Get Big, Not Fat: A Better Approach To Bulk And Build Muscle

Cliff Wilson
Written By: Cliff Wilson
June 29th, 2011
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
292.5K Reads
It's time to stop packing on extra fat while bulking! Learn how to dial in your nutritional plan and make amazing gains without adding unneeded pounds of fat.

Every bodybuilder wants to get big. Unfortunately, in their zeal to get big many bodybuilders overeat and end up big alright, big and fat. Some bodybuilders seem to go from training for a bodybuilding contest to training for an eating contest once their season is over. Obviously, this is not a recipe for success. If you really want to win your next show, the time to do it is in the offseason.

You will need to add as much size as possible while keeping fat gain under control because trying to diet off 50lbs before a contest is not the best strategy. You will have to cut calories too low and for too long to get all that weight off, and will inevitably lose some of that hard-earned muscle. You will probably not even be able to get as lean as you could have because dieting as long and as hard as it takes to lose 50lbs. for a show spells disaster for your metabolism. Sometimes even those with the best intentions to stay lean during the offseason can’t seem to do it.  So is it possible to add maximum size while staying lean? YES!

Let’s look at the typical offseason of a very ambitious bodybuilder. As soon as his last show is over he begins laying out the perfect diet to add size without getting too heavy. Once he has laid down the perfect plan he will tell no less than three people “By next year I’m gonna be huge, bro!” He will probably gain only about 1-2 lb. per week with his plan.

Slowly he will make great gains and after about 3 weeks he’ll be about 6lbs. heavier. Everything is going well until he finds out he has to go to his cousin's wedding. At the reception he’ll have a few drinks and enjoy himself for an evening. He hasn’t cheated in 3 weeks so he thinks it is ok. The next morning his weight has jumped 2lbs. He goes right back on the diet and gains another 3lbs. over the next two weeks.

Then it is his son’s birthday and he makes a pig of himself at the party. “It’s the offseason I should enjoy it” he thinks. Because of this he puts on another 3lbs. If you are doing the math our bodybuilder is only 5 weeks into his offseason and he has put on 13lbs. Things usually continue at this rate and before he knows it he is 50-60lbs. over contest weight. The problem with the typical offseason diet is that your mistakes on your diet become compounded by the fact that the next day you go back to eating a diet that will also make you gain weight.

There is a simple answer to this problem. Cut calories. Many competitors never cut calories during the offseason for fear that it will interrupt the “awesome gains” they have been making. The mantra of “you’ve gotta eat big to get big” is more often used as an excuse to pig out than an actual effective method of putting on size. Not all of the fears about cutting calories are wrong, because if done too drastically and for too long it impedes progress. But, keeping fat under control does involve cutting calories.

I am not talking about going into a full on contest diet but systematic and well planned increases and decreases will allow you to keep making gains uninterrupted and help keep body fat to a minimum. When on a diet the first few weeks are always the easiest. You lose fat very easily and don’t lose muscle size or strength. This is because when calories and carbs are high fat burning hormones are as well.

One of these hormones is T3. T3 is a thyroid hormone that helps regulate body temperature. It helps your cells take the carbs and calories that you eat and efficiently turn them into energy and heat. This means that when T3 levels are high, calories are less likely stored as fat and are more likely going to be used as energy. When calories are restricted for prolonged periods the body will try to conserve energy by dropping T3 levels, allowing less calories to be used as energy and heat. This is one of the reasons why people on contest diets often complain about feeling cold.

Shredded bodybuilder

Also helping to control energy expenditure is the hormone leptin. Leptin increases thermogenesis by reacting with the sympathetic nervous system. Leptin also works with the central nervous system to control eating drive. When leptin levels are high it is a signal to your body that you do not need to consume additional calories. Having high leptin levels just may help you cut down on some of those “bonus calories” that always seem to find their way into your diet. Although leptin levels tend to be primarily raised and lowered in relation to body fat, you can cause increases and decreases by overfeeding and underfeeding.

When you drop calories your body does not react immediately to adjust your metabolism. So for the first couple of weeks your metabolism is still running at full capacity with levels of T3 and leptin remaining high. This allows you to lose plenty of fat without having to lower calories to drastically low levels. After a couple of weeks your body will adjust and losing at the same rate will be difficult.

If this were a contest diet you would continue to grind it out at a slower pace or lower calories further, but this is the offseason and fat loss is not the primary goal. Your goal is only to keep body fat in check while continuing to gain size, so you will want to bring calories back up before this shift in metabolism occurs. This way you can continue right on your way getting stronger and gaining muscle while occasionally keeping body fat levels from creeping to high.

Most bodybuilders have concerns about cutting calories in the offseason for fear that it will interrupt muscle growth and they will not be as big at their next show. Now of course staying leaner in the offseason will help you be leaner on show day but it will also allow you to step on stage with more muscle as well. When you bring calories down for only short spurts your anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone remain high.

Also, as long as carbs are not lowered to far for too long insulin sensitivity will remain high. This means that during the periods of lower calories your body will continue to use calories for muscle growth while losing some excess adipose tissue. A drop in carbs during these low calorie periods may even lead to an increase in growth hormone levels due to the lower circulating glucose levels in your bloodstream. These lower calorie spurts must not be too long nor should the decrease in calories be too severe or you run the risk of slowing muscle growth. This risk is precisely the reason you will be more muscular on stage using this method of gaining size.

Severe and prolonged calorie restriction has been proven to lower growth hormone levels, lower testosterone levels, and cause a major increase in amino acid breakdown. Not surprisingly though, severe and prolonged calorie restriction is exactly what needs to be done in order to lose 50-60lbs. in time for a show. By keeping your body weight within 20-25lbs. of contest weight you will not have to resort to any drastic measures. Meaning everything you gain in the offseason you will keep.

Another reason to stay lean in the offseason is that testosterone and growth hormone levels are not only affected by calorie intake but also body fat levels. Chronically high body fat levels will lead to lower testosterone and growth hormone levels. This, of course, is not the best situation when trying to pack on mass. Also, extremely high levels of excess fat can even lower androgen receptors. So not only do you have fewer hormones available to promote muscle growth but the hormones that are available have fewer receptors to bind to. This doesn’t mean you won’t build muscle with an excess of body fat, but muscle growth will be far from maximum levels.

To build your own offseason diet with spurts of high and low calories you must first determine an approximate maintenance calorie level. This should be a calorie level that will allow you to maintain your current weight. Individual metabolisms can vary greatly from person to person. Two people with identical body weights can have drastically different maintenance calorie levels so finding yours may take a little trial and error. Once you have determined your maintenance calorie level you will want eat approximately 400-600 calories above that.

For example a bodybuilder with a maintenance level of 2800 calories should be eating between 3200-3400 calories. This will allow you to make steady gains without gaining too quickly. Stay on this high level of calories for 2-3 weeks. After 2-3 weeks you will want to drop calories down to 400-600 calories below you maintenance level. Using our same example, our bodybuilder who was eating between 3200-3400 calories should immediately drop his calories down to 2200-2400 calories. Keep this lower calorie level for 1-2 weeks then go immediately back up to the high calorie level for another 2-3 weeks. Keep repeating this cycle for as long as you wish to keep gaining size.

The length of time you should be on a particular calorie level is dependent on individual metabolic rates. If you tend to store body fat easily you will not want to make your gaining phase too lengthy. You will also want to make your diet phase closer to 2 weeks. One last point that should be addressed is the amount of protein, carbs, and fat that should make up your calories. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question since some people tolerate carbs very well while others get chubby just looking at a bowl of pasta.

With each of my clients I start with making sure I have enough protein and fat in their diet to support growth then I fill in the rest of the calories with carbs. I suggest you do the same. When cutting calories you should reduce calories primarily from carbs and fat while leaving protein high, which will further ensure that the weight you lose will not be muscle tissue.

Cheating on the diet should be kept to a minimum or else you will find you will be spending more time on the cutting portion than the gaining portion. It does take some willpower to be able to diet when there is no immediate need, but if you follow this gaining and cutting calorie schedule it will be worth it to those that want to win badly enough.

Champions are made in the offseason. It is those who treat the offseason with a sense of urgency that will rise to the top. You cannot change your genetics or how many years you have been training, but in bodybuilding there are only two things you can control: (1) how hard you work, and (2) how smart you work. Following this plan will give you an advantage in both categories.


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  • Di Pasquale, M.G., Amino Acids and Proteins for the Athlete: The Anabolic Edge, 2008, 49p.
  • Negi, C.S., Introduction to Endocrinology, 2009, 89-93p.
  • Davies, T.F., A Case Based Guide to Clinical Endocrinology, 2008, 257p.
  • Kraemer, W.J., Rogol, A.D., The Endocrine System in Sports and Exercise, 2005, 308-309p.
  • Elkins, R., HGH: Human Growth Hormone, 1999, 13-15p.
  • Kang, J., Bioenergetics Primer for Exercise Science, 2008, 155p.
  • Kumar, S., O’Rahilly, S., Insulin Resistance: Insulin Action and Its Disturbances in Disease, 2005, 402-405p.
Posted on: Fri, 09/05/2014 - 21:48

HI Cliff,

I'm a 25 yo femal 5'3 and weight 134. My body fat is currently 20%. I would like to do a competition with in the next year. Do I need to gain more weight before I cut down? My mass is ok right now but I would like to have more.

Posted on: Thu, 09/04/2014 - 10:17

hey sir
i am 28 year old , height is 6 feet and weight is about 58 kg/127lbs . i am underweight and i want to gain weight withing no time. weight gaining which not decrease again. i will may not be able to give time to GYM as well. so kindly guide me towards best weight gain process thank you

Angel Mata
Posted on: Wed, 05/07/2014 - 14:49

Hi I'm angel I need a good diet plz

Angel Mata
Posted on: Wed, 05/07/2014 - 14:48

Hi I'm angel I need a good diet plz

Posted on: Thu, 04/03/2014 - 12:42

Also dont want to hijack thread just wanna help ppl who still need answers cheers:)

Posted on: Thu, 04/03/2014 - 12:41

Hey guys if you are still looking for answers regarding soecific workout plans designed to suit your needs i may be able to help you out add me on face book or something and i can try my best to start you in the right direction.. been lifting for 5 years and have been chubby in the past so i know a thing or two about dieting and meal plans;p best of luck guys find me on fb /james.motti.7

Sideshow Bob
Posted on: Mon, 08/05/2013 - 19:51

"Some people tolerate carbs very well while others get chubby just looking at a bowl of pasta."


Posted on: Wed, 07/31/2013 - 10:53

Hi, im using your system 1 week after other 4 weeks of my regular system/training, in only 3 days ive lost around 2 lbs, is that much? i was in bulk phase last week and my gain was 7.7 lbs in 4 weeks, im not sure if im doing right, i have fast metabolism i think :/ im eating 3 shakes /day of my regular whey protein also.

PD: i think mi leptin levels are high because of mi apetite..

Posted on: Mon, 07/29/2013 - 10:42

Hi Cliff! I'm a 16 year old girl, weighing 101 pounds with a height of 5'1. I really want to gain muscle weight without gaining fat and I would like to know which exercise plan would be right for me? I don't have access to a gym so I can only do at home workouts with dumbells. Please let me know! Thanks :)

Posted on: Fri, 07/26/2013 - 09:03

HI there,

did anyone try out this plan? Do you have any experience reviews?


David S
Posted on: Tue, 06/11/2013 - 12:29

I am 24 years old, 170 lbs, and have some good muscle gains from doing 100s training for 6 weeks straight from this website. (also i LOVED this article)

Now I am cutting to get rid of excess belly fat and arm fat by doing insanity (not strength training but taxing on the muscles for sure), keeping up with protein to protect gains, and limiting carbs.

However, I want to go tot he gym today and do some serious strength training with back and shoulders today. Should I forgo this and continue to cut and do cardio, or should I do this strength training, utilize carbs afterwards, then go back to cutting for 2-3 days until my next strength training?

Ideally I want to cut to 160-164 lbs, protect muscle gains, and even possibly improve on them by 6 weeks from now. I am very regimented so any plan I start with I will finish.


Posted on: Thu, 05/23/2013 - 23:29

hi there I'm in my 50's i have goal to compete before I'm 60 my bf is around 18% i weight 240lb my goal is around 350 off season and 310 around 4% contest time i don't care how long it takes i have nothing but time i have a fast system hard to keep weight and a fast nerves system too what do you suggest for my situation

Posted on: Wed, 05/15/2013 - 16:05

Wow this article is very detailed and informative. Any suggestions specifically on which foods to include in diet to increase muscle mass and decrease fat and which foods to avoid?

Posted on: Wed, 05/15/2013 - 11:56

Hey Cliff,

I'm 21 years old, am about 5'8 and weigh about 160lbs. I am satisfied with how lean my body is currently, and going into the summer season, I want to try to remain somewhat defined. However, I'm also trying to gain more muscle mass as well. I was wondering, is it possible to gain more muscle mass, and minimal body fat by eating a diet of vegetables, fruit, minimal carbs, and high protien intake? Thanks.

Posted on: Sun, 02/24/2013 - 15:45

I just recently started workout. Now that i feel my workout is great i am ready to take my nutrition to the net level. I am looking to bulk up a little and then cut the fat before the upcoming summer. Should I use this bulking method or the more conventional.


Posted on: Fri, 02/15/2013 - 06:03

Hi I'm 24 I'm 6ft and I weigh 9 1/2 st I am finding it really hard to gain the weight I want to and to keep the weight on . Is there anything I can do that will help me to get to my weight goles .

Posted on: Thu, 02/07/2013 - 18:16

To Jamie , hey man , first off you need to explain to your dad the benefits of a quick protein source , a good whey protein supplement is just that, a supplement not a substitute , but they help you get your protein in and can act as a meal replacement or just a snack to keep you going, I am not a nutritionist and you should always research diets and such but protein Is not a drug it will not harm you in any way you need to show and win your dad over , plus stick with lean meats, good fat sources (avocados , nut oils, almond butter etc.) and watch out for sugars , of all kinds , keep working hard man. Btw if no shakes then I'm a fan of milk but if your trying to be leaner that's not always the way to go.

Posted on: Wed, 02/06/2013 - 12:03

Hey my name is Aaron and im 6'1", 212 lbs and around 15% body in my first year of college and slacked my first semester, ive put on more fat then i wanted too and was hoping to put on a little more mass while cutting fat down to around 10-12% before my cutting cycle in 10-12 weeks..if you have any advice that would be greatly appreciated thanks.

Posted on: Fri, 02/01/2013 - 10:12

I am 17 and have recently lost around 54 pounds. I was just wondering about what to eat for meals like breakfast lunch and dinner and inbetween?? i currently do on mondays an hour of chest and then go jogging, tuesday i do an hour of jogging/running. wednesday i do my arms and go swimming. on thursday i go soccer trainning,friday i do shoulders and legs then go swimming on saturday i just go for run then sunday i do my abs. i cant take protein shakes cause my dad has an issue with them. can someone help me come up with a dit plan please????

Posted on: Wed, 11/28/2012 - 18:47

Hi, I'm 22 and about 210 pounds with around 17% body fat, but mostly stuck to my stomach and hips. I've been bulking for about 2 1/2 months now and have a pretty decent physique but I'm wondering how do manage my diet so that i can cut body fat while still gaining? I'm following the HIML 4 day split at the moment, on week 2. I'd like to keep putting on muscle, but i really want to cut the fat from my abs and hips!

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 17:17

Hey Daniel! When bulking, it's really very difficult to cut fat. You're operating on a calorie surplus in order to build muscle mass, but unfortunately, your body doesn't devote every one of those calories to this task. I'm currently bulking, and while I hate the fact that my abs are being covered up, I love knowing that my gains are taking off. You can try at do a "tight bulk" to help limit the fat gains, and eat CLEAN. The payoff is a killer body after you've finished cutting.

Posted on: Mon, 08/13/2012 - 02:11

Great article! Definitely looking forward to putting this helpful information into practice.

Posted on: Thu, 08/09/2012 - 12:46

Really like this article, starting implementing this theory a few weeks ago along with some other information; really hoping I can make some big gains without losing my abs!

Posted on: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 23:07

Thanks for the article and for your videos too.
As a female beginner lifter, how many additional calories should I eat on lifting days (3 days), how many on resting days(2 days), and how many on cardio days (2 days)?
My RMR is 1510.
I am having trouble getting a balance for my body--either I've been eating too much....or not doing enough cardio. I am now about 10 lbs overweight and am even considering putting off the lifting until I slim down again with Zumba classes....
Thanks for any advice you have for me.

Posted on: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 15:40

Hi Cliff!!
Thanks for great advice. I am 27 year old male, weigh 146 lbs., 5 ft 7inch height.
I am trying to gain muscle/ tone up my body. my BMI is okay and also I am eating pretty healthy from past 6 months. what I need to tone up my bosy. please advice

Adam Black
Posted on: Mon, 04/30/2012 - 01:27

Hey Cliff, I am trying to gain mass (18 years old, about 7% body fat). I used to work out 6 days a week, but now i cut it to 5 to try and add size. When I was eating 3400 cal (40% carb, 33% protein, and 27% fat) i was losing weight from about 166-162 over 10 weeks, now i'm eating 3900-4000 cals (about the same breakdown) and my weight is staying pretty constant. What do you think I should do to gain, eating more would become more expensive and extremely time consuming, but I want to know what you think is most benefical.

Posted on: Sat, 04/14/2012 - 17:11

Hello. I am 32 yrs old female and I weight 97 lbs .I workout 5 days a week and eat very healty through out the day and also take my protein and multi goal is to gain muscles. I have been working out for 4 months now and every day I do 20 mintues threadmill at the gym before i start my work out. my question is cardio important for gaining muscles. How often should i do cardio .I do not want to lose any weigh just build muscles. If you could please help

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Thu, 04/19/2012 - 22:52

If you are trying to gain weight then I would suggest keeping cardio to a minimum. Weight training will help you gain weight and try to keep cardio to no more than two days per week. This will help. If you are still not gaining after that then it means you need to eat more. Good luck in your training!

Robert c. Morreale
Posted on: Mon, 07/22/2013 - 18:41

If you're working out 5 days per week you're not working intense enough for growth. There is no such thing as isolation. 1 day on 2 days off or 3. If you can't add weight to the bar you either need more rest or more food. Short circuit the recovery process and you regress! Drop the cardio or just walk on your off days (Low intensity)

If you're working with sufficient intensity you won't want to be in the gym the next day or two. If you're not adding weight to the bar 5 days per week won't help.

jerritt labat
Posted on: Sat, 09/10/2011 - 13:35

Hi I'm I need of help I'm 15 years old an 145 pounds an about 10% bodyfat I'm trying to put no lean mass with as lil fat gain as possible.can u give me a good start diet thanks for any help

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Wed, 09/14/2011 - 15:35

Hey Jerritt,

I am very happy to see young people getting into shape. I really wouldn't be able to lay out a full diet plan since I really don't know all that much about your metabolism though. Being that you are 15 years old and you are relatively lean here are a few suggestions I would make though.

- Make sure to take in a meal containing protein at least 5 times per day

- Stick with healthy choices such as lean meat, whole grains, fruits, and veggies for you food choices. This will lead to better overall health.

- Drink a protein/carb mixture before, during, and after your workout

- Train Intensely

Keep reading the articles on Muscle and Strength and you will get a lot of great info. If you have any more specific questions you can ask me on my Q and A section on the M&S forums here is the link.

Good luck with your training. Hopefully you will stop by the forum to keep me posted on your progress.

jerritt labat
Posted on: Fri, 09/23/2011 - 23:03

Hey cliff thanks for the reply Ive been going to the the gym steady for about 4 weeks now me an my friend harly. We go about 5 day a week for about 1 to 11/2 hours.I'm still at about 145. I been eat in 5-6 meals a day. I drink a whey shake an a banana after I work out. But I don't think I'm growing. What would be a good calorie intakefor me to strart at an what about protein, carbs,an fat

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Sat, 09/24/2011 - 11:50

I will give you some calories to aim for but let me say one thing first. I just want to make sure you realize that muscle growth is a slow process. When trying to add size I would try to gain 0.5-1 pound per week. This will make sure you are gaining mostly muscle without much fat. So make sure you be patient and not eat too much in an effort to get big right now.

That being said, here are some goals to shoot for. I would learn how to count your macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) This will help a lot. The numbers I am giving you are just a rough estimation since I don't know too much about your metabolism, but this will eat least get you in the right direction. Try to eat this everyday.

Protein- 180 grams

Carbs- 350 grams

Fat- 60

This should get you gaining at your body weight. If not then I would start adding some more carbs in. If you start gaining more that 1 lb. per week then I would remove some of the carbs. Good luck with your training.

Cliff Wilson
Posted on: Fri, 08/12/2011 - 11:41

Hey Rayca,

If you are not gaining or losing like you would like then I would do a combination of raising calories slightly and increasing the amount of time you are on the cycle. For example, if you are trying to gain weight and you are eating 3500 calories for 3 weeks but not losing weight, then before doing a diet cycle, I would raise calories up to 3700 for 3 1/2 weeks. The gaining portion can go longer than 2-3 weeks for people that tend to have a rough time gaining weight. Personally I have a hard time gaining weight so my gaining phase will usually be 8 weeks of gaining and 2 weeks of dieting. The trick is to not gain too quickly or else it will be a higher % of fat.

Don't be afraid to experiment with lengthy gaining cycles with higher amounts of calories. Hopefully this answers your question. Let me know if you had any others.


Posted on: Thu, 08/11/2011 - 13:57

One question: What if I'm not gaining/losing with the arbitrary increase/decrease of cals.? Since this is a short cycle, there's not a lot of room for testing. From what I've read, I've basically got a 2-week window for either increased/decreased cals. before this type of diet stops working. Should I wait 1/2 wk. or 1 wk., then go for it on the 2nd. week?--Thanks in advance.

Posted on: Mon, 08/05/2013 - 20:18

Read the post again. Your bulking/cutting is based off of your metabolism. I'm sure you know how yours is! An example; mine is extremely high and I'm naturally under 10%bf. I will probably bulk for 4 weeks then cut for 1 week. After 2-3 cycles I should have enough data to conclude what I need to change. Also, bad form to the thumbs down. Give advice not negativity. True this post seems naive and not thought through but we don't know this persons background in training.....

Posted on: Thu, 06/30/2011 - 12:11

Some great info! Well researched and written. I'll be using this approach for my next bulk.