Skip to main content

Winter is coming, and that means bulking season: Here’s how to get those gains

Colder weather doesn't mean you have to go into hibernation: We'll show you how to bulk up for winter

For dedicated fitness enthusiasts — particularly those into bodybuilding or otherwise extensive physical training — life tends to be broken into two phases: cutting and bulking. The former involves focusing one’s efforts on losing fat, while the latter emphasizes adding muscle. Many people enter a cutting phase right before summer, i.e. swimsuit season, in order to look good once it’s time to shed excess clothing. A bulking phase, on the other hand, tends to come during winter, when more clothing and holiday food-fests contribute to a heftier physique.

With winter on the way, we’re here to show you how to bulk up. It’s not difficult, but doing so effectively does require a handful of specific tactics. If you’re wondering how to build muscle while you’re cooped up inside during the winter, keep reading to find out the secrets.

Lifting heavy.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Lift heavy

When you’re bulking, your goal is to pack on as much muscle as possible. That means you need to lift as heavy as possible, which will force your body to adapt to the weight load.

When you lift weights, your muscles experience a series of microtears. As your muscles cycle through healing these tears, greater mass is gained as your body attempts to prepare you for future loads. The more weight you lift consistently, the more your body will be pushed to accommodate. The end result: Muscle growth.

Your goal, therefore, should be to lift as much weight as possible, even if that means decreasing repetitions. When benching to bulk, for example, instead of performing three sets of 10 repetitions at 60–80% of your lifting capability, aim for maxing out your lifts at 90% or more of your capacity for two to six repetitions.

You also need to achieve progressive overload, which means progressively lifting heavier and heavier weights. This can be achieved merely by adding a handful of pounds to a lift every few gym sessions.

Foods high in iron.

Eat more

If your body is going to heal all those microtears, it needs to be properly fueled. That means eating. A lot.

How much you eat doesn’t have to be a guessing game. There’s a fairly precise science to it that involves eating a calorie surplus rather than a deficit. With a deficit, you eat less than your body’s caloric maintenance rate, which is how many calories your body requires to maintain its present fat and muscle composition. With a surplus, on the other hand, you’re eating more calories than your body needs so that it has plenty of calories to fuel muscle development.

There are a lot of calorie calculators out there that will help you determine how much you should be eating to either cut or add calories. More challenging can be determining how many calories you’re actually eating on a daily basis. The old-fashioned method involves simply tracking what you eat via pen and paper and totaling up how many calories you’re taking in each day. These days, there are a number of apps that can make this easier, with myfitnesspal being one of the most popular.

You can also use fitness trackers to determine how many calories you’re taking in versus how many calories you’re burning through exercise and other activities. The accuracy of these trackers can vary greatly, but we’ve found that the Garmin Venu 2 Plus delivers consistently solid results.

aerobic cardio gym equipment.

Do less cardio

Cardio is a fantastic way to burn excess calories, but when your goal is to take in an overabundance of calories, too much cardio can diminish your muscle gains. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform cardio at all — it delivers plenty of important health benefits. It just means you should consider reducing it, especially if you typically perform it right before lifting weights. You need all the energy you can for achieving the heavy lifts we’ve already touched on, and you can’t do that if you’re already worn out from a heavy cardio session.

If you normally perform cardio four to five days per week, trim it down to two or three. It’s not a bad idea to shorten those reduced cardio sessions as well.

A man sleeps on a set of My Sheets Rock regulator bed sheets.
My Sheets Rock

Sleep lots

You don’t gain muscle in the gym. As we’ve already discussed, you actually break down your muscles in the gym. You build muscle while sleeping, when all those microtears have the opportunity to heal.

That means getting a solid night’s sleep, especially after a particularly hard gym session. Accomplishing this means different things for different people — going to bed early, meditation, CBD or other sleep-supporting supplements, and so on. Basically, make sure you give your body plenty of opportunity for recovery.

Many lifters use caffeine supplements to boost their performance in the gym. While this can be a fantastic way to add some oomph to your workout, it can disrupt your sleep. If you use caffeine, be sure to schedule your workouts for earlier in the day well before bedtime.

Fish fillets, chicken meat, and red meat on top of distressed white cutting boards along with nuts, cheese, dairy, and eggs.
Tatjana Baibakova / Shutterstock

Get plenty of protein

It’s no secret that your muscles need protein to grow. How much protein you need can be trickier to understand.

While there are wide-ranging formulas for how much protein is the optimal amount, a good rule of thumb for beginners is to shoot for one gram of protein for every one pound of current body weight. So if you weigh 145 pounds, you should be eating at least 145 grams of protein per day.

Once you start tracking your diet, you’ll find that this can be easier said than done. That’s a lot of protein. So your goal should be to eat plenty of high-protein foods like meat, seafood, beans, broccoli, yogurt, and cheese. Protein supplements can also be extremely helpful while bulking.

A guy getting his gains.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Be mindful

While your goal should be to eat a surplus, that doesn’t mean loading yourself up on an endless diet of garbage. Theoretically, at the end of your bulk you’ll cycle into a cutting phase to eliminate some of the fat you’ll inevitably gain while loading up. That’s extremely hard to accomplish if you’ve accumulated a mere handful of gained muscle-pounds alongside a truckload of fat.

So eat a surplus, but don’t go nuts. A surplus of 300 to 500 calories per day will deliver steady gains, but two or three times that will likely result in nothing more than massive fat increases. That means you should watch how surpluss-y your surplus gets, but also keep an eye on the types of food you’re eating. Lean protein is better than a huge, greasy burger. Baked and seasoned broccoli is better than a bag of potato chips.

Gaining muscle, just like losing fat, is largely a question of making wise dietary choices.

Editors' Recommendations

Nick Hilden
Nick Hilden is a lifestyle and culture writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Afar…
How to get in ‘golf shape’ in 30 days (or less!)
Follow these workout tips to get in better shape for golf in 30 days!
A person hitting a shot on the golf course.

While it may not seem as strenuous as other, more intensive sports such as basketball and soccer, golf requires a lean and fit body in order to perform optimally. With famous professional golfers such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, it’s no wonder why some people aspire to have bodies like theirs.

Whether you’re aiming to be a professional (or at least a frequent) golfer or you just want to have the physique of one, here are some ideas of how to get in “golf shape” in 30 days! 
Important components of workouts for golfers

Read more
Do you have winter blues? Try these 12 tips to get a serotonin boost
How to increase serotonin and ditch winter blues: 12 tips to getting a much-needed serotonin boost
man with beanie on in the cold

If you've ever moved from an area with two seasons (summer and more summer) to one with four, you know the cold, dark winter days can be a shock to the system. Sure, being able to embrace pumpkin spice lattes and freshly-fallen snow makes for seasonal fun. However, it can start to feel like it's more than a winter coat weighing you down after a while.

The exact cause of "winter blues," formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but lower production of serotonin is thought to be one potential reason. The production of serotonin, the "happy hormone," is triggered by factors like warmth, sunlight, socialization, and physical activity, all things that get a little harder to come by when the snow starts to fall. There are ways to get a serotonin boost — even if you don't have opportunities to attend traditional cultural festivals. Here's how to increase serotonin and decrease winter blues.

Read more
How much protein do you really need? Here’s how to calculate it
Whether you're building muscle or just getting your daily energy needs, here's how much protein you should eat
Making a protein shake

If you were to survey people about the most important macronutrient, you will likely find that most people will answer protein. Although there are important benefits of all three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats — and some unique functions of each, protein certainly plays numerous physiological roles that neither fats nor carbohydrates can replicate. 
For this reason, it's important that your diet contains enough proteins for your body size and activity level, but how much protein do you really need? How do you calculate your protein requirements? In this article, we will briefly discuss protein's many roles in the body, daily protein recommendations for adults, and how to calculate how much protein you need to eat in a day.

Why is it important to eat protein?

Read more