Many people who desire more ab definition are reluctant to go into a bulking phase since this usually results in a higher body fat percentage, making the abdominal muscles less visible.
You may have less visible ab definition during a bulk, but a building phase is often necessary to build ab muscles that can later be revealed after a cutting phase when body fat percentage is lower. While you will likely lose ab definition in a bulk, a lean bulk can help minimize the amount of extra fat you gain.
It is important to note that if you do not take the necessary time to eat in a calorie surplus and build up your abdominal muscles for fear of increasing your body fat, it will be difficult for you to achieve the amount of muscle definition you desire.
In this article, I will discuss:
- Getting abs while bulking: is it possible?
- Can you bulk without losing your abs?
- Rules to follow to build your abs during a bulk
- What to do after your bulk to have visible abs
Getting Abs While Bulking: Is It Possible?
If you are eating in a calorie surplus (more calories than you need to maintain your current body weight) and properly training your abs, it is possible to achieve stronger, larger abdominal muscles. However, these muscles may not be visible during your bulking phase because your body fat percentage is increasing.
Although it might feel like you have “lost your abs” while in a bulking phase, rest assured that those muscles are still there, and they are likely getting bigger and stronger during your growth phase.
Once you have a strong abdominal foundation, you can reveal your muscle definition by reducing body fat through a calorie deficit, which I will discuss later.
Factors That Determine How Much Abdominal Muscle You Can Gain While Bulking
The amount of fat an individual gains during a bulking phase and where it is stored depends on a few factors such as:
- Your calorie surplus
- Your genetics
- Your starting point
1. Your Calorie Surplus
If you decide to enter a bulk where you consume significantly more calories than you normally maintain your weight on, you have a much higher likelihood of putting on excess body fat, resulting in less ab definition.
In this circumstance, it is highly unlikely that he could maintain very much ab definition. The longer he continues to dirty bulk, the less overall muscle definition he will have.
If he was on a dirty bulk for 12 weeks, he could gain 24-30lbs. This would be from a combination of muscle and fat, and it would be hard to maintain a lean enough figure to have visible ab definition with that much weight gain.
On the other hand, if this athlete wanted to avoid excess fat gain while still building muscle, he could try a lean bulk (i.e. carefully eating in a caloric surplus) and only eat 10-20% more than his maintenance calories. This would mean he could lean bulk on around 3080-3360 calories, or around 280-560 more calories per day.
This type of calorie surplus would still allow him to build up his abdominal muscles (when combined with proper weight training exercises) without putting on large amounts of excess body fat.
In this case, if this athlete was on a lean bulk for 12 weeks, he could gain 6 – 12lbs. He would still gain some fat, but it wouldn’t be as significant as it would be in a dirty bulk. This more reasonable weight gain approach would also allow him to maintain more abdominal muscle definition throughout his bulk.
- Related Article: Do Macros Matter for Bulking? (Yes, Here’s Why)
2. Your Gender and Genetics
Your gender, genetics, and how/where your body stores fat will also play a large role in the amount of ab definition you can maintain during a bulking phase. Certain individuals can maintain ab definition for longer since a person’s fat distribution is determined largely by their genetics and ancestry.
This can also affect what part of the body you will lose fat from first when you are in a cutting phase.
On the other hand, some people may naturally store very little fat in their abdominal area, making it more likely for them to maintain some ab definition even while in a bulking phase.
Also, since women are naturally meant to sit at a higher body fat percentage (14-20% for an athlete) compared to men (6-13% for an athlete), it might be unrealistic and even an unhealthy expectation for women to achieve the same level of lean ab definition as men.
The only way to truly know where you fall on this spectrum is through trial and error.
But if your goal is to strengthen your ab muscles even if you don’t have visible ab definition, a bulking phase is worth it regardless of how your body stores fat.
3. Your Starting Point
Maintaining ab definition during a bulking phase can also depend on what body fat percentage you start at. It is more likely that you can maintain more ab definition if you start with a lower body fat percentage versus if you start at a higher body fat percentage.
Similarly, if you are a male with a lean body fat percentage of between 8-12%, you will have an easier time seeing muscle definition in your abs even while bulking, compared to a male with a higher body fat percentage of 20% or more.
This factor is important to consider since not everyone will have the same starting point for their bulking phase. Therefore, you cannot expect to have the same outcome or results as someone else.
If you are starting at a very high body fat percentage (32% or higher for women and 25% or higher for men), you could consider doing a short cutting phase before entering a bulk.
Can You Bulk Without Losing Your Abs?
Although it might feel like you have lost your abs in a bulking phase, rest assured that they are still there and likely getting stronger. However, your abs could go into hiding, depending on how much body fat you gain in your torso during your bulk.
As mentioned above, how much body fat you put on during a bulk will largely depend on the size of your calorie surplus and your genetics.
However, more muscle definition is typically the reward you reap after you have spent time in a bulking phase (building up the abdominal muscles) and follow it up with a cutting phase (reducing body fat to reveal the hard-earned muscle).
If your goal is to maintain as much ab definition as possible during your bulk, your best bet is to embark on a lean bulk where you only eat 10-20% more than your maintenance calories and fill these calories with mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
Rules To Follow To Build Your Abs During a Bulk
Here are 5 rules to follow to build your abs successfully during a bulk:
- Train your core muscles frequently with both high and low reps
- Engage your core during non-abdominal exercises
- Include progressive overload
- Eat adequate amounts of protein
- Avoid processed, high-sodium foods
1. Train Your Core Muscles Frequently With Both High and Low Reps
If your goal is to improve your ab definition, you should train your core muscles frequently. Training your abdominals around 2-3 times per week should be enough to see results without overtraining this muscle group.
An easy way to do this is to add 2-3 of your favorite ab exercises to the end of your workouts. This is likely all you will need to do if you also engage your core during other exercises, which I will explain in the next rule.
A few bodyweight and weighted ab exercises you can add to your workouts are:
- Plank and/or side plank
- Russian Twist
- Leg Raise
- Ab Wheel Rollout
- Medicine ball twists with 5-10lb medicine ball
- Cable oblique crunch
- Cable isometric hold
For bodyweight ab exercises, I recommend a higher rep range of 15-20. For weighted ab exercises, try a lower rep range of 8-10.
While you can include very high rep ranges for ab exercises (such as performing 50 sit-ups), you don’t want to compromise your form during these high reps.
Since form tends to deteriorate with a high rep range, I recommend performing all ab exercises with good form in the 15-20 rep range.
2. Engage Your Core During Compound Exercises
In addition to the intentional ab exercises you can add to your workouts, you should also engage your core during compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, and shoulder presses.
While these exercises do not directly target your abs, they can be highly effective at strengthening your stabilizing muscles. The ab muscles that are responsible for stability are the rectus abdominus, the internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominus.
3. Include Progressive Overload
Progressive overload during your training is a great way to ensure you do not hit a plateau with your muscle growth. Progressive overload involves gradually increasing the stress (or weight) on a particular muscle group over time.
Another example is to increase the length that you hold a full-body plank. If you are able to hold a plank for 30 seconds, shoot for a 1-minute hold the next week, and continue with this progression.
4. Eat Adequate Amounts of Protein
Maintaining a higher protein intake during a clean bulk is another great way to reduce the amount of body fat you put on, making it easier to maintain your ab definition.
Protein is the most thermogenic macronutrient, meaning it burns the most calories while the body digests it. I recommend eating roughly 30-40% of your calories from protein to minimize fat gain as much as possible.
Furthermore, getting your protein from various sources will help ensure you get all the 9 essential amino acids your body requires to build muscle properly.
Good examples of complete protein to include in your diet are:
- Red meat
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Whey protein powder
For more ideas, definitely check out my other article where I list the top 50 highest protein foods per 100 grams.
5. Avoid Processed, High-Sodium Foods
The types of foods you eat while bulking can impact your muscle definition since certain foods can make you retain more water, reducing ab definition.
Similarly, highly processed foods typically contain higher amounts of sodium, which can impact water retention. When you consume too much salt, you will hold on to more sodium, causing the body to retain excess water.
Eating a diet that mostly consists of whole, unprocessed foods even while bulking can ensure you don’t overdo your sodium intake. Current guidelines suggest that the average adult should try to consume less than 2300 mg per day, or less than 1 teaspoon of salt.
What To Do After Your Bulk to Have Visible Abs
After you have built up your abdominal muscles in a bulk, it’s time to reveal all of your hard work by reducing your body fat in a cutting phase for 2-4 months.
The steps that you should take after your bulk to reveal your abs are:
- Re-establish your maintenance calories
- Determine your calorie deficit
- Calculate your macronutrient split
- Enhance your calorie deficit by adding in more cardiovascular exercise
1. Re-establish Your Maintenance Calories
After you have been in a calorie surplus, it is important to re-establish your new maintenance calories since they will have likely changed since before your bulk.
This is because the number of calories your body burns in a day (total daily energy expenditure or TDEE) will increase as your body weight increases.
To determine your maintenance calories, you can simply enter your personal information such as your height, weight, age, gender, and activity level into an online calculator like this one here.
2. Determine Your Calorie Deficit
After determining your maintenance calories, you can determine an appropriate calorie deficit for your goals. In order to achieve a weight loss of around 0.5-1lb per week, I recommend a calorie deficit of 250-500 calories per day.
I do not recommend exceeding a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. Eating significantly under your maintenance calories is unsustainable and can result in negative side effects such as low energy, poor sleep, food obsession, constipation, and even hormone imbalance.
3. Calculate Your Macronutrient Split
Although the main component of achieving weight loss is to ensure you are in a calorie deficit, it is also beneficial to track your macronutrient intake and eat a proper balance of protein, carbs, and fats.
In particular, eating enough protein during a calorie deficit is beneficial since protein is critical for maintaining muscle mass. This is important if your goal is to retain all of the hard work you did to build your ab muscles during your bulk.
A good macronutrient split to follow during your cutting phase is around 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat. If you wanted to opt for a slightly higher protein intake, you could try a macro split of 35% protein, 40% carbs, and 25% fat.
4. Enhance Your Calorie Deficit by Adding in More Cardiovascular Exercise
Finally, to enhance your calorie deficit even further, try incorporating moderate amounts of cardiovascular exercise into your current workout routine. The exact amount of cardio needed will depend on the individual, but there are a few factors to consider.
Note that you do not need large amounts of strenuous cardio during your cutting phase. In fact, some studies have shown that doing too much cardio could have disadvantageous effects on your muscle mass.
When incorporating cardio, add it in slowly to ensure you aren’t overdoing it and burning off hard-earned muscle.
What To Read Next
- Can You Build Muscle With A Bad Diet? (Our Honest Answer)
- Building Muscle Without Supplements: Is It Possible?
- Can You Build Muscle Without Vegetables? (What Science Says)
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Carbone, J. W., & Pasiakos, S. M. (2019). Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit. Nutrients, 11(5), 1136. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051136
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About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.