Ep. #971: How to Lean Bulk (Maximize Muscle Gain, Not Fat)
Hello there. I am Mike Matthews, and this is Muscle For Life. Thank you for joining me today for an episode on Lean Bulking, which is something I have spoken about many times over the years, but it has been a while since I recorded a kind of comprehensive monologue on how to do it correctly, and so I thought it would be worth taking some time to do that and.
That is today’s episode, how to set up your diet and your training to maximize muscle growth while minimizing fat gain. But first, do you sometimes lack the energy and the motivation to get into the gym? Do you sometimes want to hit the snooze button instead of the squat? And are you sometimes just not able to give a hundred percent in your workouts?
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What do I mean by lean bulking? Let’s actually start with bulking . So bulking is a method of dieting that involves temporarily maintaining a calorie surplus, so consistently eating more calories than you burn, so as to maximize the amount of muscle and. You can gain. Now, why do you need to do that?
It is necessary to consistently eat more calories than you burn because that strongly affects muscle growth. It strongly affects your body’s muscle building machinery, so to speak. Those mechanisms. The mechanisms that produce muscle growth simply run best when energy is abundant. So if you are not brand new to weightlifting, if you are, your body is hyperresponsive to training and you are going to gain a lot of muscle and strength almost regardless of how you eat.
But once that honeymoon phase is over, once your newbie gains have been exhausted, if you don’t. Eat enough calories, you are going to struggle to get bigger and stronger. It is not just about eating enough protein, it is also about eating enough calories and enough calories. Unfortunately, again, if we want to get as big and strong as possible, means consistently eating more calories than we.
Burning. And this is also why when you restrict your calories for fat loss, you don’t gain much muscle and strength. Muscle protein synthesis rates drop. So the rate at which your body can create new muscle proteins, and of course, Repair damaged muscle proteins goes down. Hormones are negatively affected, at least as far as muscle building goes.
Testosterone tends to go down, for example, cortisol tends to go up, and also your workout performance suffers. And again, once you are past your newbie gains, The most reliable way to continue gaining muscle is to continue gaining strength and to continue gaining strength. You have to perform well in your workouts and for those reasons then if you want to build muscle, Effectively as an experienced, or at least an intermediate weightlifter, novice would be maybe one year of training.
So if you have at least one year of training behind you and you want to build muscle effectively, you have to make sure that you are not consistently in a calorie deficit. You have to make sure that you are not consistently eating fewer calories than you burn. The only practical way to do that is to do the opposite to regularly feed your body a little bit more calories than it’s burning.
So that’s bulking. Now, there are two schools of thought, two philosophies of bulking. One is the traditional kind of old school method. Dirty bulking as it is sometimes called, which involves eating as much food as you possibly can, gaining weight as quickly as you possibly can. You know the seafood diet as the bodybuilders like to say.
And then there is the lean or clean bulking philosophy, which involves regulating the number of calories. And the types of food that you eat so that the majority of the weight, or at least 50% of the weight that you gain is muscle, not fat. Ultimately, how much muscle versus fat you will gain is going to come down to dietary compliance and genetic factors.
A successful. Clean bulk for some people is probably a 50 50 split between muscle and fat gained. So 50% of the weight gained is muscle and 50% is fat. And in other people it might be 60 to 75% muscle with the remaining being fat. And fortunately, I don’t think that anyone. Is going to have to accept worse than 50 50.
I don’t think that there is any scenario where somebody can gain no more than, let’s say 25% muscle with the remaining weight gained being fat. If that happens, that is because they are making mistakes, dietary mistakes, training mistakes, even in people who feel they are hard gainers or who know that they don’t gain muscle and strength as quickly as maybe some of their friends or other people they know in the gym.
That phenomenon is often the result of a low appetite. Many people who are self styled, hard gainers struggle to maintain a calorie surplus. They naturally just don’t eat that much food. And then sometimes they also are lower responders to training and research. Does show that different people do respond differently to the same training.
So you can have a scientifically optimal training program and put 10 people on it, and six of them are going to respond moderately well, and two of them are probably going to respond very well if this were a properly randomized 10 people. Of course that’s a small sample size, but I. Keeping the numbers small to make it simple.
So if we have six kind of in the middle, that respond fairly well to the training, and then two of them respond really well to the training, and then two of them respond not so well to the training. But in the not so well group, we’re not talking about no response. We are just talking about a lower response than everybody else.
It might be 20, 30, 40% lower, but it is not zero. So let’s say the people in the middle of the. Let’s say that over the course of whatever time period, it doesn’t really matter. For the example, they gain 10 pounds of muscle. The low responders might gain 5, 6, 7, 8 pounds of muscle, whereas the high responders might gain 15, 16, 17, 18 pounds of muscle.
So anyway, coming back to Lean Bulking, the point. Of Lean Bulking is to maintain a small to moderate calorie surplus instead of just eating as much as you can or as much as you want to whenever you want to. And as a result, you do gain weight slower and you probably will gain strength slower than if you just.
Eight with reckless abandoned, but your body composition is going to benefit from that. A much larger percentage of the weight that you do gain when you lean bulk is muscle instead of fat. Now, before I talk about how to lean bulk properly, I want to discuss dirty bulking a little bit more because many people choose to do that, especially people who are new to weightlifting, and there are usually a few reasons that people will.
Go forth. The dirty bulk method one, it requires less precision and it requires less discipline. You don’t have to control your food, you just eat whatever whenever. Also, dirty bulking allows you to eat as much as you want with no restrictions on the types of food or the number of calories that you consume.
And so often what that means is massive cheat meals, so a consistently elevated caloric intake, and then huge spikes. Finally, the third reason why many people choose to dirty bulk is it’s often espoused by bloggers and YouTubers and other influencers. Many of these big guys, usually guys, say that it’s just the best way to bulk up fast.
And so in the short term, at least until you. Completely disgusted with yourself. Dirty bulking can be more enjoyable. You don’t have to worry about following a meal plan or tracking your calories or even paying attention to your calories or macros, and you get to eat all kinds of delicious foods whenever you want.
But the problem is you gain fat. Fast. Your body can only gain muscle so fast regardless of how much you eat. You can’t just force your muscles to grow faster by eating more calories, but you can force your fat cells to expand by eating more calories and your fat cells have a much. Larger capacity for expansion and they can grow a lot more rapidly than your muscle cells.
And many people will look at the weight that they are gaining when they’re lean, bulking, and tell themselves that it’s lots of muscle, mostly muscle, but the reality is often the opposite. They are gaining a lot more body fat. Muscle. Now, a common counter argument to this point of fat gain gaining too much fat too quickly is that you can simply diet it off.
So why does it really matter? If you understand how energy balance works? You understand how macronutrient balance works and you understand how to make effective meal plans, losing fat is very straightforward. So what’s the big. There are a few problems. One is when you gain fat too quickly in a bulking phase, you can’t maintain that bulking phase for very long, maybe a couple of months until you are so fat that you just can’t continue.
You actually do need to start cutting, and if you are an experienced weightlifter, you are not going to gain any muscle or strength to speak of while you are cutting. If you have gained a lot of fat while bulking, let’s say you stretch it to three or four months, and now you have a lot of fat to lose, you’re a guy at, let’s say 20 to 25% body fat now, or you are a woman at 30 to 35% body fat and it’s gonna take six months now of cutting when you factor in.
The reality that a cutting phase never goes exactly the way that we would like it to go. It always takes a bit longer than we would like Sometimes we need to take diet breaks, so let’s say it’s six months of dieting now to get back to seeing your abs so you can start bulking again while you have three to four months now of the calorie surplus.
And if you are an experienced weightlifter, how much muscle can you gain in. Period, a couple of pounds at best, followed by six to maybe even eight or nine months, depending on how much fat you have gained of dieting. And in that period, you are not going to make much progress or any progress really in your physique, in your performance.
And now there only are a couple of months left for an entire. Year, and if you make the most of those couple of months, maybe you can gain another couple of pounds. So now we’re looking at what three to five pounds of muscle gain for the entire year, when maybe physiologically you could’ve gained twice that amount if you would’ve managed your bulking and cutting phases better.
There’s also a point of motivation. At least 50% of why we do all of this stuff is to look good and nobody is happier. The fatter they get, the fatter we get generally the worse we think. We look regardless of objective standards. That’s just how we experience. The process of weight gain subjectively. And so fitness just gets less fun as we get fatter and it gets a lot less fun as we get a lot fatter and less fun means less motivation to train, and that means more missed workouts.
And even if you don’t miss workouts, let’s say you are super disciplined and you get into the gym, regardless of your level of motivation, it is going to affect equality. All of your workouts because it is basically impossible to maintain the same level of focus and intensity and quality in your training when you are really not enjoying it.
If you think to workouts where you really enjoyed it, or periods of time when you were really enjoying your training, and if you just think about the quality of those workouts, the quality of every rep, every set, it is generally. Higher than when you are not motivated to train, when you are not enjoying your workouts.
And that, of course is totally normal. And one of the many reasons why it’s important to make sure that you are following a workout routine that you generally enjoy. You are not going to enjoy every workout. You are always going to enjoy having worked out, but you should generally look forward to most of your workouts and.
Enjoy them. So those are the major reasons why I don’t recommend Dirty Bulking to anybody really. I don’t think the few benefits related to picking out all of the time outweigh the disadvantages that I just shared. What I do recommend, of course, is lean bulking, and really what this comes down to primarily is capping your calorie surplus at somewhere between five and 10%.
So consistently eating five to 10% more calories than you burn every day. Several studies show that is a sweet spot for maximizing muscle gain while minimizing fat gain that is eating 15% more calories or 20% more calories than you burn every day, is essentially no more effective at increasing muscle gain than five to 10% more calories than you burn every day.
But 15 to 20% more is of course more effective at gaining fat. Now, how do you do that? A simple rule of thumb is a 10% ish calorie surplus for most people is about 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day. And to get more specific there, if you are lightly active, so let’s say you’re doing one to three hours of vigorous activity per week, and that would include strength training, I would say start with 16.
Calories per pound of body weight per day, and I also would urge you to do at least three strength training workouts per week if you are doing just one to two strength training workouts per week. I wouldn’t recommend lean bulking. I would just recommend maintaining, which is usually around four. 15 or so calories per pound of body weight per day.
So if you are moderately active, so let’s say you are doing five or more hours of exercise or vigorous activity per week, and that includes a few, at least a few strength training workouts per week, try 17 calories per pound of body weight per day. And if that doesn’t have you steadily gaining weight, even if it’s at a.
Pace, but steadily gaining weight and strength, then move up to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day. Now if you are highly active, if you are doing seven to 10 plus hours of exercise or vigorous physical activity per week, then you probably are going to have to eat more than 18 calories per pound of body weight per day, and to calculate your.
Caloric target, I actually would recommend using a calculator. So if you go over to legion athletics.com and you look at the menu, you will see learn. And then if you go to tools, you will find T D E calculator, total daily Energy Expenditure. Calculator you can put in your information, your gender, your weight your height, your age, how active you are, and then it will give you an estimate of approximately how many calories you are burning every day.
And it will help you figure out what a slight surplus would look like. It will help you figure out your macros. It’s a very useful calculator. And so that’s calories. Now, how should those calories break down into macros? It’s pretty simple For your protein, eat around one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
If you wanna go down to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day, that is fine as well, and you do not need to eat more protein. That you can if you want to, but eating more is not going to help you bulk up faster. I wish it did, but it doesn’t, and there is some evidence that following a very high protein diet, so let’s say one and a half to two grams of protein per pound of body weight, Per day, while bulking may help minimize fat gain, but it is probably not a very significant effect, and most people don’t enjoy eating like that.
And so when they try to follow a very high protein diet, Dietary compliance goes down and they get worse results. Now, as for dietary fat, if you get 20 to 30% of your calories every day from fat, that is enough for health and for performance and for flavor, and that leaves plenty of room for your protein in carbs.
And your carbohydrate intake, of course, is the calories that remain. That is 40 to 60% of your daily. Calories are going to be coming from carbs. And the reason why I recommend a high carb diet while lean bulking is it keeps glycogen levels high. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in your liver and in your muscles, and it is a source of fuel, a very effective source of fuel, especially with intense training.
And that then of course, improves your performance in the gym and. The better you perform in the gym, the more muscle you can gain. And research also shows that keeping glycogen levels high positively impacts different genes that are associated with muscle growth. So to go back to the muscle building machinery analogy, research shows that your body’s muscle building machinery works best when calories are abundant and carbohydrates are abundant.
Now let’s talk about meal planning. So how do you take those caloric and macronutrient targets and turn them into a meal plan that you actually like? There are foods that are conducive and not conducive to lean bulking, just as there are no fat loss foods. There are no fat gained foods, but there are foods that are better for losing fat.
Those are foods usually that are very filling and don’t contain many calories. And then there are foods that are better for lean bulking and those tend to be hardier foods. So let’s talk about some sources of protein. I like to stick to lean protein because again, we are. Not following a low fat diet, but we are not giving ourselves 50% of daily calories for fat.
And if we don’t pay attention to where we are getting our protein from, that fat can accumulate quickly. So some good lean proteins for lean bulking, sirloin, steak ground. Beef, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, seafood, especially low fat fish like tilapia, cod, catfish, and so forth. Egg whites are good.
Chickpeas are good. Greek yogurt or skier, I prefer skier. The Icelandic version of Greek yogurt. Codish cheese is great, especially low fat, codish cheese and low fat milk works. Also, some of these high protein milks that have hit the scene over the last couple of years, I’ve seen them, I guess mostly from that company.
Fairlife. Those can be great as far as carbs go. When you’re lean bulking, you still want to make sure that you are getting the majority of your calories from nutritious foods, relatively unprocessed foods. Now, because you are eating a lot of calories, you have a little bit more wiggle room here, whereas when you are restricting your calories, it is actually even more important to eat a lot of nutritious food because you are not eating as much food when you’re lean bulking.
Personally still like to go for 80%, at least 80% of my total calories from nutritious stuff. But some people find that difficult and draining because they get sick of eating so much of some of the stuff I’m gonna share with you. And they go down to maybe 60 or 70% of total calories from relatively unprocessed, highly nutritious food, and they allot 30 to 40% of calories, not too junk.
But to stuff that you can’t really say is all that nutritious, like white bread, for example, or pasta. So healthy carbs, so to speak, for lean bulking, include quinoa, white or brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta, Ezekiel bread or whole grain bread, potato, oats, granola, broccoli, and really any other kind of vegetable that you.
Eat peas can be great, corn can be great. Of course that’s a grain, but it also should be on the list. And it is smart to get in some dark leafy greens every day. Spinach is my go-to for that. Now as far as fats go healthy fats include avocado, whole eggs, all oil, almonds, or almond butter. Peanuts or peanut butter.
Really any nut or any nut butter pachios are great. Coconut oil is fine, although it is high in saturated fat, so I would recommend limiting your intake of that. I lean heavily on olive oil. That’s basically my go-to for. Any sort of oil walnuts are fantastic. I love walnuts, especially in oatmeal seeds.
Any kind of seeds that you might like to eat are a good source of fat, and of course, lean protein does provide some fat as well, and it provides some saturated fat, which is good. Saturated fat is not bad for you, but eating too much saturated fat is bad for you. I recommend no more than 10% of your daily calories come from saturated fat.
Now, as far as your training goes, there actually shouldn’t be. Big difference between how you train when you are cutting versus maintaining versus lean bulking. You should still be doing the same types of exercises. You should still be working in the same rep ranges. You should still be using the same progression models.
However, when you are lean bulking, You are going to be able to recover better than when you are maintaining and cutting. You are going to have higher energy levels. You are going to be able to really push yourself in your training. And so that is the rule of thumb when you are lean, bulking. If you have the time and the inclination, you want to try to push yourself to basically the maximum amount of volume that you can do and still recover from, and you want to make sure that you are pushing yourself close to muscular failure in all of.
Your sets and really focusing on having the best workouts that you possibly can. And as far as what that volume looks like for experienced weightlifters, it is usually in the range of 15 to 20 hard sets, and those are sets taken close to muscular failure per major muscle group. Per week. That is about the most US natural weightlifters can recover from.
Now, if you wanna learn more about Lean Bulking or if you want to see a lot of what I talked about today in writing so you can process it better, head over to legion athletics.com, Search for Lean Bulk, and you will find an article called The Definitive Guide on How to Lean Bulk that I wrote, and it has basically everything I’ve shared with you today.
And then also search for hypertrophy hyper. Trophy and that just means muscle growth. And check out my article called Hypertrophy Training Best Workout program for hypertrophy, and that will teach you more about the basics of muscle growth and give you some programming tips for creating a workout program that will help you get the most out of your lean bulk.
I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have. Ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email, mike muscle for life.com, muscle f or life.com and let me know what I could do better or just what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.