All over the internet, even today, common advice shows up:
If you want to get big, you need to eat big.
There are a couple of issues with this advice:
1)What the hell does ‘get big’ even mean?
2)What the hell does ‘eat big’ even mean?
Or, in other words, this advice is so vague that most people end up overeating way too much because they have nothing specific to aim for. And not only do they overeat, but they do so on very crappy foods and consume very little protein.
“Welp, the guy told me to eat big, so I did.”
And so, many people (mostly beginners) end up way too fat very quickly and are then forced to backpedal and go into a cut for a few months before they can start building muscle again.
You can see how that would be a flawed approach to gaining muscle. In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to gain muscle effectively and put on minimum fat.
What is a Bulking Period?
As someone looking to maximize muscle growth and get stronger, there is one process you cannot skip – bulking.
But in the traditional sense (the one we outlined above), this means stuffing your face for a few months, getting overly fat, developing body image issues, and then having to cut down for a few months. Only to then realize that you’re not much better off from where you began the bulk.
Not the best way to go about things. Is there a better way, though?
Yes, there is, and it’s called slow bulking (also known as controlled or lean bulking).
Slow bulking is a period where calories are raised a bit over maintenance, and you are consuming enough protein to support optimal muscle growth while keeping fat gains to a minimum.
Weight is gained more slowly, and changes in your appearance don’t always seem obvious.
Why Would You Want to Slow Bulk?
I always love giving this analogy when explaining muscle growth, and everyone seems to understand immediately:
Imagine that your body during a bulk is a house under construction. The protein and calories you consume represent the building materials needed for the development.
Now, when there are just enough calories and the adequate protein (building materials), the process of building happens smoothly and according to plan. Progress is not being sabotaged in any way.
But, imagine that you suddenly started consuming more calories and more protein (an equivalent of providing the workers with more building blocks).
At first glance, it would appear that more building can be done, right?
Well, the workers at the house, much like your body, can only build so much in a given period, and providing them with extra building materials won’t speed up the process.
For the house, these materials would sit on the side, not getting used and not speeding up the development. But, for the body, that would mean that the extra materials are stored for later use in the form of fat.
Your body can only build so much muscle in a given week, month, or year. Shoving more food past a certain point won’t make you gain more muscle. It will make you gain more fat. This is the economic law of diminishing returns applied to fitness (1).
Lyle McDonald has developed a model of how quickly someone natural can build muscle based on their training experience (2).
According to it, a beginner can hope to gain 20-25 pounds of muscle in their first year of training, where someone who’s been lifting seriously for three years can only build 5-6 pounds in a year.
I do, however, need to stress the importance of ‘lifting seriously.’ Meaning, if you’ve spent 5+ years in the gym, but have been largely screwing around and not eating properly, you can probably expect to make solid newbie gains if you started following a good plan.
Spending time in the gym does not always equal productive training.
Though theoretical, Lyle’s model is quite accurate for the majority of people with average genetics. It can serve you well when setting goals for your gaining phases.
Now, given these numbers, how wise is it to put on 40-50 pounds of weight in a year? Not very, I’d say.
Aside from that, doing a slow bulk delivers other benefits:
You can bulk for longer and look good/decent year-round
I’m sure that the hedonic side of you is telling you, “Screw looking good, let’s eat food,” but after all, whether we want to admit it or not, we all want to look good and be attractive. Most guys I know got into lifting to impress girls.
But if we don’t keep our bulks under control, we’ll look good for a few months of the year and spend the remaining time not liking what we see in the mirror.
With a slow bulk, you still get to progress in the gym and build muscle, but you also look good throughout the year because you’re never more than 10-15 pounds of fat away from being shredded.
Cutting doesn’t have to be very long
I hate cutting with a passion and anything that could help me minimize my time in a caloric deficit is a worthwhile investment of my time.
I would much rather do a slow bulk for a year and then cut for 4-8 weeks to look amazing than dirty bulk for six months and then cut for 4-5 months to get the same effect.
Agree? Moving on.
Calorie partitioning is optimized
Calorie partitioning (also known as the p-ratio) refers to how your body uses the energy you provide it with and where it pulls energy from during periods of caloric restriction.
In other words, favorable calorie partitioning would mean that your body uses more of the calories you consume to grow and repair muscle and less get stored as fat. During periods of fat loss, it means that you lose more fat and less muscle.
Now, body fat percentage directly impacts calorie partitioning. High body fat percentage is associated with higher estrogen and lower testosterone levels (3). This is thanks to the aromatase enzyme that is present in fat tissue and converts test to estrogen.
The more fat you have ⇒ the higher the levels of aromatase enzyme are ⇒ the lower your testosterone is ⇒ the more compromised your muscle-building potential.
The cycle repeats.
High body fat percentage is also associated with poor insulin sensitivity which negatively impacts calorie partitioning (4). For the average lifter, this means less muscle is built in a given period. For people with body fat over 22%, it also increases the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and diabetes (5, 6).
Therefore, keeping body fat percentage under control (not much over 15-17%, especially if you have a hard time with dieting) is important for our muscle-building potential.
Gauging visual progress is much easier
I mean, you can’t see if a muscle has grown if there’s a deep layer of fat covering it, now can you?
How to Gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat
The process of slow bulking can be summed up in three crucial steps:
- Provide your body with adequate stimulus through enough training volume and intensity at the gym. Avoid overtraining yourself (7).
- Provide your body with just enough calories to create an anabolic environment and support muscle growth.
- Consume enough protein to provide your body with the building blocks it needs to repair and grow muscle tissue.
Step #1: Training
Much can be said about proper training, and the topic deserves its guide, but general guidelines include:
- At least ten sets per muscle group per week should be done to stimulate muscle growth. More is better to a point. After that, piling on more stress can lead to the opposite effects – muscle loss and plateauing (8).
- Splitting the total work for a given muscle group across two or three sessions within the week can deliver better results because you will essentially be doing all of the sets for a given muscle in a more recovered state each time. Instead of doing 16 sets for back in a single workout, you can do eight on Monday and eight on Thursday, thus allowing individual sets to be done with more weight for more repetitions.
- Sets should be done in both lower ranges of 3-6 reps, all the way to 15-20 to optimize hypertrophy and build strength over time (9).
- Training to failure should be mostly avoided. It doesn’t deliver superior results, but it can impact recovery and subsequent training sessions (10).
- A combination of compound and isolation exercises should be included in the program to allow for strength development and specific focus on the different muscle groups in the body.
- The principle of progressive overload is crucial. Over time, you need to do more work in the gym if you want further results. More weight on the bar, more repetitions, less rest between sets, more total sets, etc.
Step #2: Calories
There are plenty of methods to calculate your calories from online calculators to bodyweight multiplies, but I’ve found the Harris-Benedict formula to be among the most accurate options for average individuals with decent body composition and an active lifestyle (11, 12).
Calculate your BMR first.
For the americans:
For men – 66 + (6.23 * weight in pounds) + (12.7 * height in inches) – (6.8 * age in years) = BMR
For women – 655 + (4.35 * weight in pounds) + (4.7 * height in inches) – (4.7 * age in years) = BMR
For the rest of the world:
For men – 66 + (13.7 * weight in kilos) + (5 * height in cm) – (6.8 * age in years) = BMR
For women – 655 + (9.6 * weight in kilos) + (1.8 * height in cm) – (4.7 * age in years) = BMR
Example for men (the american version):
66 + (6.23 * 175 [his body weight]) + (12.7 * 72 [his height]) – (6.8 * 24 [his age]) = 1907 calories.
Once you’ve got your individual BMR (based on your stats), use the below multiplier to find your TDEE, or calories needed to maintain current body weight.
1.Sedentary – BMR * 1.2
2.Lightly active – BMR * 1.375
3.Moderately active – BMR * 1.55
4.Very active – BMR * 1.725
5.Extremely active – BMR * 1.9
Before you go ahead and multiply by 1.9, realize that most guys with desk jobs who are otherwise active fall in the second or third category. If you’ve got a very physically demanding job, you can multiply using the 4th value and track your body weight for a while.
The 5th value is mostly reserved for people with tons of lean body mass who are extremely active (e.g., elite level athletes).
So, our dude from the above example’s got a BMR value of 1907, and if we consider his activity level a bit above average, we can multiply by 1.55, so:
1907 * 1.55 = 2956 calories
Once you’ve got your TDEE value, a good rule of thumb is to add a 200-250 calorie surplus to ensure that you’re growing.
In any case, while this method is one of the most accurate ones, it still gives you a starting point. Meaning, you then need to eat accordingly for a few weeks, track your progress and possibly adjust calories.
If you are gaining weight too fast, decrease calories by 100-200. If you are not gaining weight, bump calories an extra 100-200.
Step #3: Protein
There are many recommendations for protein intake ranging from as little as 0.5 grams all the way up to 3-4 grams per pounds of body weight.
So, if you’re 180 pounds and are doing a slow bulk, aim for 144 to 180 grams of protein daily and don’t overthink it too much.
Now, a lot of fitness experts out there also recommend tracking fat and carb intake. For the average lifter, this is a bad idea. It adds an unnecessary layer of complexity to the whole fitness thing and can make some people neurotic.
As long as you’re eating enough calories and protein, don’t stress the ratio between carbs and fats too much. Eat accordingly, get plenty of nutritious foods, and you’ll be consuming enough carbs and fats.
Consistency and adherence to your diet and training are what matters most, not whether or not you manage to consume exactly 315 grams of carbs in a given day.
It’s also worth noting that you should be enjoying the process and should have the flexibility to eat out and have a social life. Bulking is a great time to do just that because you’ll have more calories to work with.
But if you constantly try to hit some arbitrary macro numbers down to the gram, you’ll be both unhappy and not able to enjoy a meal out.
How to Track Bulking Progress
So, you’ve done the calculations and are ready to go on your slow bulk, or maybe you’ve been bulking for a while. In both cases, you might be wondering:
How do I track my progress?
#1 – Track your training
The best indicator of muscle growth is the improvement in your gym performance. Simply put, if you are progressively getting stronger in the gym and are doing more work, you are building muscle mass.
If last month you could bench press 205 pounds for four sets of 6 reps and this month you can bench 10 pounds more for the same sets and reps, guess what – your chest, triceps, and delts have gotten a bit bigger.
On the other hand, if you’ve gained 10 pounds in the last four months but your workouts haven’t improved much, there’s a good chance that you’ve gained mostly fat and that you’ve been slacking with your training.
To track your workouts, all you need is a good phone app such as Evernote or a Moleskine journal. Write your exercises, the weight you are doing and the reps you are lifting it for.
Also, include other information you deem important – mixed grip on the deadlift, the use of belt and knee wraps on the squat, lack of sleep the previous night, etc.
Keep a log of your workouts and compare them over time.
#2 – Track your body weight
To make use of scale weight, I recommend taking in multiple times per week and writing down the average. In the morning, on an empty stomach and after you’ve gone to the bathroom, step on the scale and write your weight down.
At the end of the week, calculate the average (make sure to measure at least 3-4 times) and compare week to week.
As an intermediate lifter, you shouldn’t gain more than 2-2.5 pounds per month.
#3 – Track your visual appearance
Take note of how your clothes fit and how you look. Also, take progress pictures once a month or so and compare.
Under the same conditions, use the same poses and see how your body changes over time (e.g., in your room, using natural light, at the same time of day, take a few pics using the same few poses).
We see ourselves in the mirror every day, and gauging progress can be difficult. But, by looking at your body on a month-to-month basis, you’ll be able to see changes in muscle development and fat gain.
#4 – Track your body measurements
Much like progress pictures, you should take measurements of key parts of your body once a month and compare.
Use something simple like a tape measure on your neck, shoulders, chest, arms, forearms, waist, thighs, and calves and see how the values change from month to month. Also, notice how the values change in relation to one another.
If your arms, chest, and legs don’t grow much, but your waist measurement keeps growing, there’s a good chance that you need to lay off the Poptarts and get your nutrition in check.
Check out this related video from Vintage Genetics on youtube:
Gaining too Much Fat While Bulking?
Okay, so you’ve been bulking for a few months, and everything has been going well. You’re stronger, bigger, and happier. But, you’ve also gained a bit more fat around your midsection, and you’re wondering what to do.
First off, by using the four tracking methods from above, you should have a pretty good idea at roughly how much fat you’ve gained. You should be honest with yourself:
Have you really gained that much fat or are you just missing your precious abs since they are only an outline now?
There’s an important distinction because too many guys turn back too quickly and sacrifice their growth period because their bicep veins are a bit less pronounced or their lower abs are not visible anymore.
If you do decide that you’ve gained a bit too much fat, do a short mini-cut period:
Drop your calories by 1000 for two to four weeks and keep your training the same. Once you’ve dropped a few percent body fat, gradually bump your calories and get back into the slow bulk.
The Bottom Line on How to Minimize Fat Gain While Bulking
Ditch the ‘either-or,’ ‘look good or bulk up’ mentality. You can (and should) build a lot of muscle while staying relatively lean and you don’t have to sacrifice your appearance at any point on your quest to reach your maximum muscular potential.
The old way of perceiving the bulk season is slowly fading away, but there is still a lot of misleading advice out there.
Hopefully, now you understand that bulking doesn’t have to mean looking crappy for eight months of the year and it’s in no way an excuse to let yourself go and gain a ton of fat.
Not only will you have to diet down longer afterward, but you’ll also sacrifice your muscle-building potential due to the negative impact on calorie partitioning.
The gaining season is nigh and with the knowledge you’ve gained today, it has the potential to be your most productive one yet.
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