Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Does this sound like you? “Yeah, I plan on bulking up, getting bigger and stronger and then when the time is right I’ll lean down.” How long will you bulk? When will the time to get lean kick in? Do you have a plan?
When I go to the gym it seems everyone with interest in building a maximum amount of muscle is in a perpetual bulking phase. You’ve seen them – they wear pants, sometimes long-sleeved shirts and rarely do a sit-up. This “one day I’ll diet down” mentality never seems to connect with reality. The mere thought of losing an ounce of bodyweight will translate into a reduction in strength and a risk of people calling you small. Oh, the horror!
Would you rather ride the roller coaster of bulking and cutting or slowly build solid muscle on a lean frame? I think I know the answer.
So, why do so many trainees fail to even think about the long term? A reduction in body fat (which will become a reduction in bodyweight) will conversely make someone actually look more muscular.
Just look at professional bodybuilders. In the off season they carry as much as 20, 30 and even 50 pounds of extra weight on their frames. But when they diet down and strip off the excess, they have ripped, cut, huge physiques that impose a much more impressive product.
Now, I know you may not have aspirations of becoming a pro bodybuilder but your drive and vision for your physique do draw similarities.
Below are 19 tips for lean bulking. These 19 actionable items will help you pack on real, solid muscle without the added fat and unsightly “bulk.” Stay lean, add muscle, ditch the pants and never be afraid to take your shirt off at the pool again.
Tip #1 - You must decide what you want
Be honest with yourself and decide if you are in this thing to be stronger or build an impressive physique? Most of you reading this are here to pack on lean muscle without the unnecessary body fat to cover it all up. So, it is up to you: stay bulky but strong or leaner and more muscular?
Tip #2 - Think more muscle (not strength)
Of course strength is an integral part of any progressive program. A lean bulk shouldn’t be void of an emphasis on strength as well as other quantitative factors, but strength shouldn’t be the only tool stressed. In order to add quality, lean muscle you must think in terms of just that – quality, lean muscle. Strength (although still important) will take somewhat of a backseat.
Tip #3 - Watch those carbs
Any talk of staying lean isn’t complete without mentioning carbohydrate. The main point here is to start looking at carbs in a whole new light. Instead of packing in as many as possible in hopes to add as much weight to your frame as you can, think of carbs only to fuel your body.
Recuperation should be the main focus for your carb intake not excess numbers on a weight scale. Keep track of carbs, ingest most of them around your training sessions and that’s it. If your body is fed properly and needs more energy it will eventually tap your fat stores.
Tip #4 - Get through “the wall”
For many dieting efforts are quickly thwarted because of a myriad of reasons, namely the quick weight loss and apparent strength reduction. Do not despair; this is a temporary side effect of reduced carbs. Since carbs attract water, a reduction can cause a loss of fluid shocking your system into a sort of alarm state. This is temporary due to the fact that once the body returns to homeostasis, it can then balance out its hydration and gains back its muscle mass and strength. This “wall” can quickly be climbed in a week or two.
Tip #5 - Focus on protein
As with many dieting strategies protein will still need to take center stage regarding your diet. Amino acids that make up whole proteins are the true building blocks for adding lean muscle mass. Whole food protein along with a good whey protein supplement will ensure all bases are covered.
Tip #6 - Fat is your friend
Since you may be experiencing a reduction in carbs this may also potentially be detrimental to aspects such as satiety, energy and a general sense of “I miss eating whatever I want.” Healthy fat can be your savior in times like these. Not only can it fill the carb void, but it can also increase satiety and provide sustainable energy without adding the extra baggage.
Tip #7 - Rev up the weights
Does your training go like this: Do a set, rest, do a set, rest, and on and on? Get out of your tired old box and do some things you aren’t used to. Bust through plateaus, experience new modes of training and learn a few new moves that will pack on new muscle.
Try some power moves, supersets, high reps, compound sets, high frequency training – the list can go on. The point is to get outside of your comfort zone and start seeing real gains again.
Tip #8 - Fiber, fiber, fiber
Yes, I said it three times. This is the long lost ingredient in a lot of diets. Of course we all know the health benefits, but fiber can also provide that much needed satiety (like healthy fat) when we need to reduce carbs. Additionally, fiber is needed for proper protein digestion.
Tip #9 - Go green
Going had-in-hand with fiber, green leafy veggies are a must on any muscle building plan. Packed with fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals, leafy greens are another prerequisite for more muscle without the fat.
Tip #10 - Look for the positive
Having an individual or a group of friends or family for support can go a very long way regarding your success on any plan. Having like-minded people around you will only strengthen your resolve to accomplish your goals. Find someone on the same path as you, set goals together and help each other along the way.
Tip #11 - Feed muscle, not fat
When starting any new eating plan (except for cheat meals) always think of the food you are eating as fuel for muscle and its function. The leaner you are, the more the food you eat will support muscle and less will be stored as fat. The belief of gaining fat in order to gain muscle is one of the most common misconceptions around about gaining muscle. The truth is it is easier to gain lean muscle when you are leaner – the body doesn’t have to work overtime to tuck calories away in fat stores.
Tip #12 - Cheat when everyone is looking
No one can sustain a perpetual diet state forever for several reasons. One; you’ll go crazy and two; your metabolism will say it has had enough and will slow down to conserve energy. A scheduled cheat day or two will rev up your metabolism and support your lean bulking ways.
Tip #13 - Cycle carbs
Another great way to ward off a slow metabolism all the while tactfully helping your body to pack on the mass is to cycle carbs. A simple way to do this is to go medium or high on intense training days and low on off and cardio days. This way you will provide carbs when it’s needed the most and cut them back the rest of the time.
#14 - Keep track so you can adjust
How can you get to your goal without a plan? And what is the execution of that plan without a little tracking along the way? Write down what you are doing: sets, reps, meals and moods. This will be an invaluable tool when you reach your summit and look back at what worked and what needs to be tweaked.
#15 - Add cardio and get unique
If you’re not performing some form of cardio, start. Too boring? Try the countless styles of HIIT training. Sled pulls/drags, kettlebells, sprint intervals. These will all keep you lean and won’t impede your muscle building efforts.
#16 - Hydrate, for real this time
Another “duh” point but one that is rarely practiced. Much like fiber and fat, good ole fashioned water can keep you satiated throughout the day keeping you from overdoing the whole carb thing. Also, as stated above, you need to keep the muscle cells properly hydrated for function and support.
#17 - Lighter (leaner) is bigger
Have you ever seen someone that is big, bulky and strong only to see them months later ripped up and it seems as though they look like they’ve gained ten or twenty pounds of muscle? They may have dropped 50 pounds but they look freaking huge! When you get lean, you give off the impression that you’ve gained lean muscle. In reality you are lighter – maybe considerably lighter, but your fellow gym goers will think the opposite – trust me.
#18 - Keep your goal in sight
If your goal is to gain lean mass then train, eat and sleep toward that goal. You will encounter roadblocks (physical and mental) but no one said it would be easy. Stay focused and never waiver from your physique goals.
#19 - Believe (you will succeed)
Whatever you decide regarding your ultimate goals believe in what you are doing. Believe it will work, believe in the process and believe you will get there. No one else will do it for you, you have to have faith in yourself.