Bulking the Right Way: Part 1 – Clean Bulking for the Larger Lifter

To bulk or not to bulk – this is a question foremost on the minds of many established and would-be bodybuilders looking to pack on enough beef to boost their chances of competitive success. Building up before cutting down is a mandatory part of a serious bodybuilder’s training evolution. One can be as shredded as a skinned rabbit but without adequate, evenly distributed muscle size, a physique will not make enough of an impact  to warrant the coveted final call-outs.

Understanding How to Bulk


With an increased emphasis on so-called ‘dirty’ bulking practices, and a mass at all costs mentality among muscle-hungry physique contenders, we’re increasingly seeing (mostly at the amateur levels) off-season physiques, and sometimes even pre-contest physiques, with marked softness that was almost unheard of in years past. Though physiques may be bigger now, are they any better?

Bulking for increased muscle size can be problematic with many using their off-season as an excuse to gorge upon seemingly unlimited quantities of food. Although some quality mass may be built in the process (via an ability to lift heavier and a surplus of protein sparing carbohydrates and fats), becoming substantially heavier can wreak havoc on our heart, joints, digestive system, general health, and our ability to ‘dial it in’ come competition time.

Building muscle gradually remains the best practice.

So, what’s the best approach for bodybuilders who want to literally have their cake and eat it too? How can we reap the benefits of bulking while keeping rolls of fat from accumulating?

For the larger lifter, one who at 15-20% body fat could be considered far from competition shape, a disciplined training and eating schedule is especially important. Indeed, reining in the waistline is of paramount concern for pre-contest and off-season lifters alike; unsightly belly flab is, after all, never appealing, nor healthy.

Training & Cardio


Weight training may include the full spectrum of compound and isolation movements, though overall volume may be reduced to two sets per exercise rather than the usual 3-4 (to encourage faster recovery and lean muscle gains). Though twice-weekly body part training may be common pre-contest, the off-season may see us switch to one muscle group per week for one week, then back to twice-weekly training and so on (again to encourage recovery and growth).

For those who tend to more readily accumulate body fat, off-season training must be hard, heavy, and feature sufficient endurance work to keep unwanted weight at bay.

In contrast to competition training, off-season cardio can be reduced, but not substantially. Like most other off-season variables, it is important to find a balance where muscle mass can be built while fat levels are maintained at 12-15% (usually 3-4 x 30 minute sessions per week work well for the endomorphic or otherwise larger and bulkier off-season physique competitor).



Increasing adipose (fat) may only compound unwanted weight gain and make cutting an arduous task for an off-season bodybuilder who logs in at around 15% body fat. Yet these athletes must still become muscularly larger and stronger and a caloric surplus will certainly help in this regard. What to do? Rather than adding calories at will, this lifter may need to switch their focus to a slightly elevated caloric surplus while emphasizing the inclusion of foods that will provide more pure muscle gains than unwanted weight.

Monitoring Maintenance Calories

Though it is thought that by increasing caloric intake by 500 kcal/day above maintenance for one week, we will gain one pound of body weight, there is no guarantee as to whether this weight will be comprised mostly of fat, muscle, or a combination of both. Some off-season bodybuilders double, triple or even quadruple this figure in the hopes of gaining the mass advantage.

For someone carrying an excess amount of body fat to begin with such a high caloric intake is clearly not recommended.

If 500 above maintenance per day is not cutting it, perhaps increase to 1000 – this will usually result in a combination of fat and muscle, so monitor the process carefully to ensure you fat ratio does not significantly supersede your muscle gains. Be sure to plan your meals in line with a healthier selection of foods, ensuring that quality proteins and carbohydrates are high (30/40% of our daily diet respectively), and fats are lower (at 20%) and comprised mostly of the essential variety.

Avoid “Dirty Bulking”


Excessive muscular size requires significant energy to maintain, so our bodies are constantly fighting to achieve an equilibrium upon which to comfortably perform our daily tasks. Our body considers massive muscles to be burdensome, consuming excessive amounts of fuel to maintain; a diet high in the wrong kind of calories may more readily stockpile calories as fat (a more efficient fuel source) versus muscle. So-called ‘dirty bulking’  (now becoming more common due to the often misunderstood theory of  “IIFYM” or “If It Fits Your Macros” running rampant on social media) through the consumption of traditionally off-limits bodybuilding foods (cakes, fried foods, sugar laden carbs, etc.) are likely to be counterproductive to building quality mass. Because our bodies are designed to build more muscle from a base of healthy foods (loaded with essential micro nutrients and quality macro nutrients) it makes sense for the off-season mass builder to emphasize their consumption.

The real key here is to eat more of the right foods rather than achieving your surplus with less, though more calorie-dense, junk foods.

By all means enjoy a few cheat meals, but be sure to achieve the majority of your daily calories from cleaner sources. Diligently monitor your caloric intake – each week subtract or add additional calories based on your muscle to fat ratio (which may also be assessed weekly) until you arrive at a figure which allows you to maintain a desirable body fat percentage while gradually building pure muscle.

Clean Bulking Foods for Mass

With clean bulking we can consume higher fat foods so long as these are all natural and are also high in quality proteins and carbs. The best foods for clean bulking include:

  • Skinless chicken thighs and wings
  • Fresh salmon
  • Lean Minced Meat (Beef/Turkey/Bison)
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Full fat cottage cheese
  • Baked potatoes
  • Low fat milk
  • Oatmeal
  • Avocados
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Almonds
  • Full Fat Yogurt
  • Almond Butter
David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

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