Bulking is a rite of passage. Maybe you’re looking to pack on as much muscle as possible, move up a weight class, or simply trying to fill out your next shirt size. Regardless, navigating a bulk is full of experiences that can help shape your dietary choices.
One of the biggest challenges before you will be taking on a sustained increase in food without running short on funds first. Bulking is not necessarily, or in all cases, cheap. Although some food choices may indeed grow on trees…they will unfortunately still cost you money.
So, what are some of the most cost effective ways to pack on the pounds? You don’t necessarily need to sell the shirt off your back in order to effectively gain weight. Here are some helpful ways to bulk up on a budget.
Note: The prices of consumer goods and popular food products vary tremendously and are dependent on a wide variety of factors. The foods suggested here do fluctuate in price, but tend to be on the affordable side overall. Use these lists as a broad starting point of reliable nutrient sources when constructing your bulking grocery list.
Best Bulking Foods On a Budget
The main food sources you’ll need to look for are those that contain adequate protein, carbohydrates, and fats. All three macronutrients are essential for a proper bulk, but can be pricey if you’re not careful. Here are some budget conscious options to consider.
Take note that many of these options contain somewhat comparable amounts of protein per serving, or by weight. As such, you can shop around in your local grocery store to see which food source boasts the lowest price tag.
Protein is one of your most important macronutrients, as it has a huge impact on your ability to grow muscle. Here are some excellent examples of high-protein foods to weave into your diet (and budget).
Chicken: Chicken breast offers up about 30 grams of protein for a 3-ounce serving with negligible carbohydrates or fat. This makes it cost-effective, especially if you buy in bulk and freeze for your convenience. Chicken thigh is a common alternative to chicken breast. While they may bring a bit more fat with them, chicken thighs still come with about 24 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving.
Ground Beef: Ground beef can be bought in much larger (and cheaper) quantities and easily divided across numerous meals for the week. The leanest sources of ground beef will provide about 18 grams of protein for each 3 oz serving. Be cautious and read your specific nutritional labels here: Ground beef can also come with a range of fat depending on the cut or brand you buy.
Ground Turkey: Ground turkey is another option for you to consider – providing about 27 grams of protein with 10 grams of fat per 3 oz serving. Ground turkey is typically going to be less expensive than ground beef and have a much more consistent amount of fat.
Canned Tuna or Salmon: Depending on the size of your portion, one can of tuna or salmon may bring as much as 40 grams or protein. While it’s recommended you only get so much of these fish in your diet per week, seafood remains an extremely convenient source of protein. When canned, tuna and salmon can remain in your pantry for up to years at a time.
Milk: Milk can be a deceptively good source of all three macronutrients, but particularly protein. One cup of 2-percent skim milk will boast about 8 grams of protein with a fairly balanced amount of carbohydrates and fat along with it — a strong contender for protein in a pinch. For about five bucks you can get a gallon of milk boasting over 2,000 calories as well.
Cottage Cheese: Cottage cheese is another gem of a protein source for bulking on a budget. Cottage cheese once again has a nice complement of all three macronutrients but also packs a wallop of protein per cup. One cup of cottage cheese can bring as much as 25 grams of protein with it.
Eggs: If you’re looking for your next bulking staple, look no further than eggs. With a variety of mass production ready options, large eggs will provide you with about 6 grams of protein a pop. For breakfast, on the run, or as an end-of-day protein-packed snack, eggs will always be there for you. They’re easy to eat and quick to cook.
Protein Powders: By the numbers, the convenience and effectiveness of protein powders are hard to beat. That doesn’t mean that you should exclusively live off of protein powders, but they can be a tremendous source of protein at roughly 25 grams per serving in most cases. Most protein powders provide a gram of protein at about half the cost of a whole-food source like chicken breast.
Carbohydrates often make up the bulk (pun intended) of your calories. You need piles of hearty carbs to maximize your weight training sessions, after all. That means finding cost-effective, easily prepared sources of carbohydrates will be a huge asset.
White Rice: A bulking diet is all about filling in large calorie requirements with simple, repeatable, and most importantly, measurable nutritional sources. Mass production of white rice can be an extremely consistent and cost-effective part of your diet: One cup of cooked long grain white rice will clock about 45 grams of healthy carbs.
Pasta: Pasta itself is a great source of carbohydrates to meet your nutritional needs, quick to prepare, and comes cheap in bulk. One cup of cooked spaghetti offers up about 43 grams of carbohydrates and one heck of an easy time scaling for your calorie needs.
Cereal: Whether for breakfast, post-workout, or anytime in between, cereals are a callback to childhood with some impressive carbohydrate stats. One and a half cups of most cereals (without milk) will provide about 36 grams of carbohydrates. There’s a literal wall of options in the grocery store to choose from, with variable levels of carbohydrates, mostly depending on the overall sugar content.
Quinoa: Quinoa is a hidden gem of a carbohydrate source because it provides ample protein and carbs simultaneously. One cup of cooked quinoa can provide about 40 grams of carbohydrates but also 8 grams of complete protein. When you’re doing the math on the most cost-effective ways to get all of your nutritional needs, quinoa is one of the best ways of hitting two targets at once.
Fruit and Vegetables: Bulking is primarily about maintaining a manageable caloric surplus, but accounting for overall health, micronutrients, and especially fiber is important as well. Vegetables tend to be more nutrient-dense than calorie-dense, whereas fruit can provide a good amount of sugary carbohydrate. While the slightly higher price point of fresh produce may prevent you from incorporating a lot of it daily, frozen options are often cheaper and still provide plenty of high-quality nutrition.
Fats are extremely calorie-dense, coming in at nine calories per gram. While you might struggle to find solid fat sources, that nutrient density will end up saving you money. Skimping on dietary fat is a detriment to your body’s regulatory processes and hormone production, so don’t turn a blind eye here.
Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of dietary fats. Almonds provide 14 grams of fat per ounce (much of which being unsaturated), and hemp hearts will deliver almost 5 grams of fat per tablespoon. Most bulk nuts are relatively cheap and you can gobble them down without feeling full.
Healthy Oils: Leveraging cooking oils such as olive or canola oil can be a quick way to contribute to your nutritional targets. Small amounts of these ingredients as a part of dressings or to make your cooking surfaces non-stick slowly adds up. A tablespoon of olive oil typically boasts about 14 grams of fat and 120 calories.
What Is Bulking?
Bulking is an affectionately-named phase of dieting wherein you focus on packing in as many high-quality calories as possible: Achieving a calorie surplus is a necessary part of the process of gaining weight.
The aim is to account for all of your necessary nutrient requirements for health and performance, while steadily pushing the needle beyond your “maintenance” level of energy expenditure. The extra calories help fuel the process of muscular hypertrophy.
If you’re bulking, you’ve elected to remain in a surplus for a period of time to reach appreciable changes on the scale. The key is to do it in a controlled fashion to manage your body composition, avoiding excess body fat if you so desire.
[Read More: The Gymgoer’s Guide to Whey Protein]
A common benchmark for bulking — especially for newcomers to bodybuilding — is to eat a 500-calorie surplus every day. On paper, this would net you an increase of one pound of body weight per week. If you want to remain as lean as possible, you could aim lower, or even ante up if adding body weight is a primary concern.
Tips for Bulking on a Budget
Bulking on a budget can be a challenge, particularly when you’re still finding out your preferred food sources. To make it a bit easier, get organized, take it slow, think of your options, and keep your food quality high whenever possible.
Managing your budget while bulking can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re doing it for the first time. Start by making sure you know what your caloric maintenance level is so you can appropriately scale your surplus. With that new number in mind, organize your meals accordingly. A good bodybuilding meal prep regimen can be helpful here.
BMR estimation formula
Your daily calorie needs: Calories Per Day
Calories Per Day
Extreme Fat Loss
Exercise: 15-30 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Intense exercise: 45-120 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Very intense exercise: 2+ hours of elevated heart rate activity.
Once you understand what your energy intake should be and how you’ll go about getting there, make a shopping list of all the things you’ll need in the kitchen in advance. This will keep you on track and help prevent any impulse purchases that may detract from your budget.
Take It Slow
Bulking is all about nudging yourself into a calorie surplus to gain weight, rather than diving headfirst into a pile of food. Pacing your rate of weight gain will also make it easier on your bank account. It’s inevitable that your food budget will go up as you’re bulking: Consuming more food requires purchasing more food.
Bulking on a mild surplus not only moderates your rate of weight gain, but is cheaper than going headlong into a dirty bulk with no calorie cap. Tracking sales, buying in bulk where you can, and deciding on the most cost effective options are great ways to minimize cost.
Consistency in your diet can help with your planning and adherence, but you shouldn’t be entirely adverse to variety. Not only will planning out a wide array of meals help keep your bulk from getting stale, it can also provide you the opportunity to adjust for cost.
In some cases, you may need to play musical chairs with your budget to account for the cost of bulking. Protein sources are expensive if you buy fresh or organic meats; carbohydrates come cheap in bulk, while fats are a wild card. Don’t be afraid to bail on fully-organic produce or poultry and go for something cheaper. The macronutrients will be mostly consistent across the board.
Don’t Sacrifice Quality (If You Can)
A huge part of bulking is getting the most nutritional value out of your caloric surplus. It’s easy to get carried away with the size of the caloric surplus you’re in and accidentally put on more body fat than you may have intended originally. Low-quality, high-calorie processed foods also tend to omit vitamins, minerals, or dietary fiber. All of which contribute to proper digestion and general health.
If your budget allows for it, take your time. Hit your major macronutrient markers, but don’t rely solely on processed, frozen foods. Everything you eat shouldn’t come out of a cardboard box or a plastic bag.
Benefits of Bulking
Going on a bulk is something that can be very beneficial for your muscle growth, strength gain, and overall energy levels during training. When combined with structured cutting phases, it can also be highly synergistic for long-term body composition goals.
Ample Muscle Growth
You’ll have a much easier time achieving hypertrophy on a bulk than when eating at maintenance or in a deficit. Building new lean muscle tissue is an energy-intensive process; mass doesn’t appear out of thin air. You need a reserve of spare energy to facilitate tissue growth. In order to see the best muscle-building results, hitting sufficient protein and staying in a controlled caloric surplus is all but essential. (1)
Faster Strength Gain
Similar to muscle growth, gaining strength can be a lot easier when you’re on a bulk than other phases of dieting. A solid high-protein diet and a caloric surplus have been shown to facilitate strength gain. (2)
If you hit it hard in the weight room, you need to eat enough to both recover from those sessions and fuel them in the first place. If you’re undereating, you’ll find it hard to accomplish both — chronic undereating is even potentially associated with overtraining. (3) A good bulking diet provides more than enough valuable calories and vital nutrients to maximize performance and recovery.
Better Energy Levels
Dieting can be a long and arduous process. Both bulking and cutting phases can benefit from taking it slow rather than crash dieting or dirty bulking. (4) That said, given enough time, your energy will take a hit when you’re dieting down.
On the other hand, bulking will provide more calories than necessary to maintain your weight. This means that your overall energy availability should be higher than in other phases of dieting — you’ll feel strong, confident, and in-command in the gym.
More Dietary Variety
Filling your diet with a variety of foods to sustain your nutritional and calorie needs is much easier during a caloric surplus. When you’re cutting, you may find it hard to enjoy as much dietary variation. Savory foods are often laden with carbs, fats, and salts. Tempting, but calorie-dense, and often inaccessible if you’re restricting your intake.
During a bulk, you have more flexibility about what you eat and how much of it. Flexible dieting, wherein you don’t flatly categorize foods as “good” or “bad” has been shown to be an effective strategy for dietary adherence. (4) Bulking simply makes it easier to enjoy a wide variety of tasty foods.
Make Some Gains
A good bulk is a great time to make serious gains. Calories go up, you might sneak a few extra servings of your favorite foods, and training morale is at an all-time high. If you’re on a budget, getting those perks without breaking the bank is priority one.
Balancing the cost of each nutrient, your dietary needs, and personal preferences can be a challenge. High-quality bulking foods can get expensive, but don’t sacrifice quality for quantity altogether. Take things slow, do the math, and find the best options to suit your budget and fill your belly.
Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20.
Tagawa, R., Watanabe, D., Ito, K., Otsuyama, T., Nakayama, K., Sanbongi, C., & Miyachi, M. (2022). Synergistic Effect of Increased Total Protein Intake and Strength Training on Muscle Strength: A Dose-Response Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Sports medicine – open, 8(1), 110.
Stellingwerff, T., Heikura, I. A., Meeusen, R., Bermon, S., Seiler, S., Mountjoy, M. L., & Burke, L. M. (2021). Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): Shared Pathways, Symptoms and Complexities. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 51(11), 2251–2280.
Conlin, L. A., Aguilar, D. T., Rogers, G. E., & Campbell, B. I. (2021). Flexible vs. rigid dieting in resistance-trained individuals seeking to optimize their physiques: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(1), 52.
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