Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up.

What is Bulking? The Complete Beginner Guide

Bulking is often derided as a foolish way of building muscle. That’s true on average. Most people are already overweight. The last thing they need is more weight.

On the other hand, if you’re underweight, weak, or skinny, bulking is the best way to bulk up. Even if you aren’t thin, if your goal weight is higher than your current weight, bulking is the best way to get there.

But what is bulking? How does it work? How should you do it?

A skinny barbarian bulking up and becoming muscular. Illustrated by Shane Duquette.

What Does Bulking Mean?

Bulking is when you gain weight with the goal of gaining muscle mass. If your goal weight is higher than your current weight, bulking is the leanest way to get there. The only other option is regular weight gain.

Regular weight gain is when you gain weight without emphasizing muscle growth. This is what most people do. This is why most people are overweight or obese.

If you’re trying to gain weight, there are only two paths to venture down. Bulking is the better one. You’ll build more muscle, gain less fat, feel better, look better, get fitter, and do a better job of improving your health.

The Different Types of Bulking

This is where the nuance comes in. If someone claims bulking makes people fat, they’re talking about dreamer bulking. If they say bulking is calorically and nutritionally reckless, they’re talking about dirty bulking. If they’re talking about lean muscle growth, they’re talking about lean bulking. If they recommend eating a restrictive diet, they’re talking about clean bulking.

Here are the bulking terms you ought to know:

  • Classic bulking: gaining weight with equal emphasis on building muscle and avoiding fat gain. The idea is to line up your rate of weight gain with your expected rate of muscle growth. It usually uses an 80/20 diet, where 80% of the calories are healthy, and 20% are discretionary.
  • Aggressive bulking: maximizing your rate of muscle growth by training harder, eating better, and eating more. It’s the fastest way to build muscle, especially for naturally skinny guys, but it also carries a higher risk of fat gain. This is how I gained most of my muscle mass.
  • Lean bulking: building muscle leanly by keeping your calorie surplus small and consistent, even if it bottlenecks your rate of muscle growth. Lean bulking usually means counting calories to keep the surplus small and precise. This works especially well for people already on the cusp of being overweight.
  • Gaintaining (or Maingaining): building muscle without gaining any weight. This doesn’t work for skinny guys. We don’t have enough extra fat to fuel muscle growth. However, it works quite well for skinny-fat and overweight beginners.
  • Clean Bulking: bulking with a progressive diet that shuns white foods: white rice, white bread, and white potatoes. It’s the idea that it’s better to eat a more diverse and colourful diet: brown rice, whole-grain bread, and sweet potatoes. It’s one of several healthy ways to eat.
  • Dirty Bulking: bulking with reckless indifference to the quality of your diet. It’s the hedonistic pursuit of the pleasures of junk food. It’s nutritional anarchy. It isn’t a healthy way to bulk, and it tends to result in excess fat gain.
  • Dreamer Bulking: Eating in a calorie surplus without stimulating enough muscle growth to justify that surplus, resulting in excess fat gain. This is common with beginners, and understandably so. Most muscular men have had to burn away the results of a dreamer bulk.
  • Phantom Bulking: trying to bulk while failing to eat enough food to gain weight. It’s a bulk without substance, without mass. When we surveyed our newsletter subscribers, 67% said they’d failed a bulk because they’d failed to eat enough. I’m among that 67%.
  • Revenge Bulking: when you bulk up after a breakup, attempting to accumulate enough mass to pull your ex back into your orbit. It has a surprisingly high success rate, with our survey data suggesting it works up to 30% of the time.
  • Seasonal Bulking: when you align your muscle-building journey with the ebb and flow of the seasons. During the winter, you bulk, layering on muscle and insulation. During the summer, you burn away the fat, revealing the muscle you’ve gained.
  • Cyclical Bulking: when you shift between calorie surpluses and deficits, trying to build muscle in the surpluses and lose fat in the deficits. Some guys will fast or undereat on Sundays. Others will sprinkle mini-cuts into their bulks. This kills your momentum, undermining your efforts.
  • Reverse Bulking: when you finish bulking and begin listening to your appetite again. The idea is to keep lifting weights, keep eating well, and keep living a healthy lifestyle while letting yourself lose a bit of weight, keeping your muscles and reclaiming the leanness you lost.

How Should You Bulk?

Of all the different ways of bulking, three approaches are considered ideal. Which one is best for you depends on your circumstances and goals.

  • Classic bulking works well for regular guys eager to get bigger and stronger.
  • Aggressive bulking works best for skinny, underweight, and naturally lean guys.
  • Lean bulking works best for guys already on the plumper side or who tend to gain fat more easily.

And, of course, if you’re skinny-fat or overweight, you don’t necessarily need to bulk at all. You can eat according to your appetite, letting your weight change as it will. As long as you’re gradually getting stronger, you don’t need to intentionally eat in a calorie surplus.

The 5 Aspects of Bulking

There are five aspects of bulking. Like the fingers of a fist, you can clench them together and pummel away at your skinniness, bit by bit, until your bones are buried deep under thick muscles.

Hypertrophy Training

Hypertrophy training is the first and most important aspect of bulking. When you challenge your muscles, you stimulate growth—your muscles will attempt to grow. Whether you succeed at building muscle depends on the other four aspects of bulking. Still, stimulation is the first step. It has to be.

A muscular man holding a barbell and a dumbbell in his home gym. Illustrated by Shane Duquette.

There are different types of hypertrophy training. You could train heavier, focusing on increasing your strength. You could also train lighter, focusing on increasing your muscular endurance. You could use your body weight, dumbbells, barbells, or train at a full gym. You could even use resistance bands, though they aren’t quite as effective.

Whatever tools and methods you use, build your routine around big compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, push-ups, and chin-ups. Add in smaller isolation exercises for the muscles you’re most eager to grow, such as biceps curls, lateral raises, or neck curls.

Calorie Surplus (Weight Gain)

Once you’ve stimulated muscle growth, you need to eat enough food to fuel that growth. You can eat in a smaller calorie surplus, gaining weight slowly and building muscle more leanly. Or you could eat in a larger surplus, gaining weight faster and building muscle more quickly.

A man eating a big bulking diet to gain weight quickly. Illustrated by Shane Duquette.

When you think of building muscle, you probably think of protein. But converting protein into muscle is a costly process. It uses quite a bit of energy. Skinny guys don’t have extra reserves of energy stored as body fat. If we aren’t getting extra energy from our diets, we won’t gain weight, and we won’t build muscle. So before worrying about how much protein you’re eating, ensure you’re eating enough food overall.

Nutritious Bulking Diet

Eating a nutritious bulking diet will speed up your recovery, increase your rate of muscle growth, improve your health, and give you more energy. Focus on eating high-calorie whole foods, such as lean meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, yogurt, and dark chocolate. Use spices, sauces, and dips. Enjoy some coffee or tea.

Illustration of a skinny man bulking up to build muscle, transforming into a giant. Illustrated by Shane Duquette.

Try to eat a balanced bulking diet, too. Every meal should include a source of protein, carbs, fat, and fibre. Think of a meal like chili, mixing lean ground meat with beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, and spices. Or salmon with roast potatoes and asparagus. Or trail mix, yogurt with berries, or smoothies. Or, of course, every bodybuilder’s favourite: chicken, rice, and broccoli.

When you’re bulking, you’re trying to eat more food, so forget about mainstream weight-loss diets. Instead, think about dietary strategies that will help you wolf down more nutritious food:

  • Don’t go keto. Carbs are a nutritious source of calories and are fantastic for building muscle. Instead of cutting back on them, add more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains (corn, oats, brown rice, etc) into your diet.
  • Don’t start intermittent fasting. Instead, eat more snacks, allowing you to eat smaller meals that fit comfortably into your stomach and digest more smoothly.
  • Embrace liquid calories. Blend up smoothies. They’re quick to make, easy to drink, and digest faster than solid foods.

Restful Slumber

Once you’re following a good workout program and eating a good bulking diet, the next thing to focus on is sleep. One study showed that participants gained 30% more muscle once they were given a few tips about how to get better sleep (study).

The most important thing is to get to bed on time. You need to give yourself enough time to get enough sleep. Most guys need 7–9 hours of sleep, with 8 making for a good default. If you can, try to go to bed within 30 minutes of the same bedtime every night, establishing a strong, steady circadian rhythm.

Healthy Lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle will improve your recovery, support your overall health, and help you build muscle faster and more leanly. There are quite a few components to living a healthy lifestyle. You probably already know the most important factors:

  • Be active at various points of the day. If you work a desk job, try to go on a short walk before and after work, and maybe walk somewhere to eat lunch.
  • Try to get some sunshine every morning, letting your body know the day has begun and reinforcing a healthy circadian rhythm.
  • Avoid vices like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Manage your stress. Easier said than done, I know.

What Results Can You Expect?

A few months ago, we analyzed the results of 20 guys who finished our bulking program. On average, they gained 25 pounds, adding 4 inches to their shoulder circumference, 2 inches to their waist, and 2 inches to their arms.

The before and after results of a skinny guy who bulked up.

Your bulking results, though, will depend on who you are, how you decide to bulk, and how well you do it. Beginners usually experience “newbie gains,” allowing them to build muscle faster, whereas muscular guys often benefit from bulking more slowly.

What to Do When You Finish Bulking

When you finish your bulk, your muscles will be happy to gear into a second bulk, but your stomach will probably want a vacation. That’s where reverse bulking comes in.

Photo showing the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program for Skinny and Skinny-Fat Guys

Alright, that’s it for now. If you want to know all the ins and outs of building muscle, we have a free newsletterIf you want a full foundational bulking program, including a 5-month full-body workout routine, gain-easy diet guide, recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. Or, if you want a customizable intermediate bulking program, check out our Outlift Program.

Shane Duquette is the founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, each with millions of readers. He's gained seventy pounds and has over a decade of experience helping more than ten thousand naturally thin people build muscle. He also has a degree in design, but those are inversely correlated with muscle growth.

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