Lean Bulk: The Complete Guide

Inside we cover everything you’ll need to know about lean bulking. Here’s what we’ll cover:

What is a lean bulk?

A lean bulk is a little bit of a vague term, but generally, the goal is to add lean mass with as little body fat as possible. For example, if you were to gain five pounds and all five pounds of it were lean mass, that would be a perfect lean bulk. Most guys who are interested in a lean bulk are curious about it because, in the past, they had a bad bulk where most of the weight that they gained was fat.

How do I get a lean bulk?

There are a number of strategies to help make your bulk as lean as possible.

It is easier to see if your lean bulk is working if you’re already lean. 

If you are already a little bit overweight, it will be harder to tell if your lean bulk is working. So if you want to do a lean bulk, it’s usually best to do a cut or a body recomp down to at least 15% body fat where you can make better decisions about how things are going.

Eat at least one gram of protein per body weight pound. 

You will need lots of protein to build muscle, and muscle is what you want to be making up your weight gain—not fat. Second, when you eat more protein, it will naturally limit your ability to eat fats and carbs, limiting your total calorie intake, leading to a leaner bulk.

Eat at least 30 g of protein every three to five hours.  

One study looking at the muscle protein synthesis found that when you spread out your protein across your meals, you could get 25% better lean muscle gains.

Make sure that your workout program is top-notch. 

If you are pushing yourself in the gym and putting in the effort in each set, your body will need to adapt and build muscle. But if you eat a lot of calories and don’t push your body to adapt, then you will not build muscle, and your body will use those extra calories for fat gain. It is critical that you learn how to push yourself and take yourself to the edge of failure when lifting weights—experiment with going to failure to see if you’ve been holding back.

Sleep at least 7.25 hours a night and likely more. 

When you don’t sleep enough, stress begins to build up, and it will negatively affect your hormones and will make you gain more fat and limit your muscle gain ability. We recommend aiming for at least 8 to 9 hours o sleep each night. Leading sleep institutions found that you should sleep at a *minimum* of 7.25 hours each night.

Focus on improving food quality. 

When you eat foods like white flour and white sugar, it won’t be absorbed by the body in the best way, which can lead to fat gain. There are many important things that are removed that help your body digest that food. In the wheat germ, there are B-vitamins that metabolize the carbs that make you feel energetic and reduces fat gain. So a simple way to improve your lean bulk is to eat foods that are wholesome, unprocessed and cooked by you at your own house, like whole wheat/brown rice/etc.

Avoid foods that are cooked with industrial vegetable oils. 

Vegetable oils are preferentially stored as fat tissue, and it lowers your testosterone leading to more fat gain and less muscle gain. Vegetable oils include things like corn oil, soybean oil and canola oil. Unfortunately, most restaurants cook with this oil because it is the cheapest type of oil, and it fries well. A simple solution to this is to cook all your food by yourself at home and use extra virgin olive oil or butter or tallow for cooking.

Don’t eat a lot of food when you’re sitting and eat more food after you lift weights. 

If you work a desk job and you’re about to sit from 9-5, don’t eat a ton of food that food as it will mainly be stored as fat. But after you lift weights, your body will be begging to recover and build muscle, and that’s when you should eat a lot of food. This principle is called nutrient timing, and it’s one of the reasons that 16/8 intermittent fasting is so popular right now because it makes you eat less food while you’re inactive, and then you eat more food after you’ve lifted weights. This helps you burn fat during times of inactivity and build muscle post-workout, leading to lean bulk.

Don’t gain weight too fast. 

In a 2019 study on bodybuilders, researchers found that those who gained weight at a slower pace had a better ratio of muscle-to-fat than they gained. In one group, they ate a higher calorie surplus and gained 2.4 kg of lean mass and 1.8 kg of fat. The lower-calorie surplus group gained 1.2 kg of lean mass in 0.3 kg of fat. The other group that gained weight fast had a much worse ratio—4 to 3 of muscle-to-fat ratio. So if you’re in a hurry to get big and strong, it would be far better to do a high-calorie surplus and build muscle and then do a cut to remove the fat. But if that hasn’t worked well for you in the past, slowing down the rate of gain two around 1.0–1.5% of your total bodyweight per month is a good goal. For example, if you are a hundred and sixty pounds and you want to do a lean bulk, you can try gaining between 1.6 and 2.2 pounds per month while pushing yourself hard in the gym.

Eat more meat. 

Eating more meat will give your body the nutrients it needs to grow. Yes, it’s full of protein, but it’s also full of other bodybuilding nutrients such as taurine, carnitine, creatine, glutamine and more. Secondly, it’s very hard for excess protein to get converted into fat, so if you eat lots of meat, you will help your body recover from the lifting workouts you are doing while also limiting fat gain. Eating meat also tends to fill you up and make you feel satisfied, limiting your ability to eat more fats and carbs that might spill over into the fat game.

Don’t neglect cardio/conditioning. 

Having poor cardiovascular health seems to make people have a worse muscle-to-fat ratio when gaining. I suspect this is because doing cardio like sprints can increase your metabolism, making a calorie surplus smaller while still getting enough protein to build muscle, making fat gain less likely. 

Lean Bulking

How many calories should I eat on a lean bulk?

Every person has their own daily calorie needs. For example, some people have a higher metabolism, or they live an active lifestyle where they’re more on their feet. So there isn’t a total set calorie amount to do a lean bulk. You must estimate what your maintenance calories are and then adding 200-300 calories daily. Eat that amount of calories every day and measure your weight gain at the end of the week. If you’re aiming to gain 2 lbs per month, then you should try and gain 0.5 lbs per week. If you don’t gain that amount of weight, add 200-300 calories and try again next week. So there isn’t a total set number of calories that you should eat. You will need to ask to measure, experiment, and keep trying until you’re hitting the weight gain per week that you want.

How much weight should you gain on a lean bulk?

Your goal is to get stronger at the main lifts like bench press, overhead press, chin-ups, squats, and deadlifts. Once you reach a remarkable level of strength, you’ll have enough muscle mass that you could burn off your fat and look strong and lean. So the amount of weight that you should gain will be different for everyone depending on how far away they are from the strength benchmarks that they want to hit. For the guys that we coach, we usually try and have them able to bench press at least over two plates (225+ pounds) for five reps and deadlift three plates (315+ pounds) for five reps. The exact numbers differ depending on how tall you are, but those are generally good benchmarks to aim for to look strong. If you can’t hit those numbers, you should probably keep lean bulking until you hit those numbers unless you’re too fat for your liking, at which point you should try a body recomp.

Should I lean bulk or dirty bulk?

Many young teenagers attempt the lean bulk, and they might be able to get away with it because they have low levels of inflammation and superior mitochondrial health compared to older guys. If you aren’t eighteen years old, I would highly recommend that you do not do a dirty bulk. A dirty bulk will only make you feel more sluggish and worsen your overall health and make it more likely that you gain stubborn belly fat during the bulk. A dirty bulk includes low-quality foods, which makes fat gain more likely, and certain types of food can make your body perform worse, such as vegetable oils or iron-fortified white flour, which can contribute to heart disease, diabetes and men’s health issues like erectile dysfunction. We would recommend trying to eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible that you cook yourself at home.

What should I eat on a lean bulk?

We’d recommend eating whole, unprocessed foods that you cook yourself at home. That would include things like meat and veggies and fruit and whole grains like whole wheat or oats. The more meat that you eat, the easier it will be to build muscle, and eating other things like organ meats like liver or bone broth will also help you get the vitamins and nutrients you need to grow. It certainly helps to eat carbohydrates, especially before and after lifting weights, but they ought to be high-quality carbs. For example, eating honey or dried fruit like dates or raisins or having oats or whole grains that have all the vitamins and nutrients in them still will help you grow without getting overly fat. 

If you are having a hard time eating enough food to see weight gain, then instead of lowering the food quality with processed foods, we would first recommend trying to eat foods with the water removed like dried fruits or nuts and trying to remove as much chewing as possible. For example, it will be easier to eat more burger patties with ground meat compared to a steak, and it will be easier to drink a smoothie you made at home than to eat a bunch of fruit and veggies.

Can you bulk and get leaner at the same time?

Yes, you can, but that is technically not called a lean bulk but a body recomposition. A body recomposition is when you are in a calorie deficit, but you are eating a high-protein diet and lifting weights. You would be building muscle while burning fat. If you can’t see your abs faintly in the mirror, you may want to try doing a body recomposition first before doing a lean bulk.

How do skinny guys lean bulk?

If you can see your abs clearly and you’re ripped, you may want to consider doing a traditional bulk and focus mainly on building strength as rapidly as you can. This is what I did when I gained over 27 pounds of lean mass in only four months.

Jared Polowick Muscle Building

Skinny guys are very, very far away from their muscular potential, and they have a lot of lost ground to make up for. So they may do better on a higher calorie surplus and may not want to focus on doing a lean bulk. They should instead focus on optimizing strength, even if that means gaining a bit of fat for now. We have a complete system developed to solve this problem called Bony to Beastly, where we teach you how to gain one pound per week so that after five months, you are 20 pounds heavier, with most of it being lean mass. If you are skinny-fat, you should use our True Gains program.)

Is it okay to gain fat while bulking?

Yes, it is okay to gain fat while bulking, and it should be expected when optimizing muscle gain. With that said, if you are already overweight, you might do best with a body recomp to get down to 15% body fat and then lean bulk from there. The goal is to get your strength up to a certain level, and a bulk is a great way to do that. That said, if you are overweight now, it can come with some health effects such as a vitamin D deficiency, more stress on your joints like your knees, which can cause pain, snoring and other signs of sleep apnea from a fat tongue and pressure on the body from fat. So it’s not a good idea to be overweight. So we would recommend trying to stay in the 15–20% body fat range until you reach your goal strength. So, for example, you can do a lean bulk and focus on getting stronger, and then once you hit around 20% body fat, you could switch into a body recomp or cut down to 15% body fat, at which point you could switch back into a lean bulk and repeat the process over again. When you’ve reached your ideal strength, that’s when you can cut down to 10% body fat, and you look athletic and lean and feel great, and you can just hang out there.

With all that said, if you have some fat aversion, you can always take things slower and do a slower weight gain and switch into periods of a cut or body recomp anytime that you feel too fat. Don’t forget that focusing on your cardio/conditioning can help prevent fat gain—especially the stubborn type. So if you wanted to do a lean bulk without the fat gain doing some lifting such as three times a week and then doing some cardio a couple of times a week would be ideal when trying to balance gaining muscle while reducing fat.

If you want help learning how to do a lean bulk, we’ve made our principles into a simple step-by-step system with our True Gains program.

Burn Stubborn Fat, Gain Muscle