You know that putting on even a handful of pounds of muscle mass can revolutionise the way you look.
Yet every time you try to do it you just end up putting on a lot of weight and then having to switch into a calorie deficit to lose it all again, inevitably ending up back at square one.
You hate being back at square one, it’s painful and frustrating.
It’s like your own little purgatory where you sit between where you want to be and where you’re most likely going.
Sadly, they’re different places.
Where you want to be is at the end of a bulk with a good amount of muscle gained but minimal fat gained.
However, where you find yourself is at the end of your bulk with your body fat sky high and not much muscle gain to show for it.
I will show you how to do this but before we dive in I just clarify one point.
You will gain some fat when building muscle, this is unavoidable and a normal part of the process. (Click to tweet this)
This is where something called a ‘lean bulk’ comes in.
A ‘lean bulk’ is best described as;
“The process of eating in small calorie surplus to encourage maximal muscle gain with minimal fat gain which can usually be carried out for a prolonged period of time whilst still looking good.”
Now to get the most out of your ‘lean bulk’ and to build muscle with minimal fat gain there are several things you need to do.
This article explores each of them.
Let’s jump in.
Get Lean First
You might be asking yourself, “why cover this point, isn’t it stupidly obvious?” or “uh duh it’s called a lean bulk” and you’d be right to a point.
Yes, it is obvious but still, a lot of people get caught up in how lean they should be and why they should bother.
Let’s look at both of these points in turn.
How Lean Should You Be?
This comes down to personal opinion but I recommend you aim for the below targets before you think about starting your muscle building phase;
Men - 8 – 12% body fat
Women - 12 – 15% body fat
There are 2 main benefits to getting lean before building muscle;
You look better
Calorie partitioning refers to where the calories go once you eat them or where they come from when you eat less of them, to or from muscle or fat. It’s the reason why some people will lose more muscle mass when losing fat or gain more fat when building muscle.
How To Improve Calorie Partitioning
Well, unfortunately for a lot of us, your genetics play a big role in your calorie partitioning and you can’t change this.
However, the other factor that influences your ability to partition calories is body fat percentage.
The good news is this is something you have direct control over and as your body fat decreases, excess calories will be more likely to be preferentially used for muscle building as opposed to fat storage.
This means the leaner you are, the easier you’ll find it to build muscle and keep body fat off.
The other benefits of being lean before you start building muscle is that you’ll be able to ‘lean bulk’ for longer whilst still looking good.
Why, you ask?
Think about it, how many times have you entered a ‘bulking’ phase only to build some muscle, put on some fat and call it off early because you don’t like how you look? By getting ‘abs lean’ (as in you can see your abs, at least top 4 in good light) first you increase the length of time you can eat in a calorie surplus and build muscle whilst still looking good.
This means your clothes will fit well, you’ll still feel confident and happy with how you look and you can build a good amount of muscle in one go.
Use a Small Calorie Surplus
The days of eating big to get big are over.
As much fun as it might sound to mainline milkshakes and stuff your face full of food at every waking moment in the name of muscle gains might be, this approach will ultimately leave you feeling fat, full, bloated and with a long road ahead to getting back into any type of shape that isn’t spherical.
The smart way to do it is to use a ‘lean bulk’ approach and gain weight in a slow and steady fashion.
Remember, the goal of muscle building is to;
Maximise muscle gain
Minimise fat gain
To do this you should aim to gain 0.5 – 1 lb a week for men and 0.25 – 0.75 for women, with the lower end being ideal for all but newbies.
How To Calculate Your Calories
Obviously to gain weight in such an incremental fashion requires only a small calorie surplus which for most people will be in the region of 250 – 300 kcals over their maintenance.
Keeping your surplus small means, you’ll be able to minimise fat gain whilst maximising muscle gain which should be your number one priority. The easiest way to calculate your muscle building calories is to use the following calculation;
Bodyweight in lbs x 16 = daily calorie intake
This calculation will put you in approximately a 300-kcal surplus, from here you need to track your weight and make any necessary adjustments to ensure you’re on track.
It’s worth noting that you can expect to gain muscle and fat at a ratio of 1:1, so for every pound of muscle you gain, you’ll gain the same in fat.
This is completely normal and to be expected.
If you can gain fat slower than this then power to you but for most people, this is what can be expected.
Again, this emphasises the benefit of being lean before you start.
Apply Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the act of increasing volume, intensity, frequency or time to put the body under tension above and beyond what it has previously experienced so that it adapts by becoming bigger, stronger, faster, etc.
It is a vital part of your training that without which no progress would be made.
It cannot be overlooked or ignored.
It is as important for building muscle as it is for preserving it and will be the key to your success along with properly setup nutrition.
Progressive overload comes in a variety of forms;
Volume – how many sets and reps you perform
Intensity – how much weight you lift
Frequency – how often you work out
Time – how long you rest between sets
Each method of progressive overload can work perhaps the most effective is intensity or the amount of weight you lift.
We’ve seen time and time again that muscle is a by-product of getting strong because your body must continue adapting (by getting bigger) to allow you to get stronger.
By manipulating intensity, you get all the benefits of progressive overload without needing to increase volume or frequency, which means you can keep your workouts from becoming too long or too frequent.
Don’t Use Cheat Meals
I don’t like or use cheat meals when losing fat and I definitely wouldn’t use them when trying to build muscle.
There's no reason to put the foods you like up on a pedestal like they’re some mystical things that you can only access once a week, on a designated day at a designated time.
I believe that if 60 – 80% of your diet is made up of nutritional foods then why the hell can’t you include some of the not-so-nutritional foods you like in there?
Answer - you can.
I know cheat meals work well for some people but for a lot of people they don’t and what was meant to be a controlled cheat meal becomes a no-holds-barred day of gluttony.
It’s the old ‘you want what you can’t have’ scenario and with;
Your cravings going through the roof
The social pressure to eat
Changes in your mood from day to day
Even those with the biggest reserves of willpower find it hard to resist and it’ll only ever end one way…knee deep in all the food, filled with regret and back at square one.
So, instead of yo-yo dieting back and forth between overly strict weekdays and fast and loose weekends, eliminate those cravings by allowing yourself to include the foods you like in your daily calorie allowance.
Ultimately, whether or not you’re gaining muscle will come down to whether or not you’re in a calorie surplus and how big that surplus is, not whether you had pizza, popcorn or a burger last Tuesday.
Eat Enough Protein but Don’t Neglect Carbs
We all know that protein is an important part of the diet but this is especially so when trying to build muscle mass in a calorie surplus.
When it comes to muscle building and your performance in the gym carbohydrate is also very important. This is because research (6) shows that glycogen stored in your muscles is the primary fuel source of moderate to intense exercise.
Add to this research (7) that shows a sufficient carbohydrate intake that keeps your muscle and liver glycogen stores full can improve workout performance.
Not only this but research (8, 9) shows that when compared a low carbohydrate intake (approx. 220 g per day) against a high carbohydrate intake (approx. 350 g per day) resulted in more strength lost, slower recovery and lower levels of protein synthesis.
When you want to gain muscle and minimise fat gain, you can see why a moderate to high carbohydrate intake is beneficial for you.
This is important as the more progress you can make, the better you can apply progressive overload and the harder you can work in your session the better when you want to build muscle.
Gaining muscle doesn’t have to result in massive fat gain followed by long periods of fat loss just to uncover the minimal amount of muscle you’ve gained.
Nor does it have to result in you hating how you look most of the time.
If you follow the rules set out above you too can build muscle whilst maintain a lean physique. Remember to make it work you need to;
Get lean before you start bulking
Use a small calorie surplus
Apply progressive overload to your training
Stop using cheat meals
Eat enough protein whilst leaving room to maximise carbs
Happy muscle building!