A number of clients have asked me about “bulking up” this winter.
What’s fascinating is, most of these guys are well into their 40’s, when the appeal of bulking “should” be long behind them.
It just goes to show something I believe with my all of my cold, dark heart: muscle not only solves problems, but muscle is awesome — no matter how old you are.
And bulking — or purposely adding weight for a limited period — is the fastest way to add muscle. If you are a good fit, mentally and physically.
We’ll get to that, but first let’s get this out of the way:
Building new tissue requires excess energy (i.e., a calorie surplus) and it’s VERY difficult to try to eat your personal Goldilocks calorie level—enough to add new muscle tissue, but not so much you gain bodyfat.
Most who attempt this don’t gain a damn thing. Their best guess was still a few hundred calories too short. Or they were so neurotic about their diet it stressed them out. Or they didn’t put the same level of effort into moving the weights. (I don’t know, Goldilocks folks are a peculiar lot.)
Now, the main exceptions to the “gotta gain a little to gain a little” are those new to training, or those coming back from a layoff, or those using performance-enhancing drugs.
A fourth exception is those with a lot of fat to lose.
They can add a bit of mass as they lean out under a modest calorie deficit. The more fat there is to lose, the greater the deficit can be. Energy from stored bodyfat helps fuel the muscle gains though it’s never a huge amount. We’re talking a pound or two.
But a pound or two of muscle combined with a 20 pound fat loss can look DRAMATIC. So, don’t discount it entirely.
This approach is often called “recomping” and is the best choice for those carrying too much fat to effectively bulk but still want to add size.
If you’re lean, gaining size without gaining fat—so-called “lean gains”—is difficult, plain and simple. I’ll cover this below, but it’s very advanced.
For now, let’s start with the basics. Let’s say you’re “all in” on bulking, plain and simple.
Bulking After 40: How-To
You’re in pretty good shape, your bodyweight’s been stable for a while, you have lots of free time, and you’re okay with gaining some fat if it nets you some fast muscle.
What you don’t do is just start overeating.
Bulking is NOT a green light to gluttony and a goal of “get fat or die trying.” Some pros can do this, sure. They gain 50 pounds and diet it all off to reveal 5-10 pounds of new muscle. That ain’t you.
Bodyweight gains, at least after the first week or two, should be around a pound a week or so. Any more than that is probably 100% bodyfat.
Again, not a huge deal, but the faster you get fat, the less muscle you put on and the more uncomfortable you will feel. I’ve seen guys pig out and gain 20 pounds in a month, and then have to kill the bulk and diet to bring their weight back down. Net muscle gain? ZERO.
But keep it to around the pound-a-week level and you can extend the point at which you look at your physique and think, “I should probably cut back now.”
If that takes 3 months because you were fairly disciplined, then you probably gained some new size.
If it takes 6 months because you really embraced what a bulk is (a decent surplus) and not what it isn’t (a trip to Golden Corral every day) you will likely have gained a LOT of muscle.
…and probably not as much fat as you think.
It might look like a lot in your tighty whiteys, but some guys after a bulk will clean up & maintain for a few weeks—and then bounce off most of the fat in as little as 4-6 weeks of dieting. And the new muscle sticks around, too.
MOST important thing, in my opinion, is the shift in mindset from restriction to growth. Less focus on the abs and mirror vanity, more focus on the pursuit of strength and performance — which ALWAYS leads to new muscle.
“But whenever I bulk, I just get fat!”
So I’ve heard. The classic counterpoint:
“Whenever I bulk, I just get fat! And then I spend all this time dieting off the fat only to look the same as when I started, or worse!”
Alright, I’ve written about this before.
“Whenever I drive to my Aunt Betsy’s house, I lose control of the car and crash.”
- The road conditions are bad.
- Your car is a piece of shit.
- You’re a terrible driver.
Whatever the problem is — and there might genuinely be one — it’s not Aunt Betsy’s house.
In the case of bulking, one of three things is going on.
1. You’re unwilling to temporarily “lose” abs for a few months in exchange for significant new growth.
There’s nothing wrong with that (you do you), though you are hereby forbidden from ever complaining about:
- bad genetics;
- slow growth;
- being undersized;
- that you’ve “tried everything but just can’t get big”;
- the insufferable slings & arrows of being “natty.”
2. You are correct. For one of the following reasons, you should not be bulking:
- You’re starting at too high a bodyfat.
- You have a long history of chronic dieting.
- You spent years being very overweight.
- You are too old (being active & fit is more important than age, though I can’t see bulking being a good idea after 50 unless you are a well-trained, well-managed beast).
- You are happy with your current level of muscle size.
- You are busy and/or focusing on other things in life.
In these cases, you’re better off with extended periods of lean gaining (more on that later) or the recomping mentioned earlier.
3. Your plan or execution sucked.
- You ate way too much, too fast.
- You ate with no tracking or plan.
- You ate too much junk food.
- Your internal mind games threw you off course.
- You pulled the plug on the bulk WAY too soon (because you screwed up all of the above).
- You jumped into a damage control diet before solidifying whatever gains you made.
So what you really did wasn’t a bulk phase. It was more like this:
- Eat Too Much Phase x 1-2 months
- Strict Diet x 2-3 months
- Eat Too Much Phase x 1-2 months
- Strict Diet x 2-3 months
- “Bulking Doesn’t Work” Phase x 10+ long, bitter years
When it should’ve been this:
- Reasonable surplus x 3-4 months: gradual increase as per biofeedback.
- Maintenance x 2 months: calories closer to maintenance for two months, or until you just seem to stay relatively weight stable without trying. Vague, perhaps, but there is an individual “art” to this.
- Calorie deficit x 1-2 months: the shorter the better if your goal is to get bigger. I’d avoid getting very lean more than once a year (every other year is better).
- Maintenance x 2 months: calories closer to maintenance again, or until you just seem to stay relatively weight stable without trying.
– – –
Recompers, Lean Gainers, and/or “I just like a slow-and-steady approach.”
Even though this is not the quickest method, it’s definitely the best approach for those who favor year-round consistency, and especially if they don’t qualify to bulk or don’t want to.
If you are a bit soft (but still want to gain new muscle): set calories at around maintenance or slightly below.
If you are reasonably lean: set calories at around 200 above maintenance. (Yes, this is hard and might take trial and error.)
The lean gaining option is basically the recomp method—but for those with not as much extra bodyfat. Carbs can usually be a bit higher here, too, whereas a heavier recomper may do better on lower carbs and higher fats.
Staying Lean and Gaining Muscle with Calorie Spiking
Another way to stay leaner while trying to add size is through calorie spiking.
Here, calories are set at maintenance or slightly below six days a week, but then DRAMATICALLY increased one day a week.
Every week on the day before your spike you evaluate your condition and adjust the size of the spike accordingly.
Not everyone can do a full day. Some people need just one big-ass meal per week to add a pound or so; others need one and a half days.
There are variations on this, but what the variations have in common is this: this strategy is not for white belts.
This is a good fit for more experienced people who have fought hard to get lean and then HAVE PROVEN THEY CAN MAINTAIN THE HABITS NEEDED TO STAY LEAN FOR AN EXTENDED PERIOD WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. Now they just want to start adding some size (and enjoy life a little while doing it).
– – –
In all scenarios ensure you are eating enough protein (gram per pound at least, 3-6 servings of at least 30-40g) and make sure all other ducks are in a row (sleep, restorative measures, programming, etc).
There. I fixed bulking for you.
Now, go eat something.