If you’re a naturally skinny guy who’s been having trouble bulking up, milk can often help. There’s a simple reason for that: by drinking more milk, you’ll be adding more calories and protein into your diet. Milk is also a rich source of nutrients that are helpful for guys who are trying to build muscle. Finally, milk is extremely easy on the appetite, making it easier for us ectomorphs to gain weight.
However, if you add too much milk into your diet, then you may find yourself gaining quite a bit of fat along with your muscle (study). Worse, since whole milk is so high in saturated fat, going overboard with it can cause you to store proportionally more visceral fat, which can negatively impact your longterm health (study). That’s why GOMAD, where you drink a gallon of whole milk every day, is so infamous for making guys fat.
You could avoid some of those problems by choosing low-fat milk, yes, but higher-fat milk has some unique muscle-building properties that you might want to take advantage of.
So, what’s the best way to bulk up with milk?
Is Milk Good for Building Muscle?
The short answer is yes. Milk can be great for helping guys build muscle. This is especially true for skinny guys who are having trouble eating enough calories to gain weight. This is because a calorie surplus will make you gain weight (study, study, study), and milk is also a very easy source of calories.
However, we want to make sure that you’re gaining muscle, not just weight. To ensure that you’re building muscle as leanly as possible, you’re going to want to focus on a few factors, most of which milk can help with:
- Follow a good bulking workout program: The more muscle growth your workouts can stimulate, the more lean weight you’ll be able to gain, and the less likely you’ll be to store fat. Here’s our article about the best kind of lifting for building muscle.
- Make sure you’re gaining weight: Other than lifting weights, the best thing you can do to build muscle is to eat enough calories to allow for weight gain. Aiming to gain around a pound per week is good for a skinny beginner, which means about 500 extra calories per day. If you want to use milk for that, have a glass of milk alongside your main meals. If you’re using whole milk, have a small glass. If you’re using low-fat milk, have a big glass.
- Don’t gain weight too quickly: Even as a skinny beginner, if you’re gaining much more than a pound per week, it’s going to be hard to keep those gains lean. The main reason that so many people get fat from bulking on milk is that they drive their overall calorie intake too high, causing them to gain weight too quickly. If you’re gaining more than a pound per week, reduce your calorie intake.
- Eat enough protein: Aiming for around a gram of protein per pound body weight per day will help you build more muscle more leanly. It also helps to have at least 20 grams of protein with each meal and to have 3–5 meals each day. Drinking more milk is a fantastic way to boost your protein intake. Low-fat milk is higher in protein per calorie, so if your protein intake is low, choose low-fat milk and drink a lot of it.
- Get your macros right: you’ll build muscle more quickly and leanly if you eat a higher-carb, moderate-protein, lower-fat diet. Milk can help you with this, but if you’re choosing whole milk, make sure that it’s not driving your overall fat intake too high. If you’re having more than a couple of glasses of milk per day, that might mean switching to low-fat milk.
- Eat mostly whole foods: your diet doesn’t need to perfect, but we recommend getting around 80% of your calories from whole foods while bulking and keeping your added sugar intake to no more than 10% of your total calories. There are a bunch of amazing bulking foods, and milk is at the top of the list.
The benefits of milk go beyond it being a good source of calories and protein, too. It’s got a number of nutrients in it that help with building muscle:
- Zinc, selenium, and magnesium: bodybuilders and strength athletes often supplement with these three minerals in an attempt to boost their testosterone production. These minerals don’t actually boost testosterone production, but if you’re deficient in them, your testosterone production can be suppressed. Getting enough of these minerals helps keep your testosterone production in good working order, which can help you build more muscle more leanly. (Milk also contains vitamin A, vitamin b12, vitamin b6, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, folate, and potassium.)
- Vitamin D: milk is often fortified with vitamin D. Again, a deficiency in vitamin D can suppress testosterone production, so milk could potentially help. Mind you, a better way to get vitamin D is to spend more time in the sun, and the quantities of vitamin D in milk are quite low anyway. Still, it can help.
- Amino acids: the protein in milk has a favourable breakdown of amino acids for building muscle. Among these amino acids is leucine, which is known for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. In fact, along with whey protein, milk is arguably the best source of protein for building muscle.
- Calcium / bone health: Robert Heaney, MD, one of the more respected researchers of bone health, conducted a systematic review on the effects of milk on bone health, concluding that milk was great for building stronger bones.
- Casein protein: around 80% of the protein in milk comes from casein, which digests very slowly and steadily. Theoretically, that means that if you have milk in the evening, the casein would gradually digest over the course of the night, allowing you to build more muscle while you sleep. (Meat also digests quite slowly, yielding the same effect.)
- Casomorphins: This is a weird one. Our bodies break down casein into casomorphins, which have about 1/10th the painkilling effect of morphine.
Because of how easily milk can turn a regular diet into a bulking diet, it has a long history of helping guys build muscle. For example, check out 50’s strongman Paul Anderson:
Paul Anderson’s story is both an inspiring and scary example of milk’s ability to transform men into Beasts. On one hand, he became the strongest man in the world through smart training and consuming monstrous quantities of milk. On the other hand, he also became morbidly obese and died in his 60s.
So although milk is famous for helping guys build muscle, many guys are also nervous about drinking it.
The reason why people get fat when they drink too much milk is simple:
- Calories: bulking on too large of a calorie surplus will cause the extra calories to spill over into fat storage. If someone is doing GOMAD, where they drink a gallon of whole milk every day, then they’re getting upwards of 2500 calories per day just from milk alone.
- Fat: bulking with too much of your calories coming from fat will cause extra fat storage. If you’re doing GOMAD, that’s 128 grams of fat. 1150 calories of fat, just from the milk. Even if milk were your only source of fat, that might already be pushing your fat intake too high for making lean gains (study).
- Saturated fat: if you’re doing GOMAD, that’s 75 grams of saturated fat. 650 calories of saturated fat just from the milk alone. Yes, having enough saturated fat in your diet will raise your testosterone production a little bit (study), but a saturated fat intake that high is so far beyond the healthy limit that it will start to cause negative effects. The recommended saturated fat intake is 6–10% of your diet. If you triple that every day, it’s going to reduce your muscle growth, increase fat storage, and cause you to store proportionally more visceral fat (study).
The problem isn’t with milk, though, the problem is with aggressively bulking on a high-calorie and high-fat diet. That makes the solution quite simple:
- Don’t overshoot your calorie goals
- Make sure that your milk fits within your macros
- Switch to low-fat milk if your fat intake is too high
Is GOMAD Good for Bulking?
GOMAD was invented a hundred years ago by a weightlifting coach named Mark Berry. He believed the best way to bulk was to do high-rep squat-focused workouts while drinking an extra gallon of milk a day (alongside your regular meals). It was never supposed to be a way to gain weight leanly. In fact, Berry was more interested in “huskiness.” The idea was to get big, strong, and also kind of chubby.
GOMAD is still pretty popular. Nowadays it’s usually used to help young athletes, such as high school football players, bulk up in a hurry. It’s a very simple protocol:
- Follow a squat-based training program, such as Starting Strength
- Drink a gallon of whole milk every day
The first problem is that strength training isn’t very good for gaining muscle size. It’s great for building bigger quads and glutes. And those are the biggest muscles in your body, so it’s not bad for gaining overall muscle mass. But it’s not a great program for gaining muscle mass everywhere else—especially in your upper body.
The second problem is that you’re probably going to get fat. However, to be fair to GOMAD, the idea is to get big and bulky, not to build muscle leanly. Linemen don’t need to be lean, they just need to be big and strong. So let’s ignore that part. Instead, let’s focus on the gallon of whole milk.
The macros of a gallon of whole milk are:
- 2,300–2,500 calories
- 125 grams of fat
- 185 grams of carbohydrates
- 120 grams of protein
This gallon of whole milk is going to be fairly easy to drink because it’s liquid, it’s low in fibre, and it will pass through your digestive system fairly quickly. Even though it’s an absurd amount of milk, it’s actually not that hard to stack on top of your regular diet.
The problem is, stacking 2,400 calories on top of your regular diet is going to cause a ton of weight gain, most of which will be fat. That’s almost 5x the recommended calorie surplus, even for a skinny beginner who’s lifting weights.
However, if we put this in the context of a college football player, this starts to make more sense. If someone is spending most of their time exercising, they’re going to require a ton of calories. Besides, if the goal is simply to gain a bunch of muscle and fat, then it absolutely makes sense to eat a crazy calorie surplus like this. This is how you build a massive lineman with a ton of momentum to throw around.
Plus, college football players are incredible active, which can offset the higher intake of saturated fat. The more active you are, the more visceral fat you’ll burn. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy to eat that much saturated fat, but it becomes less bad.
So is GOMAD good for bulking? That depends on what you mean by bulking. In certain circumstances, yes. But generally, no. It’s not the best way to gain muscle quickly, and it’s certainly not the best way to gain muscle leanly. However, that doesn’t mean that milk is bad for bulking, it just means that you probably shouldn’t drink a gallon of it every day.
Is LOMAD Good for Bulking?
LOMAD is a more moderate version of GOMAD that calls for drinking just a litre of whole milk a day.
The macros of a litre of whole milk are:
- 630 calories
- 34 grams of fat
- 49 grams of carbohydrates
- 32 grams of protein
We normally recommend that skinny beginners start their bulk by adding in about 500 calories to their daily calorie intake. This is just a little bit higher than that. That’s fine. People normally need to raise their calories as they progress through a bulk anyway, so this simply starts the calories off a little higher. That’s perfect fine.
Then, if we’re talking about low-fat milk, the macros get even better:
- 440 calories
- 10 grams of fat
- 52 grams of carbohydrates
- 32 grams of protein
That adds 440 calories into your diet, with most of those calories coming from carbs and protein.
This is going to give you a good shot at building muscle quickly and leanly, especially if you combine it with a workout program that’s designed to help you gain muscle size.
My Experience Bulking With LOMAD
One summer I decided I was going to bulk up. This was back when I was 130 pounds at 6’2, and I was working at an ad agency on the illustration team. I was new there, and also newly determined to gain 20 pounds. I had read about GOMAD, where you drink a gallon of milk every day. I loved the idea, but I wanted to ease into it. I decided to start with LOMAD instead, drinking a litre of milk every day.
To do this, I brought in a 1-litre bag of milk to work with me, and I gradually worked my way through it over the course of the day. At lunch I’d walk over to Subway and grab myself a 6-inch meatball sub with extra cheese. In the afternoon, I’d snack on a protein bar or some trail mix.
That was my first experience with LOMAD. Or at least I thought it was. See, a couple of months after I started my bulk, one of my coworkers started complaining to everyone that by the end of the day, every single day, I would always finish the milk, leaving none for her after-work coffee. She was appalled that I was so consistently inconsiderate. I don’t blame her. Drinking a litre of communal office milk every day would certainly be poor etiquette.
I had to explain to her that I wasn’t drinking the office milk, I was bringing my own bag of milk in with me each morning. She’d been using my milk for her coffees throughout the day each day. I thought it was a good rebuttal, but she wasn’t impressed: “How on earth would I know that? Who brings in milk to work like that?! You even have your own milk pitcher here!“
It was an awkward situation. I mean, she was right. Who brings milk to work like that? Skinny guys who are desperate to build muscle, that’s who. I gained 20 pounds that summer:
Milk and Digestion
Most people digest milk quite quickly and easily, which is why it’s so popular for bulking. It allows us to consume more calories and protein without putting much strain on our digestive system.
It’s not that it takes up less space in our stomachs. Milk is less calorically dense than foods like olive oil and trail mix. But because it’s a liquid, it passes through quite quickly, allowing us to eat again shortly afterwards. It’s also fairly easy to chug a glass of milk after eating a meal.
However, milk contains a sugar called lactose. To digest that lactose, we use the digestive enzyme lactase, which some people have more of than others. If you don’t have enough lactase to digest all the lactose you’re consuming, you’ll start to feel bloated and nauseous.
Older studies have indicated that some cultures digest milk better than others. People of Northern European descent tend to digest milk well, whereas many people of Asian and African descent struggle with it (study). At first, researchers thought this was due to genetics, but now they think it’s due to upbringing (study). Since some cultures don’t raise their kids on cow’s milk, the kids never begin to produce lactase. They simply never need to. That doesn’t make them unable to produce lactase, though. If they gradually introduce milk into their diets, their lactase production often kicks into gear.
Generally, if you gradually consume more milk, your body will start gradually producing more lactase. This means that even people who are lactose intolerant now can often become more tolerant in the future. However, some people remain lactose intolerant despite regular consumption of milk. It’s uncommon, but it happens.
If you’re having trouble digesting milk, that’s where lactose-free milk comes in. Lactose free milk isn’t actually free of lactose, it just comes with the digestive enzyme lactase already mixed in.
Lactose-free milk doesn’t help everyone, though. Some people are actually allergic to milk, which is a whole different ballgame from intolerance. These people, and they probably know who they are, shouldn’t be consuming milk at all. Mind you, that’s fairly rare.
To be honest, though, if you don’t tolerate milk well, there’s no need to drink any. Skinny guys can even bulk up on fully vegan diets without an issue. The last thing you want to do while bulking is to introduce something into your diet that messes with your digestive system. The whole point of using milk to bulk up is to make things easier on your digestive system, not harder.
What About the Hormones in Milk?
The other concern with using milk to bulk up is the fact that milk has hormones in it, namely:
- Bovine growth hormone (bGH)
- Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1)
If we’re consuming large quantities of milk, and if the milk contains those hormones, then won’t milk have a negative (or positive) effect on our health?
When it comes to body composition, a recent study found that people who drink milk tend to have more muscle, less fat, and greater bone density. So milk is definitely healthy in the sense that it makes us leaner and stronger. Mind you, that’s just one aspect of health.
How the hormones in milk could interact with our longterm health is outside our realm of expertise, but Brad Dieter, PhD, has a great article about the hormones in milk on Science Driven Nutrition. The article is written by Morten Elsoe, who has a master’s degree in molecular nutrition and food technology.
Their main takeaways are this:
- Bovine growth hormone has no biological activity in humans.
- IGF-1 does have biological activity in humans, but our saliva has more IGF-1 in it than milk does, so “the amount of IGF-1 in milk is simply too small to have any relevance.”
- The protein in milk does cause us to produce more IGF-1, but this is a good thing. We also get this benefit from other sources of protein, and, oddly enough, soy milk causes our IGF-1 levels to rise even higher than cow’s milk (study).
- There’s no evidence to suggest that milk causes cancer. In fact, it even reduces our risk of getting some cancers (study)
- Milk doesn’t increase our production of estrogen.
Is High-Fat or Low-Fat Milk Better for Bulking?
For some reason, whole milk seems to produce the most muscle growth (study). At first, researchers thought it was stimulating more muscle growth because it was higher in calories, so they tested that hypothesis… and they were wrong.
It turns out that even if you’re consuming the same amount of calories from skim milk as you are from whole milk, the whole milk still produces more muscle growth. This is especially surprising because skim milk contains almost twice as much protein as whole milk. Other researchers thought that the IGF-1 was causing the extra growth, but again, that doesn’t seem to the case. Other sources of protein stimulate just as much IGF-1 production.
There’s no conclusive answer on why whole milk is so anabolic. It might be because the processing of whole milk is less extreme. Maybe it’s because the vitamins and minerals in milk are fat soluble, meaning that whole milk contains more micronutrients. (That’s my guess.)
However, there’s also a potential downside to bulking on whole milk. Since whole milk is so high in fat, and since dietary fat is so easily stored as body fat, whole milk can make it easy to eat a diet that’s too high in fat overall. Similarly, whole milk is high in saturated fat, which can make your diet overly high in saturated fat. This may be why a large meta-analysis of three thirty-year cohort studies found that whole milk was associated with an increased risk of mortality. Low-fat milk and cheese, on the other hand, showed no negative health effects. So it’s possible that increasing our consumption of whole milk, especially in large amounts, and especially over a long time period, could have a negative impact on our general health.
Putting that into context, if you’re only having a couple of glasses of milk per day, or if your diet is low in saturated and overall fat, then whole milk is probably the better option. It seems like a better way to get all of the micronutrients found in milk. But if whole milk would drive your saturated or overall fat intake too high, choose low-fat milk instead. It might not contain all of the muscle-building micronutrients, but it will still be high in calories and protein, and it won’t cause extra fat gain, visceral fat storage, or negative health effects.
In my own case, I’ve always chosen low-fat milk. That allows me to get some saturated fat from meat and cheese, and it leaves some room in my diet for other sources of healthy fats, such as fish oil, olive oil, and nuts. (Having room in my diet for nuts allows me to eat trail mix, which is another great bulking food.)
How to Bulk Up With Milk
If you’re adding milk into your diet with the goal of gaining weight, building muscle, and avoiding fat gain, here are a couple simple protocols that you might want to experiment with:
- LOMAD: Gradually work your way through a litre of milk every day. You could have a pint of milk as a snack, or you could have a glass of milk alongside your meals. If your diet is mostly plant-based, whole milk might work better for you. If you already eat a lot of meat or fat, maybe choose low-fat milk.
- Protein booster: Whenever you have a meal that’s low in protein (or low in calories), add a glass of milk. For example, if you have a peanut butter and banana sandwich for lunch, add a glass of milk. If you have a bowl of pasta for dinner, add a glass of milk. By adding the milk to your meals, you’re boosting their protein content. If this helps you get to 20 grams of protein in each meal, or if it helps you hit your daily protein target, then it will help you build muscle more quickly and leanly.
- Meal replacement: If you need a bulking meal on the run, dip into a corner store and buy a quart/litre of milk. If you combine that with almost anything else (e.g. trail mix), you’ll have a perfect on-the-go bulking meal.
Whichever approach you use, remember to ease into it. Start with a single extra cup of milk per day. If that goes well, add another cup. I don’t see any problem with bulking up on a litre of milk per day (LOMAD). That’s still a fairly moderate intake. However, as you push deeper, drinking closer to a gallon of milk per day (GOMAD), it’s harder to say if that could negatively impact your health.
If you’re still having trouble gaining weight after adding a litre of milk to your diet, here’s our guide for how to eat more calories. It might make more sense to start adding in calories from other bulking foods, such as trail mix. That will give you a more balanced bulking diet.
Here’s how to adjust your milk intake based on your results:
- If you’re not gaining a pound per week, add extra milk into your diet. Again, add the milk in glass by glass.
- If you’re gaining more than a pound per week, cut back on the calories.
- If you’re gaining a pound per week but too much of it is fat, check your overall fat intake. If your fat intake is too high, switch to low-fat milk. If your saturated fat intake is too high, again, switch to low-fat milk.
Over the course of couple years, having 2–4 glasses of milk per day helped me gain 55 pounds of muscle quite leanly: