Bulking is a term that is used to describe the process people utilize to build/add muscle tissue. Except in rare situations, being in a calorie surplus (meaning you consume more calories than you expend) is required to build muscle. The other requirement is that you need to engage in resistance training.
While bulking does simply come down to those two ideas, being in a calorie surplus and resistance training, there are a lot of different ways to bulk, and they are not all created equal. When you talk to most people, bulking phases are often categorized as either a “dirty bulk” or a “clean bulk.”
We have previously discussed why a “clean bulk” is generally the superior way to go and provided some guidance on how to do it correctly. However, there are still common mistakes people make when trying to do a “clean bulk.”
In this article, we will discuss some of the common mistakes that people make during a clean bulk and provide ways you can avoid making those mistakes.
What is Clean Bulking?
Before we cover the most common mistakes made, let’s review what Clean Bulking is. There are two specific concepts that distinguish a Clean Bulk: 1) the magnitude of the calorie surplus, and 2) the quality of the food being consumed.
During a Dirty Bulk, individuals will often eat as much as they can and not worry about hitting a specific calorie surplus, nor will the focus on food quality. Conversely, a Clean Bulk focuses on achieving a calorie surplus that maximizes lean muscle mass gain while minimizing fat mass gain. While the exact, perfect surplus is not clear, surpluses of ~300-500 calories appear to be a good target.
Additionally, when following a clean bulk individuals should aim to consume whole foods that are nutrient-dense and do not have many added calories from sugars or fats.
Mistake 1: Not Doing Cardio Correctly
One of the biggest mistakes people make during a clean bulk is that they do cardio incorrectly. What exactly does that mean though? Well, most people look at cardio as a tool to burn calories, which it is, but during a bulking phase, cardio is more of a tool to maintain cardiovascular health than it is to burn calories. In fact, during a bulk, the goal is to be in a surplus, so doing cardio to increase calorie expenditure makes being in a surplus harder.
The goal of cardio during a clean bulk should be to maintain or improve cardiovascular function through smart, specific programming that provides the minimal amount of stimulus to elicit cardiovascular adaptations. The goal is not to maximize calorie expenditure.
This type of programming will vary person-to-person as it will depend on their beginning cardiovascular capacity and their calorie needs, but very long duration cardio training is often not necessary or appropriate during clean bulks.
Mistake 2: Overtraining
Another mistake people will make during a clean bulk is that they often “overtrain,” which in reality looks more like doing unnecessary volume and not taking adequate rest days. The goal with resistance training during a bulk is to get enough stimulus during training to elicit muscular adaptations, not necessarily to perform the most volume possible.
While there is no exact number of what the perfect amount of volume for muscle growth is, most research suggests ~10-20 sets per muscle group per week is sufficient. And it is likely that more novice lifters fall at the lower end of that range and more advanced lifters fall at the higher end of that range.
With regards to frequency of training and rest days, there is not a perfect answer for how many days a week people should train but it is important to remember that recovery is critical for growth and taking at least 1-2 rest days a week is advisable for most people.
Mistake 3: Not Eating Enough for Long Enough
The last major mistake people make when bulking is that they don’t eat enough for a long enough period. Building muscle requires a calorie surplus for an extended period.
Even under optimal conditions, most people will likely have a ceiling of gaining around 1-2 pounds of muscle a month. This means that you reach your ideal calorie surplus each day, you have the perfectly designed lifting program, and you are recovering adequately.
Now add 2-3 days a week or a week a month where you are not achieving your calorie surplus, and you cut that number by about 25-50% and now you are gaining maybe 0.5-1.0 pounds per month.
Realistically, most people struggle with being able to consistently have high calorie intakes that reach the adequate calorie needs and keep food quality high. Many people will be able to reach their calorie targets for a few days and then feel like they are unable to continue eating that much, or they may be able to do it for a week and then have a week or two where they are not able to consistently hit their calorie targets.
Tips on Fixing These Mistakes
First, be very intentional with any cardio you are doing. Think about what your goals are for cardio specifically and then do enough cardio to get the stimulus needed for that, but don’t do more than is necessary. The goal here is to limit calorie expenditure so we can build muscle tissue. Exercise guidelines suggest ~75-150 minutes a week, so aiming for the lower side of this range would be a decent strategy during your bulk.
Second, be purposeful in your resistance training. The goal here is to get enough stimulus to signal growth, but more is not always better. In fact, sometimes more is just more. Aim for 10-20 sets per working muscle group per week. Start on the lower end of that range and then work your way up over the course of your bulking cycle.
Also, ensure you get adequate rest. Unless you are an extremely advanced trainee, you don’t need to train twice a day and you don’t need to train seven days a week. Schedule at least one full rest day per week and ensure you are adequately recovering between training sessions.
Last, create systems and plans around your nutrition and stick to them. Eating in a structured calorie surplus for an extended period is often more difficult than dieting. You will need to have systems and plans for how you reach your calorie targets.
A few strategies that can help include: tracking your food, pre-planning your days, and meal prepping. Another approach is to find higher-calorie, lower volume foods that help you reach your calorie targets.
For example, foods like nuts and trail mix are often very calorie-dense foods that are not great options for people attempting to lose weight, but they can be during a Clean Bulk. Also, high-calorie smoothies that contain whole milk, nut butters, fruits, and protein powders can also be very high-calorie, low-volume food when made correctly.
Clean Bulks are also a time when you can make changes to your protein sources to opt for the higher calorie options, such as choosing chicken thighs over chicken breasts, 80/20 ground beef over 95/5, and using whole eggs instead of just egg whites.
It is important to understand the role of cardio during a Clean Bulk, which is that it should be used as a tool to maintain cardiovascular fitness, not to burn calories. ~60-75 minutes a week at a moderate intensity during this period of your training cycle is probably sufficient to maintain cardiovascular fitness.
While training volume in resistance training is the main variable that drives muscle growth, more is not always better. The goal is to get enough stimulus to signal muscle growth, but not so much that you are unable to adequately recover between training sessions. Aim for 10-20 sets per muscle group per week, beginning on the low end and working up to the high end over the course of your clean bulk.
You must be in a calorie surplus for the entirety of your Clean Bulk, otherwise, you spend a lot of time training with very little to show for it. Create systems in your life that ensure you are consuming your daily calorie needs, such as logging your food, planning ahead, and even preparing meals ahead of time. This is also a great time to start introducing more calorie-dense foods in your diet as they can help you increase your calorie intake without substantially increasing the total volume of food you consume.