In this article/video I’m going to talk about something that was very tricky for me in the beginning: Adjusting calories when lean bulking.
I wasted a lot of time eating too little during my first “bulks” because I was afraid of gaining fat. I now realize that eating too little can be just as big of a mistake as eating too much – maybe an even bigger mistake.
If you’re a beginner or intermediate you probably need to gain at least 20 lbs of muscle to achieve your goal physique. You have to gain weight to do that so you must eat a surplus of calories. The question is: how much of a surplus should you have in order to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain?
Answer: It depends. It depends on your training experience and your current muscle development. So in this article/video we’ll take a look at each situation one by one and see what is the ideal caloric surplus to have and how to adjust it as you’re gaining weight.
Let’s dig in.
Why Eating More is Necessary for Muscle Growth
First of all, let’s understand the role of nutrition in muscle growth. I think Eric Helms put it best: Nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth, the actual stimulus is training.
What this means is that we can’t stimulate muscle growth only through nutrition. If you had a perfect bulking plan but spent all day watching TV you wouldn’t gain any muscle, you’d just get fat. What’s missing is the stimulus for protein synthesis – training.
Here is the key to lean bulking: The maximum rate of muscle growth can be achieved by eating just enough food to permit the adaptation after training. This way we provide the maximum amount of nutrients our bodies can use to create new muscle tissue but we don’t exceed that limit. We wouldn’t grow faster if we ate more, we’d just get fat.
A good way to think of it is like a worker building a house. He won’t build the house faster if you give him more materials than he can use every day. In fact, the unused materials will just pile up around the house making a mess – as body fat will pile up around the muscle.
Dirty Bulking is clearly not the way to go. It doesn’t accelerate muscle growth and the fat you gain ruins your proportions and blurs muscle definition (defeating the purpose).
On the other hand, if you eat too little that’s a mistake too. If you give the same worker less materials than he can use he’ll build the house slower than he could. Or if you don’t give him any materials, he won’t be able build anything.
In my opinion, when you want to gain muscle, eating too little is a bigger mistake than eating too much. Yes, the guy eating too much will gain more fat than necessary but at least he’ll be growing. The guy eating too little will stay lean but he may not make any progress for several months.
So how do you find a balance between these two scenarios? How much should we eat to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain as much as possible?
How Fast can we Gain Muscle?
To answer that we need to look at how fast we can gain muscle. The amount of muscle you can gain every month differs depending on your training experience so the ideal caloric surplus changes as well.
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.
Most people agree that it takes about 2500 calories to create 1lb of muscle. So this 2500 calorie surplus should be spread out over the time period it takes a person to build 1lb of muscle. This is where training experience makes the difference.
As you can see in the table, beginners can gain about 2lbs per month in their first year. This means they need a surplus of at least 5000 calories per month to maximize their potential.
Intermediates can gain 0.5-1 lbs of muscle per month so they need a surplus between 1200 and 2500 calories per month.
And Advanced lifters can gain muscle so slow that bulking doesn’t make any sense for them. Even if they bulked and gained 10lbs, they would still only gain 3-5 lbs of muscle per year. They only need to eat enough to allow for progressive overload in their training.
The surplus of calories you need, depends on how fast you can gain muscle. If you’re a beginner, you need a larger surplus. If you’re intermediate or advanced you need a smaller surplus.
Here are my recommendations:
*If you’re a beginner, eat about 350kcal above maintenance every day. This will result in approximately 3 lbs of weight gain per month.
*If you’re an intermediate, eat about 250kcal above maintenance every day. This will result in approximately 2 lbs of weight gain per month.
*If you’re an advanced lifter, eat around maintenance and when your strength stalls, eat 200kcal above maintenance on lifting days.
Factors influencing weight gain
You may have noticed that I recommended a larger surplus than would be needed to gain pure lean body mass. There are two reasons for that:
1. To maximize the rate of muscle growth you usually have to accept some fat gain as well.
2. The surplus you set on paper is often very different from the actual surplus that occurs.
When we gain weight our body starts burning more energy both at rest and during activity. This reduces the real surplus that occurs. Also when we eat more food, the energy required to digest and absorb the nutrients also increases. Most studies show that the thermic effect of food is about 15% of the total calories we consume. This also reduces the real surplus.
But the biggest difference however comes down to Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). When we eat more, our body usually tries to defend against weight gain by increasing our spontaneous and unconscious movements to burn energy. This is exactly the opposite of what occurs during a fat loss phase.
So when you eat more you may discover that you start fidgeting more. You may bump your leg on the floor, play with objects, change your position often, doing all kinds of spontaneous movements. A lot of energy can be burned through these movements, sometimes canceling out the surplus completely.
So we eat more than we’d think would be necessary in order to make sure we really are in a calorie surplus.
If you want to learn more about this stuff, read my article “The Complete Guide to Lean Bulking“. That article will show you exactly how to set your calories and macros and also expand on the effects on NEAT while bulking.
How do you know you’re gaining muscle?
Now before we wrap up this article, I wanted to address one more thing. How do you know you’re gaining muscle and not fat?
One of the best indicators is your waist measurement. If you’re steadily gaining weight and waist doesn’t get bigger, that means you’re probably gaining muscle with very little fat. So always check your waist measurement, not just your weight.
But the best indicator in my opinion is relative strength. When you’re gaining body weight, make sure that your lifts are going up at a much faster rate. Each pound you gain should results in a 3-4 lbs increase on your bench press and weighted chin ups, 1-1.5 lbs on shoulder press and 5-6 lbs on Sumo Deadlifts/Squats. This will ensure that the weight you gained was predominately lean mass.
If you gain weight but your lifts stay the same or increase very little, you’re doing something wrong and you should change your plan.
What’s your take on lean bulking? Have any questions or anything else to add? 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 Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love?
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.