The “lean bulk” some accuse to be a myth – suggesting that one cannot bulk up their muscle mass while still staying lean. I, however, allege that one can. If your concern lies primarily with the number on the scale, then a lean bulk is a tedious task to undertake – it is harder to gain muscle size while staying lean than it is to gain weight while not being lean. Just because it’s harder, does not make it unattainable, in fact, it is quite a straight forward process.
An increase in muscle mass occurs as a result of gains in strength combined with a caloric surplus. This is the definition of a bulk. For the sake of this article let’s assume that your goal is to gain muscle size while staying lean. To be more specific, you want your muscle mass to increase, with your body fat percentage staying roughly the same. Let us differentiate between two types of bulking: the dirty bulk, and the lean bulk.
The dirty bulk is as its name suggests – a messy process and I strongly discourage it. Essentially a dirty bulk involves the principle of “see food, eat food”. A dirty bulk will involve a caloric goal, where consumers can eat anything they want to hit their goal – burgers, crisps, chocolate bars, cakes, sweets, and so on. Some may specify their macro goals in a dirty bulk – for example 500g of carbs and then proceed to eat anything they want so long as they meet these target points. This is, of course, is a dreadfully unhealthy way of gaining weight, not only are the implications on body fat percentage dire, but the amounts of sugars and trans fats often incorporated into these processes can lead to diabetic and heart problems.
In between the dirty bulk and the lean bulk lies the clean bulk, a critical factor in creating the lean bulk. The clean bulk also involves a caloric goal, and importantly macro goals, but one still aims to hit these goals through “good foods” – your healthy fats, clean carbohydrates, lean proteins, and lots of veggies. Sugars are still a no-no, to an extent, as are the trans fats. The difference here does not lie in whether one is consuming “good calories”, but rather that your caloric surplus is limited strictly to what your body needs to produce more muscle mass – excess sugars and trans fats don’t have any role to play here, and their role in a diet should be strictly limited, considering the health implications of them.
Considering now, that you understand your caloric surplus must be attained through the clean bulk, how does one go about staying lean through this process? There is only so much protein that your body can process in a day. Exactly how much this is depends on who you are, and how you generally eat. For the average person, maybe only 20g of protein can be absorbed a meal, however, some people who have been following high-protein diets for a period of time can process more.
The golden rule has been 1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight. If you are eating this amount of protein, you will build more muscle. With regards to carbohydrates, this is more dependent on who you are, and how you process them. Personally, I have equal carbohydrates to protein, but some people will have more. The idea is simply that you have enough carbohydrates to feel satisfied – you shouldn’t be feeling hungry.
Your fats should not make up more than about 20% of your caloric intake, keeping in mind that fats are much more calorically dense than carbs and proteins – whereas protein and carbs provide roughly 4 calories per gram, fats provide 9 calories per gram. Once you understand your macros, as stated above, you need to satisfy your goals with clean foods. Basically, if you would not eat the food while cutting weight, you should not eat it while trying to gain. So lean meats, complex carbohydrates, lots of vegetables, and good fats.
If you can get the above right, you are 80% of the way to your lean bulk, the next step is the training regime. The volume of your training has to increase, this is the golden rule. There are two ways of going about this, the first is the standard approach – gradually increasing the weight each session, the second is slightly less effective, but if you’re at a strength plateau it can help.
Regarding the former approach, you need to keep a record of what weight you lift for each session. Whether you use an app, a diary, or just the notepad on your phone, being able to see what you did last time will not only help in analysing how much weight to increase by, but also it helps you motivate yourself – you know you could do that weight last week, so there is no question that you could do it this week. If you are looking to increase muscle mass, I would not suggest reps lower than 5, and no fewer sets than 3. I find that I can aim to increase the weight I lift each week by about 5%. So if I lift 100kg last week, I lift 105kg this week. I will then lift the same weight the following week, to make sure my form stays appropriate, and then the following week I would increase again to 110kg.
The latter approach to training is volume increase through sets. You drop the weight you lift at 5 reps to a weight you could do for 10 reps comfortably. Then do 8 sets of 8 reps, with nothing more than a minute’s rest in between. It should feel like you are lifting heavy, and you will find a gain in strength, after 6-8 weeks of this style, you should have broken your plateau and you can proceed to the former approach to training. If all of the above is satisfied, you are completing a clean bulk, but to make it a lean bulk requires one further consideration.
“Cardio kills my gains”, is a phrase often heard around the gym. My response to that is that you are then not doing the right cardio. In a lean bulk, cardio should be done twice a week, and core work should be done twice a week. Your cardio should be interval training, but adding in a sustained cardio workout (like a run), is a great idea, provided it won’t leave you feeling too stiff for your workout.
Cardio is important because it won’t let fat sit on you and it keeps your metabolism up (hence the interval training). Your eating plan should be catering for a fast metabolism, and at the rate of your training, your body should be consuming all the protein it needs, meaning you are building muscle, while not collecting fat. The other trick to cardio is supplementation – branch chain amino acids, consisting of leucine, isoleucine and valine, provide the building blocks to protein synthesis, taking them regularly, and especially around your cardio sessions will help retain your muscle mass while you do cardio. A 4:1:1 ratio is best, the Myprotein iBCAA 4:1:1 is perfect, especially in powder form.
On the topic of supplements, I would also advise a creatine to help with strength gains. The Myprotein Kre-Alkalyn is a great choice for this context, in that it won’t result in water retainage – meaning you stay leaner. Of course, your whey powders and weight gainer shakes are a great convenience in your diet, and pre-workouts can be useful too.
The lean bulk is certainly a controversial issue. Many would disagree with what I have laid out, and say that either you won’t gain size, or you will, but you won’t stay lean. Of course, if you are sitting at 6% body fat, you’ve got to be willing to gain a few percent in this approach, but if you are sitting anywhere between 8 and 10%, I know that you can gain muscle mass, without affecting your body fat percentage.
Keep in mind that fat cells cannot be burnt off. Save for liposuction and going under the knife, a fat cell can never be removed from your body. They can, however, deflate – which is what happens when you lose weight. But when you put weight on, and you do so without being lean, you will generally create a lot of new fat cells, which means its harder to get back and maintain being lean. So I implore those that are willing to try the lean bulk, and the result will leave you satisfied.