In theory, bulking up is simple: train hard, eat well, and allow enough recovery time. So why are so many people unsuccessful in their attempts to pack on muscle mass?


The biggest factor in failed bulking programs is lack of preparation. But not just in terms of nutrition. Preparing to bulk includes establishing a base of physical conditioning. This foundation will prime you for an intense but injury-free training program. It will also free you up to focus on the logistics of a bulking program, such as meal planning and organizing your training schedule.


Bulking Is Not Forever

Bulking is not a viable long-term approach. I say this for two reasons. First, there are genetic limitations to muscle growth that no amount of bulking can overcome. Second, cycling off the demanding training and eating regimen is necessary to remain injury-free and give your digestive system a break from the caloric surplus. So you need to make the most of the short bulking phases you undertake.


Plan ahead before starting a bulking program.

Address your weaknesses before committing to a bulking program.


6 Questions to Prepare for a Successful Bulking Phase

1. Am I Ready?

Ask Yourself: Is my overall conditioning (strength, work capacity, mobility) good enough to begin an intense, hypertrophy-focused program? If not, what weaknesses do I need to address?


Consider: Your desire to bulk up may cause you to overlook the weak links. If you don’t have a base level of conditioning or you have nagging injuries, then trying to go full-bore into an ambitious bulking phase will leave you disappointed and with worsened injuries.


I would recommend getting in a solid 4-6 months of training at least 4 times per week before worrying about how much weight you are putting on. It takes time to build work capacity, condition the often overlooked ligaments and tendons, develop full-range mobility in all of your joints, correct deficiencies in posture, master the technique of the basic movement patterns, and develop an overall sense of body control. You will always have weaknesses you need to work on, but taking the time to do the proper physical preparation will allow you to train that much harder and stay injury free.


2. How Is My Diet Now?

Ask Yourself: Do I currently eat a nutrient-dense diet that allows me to recover from training, stay healthy, and feel energetic?


Consider: You should already be in the habit of eating a healthy diet, meaning mostly whole foods, a variety of animal and plant proteins, vegetables and fruits, and little to no refined sugar, preservatives, and other additives. The only significant differences between your maintenance diet and your bulking diet should be portion sizes and the ratio of macronutrients. If you get sick on a regular basis or don't have the energy to train without getting jacked up on caffeine, you need to work on filling the nutritional holes in your diet.


3. Do I Need to Improve My Body Composition?

Ask Yourself: Am I starting with a reasonably low level of body fat?


Consider: If you are at or above the 15-20 percent body fat range, leaning down before you begin a bulking phase should be a priority. Lowering your body fat will improve insulin sensitivity, which allows your body to shuttle nutrients into muscle cells more efficiently and increases your muscle-building potential. If you have poor insulin sensitivity before beginning a bulking phase, you are more likely to increase body fat as opposed to muscle tissue.


"Assessing where you are and where you want to go will ensure that the time, effort, and money you invest in a bulking phase will translate into pounds of muscle mass added to your frame."

Assuming you are training hard to begin with, cleaning up your diet and avoiding excessive carbs should be enough to impact your body composition. Although you may drop some bodyweight at first, it is possible to maintain or slightly increase your total muscle mass during this phase if you make smart food choices (see question two above).


4. What’s the Meal Prep Plan?

Ask Yourself: Do I have a plan of action for my meals at home and on the go?


Consider: If you are fortunate to have access to a good cafeteria, a meal delivery service, or your own personal chef, then meal prep is already taken care of. For the rest of us, putting in the effort to prepare your meals ahead of time is necessary to keep you on track. By far the most common slip-up in a bulking plan is not preparing food ahead of time.


Make a shopping list that is tailored to your budget and the portions you need, and buy in bulk whenever possible. I like to cook breakfast and dinner at home, and I prepare lunch and other snacks ahead of time for when I'm out. Find a routine that works for you and get into a consistent schedule so you can easily transition into your bulking phase.


5. How Are My Sleep Habits?

Ask Yourself: Do I regularly get 7-9 hours of sleep a night?


Consider: This is an essential step that most people acknowledge but do not execute. Sleep allows your body to heal and recover. Your body also produces a significant amount of growth hormone while you sleep. This is even more important when you are training hard, so make establishing good sleep habits a priority.


6. How Many Calories Do I Need?

Ask Yourself: Have I determined my maintenance level of calories?


Consider: How will you know how much you need to increase your calories if you haven't established your maintenance caloric intake? You don't need to know exact numbers, but making a note of the portion sizes that allow you to maintain your bodyweight on a week-to-week basis will help you create a more effective bulking plan.


For example, if your maintenance diet consists of four eggs for breakfast, 10oz of beef and a salad for lunch, and a cup of rice with 8oz salmon and veggies for dinner, you know you will have to either increase those portions and/or increase your meal frequency in order to make gains.


Results Are Worth the Effort

Take the time to honestly answer each one of these questions. Assessing where you are and where you want to go will ensure that the time, effort, and money you invest in a bulking phase will translate into pounds of muscle mass added to your frame.


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Photo courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.