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:
- The energy needed to maintain life (breathing, body temperature, pumping blood, etc.).
- The energy expended through daily activities (any type of movements outside of training)
- The energy expended through training
- The nutrients necessary for recovery
- 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:
|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:
|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 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 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.
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.
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:
|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 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.
Do you want to build a muscular, lean, and proportionate physique like Brad Pitt in Troy?
Then you should check out the Greek God Program. This is a workout and nutrition plan geared towards building muscle strategically while staying lean for the aesthetic look of a Greek God.
It is also the program I used to build my physique.