Step by Step Guide to Building a Bulking Diet

Want to put on lean muscle mass, but unsure how to create a bulking diet plan? Check out this step by step guide and accomplish your muscle building goals!

I was having a conversation with a gym buddy of mine the other day and he was asking about my current nutrition and training and I said, “I’m currently throwing all my eggs in the bulking basket”.

His response was, “Why are you bulking”?

I responded, “The real question is why would I ever not be bulking”?!

Jokes about the permabulk aside periods of really focused muscle growth can greatly accelerate your gainz and is something that has been used widely to great effect for a long time.

Think about some of the most epic Hollywood transformations ever: Chris Hemsworth in Thor, Jason Momoa in Conan, Ryan Reynolds in Blade Trinity, Jake Gyllenhall in Prince of Persia. They all had one thing in common… they all used bulking strategies.

Now you can go google these things and find all sorts of crazy articles about them but it really comes down to these 5 key things.

Step 1: Find Your Caloric Maintenance Needs

You want to grow? Then you have to make sure you are sending your body the right growth signals. When it comes properly setting your bulking parameters the two main signals are your diet and your training (more on training later).

Related: The 4 Pillars of Dietary Success for Any Fitness Goal

The single most important thing you need to get squared away for your bulking diet is your calories. If you don’t have that dialed in you should probably just not even lift; not kidding.

If you want to add mass to your body (we can differentiate between lean and fat mass later) you need to have a surplus of calories. Put simply, you need to eat more food than your body is burning.

M&S Athlete Who KNows his Caloric Needs

Let’s start with the basics. The first thing you need to do is figure out your maintenance calories. This is essentially your balance point, where you consume and expend roughly the same amount of calories and your weight stays stable.

There are several ways to figure out how many calories you need but the following steps are the best way to find your maintenance requirements:

  1. You use a calorie calculator that is based on years of scientific data to help approximate your daily calorie needs.
  2. Consume those calories exactly while maintaining your normal daily habits for 1 week and check your weight.
  3. If weight is stable continue for one more week to confirm that it is stable. If weight has decreased, increase calories by 250 and repeat. If weight has increased, decrease calories 250 and repeat. Do this until you have about 2 weeks of being weight stable and consider this your maintenance.

This means that you need at least a few weeks to prep for your bulk so you can be a maintenance calorie master.

Step 2: Map Out Your Surplus

You are now the master of your maintenance calories and are ready to move to step 2 of constructing your bulking diet. This piece is a critical step as if you undershoot your surplus you will be leaving gainz on the table, but if you overshoot you will add unnecessary fat mass.

You need to find that sweet spot.

So…. What exactly is this sweet spot? Well it appears that it lies somewhere between 5% and 20% with 20% giving you unnecessary fat gain and 5% being about the minimal amount required to see meaningful muscle growth.

Coming in with around a 5-10% calorie surplus will help optimize your lean mass to fat mass gains with 10% being more likely to ensure you have enough food to grow adequately. Interestingly, it appears that ~20% surpluses don’t really result in more lean mass than the 5-10% range so more isn’t going to always translate to better1.

Step 3: Figure Out Your Macronutrient Needs

We have our maintenance calories mastered, we have picked our calorie surplus of ~5-10%, with leaning closer to 10, and now it is time to figure out how we will break those calories into our macros.

We can break this down into 3 simple steps.

M&S Athlete Making Rice and Protein

Determine Your Protein Requirements

There is an obscene amount of scientific literature out there regarding protein intake and gains. While you could easily spend a lifetime reading all the studies they all boil down to suggest that consuming ~1 gram per pound per day is a good starting place for maximizing muscle growth.

This can go up to 1.5 grams per pound per day in some people but start with around 1 grams per pound to begin.

Find Your Carbohydrate Needs

Carbohydrate needs have also been fairly well document and here are some good heuristics. If you are following a general fitness program aim for ~ 2 grams per pound day, this should equate to roughly 45-55% of your total calorie needs.

Related: How to Calculate the Perfect Macros for Your Fitness Goals

If you are training pretty hard, like 2-3 hours a day, bump that to like 3 grams per pound per day, or about 55-65% of your total calories2.

Top Off the Tank with Fats

Fats are important but they are more just energy than they really are for specific things (in the context of a bulk) like protein and carbohydrates. It is also fairly easy to get the amount you need.

So, for figuring out the fats just take your total calories, subtract your protein and carbohydrate calories, and then you end up with your total fat calories you need.

Boom. Game, set, match. Macros done.

Step 4: Get Your Supplements Squared Away

All diets should be based on foods as the foundation. That being said, during a bulk there are a few supplements that can help maximize your gainz. They aren’t the sexy ones, but they are the ones that work.

Whey: At some point during your bulk you will be so sick of chewing steak, chicken, and fish that you will need some sort of protein powder. Or you will need liquid calories and will also need a protein powder so whey protein is almost an essential in the modern age.

M&S Athlete Nailing his Supplementation

Creatine: One of the biggest dictators of muscle growth is your training volume, with greater training volume resulting in greater muscle mass gainz. Creatine is very well documented to increase training capacity and can help you increase volume. If you are trying to accumulate volume and muscle tissue and you aren’t taking creatine, you are probably leaving gainz on the table.

Caffeine: Caffeine is also one of those supplements that works. It helps you train a little bit hard, for a little bit longer so slamming a cup of joe before training is also something to seriously consider.

Step 5: Set Your Sleep Schedule

If you aren’t sleeping you are wasting your time. Not kidding. People think you train so you can grow, this is wrong. You train so you can give your body the signals it needs to grow. You grow when your body is recovering from your training.

The most important recovery time is when you are sleeping as there are a whole bunch of recovery and hormonal things that occur while you are sleeping that really drive muscle growth.

If you are serious about your bulk then you need to dial in your sleep with at least 8 hours a night, probably more like 10.