than done. Plenty of skinny guys will claim they eat a ton, but when they break it down and track it, it doesn’t amount to nearly enough. In the Fat Loss Series, I talked about finding your maintenance calorie level so you can stay below it to lose fat. For gaining muscle, you want to be above your maintenance level.
You still want to cram in the protein (I recommend at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight) because it contains the essential amino acids that your body needs to repair muscle. The protein sources are up to your personal preference, but just remember that the amino acid composition can vary. Some plant proteins have amino acid compositions that aren’t as optimal for our bodies, so you would want to pair them with another plant protein that can offset the imbalance or pair them with meat, eggs, or dairy. Eggs are widely considered the best form of whole food protein because of their amino acid composition, but if you’re not big on eggs, you don’t need to fret. Any meat is going to be a great source of protein, and you can always supplement with whey powder. Moral of the story: get your protein from multiple sources and eat eggs if you can stomach them. I'm actually not a big fan of eggs, so most of my protein comes from meat and dairy, while I supplement with whey.
As far as carbs go, make sure to remind yourself that they are NOT the devil. You will not instantly turn into one of the humans from WALL-E, and the GMO monster isn’t going to start residing under your bed. When you are trying to pack on size, you need carbs. Trying to gain muscle while consuming little to no carbs is extremely inefficient for several reasons.
First off, carbs are your body’s primary source of fuel. They are the most efficient macronutrient for your body to use and you want to consume enough carbs (I aim for about 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight) to power your workouts. During these intense workouts, you are going to be depleting your glycogen stores, so you’re going to need to eat carbs to replenish those. Without going into a ton of detail, it’s a cycle of eating and utilizing carbs so that you can have great workouts and ensure optimal recovery. Consuming an adequate amount of carbohydrates can also help aid the quality of your sleep, and adequate rest is vital to muscle gain. If you're wondering what kind of carbs to eat, there are a lot of options. You can never go wrong with oats or rice (white rice is one of my favorite carbs), and I get a lot of my carbs from fruits. You should eat some veggies too, even if it isn't as appealing.
Lastly, we’ve got the fats. Nailing your fat intake while bulking is important because fats play critical roles is various processes in our bodies, but they also carry more than twice the caloric value of the other macronutrients. This is a double-edged sword: on one hand, fats are an easy source of calories, but on the other hand, it’s easy to go overboard. Now, the latter can also be said about carbs, as eating candy all day isn’t going to do you any good. Carbs, however, are easier for the body to burn for energy than fats are. This isn’t to say that “fats make you fat,” but if you’re in a caloric surplus (which you are if you’re gaining muscle), then your body is going to store the fats and use the carbs as fuel, and then store excess carbs as fat. So, what am I getting at, exactly? My point is to not just shove in fried foods and go totally bonkers with the fat intake. Fats are beneficial for your joints and hormones, and they provide sustained energy for the body without causing insulin spikes. Just don’t go overboard with it. Most of my fat intake comes from beef, fish, dairy, and nuts/nut butters.
Before I talk about the importance of sleep, I want to touch on one last topic in regards to eating. How soon after your workout you should eat is a highly debated topic, as there is varying research on the validity of the “anabolic window,” among other bodybuilding adages. However, what we do know is that it doesn’t hurt to eat shortly after exercise. There is research showing that glycogen repletion occurs faster when you consume carbs right after your workout, and there is logic to adding protein to the mix as well. So, regardless of how much it may or may not help to eat right after you work out, there isn’t a downside to it, so if you’re a hard gainer, I’d recommend at least eating something shortly after you work out, even if your bigger meal isn’t until a bit later.
Obviously, this isn’t everything there is to know about eating while bulking, but I wanted to share how I approach eating and explain some of the reasoning behind it. Next in this series, I’ll be discussing the importance of sleep and recovery, along with detailing how I train. In the meantime, if you have any questions about eating to gain muscle, feel free to ask in the comments on this page or on the Facebook post.