The Complete Guide Of How To Lean Bulk:
Build Muscle, Not Fat
By Ash May
Lean Bulking. It’s what we all want – to build muscle while getting leaner… But is it possible?
The perfect lean bulk almost seems too good to be true, and since what’s too good to be true usually isn’t true, it is understandable why many people are sceptical about the effectiveness of this method.
As someone who has gone through several successful lean bulks… And quite a few less successful ones (we all start somewhere!) I have found what I think to be the key to achieving the perfect balance in order to build muscle, not fat.
Below are the steps which we will be going through and following in order to get you started on your lean bulk. Then, let’s get into the good stuff.
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The Lean Bulk Process – 6 (Kind of) Simple Steps
- What Is Lean Bulking?
- Find Your Calorie Maintenance
- Calculate Your Calories & Macros For A Lean Bulk
- Follow A High Quality, Effective Training Program Specific To You
- Add To Your Diet Over Time
- How Long To Lean Bulk For
What Is Lean Bulking
Of course, before anybody starts a lean bulk, it is important to understand what it means. There are lots of misconceptions on this topic going around social media, so this is an important place to start.
The process of lean bulking is an adaption to the original concept of ‘bulking’, which started in bodybuilding. This is where you would ensure you are eating more calories than your body uses in a day, so that when paired with proper weight training, your body will have the spare energy required to put into building muscle.
Originally, this would look like 6,000 calories consisting of doughnuts, pizza, and hot dogs for every meal, which did lead to muscle gain, however also fat gain. A lot of fat gain – shown in the image below of a bodybuilder on and offseason.
The reason this process needed to change was that If you gain 50lbs during one of these bulks, and 10lbs of that was muscle, while the rest was fat, it would take a very long and intense cutting period in order to drop the 40lbs of fat gained. Due to the impact that calorie restriction has on your body, it is then inevitable that much of this muscle will be lost while dieting down, meaning the whole cycle was nearly, if not completely pointless.
In comes the lean bulk.
A lean bulk is a more calculated approach. As your body only really requires around 100 – 200 additional calories (if that) in order to build muscle at the rate which is possible as a natural lifter, that is exactly what lean bulking goes for.
Once you have found your maintenance calories in the step below, the lean bulk approach would then be to add a small amount on top of this, in order to provide enough energy to build muscle, but not have enough excess energy in order to put on fat.
It is impossible to do this perfectly where you gain purely muscle and no fat, however, a ratio of 1:1 or even 1;0.5 is completely possible when done correctly!
Another big difference often seen between a traditional bulk and the lean bulk is the food choice. Rather than going for the most calorie dense food options in order to get your intake as high as possible, you will be aiming for nutritious, natural foods which will fuel your muscle growth, rather than encourage fat gain.
Expert help on what to eat in order to maximise muscle growth and minimise fat gain can be found here.
How To Find Your Maintenance Calories
The first step to getting started with properly lean bulking is to know your maintenance calories. The process to this is very simple, however most people do it wrong in an attempt to rush it. If you are patient, you can nail this.
Where most people go wrong on this is not giving it the time it takes to be accurate. 1 day, 3 days, even 7 days are not enough. Spend around 2 – 3 weeks on this at least, and you will be in a great place to start your lean bulk.
So, to do this, count your calories – if you don’t already. The goal here is to eat as close as possible to the exact same number of calories each day for 1 week, while weighing yourself every day. Then at the end of the 7 days, take an average of the weigh-ins by adding them together and dividing by 7. Ideally, you want to be eating a similar macronutrient profile throughout these days, as fluctuating amounts of carbohydrates will affect the amount of water you hold, and will therefore change your weight. It is also best to weigh yourself at the same time each day, in the same clothing (I recommend first thing in the morning – after the bathroom).
If after this week, your weight has stayed around the same then it is likely you have found your maintenance. However, I would then recommend continuing this for another week to be completely sure. If your start and end weight are the same then you have found your maintenance calorie level and can move onto the next step.
If your weight has increased after the first week then you are eating more calories than your maintenance level. In this case, you should remove 100 calories from your daily intake (so 2500 daily would go to 2400) and try again for another week.
If you lost weight after the first week, then you need to do the reverse of this. Add 100 calories a day, and try again for another week. Repeat this process until you find the point in which your weight holds. This may take some time, but it is worth it.
If you have never counted calories for, then it may be hard to know where to start on this first week, as you don’t want to be eating 1500 calories when you need 3000… Bad news for your libido! Because of this, If you have no idea what to start with, I would recommend following the average daily recommended calorie intake which is 2500 calories for men, and 2000 calories for women.
Calculating Calorie & Macro Targets
As mentioned earlier, the goal of a lean bulk is to eat in a very small surplus of calories each day, so that your body has an adequate excess of calories to build muscle as a result of weight training, without having so much excess that you will gain more fat than muscle.
This section will go through how to set your calorie target initially, and also setting up your macronutritient ratio’s for the period.
Many different people will tell you different numbers to add onto your calorie maintenance (which we found in the last step), which will usually range from 50 – 500 additional calories per day. The reason for the different information is because each person will respond differently to a surplus.
Because of this, you will need to experiment and find what works for your body. However, the place you should start is adding 100 calories per day. So if your maintenance is 2500 calories, you will be going up to 2600.
I know this isn’t the exciting all out binge you were hoping for, but the goal here needs to be longevity. The longer you can lean bulk the better, and if you overshoot your calories and gain a lot of fat, you will be needing to cut again a lot sooner. A long bulk is a personal investment into building muscle on your frame, and is too often overlooked. There is no use being shredded if you don’t have impressive muscle to show!
Later on in this article we will go through how to adapt your calories over time.
The ratio of macronutrients you intake from your diet is an important part of setting up a successful lean bulk. You want to have enough protein to build muscle tissue, enough carbs to provide energy around your workouts (but not too many to feel sluggish and watery), while also getting enough fat to support hormone production.
The following method is how I recommend macros to be calculated, and how I set them for myself, and clients:
based on a 180 lb individual intaking 2800 calories
bodyweight in lbs x 1.2 = g of protein
180 = 216g protein
216 x 4 = 864 calories
(Total calories x 0.25) / 9 = g of fat
2800 x 0.25 / 9 = 78g fat
78 x 9 = 702 calories
Remaining calories / 4 = g of carbs
(2800 – 1566) / 4 = 308g carbs
308 x 4 = 1,234 calories
As you can see, I recommend 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight. This is definitely higher than the minimal amount required (seen as around 0.8g per pound) but there is reasoning for this.
1 – If we are trying to build as much muscle mass as possible during this period, it makes sense to eat higher protein levels on the chance which it will lead to higher levels of muscle growth than if we were at 0.8g per pound.
2 – Nobody is perfect and there is likely to be days where you miss out and go low on your intake, especially if eating out or travelling for a period of time. This will keep your protein intake ‘covered’.
For dietary fats, I recommend 25% of your calorie intake. This is to ensure that you are supporting your hormone production sufficiently, as without properly functioning hormones, you will be fighting a losing battle when trying to build muscle.
Then carbohydrates fill up the rest of your calories. The sources of this should be unprocessed and varied in order to get a good balance of nutrients, fibre, complex, and simple carbs. Good things to include would be potato, sweet potato, white rice, bananas.
As you can see, setting your macro targets doesn’t have to be complicated, but if you want to be sure that you are eating the optimal diet in order to support your muscle growth, then click here for custom made meal plans.
Optimal Training Programme
We’ve all heard that changing your physique comes down to 80% diet 20% training.
However, for your diet to have any impact at all, in any way, on building muscle – your weight training program has to be good.
I could talk about the correct way to weight train for hours and hours, but to put things briefly: the building blocks of your workout program should come from compound exercises as these will send the largest metabolic signal to your body, urging it to build muscle in order to adapt to the huge amount of muscle stimulus caused from them.
If your program doesn’t include at least;
- Bench Press
- Barbell Squat
Then it isn’t a good program.
Isolation exercises such as bicep curls and leg extensions are then tagged onto the end of these compounds, in order to accumulate more volume on the muscle without being too detrimental on your recovery, which would lead to your training frequency being affected. It is recommended that each muscle group gets trained at least twice a week in order to capitalise on the muscle building signal provide by lifting weights. Your training program should build this in.
Unfortunately, it isn’t good enough to get one good program and follow it for the whole 6 – 9 months you are bulking for. This is because your body is an adaption machine! If you are constantly throwing the same challenges at it day by day, week by week, then it will become accustomed to it. This will result in your strength progression and muscle growth plateauing, which is the opposite of what we want to achieve.
To avoid this, your training should be periodised in a fashion which regularly switches up variables including reps, sets, exercises, and rest times. Each cycle of your training should last between 4 – 8 weeks in order to keep your body fresh and adapting to the new stimulus, but also giving yourself long enough to make some progress on that specific style of training.
An example of this would be a 6 week phase of powerlifting style, low rep, long rest, style training, followed by an 8 week period of hypertrophy style training in the 8 – 15 rep range.
Build Up Your Intake Over Time
So far, you know your calorie maintenance level, and you know the lean bulk calorie and macro nutrient targets – You’re good to start!
The numbers you have at the start will not be able to sustain you for the period of your bulk, if you are doing it correctly and achieving the muscle gain wanted.
There are three main reasons why you will need to increase your calorie overtake over time:
One of the factors affecting your total daily energy (calorie) expenditure is your bodyweight. This means that as your body weight begins to increase throughout your bulking period, your calorie requirement to maintain weight gain will also slowly go up.
Another reason is that muscle tissue burns a considerably higher amount of calories than fat tissue does. It requires a lot more energy to sustain, therefore as you increase the muscle mass on your frame, your calorie burn will increase with it.
Lastly, as mentioned in the training section of this (awesome) guide, your body is an adaption machine. Because of this, your metabolism will become used to the increased amount of calories, and become less efficient with daily activities such as walking, or even subconsciously lead you to fidget more throughout the day. This will lead to metabolic adaption to the calorie intake you are getting, meaning that over time, the lean bulking calories will become your maintenance calories.
These three reasons for increased calorie expenditure are usually not hugely significant individually, but when paired together, you will definitely notice an increase in the amount of calories it requires for you to put on weight – which is always a good thing, right?
How Much & When?
Unfortunately, I cannot give you an easy figure of increase your daily calorie intake by 100 every 10 days, because it just doesn’t work like that. Every person’s body will respond differently to a calorie surplus, meaning you will need to change your calories by a different amount, at a different time period to your friends.
Because of this, I will give you my recommended guidelines, and how to figure out when to use this yourself.
Throughout the period of your lean bulk, you should continue to weigh yourself every morning at roughly the same time when possible, and make notes of your weight each morning. Then find the weekly average by dividing the 7 day total weight by 7. If your weight has not increased for 2 weeks in a row, then congratulations, it is time to increase your calories!
This is the time where I would recommend increasing your intake by 50. I know it isn’t an exciting amount, and you most likely won’t even notice that addition to your diet, but remember – we are in this for the long term. The longer you can bulk for while keeping the fat gain down, the better your results will be.
Over time the 50 calories will add up, and you will soon find yourself eating 500 calories more than you started with… But don’t rush to get there.
In my experience, an increase of 50 calories is usually required every 1 – 2 weeks towards the start of the lean bulking phase, and then shifts to every 2 – 3 weeks as you progress. This is a good guideline to stick to, however, ensure you are monitoring your weight, and that you are not staying still, or moving up too fast.
Macro Target Change
As your calories increase, a common question is whether your macronutrient split should change, or stay the same.
This is largely down to personal preference, however, as your protein is already at a high level of 1.2g per lb of bodyweight, there is really no need to increase the intake of this macro, as it is unlikely to further aid or optimise your muscle growth. Not to mention that meat is expensive!
This leaves you with two options. It is always a good idea to fill the additional calories with carbohydrates, as these will provide you with energy and likely enhance your workout, which will have a direct effect on your performance and results from it.
50 additional calories = 12.5g carbs
It is also completely okay for the additional calories to come from an increased dietary fat intake if that is what you prefer, or even a mixture of the two. The additional fat is not needed, as your base requirement is being met from the original 25% of your intake, but that doesn’t mean that any above this will have negative effects.
If the additional fat comes from a good, nutritious source such as egg yolks, or avocado, then it could even lead to more performance benefits than the additional carbs.
How Much Weight Should You Gain?
One of the areas where most people go wrong when committing to a lean bulk is keeping their weekly weight gain to an appropriate level which will support their goals. When it comes to this there are two kinds of people:
The ones who gain weight too fast, and the ones who are scared to gain weight at all. You know which one you are.
As with most things discussed here, everybody will respond differently and there is no one size fits all for how much weight you should be gaining each week on a lean bulk, but there are some general guidelines which you should definitely be sticking to, or close to.
If you are lean bulking and gaining no weight at all, then this is not a good thing! Muscle grows very slowly and it is a long process, however, it is also a very heavy tissue. If you are not gaining weight on the scale then this is a warning size that you are not building muscle, or you aren’t providing your body with enough energy to sustain this muscle growth over a long period of time. So, we don’t want the scale sitting still.
Likewise, if you are gaining 2.5lbs per week, and the length of a good lean bulk is looking like anywhere from 6 – 9 months, then that would be 60 – 90lbs of weight gain through the bulk… Good luck keeping that up!
Weight gain of 0.5lbs per week is what I would recommend, and like to see during my own lean bulks. This is a very slow and steady rate of weight gain, which will allow muscle growth to stay competitive with the rate of fat gain. In this situation, you can expect to see that 50 – 75% of weight gain from muscle each week, which is unbelievable.
When building muscle at this rate and ratio to fat gain, even though you are putting on body fat, your body fat percentage will actually decrease due to the increase in muscle mass on your frame. Because of this, you will actually look like you are getting leaner, with more muscle pushing against your skin and making the layers of fat which are there look more defined.
This is exactly the goal of a lean bulk, which is why I always recommend shooting for 0.5lbs per week of weight gain.
How Long Should You Lean Bulk?
When you are lean bulking properly, you will be gaining weight slow than you would be losing when cutting. For example, it would be reasonable to lose 8lbs per month when cutting, but you should only be gaining 2lbs or so when lean bulking. This means that the time protocols should not be a 50/50 split between the two.
This is great for us as it allows us to maximise our time spent gaining muscle and eating more!
When it comes to deciding the length of your lean bulk, there are two directions you can take. You can either decide at the beginning a time period, with a set end date for your bulk, or you can start without an end date. The end date may instead depend on a variable such as a body fat percentage limit, or how you feel.
Which of these directions you would like to take should be decided by you, so below, I will go into detail on various ways to determine how long you should lean bulk for.
I would recommend trying several of these, if not all of them, in order to find which is most enjoyable, and most effective for you.
Set End Date:
The first protocol would be a 6/2 split. This would be a 6 month lean bulk, followed by a 2 month cutting phase. This allows a long enough period of time to gain some considerable muscle, and also gives a cut which is long enough to take it slowly so that muscle is not lost, and you will not have to restrict calories too hard.
The next option which I would suggest is a 9/3 split. This is common with bodybuilders due to giving a nice, long bulking period, followed by a 12 week cutting period which is long enough to get completely shredded.
The potential downside of this is that when correctly lean bulking, the amount of fat you gain is relatively low, meaning a 3 month cut may not even be needed! If like many people, you struggle to take things slow when cutting, I would reduce these lengths to around 6 weeks. If you followed the lean bulk process correctly, then this will be plenty of time.
The final protocol for this comes from the concept of how adaptive your body is. You will quickly become used to anything you do, meaning switching things up very regularly is often an effective approach, and one you should consider trying.
A way of doing this would be to do 6 week lean bulks, with 2 week mini cuts at the end of each, meaning each “cycle” is two months long. When extended over a year, this equates to 4 months of cutting, and 8 months of bulking which breaks the ratio in the others of 3:1 of bulk:cut, but due to the quick changes in the method, it works well this way.
I would recommend this way if the goal is to lose weight while building muscle (this is less optimal for muscle growth, so it is likely you will see less over time), while the first few are best for maximising muscle gain.
Variable End Date:
When lean bulking without a set end date, there are 3 ways variables which I would recommend basing your decision to finish on.
Body fat percentage – It is very hard to predict how long it will take you to reach a certain body fat percentage, however, it is a variable which is very important in the way you look. If this number becomes too high, then you will likely become unhappy with how you look, less confident, and less motivated.
Therefore, it is common to set a body fat limit on your lean bulk. Once this limit is reached, you begin to cut until you reach a set bodyfat percentage to then start the bulk.
The numbers you should follow for this will depend on your starting point and personal preference. However, some guidelines which would be quite common to follow for leaner people would be ending a lean bulk at 15% bodyfat, and ending a cut at 10% bodyfat.
For the slightly less lean of us, this would look more like ending the bulk at 18%, and ending the cut at 12-14%
Appetite Loss – It is very common when bulking to experience a lack of appetite as time goes on. This comes from the constant surplus being provided to your body. An excess of energy will likely down regulate your appetite, as your body does not feel the need for the level of energy it is being given.
Because of this, many people will hit a point during a lean bulk where they really struggle to get in enough calories to gain weight, and end up losing weight as a result.
Instead of looking at this as a bad thing, why not use this as a great opportunity to run a mini cut! By mini cutting, you will strip off some of the fat gained during your lean bulk, meaning when you continue it, you will be able to keep going for a long time. Also, by spending some time in a calorie deficit, you will be resetting your appetite.
After several weeks of restricting your food intake, you will notice that it is far easier to eat the required amount of food to gain weight when you go back into your lean bulk phase.
Strength Plateau – Reaching a strength plateau, where your numbers stop going up in the gym is another good sign that you should use to take a break from lean bulking.
As mentioned earlier, your body is an adaptive machine. This means that the constant stimulus for muscle growth will eventually generate less of a strength and muscle gain response. If you have not been able to improve your strength for several weeks, however your weight has continued to increase, then take this as an opportunity to have a mini cut.
By running a 3 – 6 week cut, you are switching up the adaption you are asking your body to do. This is effective because when you go back into the hypertrophy and strength training, the signal will come as a shock and generate much more of a response than you were receiving before the cut.
For tailored workout programmes to sustain maximal muscle growth while staying lean, click here.
So, is it possible to build muscle while staying lean, or even getting leaner? Yes. Absolutely.
If you have gotten this far through the article, then you now know exactly how to do it, so now it is time to execute the steps provided. If you follow them to a T, then you will have amazing results which will make all the effort worth while.
The main takeaway from this which I cannot stress enough is that it must be taken slowly. You can’t bulk up in 4 weeks, just like you cant get summer-ready in 6 weeks. It is a long process which must be considered at each step, and followed with care.
A proper nutrition plan should be in place in order to maximise your ability to build muscle, and an optimal workout programme is necessary to ensure you are sending a muscle building signal to your body.
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