We’ll never call it easy, but bulking up is possible. Many fitness buffs will cycle times of bulking up in muscle with burning fat—thus revealing the muscle they’ve worked so hard for. It’s not easy, but it is doable to put on muscle without adding unwanted fat. Taylor Newhouse, a registered dietitian with the Texas A&M School of Public Health, breaks down what you need to do if you’re trying to add pounds while keeping your body fat percentage low.

Eat more 

Don’t get too excited, but yes, the number-one way to put on mass is to eat more. If you’re trying to get a higher number on the scale while keeping a healthy physique, what you eat is extremely important.

“The easiest way to put on weight, whether it’s muscle or fat, is to increase calories,” Newhouse said. “If you consume enough protein, carbohydrates and good fats, and you work out regularly, then most of the time those calories will help build muscle. You build muscle by strength-training workouts. If your intake of calories increases without working out, it will likely be stored as fat.”

Although it may be tempting to take this opportunity to grab fast food during your lunch period, it’s important to make quality choices while increasing the quantity.

“It’s always wise to choose the healthier options; your workouts don’t give you a pass to eat unhealthy foods,” Newhouse said. “You can afford to have more calories, but bad fat is still bad fat, and sodium is still sodium.”

If you’re trying to bulk up generally, adding more to your plate is essentially steps one and two, but if you’re trying to do this in a precise way, you’ll still need to make sure your diet is well-rounded.

“You want half your plate to be vegetables, a quarter of it protein, and quarter to be healthy carbs, such as whole grains or lentils, and some fruit on the side,” Newhouse said. “Just because you are eating more, doesn’t mean you should eat worse.”

Know the numbers

There are a bunch of different numbers that could help you, whether you’re trying to bulk up, cut weight or just be healthy in general. Knowing your calorie goal, body mass index (BMI), body composition or macronutrient portions could make achieving your goal much easier. In order to get these numbers, it’s best to go to a professional.

“If you don’t go see a dietitian, one that specifically focuses on sports nutrition, you may not be getting the full picture of what you need,” Newhouse said. “Some sports facilities may offer these services. You should get a good description of where you are, and where you want to be, and then build your diet around that.”

Still, if a sports nutritionist isn’t available in your area, technology may be able to help. There are several different smartphone apps, such as MyFitnessPal and MyPlate Calorie Tracker, that could help you keep track of your calories or macronutrient intake, and Newhouse offers some tips to get started.

“One pound is 3,500 calories,” Newhouse said. “If you’re increasing or decreasing your intake by 500 calories every day, you’ll end up gaining or losing one pound by the end of the week.”

Another good start to bulking is to keep a 40:30:30 ratio of protein to carbs to fat (unless otherwise specified by your health care provider or dietitian).  If you do this, it’s best that you get a food scale and a food journal to help track what you eat.

Don’t skimp on your workouts

If you’re eating more, you’re going to put on more weight, but if you want to make sure that that mass is more muscle than fat, then you’re going to have to utilize some strength training. If you’re using bathroom scale or your BMI to track your progress, you may not be seeing the full picture.

“The goal of bulking up is to add muscle mass,” Newhouse said. “If you’re eating more without adding strength training to your regimen, then you’re risking just converting the excess calories into fat.”

Also, if you’re doing a particularly strenuous workout, it’s best to fuel up with a pre-workout snack and post-workout recharge to keep your energy levels high. Despite all the bad publicity carbohydrates may get, they are a necessary for a well balanced diet.

“Think of carbohydrates as fuel,” Newhouse said. “You want to fuel a bit before a workout to make sure that you can give your best effort, and you want to fuel up after your workout because your body is in need of energy.”

Be sure to choose complex carbohydrates—such as oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa and lentils instead of simple carbohydrates—such as white bread, white rice and baked goods. Complex carbohydrates are more difficult for the body to break down and offer vital nutrients to the body during the metabolic process. Simple carbohydrates are easily broken down and cause a spike in blood sugar and don’t offer as many nutritional benefits compared to their complex counterparts.

Newhouse recommends 100 calories of carbohydrates per hour before a workout to make sure that you don’t go into a workout bloated, and as a workout recovery, she recommends a childhood classic. “One of the best post-workout snacks is chocolate milk,” Newhouse said. “It has plenty of carbohydrates and protein that are perfect for replenishing tired muscles.”

Don’t go in alone

Food science can be a very complex subject, especially if you’re trying to bulk up—or cut weight—properly. Before you make any lifestyle changes, it’s best to clear it with a health care provider. “If you have any questions, talk to your health care provider before you make any drastic changes to your diet or workout regimen,” Newhouse said. “Dietitians can be great, but search for someone with a certification in sports nutrition if you want to bulk up or cut weight efficiently.”

Also, if you’re looking for added help from your local drug store, be sure to do your research before you buy any enhancements. “Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” Newhouse said. “Talk to your dietitian or health care provider about any potential supplement use. Just because it’s an expensive supplement, doesn’t mean it’s the best quality.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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