Want to learn how to do a lean bulk and gain muscle without gaining fat?
Here’s a question we got from a guy trying to do a lean bulk:
“Been lifting hard for 2 months and I’ve gained 4 pounds / 1.8kg. I have a pretty steady pace of gaining 225 grams per week.
I know that the bodyfat measuring on my scale isn’t accurate, but I’ve definitely gained fat. My muscles look less defined. I would guess I went from 14% to 18% bodyfat.
- I lift three times a week, and I often go to failure.
- I eat 2,400 calories daily.
- Almost everything I eat is whole, unprocessed foods that I cook myself.
- I get lots of protein every day, aiming for around 150g (I’m 70kg / 154 pounds heavy).
So I’m wondering, what am I doing wrong? Or do some people just have to gain slower than others?
I am gaining some muscle but also too much fat.
If I am doing something wrong, what should I change? Not sure what to do.”
He’s doing a lot of things right—and so it makes sense why he’s feeling frustrated that he isn’t able to bulk without getting fat.
It’s pretty common problem, unfortunately.
Guys want to know how to do a lean bulk—and gain the maximum amount of muscle with the minimal amount of fat gained.
The truth is that there could be a dozen of reasons that are causing this problem of getting fat when bulking.
To make things even more complicated, some guys think things are going horribly when they’re actually doing pretty well.
For example, some guys think they’re getting fatter when they’re gaining muscle leanly. But they temporarily have a bit more food in their stomach or a bit of bloating. Having a ton of food in your stomach or being bloating can make it look like you have a belly in the short-term. So those guys need to take a look at how lean they look in the morning when their stomach is empty.
Anyways, here’s a checklist for you to go through to try and spot the weak link when it comes to a lean bulk.
12-point checklist on how to do a lean bulk:
#1: Are you too fat to do a lean bulk?
Bulking is best done when you’re already fairly lean. If you’re holding onto too much fat already, your insulin sensitivity to your muscles is reduced, so your extra calories are more likely to be stored as fat.
If you were actually closer to 18%–20%+ bodyfat in reality, and you’re a beginner when it comes to lifting, then you probably should go for “body recomposition” first which is burning fat and building muscle at the same time. (Skinny-Fat: Bulk or Cut?)
You only need a little bit of energy surplus to gain muscle. If you can’t see your abs, you’ve got enough extra energy stored in your body already to build muscle. So you mainly need to focus on protein in that case.
#2: Are you eating 1g+ of protein per body weight pound?
Your muscles need enough protein not just to live, but to help repair your muscles, and to build them bigger.
You may want to look at your weekly protein intake to see if you’re consistent enough and hitting your goals daily.
For example, if you’re 160 pounds, you could aim for 160g daily.
In MASS, a research review publication, Dr Helms reviewed a 2017 study where bodybuilders or strength athletes who gain too much fat while bulking may want to try eating as much protein as 2.8g–3.2g per bodyweight kg (1.27–1.45g per bodyweight pound.) (MASS vol 2. issue 8 Paywall)
Lastly, try and get most of your protein from meat—like muscle meat, organs, and bone broth. Supplements like whey can help, but you’ll see better results if you get more protein from real food sources.
Eating more meat, above and beyond the minimum amount of daily protein, can also help by:
- reducing your appetite (limiting extra fat gain from energy) as protein scores very high on the satiety index
- increase your metabolism through diet-induced thermogenesis
#3: Are you eating enough protein every 3–5 hours to maximize muscle protein synthesis?
A 2018 review found that eating 0.4 g/kg/meal (0.18g/lb/meal) of protein at a minimum would be best for maximally building muscle as it’d be enough to trigger muscle protein synthesis 4 times throughout the day.
That’s about 30-40g of protein per meal.
One study looking into muscle protein synthesis found that by optimizing MPS, by spreading your protein intake out over the a few meals instead of mainly at dinner, you could get 25% better muscle gains! So be sure to look at your meals, see which meal has your lowest amount of protein and try and boost that meal.
So to put this into action, if you were 154 pounds, and you were aiming for 160g of protein over 4 meals, you’d try to eat 40g of protein per meal to trigger MPS (muscle protein synthesis) 4 times over the day for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack.
#4: When lifting—are you pushing yourself close enough to failure to grow?
Pushing yourself to fatigue is a crucial part of getting stronger. Your body needs the push to adapt.
You don’t need to go to failure every exercise and every set. But picking your first couple exercises, especially the last sets could be a good way of testing yourself by going to failure. If you think you’re just about going to failure, you may want to actually go to failure (don’t let your form crumble).
Some guys are a bit too cautious and unknowingly stay 5–6 reps away from failure. Their body might be a lot stronger and more capable than they think it is and be limiting their gains by not pushing themselves enough.
Some guys may be too tired to push themselves enough due to bad work capacity. They may do better with high-frequency workouts with shorter workout sessions so their reps are higher quality.
#5: Are your series of workouts properly programmed by an expert?
Many times guys pick a random, free workout off the internet, proving that they think they’re all the same quality. But without a good program that is designed to match where you are and then to keep you progressing, it’s easy to fall back into a complacency.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like you’re in a good groove sometimes, but many times that means you aren’t pushing yourself and aren’t adapting.
So if you stopped pushing yourself, and your muscles don’t need to adapt, those extra calories wouldn’t be going towards building muscle, but instead are just getting stored up as body fat for later use.
You’ll need an intelligent program that will continue to push you to grow, to match your bulking diet. (Check out our True Gains program.)
#6: Are you sleeping at least 8 hours every night?
Bad sleep isn’t as common as some of these other causes, but there are a ton of guys who are only sleeping 6 hours a night, or they’re working shift work, or they’re a dad, and their sleep is interrupted a lot.
When you don’t sleep enough, your stress begins to build up, and that will negatively affect your hormones and can make you gain more fat (among many other problems.)
We recommend aiming for 8-9 hours each night. At a bare minimum—you’ll need to sleep 7.25 hours every night.
If not, you should come up with a gameplan to fix that (for example, shifting things around in your life so you can go to bed earlier, wearing blue-blocking glasses at night, etc.)
#7: Are you eating at least 80% whole, unprocessed foods?
Fast-food and processed foods are, broadly speaking, made with industrial fats that contribute to stubborn belly-fat.
They increase chronic inflammation in your body, that is associated with gaining fat, increasing insulin resistance, and causing high blood pressure. (study)
There are many other good reasons to eat unprocessed foods including getting enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), fibre, antioxidants, and other good stuff to help you feel your best during your lean bulk.
#8: How sedentary are you outside of lifting weights?
Do you drive to work? Do you sit at a desk? How often do you go for a walk during the week?
Even though you’re lifting weights three times a week, if that is the only physical activity you are doing, that could be a reason why your gains aren’t too lean.
Walking can lower your blood sugars without using insulin and improve bloodflow—getting the nutrients where they need to be to improve muscle recovery.
As for myself, I naturally have a very sedentary lifestyle as I work from home. I don’t have a dog or a reason to walk around. I also get my groceries delivered to save time driving to the store, waiting in line, etc. so that I can get more work in. But I’ve noticed that I need to spend more time moving, so I’ve started doing a set of jumping jacks every time I get up for a break from work, and my fitness and leanness has improved without changing anything else.
A good rule of thumb is to get out of the “sedentary” category and aim for 7,500 daily steps at a minimum. See if you can work your way up to doing 10k daily steps.
If you work a desk job, you should experiment with 16:8 intermittent fasting. When you’re sitting all day—you aren’t eating a lot of calories. And then eat more of your food in the meals following your workouts.
#9: Are you getting enough sunshine?
Today’s modern society is making the majority of us vitamin D deficient—even those who live in the South are likely deficient since most of us work indoors.
Vitamin D deficiency negatively affects your metabolism, your hormones, and how good you feel.
Plus, a 2018 study seems to show that fixing a vitamin D deficiency helped athlete’s have better power and strength output (although more research is needed in this area.) And in this 2018 randomized double-blind study, fixing vitamin D deficiency helped to reduce injuries, which would help you feel your best and stay injury-free to stay the course.
Taking a daily walk outdoors in the sunshine can help a lot.
#10: Are you doing calorie cycling?
When you work out, you stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) the process of adding protein to your muscles. After your workout, there will be a huge boost of MPS and then it will slowly begin to taper off over time.
Your calorie surplus could match this taper. The idea is that if your muscle isn’t actively building anymore, yet you’re still eating a ton of calories as if it is, those extra calories will have a greater chance of being stored for later use as fat.
This is especially relevant if you work out 3x a week and do a double-rest day.
For example, many people work out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That makes Saturday a rest day, and Sunday is a double-rest day. You do not need to be eating a huge surplus on Sundays. You can try bringing your calories to maintenance on rest days, and increase calories directly following your workouts.
#11: How rapidly are you gaining weight?
In the 2017 issue of AARR, a research review, the author said that based on the research, a good rule of thumb for beginners to gain is no faster than 1% to 1.5% of your bodyweight per month.
For example, if you’re 154 pounds, you should be aiming to gain 1.5–2.3 pounds per month—0.38–0.58 pounds per week.
Obviously, people are different and some are able to handle a really fast gain and others may need to take it a bit slower (especially if they’re older, closer to their genetic potential, or don’t move as much elsewhere in their day.)
In a 2019 study on bodybuilders, they found that those who gained slower had a better ratio of muscle to fat gained. In MASS, a research review, they looked into the data from this study and found that in 4 weeks, the higher calorie surplus group gained 2.4kg of lean mass and 1.8kg of fat (paywall).
The lower calorie surplus group gained 1.2kg of lean mass and 0.3kg of fat.
So the guys who gained more slowly had a lean bulk ratio of 4:1 to fat, and the high calorie surplus group gained a ton of fat with their muscle at a much worse ratio of 4:3.
So even just taking it the weight gain a bit more slowly and controlled could help.
#12: Are you trying to gain weight through mainly eating more carbs and protein rather than through eating more fat?
This is more of a controversial point, as the research still needs a bit of work, but eating more carbs may help you regenerate your glycogen in your muscles, and help you be able to do more volume-intensive workouts.
So you might be able to push yourself a bit harder in the gym when eating more carbs.
And this too is controversial, but in this study, they overfed people with mainly carbs and only 75–85% of that extra energy from carbs got converted and stored as fat. The people overfed with mainly fats had 85–95% of that energy stored as fat. This isn’t as clear cut though, since a later study seemed to show that there is no real difference in fat gain when eating in a surplus with carbs or fats, but it could be worth a try.
Summary on how to bulk without getting fat
- You might actually be getting lean gains, but you’re feeling bloated, and your stomach is full of food. How does your belly look in the morning when it’s empty?
- #1: You might be too fat to bulk, and could instead focus on doing a cut to burn some fat or even a body recomposition (burn fat and build muscle at the same time) depending on how close you are to your genetic potential.
- #2: You might not be eating enough protein to support your muscle growth. We might be setting a goal that is too low, or we often overestimate how much protein we eat. Try setting a higher daily protein goal to see if that helps.
- #3: You might not be spreading your protein out over the day and aren’t maximizing your muscle protein synthesis. People who spread out their protein evenly across meals, rather than just mainly having protein during dinner, had 25% better gains. Try eating lots of protein with every meal.
- #4: Make sure you’re challenging yourself enough in the gym. Not going close enough to failure may be more of a problem for people who have a lower pain tolerance. Either way, you may want to experiment with going to failure here and there (in a safe way) to see if you’ve been pushing yourself enough to grow.
- #5: Get an intelligently programmed workout by a professional that will progressively challenge you. Yes, it’ll cost money, but it’ll save you from getting fatter, being put at an unnecessary risk for injury, and get you building muscle as best as possible (and in the right places.)
- #6: Make sure you’re sleeping at least 7.25 hours every night, 8 hours a night is even better, to recover maximally from your workouts for better gains.
- #7: Eat at least 80% whole, unprocessed foods to limit fat gains from processed oils, to get enough micronutrients and fibre for your body to work it’s best, and to avoid becoming chronically inflamed which impacts how you store fat.
- #8: Try and move more outside of lifting weights to increase your energy flux to give more room for error when it comes to calories. It doesn’t need to be hard, keep it simple, like going for a short walk every day. Try 16:8 intermittent fasting if you work a desk job.
- #9: Get outside in the sun every day to improve your vitamin D levels. Fixing your vitamin D deficiency might help power and strength output, along with reducing the chances of injury and helping many other bodily processes work properly.
- #10: Try calorie cycling to match eating more calories to your recovery between lifting sessions. Eat more directly after working out and then slowly taper off the extra calories until your next workout.
- #11: Try gaining weight more slowly for a better lean mass to fat gain ratio.
- #12: Try making the calorie surplus come from more carbs and protein rather than from fats.