Can I Eat As Much As I Want When Bulking?
One of the biggest reasons people fail to gain any muscle is because they simply don’t eat enough.
- Train properly with progressive overload
- Get 0.8g+ of protein per lb of your bodyweight every day
- Follow a great routine
- Get the required amount of recovery
- Minimise stress
But even if you do all that (and you should), you won’t build any muscle if you don’t eat enough.
You need a certain amount of energy to maintain your weight.
How much energy you need from food depends on your weight, level of activity and amount of muscle mass.
As energy can be expressed as calories, there is a certain number of calories that will see you maintain your weight (maintenance calories).
To gain weight you need to eat more than this.
To gain muscle you need to eat more than this, and also tick off the things I listed above.
Does more food = more muscle?
To gain muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus. You could gain less muscle by being in a smaller surplus, but past a certain point, a bigger surplus does not equal more muscle.
“Bulking” isn’t an excuse to get sloppy.
I’ve been one of those guys who ate burgers, fries, peanut butter etc. doing whatever I could to get my calories up and gain muscle. I didn’t track what I was eating. I just ate loads of all the good stuff and foolishly believed it was going to help me gain more muscle.
In 12 weeks, I gained 30 pounds. I thought I’d gained loads of muscle, but then when I cut to get lean again, I was dismayed when I weighed practically the same as I did before!
What had happened was I hadn’t been patient enough BEFORE I started eating loads of food. I was still a relative newbie, and I thought my lack of muscle gain was because I wasn’t eating enough, whereas I actually just needed to eat a little more and give it time. I got frustrated with the slow rate of progress and thought I just wasn’t eating enough. Then I ate too much and added mostly fat.
Delicious Foods Are Difficult to Stop Eating
The other problem with using delicious “treat foods” to get into an untracked calorie surplus is that they will trigger you to want to eat more and more, and you won’t know how much energy you’re really taking in.
You can use chocolate and ice cream to help you gain muscle, but only on top of an already nutritious diet and only if the quantities are known and controlled so you’re within a sensible surplus – otherwise fat gain is just going to happen.
I used to eat a meal like this for lunch every day, piling on as much food as possible. It was in an “all you can eat” style diner where you serve yourself. While the food choices weren’t horrible I had no idea how much I was eating. I was just trying to eat as much as possible! Not the best strategy.
What’s the Calorie Surplus Sweet Spot?
The point where additional calories only go to fat gain rather than additional muscle is lower than you might think.
If you’re a natural lifter, you are bound by certain limitations when it comes to building muscle.
About the best you can hope for is 2 pounds of muscle gain per month.
That is the VERY best. Only those who have great genetics and are doing everything else right (spot on with training, diet and recovery) will manage this.
Everyone else can expect about a pound of muscle gain per month.
It takes about 3,000 calories to build a pound of muscle. Therefore you need to accumulate a surplus of 3000 calories across a month.
Yes, that’s only 100 calories a day.
What happens if you eat more calories than you need to gain muscle?
Any extra you eat on top of that is going to get stored as fat (unless you’re one of the people with gifted genetics and doing everything perfectly, then you have twice as many calories to play with).
100-200 calories is a really small margin for error. I don’t recommend you try to shoot for the lower end of this surplus. Gaining ONLY muscle while bulking is incredibly hard. If you supply your body with just 100 calories more than it needs, that’s a small enough margin that you may just burn that extra energy through NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). This means your metabolism will upregulate to make use of the extra energy. More walking, waving your arms around more when you talk, tapping feet, rolling over in your sleep, speaking faster, etc.
If you attempt to gain ONLY muscle, you may just end up eating at maintenance and getting nowhere.
You should attempt to eat 10-15% over your maintenance, so if you maintain on 2600 calories, you should aim to eat 2860 to 2990 calories per day (round this up to 3,000). This is enough additional energy to account for changes in your metabolism from providing your body with more energy.
And of course, you need to be progressing in the gym, adding quality reps and lifting incrementally heavier weights. Recover well, eat enough protein and you’ll gain muscle.
Is a Calorie a Calorie?
I’ll keep this brief as it’s a subject a thesis could be written on.
The answer is no… If you maintain on 2600 calories and you’re shooting for 2860 calories per day, you will gain weight at a different rate depending on how processed the foods you eat are. The amount of protein you eat also affects your weight gain, as it takes more energy to digest.
This is because of the thermic effect of feeding, which is basically the amount of calories it takes to digest food. If a steak contains 400 calories, but you expend 80 calories digesting it, you only really consumed 320 net calories.
The thermic effect of food is highest for protein and unprocessed whole foods.
If you hit your protein requirements using steak, you’ll expend more calories digesting it than if you use whey protein powder.
If you fill your remaining calories with fruit, vegetables, eggs and nuts, you’ll also expend more calories digesting these than if you fill your remaining calories with sweets, chocolate, bread, jam and other processed foods (in addition, the processed food diet will be less nutritious).
Should I try to factor the thermic effect into my calorie calculations?
It isn’t advisable to try to factor this into your calculations for how many calories you need.
Just pick a number to shoot for based off of calculations and educated guesses. Start tracking what you eat. Be as accurate as possible and use digital scales. Then constantly review your weight, taking weekly averages to compare changes. If your numbers are off because you have under/over estimated, it will show with how your scale weight changes over time.
You should also adjust for the thermic effect based on how your weight changes. Eating lots of processed foods? You’ll probably see your weight go up faster for the same calories. Scale it back, or swap in some unprocessed foods.
You probably eat mostly the same things all of the time, so you shouldn’t need to keep changing your calorie requirements based on whether you’re eating more protein or suddenly eating fewer processed foods.
All of these calculations are best guesses. Do what you can and adjust as you go until you’re seeing the results you want.
Enjoy this post?
Follow me on Twitter! for daily muscle building and fat loss tips, as well as motivation and strategies to stay on track!