So you’ve decided that you want to bulk up.
But there’s one thing you need to know – bulking up isn’t as easy as eating whatever you want and putting on weight.
If you’re like most fitness enthusiasts looking to build muscle mass, you probably want to stay lean while bulking up. To do that you need to take into consideration a few aspects when it comes to lean bulking.
In this article, I will cover 20 tips you can apply to do just that. Follow them and you’ll be well on your way to adding muscle mass without getting fat.
Here is the list of tips that will help you stay lean while bulking:
- Maintain a Small Caloric Surplus
- Choose Clean Bulking Over Dirty Bulking
- Calculate Macros for Lean Bulking
- Optimize Pre, Intra and Post Workout Nutrition
- Consume Protein in Every Meal
- Don’t Have Massive Cheat Meals
- Follow IIFYM (Occasionally)
- Consider Incorporating Mini-Cuts
- Perform Both Compound and Isolation Exercises
- Stick to Low to Medium Rep Ranges
- Keep Rest Intervals at Least 90 Seconds
- Train With High Enough Volume and Intensity
- Track Workouts and Make Sure to Progressively Overload
- Don’t Skip on Cardio
- Pay Attention to Your Recovery
- Get Plenty of Sleep
- Stay Consistent and Follow the Plan
- Take Measurements and Progress Pictures
- Be Okay With Gaining Little Body Fat
- Have Realistic Expectations
But first, some basics.
What is Lean Bulking?
Lean bulking is the process of gaining muscle while minimizing fat gain.
It is often seen as the more desirable way to bulk, as it leads to a leaner physique. Compared to traditional bulking, where you might aim to gain as much weight as possible in a short period of time, lean bulking takes longer but results in less body fat gain.
Recommended Reading: Lean Bulk Diet for Lean Muscle Gains
How Does Lean Bulking Work?
During a lean bulking diet you provide your body with slightly more calories than it needs to maintain its current body composition.
This slight caloric surplus helps your body add muscle more easily.
Furthermore, it will allow you to slowly put on muscle mass over time without adding much body fat.
But inevitably you will put on some body fat. Therefore, bulking phase is often followed by a cutting phase that puts you in a calorie deficit to lose excess body fat.
Why Is It Important to Lean Bulk
Since lean bulking provides a slight caloric surplus, your body will be able to put on more mass compared to other diets where the calorie intake is at maintenance, extremely low or restricted.
Furthermore, this type of diet can help you maintain relatively lean physic while putting on a good amount of muscle mass and getting stronger in the gym. Worth noting that this increase in muscle mass will boost metabolism, which means that you will be burning more calories throughout the day.
Who Is Lean Bulking For?
Lean bulking is not for everyone.
If you currently have excess body fat and are struggling to lower your body fat percentage, then lean bulking may not be the right approach for you.
Lean bulking is probably not for you if:
- Your body fat percentage is above 15% body fat for men and 25% for women
In case if you already have a high body fat percentage, you should probably consider following a cutting diet instead of bulking. Then, after a fat loss phase, once your body fat percentage is below 15% body fat for men and 25% for women, you could transition into a lean bulk.
On the other hand, you probably should be looking to lean bulk if:
- Your body fat percentage is below 15% body fat for men and 25% for women
- Or if you are transitioning from a fat loss, reverse dieting or body composition phase
How Long Should You Lean Bulk?
The duration of a lean bulk will vary from person to person.
Some people may find that they can stay in a small caloric surplus indefinitely without putting on any body fat. On the other hand, others may only be able to maintain a relatively lean body composition while staying in a caloric surplus for just a few months at a time.
As a general guideline, you should try to lean bulk for as long as possible. In most cases, that’s about 6 – 8 months.
At the end of the day, your body fat percentage should dictate when it’s time to transition into a cutting phase.
For instance, as soon as you notice that the definition in your abs goes away and you start feeling unsatisfied with your body fat level – it’s time to seriously consider going into a fat loss phase.
Lean Bulk Tips to Stay Lean While Bulking
Now, with the basics about lean bulking out of the way, let’s look at 20 tips that will help you stay lean while bulking.
1. Maintain a Small Caloric Surplus
As discussed above, you’ll need to provide your body with extra calories. This caloric surplus will allow you to build muscle mass without getting fat quickly.
Choosing an appropriate caloric surplus is probably one of the most important aspects when ensuring your lean bulk is a success.
The size of the calorie surplus varies from person to person depending on:
- Training experience
For example, someone who is already very lean (10% body fat for men and 20% for women), over the age of 18, with more than 2 years of weight training experience and wants to keep maintain leanness while bulking, may only need to maintain a small caloric surplus of ~50 – 100 calories per day in order to continue putting on lean muscle mass.
Conversely, someone who is at a similar body fat percentage level, under the age of 18, and with less than 2 years of training experience may need to provide their body with a larger caloric surplus of ~200 – 400 calories in order to put on muscle mass while also staying relatively lean.
In other words, untrained (novice/intermediate) athletes can get away with a higher caloric surplus since they are prone to more progress in building lean muscle mass with minimal body fat.
According to a narrative review about nutrition recommendations for bodybuilders, novice/intermediate athletes should increase their calorie consumption by 10-20%. The aim is for them to gain 0.25-0.5% of body weight each week.
On the other hand, advanced athletes should be more careful and aim for a weekly weight gain half that of novice/intermediate athletes.
That would be about a 5 – 10% increase in calories and a target weight gain of 0.15 – 0.25% of body weight per week or around 0.5 – 1% per month.
Let’s imagine that you are a novice/intermediate athlete, your weight is 75 kg/165 lb and you burn 2500 calories daily. So you could start by increasing its calorie intake by 10%.
2500 X 1.1 = 2750
I would strongly recommend starting out with a lower caloric surplus, while closely monitoring weekly weight gain. Then you can slowly increase your calorie surplus when needed to meet the weekly weight gain targets.
To learn more about how much weight you should aim to gain every week – check out the guide on bulking weight gain per week.
2. Choose Clean Bulking Over Dirty Bulking
It’s important to consume mostly clean foods while bulking.
This means eating mostly whole, minimally processed foods that are high in protein, fiber, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
Some good examples of foods to include in your bulking grocery list:
- Lean meat such as chicken, turkey, fish and others
- Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, etc.
- Eggs and dairy including whole eggs, egg whites, cottage cheese, and milk
- Fruits and berries, for example, apples, oranges, kiwi’s, blueberries, strawberries, and others
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, and others
- Complex carbohydrates such as oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
By choosing clean bulking over dirty bulking you’ll not only help minimize the amount of body fat that you gain while bulking, but you’ll also be providing your body with essential nutrients that it needs to build muscle mass.
Recommended Reading: Clean Bulk vs Dirty Bulk – Which One is Best to Gain Muscle?
3. Calculate Macros for Lean Bulking
It’s also important that you properly set up your lean bulking macros – protein, carbohydrates and fats.
If you’re having a hard time determining your macronutrient needs, check out the article about how to calculate your lean bulk macros. The featured calculator in the article should help you figure out the best starting point for your lean bulk.
4. Optimize Pre, Intra and Post Workout Nutrition
As mentioned earlier, nutrition is key when it comes to ensuring lean muscle growth.
This means ensuring that you are providing your body with the right nutrients before, during and after your workouts.
Ideally, before your workout, you should be consuming a pre-workout meal or snack that contains at least 15-20 grams of protein and 25-30 grams of carbohydrates about an hour before your workout.
This will help provide your body with the energy it needs to perform at its best during your workout.
Some good examples of pre-workout meals include:
- Protein bar and a piece of fruit
- A smoothie made with whey protein, fruits and berries
- Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese with, some granola, fruits and berries
- A turkey sandwich with whole-grain bread
Your body has just gone through a workout session that caused damage to your muscles, so it’s essential you feed them the right nutrients at this time in order for them to recover and grow stronger.
A post-workout meal should contain at least 20 grams of a lean source of protein and no less than 30 grams of carbohydrates to help refuel your muscles.
Some good examples of post-workout meals include:
- Grilled chicken breast with brown rice and steamed vegetables
- Salmon fillet with sweet potato and mixed vegetables
- Baked or grilled white fish with a small portion of brown rice and green beans
- Protein shake and oatmeal or cereal with a piece of fruit or handful of berries
Intra Workout Nutrition
If you are working out for over an hour, intra-workout nutrition becomes even more important.
Additionally, when bulking, intra workout shakes are a fantastic way to ingest extra calories. These shakes can also help you get the energy boost you need when you start tapering off in the middle or towards the end of your workout.
A simple recipe I used to make my own intra workout shake includes:
- 1 bottle of Gatorade or 1 scoop (30 grams) of carb powder or bottle of juice
- 5g EAAs
5. Consume Protein in Every Meal
If you’re looking to bulk up and gain lean muscle tissue, it’s beneficial to include protein in every meal.
Protein is necessary for the development of lean muscle mass and has a significant impact on our overall health and function. It helps you stay full longer and has many other benefits that are associated with it. For example, it can also help reduce hunger cravings so you’ll be less likely to snack on junk food throughout the day.
According to studies, a sufficient protein intake during a lean bulk should be around 1.6 – 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.7 -1 gram per pound of body weight every day.
Let’s say you weigh 75 kg/165 lb
75 (kg) X 2.2 = 165 grams of protein per day (measuring per kilogram)
165 (lb) X 1 = 165 grams of protein per day (measuring per pound)
165 x 4 (calories per gram of protein) = 660 calories per day from protein
When choosing protein-rich foods, opt for lean options like chicken or fish rather than processed meats like hot dogs or bacon. And remember, variety is also important – aim to include a different protein source at every meal.
Try to consume about 20 – 40 grams of protein per meal and distribute evenly throughout the day consuming 3 – 6 meals.
So be sure to make protein a part of your next meal plan!
6. Don’t Have Massive Cheat Meals
I don’t recommend you have massive cheat meals when trying to build lean muscle mass.
You can easily eat a few days’ worths of food in one sitting and as a result, put on a significant amount of body weight. If you continue doing so on a regular basis you’ll gain fat much faster and you would have to transition into a cut sooner than expected.
It’s best to keep the days of cheat meals to just a few times a month and don’t go overboard with it. You can also occasionally include some cheat meals into your diet without ruining your lean bulk by following an IIFYM approach.
7. Follow IIFYM (Occasionally)
IIFYM, or “if it fits your macros,” is a flexible dieting approach that can also be helpful when trying to bulk without getting fat.
This approach to dieting allows you to eat whatever foods you want, as long as they fit into your daily calorie and macronutrient goals. While this type of dieting can be more relaxed than other ones, you still need to track your calorie intake in order to ensure that fits your lean bulking macros.
But what about cheat meals? Should you eat them on an IIFYM approach?
The simple answer is yes, but they should be kept to a minimum. If you eat junk foods and processed carbs too often, it can slow down your progress in the gym and make you feel more sluggish.
Using a simple macro cheat sheet that shows which foods are categorized as the source of each macronutrient, and combinations of macros can help.
8. Consider Incorporating Mini-Cuts
Throughout a longer lean bulking phase, consider incorporating mini-cuts.
A mini-cut is a short dieting phase that can help you lose some of that excess body fat without sacrificing the progress you’ve made during your bulk with regards to building muscle mass.
Similar to a cutting phase, a typical mini-cut requires you to be in a caloric deficit – at least 20% below your caloric maintenance. However, due to how short term the mini-cut is, you could have a slightly more aggressive caloric deficit of about 25% below your maintenance calories to lose weight quicker.
Let’s imagine that want to do a mini-cut. You weigh 75 kg/165 lb and burn 2500 calories daily. Then you would calculate your daily caloric intake in the following way:
2500 X 0.75 = 1875
A mini-cut usually lasts no more than 6 weeks, it could also be as short as 2 weeks depending on how much fat you want to lose.
Just be sure to keep your workouts consistent and intense during your mini-cut!
Recommended Reading: Mini Cut: What It Is and How To Do It Right [Ultimate Guide]
9. Perform Both Compound and Isolation Exercises
When it comes to workouts, there are two main types of exercises you would typically perform: compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises work several muscle groups at once, while isolation exercises target a single muscle group.
Make sure to incorporate both types of exercises during your in order to maximize muscle growth.
Compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, pressing movements, etc. These should be your bread-and-butter exercises.
Isolation exercises include bicep curls, tricep extension, side lateral raises, calf raises, and others.
These types of exercises are typically done after your compound movements. They’re also great for giving certain muscle groups some additional attention.
So, make sure to have a good mix of both but with more focus on compound movements when trying to bulk up.
Recommended Reading: 12-Week Lean Bulk Workout Plan
10. Stick to Low to Medium Rep Ranges
When your goal is to maximize strength gains and muscle size, you want to stick to low to medium repetition ranges.
The number of reps per set is inversely related to the weight being lifted. That is, the fewer the repetitions, the heavier the weight must be.
Perform 6 to 12 reps with a given weight and lift as heavy as possible while just avoiding muscle failure (the point where you can’t do another rep with a proper form).
11. Keep Rest Intervals at Least 90 Seconds
Make sure to keep your rest intervals between sets at least 90 seconds or longer.
I personally rest about 2-3 minutes in between sets. 3 minutes when performing compound movements and about 2 minutes when I perform isolation type of exercises.
The duration between sets has a major influence on your power output in every set.
If your rest periods are too short, then you are basically training your cardiovascular system instead of your muscles. On the other hand, too long rest periods won’t provide your muscles with enough stimulus to grow.
Make sure to rest at least 90 seconds or long enough so that you can more or less maintain the number of reps you perform in every set for a given exercise.
12. Train With High Enough Volume and Intensity
In order to see continuous muscle gain, you need to train with high enough volume and intensity.
This means lifting heavy weights (intensity) and doing an appropriate number of sets in every workout (volume).
There is a negative correlation between intensity and volume. In other words, by increasing volume, you must decrease the intensity and vice-versa.
Aim to perform somewhere between 16 sets to 28 sets per workout, depending on your strength training experience. Make sure to lift as heavy as possible while just avoiding failure (the point where you can’t do another rep with a proper form).
13. Track Workouts and Make Sure to Progressively Overload
Progressive overload is a concept you must follow to ensure continuous muscle gains. Progressive overload basically means that you’re gradually increasing the demands of your workouts over time.
The main benefit to this is that it allows for continuous muscle growth while minimizing the chance of getting into plateaus, which will happen if you don’t progressively overload.
Some ways of incorporating progressive overload in your workouts could be trying to incrementally increase weight for a given exercise every week while performing the same amount of reps. Or increasing weight once you reach an upper limit of a certain rep range.
To make it easier for you to track progress in your workouts consider using my free Google Sheets workout template. It allows you to build your own weight training workout plan and then track the performance, including sets, reps, weight and total volume.
Track your workouts and ensure you progressively overload – gradually increase the demands of your workouts over time.
14. Don’t Skip on Cardio
Many people try to bulk without doing any cardio. Mainly because it just means you’ll have to eat even more in order to be in a caloric surplus and also because it’s not something most people enjoy doing.
However, it’s beneficial to incorporate some form of cardio in your workout regime. Cardio while bulking can help you stay lean, and most importantly improve your overall cardiovascular health.
When doing cardio, try to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy so that you will be more likely to stick with it. Some good options include running, cycling, and swimming. If you are short on time, try doing HIIT cardio workouts.
Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and make sure you choose a form of exercise that you enjoy, then there is a good chance you will stick to it.
15. Pay Attention to Your Recovery
An often forgotten aspect of the muscle-building process is allowing yourself time for adequate rest and recovery so that you can grow bigger.
Recovery is a crucial part of muscle growth.
In order to increase lean body mass, you need to ensure that your muscles are recovering from the workout, adapting and growing bigger.
One, simple way to tell whether you have recovered from your previous session is the level of soreness.
For example, you probably should not go to the gym to train the same muscle group if it is still very sore from the previous session. Instead, take a rest day or workout muscle groups that are not feeling sore.
Make sure to wait at least 2 days or 48 hours to train the same muscle group again.
16. Get Plenty of Sleep
Sleep is absolutely essential in athletic performance and recovery.
You need to make sure you are getting enough high quality sleep every night, especially if striving for lean muscle gains. Quality sleep will allow your body to recover and build lean muscle at a faster rate than without it!
Make sure to get at least 7 – 9 hours of sleep every day.
So, do yourself a favor by ensuring you get enough of Zzz’s!
17. Stay Consistent and Follow The Plan
One of the most important aspects of staying lean while bulking is consistency.
You have to stick to your plan and be diligent with your workouts, diet, and supplementation if you want to see results. This means that you can’t miss a workout on a regular basis or indulge in too many unhealthy foods.
It’s also important to be patient. It might take time for your body to the amount of muscle you would be satisfied with, but it will be well worth the wait.
Follow the plan and trust the process. Don’t make drastic changes just if you don’t see any results for 2-3 weeks.
18. Take Measurements and Progress Pictures
Make sure to take regular measurements, weigh-ins and progress pictures.
This way, you can ensure that you are staying lean while bulking and not gaining too much fat. Progress pictures are especially helpful in tracking your overall progress.
By looking at progress pictures you can also see how are you progressing, for example, you can monitor whether you get bigger abs while bulking if that is your goal. However, if you start to lose muscle definition in your abs, it might be time to consider cutting back on the calories and transitioning into a cut.
Also, make sure to take measurements of your arms, chest, calves, waist, thighs, neck, as well as body fat level, if possible. Taking body measurements can tell you a lot about your lean muscle mass gains over time.
For example, if your waist measurement is increasing while the rest of your measurements are staying the same or decreasing, this could be an indication that you are gaining too much fat and need to adjust your caloric intake.
Furthermore, as I mentioned before, keep in mind that novice/intermediate athletes should aim for a target weight gain of about 0.25 – 0.5% of body weight per week. Advanced athletes should target weight gain of about 0.15 – 0.25% of body weight per week or around 0.5 – 1% per month.
I recommend weighing yourself every day and comparing median weight week to week. In regards to progress pictures and body measurements – I would suggest taking them once a month.
So, make sure to take regular measurements, weigh-ins and progress pictures so you can stay on track!
19. Be Okay With Gaining Little Body Fat
One of the last things to remember is that regardless of your lean bulking strategy, you will end up gaining some body fat.
This is simply the nature of adding muscle mass – you cannot add muscle without also adding some fat if you are in a caloric surplus. It’s important to be okay with this, and not get discouraged if you do end up putting on a few extra pounds. Remember that as long as your body fat percentage remains low, you are still in a good place for lean bulking.
Just be sure to keep track of your progress (especially weight and body fat percentage), and make adjustments to your diet as needed.
20. Have Realistic Expectations
Be aware that you can’t gain lean muscle naturally faster than it is.
Although, you will see quick muscle gain when you are new to weightlifting, eventually everyone plateaus.
At best you can expect to gain about 15 to 20 pounds of lean muscle mass in a year.
So be patient, stay consistent with your lifting and diet plan and you will definitely see results.
If you are struggling with putting on staying lean while lean bulking, there are a few things to consider.
First of all, it is important to eat at a small caloric surplus so that your body has enough energy for building lean tissue at the same time minimize potential body fat gain. It is also important to set up lean bulk macros properly, eat clean bulking foods and incorporate mini-cuts if needed. Be sure to do some cardio, include a mix of compound and isolation exercises in your workout routine and train with high enough intensity and volume.
If you stay consistent and follow the tips outlined in his article then I am confident that you will be able to put on some serious muscle mass!
Remember that this is not a sprint – it’s a marathon so have realistic expectations about the process.