The process of building muscle isn't just about sets, reps, consistency and progressive overload. To pack on lean mass you also need a bulking diet that delivers. Moving iron without moving a fork is like running uphill in the mud. You might get to the top eventually, but it's going to take a whole heckuva long time.
You often hear the following fitness mantra: diet is 90% (or 80%, or 70%). This sentiment downplays the importance of proper training. The truth of the matter is that both nutrition and training are important. They are are not 2 variables that add up to 100%.
Training is 100%. Nutrition is 100%. When both of these essentials are nailed down you maximize progress. When your training is 100% but your nutrition is only 50%, or vice versa, you are wasting valuable time.
This article assumes you understand how to properly train. We will focus only on the diet side of things.
Do You Need a Bulking Diet to Build Muscle?
Each of us requires a certain number of calories to sustain our current weight. This amount is called a "maintenance level." In bodybuilding culture, when you eat above your maintenance level we refer to it as bulking.
By providing your body with an excess of raw materials, you are able to:
- Help the body better repair muscle tissue damaged during the weight lifting process.
- Place the body in a more anabolic state; one in which calories do not have to be as tightly rationed for vital physiological functions and the body can more freely allocate vital resources to the imposed demand created from your resistance training sessions.
It is an obvious reality that the fewer number of calories you eat, the less likely your body is to allocate these raw materials to non-vital processes such as muscle building. The body is too busy supporting organs and helping you to recover from normal, daily wear and tear.
During periods of calorie excess, the body is more willing to build muscle. You are adding weight, and when bulking properly, adding mostly muscle mass. On the other hand, during periods of restricted calorie intake the muscle building process is slowed or even completely stopped because - quite simply - the human body has more pressing issues to attend to.
The conclusion we can draw from this is quite obvious...the more you eat, the better chance you have to maximize the muscle building process. Now, before you rush out and start shoveling food down your cake hole, there is one other factor to consider when bulking: physiological muscle building limits.
As a natural trainee, the body can only pack on so much muscle mass during a given year. Typically the muscle building curve looks like a half-life. During each subsequent training year the amount of potential muscle mass you can pack on decreases by half. Here is the typical (perfect world) goal chart I use as a guideline.
- Year 1 - Expect to gain up to 16 pounds of muscle mass.
- Year 2 - Expect to gain up to 8 pounds of muscle mass.
- Year 3 - Expect to gain up to 4 pounds of muscle mass.
- Year 4 - Expect to gain up to 2 pounds of muscle mass.
- Year 5 - Expect to gain up to 1 pounds of muscle mass.
It goes without saying that if you ignore these guidelines and gain weight at a rapid pace, more of it will be fat. A slow, controlled weight gain is the way to go. Enter, lean bulking...
Different Types of Bulking Diets
Believe it or not there are several different methods of bulking. They are:
- Lean bulk - An eating plan that focuses on gaining lean muscle mass while minimizing fat gain. Macronutrient consumption is usually tightly monitored.
- Dirty bulk - A more aggressive style of bulking that involves a greater number of calories and likely more "dirty" or processed/junk foods. Dirty bulks rarely involve the counting and micro-management of macronutrients.
- IIFYM eating - IIFYM, if it fits your macros, can be utilized during a bulk or cut. It places the primary focus on achieving your desired macronutrient goals regardless of the specific foods used to get there.
- Clean bulk - Not too different from a lean bulk, except for a greater emphasis on eating more non-processed/junk foods. A clean bulk involves a greater degree of clean eating.
It is beyond the scope of this article to debate the benefits of these methods. My goal in writing this feature was to put together a sample meal plan that would focus on more on lean bulking and clean eating. You may opt to change any of the sample meals as long as you hit your macros.
If you aren't challenging yourself in the gym your body won't have any reason to work with these extra calories and build more muscle.
Determining Calorie Requirements
The first step in setting up a lean bulking diet is to calculate your daily calorie maintenance level. This is the amount of calories required to keep you at your existing weight. If you don't know where to start, please check out the BMR calculator here at Muscle & Strength. It allows you to input your height, weight, age, sex and daily activity level, and will provide you with an approximate number of calories you will need per day to maintain your existing weight.
Understand that calorie guestimating tools are simply starting points. Adjustments will have to be made depending on what the scale says week in and week out.
I recommend ignoring weight changes during the first 2 weeks of a bulk. An increase in calories can lead to a little extra water gain. This isn't fat gain, and calorie intake adjustments should not be based upon weight changes made immediately after dietary tweaks.
After this point, it's time to make changes if needed.
Setting Up a Lean Bulk
Once you understand your daily calorie requirements, here are the steps you take to set up a lean bulk diet:
- Step 1 - Add 300 calories to this number. This will be your starting point.
- Step 2 - Calculate your daily protein intake requirements based on the table below. You will also want to calculate the total number of calories you will eat per day from this protein intake. To do so, multiply grams of protein by 4. So if your daily requirement is 180 grams of protein, you would be consuming 720 calories from these protein foods (180x4).
- Step 3 - Multiply your bulking calorie intake by 30%. This is the number of fat calories you will eat per day. You can adjust this percentage up or down by 5% if you prefer.
- Step 4 - Calculate your daily carbohydrate intake. To do this, subtract the amount of calories you eat per day from fats and protein from your bulking total. So if you are 5'10" and need 3,000 calories per day to bulk, 900 of these calories will come from fats (30%), and 800 of these calories from protein. This leaves you with 1,300 calories of carbohydrates per day. Note that carbs have 4 calories per gram, so 1,300 calories would equal 325 grams.
|Daily Protein Intake|
Note: Intake is based upon height. The taller you are, the more natural muscle mass you maintain. A general rule of thumb is that for every additional inch of height, your body may have about 4-5 more pounds of muscle mass.
Since it is typically recommended that 1 gram of protein be eaten be day per pound of bodyweight, I simply increased the intake requirements by 5 grams per inch of height.
During periods of calorie excess, the body is more willing to build muscle. You are adding weight, and when bulking properly, adding mostly muscle mass.
Is This "Too Much" Protein?
Some may argue that lifters could get away with slightly fewer grams of protein per day. This is a valid debate. Here are my reasons for bumping daily protein intake up just a hair:
- Dietary Balance. Diet is about more than just the minimum number of grams of protein required per day to grow. When bulking you are consuming more calories than normal. I prefer to keep a diet more balanced and less carb-heavy by bringing up protein intake a hair.
- Eat For Goal Weight. I believe that you should eat protein based on your lean body mass goal. Call this broscience if you will, but if you want a lean body mass of 170 pounds, but currently have a lean body mass of 150lbs, I don't believe you are best served by eating for your existing amount of muscle mass.
- Seeking Minimums? Successful individuals rarely wake up each day and ask themselves the following question: "What's the least I can do today to reach my goals?" If you want to be a minimalist, so be it. I prefer to build in a slight buffer zone and eat a little more protein rather than a little less.
Example Lean Bulk Set Up
Let's look at an example before we move on. You are 5'8" and require 2,700 calories per day to lean bulk.
- Protein - Checking the chart, you find that you need 190 grams of protein per day. This equates to 760 total calories.
- Fats - Multiplying your daily calorie requirement of 2,700 by 30%, you determine that you need 810 calories per day from fats. This equates to 90 grams, as fats have 9 calories per gram.
- Carbs - We are left with 1,130 calories per day from carbs. This equates to 282.5 grams of carbs per day.
Structuring a Lean Bulking Diet
Now that we have our daily macronutrient requirements calculated, it's time to structure a diet. How many meals you eat per day is up to you. The important thing is that you reach your daily calorie and macronutrient requirements.
A few sources will tell you that you only "need" 1-2 meals per day. Some of the more classic bodybuilding proponents might suggest 7, 8 or even 9 meals per day. I highly recommend basing your meal planning around your existing eating habits.
- Night eaters. If you are a big night eater, save more of your calories for the evening.
- Snackers. If you like to snack and graze, eat more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day.
- Breakfast-haters. Hate eating a lot earlier in the day? No problem. Eat small meals until lunch, and go hard and heavy at the plate after that point.
I never liked to eat much before a workout. It left me feeling sluggish and bloated. I also enjoy a huge post-workout meal. For these reasons, I would limit by pre-5 o'clock meals to mostly protein, going light until my workout was finished.
It might take some time to dial in a bulking structure, but don't get discouraged. Move meals, calories and macronutrients around as needed.
Also, don't let anyone pull you off track. There are many opinions floating around in the bodybuilding realm as to how you should eat. Diet plans should ALWAYS be based around YOUR eating habits. No exceptions.
This article presents you with a 3,000 calorie sample plan.
Sample 3,000 Calorie Lean Bulk
|Meal #1 - 7 am||
2 cups cooked Oatmeal, Whey Shake, Fish Oil
462 cals, PCF = 34.9/59.1/9.6
|Meal #2 - 10 am||
Medium Banana, 4 boiled Eggs
415 cals, PCF = 26.3/28.6/21.5
|Meal #3 - 1 pm||
2 medium Potatoes, 4 oz Chicken Breast
405 cals, PCF = 32.9/66.4/6.2
|Meal #4 - 3:30 pm||
Whey Shake, 1 oz Almonds, 6 Strawberries, 12 Grapes
348 cals, PCF = 29.9/24.6/16
|Workout - 5 pm||N/A|
|Meal #5 - 7 pm||
6 oz Ground Beef (80% lean), 2 cups cooked Rice, 4 oz Salsa, 8 oz Veggie of choice
985 cals, PCF = 57.7/114.7/30.9
|Meal #6 - 9:30 pm||
Casein Shake, Fish Oil, 2 Rice Cakes, 1.5 tbsp Peanut Butter
381 cals, PCF = 28/23.7/15.1
|Totals||2996, PCF = 209.7/317.1/99.3|
It must be understood that dietary caloric starting points are just that - starting points. You must monitor the scale and make adjustments if they are needed. Here are some general guidelines.
Lean Bulk Weeks 1-2
Don't panic if you gain more than a few pounds a week during this period. You are increasing food intake, and this excess gain is almost completely water weight. Extra food means extra carbohydrate consumption.
Carbohydrates pull additional water into the body and can easily create a small but noticeable change on the scale. This water weight change is not fat gain. This point must be stressed, and remembered.
Make no changes to your calorie intake during this time. Use the first several weeks to establish a routine,
Lean Bulk Weeks 3-6
Starting with week 3, it's time to establish a baseline. If you are completely new to the muscle building process it is possible to gain slightly over a pound of muscle per month during your first year of training. For this reason, beginners should aim to gain 1.5 to 2 pounds max per month.
If you are gaining more than 2 pounds per month, it's time to make an adjustment. Drop the number of calories you eat per day by 300, and run this amount for another month. If you are still gaining weight too rapidly make a second adjustment.
On the other hand, if you gained absolutely no weight at all during weeks 3-6, more food is needed. Add 500 calories to your daily intake and run that level for a month. Make adjustments up or down after this 4 week period if needed.
If you've already added 8-15 pounds of muscle mass to your frame, then it's prudent to cut back on the weight you gain per month. Intermediate natural trainees risk packing on unwanted fat if they exceed more than a pound of weight gain per month.
Intermediates who aggressively bulk are really just engaging in a fat gain program. While this extra food will be great for increasing strength, it won't alter the rate of muscle gain by much at this experience level.
A Note on Progressive Overload
A lean bulk without progressive overload, in some form or fashion, is simply a fat gain program. If you aren't challenging yourself in the gym your body won't have any reason to work with these extra calories and build more muscle.
How Long Should You Lean Bulk?
A lean bulk, when performed properly, doesn't yield much in the way of fat gain. A first year trainee should aim for a 12-16 pound muscle gain and a maximum of a 6-8 pound fat gain. This fat gain can be knocked off with a quality one month cutting diet.
Beginning trainees should not stray from a lean bulk during their first year of lifting. They are building muscle mass at a rapid rate and there is no reason to derail this progress.
After the first year of lifting, it may not hurt to either:
- Perform a month month cut every 6-8 months.
- Alternate between 3 months of bulking and one month of cutting.
Either of these methods will help intermediate lifters build muscle while knocking off any trivial amount of fat accumulated during a lean bulking period.
Parting Shots - Lean Bulking Quotes
"You can't avoid fat gain entirely. Adding purely lean tissue is all but impossible." - Justin Woltering
"Your macronutrient intake is at the very foundation of the entire process. Everything else you do stems from that. Quite frankly this one basic factor alone is going to be responsible for probably up to 90% of your results." - Sean Nalewanyj
"If you want the muscle without the pouch, you have to lower your expectations because finding the right caloric intake to supply nutrients without fat gain can be challenging – usually involving some sort of carbohydrate cycling. Even after you figure it out, you’re looking at a maximum of 1 lb of muscular development per month." - Anthony Mychal
"Adding muscle naturally is a slow and steady game and the main driver is performance increases in the gym (getting stronger and adding weight to the bar). So long that you’re getting adequate protein and enough calories to support your weight, well then you’re working at about 80% of your muscle building potential." - Greg Gallagher
"Gaining good weight is extremely difficult, and by no means a rapid process. Have patience, add weight to the bar each week, and keep a big appetite." - Brandon Morrison
"Sadly, for the truly genetically hapless, this kind of uninhibited "see-food" bulking can result in a three to four pound fat gain for every pound of new muscle. That isn't an acceptable tradeoff for any bodybuilder, especially one who doesn't want to own a separate set of fat pants." - Matt Kroczaleski
"Maintaining low body fat (while growing) all year round is not a myth and it’s not rocket science either, it’s simply eating clean 90% of the time and training like crazy every session." - Simeon Panda