Nutrition and diet for quality gains – patience will pay off

Contributed by Yongdan Tang, PhD.

Many people think bulking is easier than cutting: just eat more till you drop! But it isn’t that simple.

Quality bulk – slow bulk or lean gains

There are essentially 3 types of bulking:

  1. A ‘dirty’ bulk where you don’t monitor your calories and fat gains, and aim for the fastest weight gain possible.
  2. A slow bulk where you aim for about a 50:50 gain in fat and muscle with a moderate rate of overall weight gain.
  3. Lean gain method which can be painfully slow to some but maintains reasonably low body fat % and definition.

This writer proposes that a quality bulk should either be a slow bulk or lean gain for the following two reasons:

  1. You’ll have to lose the extra fat gained during the dirty bulk eventually, if the goal is an aesthetic physique.
  2. Uncontrolled fat gain will eventually jeopadize body composition for further muscle gain; especially when BF% crosses the 15% line for men and 25% line for women, due to nutrition partitioning which we discussed earlier.

Maintenance after cut and control rate of weight gain 

After a successful cut, there is normally a transition phase when we can apply either a reverse diet or a recovery diet (recently proposed by the renowned coach team 3DMJ).

For recreational lifters, our BF % rarely goes below 8% (learn how how to measure BF%). Hence, the recovery diet isn’t really necessary. Instead, have 3-4 weeks as a transition to skillfully find back your maintenance calories so as to lay a solid foundation for the next phase of gains.

Next, determine the rate of weekly average weight gain, which is normally 1% of the body weight. Novice lifters can aim for 1.5% as they can enjoy some ‘newbie gains’. Translate that into the calories and macros needed for the gains. For slow bulk, 1lbs of body weight gain per month requires roughly 200Kcal addtional calories a day. This is really much less than what most people expect for gains. One big Cornetto Cone (about 270Kcal) and you are over the caloric target! If the goal is really lean gain, this writer recommends adding small increments from daily maintenance calories at 50Kcal or 100Kcal a day, until you stop progressing in the gym.

So, yes, you can eat all you please for gains. But most of that will be fat, not muscle!

Protein – not always ‘the more, the merrier’

Contrary to conventional wisdom, less protein is actually needed during the bulking phase compared to the cutting phase. Studies have shown that 0.8g – 1g / lbs lean body mass protein intake is sufficient for anabolism. Not to say higher protein intake is harmful – it’s just unnecessary. There are still debates on what constitutes ‘too high’. But the idea is if you weigh 60kg (or 132 lb)s and are in a caloric surplus, and you’re hitting 200g of protein a day as dicated by some cookie-cutter diet plans, there are better places to spend your hard-earned money. Furthermore, the same ‘fullness’ we used during the cutting phase by ingesting more protein and the TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) of protein may actually become obstacles for one to hit required caloric intake if the person has a small appetite.

IIFYM / flexible dieting

IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) a.k.a flexible dieting is not bulking diet specific. But it’s a way to make the whole nutrition and diet plans more sustainable and enjoyable, thereby increasing the likelihood of long term compliance. The key is to focus on the nutritional needs our bodies have to help us recover from training and build quality mass. Macros are the second tier on the nutritional pyramid, but that doesn’t mean the rest are not important. Calories are not created equal. Cookies and sugary desserts are okay, as long as they are not the 80% to hit the carbs and fat targets. Vice versa, varieties can be much more than just chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli; as long as the macros can be quantified. And the caloric surplus during the bulking phase entitles us to enjoy small treats like ice creams, cakes, laksa or nasi lemak from time to time. Just remember to apply the 80/20 rule.


Yongdan holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and built a career in the healthcare and medical industries. He began weight lifting 15 years ago, and has successfully set up diets and training plans.