Everyone knows you need to GOMAD (Gallon Of Milk A Day) to put on serious gains, brah!
But really, do you need to bulk in order to gain muscle?
Here is everyone’s favorite answer: it depends.
Here are some cases in which you *MIGHT* not need to bulk in order to put on muscle:
You have +30% body fat.
The more body fat you carry around, the less likely you are to need a caloric surplus. If it’s pretty high, you can even still put on muscle in a deficit. That’s because the fat on your body (fat is just stored energy) provides the calories needed to get stronger and put on muscle.
This only works at higher percentages, as eventually your body will want to maintain a certain level of energy storage and won’t delve into it so easily.
You are a complete novice to weight training
You’ve never done a push up or touched a barbell in your life? You’re probably going to put on some muscle regardless of what you do with your diet. In my experience training people, their weight tends to stay the same even though they notice that their size is changing. This won’t last forever! In fact, don’t count on it for very long at all.
You’ve been hugely muscular in the past and are just now getting back into it
You were a large, strong, and lean rugby player in high school, took time off of training in college. (No one is telling me to do it! Freedom!) Now you’ve got a job that allows you to go to the gym again. The body “remembers” and old gains usually come back faster than getting them brand new.
You won’t necessarily get back to exactly where you were without some serious effort, and much of this depends on how much time has lapsed between your “glory days” and when you start back up again.
So these are some very specific situations where you might not have to bulk to gain muscle.
For the rest of us, we’re going to have to be in a caloric surplus. After all, body weight boils down to calories in vs calories out and putting on muscle means adding body weight. That energy and that substance has to come from somewhere.
But this DOESN’T mean you have to go through those fluffy bulking seasons that are often seen of competitive bodybuilders and that bro that tries to spot you at 24 Hour Fitness. (Get off my back Chad, I’ve set the safety bars! Jeeze…)
The big questions are (1) How fast do you want it and (2) What are the trade offs you’re willing to have?
I want more muscle YESTERDAY!
You’re going to lose that six pack and have to start in on some big caloric surpluses and hard lifting. Start with adding about 500 calories a day (that is NOT a gallon of milk, by the way, more like a quart) and hitting some serious volume on your compound lifts. You will gain some body fat, but you’ll be putting on some muscle that you can reveal later in a caloric deficit cutting phase.
But I really like my 6 pack…
It’s gonna need a little better lighting to find, but if you’re willing to take the long road, you can do a series of mini bulks and cuts, with smaller caloric surpluses and deficits, to gain muscle over the course of years. Yes, years. These can be as short as a couple weeks high, a couple weeks low, back and forth.
Each person will have to experiment with this one a bit, because depending on how much muscle you already have, how much time you have to dedicate to lifting, and myriad other inputs, the finessing of this will be super individual. Whereas the previous style is more like taking a sledgehammer to your physique, this is more like using your fine motor skills to paint a teacup.