The Complete Guide to Lean Bulking

For a lean bulk to be possible, you have to start out lean (obviously).

This is important because the first step of a lean gaining phase may actually be a cut. As we explained in the article Get Lean before Bulking, starting from a low body fat percentage allows you to gain more weight before you get excessively fat and the majority of that weight will be muscle mass because of improved nutrient partitioning.

In this post we’ll cover everything you need to know about setting your nutrition for gaining muscle with minimum fat. It’s a long read but the information is all very valuable.

We’ll start by repeating the last section from the article Get Lean before Bulking because it’s a great introduction to this post:

Building a Great Body 101

Here is how I think gaining muscle should go down:

1. If you’re over 14% body fat, lose some fat before you start bulking. Yes, you are going to look skinny in clothes but the benefits of starting with a cutting phase strongly outweigh the temporary loss in size.

2. Keep cutting until you hit 9-10% body fat. When you get a complete 6 pack in good lighting you know you’re there.

3. Once you reach 9-10%bf increase your calories to maintenance for about 2 weeks. This will help reset some of the physiological adaptations to dieting and prevent rapid fat gain once you move into a surplus. After those 2 weeks start lean bulking.

These lean bulks should be stretched over several months. 

4. Once you’re up to 14-15% body fat it’s time to cut back to the 9-11% range. Ideally, as you’re gaining size you’ll never go above 15% body fat again. Your cut and bulk cycles will be kept in the range of 8-15% body fat. This way you’ll have a 6 pack all the time (or at least a 4 pack), your face will stay relatively chiseled, and you’ll have decent muscle definition and separation. You will look good all the time!

During your cuts you should be careful not to lose muscle and maintain your strength on the main lifts.

5. Repeat this process until you’ve built enough size to not look small at 9-11% body fat. At that point you can get leaner and bring your cut-bulk range to 8-11%. So you’d bulk until you hit 11-12% and cut until you hit 8%.  

6. Repeat this process until you’re happy with your size at 8-9% and then maintain that condition.

So this is my basic philosophy for bulking. By cycling your cuts and bulks in the range of 8-15% body fat you can gain a lot of muscle mass over the years AND look good all that time.

During the bulking periods I believe we should strive for lean gains as much as we can while not compromising the rate at which we can gain muscle and strength.

So let’s see how to do that.

Why only a small surplus is needed to gain muscle

One of my favorite Eric Helms quotes is this: “The stimulus for muscle growth is training, nutrition is only permissive.”

What Eric is saying here is that we can’t stimulate muscle growth by eating more. If that was possible, every fat person would also have a lot of muscle mass. But we all know that’s not the case.

The truth about eating for muscle growth is this: The maximum rate of muscle growth can be achieved by eating just enough food to permit the adaptation after training. There is only so much muscle the body can create in one day and giving it more nutrients than it can use won’t speed up the process.

It’s like a worker building a house. He won’t build the house faster if you give him more materials than he can use. In fact, the unused materials will just pile up around the house – just as body fat will pile up around the muscle.

On the other hand, if you give the worker less materials than he can use he’ll build the house slower. Or if you don’t give him any materials, he won’t be able build anything even if he shows up for work.

You can now understand why the same workout routine produces different levels of muscle gain during a cut, maintenance, or bulk. Although our training stimulates the same degree of growth in all situations, the availability of nutrients permits or doesn’t permit the adaptation.

Why a surplus is needed to maximize muscle gains

From the total amount of food we eat our bodies must get:

  1.  The energy needed to maintain life (breathing, body temperature, pumping blood, etc.).
  2. The energy expended through daily activities (any type of movements outside of training)
  3. The energy expended through training
  4. The nutrients necessary for recovery
  5. The nutrients necessary for growth

The reason muscle growth is maximized during a bulk is because that’s when we eat enough nutrients to cover all these things. We make sure to eat enough calories to support our daily energy needs and recovery, and then we eat a bit more to allow growth. New muscle tissue can’t be created out of nothing.

That’s exactly the opposite of what we do during a cut. We deliberately eat less energy than our bodies need in order to tap into body fat reserves. Recovery and growth are thus impaired.

Nutrition is also fuel for training

Besides providing the nutrients necessary for recovery and growth, eating a surplus of calories also gives you energy to train harder. Training harder means faster progression resulting in a better growth stimulus.

Setting the caloric surplus

Ok, you now know that in order to maximize muscle growth and avoid fat gain, you need to eat just enough. But how much is that?

Your ideal caloric surplus depends on your training experience and how much muscle you can still gain.

According to Lyle McDonald the maximum rate of muscle growth per year is this:

Edit
 Years of training  Maximum Muscle Growth Potential
Year 1 20-25lbs (2lbs per month) / 9 – 11 kg (0.9kg per month)
Year 2 10-12lbs (1lbs per month) / 4.5 – 5.5 kg (0.45kg per month)
Year 3 5-6lbs (0.5lbs per month) / 2 – 2.7 kg (0.22kg per month)
Year 4 2-3lbs / 0.9 – 1.3 kg
Year 5+ 2-3 lbs / 0.9 – 1.3kg

Alan Aragon gives us another model, this time for beginners, intermediates, and advanced lifters:

Edit
Category Maximum Rate of Muscle Growth
Beginner 1-1.5% of lean body mass per month
Intermediate 0.5-1% of lean body mass per month
Advanced 0.25-0.5% of lean body mass per month

What you can see is that our growth potential differs a lot depending on our training experience. For each stage we want to eat enough calories to allow maximum muscle gains but not more because that will lead to fat gain.

For example if you’re an advanced lifter and you can only gain 3-4lbs (1.3-1.8kg) of muscle in one year, then it makes no sense to gain 2-3lbs (0.9-1.3kg) of bodyweight per month. You’re still going to grow just 3-4lbs in that year, the rest will be body fat.

On the other hand if you’re a beginner, gaining at the rate of 2-3lbs per month would be ideal because you can gain about 22lbs (10kg) of muscle in your first year.

Dirty Bulking, Lean Gaining, and Clean Bulking – Which is best for you

The way I see it, there are three ways to set your caloric surplus, the difference between them being the amount of fat you gain with the muscle.

Dirty Bulk

Dirty Bulking means eating a lot more food than necessary and gaining more fat than muscle in the process.

People who do this usually want to gain size really fast or they want to make sure they’re not leaving any muscle gains on the table.

I believe dirty bulking is not productive if your goal is looking good year round. I have two reasons for that:

1. Getting excessively fat ruins your proportions and blurs muscle definition (defeating the purpose).
2. You can bulk for very little time until you get too fat. By dirty bulking you go too fast from 9-10% body fat to 14-15% when you have to cut again. This means that for each bulk cycle you actually gain less muscle mass than someone who bulked cleaner.

How to do it: If you want to dirty bulk eat enough food to grow two times faster than the rates in the tables above. That usually means about 18-19kcal per pound of body weight.

Lean Gaining

Lean Gaining means gaining weight at a slow rate with very little, to no increases in fat mass. It is possible to gain exclusively lean mass but I believe only advanced lifters (or advanced-intermediates) should do it.

The reason for that is because the rate of muscle gain is usually very slow. Beginners and Intermediates would progress at a much faster rate if they allow for some fat gain. I tried doing it when I was just starting out (I was 150lbs/68kg at the time) and while I was making lean gains, the people at my level who were eating more were making better progress in the gym.

How to do it: Eat about 250 calories more than maintenance on your lifting days. On rest days eat at maintenance.

Lean Bulk

Clean Bulking or Lean Bulking is what I recommend for 90% of beginners and intermediates. With this strategy you maximize the rate of muscle growth (just like when you’re dirty bulking) but you don’t allow rapid fat gain.

From my experience two thirds of the weight gained this way will be muscle mass. In the worst case scenario you gain muscle and fat at 1 to 1 ratio. That’s still pretty good.

You can gain a lot of muscle in one cycle of going from 10% body fat to 14-15%.

For example in my first real bulk, using Greg’s Greek God Program I was able to go from 155lbs (70kg) at 10% body fat to 173lbs (78kg) at 14% in 6 months (watch the video with my transformation here). After two more months of cutting I ended up 166lbs (75kg) at 8-9%. I was very happy with the results.

radu bulking progress

The first picture was taken at the end of May 2014 and I was 155lbs (70kg). The second was taken at the end of October and I was 171lbs (77kg). The third was taken at the middle of December and I was 166lbs (75kg). 

The best part about this strategy is that you can be in a surplus for 5-8 months before you need to cut for 6-8 weeks. And from my experience you make much better strength and lean mass gains in these long bulks than you do in shorter ones even if the amount of weight gained is the same. I can’t yet explain why.

How to do it: Eat enough food to grow 1.5 times faster than the rates given in the tables above.

A great starting point for beginners is 350 calories above maintenance every day. This will result in approximately 3 lbs of weight gain per month.

Intermediates might go with 250 calories above maintenance every day. This will result in approximately 2 lbs of weight gain per month.

Advanced lifters will probably do best if they gain just one pound or so per month.

Start with the low numbers first

I recommend you start with the lowest numbers first (250-350 kcal above maintenance) and see how you progress from there. If you’re not gaining weight at all or you’re barely gaining, then you need to increase your calories further (add 100-200 more kcal).

If you see you’re gaining too fast and your waist is getting bigger, lower your calories by 100-200.

Be aware of daily fluctuations in weight though. Sometimes you may be 2-3 pounds heavier or lighter than the day before without making any changes to your diet. You should not adjust your calories if this happens. Track your weight and progress over a longer period of time (one or two weeks).

Why the surplus you set may not result in the expected weight gain

Before we move on to setting macros I wanted to clarify why some people may have to eat a lot more calories than I recommended in order to gain weight.

The reason for that is because they burn off the surplus by unconsciously moving more. These unconscious movements have been called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). These are movements like bumping your leg on the floor, playing with objects, changing position, and fidgeting in general.

There is one really cool study that shows the effects of overfeeding on spontaneous physical activity. In this study numerous non-obese adults (age between 25-36 years) were fed 1000kcal over maintenance for 8 weeks. The results are pretty amazing:

Variables Means Range
Weight Before (kg) 65.8 53.3 – 91.7
Weight After (kg) 70.5 58.8 – 93.1
Weight Gained (kg) 4.7 1.4 – 7.2
Fat Gained (kcal/day) 389 58 – 687
Fat-Free Mass Gained (kcal/day) 43 15 – 78
Baseline dietary intake (kcal/day) 2824 2265 – 3785
Baseline resting energy expenditure (kcal/day) 1693 1470 – 1990
Overfed resting energy expenditure (kcal/day) 1772 1460 – 2040
Baseline Thermic Effect of Food (kcal/day) 218 89 – 414
Overfed Thermic Effect of Food (kcal/day) 354 133 – 483
Baseline Total Energy Expenditure (kcal/day) 2807 2216 – 3818
Overfed Total Energy Expenditure (kcal/day) 3361 2508 – 4601

*table from AARR May 2012

What you can see is that the total weight gained is much less than what you’d expect. On paper, 1000 calories over maintenance for 8 weeks should results in about 7.2kg (16 lbs) of weight gained. But in this well controlled study only an average of 4.7 kg (10 lbs) was gained.

If we do the math we’ll see that only about 400 calories out of 1000 were stored and the rest were burned off. And more than two thirds of the burned calories were dissipated through NEAT.

However, the energy burned through NEAT varied drastically between subjects. You’ll see that the highest NEAT responder burned 692kcal per day while the lowest responder only 98kcal. The former is probably one of those people who cannot gain weight no matter what and the latter is one of those that gets fat just by thinking about food.

What this study shows us

This study shows that we cannot always estimate how many calories are necessary to gain 2-3 lbs a month. The surplus we set on paper and the one that actually occurs may be very different.

The naturally skinny guys probably need 500kcal+ over maintenance to gain at the ideal rate while some other people may only need 200kcal.

How to adjust calories when lean bulking

I suggest you start with only 250-350kcal over maintenance and see if you gain at the rates given in the table above. If you gain too slowly, then increase the calories as needed. Remember to make small increases in calories. This way you’ll avoid unnecessary fat gain.

Setting macros

Setting macros when bulking is really simple. You need to make sure you’re eating about 1g of protein per pound of body weight and fill the rest of the calories with a good balance of fats and carbs.

My standard recommendation is this:

1g of protein per lb of bodyweight 
25-30% of calories from fat
rest of calories from carbs 

I’d say this setup fits the majority of the population perfectly.

However, there is a lot of individual variability here. A small part of the population feels better with a lower fat intake (about 20% of calories) and a lot of carbs. They gain less body fat by doing this and have better energy levels in the gym. Some examples I know are Mike Matthews from MuscleforLife and my workout partner Rareș.

I on the other hand do better with a higher fat intake. I find my energy levels, sex drive, gym performance, and mood are best when I eat about 30% of calories from fat.

Either way, until you discover what works best for you, I guarantee you’ll make awesome gains using the standard recommendation.

 

What is your opinion on lean bulking? Do you have something else to add? Any questions? Leave a comment below and let me know. I read and answer all comments. 


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29 Comments

  1. Braian on August 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Hi Radu,

    First I want to thank you for the good content that you offer on your site.
    You have a very clear way to explain things. Keep it up!

    Secondly, I have a request to make.
    When determining maintenance calories (by calculating 14-16 x BW), I should take lean bodyweight or the total bodyweight?
    The same applies to determine the grams of protein per pound of bodyweight goal, I should take lean bodyweight or the total bodyweight?

    Greetings from Argentina!

    • Radu Antoniu on August 28, 2015 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks Braian! I appreciate your feedback!

      Unless you’re above 20% body fat, you should use your total bodyweight for determining maintenance.

      The same goes for protein. If the person is above 16% body fat, I set protein intake based on lean bodyweight. If they are relatively lean, I always tell them to set protein based on total bodyweight.

  2. Vieni on September 21, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    Hey Radu,

    I am about to lean bulk after cutting and lifting for one year. Will I be considered a beginner or an intermediate?

    Many thanks,

    Vieni

    • Radu Antoniu on September 22, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      Hey Vieni!

      I’d say you’re an intermediate.

  3. David on October 23, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    I was just wondering, I see all fo this as something extremely helpful so I thank you in advance because it is really hard to find information like this nowadays. as far as setting up your maintenance calories, which formula or calculator would you suggest?? please, and thanks!

    • Radu Antoniu on October 24, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Thanks David!

      I go with the very easy formula of 15 calories per pound. No matter what formula you use, it will have to be adjusted anyway based on feedback.

      What I recommend is to set your maintenance at 15 calories per pound and watch your weight. If it stays the same, that is your maintenance. Then you can set your caloric surplus.

    • Reagan on November 8, 2016 at 6:21 am

      Hi Radu

      Nice article,I’ve cut down from 100kgs to 60 kgs and finally had a 6 pack ,I’d say that I’ve been training correctly and consistently for bout 3 years ,I’m 35 years old and now trying to lean bulk ,I’ve tried eating 1800 cals but my waist went up too fast so I dropped it to 1500 cals till my waist came down and now I’m eating 1700 cals as I don’t want to gain weight too quick .Im now 65kgs and 179 Cm height .Ive gained about 1kg per month on 1700 calories.According to calculations I should be eating over 2000 cals right or am I just 1 in a Million that should reverse diet to avoid fat gain.I basically don’t know my maintenance calories.

      • Dylan on January 12, 2017 at 6:07 am

        Hi Reagan, I am in a similar but not as extreme situation. I lost a lot of weight over a long period of time so I was in a deficit for maybe 1 year or so while I finally figured out how to make everything work with training and nutrition. I have been lifting only about4 months but have made pretty decent muscle development already doing body weight exercises before that.

        I have started lean bulking about 4 weeks ago and am gaining fat a lot faster than anything I read says I should. It feels like I have damaged my metabolism by being in a deficit for so long.

        Your example seems extreme though. You maintainence should be around 2100 for your weight (same as me) so to be gaining fat at 1700 or 1800 is crazy.

        There doesn’t seem to be much info out there on this stuff for people in this situation which is surprising given how many people are overweight these days. There must be a lot of people who need to be in a deficit for a long time to get lean.

        It would be very interesting to hear Radu’s thoughts and advice on this.

  4. Tomek on January 4, 2016 at 11:22 am

    This is an excellent article! Your site and newsletter are top quality and I’d recommend to anyone who doesnt want to waste time browsing YT or Internet.

    Greetings from Poland
    Tomek

    • Radu Antoniu on January 5, 2016 at 8:28 pm

      Thank you Tomek !

  5. Josh on January 7, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Radu,
    I’ve been cutting and lifting properly for about 4 months now I’m close to lean bulking, my lean weight is 147 pounds around, should I be a beginner and okay to eat 350 calories over to gain 3lbs a month?

    • Radu Antoniu on January 17, 2016 at 7:57 pm

      Hey Josh!

      Yes 2-3 pounds a month would be perfect.

  6. Jack on January 7, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    I’ve been lifting in and off for over 10 years with very little success and had major weight issues with fluctuations along with an eating disorder. I have finall conquered all the above and have been now living a consistent lifestyle for about a year now. I’ve never really made “Gains” because I’ve always been in a “binge/cut” cycle due to issues I’ve had. I’m finally ready to start a cycle of bulking. Have I not tapped into my beginner gains yet? What can I expect to see gains wise now?

    • Radu Antoniu on January 17, 2016 at 7:50 pm

      In 10 years I think you’ve inevitably gotten over your noobie gains Jack. I think you can expect the rate of gain of an intermediate.

  7. Ben on January 25, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    Radu,

    Great work, concise, well organized and I appreciate your quantitative approach.

    Question: Sadly I have taken an 8yr break from lifting and I am hoping I might still have newbie gains which I’d like to maximize. If I am not particularly concerned about looks in the first cycle, what is the longest you would suggest I bulk? Is a 3lb/month surplus too aggressive? Will lifting while I’m currently cutting compromise my newbie gains? (when I reach my cutting goal I will be 145lb at 5’9″)

    Thanks!

    • Radu Antoniu on January 28, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Ben! Thanks!

      You’ll probably gain muscle very well even in a deficit if you say you’ve lifted in the past. Muscle memory is real.

      When you go in a surplus I think you can do a 3lbs/month rate of gain. You shouldn’t gain too much fat

  8. Ryan on February 1, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    After you have leaned down to your goal body weight would you just reconfigure your maintenance and go from there or would you use your maintenance from when you started your cut?

    • Radu Antoniu on February 8, 2016 at 11:01 pm

      You recalculate maintenance. Current bodyweight is the main predictor of maintenance calories.

      You can learn how to do it from this post.

  9. Thorsten Behrens on May 21, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Clearly explained and very helpful, thanks. I’ll use the TDEE spreadsheet floating around reddit to “back into” maintenance numbers by tracking calories and weight over time.

    Do you have any experience with how muscle gains are affected by age? I am 46 now, and haven’t ever built muscle. I know I won’t be seeing the same results I’d be seeing at 25. If you have ballpark figures of what kind of surplus to aim at, it’ll be helpful. Right now I am thinking to start at 200/day, once I’ve hit around 10% body fat first, that is.

    • Radu Antoniu on May 26, 2016 at 9:09 am

      You can still build muscle well at 46. It’s true, a bit slower than at 25 but I don’t know by how much.

      I think 2000kcal per day is a good starting point.

  10. Ryan on June 6, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for your article.

  11. Haitam on July 5, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Hey Radu

    Great article and YouTube videos they are really clean and informative. So right now I am in the cutting phase. My Tdee is 2290. I am trying to get to 1800 cal a day is that a good number? Also, just to make sure when I say 1800 a day does this mean I can only consume 1800 and lose calories from exercising, or food intake plus exercise calories loss should total to 1800 at the end of the day
    I am 5.7″ 166 lb with 20% body fat. I would like to be at 10% at the end of the cutting cycle

    Thank you very much

  12. rahul kumar on July 6, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Hi radu
    Thank you for information. I’m from india .I weigh 87kg and 5 feet 8 inch.22years old.
    Can you tell me my target weight to get lean .

  13. Armand on July 16, 2016 at 7:43 am

    Hi radu, nice article. Well written, understood it cleary. I have a question though, so do we just cut & lean bulk until we die/we achieved our goals?

  14. joven on July 20, 2016 at 2:45 am

    Hi, great article. Do you still recommend cutting for skinny fat? ive been lifting for 2 years now and gained a lot of muscle but I still have this fat around my lower belly. (4 pack can be seen on normal lighting)

  15. Fran on July 25, 2016 at 5:03 am

    Hi Radu, great article. I only have one question. If I lifted weights in the past, with breaks, for about two – three years and then took a complete break from it for 4 years straight, should I expect to gain like a beginner or intermediate?

  16. Radu on September 30, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Hey! Thanks for checking out my article!

    Feel free to comment below if you have any questions. I do my best to reply to all comments personally 🙂

  17. Charlie on October 16, 2016 at 1:06 am

    Thanks Radu, this article was exactly what I was looking for. I have been eating between 0.8 and 0.9 or so grams of protein per day and been eyeballing my portions and adjusting accordingly day to day my carbs and fat. I say day to day because I work a construction job where the intensity and calories I burn vary day to day and I have been working on getting a better sense of what days to eat a little more or less. I have been doing pretty good at eyeballing everything but it seems I have evened out over the last three months and gained little to no weight and although I am still progressing in my lifts I would say progress is considerably slower then in late spring early summer when my weight was still climbing overall and there already some plateaus in growth in some lifts. I don’t know my exact BF % but have what I would say I am generally happy with my definition. My plan is to just keep eating as I have been and simply add a little more food to tip the scale and begin slowly gaining again. My question when I hit google was how much food do I add? Your answer of 300 to 350 calories a day is exactly where I will start and monitor things from there. Once I level off again and stall out I will add a little more and I plan on continue doing so until around April when I will go for that short cutting phase you speak of. I have been using Gregs intermittent fasting as well off and on and I believe it has served me well to stay lean. I may use it off and on over the bulk but will definitely use this eating tool again in the spring when I want to lean out. I might look into one of Gregs programs you recommend as well.

    • Charlie on October 16, 2016 at 1:08 am

      I ment to say 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight … Durp.

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