Bulking Set Point and “Muscle Memory”

You could think of your body as having a built-in bodyweight thermostat. You might have your weight set at, say, 130 pounds. If you go above 135, your appetite automatically turns off until you get back to 130 pounds. If you go below 125 pounds, your appetite automatically turns on until you get back up to 130 pounds. There’s more at play here than just your appetite, but you get the idea: your body is automatically regulating your weight around a given “set point.”

When you’re bulking up, you’re fighting that set point. It’s trying to regulate your body weight back down. It’s trying to eliminate all the progress you’ve made.

So how do we get your set point to 150, 180 or even 200 pounds? Is that even possible? That’s what this article is about.

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Illustration of two men arm wrestling

The Pros and Cons of Clean and Dirty Bulking

Should you eat a clean bulking diet, a dirty bulking diet, or does it not even matter? To gain weight, we need to eat in a calorie surplus. The cleaner the foods, the harder it is to get into a surplus. The dirtier the calories, the easier it is to gain fat. Or at least that’s how the story’s often told.

I’ve tried both clean and dirty bulking. I’ve had success with both methods. I’ve gained about 35 pounds from dirty bulking, another 35 from clean bulking, bringing me from 130 up to 200 pounds. I’ve failed with both approaches, too.

Over the past eight years, we’ve helped over 10,000 other skinny guys bulk up. We’ve heard all the horror stories and celebrated too many successes to count. We’ve seen firsthand how the quality of our diets affects the composition of our gains.

There’s also a fairly large body of research investigating different bulking diets. We’ve combed through all of it and consulted with the top experts.

Let’s delve down into the depths of clean and dirty bulking.

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Illustration of a skinny guy eating a big bowl of chili, one of the best bulking foods.

The Best Bulking Foods for Skinny Guys

If you’re trying to bulk up, what foods should you eat? The obvious answer is to eat high-calorie foods, making it easier to get into a calorie surplus. That’s true. But there’s a catch, especially if you’re trying to build muscle quickly, leanly, and healthfully.

We’ve been helping skinny guys bulk up for over a decade now. We’ve each gained over 60 pounds. Marco has studied under the top experts and worked with professional and Olympic athletes. Plus, there’s a rich bulking tradition we can draw wisdom from.

If you’re smart with your food choices, bulking becomes much easier. You’ll find it more comfortable to eat in a calorie surplus, build muscle faster, store less fat, have fuller muscles, better workout performance, and bigger muscle pumps.

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Illustration of a skinny guy eating a feast in an attempt to gain weight and build muscle.

How to Eat More Calories (to Gain Weight)

To eat more calories, eat more often, focusing on dense foods that are easy to chew, lower in fibre, or lower in water. Think of foods like trail mix, ground meat, smoothies, yogurt, milk, bananas, and dark chocolate.

Even then, though, many skinny guys still have trouble eating enough calories to gain weight. There’s a good reason for that: we often have faster metabolisms and smaller stomachs. Unfortunately, the only way to gain weight is to get into a calorie surplus. I know that’s a tough bite to swallow, especially if you’re already stuffed to the gills, but there’s no way around it.

To make matters worse, we aren’t just trying to gain weight, we’re trying to build muscle. That adds a few other considerations. Protein is very filling, but we need to eat enough of it. Fat is very calorically dense, but we need to make sure we aren’t overdoing it. And we can’t rely on junk food to boost our calories up. That makes gaining weight much harder.

So what we want to do is design a diet around calorie-rich foods that improve our digestion and make it easier to build muscle quickly and leanly.

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Illustration of a beginner, intermediate, and advanced bodybuilder lifter

Are You a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced Lifter?

How can you tell whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter? That’s a good question. The answer can change which exercises you build your routine around, which workout program you pick, how quickly you can add weight to the bar, and how quickly you should gain weight.

Let’s delve into different ways of determining your lifting level. We’ll demonstrate why some of those methods are flawed, then cover a more useful way of doing it.

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Illustration of a man going from having bad posture to having good posture

The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Fixing Bad Posture

It’s common for skinny guys to have crooked posture. Part of that is because we’re skinny. We lack the muscular strength to hold ourselves up straight. The other problem is we often have longer spines that are harder to stabilizer.

The good news is both of these issues are the same issue. You can think of posture as weakness in the muscles that are supposed to hold your body in the proper position. If you can learn how to lift weights with good posture, you’ll strengthen these muscles, and your posture will improve.

My expertise is in helping thinner athletes bulk up, including college, professional, and Olympic athletes. Fortunately, these postural techniques work just as well on everyday skinny guys like us.

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Illustration of a sugar cube

How Much Sugar is Okay While Bulking?

Sugar is often criticized for causing weight gain. It’s technically a calorie surplus that causes the weight gain. But sugar can certainly make it easier to get into a calorie surplus, and so increasing our sugar intake can indeed lead to weight gain.

What if we’re trying to gain weight? For a lot of us hardgainers, the idea of sugar causing accidental weight gain sounds like a potential benefit, and it can be. In fact, when Marco first started helping me bulk up, one of the first things he did was have me add some sugar (dextrose) into my workout shakes. It’s a common trick that strength coaches use with high-level athletes to help them get into a calorie surplus. Marco cut his teeth by helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes build muscle, so it was the first thing he thought of when I told him that I was having trouble gaining weight.

Look at drinks like Gatorade, designed for the Gators from the University of Florida to keep them fueled up while playing sports. It’s full of sugar. Or look at the recovery drinks we see at the supplement stores. Again, full of sugar (or starch). The same is true with weight gainers. Their main ingredient is usually either maltodextrin or dextrose—both of which are quickly broken down into sugar as soon as we drink them. Sugar is the main ingredient in bulking supplements and sports drinks.

In the general public, though, most skinny guys take the opposite approach. They’ve heard that processed sugar will raise our blood sugar levels and can lead to various health issues, including, of course, fat gain. So when they start bulking up, they intentionally try to reduce their intake of processed sugar. Now, there’s certainly no problem with that, and most health experts recommend keeping our sugar intake quite low anyway—often limiting sugar to 25% of our total calories but sometimes as low as 10% of our total calories (study).

However, the idea of limiting our sugar intake to 25% of our calories is based on the idea that eating more processed sugar can lead to nutrient deficiencies. If we eat more candy, that can mean eating fewer fruits and veggies. But that’s not all that relevant to us skinny guys who are intentionally driving ourselves into a calorie surplus to build muscle. It’s especially irrelevant if we’re getting that added sugar from sources that are rich in micronutrients, such as from fruit, fruit juice, honey, and milk. In that case, even though our sugar intake would be increasing, we’d be consuming more micronutrients.

Furthermore, sugar has a different impact on skinny guys who are underweight and exercising than it does on people who are overweight and sedentary. We don’t have the same issues controlling our blood sugar levels, removing most of the downsides to our general health. And, when combined with a good lifting routine, raising our intakes of sugar can lead to leaner muscle gains than increasing our intakes of fat.

So, what effect does sugar have on skinny guys as we bulk up? How much added sugar is helpful. How much is harmful? And how can we make it easier to bulk up quickly and leanly?

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Illustration of a skinny "ectomorph" doing cardio while bulking up.

Should You Do Cardio While Bulking? Yes, Sort Of

Cardio causes a different type of adaptation from hypertrophy training. Cardio causes us to build more blood vessels, gain additional mitochondria in our cells, and strengthen our hearts. Hypertrophy training stimulates muscle growth, makes us stronger, and makes our bones and tendons tougher.

Here’s the issue. Doing both hypertrophy training and cardio causes us to adapt in two separate, competing ways. This is called the interference effect. That’s what people say, anyway. Is it true?

On the other hand, if cardio makes you fitter, maybe you’ll be able to handle tougher hypertrophy training workouts. If it improves blood flow to your muscles, maybe you’ll have improved performance and better recovery. There could be advantages to doing cardio.

Things get even more confusing if you’re a naturally thin “ectomorph.” The more cardio you do, the more calories you’ll burn and the more calories you’ll need to eat. If you’re already struggling to eat enough calories to gain weight, that can be a problem.

Illustration of vegan bodybuilder bulking up

How to Build Muscle on a Vegan, Plant-Based Diet

Bulking on a plant-based diet can work very well, with vegans building just as much muscle as anyone else. In fact, vegans already tend to be one step ahead of the general population when it comes to their health, especially if they eat a proper plant-based diet and especially if they exercise (study). Vegan diets can lend themselves quite well to building muscle, too, given that the best bodybuilding diets are made up mostly of plants: fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes (study). 

So bulking on a plant-based diet can absolutely be done; it doesn’t need to be difficult, and you won’t necessarily be at any disadvantage whatsoever. However, it still really helps to know what you’re doing.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The general principles of building muscle as a vegan.
  • Considerations for pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans.
  • What does a fully plant-based bodybuilding diet look like?
  • What muscle-building supplements should vegans take?
  • How to gain weight more easily on a plant-based diet.
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Are Bodybuilding Exercises Good for Gaining Muscle Size? (Push-Up Illustration)

Are Bodyweight Exercises Good for Building Muscle?

Bodyweight exercises can certainly stimulate muscle growth. There’s a lot that can stimulate muscle growth, though, ranging in intensity from resistance bands all the way to heavy barbell strength training. In fact, there’s even research showing that simply flexing your muscles can stimulate a bit of muscle growth (study).

But the question isn’t whether bodyweight exercises can stimulate any muscle growth, the question is whether they’re any good at stimulating muscle growth.

  • How do bodyweight exercises compare against lifting weights for building muscle?
  • Is bodyweight training a good way for a beginner to ease into bulking?
  • How do push-ups compare to the bench press for building muscle?
  • What advantages are there to bodyweight training?
  • What are the disadvantages of bodyweight training?
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