Are you “dreamer bulking”? Prepare for Fat Gain!
Bulking used to be one of my favourite things ever.
I can remember sneaking out of work when I had a spare 5 minutes and going to Tesco Express across the road. I would buy whatever bags of chocolate were on offer for £1. This usually ended up being some Cadbury’s Boost Bites, some “dinky deckers”, twix bites, or some other delicious chocolatey amazingness.
I would then sometimes try run from the lift back to my desk, all the while holding the bags as low as possible, hidden behind one of my legs. I was embarrassed and worried about having to explain myself to someone about why I was doing this for the 5th time that week. Wasn’t I the healthy gym guy?
I even started eating my snacks out (while at work) to avoid any awkward questions. Instead of going back to the office with them, I either hid in the alleyway eating them, or scoffed them as fast as possible on my way back.
But I knew what I was doing! (or so I thought) I was bulking! This was all fitting in my macros for bulking!
I needed to get in 3,500 calories a day and sometimes this was hard work. Why not enjoy it a little? This form of calories was convenient too. Little grab sized bags of five to six hundred calories a pop. I could devour 1,000 calories in 2 minutes.
Other times I would find myself sitting up alone at midnight, either eating a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s, or (when that got too expensive to do every day) looking through the cupboards to see what else I could eat.
This is dangerously close to “dreamer bulk” territory (more on that later).
An Example from My Early Cut and Bulk Cycles
Warning, the following picture is from my early days. I’m looking LEAN, but I’m incredibly small! Too much focus on 6 pack abs, not enough focus on eating for muscle gain!
The first picture is from one of my earlier cuts when I was still a lot less experienced than I am now. I was good at getting very lean. Fat loss was easy. I often went way lower with my calories than I needed to – which just meant faster fat loss. Problem was, I had the same approach to bulking and ended up going way HIGHER with my calories than I needed to. This meant faster fat GAIN! Not faster muscle gain! (although there were usually some good strength gains).
I should not have lost that much of my definition in only 4 months! Yes, I could have done with some weight gain – I didn’t have that much muscle. But the gain was so fast that I barely gave my body a chance to build any muscle before I looked like I needed to cut again!
The Problem with Bulking like This
The fact I was eating 3,500 calories per day wasn’t really a problem in itself. I was getting the right amount of protein, and I was training hard in the gym. 3,500 calories is not too high for me to bulk on. I’m a tall guy who is very active. My TDEE (total daily energy expenditure, or maintenance) is about 3,000 calories.
My problem was that I was only focusing on calories, and not enough on macronutrients (aside from protein).
I didn’t care how many of my calories came from carbs and fats. I only cared about hitting the overall calorie and protein numbers, and how much tasty food I was able to eat.
When you’re bulking, not all of your calorie surplus contributes to muscle gain. Some of it contributes to fat gain. The bigger your surplus, the more fat you will gain. Even on a small surplus, you’re going to gain some fat. I was doing a few things wrong on my bulk:
- My surplus was probably a bit too big, so I was gaining weight faster than necessary, with more of it fat and less muscle gain than I really wanted.
- Poor planning, unavoidable social situations and giving into temptation of untracked food (e.g. birthday cakes at work) meant I had to estimate calories too often, and probably underestimated – making the surplus even bigger.
- My intake definitely had too much junk and processed food. The problem with this is due to the thermic effect of food.
- Sometimes, I didn’t track my workouts, and my training became a bit forced. I wasn’t following a progressive overload program.
The Junk and Processed Food Problem
When bulking, it’s definitely a time when you can enjoy some more of the tasty foods you had to avoid when getting lean.
However, my problem was I was bulking, but still eating as if I was cutting during the day, then saving all of my extra calories for the night when I would go mad with 1,000 to 1,500 calories from ice cream and chocolate.
This is a good time to bring up something called the “thermic effect of feeding”.
This basically refers to the amount of calories you burn digesting the food you eat.
It varies by macronutrient.
For carbs and fat, the thermic effect is roughly 15%. That means, if you eat carbs or fat containing 100 calories, you will burn around 15 of those calories simply by digesting the food.
Protein, on the the other hand, has a thermic effect of about 35%. So if you eat 100 calories of protein (a can of tuna for example), you’ll burn about 35 calories digesting it.
Protein effectively gives you a discount on the calories! This is the closest protein comes to any “magical” effects. More protein does not equal more muscle, but it may help with fat loss.
As well as this, foods that have been processed have a lower thermic effect. This was a problem for me, as I focused a lot more on these foods while bulking – including getting my protein from these sources at times.
So I had increased my calorie intake drastically, AND removed most of the “calorie discount” I was getting because of the thermic effect of feeding. Hello fat gain!
I still believe that calories and macros are what matter for making changes to your weight and body composition. However, we should be thinking of this in terms of net calories. I.e. what you actually absorb after the digestion process. Clearly you can eat more if you focus on foods such as whole foods and protein – as the thermic effect of feeding is higher.
Problems upon problems: The foods I was now eating in great quantities at night, were processed junk, meaning they were:
- High in sugar (addictive – hard to stop eating. Sometimes I kept on eating past my calorie limit)
- Junk food often contains industrial seed oils. These are high in omega 6 fats and oxidise easily in the body, creating free radicals which can damage cells. This wasn’t a problem for how I looked but it’s bad for health.
- Ice cream and chocolate have a very low thermic effect as they’re processed, high in sugar (which the body will just absorb easily) and low protein – so the net calories would be pretty much the same as the total calories.
Bulking Still Requires Tracking – Even More than in a Fat Loss Phase!
My other problem was that I was way too relaxed with how I tracked my calories.
At work there was always free food going around. Client meetings involving breakfast, lunch etc. Team lunches or training, with breakfast/lunch provided. There were the leftovers from other people’s meetings. It was always good stuff, and I couldn’t say no. I justified it by saying “I can let loose a little, I’m bulking, I need the calories anyway”.
If the day started to go like this, I wouldn’t know how many calories I had eaten. So I would stop tracking, and just estimate my intake for the rest of the day.
I would then start to worry that I wasn’t actually IN a surplus (I hadn’t tracked, so I didn’t know). This meant I’d buy some more snacks “just to be sure”. These would be of the highly palatable variety mentioned above (bulking, so why not?), so of course they were high in carbs and fat with a low thermic effect.
When you’re cutting, it doesn’t matter so much if there’s a few things that go untracked. If the end result is that you’re still in a deficit, then all that happens is you lose slightly less fat that day than you would have if you hadn’t eaten that thing.
When you’re bulking, everything you don’t track in addition to the planned calories is an extra bit of fat you gain rather than an extra bit of fat you didn’t lose! Over a longer period of time like 6 months, these all add up! This is why it’s important to be even more focused on your nutrition during bulking than you are during cutting.
What I should have done to stay on track when unavoidable and untrackable situations came up, was follow these strategies. If you’re clever, plan ahead and utilise a bit of fasting, you can even turn those days into refeed days.
What is a Dreamer Bulk?
A dreamer bulk is when you eat absolutely anything you want, and don’t track calories at all. If you’re unsure of the answer to the question “can I eat whatever I want when bulking“, then read on!
The intention is to be in a calorie surplus, but the “dreamer bulker” has no intention of tracking calories or ensuring a sensible macronutrient split (apart from maybe some focus on protein). While most people would worry about fat gain with 1 cheat day a week, the dreamer bulker’s diet looks like a cheat day every day!
Pizza, ice cream, chocolate, doughnuts, fried chicken. It’s all eaten. Weight piles on, and it’s not because of eating carbs at night, it’s because of eating too much food. While some worry about cheat day weight gain (and fat gain), the dreamer bulker thinks all the weight he is gaining is muscle.
When gaining, you will probably always be gaining muscle and fat. For a dreamer bulker, only a tiny proportion of the “gains” are muscle. It’s quite easy to gain a kilogram a week doing this. In 6 months that’s 26 kilograms gained! Let me tell you, no matter what stage of training you’re in, you are NEVER going to gain 26 kilograms of muscle in 6 months. If you manage to gain 26 kilograms of muscle in your entire life then that is outstanding.
Unfortunately, our bodies cannot create new muscle tissue very fast. It is an extremely slow process. Shooting for a calorie surplus that sees you gain 0.25 kilograms per week is much more sensible. Even then there will still be some unwanted fat gain that you can’t do much about. At least you will still be in decent enough shape 6 months later to be able to continue bulking and gaining muscle without having to stop and lose 20 kilograms of fat from your frame.
The only real difference between my bulk and a “dreamer bulk” is that at least I had a calorie target in mind which I tried not to go over. I would say I tracked 70% of the time, and then estimated the other 30% of the time. It is likely I under estimated my calories, and 100% of the time I was getting too much fat and not enough carbs.
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Then you need to go about 10-15% over this amount. For a 70kg person with a maintenance of 2,600 calories, about 2,860 calories would be required to bulk (worth rounding this up to 2,900).
1g of protein for every pound of your bodyweight is enough for bulking. That means this person should eat 140g of protein every day.
0.9g of fat for every kilogram of your bodyweight is the highest I would go. If you can drop this to 0.7g of fat per kilo, that is better. That would mean the 70 kilogram person would eat 49 grams of fat per day.
Calories for this particular person to give a 10% surplus = 2,900.
You should know that each gram of protein has 4 calories. Each gram of carbs also has 4 calories. One gram of fat has 9 calories.
- Calories from fat = 9 x 49g = 441
- Calories from protein = 4 x 140g = 560
Adding these two numbers together gives us a total of 1,001 calories from protein and fat. We need to subtract this number from the target number of calories (2,900) to find the amount of calories that should be coming from carbs.
Calories from carbs = 2,900 – 1,001 = 1,899.
We now need to divide this number by 4 to find the grams of carbs that should be eaten (because there are 4 calories per gram of carbs).
Grams of carbs to eat = 1,899/4 = 475
These numbers aren’t set in stone
This is quite a high carb, low fat diet.
You might find it easier to go a little higher with protein, and a little higher with fat (but keep it below 0.9g per kilo of bodyweight). This will result in a lower amount of carbs. High carb diets are great for bulking if you can handle that amount.
The body’s preferred energy source is carbs so a high carb diet will ensure you have great workouts! The extra energy can also be used to go towards turning the protein you’re eating to muscle. Providing more fat in your diet increases the likelihood of storing fat (when you’re in a surplus).
You’ve also got to ensure you’re resistance training with progressive overload (see this full body beginner workout program) and getting adequate rest and recovery. Your program should consist of balanced workouts. Don’t worry so much about things like “how many sets and reps should I do“, or “what is the perfect selection of exercises to gain muscle”. Just focus on compound lifts and getting better at them, with 2-3 main lifts per muscle group. Lift heavy too. Don’t just lift light weights and high reps.
You have to accept some fat gain when pursuing muscle – but you should try to keep this minimal. It is easy enough to lose fat later. It is wise to minimise the amount of fat gained so you can spend more time gaining muscle, and less time losing fat. Bulking intelligently with a smaller surplus does not mean you gain less muscle, you just gain less fat.
You can minimise fat gain by keeping your calorie surplus small. Around 10% over maintenance is enough.
Dilligent tracking is MORE important when bulking than when cutting.
There aren’t any muscle building secrets.
Bulking is not about eating a load of foods with unknown calories and unknown macros to get into a surplus of an unknown size. That is how you get fat quickly unless you have an extremely good eye for calories and macros (hint: you don’t).