How to Properly Bulk Over the Winter
In the world of performance athletics and bodybuilding, winter is classically known as bulking season. Whether you're an avid gym-goer who wants to pack on more muscle or an ectomorph who wants to go from "skinny fat" to "swole," this winter is the perfect time to hit your goals. But why is bulking over winter the prime time to do this, and how can you best approach a winter bulk in a way that maintains your health and peak fitness? Read on to learn more.
What is Bulking?
Bulking, as defined by registered dietitian Amy Richter, is a straightforward concept just as its name implies: It's all about the bulk! During a winter bulk, you simply eat more calories than you normally do in order to fuel more expedited muscle gains.
In contrast with cutting — where you are eating a calorie deficit in order to refine your muscle definition and get leaner — bulking packs on both the muscle and the fat, quickly ramping up your overall body weight.
Why Bulk Over Winter?
The idea of bulking over the winter originated in the bodybuilding world. Many bodybuilding competitions take place in the spring and summer months. Based on that schedule, bodybuilders use the winter season to pack on the pounds. They then do a "cut" to get lean and shredded right before stepping onto the competition stage.
But as the popularity of a winter bulk grew, the benefits extended beyond those who were competing to be the next Mr. Olympia:
- Wardrobes and aesthetics: We wear more clothes in the winter, so those who focus on having a publicly lean body size and eye-catching aesthetics know they can pack on the pounds without parading their "winter bod" at the beach or pool.
- Seasonal diet changes: Winter is a season of holiday celebrations. Think turkey dinners, Christmas hams, and egg nog. This makes it easier to add more calories to your diet since you're already going to do it.
- Hormonal shifts: Research shows that our levels of testosterone drop and estrogen rise in the winter, making the winter more ideal for focusing on weight gain versus maintaining lean muscle mass.
- Exercise habits: We tend to be less active in the winter as the cold season, and this more sedentary behavior can help us better maintain a caloric surplus that helps us bulk up faster.
The Benefits of Bulking
Bulking over winter is meant to be a counterpoint to the cuts (i.e., calorie restrictions) that many bodybuilders and athletes do in the spring and summer:
- Metabolism and muscle strength/size: Maintaining a caloric deficit for too long leads to a slower metabolism and a loss of muscle size and strength, and bulking helps counteract that.
- Hormone changes: A winter bulk can help maintain better hormone balance since cutting your calories for extended periods of time lead to negative changes in your estrogen and testosterone levels — some female bodybuilders even lose their menstrual cycle when doing a cut!
- Peak muscle improvements: The science makes it clear. When you pair a caloric surplus with exercise, you'll see much faster improvements in your muscle strength and muscle size.
Is Bulking Safe?
When bulking, some people opt for a so-called "dirty bulk" made up of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods. It's fast, easy, and often cheap.
While you're technically hitting your caloric surplus on a dirty bulk, this approach does have some unsafe drawbacks since many of these dietary choices are linked with long-term health problems:
- Sugar and obesity, diabetes, etc.
- Lack of healthy macronutrients (and the long-term effects of a nutrient-poor diet)
- Saturated fats and their impact on blood pressure and cardiovascular health
Thankfully, there's a safe and healthy way to do bulking over the winter that doesn't rely on unhealthy, high-calorie foods.
How to Properly Bulk
If you want to pack on the muscles and the pounds this winter and not sabotage your overarching health, wellness, and disease risks, here's your winter bulk 101.
First, establish how many calories you need to be eating to start bulking over the winter:
- The not-for-profit American Council on Exercise recommends using either the Mifflin-St Jeor equation or their online calorie calculator to figure out how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight.
- Once you establish your baseline, research suggests that you should add 10% to 20% to identify your daily calorie needs on a winter bulk.
- Take this total, then aim for a daily protein intake of at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to boost muscle strength and size.
For example, if your daily calorie goal is currently 2,000 calories, a winter bulk will mean you'll aim to eat 2,200 to 2,400 calories a day instead. For the best results doing a clean winter bulk instead of the previously mentioned dirty bulk, focus on the following:
- Lean proteins: According to Ohio State University, avoid processed meats and limit red meat. Instead, focus on fish, turkey, pork, and chicken. Non-meat sources of lean protein include egg whites, Greek or skyr yogurt, and cottage cheese.
Healthy fats: Stay away from saturated fat and trans fats, and instead focus on the healthy fats found in the Mediterranean diet, such as olive oil, omega-3-rich fish like salmon, nuts and nut butters, and seeds like hemp seeds or chia seeds.
High-quality whole-grain carbohydrates: In a dirty bulk, you eat a lot of sugar and processed carbs. On a clean winter bulk, opt for foods like sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, and oats.
Beyond the main three macronutrients — protein, fat, and carbs — don't forget fiber-rich, macronutrient-rich foods that support optimal health. These include fruit, dark-green veggies, non-starchy veggies, and healthy beverages to maintain hydration (e.g., water, herbal teas, etc.).
Remember, it's not just about bulking over winter. To see maximum gains from your winter bulk, you need to pair it with resistance training. When doing a bulk, the National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends going back to the basics of hypertrophy:
- Lift heavy: Aim for 75% to 85% of your 1-rep maximum (use this Tiger Fitness calculator to find yours)
- Time reps and rests: Do 8-12 reps per set (and up to seven sets per exercise) with just 30-60 seconds of rest between sets
- Hit every body part: Do 2-4 exercises per specific muscle group
Winter Bulking Tips
If done right, bulking over winter is the gift that keeps on giving. Ho-ho-ho your way to your jolly muscle goals with these winter bulk tips and tricks.
Be Wary of What You Eat During Holidays
Studies show that we eat more calories in the winter — and specifically more unhealthy fats and sugars.
While that can help with our winter bulking goals, don't overindulge in egg nog and gingerbread cookies. For example, eating a high-sugar snack can cause a whopping 25% drop in your testosterone levels, sabotaging your muscle gains. Similarly, high-fat holiday snacks can harm your cardiovascular health, which affects your gym performance.
- Highly processed foods
- Fatty sources of proteins, like ribeye steak (ribeyes are some of the fattiest steak cuts on the butcher block, with a single serving having nearly 40 grams of fat, of which nearly 20 grams are saturated fats)
- Saturated fats, like holiday pastries and desserts made with lard or butter
- "Empty" beverages that are high in calories with no nutritional benefits, such as sweetened coffee and other sugary winter beverages
Give Yourself Proper Recovery Time
While your extra caloric intake on your winter bulk will help you pack on the muscle, your muscles still need recovery time to recover. The American Council on Exercise calls recovery time the "forgotten training variable" and says we should aim for 1-2 days of recovery time between heavy workouts.
Use Protein Shakes
Your macronutrient profiles are important when doing a winter bulk. For instance, if you are getting all of your bulking calories from just carbohydrates, you won't be giving your muscles the full nutrient spectrum they need to increase strength and size!
Experts recommend the following ratio:
- Carbohydrates: 45–60% of your calories
- Protein: 30–35%
- Fat: 15–30%
Many people struggle to get in enough protein, especially because protein has a high-satiety effect (meaning it makes you feel full faster and longer). To help you achieve both your calorie goals and your protein needs, consider using Tiger Fitness' best-selling protein shakes to quickly fill your winter bulk with lean, easy-to-digest protein.
Is Bulking Right For You?
Anyone aiming to achieve peak natural fitness throughout the year can benefit from bulking over the winter, especially if your goal is to gain the most muscle mass and strength as fast as possible. At Tiger Fitness, you'll find an array of best-selling supplements to maximize your weight gain that will help you achieve both your calorie needs as well as your macronutrient ratios in one easy drink.
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