Reverse dieting and bulking are both gradual increases in calories, but they serve different purposes when it comes to optimizing our body composition.
Is reverse dieting the same as bulking? Reverse dieting and bulking are not the same. The goal of reverse dieting is to bring us out of a calorie deficit while maintaining close to our current weight and body fat percentage, while bulking is to gain weight by increasing the amount of mass we have by eating more calories than it takes to maintain our weight.
Knowing the key differences between reverse dieting and bulking is important so that we’re able to utilize both effectively to optimize our body composition.
After reading this article you’ll learn:
- The difference between reverse dieting and bulking
- What is reverse dieting, how to do it, and the pros & cons
- What is bulking, how to do it, and the pros & cons
Reverse Diet vs Bulking: 4 Differences
The difference between reverse dieting vs bulking are:
- Reverse Dieting Brings Us Up To Maintenance Calories
- Bulking Is Implemented To Gain Mass
- Reverse Dieting Can Produce Results Without Exercise
- Reverse Dieting Has An End Point
1. Reverse Dieting Brings Us Up To Maintenance Calories
The goal of reverse dieting is to bring us back up to maintenance calories (the number of calories it takes for us to maintain our weight), whereas the goal of bulking is to be above maintenance calories in a calorie surplus (more calories than our body needs).
2. Bulking Is Implemented To Gain Mass
Bulking is used by those whose current goal is to gain mass (mostly muscle), whereas reverse dieting is used by those who have dieted down to a new physique and just want to maintain it without gaining any additional mass.
3. Reverse Dieting Can Produce Results Without Additional Exercise
Reverse dieting protocols can be successful without incorporating additional exercise because its goal is to just slowly increase the number of calories that we’re taking in to encourage the body to start burning calories more readily.
Bulking requires a larger exercise component because even if we were to follow a nutritional protocol for bulking, without the exercise component we would not gain additional muscle mass (mostly just fat mass). To bulk effectively, we would need to keep presenting enough stimulus to the muscle to encourage them to continue to adapt.
4. Reverse Dieting Has An End Point
With reverse dieting, there will come a point where we can no longer increase our calories without gaining additional weight and this is because our metabolism has sped up as much as it can.
With reverse dieting, it’s more likely that our body tells us that the reverse diet is over because it cannot speed up our metabolism further. Therefore we must decide if we want to maintain, bulk, or cut from this point forwards.
Bulking does not have a concrete endpoint, instead, we typically decide to stop bulking once we’re satisfied with our results or we’re wanting a change of pace. Either way, we are deciding to stop our bulk, but we could continue if we wanted to.
Are you reverse dieting properly?
What Is Reverse Dieting?
Reverse dieting is a strategy to minimize fat gain while increasing calories following a period of dieting. This is a necessary step to maintain the progress that we’ve achieved while dieting because if we were to go back to “normal eating” right away, we would put on fat.
This is because our body is used to consuming fewer calories while dieting so our body adapts by slowing down our metabolism so that we’re burning fewer calories per day. Our metabolism slows down and burns fewer calories so that we can save the calories that are coming in for bodily functions (breathing, digestion, etc.).
If we increase our calorie intake too quickly, our body won’t be burning them fast enough so we would end up in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than our body needs), which would likely result in this excess energy being stored as body fat.
Instead, we want to increase our calories very slowly so that our body has time to adapt and start burning more calories again by speeding up its metabolism. This slow and steady approach would allow us to consume more food while minimizing fat gain.
The goal of reverse dieting is to get us back to a maintenance level of calories (the number of calories that allow us to maintain our weight) so that we can eat more food while maintaining the progress that we achieved while dieting.
- Boosts Metabolism
- Optimizing Body Fat Percentage
- More Calories With Minimal Weight Gain
- It Requires Patience
- It Is Often Disregarded
Want to learn more about starting reverse dieting? Check out my article on When To Start Reverse Dieting?
How-To Reverse Diet
Step 1: Determine Current Calorie & Macronutrient Intake
Before you can begin reverse dieting, you need to know how many calories you’re currently consuming and how much of each macronutrient (protein, carbs, fats) you’re been eating.
This gives you a starting point for where your metabolism is currently at so that when you increase your calories you know that it is actually bringing you up to your current maintenance.
If you aren’t already tracking your intake in a food tracker like Macro Factor, then I suggest plugging in at least 3 typical days of eating so that you can see approximately how much you’ve been consuming while in your deficit.
Related Article: Does Reverse Dieting Increase Metabolism? (Science-Backed)
Step 2: Determine Current Average Bodyweight
To start reverse dieting you need to know what your current body weight is. To figure this out you should find your average weekly bodyweight, by weighing in every day for a week or at least 3 days a week.
To find your average bodyweight, add all of the bodyweight measurements you have and divide the sum of these by the number of measurements you have. This will be your average body weight.
This week I weighed in 3 days and my weight was: 176.7, 176.2, 176.8.
- 176.7+176.2+176.8 = 529.7
- 529.7 / 3 measures = 176.6 is my average bodyweight that week.
Step 3: Decide On Fat Gain Tolerance (Low, Moderate, High)
You need to determine your fat gain tolerance by deciding how comfortable you are gaining some fat while reverse dieting.
If you want to gain as little fat as possible then you can set your tolerance to low and increase by 50 calories at a time.
If you are oaky with some fat gain if it means speeding up the process, then your fat gain tolerance would be moderate and you would increase your calories by 100 calories at a time,
If the fat gain isn’t a concern for you because you need to increase your calories as quickly as possible while still working with your body to boost your metabolism, then your fat gain tolerance is high and you will increase your calories by 150 calories at a time.
Step 4: Increase Calories Accordingly
Now that you’ve determined your starting point and your fat gain tolerance you can begin increasing your calories and allocating these calories to certain macronutrients.
The priority should be to get your protein intake equal to 1 gram per pound of your body weight. If your protein intake is currently above or equal to this, then you can allocate the additional calories to carbs and fats.
If your protein intake is below this recommended amount, then you need to allocate the additional calories towards increasing your protein intake until they are at 1 gram/lb BW.
Once protein intake is adequate, we can put the additional calories towards carbs and fats. Typically we will alternate carbs and fats when increasing intake, so that if you allocated the calories to carbs this week, then the next time you increase calories you allocate them to fats.
- Bodyweight: 160lbs
- Fat Gain Tolerance: Low (increasing 50 cals at a time)
- Current Calories: 1562
- Current Macros: 160 Protein, 100 Carb, 58 Fat
1562 current calories + 50 calories = 1612 calories for the upcoming week
Protein is already set to 1 gram per pound of body weight (160lbs = 160grams), so we can allocate this increase to carbs (and the next one to fats).
To determine how many grams of carbs the additional 50 calories are we can divide it by 4 because carbs have 4 calories per gram (protein also has 4 cals/gram, but fat has 9 cals/gram).
50 cals / 4 cals per gram = 12.5 grams of carbs, which I’ll round up to 13 grams.
So this week’s daily intake will be 1612 calories, 160 protein, 113 carbs, 58 fat.
Step 5: Monitor Daily Weight to Determine Average Weight Trend
While following these new targets for a week, you need to be able to assess how the increase in calories is affecting your body weight. To do this you need at least 3 bodyweight measures again so that you can determine your average body weight, which you will record throughout the week.
Step 6: Make Weekly Adjustments As Necessary
If you’re maintaining your weight, then you should increase your calories further based on your fat gain tolerance.
If you’re fat gain tolerance is low then increase your calories by 50 calories per day. If your fat gain tolerance is moderate, then increase your calories by 100 calories per day. If your fat gin tolerance is high, then increase calories by 150 calories per day.
If you’re losing weight, then increase your daily calories by 150 calories to ensure that you’re out of a calorie deficit and closer to maintaining your weight.
If your average weight indicates that you’re gaining around 1lb per week, then you may want to keep your calories the same if you have a higher fat tolerance. However, if your fat tolerance is low then you may want to decrease your calories by 50 calories per day. tolerance)
When increases in calories lead to larger increases in weight than desired even with 50 calorie increases, then we have reached the end of our reverse diet. At this point, our metabolism cannot speed up anymore.
Want to learn whether you should do a reverse diet? Check out my article Who Should & Should NOT Do Reverse Dieting.
Results To Expect From Reverse Dieting
With reverse dieting, we can expect to increase the number of calories we’re eating and influence our potential for fat gain based on the fat gain tolerance approach that we’ve selected.
If we chose low tolerance, then we can expect to stay relatively lean as our calories and metabolism increase. Our bodyweight should change by less than ½ a pound per week.
If we chose moderate tolerance, then we can expect to still have muscle definition but more body fat than we had initially started reverse dieting. Our bodyweight should fluctuate between ½ to 1 pound per week.
If we chose high tolerance, then we will likely have more body fat because of the speed at which we increased our calories. Our body weight should be around or slightly under 1 ½ pounds per week.
What Is Bulking?
Bulking is an effort to put on additional muscle mass by eating more calories than our body needs to provide us with additional calories to train more effectively in the gym, and encourage muscle growth.
By eating more calories than our body needs for bodily functions and activity, we have calories left over to put towards gaining additional muscle, which costs our body lots of energy.
If we were eating at maintenance calories (the number of calories our body needs to maintain weight) or in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than our body needs), then gaining muscle mass would be nearly impossible.
Bulking is not as simple as eating as much as possible, it is important to make sure that we’re eating the right nutrients in the right amounts to ensure that the mass that we are putting on is muscle mass and not fat mass.
Additionally, we need to ensure that we’re increasing our calories gradually as needed to see progress, because if we increase our calories too much too quickly then we are also more likely to put on fat than muscle.
The goal with bulking is typically to minimize fat gain while optimizing muscle gain, so the slow and steady approach that prioritizes protein before carbs and fats is important.
However, to bulk we cannot just rely on nutrition, we also need to have a plan in the gym that presents enough stimulus to our muscles to encourage them to adapt and become larger and/or stronger. Without this, we will not put on additional muscle mass even if we do everything correctly with nutrition.
- Increases The Odds Of Muscle Gain
- Can Minimize Fat Gain If Done Correctly
- Works In Combination With Strength Training
- Can Optimize Body Composition
- Could Easily Lead To Fat Gain
- Might Be More Food Than We’re Capable Of Eating
Step 1: Determine Bulking Calories
If you’ve been tracking your calories in a food tracker and you’ve been maintaining your weight, then you already know your maintenance calories (the number of calories it takes to maintain your weight), in which case you could add 100 to 300 calories to ensure you’re in a calorie surplus.
If you’re bulking more conservatively, then you could increase 100 calories above maintenance; or if you’re bulking more aggressively then you could increase by 300 calories.
If you don’t know how many calories you need to maintain your weight to find your bulking calories, then it’s best to estimate your bulking calories using the equations below. Calorie estimation calculations aren’t as accurate right off the bat, but you can make adjustments later on based on how your body weight changes.
To estimate your bulking calories you need to specify how active you are:
- Lightly active (active less than 3 hours per week)
- Moderately active (active for 3 to 7 hours per week)
- Very active (active more than 7 hours per week)
Based on our activity level we will get an activity modifier that we can multiply by our current body weight (in pounds), to give us an estimation of how many calories it takes to bulk.
- Lightly active: BW x 16 to 18 = calories per day
- Moderately active: BW x 18 to 20 = calories per day
- Very active: BW x 20 to 22 = calories per day
The modifiers are given in a range, so you can decide how aggressive you want to be with your bulk. The more aggressive you are, the more potential there is for fat gain along with muscle gain.
- If you’re going the slow and steady route to minimize fat gain, you’re going to want the lower number for your modifier (if lightly active, this would be 16).
- If you’re doing a moderate approach, then you’re going to want to take the median of the two numbers (if lightly active, this would be 17).
- If you’re doing an aggressive approach, then you’ll want the highest modifier (if lightly active, this would be 18).
The product of this equation will give you an estimation for the number of daily calories it will take to bulk based on your specifications.
If you currently weigh 160lbs and want to take a conservative approach then you would do 160×16 = 2560 calories per day to bulk.
Step 2: Determine Your Macronutrient Needs
Once you know how many calories it takes to bulk, you can allocate those calories to carbs, fat, and protein to ensure that your calories are doing the most to encourage muscle growth while bulking.
To gain mass you need to train efficiently in the gym, which requires adequate carb intake because carbs are the preferred source of fuel that your body uses for activity. Therefore, you should aim to eat 2 to 2.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight.
For example, if you weigh 160lbs, then you should be eating around 320 to 400 grams of carbohydrates per day.
If you’re someone who prefers more carbohydrates to fats, then lean more towards the higher end of this range; but if you enjoy eating more fats than carbs, then stay closer to the lower end of the range.
Adequate protein intake is crucial for encouraging muscle gain while bulking, if your protein intake is too low then you are more likely to gain fat while bulking. You should aim for between 0.8 to 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight, depending on how active you are.
- Lightly Active (active less than 3 hours per week): 0.8 (grams/lb)
- Moderately Active (active 3 to 7 hours per week): 1.0 (grams/lb)
- Highly Active (active more than 7 hours per week): 1.2 (grams/lb)
For example: If you weigh 160lbs and are moderately active, then your protein intake should be 160 grams.
To calculate how much fat you should be eating per day to bulk, you need to subtract the number of calories you’ve already allocated to protein and carbs to see how many calories of your bulking calories will be left over to allocate to fat.
To calculate the number of calories we already allocated to carbs and protein we can take the grams of each and multiple them by 4 because they both have 4 calories per gram.
Let’s say you enjoy eating more fats than carbs so you chose the lower end of the carb intake range at 320 grams.
320 grams of carbs X 4 calories per gram = 1280 carb calories
And for protein intake, the example used was 160 grams.
160 grams of protein X 4 calories per gram = 640 protein calories
After you have the calorie counts for carbs and protein, you can subtract these calories from your overall bulking calories to see what’s leftover for fats.
2560 (muscle gain calories) – 1280 (carb cals) – 640 (protein cals) = 640 calories for fats
To convert these fat calories to grams per day, you can divide it by 9 because fat has 9 calories per gram.
640 (fat cals) / 9 calories per gram = around 71 grams of fat per day.
Step 3: Monitor Your Bodyweight & Adjust If Necessary
Each week you can calculate your average body weight and monitor body composition changes with pictures and/or measurements to see you’re progressing.
If you’re progressing too quickly then subtract 100-200 calories from your bulking calories preferably from carbs or fats.
If your progress has stalled and you’re maintaining your weight without any body composition changes, then increase your bulking calories by 100-300 calories and allocate them to carbs and fats.
If you’re happy at the rate you’re progressing, then stay the course!
Results To Expect From Bulking
Bulking is typically a slower process if the goal is to gain as much muscle mass as possible because it takes a while to see significant muscle gains. If we try to rush the bulk, then we’ll ultimately gain more fat than muscle.
Realistically men could expect to gain between 0.4 to 2.5 lbs of muscle mass per month (less if well trained in the gym, more if a beginner) and women could expect 0.2 to 1 lb of muscle mass per month (less if well trained in the gym, more if a beginner).
Are you bulking properly?
Reverse dieting and bulking are two separate phases that we could undergo depending on what our goals currently are. If we’re someone who cuts and bulks regularly, then we will likely utilize reverse dieting as well.
Other Reverse Dieting Resources
- How To Reverse Diet Without Counting Calories (6 Steps)
- Reverse Diet Weight Gain: What Can You Expect?
- Reverse Dieting Without Exercise: Is It Okay?
- Can You Build Muscle On A Reverse Diet? Yes, Here’s Why & How
- Reverse Dieting vs Calorie Deficit: 3 Differences
- Reverse Dieting vs All In: Differences & Which Is Best For You?
- Will Reverse Dieting Make You MORE or LESS Hungry?
- Reverse Dieting & Cardio: 4 Rules To Follow
About The Author
Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath. She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.