ASK A SWOLE WOMAN
This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.
Hi! I love your column! Can you talk about how to bulk generally? I’m scared to just eat more and feel like I don’t know all the ins and outs of how bulking is supposed to work, but I think if I understood the process a little bit better it might help me. --Carey
Caveat that there are many many numbers in here! If numbers and calories and body weights are not your thing, skip this post and consider that you may not be ready for bulking; a therapist, dietitian, or other medical professional are better resources.
So we’ve already covered the particulars of eating more in one of our most popular posts to date, How to eat like a big beautiful horse. But now I want to talk about the bigger project of bulking.
I’ve written about this plenty before, but bulking for the first time—and getting to the mental place of wanting to bulk by starting to lift and then hitting a progress wall—was one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. It unlocked so many things for me, like detaching my personal value from my scale weight; learning I could really crush weights to smithereens in the gym; finding joy and utility in piecing together big bountiful meals and just eating them, instead of toying with the food to “feel my fullness.” As I said:
It was not even that many more calories (2,700 or so each day over three months; most sources will guide you toward a 10-20 percent surplus), but it meant lots of extra carbs and fats, cookies and ice cream every night. Best of all, it meant I crushed it in the gym every single session. Weights flew, I was rarely sore, and each time I got stronger. I did gain weight, but that was the goal; there are formulas for this, but I wasn’t aiming to gain more that ten or so pounds, knowing that only about half of that or less would be muscle, because people and especially women can’t gain muscle that quickly at all… And though for a long time I deeply hated my body, found things wrong with it, and felt like I could never fully wrangle it into submission, I never loved it more than when I’d thickened up with some glutes and delts. When I gave it food, it gave me strength, and I felt capable and solid, which was a better feeling than “thin and starved” ever was.
You can throw a rock online and hit a dozen people primly saying “I prefer to just maintain forever; I’m fine getting only a little stronger very slowly and keeping my figure.” Well, not me. I love to cultivate mass and unfold like an origami swan pulled from both ends into a bigger version of myself.
How to bulk and cut, and whether to bulk and cut, are topics of perennial debate online. Here’s where I fall: People definitely get stronger by bulking and then cutting. It’s far less clear you can get stronger by just hovering around maintenance and throwing yourself really hard at your weights. I’ve also yet to see a person who avoids bulking and cutting, but wants to get stronger, who doesn’t seem to be genuinely afraid of gaining weight. That’s their journey, but I think that’s a fear worth facing both for yourself and humanity, as I will get into here.
So what are we doing here?
You bulk to gain muscle and strength. You do this by:
- eating more than usual
- training harder than usual (note that the harder training is made possible, not torturous, and even glorious, by the eating-more-than-usual part)
The prevailing wisdom is that the best way to ensure muscle gain during a bulk is to eat at enough of a surplus that you will gain body fat alongside of it. Your personal capacity to gain muscle and strength in your lifetime is asymptotic; the more and longer you do it, the less capacity you have to add more, and the more overall weight you need to gain at once to add a little more muscle.
If you are just bulking for the first time, that means you probably have plenty of muscle-pounds in your future! The first time or two you bulk, the mass you cultivate may be 50/50 lean muscle and body fat. Several years into lifting and bulking/cutting cycles, it may be more like 10/90. After you bulk, you can cut to shed the gained body fat so you can start the process over. Most people are not able to add more than a few tens of pounds of actual lean muscle tissue in their lifetime than they already have.
Ya gotta eat
So okay, here come the numbers.