Bulking advice for hardgainers
By Fleur van Griensven
Stuffing your face all day long without getting fat seems like the ultimate dream for most people, right? For some people however, eating a lot with the purpose of gaining weight can be difficult. They have probably tried many things to get more calories in, but this resulted in a smaller amount of weight gain than they had hoped for. If you are one of those people, keep on reading here to find out which foods and tricks you can use to make your bulk a bit easier and more enjoyable:
This article might be a bit more practical than you are used to. I am not going to tell you what bulking is, the best way to do so in my opinion or whether you should bulk or cut. I might write a series of articles about bulking in the future if there is interest. For now, I just want to help by giving tips on how to make eating a lot of food easier if you are struggling to get your daily bulking calories in.
What is a hardgainer?
The term hardgainer is often used for people who find it difficult to gain weight and eat a lot of food. Sometimes there is confusion about the term hardgainer: it is thought that these people can’t gain as much weight as ‘normal’ people and are thus in a metabolic disadvantage for weight gain. This is not what is meant when someone is a hardgainer. These people can gain as much weight as everyone else. They just have more difficulty eating all the food they need to eat in order to gain weight. Often it is a lack of discipline to sustain a caloric surplus, so it is a psychological problem instead of a physiological one. That is also where the solution to this very simple problem seems to be: just eat more food and you will gain weight!
Why and when can bulking be difficult?
Simply saying eat more food to someone who is a hardgainer might not be the proper answer. There are many reasons why bulking can be more difficult for some than for others, thus recognizing them can help to counteract them.
I have listed down a few things that people encounter. This especially holds true when you bulk for a long period. Since the purpose of a bulk is to gain muscle (whilst keeping fat gain to a minimum), you will gain weight. This means that as you bulk longer your body needs more calories to simply maintain its increased weight as a result of the bulk. On top of that, you need to eat above maintenance calories or in a caloric surplus to gain muscle. So, as your weight increases you need to adjust your calories upward to maintain a caloric surplus and to continue gaining muscle.
Look below if you have encountered one of these problems whilst bulking yourself:
Feeling full or not hungry. As said before, you are basically ‘overfeeding’ your body whilst bulking. You are eating more calories than you need in order to use the extra calories for the process of muscle building and recovery. However, physiologically you can run into some struggles: not hungry, feeling full all day and as a result not wanting to eat all the food you should eat in order to be in a caloric surplus.
Busy all day, no time to make food or forgetting to eat. The number one answer you will get when you ask: ‘Why do you find bulking difficult?’ is going to be ‘I don’t have the time to prepare all the food’. Seriously? We live in a society where food is basically everywhere. No need to hunt for your own protein or bake your own bread. The next time you hear someone saying that they don’t have the time to make food, you just tell them to run to the nearest supermarket! Okay, no nonsense, but everyone is busy these days so it’s more a matter of making time to buy groceries or prepare meals if this helps you to keep up with a busy schedule.
High activity levels. There are also people with a very physically active job. Compare two men: one has a 9-5 job at the office and one works in the construction sector. They both have the same weight, height and age but completely different activity levels. The daily activity, or also called PAL (=Physical Activity Level), is taken into account when calculating maintenance calories. To calculate maintenance calories the BMR (=Basal Metabolic Rate) is multiplied by the PAL. This PAL will be anywhere between 1.40-1.69 for the man working at the office, since he is considered to live a sedentary lifestyle. The construction worker can have a PAL anywhere between 1.70-1.99 . If their BMR is 1800 kcals, it gives a minimum maintenance calories of 2520 kcals for the man working at the office and 3060 kcals for the construction worker. This is a difference of 540 kcals. Making use of PAL for calculating maintenance calories will probably be a good starting point, but it might needs some tweaks here and there to find out your own true maintenance calories. To get back to the point, high activity levels can result in an increased energy expenditure and therefore require a higher food intake. This can lead to a lot of extra food that needs to be eaten, which can be difficult if you’re extremely active at work.
Unconsciously being more active. Maybe you have noticed it yourself during a bulk: pace up and down (in Dutch: ijsberen) whilst waiting for the train and not being able to sit still for a second. Even small movements with your hands/feets, that you probably aren’t conscious of, are part of this. These movements and all the energy expended for every action that does not belong to sleeping, eating or exercise are called NEAT (=Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). Physiological studies demonstrate that NEAT is modulated with changes in energy balance: NEAT increases with overfeeding and decreases with underfeeding .
A study done by Levine et al. concluded that an unconscious increase in NEAT explains why some individuals can purposely increase daily energy intake above maintenance (1000 caloric surplus for 8 weeks in this study) and still experience a lack of weight gain. Without them knowing they get more active during the day and thus partly cancel the targeted caloric surplus .
Which foods make bulking easier?
Lower volume or foods with a high energy density. Energy density, that is the calories in a given weight of food, could affect satiety by influencing the rate at which nutrients reach receptors involved in satiety . Eating foods with a high energy density, that contain a lot of calories per 100 g of product, helps reducing the amount of food consumption required for a given level of energy intake . This comes in handy for hardgainers who can make use of eating high energy dense foods. Most of these high-energy dense foods are considered not to be rich in nutrients like minerals, vitamins and fibers and thus considered to contain ‘empty calories’. Realize that it is not so black and white and that not all energy-dense foods are bad for you. Even though one particular food might not be the healthiest option or contain a lot of nutrients, you still have to look at the diet as a whole. A few high energy dense foods are: deep-fried foods, pasta, full fat cheese, nuts and seeds.
Making foods liquid or making shakes. There are weight gainers on the market these days, but it is also simple to make shakes high in calories yourself. These homemade shakes can be full of nutrients, among which complex carbs, healthy fats and fiber. For example, you can use oats, (full)milk, whey protein as a basis and additionally add fruits, avocado, peanut butter or even olive oil if you are a real diehard. The evidence that liquids are truly less satiating than solid foods remains inconclusive, so more research is needed . You can find out for yourself if you feel less satiated when consuming liquid calories instead of solid foods.
Foods high in (healthy) fat. As a macronutrient, fats are relatively energy dense with 9 kcals per gram in comparison to 4 kcals per gram for both carbs and protein. They therefore are a great addition to your bulking diet. A few foods high in (healthy) fat are listed below:
Full dairy products: these products often contain a high amount of saturated fatty acids, also called SFA’s. Those SFA’s do have a bad reputation these days. However, saturated fats are probably not as bad for our health as thought. A review performed by Lawrence and colleagues revealed that dietary saturated fatty acids (SFAs) are not associated with CAD (=Coronary Artery disease, which could result in heart failure) and other adverse health effects. At worst saturated fats are weakly associated in some analyses when other contributing factors may be overlooked. Several recent analyses indicate that SFAs, particularly in dairy products and coconut oil, can improve health . We can’t conclude that saturated fats are 100% sure not bad for our health because there still is a lot of research going on. It seems that saturated fat in dairy products isn’t so bad, but no recommendations can be made yet.
More foods which are high in (healthy) fat:
-Nuts or nut butters.
-More than 70% cacoa chocolate.
Carbohydrates. They are the main energy source of a diet . How many carbohydrates you can consume before it becomes not that healthy is dependent on the situation. A diet which is high in sugar is probably not beneficial for your health . Some key points to keep in mind whilst bulking: limit the amount of sugar, consume enough fibre and don’t overshoot on calories.
Next to this, research indicated that carbohydrates are less satiating than protein . Consuming extra protein when protein requirements are fulfilled is thus not smart. You are probably better of eating these calories in the form of carbohydrates or fats. Another argument for not consuming excessive protein is that the TEF (=Thermic Effect of Food) is the highest for protein. This is the amount of energy needed to digest and absorb food. Since the TEF is the highest for protein, they are the hardest to digest .
There are way too many carbohydrates to sum up here, but one thing that I really like to eat when bulking are dried fruits. Raisins, figs, dates and apricots can be a great addition to your diet. Next to containing a lot of calories they do contain lots of vitamins (B1&B6), minerals (magnesium, iron, potassium, folic acid) and fiber.
Any other tips
As I said before, unconsciously being more active and thus burning a part or your whole caloric surplus can be easily tackled. Make yourself conscious of doing this and don’t get your energy expended on NEAT if you have a hard time getting a lot of calories in.
The same goes for doing cardio whilst bulking. True, numerous studies have shown that moderate to high levels of physical activity are protective against cardiovascular disease . However, cardio also burns calories depending on the time/duration/intensity and type of cardio performed. Hardgainers, who already struggle, are making it even harder for themselves. They thus need to eat the extra calories burned in order to be in the same caloric surplus at the end of the day.
Combining different products makes you able to eat more food . For example, when going out for a fancy 10 course dinner. After course 7 you are already full, but still got room for a dessert and coffee/tea with chocolate. Because you have been eating savory things, you can still eat a sweet dessert. You can also use this yourself, by making meals or even shakes where you combine sweet/savory/bitter products.
Next to that, the faster you eat the more you can eat before you will be satiated . There is a small delay in experiencing satiation. If you eat a soup half an hour before dinner, you will eat less of that meal compared to when you would only eat dinner. Thus when bulking, stop snacking just before having a meal!
There are hardgainers who think that they are gaining a lot of weight just because once in awhile they go all out and stuff their face with an enormous surplus of calories. They believe that they have consumed such an amount of food on this one day, that they also eat this much on a daily basis. It is something psychological which they are convinced of. Consuming occasionally an enormous surplus, also called binge eating, isn’t as effective as consuming a (small) daily caloric surplus. Have you ever tried drinking 5 protein shakes consecutively and 10 minutes later you find yourself on the toilet for the next hour? Still convinced that you have absorbed it all?
After reading this article, i hope you got some insight into why bulking can be more difficult for some than for others. Yes, eating a lot of food isn’t always easy. It is often more a psychological than a physiological problem which causes people not to gain the amount of weight they had hoped for during a bulk. I have listed some foods and gave some tips which will hopefully make your next bulk a piece of cake. Oh wait, with icecream and whipped cream of course, all for those extra calories which are more than welcome if you believe you are a hardgainer!
 Physical Activity level. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_activity_level. Retrieved on 4-11-2017.
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 Levine, JA et all. (1999). Role of non-exercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science. 283(5399), 212-4.
 Kissileff, H.R. et all. (1984). The satiating efficiency of foods. Physiology of Behavior. 32, 319–332.
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 Lawrence, G (2013). Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Adv. Nutr. 4, 294-302
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 College Regulatie van honger en verzadiging, WUR HNE-20306 Nutritional Behaviour.