You often hear the terms “cutting” or “bulking”, and not much more is accepted in bodybuilding and fitness alike besides one or the other. When it comes to bulking, many see it as gaining muscle and gaining a substantial amount of fat in the process. Many accept it as part of the game and that it is a necessary evil in order to make quality gains and progress over the long haul. This simply is not true.
Is it really possible to lean bulk?
Absolutely. It is even possible to put on muscle WHILE losing fat, at the very same time. Of course, this is unlikely, and many factors come into play such as nutrition, training, supplementation, and the most important – genetics. But regardless of these variables, it is very reasonable to put on lean mass while minimizing muscle fat. Unfortunately for those that are less patient, it will take longer. It will be a slower, less noticeable process, but bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint!
Here are a few rules to follow to ensure you build muscle and keep fat off.
Rule # 1 – Only a SLIGHT caloric surplus
This is THE most important key to lean bulking. You need to provide your body with enough nutrients and a caloric surplus in order to build muscle. The reason individuals gain too much fat is because they consume far above their caloric maintenance. The muscle is given enough macro nutrients and calories to recover, so the rest is simply stored as fat. For example, if you burn 3000 calories per day with exercise included and you consume 6000 calories, it’s safe to assume you will indeed make muscle gains, but you will have a good 2000+ calories that will be shuttled to your fat cells.
A reasonable caloric surplus would be anywhere from 5-15% above your caloric maintenance. Finding your caloric maintenance can be the tricky part. Weighing yourself often and listening to your body is the most important factor. Advanced calorie counters can provide you with a decent estimation for how many calories you’re burning based off of the intensity of your workout, how long per day you spend sitting, standing, etc, but there are also other variables that come into play. The slower you put on weight, the better. If a 10% increase in calories has you gaining a few pounds per month, I believe this is very reasonable and the fat stores will be minimal.
Rule #2 – Overload your muscles. Hard.
Basically, TRAIN HARD. Training heavy – with good form – is the most optimal way to stimulate your muscles and encourage progressive overload, which is the key component in building muscle. Incorporating a variety of different exercises, angles, rep schemes, etc are also essential. After all, this is a bulk, and you want to build as much muscle as possible with the excess calories. The more muscle mass you have, the more the muscles are pushed into the skin, and the leaner you look!
Rule #3 – Don’t slack on cardio
Cardio is not only essential for health benefits, but also for keeping body fat stores down. Cardiovascular training will improve your heart’s ability to pump blood and will increase the oxygen uptake into your cells and aside from only burning calories, cardiovascular training specifically has fat-burning encouraging properties.
How much cardio and what kind? Well, since you’re still trying to gain size, it’s essential not to do so much cardio that you’re actually putting yourself back in a deficit. 25-30 minutes per day of incline walking is what I recommend. High intensity interval cardio is also a great way to torch fat and encourages muscle growth as well.
Rule #4 – Protein still matters
Protein seems to be so commonly stressed that it is even becoming overlooked. Sure, it is not the most important variable in bodybuilding, and your body’s nutrient partitioning abilities rely on a variety of factors such as genetics, supplementation, etc, but the studies still point towards high protein intake encouraging muscle growth. Protein is the last macro nutrient to be converted to fat cells, and whey protein specifically can provide you with fast acting protein during times when your protein synthesis is at it’s highest – specifically post workout. Protein is also an extremely filling macro nutrient which is beneficial if you have trouble eating only a slight caloric surplus, especially on a post-diet or post-show rebound, where it’s incredibly hard to avoid stuffing your face.
Rule #5 – Adequate recovery
Getting enough sleep every night will not only encourage muscle growth, but has been shown to greatly influence a healthy metabolism and keep body fat stores down. Pre-bed nutrition and breakfast nutrition is also essential for providing a steady, consistent flow of nutrients that will keep your blood sugar levels stable and help encourage muscle growth. Insulin-sensitive individuals should eat more often with smaller quantities to discourage insulin shuttling excessive nutrients as fat storage.
Glycogen is stored in the muscle cells, and a little excess in the liver. When your glycogen stores are full, insulin will regulate the excessive carbohydrates and store them as fat cells. During a caloric surplus, it’s definitely more likely that you’re going to have much fuller muscles due to the increase in glycogen stores from excessive carbohydrates and calories, so be careful when you’re debating whether or not to eat a dozen donuts as your pre-bed meal.