A Guide to Bulking for Women
Women are always told to cut and trim. Cut calories, cut weight, cut fat, and trim just about anything that might make you appear a millimeter thicker than you want to be.
Whittling down is the primary message, but how are you supposed to gain any muscle and have strength if you are constantly in a deficit?
It may seem counterintuitive to purposefully eat more for a stretch of time, but your gains and your overall health will thank you. In fact, they depend upon it.
What is Bulking and Cutting?
Bodybuilders achieve their signature look of big muscles and low bodyfat through cycles of bulking and cutting. The combination of muscle growth and ultra-lean bodyfat percentage doesn't generally coexist by simply working out a lot. You have to go through periods of growth and leaning, separately.
Bulking is the muscle growth phase. In order to bulk, you need extra calories. This is called a caloric surplus, and it simply means taking in more calories than you are burning off. The extra calories should go to building more muscle mass.
Not to mention, they give you the energy to power through the hard and heavy workouts it takes to achieve this mass. But bulking comes with a side-effect. Your body fat percentage goes up. No matter how clean your extra calories are, the average person will still accumulate a certain amount of fat, it's just the nature of the beast.
Once you have built up sufficient muscle mass, it's time for the cutting phase. This is the opposite of bulking. You take in less calories than you are burning to create a caloric deficit, which will shed the unwanted layer off and reveal the new musculature underneath.
Most often, this involves eating less, while keeping your protein intake high so your body doesn't cannibalize its own muscle. Typically, more cardio is added into the mix to keep your heart rate up and to burn the extra fat.
Usually, a professional bodybuilder will bulk for 6-9 months and cut for a few months during contest season. Most recreational bodybuilders bulk over the winter, when they can wear big clothes, and then start cutting early in the spring, so they look fly at the beach when summer rolls in.
Why Would Women Bulk?
More muscle mass means more strength. More strength means you can push, pull, and lift heavier things, which is both functional and impressive.
More muscle mass means you burn more calories at rest, so you can eat more and feel satisfied.
And if being fit, fed, and strong isn’t enough motivation, consider your appearance. Many women who are in constant cycles of dieting down are upset that they are wobbly and soft. “Skinny fat” is the term most people use when they aren’t getting enough nutrition and doing cardio-type activities alone for fitness. Muscle will fill out those wobbly parts and gives you a curvier and tighter shape.
Physically, regular bulking cycles are actually healthy for you. Too often, women cut their calories very low in an attempt to be lean. Unfortunately, this robs them of their health. When women take in less calories than they are burning for too long, they suffer from Low Energy Availability. If they operate for too long in this energy deficient zone, they are at risk for hormone imbalances, amenorrhea, osteoporosis, and heart disease. Yes - even heart disease.
If you keep cutting calories lower and lower, there will come a point where there is nowhere else to go. And often, it only leads to unhealthy binging periods, which have nothing to do with bulking and everything to do with a natural human reaction to deprivation.
Regular periods of caloric surplus feeds muscle growth and it assists your body in it’s a healing process. There are so many functions your cells and hormones perform every day that are completely autonomous and taken for granted. The extra calories help fuel all the invisible tasks of construction, growth, reabsorption, and transportation that your body needs to keep you running at your best.
And, let’s be honest. Women need to hold on to more body fat than men. Our basic physiology demands a certain level of “padding,” if you will, to operate optimally. Once we begin to cut, our bodies will start stealing energy from our other systems and that is where we run into trouble. Men can stand to walk around with less body fat, unharmed. We do not fare as well, health-wise. So, to struggle in vain all year long does us no favors. It only hurts us in the long run.
Psychologically, regular bulking cycles are also healthy for you. These periods of being a little less defined should also help with self-image. Instead of putting the focus on how thin they can become, women are free to consider, instead, how strong they can get. This shift can be subtle but incredibly powerful. It encourages healing not only of the body, but of the mind as well.
How to Bulk Properly
When we talk about bulking, the goal isn’t simply to “gain weight.” We do not want to put on pounds of body fat. The desired outcome is to put on a few pounds of lean muscle mass with as little “extra” as possible. All too often, people use the term “bulking” as an excuse to let all pretense of a diet go by the wayside. Worse yet, they ease up on their training as well.
This does not result in a good body composition. It just puts someone in the position of having to lose all that weight at some point, all the while being completely upset that they gained it in the first place.
Therefore, you must have a plan before you begin.
First of all, choose a start date that will give you some leeway to fill out, so to speak. Don’t do it a month before your sister’s wedding, when you have to be buttoned into an expensive tailored dress, or close to any big events that may have you stressed out.
Usually, people like to begin at the tail-end of summertime, a few weeks before the bathing suits are stored away for the season and some looser-fitting clothes are called for.
Or, if you feel confident about your body, that’s fantastic! Feel free to begin at any time.
Second, you need to pick an end date. Many people wait until January, not just because it is the new year, but because you don’t have to diet as hard during the holidays, plus the post-party hangover usually has everyone motivated for a clean slate. Personally, I like to begin in mid-September and end by mid-January. Half the year is a bit of a surplus and half the year is more of a deficit.
Before you start eating more food, you also need to pick out a muscle-building program. Do not choose low-weight, high rep calisthenics for this. You need big, compound lifts, plus accessories, and higher volume than you may be used to. This is how those calories get put to good use. Remember, the whole point is to increase your lean body mass, not your mass in general. You can’t do that without adherence to a good program.
Once you have a plan and a course of action, you may begin to slowly add calories into your diet. For women, start at 150-200 calories a day for a few weeks and see how that works. If you need to, you can adjust up to 300 calories or so, as long as you are tracking your progress every few weeks.
You may be tempted to up the cardio sessions to combat the extra food, but do not. This will make muscle-building more difficult. Trust the process and allow yourself to gain some weight. If you feel you are gaining too much weight, too quickly, lower the calories. If you feel like nothing is happening, consume a bit more. This part is up to you.
The most important thing is that you feel good about what you’re doing and how you are nourishing your body. Chose a diet that has plenty of protein. Try to keep it low to non-processed, overall. Studies show people consume more calories when they eat a lot of processed foods, especially in the form of carbohydrates and fat. Most researchers speculate this is because more calories than people realize are hiding in those compact little snacks.
Once your bulk is over, you can begin a cut to see what you’ve got. Subtract 200 calories at a time, get your heart rate up more often and, ideally the excess will melt away and your new physique will be revealed.
Is Bulking Right for Me?
Are you overweight and just getting started working out? Then, no. Keep exercising and losing body fat until you are within a healthy weight range. You'll still be able to build a bit of muscle and lose some body fat in the process.
Are you really skinny, or skinny-fat and want to put on some muscle? Have you been on a low-calorie diet for longer than you can remember? In that case, starting a bulk is a great option. Evaluate where you're at monthly and adjust calories accordingly.
Are you well-muscled, but have a pesky gut or uncomfortable layer of bodyfat all over everything? Cut instead. Start with -200 calories and add some cardio and HIIT type training to a few times a week. Evaluate where you're at monthly and tweak where you need to.
Are you completely new to counting calories? Are you clueless about macros and tracking? Consult a registered dietician, first. There are many factors to consider, including your age, total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and other hormonal or dietary issues specific to you. They can help you sort all of it out and put you on a healthy path.
Tips for Beginners
When bulking, try to keep most of your food choices clean. Flexible dieting works, but it is easy to get off track, especially if you aren't a professional. This is not to say you can't chow a double cheeseburger or three, it's just to say don't do it every day, even if it fits your macros. It is way too easy to lose control.
When cutting, go easy. Do not plunge into a hard cut with major calorie restrictions and endless cardio. You will become a monster. Then, the moment your cut is over, you will become the monster that can't stop eating everything in sight. It has nothing to do with will power, it is biology. If there isn't a trophy, purse, job, or endorsement involved, a hard cut is not worth it. Not ever. It is often a one-trip ticket to disordered eating city.
Either way you go, monitor your progress monthly. If you're putting on too much fat too quickly, adjust. If you suddenly have a washboard stomach after two weeks, cut yourself a little slack. No diet out there is 100% tailored to you, so you have to do the fine-tuning. Don't get upset and discouraged if things aren't happening fast enough, either. In a year, you'll be glad you stuck with it and passed the necessary phases to build a better, healthier, body.
Bigger muscles and shredded abs have opposite requirements. It takes time and balance to achieve both. Years, in fact. It also takes a trained mind to trust the process and see it through, because results are never instantaneous in either direction.
All in all, cycles of eating in a surplus and building a better body, followed by eating in a deficit to achieve fat loss, are much healthier for maintaining the energy women require than dieting down and down and down to the bare minimum of the female metabolism and wondering why you are still unhappy.