Is Bulking Healthy? Pros and Cons

By  //  July 17, 2021

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Bulking is the offseason phase in bodybuilding, which refers to athletes eating in a calorie surplus. This is done to gain more muscularity, albeit with some fat accumulation.

Following this a bodybuilder will perform a ‘cutting’ phase, where the goal is to strip fat/retain muscle. 

At the end of each of these phases, a bodybuilder will have more muscularity, at the same body fat percentage (thanks to the initial bulking phase). 

Thus, we know that when a bulk is performed correctly it is effective for enhancing muscular strength and hypertrophy and improving body composition (in the long term). 

But, is bulking healthy? And are there any drawbacks to such protocols? Below are some of the physiological effects bulking can have on the body (both the good and bad). 

Fat Gain 

Eating in a calorie surplus is the number one rule when bulking. Although there is some evidence to suggest that small calorie surplus diets may not add any fat mass (in the short term), generally this isn’t the rule. 

Thus, bodybuilders sacrifice gaining some body fat in the short-term to look better in the long-term, due to increased muscle hypertrophy. 

Gaining fat is unlikely to cause any major fluctuations in health, if a person remains relatively lean or in a healthy body fat percentage range. 

However, if an individual eats in a large calorie surplus and gains a lot of weight fast, this can cause a rise in blood pressure. This can be exacerbated if the individual is consuming large amounts of saturated fat or salt. 

There have been several famous photos when Mr. Olympia bodybuilders gained large amounts of fat in the off-season; and it’s fair to say their cholesterol scores probably didn’t make for the best of reading.

Increased Sugar Intake

When calories get bumped up, sugar intake also typically increases. Especially in the off-season where fat gain is inevitable and cheat meals become a more regular occurrence. 

Sugar can cause increased inflammation in the body, as well as weakening the immune system and causing crashes in energy. This can make for lethargic workouts and increase the risk of diabetes, not to mention triggering potential anxiety or depression due to its stimulating properties. 

The level of sugar consumption will depend on whether someone is performing a ‘dirty bulk’ or a ‘clean bulk’. A dirty bulk will partly consist of junk foods, where a bodybuilder will enjoy their favourite treats. Whereas a ‘clean bulk’ will predominantly consist of lean meats, unrefined carbohydrates and unsaturated fats. In a clean bulk the main sugar source is likely to be in the form of fruits. 

Water Retention 

When a person overeats, fluid retention follows. This can be in the form of bloating and smoother/puffy looking muscles. The extent of this will depend on the exact calorie surplus and how small or great this is. 

Water retention generally is not healthy because it increases blood viscosity due to extra H2O content. This makes it more difficult for oxygen to reach the organs, thus the heart beats harder to combat this and provide optimal circulation around the body. 

One benefit to water retention is there will be additional weight gain, which can help increase muscular strength during workouts — similar to how creatine works (albeit that supplement too may come with adverse effects according to Insidebodybuilding.com). 

Luckily, when a person drops their calorie intake, this water will flush out and symptoms will cease. 

Healthy for CNS 

In 2021, many people suffer from overstimulated central nervous systems (CNS), due to high stimulant use (think caffeine and other drugs), as well as stress, lack of sleep and anxiety — more so than usual from the COVID pandemic. 

Overeating has a sedative effect on the nervous system, reducing cortisol production, a catabolic stress hormone. 

This in turn can increase serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter), and make you feel happier and a greater sense of well-being. 

Bulking may also improve sleep quality, due to a calmer mind and decreased bouts of insomnia. 

Joints 

Aggressive bulks can lead to aching joints, that can even be painful. 

Joint health is generally a common concern among weightlifters at the best of times, with heavy lifting providing ample stress. Combine this with a person suddenly carrying around a lot more weight, and lifting bigger poundages in the gym, and that person is more susceptible to wear and tear (including injury). 

To prevent any joint problems, ensure that weight is gained in a slower/gradual manner, compared to shoveling down 7,000 calories a day in the quest of outsizing The Mountain from the Game of Thrones. 

Supplementing with fish oil and being conscious about not lifting too heavy when bulking can also help to keep your joints healthy.