“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 eat 2,400 calories daily, and almost everything I eat is whole, unprocessed foods that I cook myself. And 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?
I lift three times a week, and I often go to failure. Not sure what to do.”
Great question— we get this one we get all the time from guys who are trying to bulk up. For so many guys it seems like every time they try to get bigger and start to bulk, they just get fatter instead of more muscular.
Everyone wants “lean gains,” the maximum amount of muscle built with the minimal amount of fat gained.
The truth is that there could be dozens of reasons causing this problem, so without us seeing photos or coaching you one-on-one, it’s a bit trickier to diagnose what the real problem is.
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 getting incredibly lean gains, but they 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 temporarily make it look like you have a belly. 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.
12-point checklist to get leaner gains during a bulk:
#1: Is it possible that you have a higher bodyfat percentage to start than you guessed?
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. (This is an extremely covetous position to be in, once you reach a certain size/strength, you can’t do this anymore.) For example, ripped skinny guys could do a bulk. But those who see themselves more as skinny-fat, would do better to do a body recomposition first, as they already have the calories needed to grow in their fat. They can do this until they get lean enough to see their abs, then switch back to a bulk.
#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. It’s a lot of protein, but based on what you said, you seem to be hitting that pretty well. You may want to look at your weekly protein intake to see if you’re consistent enough daily, and you could also bump up your goal to slightly more than your bodyweight, and see if you notice if that helps. So you could aim for 160g daily, and over the week that’d be another 70g of protein (another couple chicken breasts worth of meat, so that could help.)
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)
#3: Are you eating 30–40g of 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.
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: 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.
#6: Are you sleeping between 7–9 hours every night and only waking up once (or not at all)?
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.)
Are you sleeping at least 7.25 hours every night, and not waking up more than once a 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.)
#7: Are you eating at least 80% whole, unprocessed foods?
Fast-food and processed foods are, broadly speaking, made with fats that are harder for your body to burn off as energy once they’re already stored as fat compared to fats like omega-3’s. Plus, these processed fats may increase chronic inflammation in your body, that is associated with increasing insulin resistance and high blood pressure. (study)
Plus, the calories from processed foods are more bioavailable since they’ve already been pre-digested, in a sense, meaning that your body has an easier time using those calories as energy. So on paper, a “modest” calorie surplus might actually be a lot higher than it might seem since your body can use more of it.
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.
#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 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 (very healthy) and improve bloodflow—getting the nutrients where they need to be to improve muscle recovery.
It is better to be doing what’s called a “high energy flux” to help to keep your gains leaner. For example, let’s say that your weight was holding steady at 1800 calories a day and you didn’t move too much, so you have a low energy flux. But if you started walking every day, maybe now it takes 2000 calories to keep your weight steady—that’s now a higher energy flux. This is not only going to help you recover better from lifting, you’ll become healthier and it could help you keep your gains leaner. (You can learn more about this idea on Precision Nutrition.)
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.
If you’re not walking or moving that much, try aiming to walk at least 30 minutes a day, and see if that helps to keep your gains leaner.
#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, and how good you feel—making you move less than you should be. With a smaller “energy flux” (covered in the last point), there’d be a smaller window between muscle gain and fat gain then.
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.
#10: Are you trying any calorie cycling to match your training?
When you work out, you stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the process of adding protein to your muscles. This will kickstart building muscle through MPS (muscle protein synthesis) not too long after your workout. After a huge boost, it will slowly begin to taper off.
It might take 24–48 hours to wrap up these muscle gains initiated by the workout (study, study, study). 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.
Keep in mind that the more volume of work and the less rest there is, the longer it will take to recover, so those training more often may not need to do as much calorie cycling. But here’s an example of how someone could do calorie cycling while lifting weights 3x a week:
- Monday—lifting at 5 pm. Eat calorie maintenance for breakfast and lunch, start training while sipping on a workout shake, eat a calorie surplus dinner and snack.
- Tuesday—resting. Eat a calorie surplus the entire day—breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack. You’re still within 24 hours of your workout.
- Wednesday—lifting at 5 pm. It’s now been over 36 hours since you last worked out, eat calorie maintenance for breakfast and lunch. Then start lifting at 5 pm while sipping on a workout shake, eat a calorie surplus dinner and snack.
- Thursday—resting. Eat a calorie surplus the entire day—breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack. You’re still within 24 hours of your workout.
- Friday—lifting at 5 pm. It’s now been over 36 hours since you last worked out, eat calorie maintenance for breakfast and lunch, then start training while sipping on a workout shake, eat a calorie surplus dinner and snack.
- Saturday—resting. Eat a calorie surplus the entire day—breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack. You’re still within 24 hours of your workout.
- Sunday—resting. It’s now been over 36 hours since you last worked out, eat calorie maintenance for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack. One thing you could try, is doing time-restricted eating (sometimes called intermittent fasting) right after dinner since it’d be 48 hours since your last workout by then. A typical 18/6 intermittent fast plan, with 18 hours of fasting, would mean you’d break your fast at lunch on Monday.
- Monday—lifting at 5 pm. Intermittent fast and skip breakfast or have a protein shake with water. Then eat a solid meal for lunch with at least 30-40g of protein, then lift weights while drinking your workout shake, and start the whole process for the week all over again.
#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.)
And in this 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 gain ratio of 4:1 to fat, and the high calorie surplus group gained at a much worse ratio of 4:3. So even just taking it the 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.
- 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 storing too much 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, more 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.
- #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. You may want to experiment with intermittent fasting if you have two rest days in a row.
- #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.