5 tips for a clean bulking cycle

Emma White - Nutritionist | 24 Jan, 2024

If you’re involved in the bodybuilding world, you've no doubt heard the term 'bulking'. But what exactly does this mean?

Bulking is all about eating in a surplus to try and maximise muscle gains and it comes before a cutting phase when you would strip right back to maximise fat loss while maintaining as much muscle as possible. The result? The most muscular, defined physical appearance you could hope for.

There are healthy and not-so-healthy ways to bulk – and we would always recommend the healthiest route.

How to bulk

This is all about eating in a controlled calorie surplus to help maximise muscle gains, without completely packing on extra fat mass. Here's how to do it:

  • Calories – aim to eat 10-20% more calories than your maintenance allowance [1].
  • Protein – maintain a high intake of around 1.6-2g/kg body weight to help maintain muscle gains [2].
  • Carbs – ensure a moderate-high (around 50-60% cals) intake to help maintain energy levels and replenish muscles after training [3].

How to have a clean bulk cycle

Bulking may sound like a great opportunity to eat whatever you like to hit your calorie and carb goals, but in truth, bulking in a 'dirty' way comes with its pitfalls. Eating an excess of highly processed foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fats comes with all the same health risks as usual, regardless of whether you're aiming to eat in a surplus.

This is why more of a 'clean bulk' is the way to go – but remember not to be too restrictive as this can make the process too challenging and dull!

Read on for our tops 5 tips for a clean bulking cycle:

Keep an accurate diary

1Keep an accurate diary

A clean bulk is all about control, so it's essential to maintain your diary to ensure you're sticking to your calorie and macro goals. You'll want to eat in a calorie surplus, but ensure this is controlled within a certain limit (10-20% increase from maintenance). You'll also need to keep a close eye on your protein intake to ensure enough for maximum muscle gains and also ensure you're eating enough carbohydrates to help keep your energy up!

Avoid relying on junk food

2Avoid relying on 'junk' food

While it's easy to opt for takeaways and convenience foods when you have more calories to play with, these foods are processed and full of saturated fat, salt and sugar. An excess of these nutrients isn’t good at any time, so try not to rely on these foods. Of course, you have a bit more flex to eat certain things slightly outside the healthy range at this time, but try to avoid relying on these sorts of foods entirely throughout your bulk. You can end up feeling sluggish, having poor sleep quality, feeling unmotivated and potentially miss out on essential nutrients – all of which can affect your training progress.

Follow healthy eating guidelines

3Follow healthy eating guidelines

On the flipside to this, it's vital during this time to nourish your body in the best way. This means following the usual healthy eating guidelines we should all try to adhere to, which are:

  • Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Choose wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice and wholegrain pasta
  • Opt for lean protein sources such as chicken, turkey, extra lean beef, fish, eggs, beans, pulses and tofu
  • Eat low-fat no-added-sugar dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt), or calcium-fortified dairy-alternatives, as a good source of calcium, while keeping the saturated fat levels down
  • Choose 'good' unsaturated fats, found in things like olive oil, nuts, oily fish and avocado
  • Limit your intake of foods high in saturated fat, added sugar and salt – such as confectionery, cakes, pastries and takeaways. These should be an occasional treat.

Continuing to eat a diet rich in nutritious foods ensures your body is receiving the nutrients it needs to stay healthy during heavy training, as well as helping to maintain energy levels. A few extra indulgences during this phase are fine, as you have more flex with calories, but ultimately your diet should still follow the 80:20 rule – nutritious foods 80% of the time, with more flexibility the other 20% of the time.

Focus on micronutrients too

4Focus on micronutrients too

Training hard to gain muscle mass takes its toll on the body so it's more important than ever that you’re getting a balance of nutrients in your diet. While we often talk about macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat), micronutrients are also vital – I'm talking about vitamins and minerals. These are the key nutrients that keep our body functioning at its best and can play a role in energy metabolism, immunity, muscle growth, training recovery and bone health to name a few.

Providing you're following the healthy eating guidance in point 3, you should be getting a good balance of micronutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, calcium and iron in your diet. Aim to have plenty of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses and wholegrains, in particular to help with getting a variety of vitamins.

Stay hydrated

5Stay hydrated

Sometimes forgotten about, adequate hydration is vital for maintaining muscle strength and function [4]. It's extra important during the bulking phase to ensure you're drinking plenty of fluid to help optimal functioning of the body and to ensure the muscles are receiving the fluid they need to grow and repair.

The general recommendations are for us to drink around 6-8 glasses of fluid each day, which equates to around 1.5-2ltrs – but when training, and depending on your body size, you could need a bit more. Aim to drink small amounts of water frequently throughout the day and keep an eye on the colour of your urine to check personal hydration levels – a pale straw colour is what you're aiming for.

Nutritionist Emma White (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.

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