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How to Build Muscle Mass Without Getting Fat When Training In A Calorie Surplus

trainingTheo Brenner-RoachComment
Minimise fat gain in a calorie surplus

You’re 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.

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 in turn.

Let’s jump in.

Get Lean First

You might be asking yourself, “why cover this point, isn’t it stupidly obvious?” or “uh duhhh 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 on 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 before you start building muscle?

This comes down to personal opinion but I recommend you aim for 8 – 12% body fat for men and 12 – 15% for women before you think about starting your muscle building phase.

What’s the benefit of being lean before starting to build muscle?

There are 2 main benefits to getting lean before building muscle;

  • Calorie partitioning
  • 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 do you 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 to 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 if 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 still 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 for a small surplus

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.

How to properly track your weight

It’s important to know the rate at which you’re gaining weight. Too fast and you’ll end up gaining too much fat in the process and much slower and you’ll be pretty much maintaining your weight. To ensure you’re on track you want to weight yourself daily and take a weekly average, comparing the change week to week to see how you’re doing.

Another good indicator is waist circumference which can be measured on a monthly basis, if you’re doing it right you want to keep it as stable as possible with only a small increase month on month.

How to adjust your calorie intake to keep you on track

After a couple of weeks of tracking your weight you should have a good idea of whether you’re on track or not and can then make a decision about what you need to do, if anything. If you’re gaining weight too quickly then remove 25g of carbs (100kcals) and if you’re gaining weight too slowly then add 25g of carbs (100kcals). Then all you need to do is track your weight again for 2 weeks to see if it fixes the problem.

If it does, great! If not, then do it again. It shouldn’t take too long until you find your sweet spot and are consistently gaining 0.5 – 1 lbs per week.

Realistic expectations

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 emphasise 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.

How often should you train?

I’m a firm believer you can and will build muscle in 3 or 4, one-hour workouts a week provided they are set up correctly.

You definitely don’t need to be in the gym 5 or more times a week for more than an hour each time, it’s unnecessary and quite frankly isn’t lifestyle friendly. Remember, if you’re not a professional athlete, bodybuilder or powerlifter then you DON’T need to train like one.

You can get the results you want (muscle gain) with 3 workouts a week which also allows sufficient time for your body to recover between sessions which is where the real growth happens.

What about sets, reps and rest times?

Prioritise your compound movements before adding a few isolation exercises to round out your physique and complement your training routine. This is also the perfect time add in some additional work for lagging body parts if you need to. [LINK]

My recommendations are:

  • Always aim to leave a rep or 2 in the tank
  • Use 1 – 3 compound movements per body part
  • Rest 2 – 3 minutes between sets on your big compound movements
  • Use isolation exercise on the smaller stubborn muscle groups i.e. middle shoulder head, calves, rear shoulder head, biceps and triceps
  • Rest 1 – 2 minutes between sets on isolation exercises
  • Work within the 3 – 9 rep range for compound movements for 3 – 4 sets
  • Work within the 8 – 15 rep range for isolation movements for 3 – 4 sets

Avoid the temptation to keep adding more and more as there is such a thing as the point of diminishing returns. It’s foolish to keep thinking you can add more exercises, more sets, more reps and more training days whilst still being able to adequate recover and progress. More is not always better.

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. I won’t go into the full reasons why here, you can read that by clicking here.  What I will say is that there is 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 you 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? 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 even those with the biggest reserves of willpower find it hard to resist. Add in the cravings, social pressure and general up and down moods you experience across the week and it’s only ever really going to end one way…knee deep in all the best foods, filled with regret and back at square one.

So, instead of yo-yoing back and forth between overly strict week days 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.

Relax and learn to work in some of the treats you like around the rest of your diet which is made up of nutritional foods.

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.

How much protein is enough protein?

Research (2) shows that a protein intake between 0.6–0.9 g per lb of bodyweight is adequate for maximising protein synthesis. This same study also recommends that eating closer the 0.9 g per lb mark may be advantageous for those eating in calorie deficit to help preserve muscle mass.

Another study (3) found that 0.8g per lb of bodyweight is the optimal daily intake to promote muscle growth in those who perform regular strength training. The researchers of this study also noted that those who perform endurance as opposed to strength can get away with as little as 0.5–0.6 g per lb of bodyweight.

Another study (4) concluded that their results were “unable to show any significant evidence indicating that protein intakes above 2.0 g per kg per day [was effective] for enhancing strength and body composition changes in college strength/power athletes.”

This study in particular highlights the fact protein intake above 1g per lb of bodyweight is not necessary for the recreational to semi-serious weightlifter, given that even under the physical demands of their training college strength and power athletes gained no additional benefits from a protein intake over 2g per kg which is the equivalent to 0.9g per lb.

Where does this leave us?

Right here - optimal protein intake to build muscle mass is 0.6–0.9 g per lb of bodyweight, with the idea of sticking closer to 0.9 when eating in a calorie deficit and closer to 0.6 when eating in a calorie surplus. Now going over this recommendation isn’t bad for you but it will impact your intake of fat and carbs which can affect your performance in the gym.

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 (89) 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.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose fat and preserve muscle mass or gain muscle and minimise fat gain you can begin to see why a moderate to high carbohydrate intake is beneficial for you if you’re strength training regularly. Obviously, depending on your total daily calorie allowance your carb intake may not be that high but it does go to show that keeping your carbs as high as possible can result in improved performance in the gym which translates to more progressive overload, more strength and more GAINZZZZ.

Summing Up

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!

If you want to learn how to maintain your new muscle mass when losing fat, click here.


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