The arrival of winter means different things to different people. For some, it’s all about spending quality time with their family, for others it’s an opportunity to sit back and dwell in introspection and perhaps make some much needed decisions. But for the dedicated lifters out there, winter is primarily associated with something completely different: bulking!
The winter off-season is the perfect time of the year to aggressively focus on packing on size because you’re able to eat and rest more than usual, and we bet that you’ve set some ambitious goals for yourself. One of the best advantages of winter is that it gives you an opportunity to become as big as you possibly could and welcome the next spring with improved muscle mass.
However, since the holidays come hand in hand with hedonistic pleasures and a comfortable lack of activity (and the food is not exactly what you’d call clean and healthy), many people tend to put on new layers of fat during the winter and start the new year with a chubbier version of themselves.
For the majority, this is not a big deal. But for the bodybuilders, it means an extra effort to burn the new pockets of stored fat and reveal their muscularity.
So if you’ve been eagerly waiting to use the winter period to free yourself from strict dieting, that might not be a very good plan. In other words, not being careful how much you eat during the following months will probably have unwanted aesthetic and health consequences – and you’ll definitely regret it once you realize how many hours of fat-blasting cardio you’ll have to put yourself through in order to get back on track.
If you’re looking to make some great gains during the winter bulk, you have to be smart instead of completely loosening up and putting on a ton of fat. And that means that your goal shouldn’t be to gain as much total weight as possible, it should be to maximize muscle gain while minimizing fat gain!
Is that even possible? Of course it is – it’s called clean bulking and it’s the result of setting a few rules for yourself and adopting a discriminating approach to what you eat and when. If you’re not sure how to do it, this article will help you navigate through the bulking season and put on the desired amount of lean muscle at last!
The secret of the clean bulking
With all of the different bulking programs out there, it’s quite easy to become confused as to what is the most optimal way to gain muscle. First, there is the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ bulking.
The latter, which has been a popular strategy among bodybuilders in the past decades, means eating anything you want anytime you want for the sake of adding mass, without any restrictions in terms of food quality and quantity.
As expected, this approach gave lifters the freedom to stuff themselves with sweets, fatty meats, fast food and all kinds of over-processed food items, and the resulting massive slabs of fat were a big obstacle on the road to contest shape. Unfortunately, there are many guys today who think that’s the only way to add size, and that’s a big part of the reason why they’re in a constant struggle with their excess fat.
The other, much smarter approach, known as clean bulking, refers to bulking with the help of natural, unprocessed foods that provide top quality nutrients, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and lean cuts of meat that are high in protein and low in saturated fat.
This kind of regime demands more work and discipline, but has greater rewards – it allows for lean muscle gains, prevents insulin spikes while promoting the production of anabolic hormones and doesn’t require an intensive leaning-out phase once the bulk is over.
In other words, efforts at clean bulking can help lifters stay in top shape during the entire year, so it’s undoubtedly a superior way to add mass to your frame without risking your definition.
With winter at the doorstep, this is the perfect time to begin your clean bulking journey. Here are 3 crucial keys to making it as successful as possible:
1. Know your macros
During a bulk, you want to think big, but still frame your expectations in the context of reality. Being overly enthusiastic and thinking that you can gain huge proportions in a few months of eating a caloric surplus will only leave you frustrated.
Bodybuilding is hard work and it demands a great deal of patience. The truth is that there is only so much that you can eat and put into muscle without ending up with an undesired by-product in the shape of a bloated gut.
As you know, in order to put on weight, you need to eat more than you normally do. But ‘more’ means different things to different people. In reality, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what constitutes an optimal calorie intake during bulks.
To start, you need to determine how many calories you need to consume on a daily basis, based on your current weight, level of physical activity and personal goals. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you get 40% of your daily calories from protein and 30% from carbs and fat.
For most guys, gaining about 0.5-1.5 pounds each week is an optimal rate of bulking. Anything more than that is a clear sign that you’re packing more body fat than you would like to.
You can use an online calculator to better estimate the amount and type of calories you need to consume every day to gain as much as lean mass possible while minimizing fat gain. Then, be highly consistent with your diet regime and avoid foods that are ‘wrong’ as much as possible.
That being said, although all macronutrients are equally important, it’s safe to say that protein stands out as the most crucial one. Amino acids are the building blocks of your muscles, so a lack of protein can be painfully obvious. On the other hand, there’s almost no reason for concern when you’re eating too much protein, which cannot be said for carbs, because protein is the least likely nutrient to be stored as fat in the body, especially if you’re regularly working out as a beast (which you are, right?).
One of the major reasons for this is that protein takes the most energy to digest. For best results, aim to consume 20-30 grams of protein every 4 hours. Needless to say, whenever you don’t have the time to prepare a real protein-rich meal, replace it with protein shakes as the next best thing.
2. Track your progress
Keep a close eye on your progress by monitoring your body weight changes. This will give you more control over the process and help you correct any possible mistakes. Weigh yourself multiple times each week to make sure you’re neither gaining weight too fast nor too slowly – this is the only way to know if you’re on the right path.
However, scales rarely tell the whole story, so if you rely on the scale as the one and only indicator of your progress, you’ll probably get unnecessarily discouraged at a few points. Of course, if the scale isn’t moving at all after a longer period, that’s a good sign that you should increase your caloric consumption even further.
But in order to get a better picture of your achievements, you should also monitor the way you look and feel and track your macros and calories daily. Sure, it will take some time to develop the habit, but once you start practicing it regularly it gets a lot easier.
If you’re serious about clean bulking, make sure to write everything down. Tracking your progress is one of the most underrated parts of success. If you find that you’re gaining weight too fast, resist the temptation to celebrate and take a step back and reduce your caloric intake to avoid storing too much fat.
Patience is the name of this game, so aim at no more than a pound per week and remember that gaining weight too fast almost always means that either you’ve been eating too much or you’ve been eating the wrong kind of calories.
3. Lift. A lot!
Now that you’ve got your mass-gain nutrition in check, it’s time to assess your strengths and weaknesses and design a training regime that will produce the wanted results. Muscle building requires an optimal balance between your kitchen and gym efforts, so during your bulk you also need to train hard and heavy in a way that stimulates your muscles to focus on growing like never before. With this in mind, here are 5 tips on training for maximum mass gains:
- To achieve better hypertrophy, employ high-volume, multiple-set protocols instead of single sets. Also, consider splitting your routine for the same reason. Split routines which include multiple exercises for one or two specific muscle groups allow you to maintain the desired total weekly volume, while enabling greater activation of the targeted muscle groups and better recovery between two sessions.
- Stick to moderate rep ranges of 8-12 per set in order to get sufficient time under tension and fatigue as much muscle fibers as possible. Studies have shown that such rep patterns coupled with loads that are at least 65% of your 1RM optimize the hypertrophic response. In addition, training programs that use sets of 6-12 reps work the best at maximizing anabolic hormone production.
- Contrary to popular belief, causing excessive muscle damage won’t produce maximal growth. Instead, it can harm your gains by slowing the rate of recovery and interfering with training quality and volume in the long run.
- Emphasize multi-joint exercises such as squats and deadlift and perform isolation moves for the end of the routine. Multi-joint exercises are a crucial part of mass building because they recruit more muscle groups at once and cause a greater beneficial impact on hormone response.
- According to multiple studies, moderate intervals of rest (60-90 seconds) between sets are best for achieving maximum hypertrophy. Shorter rest periods will cause muscular fatigue too quickly and limit your total training volume, while longer rest periods reduce the metabolic stress caused by the training and thereby reduce its effectiveness.