The Art of Lean Bulk: How to Gain Muscle While Staying Lean

So What’s a Lean Bulk!?

It’s the holy grail – staying lean while gaining muscle – and at some point, everyone’s been after it. At the outset of all those pursuits, there’s always the dreaded question; “can I bulk without the fat?”

Unless you’re new to weightlifting, properly weightlifting, or don’t mind taking something extra, a lean bulk may be the only way.

Let’s get the most fundamental question out of the way. If the fat gain is inescapable, exactly how much of it do you have to bear? How little of a calorie surplus can you get away with while maximizing your gains?

Eager to avoid the recurring trap of cutting and bulking the same ten pounds every time winter and summer roll around, I combined personal experience and all the relevant science to come up with the most effective bulking method.

Before You Dive In

First, consider these beneficial suggestions. They’ll make the bulk a much easier endeavor.

To maximize gains and minimize fat, your calorie surplus will be minuscule. Hence, you may subject yourself to meticulously calorie counting for efficiency’s sake.

However, the best way to ensure you’re staying within your surplus is to weigh yourself on a daily basis under similar conditions. If your weight is straying off the projected path, your nutrition may be off!

Further, make the meticulous calorie counting easier. Recording macros can be fastidious but tracking apps like MyFitnessPal make hitting your daily goals much easier!

Before MFP, I’d record all my macros on an Excel spreadsheet. So trust me, anything that makes the process simpler is worth pursuing.

Finally, adopt a challenging resistance training routing. Keep track of your lifts and reps, and constantly add to your regiment to ensure progression.

The Ins and Outs 

Maximizing muscle gains with the absolute lowest possible fat gain – also known as body re-composition – is surprisingly straightforward. While the process itself requires discipline, the ins and outs are well known.

So if you do it right, the results are more or less guaranteed.

With the hard part out of the way, let’s break down exactly how you’re going to get there.

I’d like to credit the work of a couple of people in figuring out the lean bulk blueprint. Namely, Lyle McDonald and Eric Helms. These two have contributed greatly to my understanding of how to lean bulk.

It is the combination of personal experience, research, and their contributions, that I base my understanding off.

So What’s The Maximum Amount Of Muscle You Can Expect?

You’re trying to build the ideal body, your ideal body. It’s understandable that you’re concerned about the fat gain, but your main worry should be maximum muscle gain.

Think about the muscle gain. Don’t concentrate on the fat.

Having said that, exactly how much muscle you can gain depends on a variety of factors.

Specifically, are you new to weightlifting? Have you been working out for years? Maybe you’re getting back after an injury?

Whichever stage you’re in, you probably fit into one of three categories; beginner, intermediate, or advanced.

Here’s a breakdown of possible gains at each stage. Think of it as your muscular return on investment.

Note that this is the expected muscle gain. Your actual body weight will also increase since at least some fat will accompany the muscle.

Here’s a useful chart, complements of Lyle McDonald.

Stage Rate of Muscle Gain (Men) Rate of Muscle Gain (women)

First Year

1-1.5% total body weight/month 0.5-0.75% total body weight/month

2-4 years

0.5-1% total body weight/month 0.25-0.5% total body weight/month

4+ years

0.25-0.5% total body weight/month 0.125-0.25% total bodyweight/month

Possible Exceptions

There are some exceptions to the above chart.

Newb gains are often mentioned when speaking about concurrent fat loss and muscle gain. In the same vein, coming back from a long layoff, and starting a proper workout routine is another possibility.

The idea behind those exceptions is simple. Unlike more experienced weightlifters, those that are new to weightlifting, or proper weightlifting, can enjoy gains at almost explosive rates.

Tantamount to a health phenomenon, the reasoning does have some scientific backing and was evidenced in a recent study.

Specifically, a University of Kansas study1 placed “30 physically active non-dieting healthy men on a 10-week resistance training regimen.”

The researchers noted “improvements in one-repetition maximum bench press and parallel squat (24 and 23%, respectively) in the subjects.”

The study displays scientific backing for the notion that non-dieting (non-calorie deficit induced) individuals new to weightlifting can achieve explosive gains without fat accumulation.

Interestingly enough, the newb phenomenon is most strongly supported not by research, but by the bodybuilding community itself. Anecdotal accounts, which should often be discounted as broscience, are in this case indicative of the phenomenon.

Why? The claims are almost universal. The idea is mirrored across every fitness community. Further, most notable bodybuilding figures have concurred with the notion to some extent.

Back To The Gains

However, there is no question that even newb gains are more pronounced when on a slight surplus.

By way of example, if you were on a calorie deficit for your first year of weightlifting, and gained 5 pounds of muscle, an appropriate calorie surplus would’ve led to double the gain.

So how do you achieve that gain? Although the number is notoriously hard to ascertain, the research we do have places one pound of muscle at around 2,500 calories.

Unfortunately, because of the accompanying fat gain, the number comes closer to 3,500 calories. Hence, to gain one pound of muscle, you need to eat 3,500 calories over maintenance.

This is why nutrition and training are imperative for the optimal concurrent effect we’re all seeking. A proper diet ensures that you gain that pound of muscle through the least amount of calories.

The right diet, along with progressive resistance training, enables optimal muscle growth. To quote Eric Helms;

“Training is the actual stimulus while nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth. What do I mean by permissive? I mean that nutrition can permit the growth of muscle tissue but it is not the root cause. That is the function of training. “Eating to grow” is a misnomer. All you can do is eat to provide the ideal environment to permit growth. You can train to grow, but you cannot truly eat to grow.”

Determine Your Surplus

Figuring out your daily caloric surplus is easy. Provided the rate of maximum muscle gain, and the number of calories it takes to gain one pound of muscle, you simply plug the numbers in.

To figure out how the numbers work, here’s an example based on a 140-pound “beginner” lifter. The example was originally provided by Lyle McDonald.

According to the figures mentioned earlier on, as a male beginner lifter, you can expect monthly muscle gains of 1 to 1.5% of total body weight. Those figures translate to 1.4 to 2.1 pounds of muscle per month.

To make calculating easier, we’ll take those numbers at a flat rate of 1.5 pounds.

Since each pound of muscle requires 3,500 calories of surplus, our imaginary lifter would multiply each pound by 3,500 and then divide it by 30 days.

Hence, as a beginner, you’ll multiply 1.5 pounds by 3,500. The resulting 5,250 calories is the surplus you to be in surplus to gain those 1.5 pounds. After you divide by 30 days, you’ll get 175.

As a beginner 140 pound lifter, you’ll need a daily surplus of 175 calories to gain 1.5 pounds of muscle in a month.

Level Gain Surplus/Month Surplus/Day
Beginner 1.5 lbs/month 5,250 calories 175 calories
Intermediate 1 lb/month 3,500 calories 120 calories
Advanced 0.5 lbs/month 1,7500 calories 60 calories

“Wait, the more calories I eat, the more muscle I gain!?” No, you’ll just get fatter.

So that’s how you calculate an effective surplus. But don’t make the mistake of thinking a bigger surplus translates to more gains. In fact, it’s the opposite.

A 2013 study2 reflected our understanding of the excessive calories. Specifically, the research focused on two groups; one on a restricted and advised diet, while the second was given free reign over theirs.

The former group was instructed to eat around 500 calories over maintenance, while the latter stuck to around maintenance.

The result? Both groups experienced similar lean body mass gains (around 2.6 to 3.7 pounds), but the latter group – which stuck closer to maintenance – gained only .4 pounds of fat, while former gained 2.4 pounds.

To sum it up; eating more calories than needed won’t transgress your genetic and hormonal boundaries! You can only gain so much muscle.

Hence, even on a bulk, you still have to watch how much you eat!

Tying It All Together

Unless you’ve just started weightlifting, or are getting back after a lengthy layoff, the key to efficiently gaining mass is accepting that it takes time!

Accepting the slow pace is not the only psychological factor to deal with. In order to ensure long-term success, recognize that life exists outside of fitness and dieting.

Specifically, recognize that from time to time, you won’t stick to your workout and nutrition regimen as meticulously as you’d like.

You’re going to binge, overeat, and mess up. You’re not a robot.

Understand that no one besides you will notice the 1% increase in body fat. Chances are, you’re already more fit than 99% of the general population anyway.

“But I don’t care if they can’t tell, I can!” That’s great, but besides the fact that you’re probably overreacting, going overboard this way will only ensure burnout at a quicker rate.

Seek Balance and Don’t Lose Your Sanity

The way I see it unless your livelihood depends on your body fat being ridiculously low and lean body mass being unattainably high, there’s no reason to subject yourself to extremely restrictive conditions.

Hence, unless you’re a bodybuilder, personal trainer, or a model, it doesn’t matter. These people retain their shape because it’s their career. For them, it’s not a hobby!

There’s a way to enjoy life while staying fit. You can stay on your lean bulk, but don’t feel guilty if you go out and enjoy yourself.

Remember; if you mess up, it’s fine. Learn from it, don’t dwell on it, and try again!




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