Building Muscle in a Caloric Balance vs. Bulking

Can you build muscle in a caloric balance, and how does it compare to bulking?

That’s what today’s question from Eskil is about:

Can you talk about the difference between building muscle while in a caloric balance vs. bulking? That is, being in a caloric surplus.

I answer this question in the video below, but if you’d rather read, you can skip to the transcript below the video.

The first obvious difference is that eating more calories has a general muscle-building effect.

Bulking Increases Your Muscle Growth throughout the Day

You might have heard about muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown. Those are the two constantly ongoing processes, in which your body’s muscle mass is being rebuilt, replaced and maintained. In a normal person that is in a caloric balance and who doesn’t train, the muscle protein synthesis and the muscle protein breakdown is equal at the end of the day. The persons muscle mass has neither increased or decreased. But if you add in strength training into the mix, the muscle protein synthesis suddenly is larger than the breakdown, and you start building muscle. If you also add extra calories, your muscle protein synthesis will increase even further above the rate of breakdown, and you will build more muscle, more quickly.

muscle growth

So, eating in a caloric surplus is definitely beneficial for your muscle growth. Not only in terms of general muscle protein synthesis throughout the day, but also in terms of your energy for training. If you eat more, then you will have more energy and glycogen available for training, enabling you to train harder. If you train harder, then you are also very likely to build more muscle as a result. So you get a double whammy of effects from eating more. Additionally, providing your body with a lot of calories, makes sure that your body has all the building blocks it needs to adapt to all the training you’re doing.

A potential drawback, however, depending on how you see it, is that being in a caloric surplus also increases the risk that you gain more body fat. Which, for most of us isn’t something we want.

A Caloric Surplus is Necessary for Growth

A final implication of being in a caloric surplus, is the obvious, but still often neglected fact, that it is necessary in order to increase your bodyweight. I often talk with skinny guys or girls, who would like to add 10 or 20 kilos of muscle to their frame, but they’re afraid of eating. They think that they can do that by staying “lean” and in a caloric balance. But guess what, if you want to go from a skinny 70 kilo, to a more muscled 90 kilo, then that is gonna require that you eat a whole lot of extra calories, for several months or even a year. There is no other way to do it.

If, on the other hand, you are already happy with your body weight as a general number, but you would like to increase your muscle mass while decreasing your body fat, then, staying in or close to a caloric balance while you keep training hard makes a lot more sense.

Thanks for the question, and good luck with building that muscle, Eskil!

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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.