lean bulking

Lean Bulking: Build Muscle, Not Fat

Alright, we’re talking lean bulking in this article. AKA clean bulking, AKA no fat gains, AKA lean gains, AKA….whatever you want to call it.


If you are even remotely into fitness and working out, you probably know that bodybuilding is a never-ending alternation of bulking and cutting phases. Or off-season and on-season as the professionals call them.


So basically in the bulking phase, you eat a lot more than you usually do, in order to get bigger and stronger. Then, you need to diet down, get that muscle definition back and try to lose all the fat while preserving the muscle mass. And it goes on and on.

That’s pretty much how everybody is doing it.

What’s wrong with normal bulking?

Unfortunately, most weight gaining diet plans or supplements companies, and the media in general, will tell you that you need to eat big in order to get big. Everybody’s recommending to eat six meals a day and get in as high as 4,000 calories.

Heck, if you would follow the instructions on most mass gainer supplements on the market you will need to get up to 2,000 calories from your shake alone. That’s insane. But that’s how everybody in the food & supplements industry is making their money, so that’s that.

The issue with the “eat big to get big” approach is that you will end up looking fat and not aesthetic at all. The vast majority of the calories you are eating will be turned into stored body fat, not muscle mass.

So at the end of your dirty bulk phase, you’ll end up frustrated because:

  •         You spent a shit load of money on food and supplements
  •         You don’t look the way you wanted to look
  •         You need to spend months and months to lean down again
  •         You will probably lose a ton of gains as you are trying to get lean

So all in all, dirty bulking is definitely not the optimal approach if your goal is to have a nice muscular and lean aesthetic body that will turn heads on the street.

If you only care about getting bigger and stronger, by all means, eat all you can eat – but that is not healthy and it is not visually appealing.

lean bulking

What IS lean bulking?

OK, we’ve tossed around the term “lean bulking” a lot, but what exactly is lean bulking?

I don’t think there’s like a scientific definition for it, but lean bulking is all about following a diet plan and a training regimen which supports maximizes muscle growth while minimizing body fat accumulation.

It’s a well-known fact that you can’t build muscle without putting on some fat as well. That’s how the human body works, there’s science behind that.

There are only two situations in which you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time:

  1.       You are a complete newbie, untrained, just getting started working out
  2.       Or you are using steroids (you are not doing it naturally)

But most of us will not be in any of the two situations, so the best option we have is the lean bulking thing.

From a nutritional point of view, it has been proved that eating in a mild caloric surplus of just 10-15% is the sweet spot for lean bulking. Considering an average caloric maintenance level of 2,500 kcal (which is pretty reasonable for the average guy), this means that you only need to eat just about 250-375 extra calories a day in order to build muscle effectively while staying as lean as possible.

That’s like just 1 extra sandwich or a tall glass of milk each day. That’s it!

Now, if you put those 250-375 extra calories next to the +2,000 kcal the supplement companies are telling you to eat, you get why most guys end up bloated and looking like Santa Claus after their bulking phase.

Do I bulk or cut?

This is a question that pops out a lot on the forums. How do you know if you need to cut or to bulk?

Well, it’s pretty simple actually. All you need to do is figure out your body fat percentage and go from there.

For guys, I would say that if you are over 12% body fat you would be better off if you would cut to about 9-10% body fat and start your lean bulking from there. For gals, I’d say the threshold would be around 18-20% body fat.

The reason you want to lean down before you actually start bulking is that you will have more time to spend bulking. And more time spent in a caloric surplus will mean more muscle gains.

During your lean bulk you will probably gain 0.3-0.5% of body fat each week, so if you start from 10% instead of 15% you will be able to bulk for 10-12 weeks more, which is great.

If you don’t know how to determine your body fat percentage there is a really cool and inexpensive tool called Body Fat Caliper which is pretty accurate.

How to lean bulk:

First and foremost you need to get your numbers right. If you are just a little bit off it won’t work.

The first thing you need to figure out is what your total daily energy expenditure is (TDEE).

Your TDEE will include all the things that are eating up calories:

  1.       Your basal metabolic rate
  2.       The thermic effects of foods
  3.       Your physical activities

As far as I know, there is no way you can determine each of those 3 components really accurately by yourself unless you get to a lab and get you checked up. However, there’s a really easy way of figuring out your TDEE at home.

Here’s the step by step process I used to find my TDEE:

  1.       Use an online calculator such as this one to find out your BMR.
  2.       Multiply the value you get with 0.8 (most BMR will over-estimate)
  3.       Multiply the value above with 1.1 to add in the thermic effect of foods
  4.       Depending on how hard you train multiply the value above with a factor of 1.2 to 1.6 (roughly)

As you can see there are a lot of factors and variables in the equation, but using the formula above will get you a close enough value.

Now, set your meals so that you get in the number of calories you calculated and weight yourself every day throughout the course of 2 weeks. If you maintain your weight you’re good. If you either lose or gain weight you need to re-adjust your numbers until you body weight remains the same.

Once you nailed it, that’s your TDEE and that’s the starting point for your lean bulk.

Say your TDEE is 2,300 calories. This means that your lean bulk caloric intake should be somewhere around 2,500 – 2,600 calories a day.

Continue to monitor your body weight throughout your lean bulking process. You should gain weight at a rate of 0.5 to 1 pounds per week. If you are gaining more than that, it means you are putting on too much fat and you need to lower your caloric intake. If you are gaining less than 0.5 per week, it means you are not eating enough and you need to up your calories.

Generally speaking, if you gain muscle mass and fat at a rate of 1:1 you are doing good.

lean bulking

Here’s you’re lean bulking macro split

Another common question that I get a lot is how should I split my calories when I’m bulking?

You should think of it this way. The macros that you get from your food should support your goals, right? And your goals are to have good workouts so that you can build more muscles.

Here is an effective macro split for bulking:

  •         1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight
  •         50-60 grams of fat
  •         Get the rest from carbs

As you can see this split would actually result in a high protein, high carb diet which is great for building muscles.

First and foremost you get in enough protein to support muscle growth. As you may know, our body breaks down protein into amino acids which are the building blocks of the muscle fibers.

Then you get a lot of carbs which is an absolute must if you want to perform well in the gym. Carbs are the primary source of energy we use when we work out, so the more carbs you eat, the better. I know this sounds counter-intuitive because nowadays there’s a big hype around low carb diets, but the truth is that a high carb, high protein diet is the best thing for health, active individuals.

A high carbs diet will increase the production of testosterone and will maintain your metabolism in check.

Lastly but not least, you need to eat around 50-60 grams of fat just to keep things running smoothly at a hormonal level, the maintain the health of your skin, joints, hair and stuff like that.

So I would recommend to set up your protein first, then the fat and then fill the rest of the calories with carbs.

Using intermittent fasting when lean bulking

I’m a big advocate of lean bulking and of Intermittent Fasting. And the fact is that Intermittent Fasting works great with a lean bulking type of diet.

With IF you get to plan your meals throughout the day so that you have at least 8 straight hours when you don’t eat anything. So the perfect example would be to completely skip breakfast and have your first meal of the day at 1-2 PM.

The whole philosophy behind IF (in fact it’s science, not philosophy) is that insulin levels will drop when there’s no food inside our system. And the body picks up that signal and tells is to go after stored fat and use it as an energy source.

So you could fast during the morning and burn fat, and then eat all your calories in the second part of the day. As long as you achieve your target caloric intake you will still be in a surplus and build muscle.

But then again, you have the advantage that you will offset some of the fat you’re putting on by doing Intermittent Fasting.

So, even though IF is often used when you cut, it can work out really well for lean bulking as well. If you don’t believe me give it a try and see how it goes.

lean bulking

What kind of training routine to follow when you’re lean bulking

Alright, so we’ve talked a lot about dieting, but what about training.

As briefly mentioned before, if you want to build muscle you need to follow the progressive overload training principle. With progressive overload, the focus of your training regimen is to constantly growing stronger.

So, let’s say you can do 40 push-ups. A progression towards a more difficult workout wouldn’t be to simply do more reps, but to do clap push-ups for example, or one arm push-ups.

You need to constantly progress towards a more difficult variation of an exercise, or even try out different movements. Go from squats to pistol squats, from dips to weighted dips, from chin-ups to single arm chin-ups, and so on and so forth.

Reverse pyramid training style works hand in hand with progressive overload. After you warm-up, jump right into the most difficult and challenging exercises and then gradually move into less difficult movements as you fatigue.

How long should my lean bulk be?

It all depends on your starting weight, or better yet, on your starting body fat percentage.

Ideally, you want to stop at around 16-18% body fat if you are a guy and around 27% if you are a girl.

So if you’re doing it right I will gain approximately 0.4% of body fat per week, which means you could have your lean bulking phase last as long as 25 weeks. If you’re doing some Intermittent Fasting as well and you can offset some of the fat you’re gaining, you can probably bulk even longer than that.


Remember to check your body fat levels and see if you need to cut more or you can jump straight into the lean bulking phase.

Then, before you actually start bulking, take 1-2 weeks to track your calories and weight yourself each day to determine what is your TDEE. This step is really important to make sure you get your numbers right. Otherwise, your lean bulk experiment will not work as expected.

Once you have your TDEE, put 10-15% on top of it and that is the caloric target for your lean bulk. Continue to measure your body weight and stick to 0.5 – 1 pound per week gain.

Feel free to incorporate Intermittent Fasting or alternate high-calorie days with low-calorie days to offset some of the fat gains, and lastly but not least, train hard. Try to improve your strength. If your strength goes up it means you are building muscle.


About the Author

Tyler is an NASM certified personal trainer with over 10 years of experience and a B.S. In Exercise Science. In addition to training a wide variety of clients, Tyler is also the founder and senior editor of PTPioneer.com; a website designed to help people become industry leading personal trainers. You can also check out PTPinoeer’s YouTube channel as well.