‘To Bulk’ – Gain body weight, with the primary goal of gaining muscle.
There is an absence of quality diet advice out there for people trying to bulk. ‘Eat more!’ lacks the detail and finesse to optimize things, ‘Calculate your macros, train hard’ – misses the fundamental point that as we progress, calorie and macronutrient needs change and adjustments are necessary to keep us progressing.
This guide is something that people have been bugging me to write for nearly three years, but truthfully, back then I didn’t feel that I had enough experience to write one without merely parroting things I had read elsewhere and applied to only a handful of clients. I’m glad that I waited, as coaching a lot of people through a bulk is the only way I could find out what stuff matters vs. what doesn’t, and come up with my own way of doing things.
How much more should we eat? Of what macronutrient? Do macros matter? How do I know when I should adjust? How do I minimize fat gain?
This is very detailed because that is how the overwhelming majority of people requested it. – 8000 words and approximate ~35-minute read time. – There is a fair amount of reading up front then, but it will save you months of effort down the line.
I cobbled together 12 ‘graphs’ to try and explain what I am talking about visually. Sincerely, I hope you find it interesting as well as practically helpful when choosing how you wish to bulk and implementing it successfully.
- Part 1: The Important Factors For Achieving Our Maximal Growth Rate
- Part 2: How Quickly We Can Expect To Grow
- Part 3: The Three Ways We Can Bulk – A Detailed ‘How-to’ Guide
- Part 4: ‘Which Method Should I Choose?’ – Detailed Comparisons
Who this guide is for:
- Those that have finished their cut and are looking to turn it around into a bulk,
- Those that are currently bulking but have stopped gaining weight and aren’t sure how to make further changes to keep progressing,
- Those that have made an initial set-up calculation for their bulk and are wondering what comes next.
Part 1: The Important Factors For Achieving Our Maximal Growth Rate
There is a limit to the amount of muscle mass that we can grow. You will grow the most in your first year of real training, with diminishing returns after that. Here is how that looks on a graph:
Fig. 1: The Path To Maximum Muscular Potential
The red dot represents the point where the maximum muscular potential is reached. The time frame is in years.
So what does this tell us?
- Each year of training will net us less and less muscle growth in return. (As well as requiring an increasing amount of time and effort – due to increased training volume to force adaptation.)
- The first few years of real training where we get things right will net us our greatest gains, and take us the furthest way towards our genetic potential. You can look great after just a few years of training.
Factors That Determine The Rate We Can Grow
Several factors determine whether we grow muscle as quickly as our genetic potential should allow. Here they are in descending order of importance:
- Drug use (or not) / genetics.
- Calorie intake.
- Appropriate training stimulus to force adaptation.
- Sufficient protein intake.
- Enough sleep.
- Management and minimisation of stress in your life.
- Body-fat percentage
- Everything else. (Fat-carb macronutrient intake, micronutrients, meal timing & frequency, supplements.)
If you look at the list carefully you’ll see that the top two items on the list – drugs/genetics and calorie intake come ahead of training. What this means is that people can go about their training in a sub-optimal manner, but if they are genetically gifted enough (and/or use a sufficient amount of drugs), and eat enough, they can get away with it. This explains a lot of Youtube, as well as a lot of the stupid advice out there in the fitness industry in general – people that use drugs do not need to pay as much attention to the rest of the factors. Most have decided not to.
1. Drug Use & Genetics
Genetics play an enormous role in how well people respond to training.
We all know people at the gym who train with little effort but are huge, and you probably know someone who grew like a weed when they started training and overtook you.
This is unfair, but so is life. Your genetics are genetics, you need to play the hand you are dealt and be the best you can. Here a graph to illustrate that:
Fig. 2: THE ROLE OF GENETICS IN GROWTH RATE AND MAXIMUM MUSCULAR POTENTIAL
The three lines show people of the same height. The red line is someone of average genetic predisposition, the yellow line someone with good genetics, the green line someone with the best possible genetics. The orange dotted line represents the maximum that is naturally humanly possible for a person of that height.
The main point I want to make here is that you shouldn’t look at someone who is bigger than you and assume that have some special knowledge, and it’s prudent to not look at a guy smaller than you and assume they don’t know what they are doing.
Some of the most technically knowledgable people in the industry have good, but not outstanding physiques. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it – frustration with their own results lead to them to study harder.
Genetics for growth appear to be somewhat (not for all individuals, but when comparing populations) related to the starting point. We can see this when comparing growth rates for men and women. When they do the same program, absolute growth for men is higher, but they actually gain the same % of lean mass in relation to their starting lean mass. So, if you take two untrained individuals of the same height, with similar sporting histories, but different starting levels of lean mass, we can expect the bigger guy to grow bigger and more muscled overall. – Pretty much what common sense would tell us anyway.
Do genetics matter then?
Assuming you wish to make the most of your genetic hand, in all practical and applicable senses, no. You must assume that you are one of the genetically elite when you train. The mind has an incredibly powerful effect on the body. (So much so that you can actually give people sugar pills, tell them that they are steroids, and they will grow for a time like they are on steroids. Yes, I shit you not that has actually been studied)
You have to believe in yourself.
When you introduce drugs into the training mix, you risk damaging your endocrine system, as well as jail time. This guide is written for you, the natural trainee, as coaching drug-using trainees is not an area I wish to take my career into. (This is not a value judgment.)
However, it is worth covering briefly just how vast the effect that drug use can have on things, because it will help you improve your bullshit detector and illustrate why blindly following the advice of someone simply because they are jacked – rather than the quality and authenticity of the information they preach – is not a good idea.
Drug use increases the rate at which people can grow, as well as allows for growth to go well beyond natural limits. This is represented by a dramatic shift upwards and outwards of the curve, green to purple, beyond the orange natural genetic limit line.
Fig. 3: HOW DRUG USE AFFECTS MUSCLE GROWTH POTENTIAL
How much further past genetic limits can drugs use take people?
This is unknown, but the short answer is a lot.
For comparison, most people of 5’10 (~178cm) competing in natural federations will be on stage somewhere between 171-181 lbs (~78-82 kg), depending on hydration status and glycogen depletion.
Phil Heath, the latest Olympia winner, is 5’9 (~175cm) and has a competition weight estimated to be 250 lbs (~114 kg).
[Note: From here on, for the sake of simplicity, we will assume that everyone has a genetic muscle-gain potential equal to the green curve.]
2. Calorie Intake
Failure to eat enough is top of the list for places where people go wrong when bulking. We cannot make something out of nothing.
Muscle growth cannot be optimized in a calorie deficit, however, at higher levels of body fat, our body can be in a calorie deficit and still build muscle. That is because your body will use the fat stores to fuel itself. As we get leaner this process becomes more difficult, and getting factors 3-7+ right becomes increasingly important. Eventually, we will stop gaining any more muscle mass regardless of what we do. Here is how that looks on a graph:
Fig. 4: HOW INSUFFICIENT CALORIE INTAKE LIMITS MUSCLE GROWTH OVER TIME
Notice how genetic potential is still represented by the green dot, but it is never reached in this scenario.
Tracking Trumps Calculations
If you are stuck, not gaining muscle and your weight is not steadily increasing over the weeks, you need to eat more. It does not matter what your calculations said should happen:
- You may have miscalculated,
- you may be miscounting your food intake,
- you might be a high NEAT responder,
- you may have eaten your way up to a new set point.
The body has mechanisms for dealing with a calorie surplus in order to minimize weight gain. While admittedly, these mechanisms are not as powerful as those for dealing with a calorie deficit (historically we were far less likely to eat ourselves to death than starve to death) they are still present and do not lend themselves well to a calculation.
Calculations are a ‘best guess’. Tracking trumps calculations, and we need to adjust based on the reality of the situation, not what the math said would happen. – This is an absolutely fundamental point when moving forward.
• Related article: Coaching Lessons #4 – Tracking Trumps Calculations
3. Appropriate Training Stimulus To Force Adaptation
It should go without saying that if you do not have sufficient training stimulus to force adaptations, then you will not grow muscle. The majority of the calorie surplus will be stored as fat. See my article, The Core Principles of Effective Training for more on this.
4. Sufficient Protein Intake
You need to have a sufficient level of protein intake for tissue repair and growth. Insufficient protein intake will hamper your gains. See my protein intake guidelines here.
5/6. Enough Sleep, Management Of Stress
Insufficient sleep and a high level of stress will hamper recovery from your workouts and your growth. The more advanced we get with our training; the more stress we are able to put on our bodies, and thus this comes of increasing importance as we progress. Before I take a coaching applicant on as a client I check to see that these elements are on point first, if not then I decline to take them on. Please take your sleep and stress management seriously, as it will flatten the curve and shift it down and towards the right.
7. Body-fat Percentage
The leaner we are; the more of the weight that we gain has potential to be muscle. There are calorie partitioning benefits to being leaner. The chronic low-grade inflammation associated with obesity decreases the anabolic and increases catabolic signaling in the muscles themselves.
If we start at 10-12% body fat for example, then the majority of the weight gain can be muscle. However, if we start bulking at 20%+ then the majority of that will probably be fat tissue. So, by starting our bulk while we are fairly lean, we can bulk for longer and it will be of a higher quality (a greater proportion of the mass gain will be muscle tissue).
8. Everything Else (Fat-carb macronutrient intake, micronutrients, meal timing & frequency, supplements.)
The importance of each increase as we advance with our training and get closer to our genetic potential. See my full diet set-up guide for more on this.
Part 2: How Quickly We Can Expect To Grow
So we know that our level of training advancement determines our rate of muscle growth potential, which decreases with experience. (Contrast this to when we have a fat-loss goal: body-fat percentage determines how quickly we can lose fat and has nothing to do with training experience.)
By categorizing our training advancement, we can get a reasonable estimate of the amount of muscle we can hope/expect to gain per month, which becomes very useful when setting calorie intake and body weight gain targets.
Classifying your training experience/status is a sticky area, but fortunately, some smart guys have done this hard work for us. Lyle McDonald does it by ‘years of proper training,’ Alan Aragon and Eric Helms go by Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced categorizations.
- If you have been training seriously for less than a year and you are able to make linear load increases week to week in the main compound lifts, consider yourself a beginner.
- If you can no longer make linear load increases week to week and need some form of periodization in your lifting to progress, consider yourself an intermediate trainee.
- If you’re an advanced trainee, you damn well know it.
Here is a rough breakdown of the rate of growth you can expect based on these classifications if you do everything right:
Muscle Growth Potential
Training Status | Gains per month
Beginner/Novice | 1-1.5% of bodyweight
Intermediate | 0.5-1% of bodyweight
Advanced | Less than 0.5% of bodyweight
Note: Novice trainees that are very well muscled already (through a life of sports perhaps or manual labor job) will probably be best to consider their growth potentials as that of the intermediate trainee.
Part 3: The Three Ways We Can Bulk – A Detailed ‘How-to’ Guide
I see there as being three legitimate ways to successfully bulk:
- Relaxed bulk – This is bulking without counting calories or macros. This is sometimes known as a “dirty bulk.”
- Controlled bulk (slow bulk) – maximize the rate of muscle gain, without gaining an unnecessary amount of fat,
- Aim For Lean Gains – maintain maximal levels of leanness while adding muscle.
The underlying assumption is that whether for appearance or athletic reasons, our goal is to build a more muscled version of ourselves, without any additional fat. Thus, we might be willing to trade off some fat gain in the short term for a faster rate of progress overall. You might not, but if you do choose a method where you gain fat, you’ll cut later.
1. The Relaxed Bulk
‘Relaxed bulking’ is bulking without counting calories or macros. Fat gain will be higher than with the other methods, but you choose not to care due to the ease of it. The rate of muscle growth can be maximized as long as you eat enough.
A relaxed bulk should not be confused with a dream bulk – where people simply eat their faces off, gaining an enormous amount of weight and believing it to be mostly muscle. In contrast, when we use this relaxed bulk method we remain conscious of our maximal rates of muscle growth potential.
Fig. 5: RELAXED BULK METHOD – CHANGES IN MUSCLE AND FAT MASS OVER TIME
Eat plenty. As you’re not tracking macros, calorie partitioning (how much energy is used for recovery and muscle growth vs. how much is just stored as fat) is not going to be optimal. This means that more fat will be gained per pound of muscle gained during the bulk phase than with either of the other methods.
Given that it is pretty much impossible (in my opinion) for us to consistently and accurately track how much of the weight that we gain is muscle vs. fat, the best thing to do is to chase a bodyweight gain target. I would suggest targeting 100-150% over your maximum muscular gain potential per month. The higher end of the range, i.e. setting your bodyweight gain target at 2.5x your maximum genetic growth rate potential, is most likely to give you your maximum, as this way you ensure that you aren’t consuming too little of the stuff your body needs, hampering recovery and growth.
It would be best to be at least minimally conscious of your protein intake though so that you don’t undercut your efforts by consuming too little. (This will affect your growth in a way similar to figure 4, but less extreme.)
- A 160 lb lean, novice trainee: Aim to gain 6 lbs per month while crushing it at the gym. (160*1.5%*2.5)
- 180 lb intermediate: Aim to gain ~3.5 lbs per month while crushing it at the gym. (180*0.75%*2.5)
If you gain more than this, reduce your food intake. If you gain less than the target, increase your food intake. If you find yourself struggling to auto-regulate like this without counting, then consider starting to count. – This leads us on to method two, the controlled bulk.
2. The Controlled Bulk / Slow Bulk
Controlled bulking is bulking by making controlled and systematic calorie and macro increases, with the aim of achieving our maximal rate of muscle gain, but without gaining an unnecessary amount of fat. Of the three methods we’re covering in this article, this is the one that I find myself recommending most often to clients.
Fig. 6: SLOW BULK METHOD – CHANGES IN MUSCLE AND FAT MASS OVER TIME
Again, we can’t consistently and effectively track how much of the weight that we gain is muscle vs. fat, so we are best to set a weight-gain target based on our monthly growth potential.
Fat gain is unavoidable when attempting to gain muscle at a maximal rate because a calorie surplus beyond what is needed for muscle growth alone is required. (I believe this is because this keeps our hormonal balance in favor of maximal muscle growth. However, as we are counting our macros and setting them at levels that make sense for growth and recovery, calorie partitioning will be much better than with the relaxed bulk method. Thus, we should set our monthly body weight gain target at a lower rate than with the relaxed bulk, but still above growth potential. How much over? 75-100% is my recommendation. We’ll go with the latter in the examples below for simplicity.
Step 1: The Calorie Math – A Start Point But Nothing More
Calculate → Track → Fine Tune → Track → Fine Tune → Track → …
The rest of this guide assumes that you have calculated your macros and have been tracking your progress over a few weeks minimum. If you have been doing this you know your average rate of weight change over the last few weeks. This covers the ‘fine tuning’ part of things.
The need for adjustments is inevitable because of the individual variance in metabolic response to calorie surplus (and deficit) conditions. Here’s why:
After dieting when we come back around to maintenance calorie intake we can eat more than just the energy equivalent of our weekly fat-loss rate, as our hormones come back into balance and metabolisms speed back up to normal. When we bulk we experience less weight gain than calculated because we start fidgeting more throughout the day – the body’s attempt to keep us from gaining weight. This is called NEAT variance, and unfortunately, it’s highly individual. This latter part explains the ‘hard gainer’ phenomenon – people that swear they can’t gain weight or muscle mass – they are just very high NEAT responders.
^ We can’t calculate these things with any real degree of accuracy. So we will start with a calculation that assumes you have none of these changes to deal with, and then work up from there based on how the scale weight changes over time.
• Related article: How Do I Find Maintenance Calorie Intake After Dieting?
The Important Numbers (and where they come from):
In the examples, we’ll consider the case of the guy that has been bulking but has stopped making progress, and the case of the dieter that has just finished cutting and is looking to start a bulk.
Here are the important numbers we need to make our calculations:
→ It takes roughly ~2500 kcal to synthesize a pound of muscle. (~5500 kcal/ kg)
→ It takes roughly ~3500 kcal to burn or store a pound of fat. (~7700 kcal/ kg)
Therefore, if we wish to gain 1 lb of muscle per month, and we’re setting our body weight gain target at 100% over that (so 2 lbs), we will need an approximate 6000 kcal monthly increase in calorie intake (1*2500 + 1*3500), which is approximately 200 kcal per day.
→ For a 1 lb increase in muscle mass per month, target 2 lbs of weight gain, so increase daily intake by 200 kcal.
Theory For Fellow Geeks (feel free to skip)
Where do those 2500 kcal, 3500 kcal and 200 kcal numbers come from?
A pound of muscle by itself is only 600-800 kcal (protein + glycogen + trace intramuscular adipose tissue). But when you go through the metabolic processes to synthesize 600-800 kcal of muscle protein, those processes themselves consume an extra 1500-2000 kcal. That’s 2100-2800 kcal total. Furthermore, let’s say you’re glycogen super-compensated and well-hydrated. That makes your muscles themselves slightly larger and less dense. – Fewer calories per pound.
Fat takes 3000-3500 kcal to burn or store. But let’s say you have small adipocytes (fat cells) – after being obese and dieting for example – with more organelles and smaller fat droplets (less fat per unit volume). – Fewer calories per pound.
So we’ll just use 2500 kcal for muscle and 3500 kcal for fat, as that is in the right range and makes the math easy. Cool? Good.
- A 160 lb lean, novice trainee, currently not gaining or losing any weight. This means that he is at approximately maintenance calories. According to our Muscle Growth Potential chart, a reasonable goal is to gain 1.5% of body weight as muscle growth per month, which is 2.4 lbs. So increase caloric intake by 480 kcal per day (2.4 lbs*200 kcal) to give 4.8 lbs of body weight gain per month.
- A 180 lb intermediate trainee, finished his cut to shreds, recently losing 0.75 lbs per week. This means you are currently in an approximate 375 kcal daily deficit [(0.75*3500)/7]. According to our Muscle Growth Potential chart, a reasonable goal is to gain 0.75 % of body weight as muscle per month, which is 1.35 lbs. So, increase caloric intake by 645 kcal per day (375 + 1.35*200) to give 2.7 lbs of body weight gain per month. (Metabolic slowdown can’t be /hasn’t been calculated, so this will be adjusted for in a few weeks based on progress.)
Step 2: Macros – Keep Protein The Same, Increase Your Carbs and Fats
So this brings us on the macronutrients – how much of each should we increase to reach these new calorie requirements?
You already have your protein numbers set. A 2 lb increase of muscle per month technically requires a ~2g increase in protein intake per month, according to our initial calculations. That is a minor amount and I don’t think it’s worth adjusting for. This is especially true for those not counting the trace proteins in their carb intake – pasta, rice, bread – as this will increase over time as you progress with the bulk. (This is what I recommend to clients for simplicity – free guide here.)
If you have been dieting, your protein intake will have been set a little higher than what is technically required for a bulk, so you could reduce protein intake and put it towards some carb or fat increases if you wish. But the difference is small (~20% at the extreme end) that unless you’re on a very tight budget I question whether it’s worth bothering here also. Your choice here.
You can use protein if you wish, but that can get expensive quite quickly. The increase in caloric intake will come from fat and carbs then.
Fats and Carbs – Increase In What Ratio Then?
Which brings us to the question of how to split these increases. Now, if I look back through the data with clients, what seems to have worked best on average is something like an approximate 70-30 calorie split in favor of carbs. That is not something I calculated then decided to test, it is just something I found myself gravitating towards when making increases to clients at the check-in points because it worked so well.
Feel free to plus or minus that 10% either side based on personal preference for a higher carb or fat intake. (i.e. 60-40 or 80-20 will be fine.)
Don’t skew your fat intake so that it is below 20% of your daily calorie intake – it’s tough to implement as it leads to a tasteless and restricted diet, plus it’s not great hormonally as you need a certain level of fat in your diet to maintain regular hormonal functioning, something in the ~0.4-0.6/ lb lbM (0.9-1.3g/ kg) range. Obviously then if you have huge calorie needs due to your job or other sports you can break this rule.
I haven’t taken fat intake past 40% of total calories with clients when they are bulking, so I can’t tell you how effective that will be. And as these guidelines are based on what I have done with clients rather than theory, I’ll leave this here.
- Our novice trainee needs a 480 kcal increase per day. He likes carby foods so he’ll skew the increases based on that preference to 75% carbs, 25% fats. This gives him a daily increase of ~15g fat, 85g carbs.
- Our intermediate trainee needs a 645 kcal increase per day. As he’s been dieting, fat intake has probably had to be cut down to the lower end of the recommended range which pushes him into territory where regular hormonal function and testosterone production is affected. So, we want to make an immediate and significant increase to fat intake. However, we don’t want to skew this too much in favor of the fat increases, as carb intake will have been reduced drastically also, and we want to increase these to help fuel us through our workouts (and hopefully new PRs) as well as make life taste better. Thus, I’d recommend he split this calorie increase 35/65 between fats and carbs respectively. This gives him a daily increase of ~25g fat, 105g carbs.
(Notice that I have rounded the numbers in each case to the nearest 5g for simplicity.)
A Note On Alcohol
Alcohol has calories that will need to be accounted for in your calorie budget. They’re empty calories, meaning they can fuel you, but they aren’t going to cause the growth and repair that we want. So, by all means, please feel free to add some beers into your diet now that you have a higher calorie budget (by reducing carb and fat intake), but don’t abuse it.
Step 3: For Those That Are Calorie / Macro Cycling
This is how I usually set things up with clients – skewing calorie intake so that people eat more on their training days than rest days, with more carbs on those training days and decreased fat. I do this in an effort to improve calorie partitioning, which is theoretical and questionable, but something I’ve found to work well without adding too much complication.
It makes sense that on the days we expend more energy, we eat more.
Carbs fuel our workouts and aid in glycogen repletion (minor points for the non-athlete) and are necessary for recovery and growth. Fat is more easily stored on the days with excess calorie intake. So, if we reduce fat intake on the training days and increase carbs to make up for it, we may be able to limit fat accumulation as well as improve recovery and growth. (An improvement in calorie partitioning.)
We would then, of course, have to increase fat intake and reduce carb intake on the rest days to keep our daily averages in the right range.
Adding complication to your diet and training comes with diminishing returns as you work your way down the order of importance. Recall that list of seven things we had under “Factors That Determine The Rate We Can Grow.” Let me re-label this list “Factors That Determine Whether Your Gains Are Muscle Or Fat”. If we extend it we have:
- Macronutrient intake (fat-carb ratio)
- Your level of leanness (this affects calorie partitioning).
- Meal timing & frequency
- Calorie & macro cycling
So you can see that by this point the returns to additional complication are small, but with the cost of increasing difficulty of implementation and adherence to your diet. Therefore, as we already have our calories higher on the training days than the rest days, I suggest that we leave the calorie split as it is and just increase the same number of calories on each day.
As for the carbs and fats, you can skew those a little either way if you wish.
- Our novice trainee is making a daily increase of ~15g fat, 85g carbs. He could split it: T-days: +5g fat, +95g carbs, R-days: +25g fat, +75g carbs.
- Our intermediate trainee is making a daily increase of ~25g fat, 105g carbs. T-days: +10g fat, +135g carbs, R-days: +40g fat, +75g carbs.
Objection: But that doesn’t work as we don’t have the exact same number of training and rest days per week.
– Sure, you might be working out 3 days a week leaving you 4 days of rest, or 4 days a week leaving you 3 days of rest, but this won’t affect things to a great extent, and the math doesn’t need to be exact anyway, so I wouldn’t worry about it.
Objection: Ah, but I train 2 days a week / 5+ days a week and that will skew the fat-carb balance.
– Do some math then buddy; you can’t expect me to spoon feed you everything.
Step 4: Further Fine Tuning
…Track Progress → Fine Tune → Track Progress → Fine Tune
You will need to adjust at some point to keep yourself on track with your weight-gain target. That’s going to happen sooner for some than others due to the inter-individual metabolic differences already discussed.
Practical Application – Be Precise But Not Over-Analytical
For the novice and intermediate trainees, realistically speaking, the minimum it’s worth making an adjustment for is when the scale weight change is at least half a pound (~0.23 kg) off your target average per week. If your average daily weight at the end of each of the last 2-4 weeks has not increased as per your target, make an increase. (The best way to do that is to weigh yourself each morning, upon waking but after emptying your bladder, and note your average weight at the end of the week.)
To get back on target will require a 200 kcal daily calorie intake increase. Which for the sake of simplicity we might want to consider to be a daily increase of 10g of fat, 25-30g of carbs, regardless of whether it is a training day or rest day. (Though you may skew it one way or the other as per preference, taking into account the theory of the last section.)
Of our two example guys, the man that has been dieting is likely to be the first one that needs to make an adjustment – this is because our calculations couldn’t/didn’t account for the metabolic slowdown.
Detailed Examples – Putting that together
I think the steps above are pretty clear already, but I’m going to put this together with example numbers just so there can’t be any misunderstandings.
Our 160 lb Lean, Novice Trainee – First Serious Bulk
Training Schedule | Initial Calculation | First Adjust. | Second Adjust.
T-Day (p/c/f) | 160/370/60 | 160/465/65 | 160/495/75
R-Day (p/c/f) | 180/120/110 | 160/195/135 | 160/225/145
Our 180 lb Intermediate Trainee, Bulking After Having Dieted To Shreds
Training Schedule | Macros @Diet End | First Adjust. | Second Adjust.
T-Day (p/c/f) | 170/200/50 | 170/335/60 | 170/370/65
R-Day (p/c/f) | 190/50/80 | 190/125/120 | 190/155/130
3. Aim for Lean Gains
Aiming for lean gains is bulking in a way that allows maintenance of maximal levels of leanness while adding muscle. This is achieved by making increases to calorie and macro intake only enough to allow progressions with our training (indicating muscle gain).
We know that we cannot maximize muscle growth rate with this method, but we can’t say for sure what percentage of the maximal growth rate we can achieve on average. I suspect half, but I know it will be highly individual. This comes back to, in large part, our genetic differences determining how well we partition calories.
What this means is that we will gain weight at less than 1/3 the rate of body weight change as compared with the first two methods. For this reason, it requires a lot more patience as the changes are far more subtle, and in the short term you may not be able to measure them. This requires faith in the principle that if you are progressing with your training, then you are gaining muscle, but most people cannot do this without losing their minds.
This style is only really suitable for experienced trainees, that place a premium on maximal leanness, and are very confident that they know what they are doing with their training and diet. This is something that the professional figure model needs to do to stay employed.
From my point of view as a coach, this does not lend itself well to short-term coaching periods because the changes are often too subtle to keep people motivated and feel value for their money. Reasons for this will become evident when we get to the comparison graphs section below.
Fig. 7: LEAN GAIN METHOD – CHANGES IN MUSCLE AND FAT MASS OVER TIME
You need to start from a shredded state to use this method. This is because you will be using a combination of the mirror, stomach measurements, and body fat calipers (the only time I will recommend these) to gauge whether you have gained fat or muscle.
If you have been dieting (which you probably will have) then:
- Find maintenance calorie intake as per the math used in the previous section. Add that back into your diet.
- Make small increases (100-200 kcal increments, scaling with body size) to daily calorie intake when your training fails to progress.
If you haven’t been dieting and are currently at a stable body weight then just skip ‘1’. If you are currently gaining weight at more than the expected rate of muscle growth, then consider cutting back calorie intake slightly.
Advanced-Intermediate Trainee shredded 7% body fat. He has just finished dieting and was losing 0.5 lb (0.23 kg) per week.
- He needs to make a 250 kcal increase (0.5*3500/7) to his macro intake to bring himself back up to calculated maintenance. (This will not be full maintenance caloric intake due to the metabolic slowdown experienced when dieting, but it’s a good start point.)
- He’s going to make this increase from a mix of carbs and fats, choosing to increase carbs by 50g and fats 5g on the training days, carbs by 15g and fats 20g on the rest days. (T-day: +50c, +5f, R-day: +15c, +20f)
- He waits and tracks things over a couple of weeks. He feels more energetic in the gym, training starts improving, but sees that his weight is still dropping slightly, so he makes another increase, this time, 200 kcal. He chooses to split that as follows, T-day: +50c, R-day: +25c, +10f.
- He waits and tracks things over a couple of weeks. Strength is now improving. Weight has come up by a couple of pounds! Fat? Mirror definition and body fat caliper measurements tell him that there is no fat gain. So this is glycogen and water weight increases, due to the increase in carb intake. – No change is made to the macros.
- Two weeks later training progression stalls despite everything else being on point. Body-fat is unchanged. He makes another increase, T-day: +50c, R-day: +25c, +10f.
- Training keeps progressing. Weight comes up again, but no indications of fat gain.
- Training stalls a couple of weeks later so he makes another incremental increase to the macros.
- Two weeks later, training is progressing nicely, but it looks like the stomach measurements have come up. Fat gain? Mirror and caliper measurements don’t agree. It’s probably a measurement error or just some thickening of the mid-section (abs, obliques, and lower back are bigger and stronger).
- Etc. The trainee keeps on making fine tune adjustments to their macros to keep progressing with their training without any fat gain.
Adjust → Track → Incremental Addition → Track → Fine Tune → Track → Fine Tune, etc.
Part 4: ‘Which Method Should I Choose?’ – Detailed Comparisons
The Importance of Starting Your Bulk When You Are Lean
In the following comparison section, we are comparing the methods from the same starting level of leanness. However, if the start point is different, the outcomes will be also. This is because body fat level has a large impact on calorie partitioning ability.
There’s good evidence suggesting that even on a relaxed bulk you’ll gain mostly lean mass initially if you’re lean to start with, and conversely, even on a controlled bulk/ slow bulk, you’ll gain a lower % of muscle if you start with a higher bf%. This is because in general, the fatter we get, the poorer calorie partitioning becomes, meaning that the energy we consume has a tendency towards fat storage instead of muscle growth.
To put that another way: if we sleep right, eat right, and work our asses off in the gym to gain 10 lbs of body weight, more of that will be muscle if we start from a shredded condition (~7% body fat) than if we start when we are fatter (~15+%).
• Related article: Calorie Partitioning – Part 1 – Lyle McDonald
Which Method Should I Choose?
You need to pick a method based on your effort-reward preference – one that you can be consistent with – and that will come down to the tug of your social life vs. satisfaction derived from staying lean or seeing progress.
Results that each method gives will depend on the situation and how you use them.
First, we start with a graphical comparison of the bulk phases alone. Second, I show what happens when there is a sudden deadline to get shredded. Third, what happens when there is no deadline to get shredded. Fourth, what happens when people fix their bulking time period (typically for the colder months). Finally, a longer-term look at what happens when people fix their bulking periods based on an upper limit to body fat percentage (or stomach measurement).
Weight-class competitors that compete often, models and some actors will choose one of the latter two methods (slow-bulk or lean gain) out of necessity as they need to remain lean enough to be ready for competition at short notice. Everyone else is free to choose based on what I show you here.
1. The Bulk Phase
Imagine three identical triplets decide to do each of the three methods. They are all starting from the same ‘shredded’ level of leanness. Here is how a 28-week bulk phase would look:
Fig. 8: BULK STAGE COMPARISON
By the end of the bulk at the 28-week mark, the relaxed and slow bulk methods have resulted in the same amount of total muscle gain and are clearly ahead of the lean gains method.
However, looking at this 28-week snapshot is a false comparison – unless our start position was skin and bones (think of Christian Bale in The Machinist) we are going to want to lose the fat that has been gained after we have bulked. So, let’s extend the time frame to include the cut phase, and see what happens to our three identical triplets.
Muscle Mass Increases: Slow bulk > Relaxed bulk > Lean gains.
2. Sudden Deadline To Get Shredded
In this first example, we assume that there is a sudden deadline (competition or photo shoot) set for our guys on week 36. They all start their cut at the same time point, week 28. They have to get back down to baseline leanness – that shredded state they had before – or they lose their jobs, sponsorship, etc.. Here is how that would look:
Fig. 9: CUT COMPARISON – SUDDEN DEADLINE (WEEK 36)
- The slow bulk guy has time to get back down to base-level leanness with minimal lean mass losses.
- The relaxed bulk guy has to rush his cut; he loses more and more lean mass as the weeks progress. This happens because he has to force his body to lose fat at a rate higher than it can do so without catabolizing muscle mass.
- The lean gains guy does not need to cut; he continues to gain mass very steadily.
Net Muscle Mass Increases: Slow bulk > Lean gains > Relaxed bulk.
3. Deadline To Get Shredded Known Well In Advance
Alright, so you’re going to call me out on the previous example and say that this doesn’t apply to most people, that people will not rush their cut and lose muscle mass. I’d argue that the majority of people make this mistake (setting false deadlines for themselves and wasting their hard earned gains), but we, being educated about these things, are not them. Fair enough.
So, let’s say you have a deadline a long way in advance – a long beach holiday for example – and you want to look your best by that point. Here’s how that would look:
Fig. 10: CUT COMPARISON – KNOWN DEADLINE (WEEK 36)
- The situation isn’t changed from the previous example for either the slow bulk or lean gains guy. The former can cut at the same time; the latter can continue ‘lean gaining’ till his holiday.
- The relaxed bulk guy has to start his cut much earlier, this time, his bulk phase is shorter, and the net result is less overall muscle mass increase for this 36-week bulk-cut period compared with the slow-bulk guy. But a greater overall gain than the lean gains guy.
Net Muscle Mass Increases: Slow bulk > Relaxed bulk > Lean gains.
4. Fixed Bulking Time Period – Vague Notion Of Getting ‘Ripped’ For Summer
Ok, so let’s say that there is no deadline to get shredded, and both the slow bulk and relaxed bulk methods start their cut at the same time. Now, before you hammer me for being nonsensical, I’d point out that this is what most people do: bulk for the majority of the year and then cut for the summer period, starting the same time each year (usually May), irrespective of how much body fat they are carrying. This is because they don’t want to compromise their ‘off-season’ bulk time frame, and is usually accompanied by complaints that they never seem to be able to get shredded in time for summer.
Here’s how that looks assuming they don’t rush the cut (i.e. push the fat-loss rate past maximal theoretical limits):
Fig. 11: SUMMER CUT – NO REAL DEADLINE – FIXED BULK PERIOD
- The lean gains guy does not need to cut; he can continue to grow throughout summer gradually.
- It takes the relaxed bulk guy until the end of summer to get to maximal leanness, but he feels far too fat at the start and this affects his enjoyment at the beach, possibly choosing not to go for the first month of summer. (He’s highly self-conscious and hasn’t figured out that people care far more about the content of your character than physical appearance. – Yes, I realize the irony of this statement given what I do.)
- The slow bulk guy gets to maximal leanness by early-mid summer and can seek to maintain that condition, or move on into a slow-bulk phase. If the slow bulk phase is started immediately upon hitting maximal leanness (as depicted in the graph above) there will be a small amount of fat regain, but arguably low enough to remain in good beach condition before the end of the summer. This is worth considering if you wish to maximize your gains in the coming year as it will give you a longer bulking period.
Net Muscle Mass Increases: Slow bulk > Relaxed bulk > Lean gains.
5. Bulk Ends When Upper Limit To Body-fat Percentage (or Stomach Measurement) Is Reached
You wish to bulk but don’t want to go past a certain level of body fat so that you can stay in year-round good condition. This way you will feel comfortable taking your shirt off at any time, and will not get so fat that calorie partitioning becomes poor.
Let’s call this 15% body fat – a level where with enough muscle mass you will still look good. (15% body fat when you are weak and carry very little muscle doesn’t.) You will bulk until you hit 15% and then start your cut. Thus, to the outsider, you will always look somewhere between good condition and great condition.
The problem is the difficulty in assessing body fat percentage accurately. There are flaws with all* the methods that we have available for measuring it, both concerning accuracy and consistency. Thus, instead of targeting a body-fat percentage point that we can’t measure accurately or objectively, I’d recommend that you set yourself a maximal stomach circumference measurement. Take into account that it is likely you will have some muscle growth there (thickening of the lower back, obliques, and abs) compared with your previous cut-bulk cycle. (*The only exception to this would be if you are an experienced user of body fat calipers, or have someone available to do it that knows what they are doing.)
So, if you are an intermediate trainee, and the last time you cut you felt that the fattest you’d want to get when you bulked the next time was when your stomach measurement reached 80cm, perhaps set 82cm as your maximum for this round of bulking. This will allow for those abdominal, oblique, and lower back gains).
Here’s how setting a stomach circumference/body-fat percentage cap to our three different methods of bulking looks over a longer period:
Fig. 12: SLOW BULK VS. RELAXED BULK, LONG TERM GROWTH COMPARISON – STAYING UNDER 15% BODY FAT
- There is no change with the lean gains method. With no cutting period, gains can be made throughout.
- The slow bulk method allows us to have longer bulk periods, and more time spent growing overall which leads to greater muscle mass increases in the same overall time frame. The 15% body fat limit doesn’t change anything as we never got excessively fat in the first place.
- With the relaxed bulk method, muscle mass is gained at the same rate as the slow bulk, but due to the higher level of fat gain, the cut phase has to start sooner. Thus the overall time spend bulking is shorter and thus less muscle mass gained.
Over longer time periods (in the above we have 68 weeks) the slow bulk guy makes more progress towards their maximum muscular potential than other two methods.
Note how the lean gains approach is not far behind the relaxed bulk in terms of growth over longer time frames in this situation. However, I just want to emphasize – due to the patience that it requires and the subtlety of the changes people often lose their minds before being successful with the lean gains method of bulking.
Thus, with the exclusion of special populations, when it comes to client work I find myself recommending and guiding people through controlled/slow bulks.
Long-Term Net Muscle Mass Increases: Slow bulk > Relaxed bulk > Lean gains.
Two key things have been purposefully ignored to simplify the above models as I didn’t feel it affects our comparisons in any significant way.
1. As muscle growth rate potential decreases with training advancement the muscle growth rate lines should have a slight downwards curve over time to represent the decreasing rate of muscle growth as we advance with our training rather than be straight.
2. As calorie partitioning ability changes with body-fat percentage, the fat gain lines should curve slightly upwards for the relaxed bulk method if we are to achieve maximal rates of muscle growth still.
What about food types? What about meal timing? What about supplements?
These things are covered in my initial set-up guide: ‘The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet’.
What about training?
There is a lot of nonsense surrounding training for both bodybuilders and strength athletes. As a coach, I can only afford to care about methods that work. In my book with Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez, we’ve broken the factors that truly matter when making strength and hypertrophy-focussed training programs, into a clear order of importance. Then building on that theory, you’ll find six programs for novice, intermediate, and advanced-level bodybuilders and strength-focussed athletes. You can choose one and then tailor it to yourself using the principles learned in the book. Full progression examples are included so you’ll never get stuck wondering what to do next. Grab your copy of ‘The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid.’
What about when cutting?
If you’d like to get access to my full breakdown on how I adjust the diets of my clients to take them to shreds and how you can do that too, check out my book on the subject, ‘The Last Shred.’
Thanks for reading.
Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.
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