Most people struggle to lose fat, and most diet advice is focused on weight loss. Some of us, however, have the opposite problem (or even both).
Eating enough to gain weight can be hard for many people, especially if you’re simultaneously burning a lot of calories through exercise, and also trying to gain muscle (or mostly muscle) and keep fat gain to a minimum.
For many people, this can mean eating an extra 500–1,000 calories a day above maintenance, all while keeping junk to a minimum, eating mostly clean, and somehow not eating until you feel sick.
How to Put Yourself In a Calorie Surplus to Build Muscle
1. Remember to Calorie Cycle
You want to know how people put on muscle without getting fat? It comes down to three things: training volume, the size of their caloric surplus, and nutrient timing.
Training volume simply means lifting a lot of weights. Bulking takes roughly three times as much resistance training volume as maintaining muscle mass.
As for your caloric surplus, it should be about 200–300 calories a day. However, that surplus is beyond what you burn, and you have to take into account the additional calories burned by exercising more. So again, your total caloric intake usually has to go up at least 500 calories during a bulk, and for big people with very high training volumes, that may be closer to 1,000 calories.
Finally, there’s the timing of your calories. After a resistance training session, muscle protein synthesis is elevated for a while — usually at least 24 hours, but often closer to 48 hours. However, it's the most elevated for the first 12 hours or so.
That means that most of your extra calories should be eaten during the next two meals after a weight training session, when those calories are most prone to be absorbed by your muscles. In fact, when it’s been more than 24 hours since your last workout, you shouldn’t be making any effort to eat more.
2. Make High-Calorie Protein Shakes
When you’re not feeling hungry, it’s a lot easier to consume liquids than it is to consume solid foods. A daily protein shake is a great way to get more protein in your diet, but for bulking purposes you’ll want to add more calories. One of the easiest ways to do that is by adding peanut butter or almond butter.
Here’s an example of a high-calorie protein shake recipe that you can use to bulk up:
- 2 cups of whole milk
- 2 tablespoons of almond butter
- 1 serving of greens powder
- 2 scoops of whey/casein protein powder blend
- (optional) 1 tablespoon of chocolate syrup
- (optional) 1–2 teaspoons of cinnamon
- (optional) 3–4 ice cubes
This comes in at somewhere around 700–1,000 calories, and is less filling (and for a shorter time) than an equivalent whole food meal would be.
3. Snack on Trail Mix
Trail mix tends to be high in calories, and is also ready to eat and easy to carry around with you. Snacking on trail mix between meals is an easy way to add a few hundred extra calories to your day.
Not all trail mix is equally palatable however, and many people find nuts hard to eat in large quantities. Trail mix that includes dried fruit and M&Ms tends to be easier to eat, as it mixes sweet and salty flavors and requires less chewing. Getting a bag of this type of trail mix and keeping it with you throughout the day (remember: only during the 12 hours or so after a workout) makes it easy to sneak in a few extra between-meal calories.
4. Get Saucy
High-calorie sauces and condiments are a sneaky source of calories that those trying to burn fat need to be careful to avoid. When you’re bulking, however, they can be a useful tool.
Here are a few sauces and condiments that you can add to your foods to sneak in an extra hundred or so calories per meal:
- Teriyaki sauce
- Orange sauce
- Alfredo sauce (or other creamy Italian sauces)
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
5. Use Variety to Your Advantage
Here’s a scenario you’ll be familiar with: You’re nearing the end of the meal, and you’re “not hungry” anymore. (Not for the main course, anyway.) But you could still have some fruit. And you definitely want some cake, even though you’re “full” when it comes to steak and vegetables.
This is known as the variety effect, and studies show that people eat more when their meal includes different items with different sensory characteristics — tastes, textures, consistencies, and so forth.
In fact, most people instinctively understand this and expect to eat more if a meal has a greater variety of foods in it.
Are you having steak and vegetables? Add a baked potato, and maybe a sweet glaze to those vegetables to consume more calories. Eating macaroni and cheese? Have some fruit with it. A bowl of chili? Have some carrot sticks dipped in ranch with it, and end the meal with a cupcake for dessert.
It does take a bit more work, but you can make yourself eat more food in a given meal by simply adding more — and more varied — dishes to that meal.