Among many bodybuilders lean bulking is a well-proven concept of building muscle without getting fat. Lean bulk diet refers to a fairly low increase in calories consumed above your body’s needs to maintain current body weight.
In order to build lean muscle effectively, a lean bulk diet works best when combined with a proper weight training program.
This article explains how to set up the best lean bulk diet for you. The article covers lean bulk diet macro ratios, calories, a meal plan itself and gives away many more lean bulking tips.
How to Eat to Build Muscle
When looking for the best diet for muscle building, there is a high probability that you will come across the concept of bulking.
Bulking is a phase when you eat more calories than you expend in order to gain weight. Some of that weight will be muscle if accompanied by weight training and some will inevitably be body fat.
This will then be followed by a dieting phase and a cutting diet that puts you in a calorie deficit to lose excess body fat.
Generally speaking, that is how most fitness enthusiasts eat throughout the year to build muscle continuously.
However, such a process is often done incorrectly. Particularly in the amount of weight gained, the rate of weight gain, and the ratio of the total weight and muscle gained.
Dirty Bulking vs Clean Bulking vs Lean Bulking
The most common way of bulking is eating a lot more calories than needed to maintain current body weight and gaining weight fast. Such consumption of calories, mostly coming from highly processed foods is called dirty bulking.
Even though it has been a common strategy among bodybuilders in the past, it’s certainly not what most athletes do today.
Thanks to more extensive research, it’s proven that there is a limit to the amount of muscle an individual can gain. That means that consuming excess calories surpassing the amount needed for sufficient muscle growth will always result in fat.
Same rules apply even if all those excess calories come from clean foods. Therefore, if you follow a clean bulking diet, eating healthiest foods only, and vastly over-consuming calories, you’ll still get fat.
On top of that, the more fat you gain the more time you will have to spend in a dieting phase, increasing chances of muscle loss, if done incorrectly.
For this reason, the best approach to bulking is a lean bulking diet that puts you in a slight calorie surplus. This will still provide enough nutrients to build muscle while keeping fat gain to a minimum.
When to Start Lean Bulking
It’s natural that you may want to jump on a lean bulk diet from the get-go, however, it’s better if you assess the level of leanness first.
You see, if you are already overweight, even lean bulking will make you fatter but at a much slower rate. Thus, it’s best to start a lean bulk diet when you are lean.
I would recommend starting at around:
- 12-15% of body fat for men
- 22-25% of body fat for women
If you wonder how lean is that and don’t want to do body fat measurements and tests. It’s approximately at the point when you can see your 6-pack abs.
However, if you are overweight, it’s best to lose some fat first. Thus, going through the process of losing fat without losing muscle would be the first step before going into a lean bulking phase.
Lean Bulk Diet Plan: Calories and Macros
Same as when making a meal plan, the first step is to find an estimate of how many calories you are burning every day. In other words, find your caloric maintenance.
To figure out an estimate of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), you can use a TDEE calculator.
You can also use this formula:
Bodyweight (lb) X 15 or Bodyweight (kg) X 15 X 2.2
170 X 15 = 2550 (calories) or 170 X 15 X 2.2 = 2550
To test the accuracy of this estimate, you want to eat that number of calories and monitor your body weight fluctuations. For tracking your food intake, I recommend using a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal.
It’s impossible to calculate precisely, but it’s essential to estimate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
If you are losing weight, you are eating below your TDEE. Weight gain may indicate that you are eating above your TDEE. If your weight stays the same, you are eating approximately at your caloric maintenance level.
When you have found your caloric maintenance level, you want to create a small calorie surplus to ensure that lean bulk diet is sufficient for muscle growth.
An ideal calorie surplus will depend on various factors:
- Training experience
However, research suggests that for novice/intermediate athletes to increase calories by approximately 10 – 20%. In addition, it’s important to aim for a weight gain of about 0.25 – 0.5% per week.
For example, on a diet to gain muscle, a novice lifter with calorie maintenance of about 2500 calories should eat around 2750 – 3000 kcal.
More advanced athletes should be more cautious with a lower calorie surplus and weekly weight gain. For most advanced trainees a lean bulk diet with a calorie surplus of around 75 – 125 calories per day is enough.
Such a calorie surplus is appropriate for a diet to build muscle as it takes into account a realistic rate of muscle gain of advanced athletes (0.25 – 0.5% of body weight per month).
When it comes to female athletes, the calorie surplus and weekly weight gain rates are about half that of mentioned above.
Lastly, I would always recommend starting out at the lower end of the spectrum, while closely monitoring weight gain. Then increasing calorie surplus when needed.
Out of all three macros, protein is considered the most important one among most fitness enthusiasts. It’s the main building block of our muscles, important for overall health and function of our body.
Appropriate protein intake on a lean bulk diet is in the range of 1.6 – 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.7 – 1 gram per pound of body weight per day.
You may notice that a high protein diet plan for building muscle is not a requirement, as there is no calorie restriction. It’s opposite on a cutting diet where protein plays a much bigger role as it helps to retain muscle mass due to calorie restriction.
For example, a person with a bodyweight of 70 kg/155 lb could consume around 110 – 155 grams of protein on a lean bulk diet.
Alongside that, you want to distribute protein feeding evenly throughout the day consuming 3 – 6 meals. Which also includes a meal within 1 – 2 hours pre- and post-workout.
Similar to protein, fats are also proven to be essential. Sufficient amount of fat is crucial for overall health function and proper hormone production.
It’s advised to consume a moderate amount of around 0.5 – 1.5 grams of fats per kilogram of body weight per day or 1.1 – 3.3 grams of fats per pound of body weight.
This means that about 10-30% of your total calorie intake would come from fats.
As an example, a person consuming 3000 kcal could eat somewhere between 35 – 100 grams of fats.
Given the large range of fat intake, approximately 10 – 30% of the total calorie intake, it’s also suggested that more moderate fat intake of 15 – 20% perhaps is best.
Based on my personal experience I also think that such an amount of fats fits my eating approach better. Although, as you will discover later on in the article, fats and carbs can be interchangeable. So, you can choose what fits your eating habits best, as long as the recommended ranges are met.
After you have found out the ideal protein and fat intake for your body, research shows that the remaining calories can come from carbohydrates.
For instance, a 155 lb or 70 kg person on a 3000 kcal lean bulk diet could consume 155 grams of protein (620 kcal) and 66 grams of fat (600 kcal). The remaining 1780 calories could come from 445 grams of carbohydrates.
As mentioned earlier, the ratio of carbs and fats can be interchangeable, depending on your eating habits. For example, you can have a higher ratio of carbs while keeping fats lower and vice versa as long as the minimum threshold of fats is met (10 – 15%).
What to Eat on a Lean Bulk?
On a lean bulk diet, as is any healthy and balanced diet, it’s best to eat whole, minimally processed foods for most of the time (80-90%). Occasional processed foods can also be included, 10-20% of the time since they can make the diet more sustainable. Higher calorie-dense foods can also help consume the required calorie amount for lean bulking for individuals with low levels of appetite.
So, what to eat for building muscle exactly?
Unfortunately, there are no special lean bulk foods or muscle building foods that will make you gain muscle, nor there are foods to avoid when building muscle.
For the most part, your healthy diet for building muscle should include foods like:
- Meat and fish
- Eggs and dairy
- Potatoes, legumes and various grains
- Fruits and vegetables
- Natural nut butter, healthy oils, various nuts and seeds
In addition, some highly processed foods can also be included, as long as you stay within your total calorie range. Thus, foods like pizza, ice-cream, cookies, sugary cereal, chocolate bars, and even some alcohol can be a part of your lean bulk diet.
Remember, you are not required to consume only “clean” foods to build lean muscle mass without getting any fat. Since even the healthiest foods consumed in excess will make you fat.
Therefore, controlling the number of calories as well as eating a balanced diet in terms of macros and food sources is what matters. It also means that occasionally eating some less healthy, but tastier foods won’t ruin your progress. In fact, it might even make it easier for you to stick to a diet long-term.
Lean Bulk Meal Plan
Below you can see a sample lean gaining diet plan that could be suited for a person who aims to consume around 3000 calories on a healthy lean bulk diet.
Breakfast (Meal 1)
- 1 Scoop of Protein Powder (30g)
- Plain Oats, Dry Weight (100g)
- 1 Medium Banana (120g)
Macros: approx. 617 kcal; 40g of protein; 9g of fats; 94g of carbs
Snack Option (Meal 2)
- Dark Chocolate (50g)
- Mixed Berries (200g)
Macros: approx. 375 kcal; 6g of protein; 15g of fats; 54g of carbs
Lunch (Meal 3)
- Chicken Breast, Raw Weight (150g)
- Rice, Dry Weight (100g)
- Mixed Veggies (150g)
- Olive Oil (10g)
- Chili Sauce (10g)
Macros: approx. 703 kcal; 45g of protein; 15g of fats; 97g of carbs
Afternoon Snack Option (Meal 4)
- 2 Slices of Whole-Wheat Bread (80g)
- 1 Tbsp of Nut Butter (20g)
- 2 Tbsp of Jam (40g)
Macros: approx. 445 kcal; 13g of protein; 13g of fats; 69g of carbs
Dinner (Meal 5)
- Lean Ground Beef (150g)
- Pasta, Dry Weight (120g)
- Tomato Sauce (150g)
- Olive Oil (10g)
- Side Salad: Mixed Veggies (100g), Leafy Greens (50g)
Macros: approx. 860 kcal; 52g of protein; 20g of fats; 118g of carbs
Total Macros: approx. 3000 kcal; 156g of protein; 72g of fats; 432g of carbs
Lean Bulking Tips
Workout Program. During a lean bulk, your training and a lean bulk diet are equally important. Therefore, you want to follow a proper lean bulk workout plan and focus on getting stronger over time.
Recovery. To build muscle successfully, allow your muscles to recover and adapt. Pay attention to the levels of soreness, and try to avoid working out muscle groups that are still sore.
Sleep. Similar to the point above (recovery), ensure that you sleep at least 7 – 9 hours daily. This will allow your muscles to repair quicker and the whole body to function properly.
Fiber. Consume enough fiber-rich foods like fruits and veggies as they help you live longer.
Adjustments. Make sure to adjust your lean bulk diet if needed by increasing or decreasing calories, depending on the rate of weight gain. I recommend changing calorie intake by 100 kcal at a time, mainly by manipulating carbs and fats.
Water Intake. Drink plenty of water to avoid a decrease in exercise performance.
Cardio. Do some kind of cardio while bulking, 1 – 1.5 hours a week. Preferably low to moderate intensity, ideally in non-weight training days. Cardio can help you maintain good cardiovascular health, it keeps you fit and decreases the risk of various diseases.
Don’t Bulk Forever. Even when following a lean bulk diet, inevitably you will gain some fat, meaning that at some point you will have to diet down. Therefore set your body weight, body fat percentage goals from the start and go into a dieting phase when needed.
Frequently Asked Questions About Lean Bulk Diet
What Is a Lean Bulk?
The concept of a lean bulk emphasizes eating in a small calorie surplus of about 5 – 10%, ensuring maximum muscle growth while minimizing fat gain.
What Is Dirty Bulking?
Dirty bulking is being in a large calorie surplus by eating any kind of foods, including highly processed, fatty, junk foods. Such an approach results in fast weight and body fat gain.
Will I Gain Fat If I Clean Bulk?
Clean bulking is better than dirty bulking in terms of general health. However, excess consumption of healthiest foods on a clean bulk diet also results in unnecessary fat gain. Therefore, the lean bulking approach is the best option when the goal is to build muscle while keeping fat gain to the minimum.
Can You Lean Bulk and Lose Fat?
Some fat loss is possible while lean bulking, especially at the early stages of resistance training or after a long break from training. Such body re-composition occurs when the fat loss happens at the same time as muscle is being built. It can also appear that you lose fat while booking when muscle mass is built at a faster rate than fat gained, although it’s rare.
How Much Should I Eat on a Lean Bulk?
On a lean bulk diet it’s important to eat at a small calorie surplus, usually, 10 – 20% above your calorie maintenance if you are a novice/intermediate athlete. Advanced trainees should be more conservative and have 5 – 10% calorie surplus.
How Much Weight Should I Gain on a Lean Bulk?
Novice/intermediate lifters should gain about 0.25 – 0.5% of body weight per week. More advanced trainees should be looking to gain 0.25 – 0.5% of body weight per month.
A personalized lean bulk diet with adequate macros ratios and small calorie surplus can help you achieve a successful lean bulk transformation.
Additional focus on getting stronger in the gym, constant tracking of the weekly weight gain and adjusting when needed is the ultimate path for maximum muscle gain with minimum body fat gain.
I hope that now you are fully aware of how to set up the best diet when building muscle – lean bulk diet.
Feel free to contact me if you have more questions about the lean bulk diet or any other fitness topic!
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Germans is a writer, fitness enthusiast, student and the guy behind GFitness Online. He continuously educates himself and writes about various fitness topics. He is educated in marketing management and has experience in marketing and content creation.