Lean bulking is tough.
If it were easy, everyone would be jacked (and tan)!
Here are the top 11 reasons why most lifters fail at their lean bulking attempts and what to do about it.
1. You're Still On Your Cutting Diet (Just with Larger Portions)
Let’s face it, there is a reason that cutting only lasts twelve weeks! The prospect of following that same diet the rest of the year is enough to make anyone want to run to the closest Five Guys and slam back three burgers, a large fry, and a gallon of Dr. Pepper.
Staying lean while putting on muscle isn’t impossible and you don’t have to eat chicken and rice for the rest of your life to accomplish it. However, you do have to start slowly and build up the amount of calories that you are taking in instead of just going off the rails and eating everything that isn’t nailed down.
Start your lean bulk with small jumps in the amount of total calories that you are taking in each day. We are talking jumps of 200-500 calories a day. To put that in perspective, that is an additional 3 tablespoons of peanut butter tossed in your morning oatmeal or in your protein shake. When you make jumps in calories, find high quality foods that you enjoy and don’t normally get to eat on a cutting diet.
2. You're Still Doing A Lot of Cardio
Cardio is important for health and to stay lean, but too much will rob you of your gains, especially if you are doing a lot of steady state endurance training. Endurance training creates a less than optimal physiological environment for your body to gain size. To put on muscle, you must be in a slight calorie surplus. Performing excessive cardio can take you out of caloric surplus and into maintenance ranges.
Stick to interval training and higher intensity conditioning exercises for your cardio training. Bring the volume way down to around two sessions per week to maintain conditioning and stay lean while trying to build a lean physique.
3. Your Lean Bulk isn't so Lean
One of the greatest things about bulking is that you get to eat more and you can loosen up a bit with your food choices. But it’s really easy to go from a loose diet with a couple of less than optimal foods thrown in to a couple of junk meals per week to just down right sloppy. And then, there you have it, your lean bulk just got dirty.
Keep the overall quality of your food high to keep your lean bulk truly lean. If you find that you’re gaining a little too much fat on your bulk, start looking at the quality of the food that you are eating over the week. Chances are you can tighten up on the food quality for a while.
4. You Expect to get Huge Tomorrow
Progress comes slowly when you are trying to gain muscle mass versus just move up in body weight. As I stated earlier, small jumps are necessary in order to ensure gains in muscle mass while minimizing gains in fat. These small increases take time and consistency to implement. If you get impatient with the process to increase your size by increasing your calorie intake too much, you will soon see your body put on unwanted fat.
Stay patient and ensure that you have gained all the size you can from each individual calorie increase. Weigh yourself and take a progress photo at the same time on the same day of the week. If you have not made any gains in size in two to three weeks, it’s time to make another slight increase to your calorie intake and milk as many gains as possible from that increase. It’s important that you stay consistent and remain patient!
5. Your Training Volume is too Low
Gaining mass requires volume in your training program. It’s that simple. Your total volume has to be high enough to create a strong stimulus for your body to realize and adapt to. If your training isn’t where it needs to be, you will not make gains.
Your total volume is sets x reps x load. A lot of people seeking to gain mass forget about load and place an emphasis on sets and reps. Let the load fall where it will and total volume suffers. It is important to have an idea of what amount of weight you are going to use in order to keep your total volume up. Ensure that you are making progress in all three variables of your training volume to keep the gains coming.
6. You're Not Eating Enough Carbs
If you are putting the pedal to the metal in your training and ramping up your volume in an attempt to put on some appreciable mass, then you need to ensure that you are fueling your workouts properly with carbs. Carbs are usually the first macros to go when you are trying to lean out and should gradually be reintroduced during your bulking phase. Remember, they are your body’s preferred fuel source when it comes to intense training.
Don’t be afraid of adding carbs back into your diet if you are bulking and still want to stay lean. Use carbs as a tool to fuel your workouts and build some new muscle. To start, add in 200 calories worth of carbs around your workout. Increase your intake from there based on the amount of progress that you make and the amount of soreness you experience from training.
You can go as high as 3-5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight from clean sources such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, and rice and still stay lean. You should still limit added sugar while on a lean bulk.
7. Failing to Fully Recover From Your Workouts
There is a saying that “there is no such thing as overtraining just under recovery.” I couldn’t agree more. To build muscle, your training needs to be intense and you need to push yourself to new limits. However, just as intensely as you train every day, your recovery needs to match.
During training, you are breaking your body down so that it can come back during the recovery process bigger and stronger. Keep that in mind as you are training. You will never be able to build any solid mass or strength if you are constantly beating your body down. If you are not recovering properly, your lean bulk will come to a screeching halt. Make sure that you are taking in enough quality foods and supplements, reducing stress, limiting your alcohol intake, and staying adequately hydrated.
8. Drastic Changes in your Diet and Training
It’s easy to get carried away once you decide that it’s time to make the change from getting lean to gaining muscle. You find an awesome training plan that is going to put on some serious mass and you get ready to start eating more food than a family of four. You are all in.
Then the wheels start to fall off of your plan. You have to work unexpectedly because a co-worker called in sick, your significant other wants to go out for dinner, you sleep in unintentionally, and pretty soon you are missing meals you are supposed to eat and skipping the awesome hour and a half workout that you are supposed to be doing seven days a week. What happened to your lean bulk? You tried to change too many variables in your life at once.
Committing yourself to more of anything, whether it’s increasing your meals or the amount of time you set aside to workout, requires a lot of energy to implement. If you try to implement too much too soon, it is very unlikely that you will be able to perform all of these changes in training and nutrition for very long. Pick one habit and commit to making it work with your lifestyle before adding in anything else. Pretty soon your lean bulk will be moving full steam ahead.
9. You're Not Sleeping Enough
You can't skimp on the amount of sleep that you get each night. The importance of sleep cannot be overlooked. Sleeping is the time for your body’s systems to rest and recharge. If you are constantly trying to crush your body with intense training, sleep becomes even more of a priority. Muscles are damaged during the workout and repaired during the night while you sleep, provided that you are fueling your body properly. Sleep for gains!
Ensure that you are getting at least eight hours of sleep a night for optimal results during your quest for more muscle. Try to maintain a steady sleep schedule where you go to bed and wake up around the same time each day. If you are struggling to get quality sleep, limit the amount of caffeine that you take in each day and try to stop any screen usage an hour prior to going to bed. If you are still struggling, try taking some melatonin to help with the quality of sleep you are getting every night.
10. You're Not Consuming Enough Calories
No kidding right? Sometimes it really is this simple, especially if you are eating foods that have lower calorie density. It can be really easy to overestimate the amount of calories that are in a “clean” meal. This is especially true when you are trying to ride that fine line of staying in an anabolic state without gaining excessive fat.
If you think that you are doing everything right, but you are still not making the gains you want, always go back to the amount of food that you are eating. Track how much you eat day to day for a week and see just how much you are actually consuming. You will find that you probably aren’t eating as much as you should to reach your goals.
11. Your Lean Bulk is a Dream, Not a Goal
A dream is a goal without a plan laid out to execute it. I cannot stress the importance of having a direction/goal/focus when you are training. Perhaps the biggest reason that your lean bulk will fail is because there is no plan to execute in your training or in your nutrition strategy.
Make a plan before you decide to start your lean bulk. First know where it is that you are starting from and then come up with a plan that will allow you to make small changes every two weeks or so. Know what you can accomplish that will bring you closer to your goal of increased muscle mass.
Stay motivated, have a plan, be patient, and stick to the plan, and your lean bulk will transform from an epic failure into a great success!