‘To Bulk’ – Gain body weight, with the primary goal of gaining muscle.
There is a lack of quality diet advice out there for people trying to bulk. ‘Eat more!’ lacks the detail and finesse to optimize things, ‘Calculate your protein, carb and fat 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 had been bugging me to write for years, but 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 detailed because that is how the overwhelming majority of people requested it, but it could save you months of wasted effort down the line. 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 Gain Muscle
- Part 3: The Three Ways To 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 most significant 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 Gain Muscle
Several factors determine whether we grow muscle as quickly as our genetic potential should allow. Here they are in descending order of importance:
- Genetics and drug use
- Calorie intake.
- Enough training stimulus to force adaptation.
- Sufficient protein intake.
- Enough sleep.
- Management and minimization 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 (or use a sufficient amount of drugs), and eat enough, they can get away with it.
This explains a lot of the stupid advice out there in the fitness industry — people that use drugs do not need to pay as much attention to the rest of the factors. Most have decided not to.
1. Genetics & Drug Use
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 they have some special knowledge, and it’s prudent to not look at a smaller guy 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 led 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 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?
Absolutely. But assuming you wish to make the most of your genetic hand, in all practical and applicable senses, no. 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.
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
However, when you introduce drugs into the training mix, you risk damaging your endocrine system, as well as jail time in some countries. 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.)
How much further past genetic limits can drugs use take people?
The short answer is a lot. For comparison, 5’10 bodybuilders competing in natural federations typically have a stage weight of 170–180 lbs (~78-82 kg). Seven-time Mr. Olympia winner, Phil Heath, is 5’9 (~175cm) and weighed an estimated 250 lbs (~114 kg) on stage.
[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 is not 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 fat stores to fuel itself. As we get leaner this process becomes more difficult though, 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.
If you are struggling to gain weight (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, or you might be a high NEAT responder. (I’ll come back to this in the Controlled/Slow Bulk section.)
• 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.
5 & 6. Enough Sleep, Management Of Stress
Insufficient sleep and a high level of stress will hamper recovery from your workouts and your growth. This becomes increasingly important 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
There are calorie partitioning benefits to being leaner. This means that in general, the fatter we get, the more the energy we consume has a tendency towards fat storage instead of muscle growth. — The chronic low-grade inflammation associated with obesity decreases the anabolic and increases catabolic signaling in the muscles themselves.
It is unclear whether someone who bulks from 12% body fat will have a calorie partitioning advantage over someone who starts bulking at 18%, but there are clear aesthetic advantages. Also, importantly, as we move past 20%, there are increased health risks.
For that reason, I recommend that people cap their bulk cycles at 20% body fat. This means that practically, I’d recommend people only start to bulk once they are below 15% body fat because otherwise they won’t have enough uninterrupted time to bulk before they need to cut again.
Bulking from anywhere considerably below 10% body fat isn’t usually conducive to muscle gain because hormonal function tends to be a little off. Therefore, I recommend people keep their cut–bulk cycles between ~10 and 20% body fat.
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 complete diet set-up guide for more on this.
Part 2: How Quickly We Can Expect To Gain Muscle
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, where 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. This is useful to know when setting calorie intake and body weight gain targets so that we avoid gaining too quickly (and thus putting on an unnecessary amount of fat), or gaining more slowly than we otherwise could have.
Classifying Training Experience
Classifying training advancement is difficult, but I like to split it into the following four categories and define them as follows:
- Beginner — New to serious training, first few months.
- Novice — Still able to progress most training loads in the gym on a week to week basis.
- Intermediate — Able to progress most training loads in the gym on a month to month basis.
- Advanced — Progress is evident only when viewed over multiple months or a year.
Rates of Muscle Gain Potential
Here is a rough breakdown of the rate of muscle growth the average person can expect if they do everything right:
- Beginner: 1–1.5% of body weight per month.
- Novice: 0.75–1.25% of body weight per month.
- Intermediate: 0.5–0.75% of body weight per month.
- Advanced: Less than 0.5% of body weight per month.
We will use these numbers to help us set our monthly bodyweight gain targets, depending on which of the three ways we choose to bulk.
Part 3: The Three Ways To Bulk – A Detailed ‘How-to’ Guide
Straight talk — I have never seen anyone gain a significant amount of muscle without also gaining fat.
The only exceptions to this are skinny, new trainees and those who have has a long lay-off from training where they lost a significant amount of muscle.
I say this because I want to be clear — you will gain some fat when you bulk. The only question is how much fat you will gain, which is determined by how fast you set your rate of weight gain.
I view there as being three legitimate ways to successfully bulk, each with their pros and cons:
- Relaxed Bulk — bulking with a focus on maximizing muscle growth rate without requiring the counting of calories or macros. You will gain more fat than with the other two methods. This is the easiest to implement.
- Controlled / Slow Bulk — bulking with a focus on maximizing muscle growth rate without gaining an unnecessary amount of fat. You will count calories and macros and gain weight a little above your maximal muscle growth rate potential rate. This is the easiest to make clear progress with while minimizing fat gain. It’s far easier to track and manipulate for than the Lean Bulk option. This is what I recommend.
- Lean Bulk — bulking with a focus on maintaining maximal levels of leanness while adding muscle. You will count calories and macros, gaining weight at the slowest of the three. This is by far the hardest to do, as the changes are the hardest to measure. While I don’t recommend it, I’ll include it.
For all options, the underlying assumption is that whether for appearance or athletic reasons, our goal is to build a more muscled version of ourselves. Whichever method is chosen, you’ll diet off any fat gained later.
1. The Relaxed Bulk
‘Relaxed bulking’ is bulking without counting calories or macros. The rate of muscle growth can still be maximized as long as you eat enough. You’ll shoot for a weight gain target that is higher than with the other methods, so fat gain will be higher, but you choose not to care due to the ease of it.
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 kidding themselves that it is 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
Target Rates Of Weight Gain For The Relaxed Bulk
I recommend the following rates of weight gain when executing a relaxed bulk:
- Beginner & Novice: ~3% of body weight per month.
- Intermediate: ~2% of body weight per month.
- Advanced: ~1% of body weight per month.
At this level your calorie intake will be 2.0–2.5x your maximum muscular gain potential, which is sufficiently high enough that a lack of attention paid to the macros won’t compromise it, as you’re unlikely to fall short on any of them.
How To Implement A Relaxed Bulk
If you gain more than your target rate of weight gain, 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/slow bulk.
Relaxed Bulk Example Calculations:
160 lb lean, novice trainee — aim to gain ~5 lbs per month. (160 lbs * 3%)
180 lb intermediate trainee — aim to gain ~3.5 lbs per month. (180 lbs * 2%)
2. The Controlled / Slow Bulk
(I use Controlled Bulk and Slow Bulk interchangeably throughout the rest of the article.)
Slow 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 I use with coaching clients because it leads to the clearest signs of progress without leaving them with a lot of fat to cut off after the bulk. (It’s the controlled/slow bulk method for which I have set the calorie and macro calculator.)
Fig. 6: SLOW BULK METHOD – CHANGES IN MUSCLE AND FAT MASS OVER TIME
Target Rates Of Weight Gain For The Controlled Bulk
I recommend the following rates of weight gain when executing a controlled bulk:
- Beginner: 2% of body weight per month.
- Novice: 1.5% of body weight per month.
- Intermediate: 1% of body weight per month.
- Advanced: 0.5% of body weight per month.
We know that some fat will be gained when we bulk; therefore, we know that to achieve our maximal rate of muscle growth, we have to gain weight at a higher rate than that. But how much higher should we set our rates of body weight gain? Research can’t tell us this, but experience coaching people leaves clues on what is appropriate.
Over the years, the average client has gained muscle and fat in a 1:1 ratio. Sometimes the results are a little better, and sometimes they are a little worse. I’m fairly sure the differences between clients are down to genetic luck rather than effort, as I tend to work with people who truly give it their all.
That said, I recommend we set bodyweight gain targets at a little less than double our muscle growth potential, because my observational experience is limited only to those who sought out coaching, which rules out those who are genetically blessed and so skews the average.
How To Implement A Controlled Bulk
Step 1: Calculate how much you need to adjust your current calorie intake initially.
Step 2: Adjust your macros, then track progress over five weeks.
Step 3: Adjust calorie intake, if necessary.
Step 4: Track progress. Adjust calorie intake again when necessary.
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 vary from individual to individual.
A big one is called NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). It is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or sports-like exercise.
Just as some people experience more lethargy than others when dieting, dropping their NEAT, some people get more active than others when bulking (they start fidgeting more throughout the day, for example), ramping up their NEAT. (This latter part explains the ‘hard gainer’ phenomenon — people who swear they can’t gain weight or muscle mass are often just very high NEAT responders.)
Additionally, those who have been dieting prior will find that they can eat more than just the calculated energy difference of their weekly fat-loss rate as their hormones come back into balance and metabolisms speed back up to normal.
The point is, there isn’t a single calculation we can make that will set our calorie intake perfectly for the duration of a bulk. We need to track how the scale weight changes over time and adjust continually, hence why this is a multiple step process.
Step 1: Calculate how much you need to Initially adjust your current calorie intake
The first thing to do is make a calculation based on your current rate of body weight change, to see how much you need to change your current calorie intake to get on track with your target rate of body weight gain.
This is preferable to making a completely new calorie calculation — calculations are based on equations that can only estimate what is suitable for you. That said…
For those who haven’t been counting calories and tracking scale weight
If you haven’t been counting calories and macros, calculate them here. Then start tracking your weight each morning. Calculate your average weight for the week and then calculate the average rate of weight change between weeks. Do this for four weeks. Ignore the change in weight you will see in the first week as a lot of this will be water, gut content, and muscle glycogen. Calculate the average rate of weight change you had each week for the next three weeks and come back here to implement step 3, where you’ll learn how to adjust your calculation as necessary.
If you haven’t been tracking your scale weight, start doing that each morning. This will allow you to find weekly averages and then calculate the average rate of weight change each week. Do this for three weeks, then come back to step 3.
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)
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.
→ It takes roughly ~3500 kcal to burn or store a pound of fat. (~7700 kcal/ kg)
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.
→ It takes roughly a 100 kcal daily surplus to gain 1 lb per month when bulking. (~220 kcal for 1 kg)
If we assume a 1:1 ratio of fat and muscle gain, 1 lb of tissue gain will require a 3000 kcal surplus (3500/2 +2500/2). If we say there are 30 days in a month, this gives 100 kcal as the daily calorie surplus needed.
→ To achieve a 100 kcal surplus, you’ll likely need to add 150 kcal. (220 kcal » 330 kcal)
Every time we raise calories, some of that calorie increase will be eaten up by NEAT and not result in a caloric surplus. The NEAT increase will be different from person to person and is impossible to predict, but I suggest we add 50% to these numbers.
Controlled Bulk — Step 1 Example Calculations:
1) A 160 lb lean, novice trainee, currently not gaining or losing any weight.
As he is not currently gaining or losing weight, he is at approximately maintenance calories. We will target a weight gain of 1.5% per month, which is 2.4 lbs.
Therefore, he needs to increase daily caloric intake by 360 kcal per day (2.4 lbs * 150 kcal).
2) A 180 lb intermediate trainee, finished his cut to shreds, recently losing 1.0 lbs per week.
He is currently in an approximate 500 kcal daily deficit. [(1 lbs * 3500 kcal )/7]
We will target a weight gain of 1% per month, which is 1.8 lbs.
Therefore, he needs to increase daily caloric intake by 770 kcal per day (1.8 lbs * 150 kcal + 500 kcal).
Step 2: Adjust your macros, then track progress over Five weeks
So this brings us on the macronutrients – how much of each should we increase to reach these new calorie requirements?
→ I recommend you leave protein as it is and increase your carb and fat intake in a 3:1 ratio.
A 1 lb increase of muscle per month would bump up our protein requirements by ~1g. 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, as this will increase over time as you progress with the bulk. (This is what I recommend to clients for simplicity. I have a free guide to counting macros and making meals out of them 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), so unless you’re on a very tight budget, I question whether it’s worth bothering here also.
For carbs and fats, if I look back through the data with clients, what seems to have worked best on average is something like an approximate 75-25 calorie split in favor of carbs. That is not something I calculated then decided to rigorously 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.
When I wrote The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition book with Eric Helms, this jived with his experience also. We recommend fat intakes be in the 20–30% of total calorie intake range when at maintenance or bulking, 15-25% when cutting, as per personal preference
As an absolute bottom limit, I recommend people do not consume a dietary fat level below 0.25 g per pound of body weight per day (~0.5 g per kg) as this can have adverse effects on hormonal function.
Controlled Bulk — Step 2 Example Calculations:
1) Our novice trainee needs a 360 kcal increase per day.
As he doesn’t have a strong preference for carbs vs. fats, we’re split things 75% carbs, 25% fats.
This gives him a daily increase of 10g fat, ~65g carbs. (10 * 9 kcal + 67.5 * 4 kcal = 360 kcal)
2) Our intermediate trainee needs a 770 kcal increase per day.
As he’s been dieting, fat intake likely had to be cut down to the lower end of the recommended range to keep carb intake high enough to support the training. Now we can push this back up. Therefore, we’ll skew the first calorie increase a little more toward fat.
This gives him a daily increase of 25g fat, 135g carbs. (25 * 9 kcal + 136.25 * 4 kcal = 770 kcal)
Step 3: Adjust calorie intake, if necessary
Take a look at your average rate of weight change over the last five weeks. Ignore the change that happened in the first week and calculate the average rate of weight change per week over the last four weeks.
→ Add or subtract 150 kcal per pound (330 kcal/ kg) you are off your monthly target to your calorie intake each day.
Controlled Bulk — Step 3 Example Calculations:
Let’s consider what this might look like for our two trainees.
1) Here’s the scale weight data for our 160 lb novice trainee, aiming to gain 2.4 lbs per month, since the calorie and macro change:
- 160 » 162 lbs
- 162.4 lbs
- 162.9 lbs
- 163.2 lbs
- 163.4 lbs
We ignore the first week’s bump, which will have muscle glycogen, gut content, and water in the mix.
The change from the end of week 1 to the end of week 5 has been 1.4 lbs. This is 1 lb short of the monthly target, so he needs to add 150 kcal to his daily calorie intake. He does that by adding 25 g of carbs, 5 g of fat.
2) Here’s the scale weight data for our 180 lb intermediate trainee, aiming to gain 1.8 lbs per month, since the calorie and macro change:
- 180 » 186.1 lbs
- 186.3 lbs
- 186.5 lbs
- 186.8 lbs
- 186.9 lbs
You can see there is a bigger bump in weight in the first week for our intermediate trainee because this calorie increase was bigger. We’ll ignore this for the same reasons also.
The change from the end of week 1 to the end of week 5 has been 0.8 lbs. This is also 1 lb short of the monthly target, so he needs to add 150 kcal to his daily calorie intake. He does that by adding ~25 g of carbs, 5 g of fats.
Step 4: Adjust calorie intake again when necessary
Repeat step 3 every five weeks and adjust if necessary. I don’t recommend that you adjust more frequently than this — the changes when bulking are small, the scale weight can fluctuate, it requires a longer time period then dieting to tease out true changes from noise.
Here’s how this might all look:
Our 160 lb lean, novice trainee’s first serious bulk
|Schedule||Initial macros (pcf)||1st adjustment||2nd adjustment|
Our 180 lb intermediate trainee, bulking after dieting to shreds
|Schedule||End of diet macros||1st adjustment||2nd adjustment|
The intermediate trainee will likely have to make a few further adjustments as their metabolic rate comes back up to normal levels after the diet.
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 coaching because the changes are often too subtle to keep people motivated and feel value for their money. The 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
How To Implement A Lean Gain Bulk
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 (a case where I 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 of 100–200 kcal (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.
Lean Gain Bulk Example Calculations:
Advanced trainee, 180 lbs, shredded 7% body fat. He has just finished dieting and was losing 0.75 lb per week.
- He needs to make a 375 kcal increase (0.75 lbs *500) 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’ll make this increase via 10 g of fat, 70g of carbs.
- 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 add 5 g of fat, 40g of carbs.
- 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.
- Four weeks later, training progression stalls despite everything else being on point. Body-fat is unchanged. He makes another increase, adding 5 g of fat, 25 g of carbs.
- Training starts going well. Weight comes up again, but no indications of fat gain.
- Two months later, training starts to struggle again. He makes another incremental increase to the macros.
- But then 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).
The trainee keeps on making fine-tune adjustments to their macros like this to keep progressing with their training without any fat gain.
Part 4: ‘Which Method Should I Choose?’ – Detailed Comparisons
In the following comparison section, we are comparing the methods from the same starting level of leanness.
You need to choose a method based on your effort-reward preference. It needs to be a method that you can be consistent with, and this will come down to the tug of your social life vs. satisfaction derived from staying lean or seeing progress.
The 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. Bulk Phase Comparisons
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 is 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. What Happens When There Is A Sudden Deadline To Get Shredded
In this first example, we assume that there is a sudden deadline (competition or photoshoot) 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. What Happens When The Deadline To Get Shredded Is 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 is the same as the previous example for the slow bulk and 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. What Happens When People Cut 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. What Happens When People Set An Upper Limit To Body-fat Percentage
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 81cm 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 bulking 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 spent 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 the 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, and the steepness of these lines should become shallower with every successive bulking period.
2. If we assume calorie partitioning worsens slightly as body-fat percentage increases, the fat gain lines should curve slightly upward, and the muscle gain lines slightly downward.
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-focused 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.