Ahh, the perils of trying to build muscle. You want to gain muscle so you look good, but you don’t want to hide that muscle under a frustrating layer of fat.
Committing to a bulk can easily end up with people spinning their wheels. They’re so scared of gaining fat that they end up increasing their energy expenditure through fidgeting, going for long walks, or additional cardio on the treadmill, that they completely negate the surplus they’ve put themselves in. Now, not only have they not gained any weight, but they’ve spent two to three weeks stressed out and exercising more than they should have been.
Suddenly, they’re plunged into a hopeless mind-set where they believe lean bulks are a complete myth only available as an option to those on steroids. In turn, this results them either sticking at their current weight, demoralized and downhearted, or going on a full binge-style dirty bulk where they eat whatever they can get their hands on. The first means they haven’t got any stronger or bigger whilst the second means they’ve probably improved their performance slightly and definitely build some size, but they’re going to have to spend even longer cutting down all for a minimal amount of muscle gain.
What’s Wrong with Traditional Bulking?
Nothing inherently. If you’re not particularly fussed with how you look, then a traditional bulk consisting of a 300-500 surplus each day for a set amount of months is a very viable way to add muscle to your frame. You just have to make sure that you don’t bulk for too long and don’t mind having to spend some time at the end chiselling the fat away.
The issue is when people bulk hard. When people first develop an interest in bodybuilding, powerlifting, or just gaining muscle and strength in general, they’ll often stumble across tens if not hundreds of ‘bulking’ articles all basically stating the same rhetoric of:
“IF YOU’RE HUNGRY, EAT. IF YOU’RE FULL, EAT. IF YOU’RE SLEEPING, EAT. IF YOU’RE DEAD, EAT.”
Sure, if you want to build muscle, then you’re going to have to eat more. Understanding the effect that calories have on our body is invaluable when it comes to any aesthetic or performance goal. Though, do you really need to eat that much? There are sites that literally state you should eat until you feel sick, wait until the sickness goes, then immediately commence the next meal. Not only is that incorrect and unnecessary, it’s not a viable way to live your life.
The effect of these hard-core bulks is that for every pound of muscle you add to your frame, you’re going to add two pounds of fat. Fantastic! You’ve gained 30 pounds in two months, but now you’re going to have to strip away 60% of that to actually be able to see the additional muscle. Not to mention, losing a bit of muscle is an almost unavoidable aspect of any cut, and if you’re the type of person who’s committed to such a drastic bulk, why would the cut be any different? Six months down the line you’ve gone through two bulks paired with the same amount of cutting cycles with nothing to show for it. Ouch.
Why Lean Bulk?
Lean bulking involves gaining size whilst minimising the fat gain.
Some of you may have just read that and thought:
“Minimizing?! I thought this was about gaining muscle with 0 fat whatsoever. This is absolute rubbish.”
Unfortunately, you can’t have it all. Some people will push the idea that you can build muscle upon muscle with not a shred of fat to show for it, but those people will also be pushing products that don’t work and have you in the same exasperated position as if you’d gone at it alone.
Lean bulks mean that you’re building a significant amount of muscle as well as gaining the least amount of fat. You won’t build the same amount of muscle as if you started eating a full fridge every day, but you also won’t look morbidly obese at the end. Comparing a lean bulk to an all-out bulk, you’re most likely going to build 80% of the same muscle mass and gain 80% less fat. Not a bad trade-off if you ask me. Not only are you going to look better throughout and at the end, but you won’t have to cut for as long afterwards.
Too many people focus too much on gaining size that they forget about the fat gain. This results in a whopping great surprise at the end when they look closer to a before picture than an after.
For instance, you might book a summer holiday at the start of the year and need to look good for the beach. Taking 4-5 months to lean bulk means that you’ll put on a fair bit of size and you have only have to cut for 2-4 weeks at the end. Though, committing to a big bulk would have you bulk for 3 months and cut for 3 months. Not fun. Also, having the ability to bulk for longer means that you’ll probably put on the same amount of size.
The key to adding muscle is learning how to lean bulk correctly.
How Do You Lean Bulk?
There are several different methodologies when it comes to lean bulking. No one method is ‘correct’ per say, it just comes down to you as an individual.
***FIRSTLY***, we’ve have the Lean Gains style. Popularized by its creator, Martin Berkhan, lean gains is based on fasting to minimize the eating window and therefore, limit the amount of calories you can eat each day whilst still feeling full.
This is an important but often looked over factor for anybody body recomposition goal. On a cut, hunger can make you eat more food than you want or have you stressed out over how much you can eat. On a bulk, hunger can either mean you can’t fit in enough calories or eat more calories than necessary which increases the amount of fat you’ll gain.
Lean gains is often associated with the ‘skinny-fat’ look (i.e. where you might look thin in clothes but have a noticeable amount of fat with your top off), but can really by used by anyone to add some useable size.
In a nutshell, lean gains consist of two phases:
- A 16-hour fast
- An 8-hour feeding window
16 hours sounds like a long time, but don’t worry. When you factor in a 7-9-hour sleep, that’s only a 7-9 hour fast when you’re awake. Throughout this time, you can have water, black coffee, and calorie-free beverages as well as three lots of 10 grams of BCAAs. Martin recommends spreading these out in two our intervals.
8AM: Wake up and take 10 grams of BCAAs
10AM: Take your second load of 10 grams of BCAAs
12PM: Take your third and final 10 grams of BCAAs
2PM: Eat your first meal (this will be your pre-workout meal)
6PM: Eat your next meal (this will be your post-training meal)
8PM: Eat your final meal
10PM: Recommence fast
Martin includes the BCAAs to make sure you don’t lose muscle in the fasted state, but they’re an optional extra. If you don’t have the money, then they’re not necessary. You won’t actually lose that much muscle in the fasted state if at all. Plus, whatever you do lose you should make up for in the feeding window when you eat in a surplus.
Obviously the times you get up and go to sleep will need to be adjusted for your particular schedule, but that’s perfectly fine. The main basis is in the length of the fast and feeding windows, they can start and end whenever you want. It’s completely scalable and adjustable to your lifestyle.
The reason this approach works is that it makes use of the anabolic and catabolic processes in the body. During the fasted window our catabolic signals will be switched on and therefore, our body should turn to our fat stores for energy. When we enter the feeding window, our anabolic signalling with take-over and our body will focus on building muscle.
Now, one of the biggest benefits of this approach is that many people feel that they don’t have to track calories and instead, can rely on a more intuitive approach. As you can only eat for 8 hours, your stomach is going to fill up very fast. Limiting this eating window also limits the amount of calories you can eat in a day. So, you might just want to track your protein and leave the rest up to what your stomach is telling you. This doesn’t mean you can just eat donuts and cake, but it does mean you might want to include some higher calorie foods to make sure you enter into a surplus.
The ***SECOND*** approach to lean bulking is by using mini-cuts. Mini-cuts are deficit periods you introduce throughout your bulk to keep your fat under control. Essentially, the calorie deficit you implement is not as drastic and the total cutting time is shorter.
The basic phases of a mini cut are:
- An 8-10-week traditional bulk in a 300-500 calorie surplus
- A 1-2-week mini-cut in a 200 calorie deficit
A shorter bulking phase will most likely warrant a shorter mini-cut and vice versa. There are no particular set times for how long you bulk or cut for so these are guidelines. You can also enter into a slightly heighted bulk erring on a 500-600 calorie surplus with a shorter, sharper cut in a 400-500 calorie deficit.
The real consistent and important feature of a mini-cut is not to cut down to your original body-fat. You’re trying to manage body-fat gain, not completely eradicate it down to the percentage you want to be after you’ve finished your bulk. This is a classic mistake that people make where their mini-cut turns into a full cut and they never really build any muscle at all.
The benefits to mini-cutting is that it will bring your hunger and appetite back up, something that can lower when bulking and cause you to force-feed yourself in order to get enough calories back in, and you can bulk a little harder with a more substantial surplus.
Mini-cutting is better suited to those are more advanced and experienced with their body as the less rigid rules mean that you need to understand both your mind and body fairly well to be successful.
***LASTLY*** you have the least drastic approach of entering into a slight surplus and managing and tracking your macros. If you don’t want to fast or cut throughout your bulk, then you can simply take more notice of your macros. We’ll call this the macro approach.
The basics of the macro approach:
- A 200-300 initial surplus
- Weighing yourself twice per week on the same days
- Adjusting your calories and macros based upon how your weight changes
You want to be aiming to add 0.5lbs/0.2kgs of weight per week. If the weight gain stalls or you start to lose weight, then you should add on 200 calories to your daily total from carbohydrates and fat. If you gain more than this amount, then reduce your daily total by 100 calories.
It’s important to note that your weight will naturally fluctuate due to a variety of factors such as water and stomach volume. So, track your weight for two full weeks (four weigh-ins) before adjusting your total calories.
The benefit to this approach is that it really gets you in tune with your body and allows you to micromanage your diet based upon how you feel. However, it also involves a lot of upkeep and adherence to be pulled off properly. Not everyone likes to scan the barcode of every food they eat. It’s also easy to become obsessive over food in your efforts to avoid fat gain.
The Final Word
The lean bulk that many websites and fitness ‘gurus’ state is a myth. Unless you’re going to slowly bulk over one to two years, then you’re going to gain a little fat. However, this doesn’t mean you need to turn into Homer Simpson. Choosing the right method of lean bulking comes down to you as an individual and might involve a bit of trial and error. Stay patient, stay dedicated, and most of all, stay happy. Remember, there’s no point in sacrificing your mind-set for a better body in the mirror.