The term “lean bulking” is a bit unnecessary when you consider it should rarely be someone’s goal to “fat bulk.” There’s also the concept of “dirty bulking,” which is a term for bulking without a care for how much fat is gain in the process. Doing so is simply not a smart approach to building muscle since it is much harder to get rid of excess fat once you’ve gained it.
This guide is going to teach you about the principles of lean bulking, as well as how to create your own nutrition, training, and supplement regimen to build muscle without gaining excessive amounts of fat tissue.
Misconceptions of Bulking
When most gym-goers think about the concept of bulking, they think it means “eat everything in sight because the more food I consume, the more muscle I will grow.” Unfortunately, that is not how your body operates physiologically. If anything, excessive calories are more readily stored as body fat than as extra muscle tissue.
As mentioned before, dirty bulking is an inefficient way to go about improving your body composition since getting rid of large amounts of body fat is very time-consuming and not a fun experience. Why waste all the time to build muscle and when you’re just going to have change directions and negate the benefits in the future from extreme cutting? It’s an effort in futility, I assure you.
Nutrition Basics: Macronutrients
The term “macronutrient” denotes the major components of someone’s diet that are required in relatively large amounts to promote healthy development and maintenance. For humans, the 3 main energy-containing macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
This energy comes in the form of heat called calories; carbohydrates and proteins contain approximately 4 calories per gram, while fats contain about 9 calories per gram. Water is also categorized as a macronutrient, but it is devoid of energy and calories.
The primary role of macronutrients is simply to provide nourishment to the body. While the calorie content of macronutrients is vital to survival, there is much more to them than just their calorie content.
Proteins are an essential macronutrient in terms of aiding the building and repairing of muscle tissue. For this reason, many bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts alike often eat a large amount of protein compared to the average individual.
All proteins are made up of molecules called amino acids, which can be thought of as the building blocks of proteins. Amino acids bond together to form 3D structures that give proteins their specific functions in the body.
When you eat protein, the body breaks down the amino acids into smaller peptide chains and individual amino acids and puts them to work. Skeletal muscles just so happen to be the largest reservoirs of amino acids in the human body. This is largely the basis for how muscles hypertrophy after training and eating properly.
Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are usually categorized as either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates include common household ingredients such as table sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, fruit sugar, and molasses. Sources of complex carbohydrates include grains like whole wheat, oats, barley, quinoa, rice, lentils, and potatoes.
Carbohydrates, when utilized properly, are quite conducive to building muscle and retaining it better when trying to lose body-fat.
Many people have an irrational fear of fats; they assume that the more fat they eat, the fatter they will get. Fortunately, that is not exactly how the body works and fats are quite an essential part of everyone’s diet.
Fats are essential for maintaining cell structure integrity and play a variety of roles with regards to cellular function. Therefore, fats are imperative, especially for active individuals. They also tend to be more filling than carbohydrates or protein on a per gram basis.
Fatty acids come in either saturated or unsaturated forms. The reasons certain fat sources, like butter and margarine, stay solid at room temperature is because the melting point is elevated compared to unsaturated fat sources, like olive oil. This is to say that saturated fat sources have a higher melting point than unsaturated fat sources.
Micronutrients and Fiber
Micronutrients are a part of foods that don’t provide caloric energy but still perform a range of physiological duties and are vital to maintaining optimal health. These include vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and organic acids. Many of these compounds serve as antioxidants in humans, which are crucial for reducing oxidative stress.
Most people don’t need to overly track their micronutrient intake so long as they are eating a generous amount of fruits and vegetables throughout the day. Also, certain supplements like multivitamins can help ensure you’re meeting your micronutrient needs.
Fiber is another important component of one’s diet. Both soluble and insoluble fibers aid the digestion process, help maintain intestinal integrity, assist with mineral balance, improve heart health, and improve blood lipids.
How to Calculate Energy Needs for Lean Bulking
Step 1: Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) by multiplying your bodyweight in pounds by 12.
Step 2: Determine your Total Daily Expenditure (TDE) using your lifestyle activity factor:
- Sedentary: Sitting at a desk most the day with no formal exercise
- Multiply BMR by 1.2
- Moderately Active: Moderate exercise 1 to 3 times per week with little activity otherwise
- Multiply BMR by 1.3
- Highly Active: Rigorous exercise 3 to 5 times per week and modest activity otherwise
- Multiply BMR by 1.4
- Extremely Active: Rigorous exercise 4 to 6 times per week and a labor-intensive day job
- Multiply BMR by 1.7
Step 3: Since the goal is to build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus (particularly on training days). Thus, multiply your TDE by 1.1 to calculate your calorie goal.
On rest days, match your calorie intake with your TDE.
Step 4: Determine your macronutrient intake as a percentage of your calorie goals.
- On training days, consume 35% of your calories from protein, 40% from carbohydrate, and 25% from fat
- On rest days, consume 40% of your calories from protein, 30% from carbohydrate, and 30% from fat
Also, note that you should consume roughly 20% of your carbohydrates in the form of dietary fiber.
And there you have it, it’s that simple. Now that you have figured out your nutrient needs for lean bulking, let’s talk a little bit about the finer points of nutrition.
Fluid intake doesn’t have to be strictly managed like a lot of gym-goers insist. In fact, the easiest way to measure how hydration you are is simply assessing your urine color. Dark yellow urine means you’re dehydrated, while clear urine means you’re drinking enough. If you want a rule-of-thumb that’s easy to follow, aim to consume about one ounce of water per every kilogram you weigh. If you weigh 100 kg, drink at least 100 oz of water per day.
Frankly speaking, you can eat pretty much any food you want so long as you’re reaching your calorie and macronutrient goals each day. However, most active individuals stand to get the most out of their training and lifestyle by consuming nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods. This includes things like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meat, nuts, eggs, and certain dairy products.
It’s also important to remember that since muscle can’t repair without the necessary amino acids, eating complete protein sources with each meal is beneficial for maximizing muscle growth and staying lean. As such, you should aim to eat at least 20 or more grams of complete protein with each meal. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, try to consume quality plant-based proteins with each meal.
Importance of progression
One key factor in the gym determines how much your body changes, regardless of your training program: progression. Progression seems so simple, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who have been grinding away at the gym for years and have so little progress to show for it. Do you know why that is? Because they don’t challenge themselves.
Your muscles have absolutely no reason to grow if you lift the exact same weights for the exact same repetitions workout after workout. Each week you need to be further challenging yourself with more reps, more weight, and more intensity.
When you stop making progress in the gym (which is inevitable), take a week to deload and recuperate. During this week, you should also increase your food intake to enhance recovery.
How often you should train
Contrary to popular bodybuilding workouts that only target each muscle once per week, research shows that the best results come from training each muscle at least twice per week. If you have certain stubborn muscles that just won’t grow, you might even need to train them three times per week. Don’t worry, as long as you keep the training volume appropriate, you won’t overtrain yourself.
Below is an example of an efficacious workout split that targets each muscle twice (or more) per week:
- Monday: Upper body with strength emphasis
- Tuesday: Lower body with strength emphasis
- Wednesday: Cardio day
- Thursday: Upper body with hypertrophy emphasis
- Friday: Lower body with hypertrophy emphasis
- Saturday: Training day for lagging muscle groups
- Sunday: Rest day
Ultimately, your training split can be set up in many ways with a little creativity. Determine your immediate goals and use that as a foundation to create a proper training split.
Compound vs. isolation lifts
Compound exercises include those that engage several muscle groups at once. These movements recruit greater amounts of muscle fiber than isolation movements, which are single-joint exercises. Essentially, compound exercises give you much more bang for your buck than isolation exercises.
Moreover, compound exercises, such as barbell squats, presses, rows, and chin-ups, allow you to use more weight, which means you increase tension placed on working muscles.
Therefore, your focus should be on compound exercises. Use isolation exercises as “assistance” exercises or finishers after you have already completed the compound movements for the day. Examples of isolation exercises are dumbbell curls, tricep press-downs, dumbbell lateral raises, and leg extensions.
Cardio should always be the lowest priority if your goal is to build muscle and be lean. This is mainly because weight training is so much more metabolically demanding than cardio, especially in the long-term. As such, your goal is to keep cardio as minimal as necessary while you build muscle and burn fat. It’s okay to do a few light cardio sessions (around 25-30 minutes or so) just for general health and recovery each week, but don’t go crazy with it.
One thing that needs to be made clear before moving on to supplement recommendations for your lean bulking plan is that supplements are not nearly as crucial to your success as proper diet and training are.
This is not to say that supplements are worthless, as that is simply not the case. Instead, it just restates that the most beneficial thing you can do is nail your diet every day and train consistently, and once you have then let the supplements come into play
Consider using a pre-workout product during your lean bulk. Many pre-workouts are formulated around caffeine and other stimulants, with a blend of other worthwhile ingredients like creatine, citrulline malate, and beta alanine.
Below is a list of some well-researched, effective pre-workout supplements to consider. The flagship Jacked Factory pre-workout, ALTIUS, contain all of the ingredients in this list so you can maximize your training.
- Arguably the most effective supplement available, creatine works by hydrating muscle cells and accelerating the regeneration of ATP.
- Studies show that about 3-5g of creatine per day is necessary to sustain saturated intracellular levels.
- Creatine can also be taken after your workout if you prefer
- Helps with nitric oxide production and enhances athletic performance.
- Begin with a dose of 6-8g.
- If desirable, you may use up to 20g of L-citrulline per day for max effects.
- A baseline dose of 10mg per kg of body weight should be used first for tolerance purposes.
- After that, doses should be incrementally increased until roughly 3-6g is being taken daily.
- Caffeine has been shown to boost athletic performance, increase focus, and improve cognition.
- The general dose recommendations for performance enhancement with caffeine are 1-3mg per kg of body weight. There are about 200mg of caffeine in a “strong” cup of coffee.
- It is best to take caffeine on a relatively empty stomach, about 30 minutes before training.
- A branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) or essential amino acid (EAA) supplement may be utilized before, during, or after training. This is likely a worthwhile consideration for those who train fasted and won’t be eating soon after their workout is over.
- Dosing for BCAAs will vary based on your body size and the ratio of the BCAA mixture; a starting point is to use ~10g of BCAAs with a 4:1:1 ratio of leucine, valine, and isoleucine, respectively.
- Whey protein powder may be useful if you don’t have time to eat a solid-food meal and need a quick, high-quality source of protein.
- Use protein powder as needed to hit your daily protein intake goals.
- Casein protein supplements digest a bit slower and can serve as a great snack before bedtime.
- You can’t really go wrong by using a multi-vitamin. They provide plenty of health benefits and work as a sort of safeguard against any nutrient deficiencies that may arise from not having a well-rounded diet.
- Follow the label of your specific brand of multi-vitamin for proper dosage.
Omega-3 fatty acids
- Assists in lowering LDL cholesterol and keeping blood lipid profile in a healthy range.
- Helps improve joint and skin health.
- Aim for roughly 4-5g of fish oil per day.
How much muscle mass should I be trying to gain per week?
The goal during a lean bulk is not necessarily to aim for a specific amount of pounds to gain each week. Rather, consistently add quality muscle tissue over an extended period. It’s safe to say that you should really be looking to gain 0.25-0.5lbs of muscle per week without much excessive fat gain at all.
Also keep in mind that more experienced individuals may progress very slowly, especially if they are already near their genetic or natural potential in terms of muscle mass. Newbies, on the other hand, may be able to put on up to 2lbs of muscle per week for the first few months without much excessive fat gain.
How should I measure and track progress?
Using both a scale and progress photos every week or two is ideal. Don’t rely just on the scale, however, as weight fluctuations are certain; these can throw your mindset off if you see large jumps one way or the other.
Take pictures from the same positions, same lighting, same area, and same time of day each week or two.
Weigh yourself daily at the same time, preferably after waking and using the restroom, then average your weight at the end of the week.
What if I’m having trouble gaining weight?
Increase calorie intake on training and non-training days by 5% and reassess after one week. If you’re still not gaining weight, add another 5% to your calorie intake on both training and non-training days. Reassess as necessary to continue gaining weight at a good pace.
What if I’m gaining weight (specifically fat) too fast?
If you find you’re gaining fat tissue faster than you’d like, reduce your calorie intake on non-training days by 10%. Alternatively, you may add up to four 30-minute cardio sessions throughout the week. Then reassess your progress and see how your body reacts. You may have overestimated your calorie needs with the initial calculations and should reduce the activity factor.
Can I be successful without supplements?
Of course, your diet and training being on point will have a much greater impact on your long-term success. Supplements are not magic and won’t do the work for you.
About the author
Elliot Reimers, CNC, M.S. Candidate