Bulking is a delicate balancing act. Your body needs a calorie surplus to build muscle, but an unhealthy balance or absence of macronutrients can cause it to build up fat stores instead.
Understanding the difference between lean bulking with a moderate calorie surplus and dirty bulking with tons of dairy and fatty meat is key to getting the muscular build you want without gaining tons of body fat in the process.
For the cleanest and most effective bulking phase, follow the 10 tips in this guide for a truly powerful body.
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What is Bulking?
Bulking is the opposite of cutting, which is a phase during which bodybuilders are dieting to get a calorie deficit so their body will burn off pesky body fat. To build muscle, the body needs a calorie surplus, so bodybuilders increase their caloric intake.
Many in the fitness community are divided on bulking and the proper way to do it. Some even go so far as to say that bulking is completely unnecessary as long as you have the right fitness plan.
Most of these disagreements come from individual personal experiences that are likely to differ. Your body type might be built to create huge muscles, leading you to think your chosen method of bulking is unsuccessful.
There are a few different bulking methods. Some have side effects and health risks that will negate any muscle gains they give you and make the cutting phase that follows even more difficult.
Lean Bulking vs. Dirty Bulking
In a dirty bulk, the caloric intake can come from any source. It can be hamburgers, tons of protein shakes, or even processed foods, as long as it has tons of calories it fits into the dirty bulk diet.
Of course, some people practice dirty bulking but don’t gorge on junk food. While that certainly is better health-wise, even whole foods can cause lots of weight gain in large quantities.
Lean bulking is a more modest version of the bulking phase with a more reasonable calorie surplus. Say, for example, you were taking in 300 more calories than you needed, your body would have a much easier time turning the extra energy into muscle mass and not into body fat.
Bulking is challenging because it requires very close attention to your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and there’s no way to know if it’s working other than monitoring your weight to see if you’re eating too much or too little.
Lean bulking is much more flexible because you can make quick adjustments to your calorie intake and don’t run the risk of putting on lots of body fat before you realize you need to make adjustments.
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How Does Lean Bulking Work?
Like a clean bulk, which has you eating a calorie surplus just barely above maintenance calorie level and builds muscle mass very slowly, lean bulking requires very particular attention to your macronutrients and daily energy expenditure.
Generally speaking, a lean bulk is one where you start with a very small caloric surplus and then monitor your body weight to see if it’s enough to cause weight gain or if it needs to be increased.
Essentially, lean bulking is the middle ground between clean bulking and dirty bulking. It makes cutting much easier when the time comes because you’ve already kept most of the body fat away.
As you continue training for muscle growth, your body will use the slight caloric surplus to repair muscles. For a better understanding of what macronutrients you need and how to build the right caloric surplus for lean bulking, it might be helpful to understand how your body goes about building muscle.
Building Muscle in the Human Body
Intense workouts cause damage to the muscles involved in them. Muscle gains come from the body sending resources like protein to those damaged muscles to repair them.
As muscle is repaired, it’s also strengthened to prevent a similar injury in the future. Bodybuilders want to encourage this process, which is called hypertrophy.
Your body also burns calories in the process of building muscle. Dirty bulking causes lifters to eat far more calories than their body uses to repair muscle, while the goal of lean bulking is to just cover the calories needed for hypertrophy so that your body doesn’t build up too much fat.
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Do You Have to Gain Fat During a Bulk?
Any caloric surplus is going to cause weight gain. While you can limit the amount of new body fat gained during a bulk, completely eliminating weight gain during a bulk is a fool’s errand. What you can do is avoid taking on fat to make the cutting phase even easier.
One very important thing to keep an eye on during a bulking phase is how much fat is building up in key areas like your gut, hips, and glutes. Depending on your body type, you might find some unwanted fat gain in those places.
An extremely common mistake newcomers make is to try and bulk without cutting first. If you have a high body fat percentage, bulking won’t help you get rid of it. You’re much better off cutting down to between 10 – 12% body fat before you start bulking.
Macronutrients for a Balanced Lean Bulk Transformation
For the healthiest bulking phase, you need to continue counting your macros. Your body will need those carbs to power through workouts and proteins to rebuild damaged muscle. Healthy fats also play an important role in regulating your metabolism and hormones.
Healthy fats also provide most of the energy your body uses when at rest. You can find these fats in extra-virgin olive oil, Greek yogurt, chia seeds, dark chocolate, and avocado.
Protein is a bit harder to consume during a bulking phase even though most people love to eat the food it comes from. Most of these meats and cutlets are very filling and make it difficult to get the calorie surplus you need.
Even when they move into a bulking phase, some people who are terrified of gaining pesky fat keep their carbohydrate levels low. This is a death sentence for your bulk because your body uses carbohydrates to send glycogen to your muscles to power through workouts. Without re-upping your carbs before a workout you might experience muscle failure much faster and lose out on muscle gains.
Helpful Hint: Get rid of pesky fat during a cutting phase with our Total Body Jump Rope Shred Fitplan!
How to Measure TDEE
There are a few formulas that you can use to measure your total daily energy expenditure. Generally, you first need to know your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which you can do with the Harris – Benedict Equation or the updated 1990 version from Mifflin and St Jeor:
- Mifflin & St Jeor Revised Harris – Benedict Equation for BMR
- Male BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
- Female BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161
This BMR number measures the amount of calories your body burns when it’s at rest, not counting energy burned through Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT, and TEF, or the Thermic Effect of Food, which is the calries burnt to process the food you eat.
Your BMR is the vast majority of the energy your body uses up in a day unless you spend hours and hours at the gym or swimming. To get a better idea of your TDEE above your BMR, you can use one of the multipliers below:
Activity Multipliers to Find TDEE:
- Sedentary or Hardly Active: BMR x 1.53
- Active or Moderately Active: BMR x 1.76
- Extremely Active: BMR x 2.25
One of the most common criticisms of the BMR measurements just mentioned is that they don’t differentiate between body types or compositions, so someone with lots of body fat might have the same caloric needs as someone with tons of muscle by this metric.
The resulting number is still an estimate and you should take care to monitor how your calorie intake is affecting your bulking phase.
10 Tips for Lean Bulk Transformation
Once you have this basic figure calculated, you should have some idea about what your maintenance calories are and be able to ballpark your dieting plan for both cutting and bulking phases. Follow these 10 tips to make sure your bulk builds tons of lean muscle and as little body fat as possible:
1. Start Slow
It takes some time for your body to get used to the caloric surplus you need to bulk, perhaps as much as two weeks. One advantage of easing into your bulk plan is that you can see if your caloric surplus is too much or too little before it causes any lasting fat gain.
The same rule applies when your bulk is over and you need to cut some excess body fat. Don’t shock your body with huge dietary shifts or you might be facing cravings that will only make everything more difficult and drive you to pig out on large amounts of junk food.
2. Maintain a Low Caloric Surplus
Contrary to what many believe, bulking doesn’t require a huge amount of calories. You might be surprised to find out how many calories your burn at the gym – a reasonable calorie surplus might be as low as 200 extra calories per day.
If you go significantly higher than your TDEE, your body will take the unspent energy and turn it into body fat. Of course, it might go a couple of hundred calories in either direction depending on your body type and workout plan, but remember that it’s easier to increase your caloric intake if you’re losing weight than it is to lose weight once you gain it.
3. Expect a Realistic Amount of Muscle Growth
The amount of muscle you can build during a bulk is determined by your body type and your body composition at the beginning of the bulking phase. People with tons of muscle aren’t going to be able to gain muscle as fast as people who have none.
So how much muscle can you expect to gain? Beginning weightlifters can probably expect somewhere around 2 pounds per month for their first year, which decreases to 1 pound per month in the second year and shrinks down to about 2 – 3 pounds per year after the 4th year of dedicated strength training.
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4. Don’t Forget to Supplement
Protein intake is essential during a bulking phase but there are some other nutrients your need as well. The three Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA), leucine, isoleucine, and valine, all help to activate an enzyme during protein synthesis that aids in muscle recovery for an overall anabolic effect. That’s a fancy way of saying BCAAs help promote muscle growth.
You can get BCAAs and the other 6 essential amino acids from food sources or you can take BCAAs directly as a supplement. You can also take whey protein, a complete protein with all 9 essential amino acids, with or without a BCAA supplement added in.
5. You Can (and Should) Do Some Light Cardio While Bulking
Low-intensity cardio is a great way to keep your heart and circulatory system healthy during the months of your bulking period. Really strenuous cardio can lead to too much fat loss and stop the muscle-building process in its tracks.
One of the best things to do to get some cardio benefit while you’re working on increasing your body’s lean mass is to walk regularly. According to the FDA, adults should be getting at least half an hour of moderate cardio exercise so you should aim for that amount even during a bulking phase.
6. Eat Enough Calories With a Limited Fat Intake
If you want to be lean then your diet has to be lean too. We already mentioned how healthy fats are important for your diet whether you’re bulking or not. A moderate fat intake is the key difference between dirty and lean bulking.
Although you might want to go all in on a slab of steaks, the fat in them might cause your body weight to go up faster than you want in a lean bulking phase. Minimizing the bad fats and gaining weight at a slower pace will lead to much better end results.
7. It’s All About the Protein
Everyone with bodybuilding experience likely already known this, but your body won’t build muscle unless it has enough protein. Your daily calorie count should include enough protein to trigger synthesis and muscle growth.
How much is that, you ask? One study found that an upper limit of 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight spread across four meals for 0.55 grams/kg is plenty to maximize anabolism and grow muscle.
8. Eat Carbohydrates Wisely
Your body gets most of its energy from carbs and they should make up the bulk of your diet, but you can also eat certain carbs at different times to get the best results. For example, you’ll want to eat complex carbs that break down slowly to give you energy through a workout and replenish those stores with fast-acting carbs post-workout.
Dairy products and fruits both have fast-acting carbs in them while starchier vegetables like potatoes and whole grains give energy a bit more slowly. The slowest carbs can be found in peas, beans, and lentils.
9. Exercise Smarter
If you want to put on more lean muscle mass, compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups are the best way to go. Although isolation workouts like long-head biceps moves can give you greater peaks, the best way to build tons of lean muscle is to build strength in your entire body.
Deadlifts and pull-ups are both great compound exercises that will help you burn calories to keep yourself from gaining too much weight during a lean bulk.
10. Make Sure You Can Track Your Progress
The worst thing you can do is put all this effort into a lean bulking program and then lose track of your gains. Keep notes so you can always remember where you started from and see what’s working. If you don’t, you won’t be able to change your calorie intake and make sure you meet your lean bulking goals.
Body weight is a great way to monito progress, but don’t overdo it or you’ll drive yourself crazy. Aim to weigh yourself once a day maximum and don’t expect to see huge changes from weigh-in to weigh-in.
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Lean bulking is a much more flexible and healthy way to build muscle mass than dirty bulking with tons of fatty junk food. It takes more attention to detail and works a bit more slowly, but you’ll be happy when you have to lose a few pounds of body fat in your next cutting phase rather than torturing yourself to lose 30 or 40 pounds.
Use the tips in this guide to avoid pesky fat gain and make your next bulking phase the most effective one yet.
(Note: Want our elite trainers to help you tone and strengthen your whole body? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)