Dieting 101: Lean Bulking

Hi all, GB here. This write up will hopefully serve as a basic guideline for those looking to add lean mass. Note I didn’t use the word ‘bulk’. I used it in the title to lure you in because I’m evil that way. Now that I have you’re attention, I want us to forget the word. At least in the traditional sense. Let’s take a look at what bulking means, traditionally:

The term ‘bulking’ generally refers to the phase a bodybuilder periodically goes through where he tries to add as much mass as possible, with little regard to bodyfat. This is generally done on the off season of competitive bodybuilders. It is the direct counterpart to ‘cutting’ (for a detailed write up on cutting, see my sticky on the topic here : Dieting 101: Cutting ). It’s not uncommon for bodyfat to reach proportions of 25% and higher in some guys! I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in adding a bunch of bodyfat, then having to spend months and months on a grueling cut just to hopefully yield a few pounds of lean muscle… and that’s only if you do everything right.

Bulking is an old-school philosophy and while it obviously works, it isn’t the only way to add muscle. These days, a lot more attention is being paid to methods used to add muscle without all, or at least most of the unwanted bodyfat. It’s a slower, but more consistent process. It’s generally referred to as ‘lean bulking’ or ‘adding lean mass’. We’ll call it ‘lean bulking’ for the sake of this write up.

Choose a goal and stand behind it

People are always wanting to add lean mass and lose bodyfat. Ask 10 guys what their goal is, and that’s what it’ll be for 9 of them. Of course. Who wouldn’t want that? That's the holy grail, the reason we're all here. While it is possible to do both (called a body recomposition), it’s outside the scope of what this article deals with, so we will focus our efforts strictly on adding lean mass, not reducing bodyfat. Perhaps we'll address body recomp in a future write up.

Note the title: Choose a goal and stand behind it. This is what I always suggest to people. If you want to add lean mass, then let’s put together a plan and see it through to completion. If you want to reduce bodyfat, then let’s focus our efforts on that goal. That’s not to say we ignore increases in bodyfat on a mass plan, or ignore muscle loss on a cutting plan. Quite the contrary, but more on that later. It’s just that I’ve seen so many people bounce back and forth trying to micro manage both goals simultaneously, that they never really allow enough time for one or the other to take effect… and ultimately wind up looking about the same as when they started out. I should know; I’m one of them. So I say – decide what you really want to do, and then focus your efforts on that goal. Give it a good 90 days before you abandon what you’re doing. Results don't happen overnight. Nor are results linear; you will go through periods of growth spurt, and periods where nothing seems to happen despite your best efforts. It can be frustrating, but when you stick with it and remain consistent, the results will speak for themselves. Note when I say "give it 90 days before you abandon what you're doing", that's with regard to the primary goal. The need for tweaks and minor changes throughout are common and to be expected.

What is lean bulking?

Lean bulking can be defined as the effort put forth to add as much lean mass (i.e. muscle) as possible with as little change to bodyfat as possible. Very few people can add mass without adding some bodyfat. A bit of added bodyfat should be expected, but that doesn’t mean you have to get sloppy and out of shape (see traditional bulking). Most guys will have a predetermined bodyfat percentage number threshold in mind at the onset of a lean bulk. e.g. if I start my lean bulk at 10% bodyfat, I’ll allow myself to get as high as 13% before pulling back and making some revamps to get things back in check.

I always recommend people start at a relatively low bodyfat percentage to begin with. For me, that’d be < 13%. In my experience, most people starting off higher usually aren’t happy with the end result. Going from 10% to 13% isn’t all that bad for most. 16% to 19% might be.

How much do I eat?

Here starts the great controversy. First, you have to realize that our bodies don’t need a great deal of surplus calories to grow. If you’ve read my posts on this topic before, you’ve probably heard me say “more is better doesn’t apply in bodybuilding”. It’s the truth. For most, a few hundred calories over maintenance is all that’s needed. If your body can optimally use 300 additional calories/day to slowly add muscle, feeding it 1000 calories extra/day isn’t necessarily going to speed up that process and build more muscle. What it will do is make you fat (again, see bulking).

I will generally start around 500 calories over maintenance and adjust up/down from there as needed. In most cases, the adjustment will be down, not up. It's very important to consistently monitor your progress so you know when it's time to make a change, and what change to make. Generally, I recommend a combination of tools: Scale weight, your own assessment in the mirror, how your clothes fit, and most importantly, measurements! Pick 1 day a week to take these measurements, and try to be consistent with the day and time. While this isn't a science experiment, we do want to keep things as 'controlled' as possible in order to yield the most accurate results.

Macronutrient Breakdown

Here’s another place where I see a lot of people making what I’d consider a big mistake. Or better put, a missed opportunity. People seem to think that ‘bulking’ automatically means you must raise your protein intake to obscene proportions. There are a few problems with this. First, I see a lot of people with their protein already too high regardless of the goal. 400g and up. Unless you’re a 250lb bodybuilder on tons of gear, chances of you needing - not to mention your body being able to assimilate - 400+ grams of protein on a daily basis are slim. 1.5-2g per pound of LBM is usually sufficient.

My second issue is this: protein should always be sufficient. If you’re cutting, you need sufficient protein to halt the breakdown of LBM due to a prolonged hypocaloric diet, cardio, etc. If protein is sufficient, then why would you need to raise it to add mass? Do you think you’re body is going to use more? It won’t. In fact, you could actually get away with less protein due to the protein/muscle sparing properties of carbs and fats, which will both be higher on a hypercaloric diet.

What we do want to pay attention to are those other 2 aforementioned macros: fats, and particularly, carbs. Of the 3 macros, carbs have the most profound effect on blood glucose levels and therefore, the release of insulin . Insulin is a highly anabolic hormone, so having it present in your bloodstream is a good idea where adding mass is concerned. My ideal macro breakdown for lean bulking is:

40% protein, 45% carbs, 15% fats. On a 3000 calorie per day diet, that would equate to roughly 300g protein, 340g carbs, and 50g fat. Depending on the individuals stats and protein requirements, I may even ‘steal’ some of the protein to add more carbs, and wind up with something looking like 270g protein, 370g carbs, 50g fat. Of the 3 macros, fat is most easily stored as bodyfat. For this reason, and the fact that we will be eating in excess of maintenance levels, I like to keep this macro relatively low, hence 15%, and definitely no higher than 20%.

How do I arrange my meals?

There are many ways to go about this, so realize now that my way is neither the ‘right’ way, or the only way. This is something very individualistic and you will need to play around and tailor a plan that best suits you.

On workout days, I like to have carbs in every meal with the exception of the last. This will ensure I’m creating an anabolic environment throughout most of the day. Some people can get away with carbs in their last meal, but I’m not one of them unfortunately. You will have to experiment to find what your own body responds best to.

On non-workout days, I’d have carbs in the early part of my day only. We have less activity obviously, therefore less demand for energy. Based on our macros from above, this would look something like:

270g protein, 185g carbs, 50g fat. We’ve basically cut the carb macro in half. This will obviously lower calories overall, which is what we want, because we are also trying to keep bodyfat in check. Remember that you can always add or remove if need be, based on your progress.

Typical Workout Day Sample Diet (macros only)

Based on 6 meals/day, my diet would look something like this:

5am (preworkout): 45g protein, 85g carbs, 8g fat

8am (postworkout): 45g protein, 85g carbs, 8g fat

11am (PPWO): 45g protein, 80g carbs, 8g fat

3pm: 45g protein, 60g carbs, 8g fat

6pm: 45g protein, 60g carbs, 8g fat

9pm: 45g protein, trace carbs, 8g fat

What I did here was keep the highest concentration of carbs focused around my workout window, then tapered off at the end of the day.

Typical Non-Workout Day Sample Diet (macros only)

7am: 45g protein, 60g carbs, 8g fat

10am: 45g protein, 60g carbs, 8g fat

1pm: 45g protein, 60g carbs, 8g fat

4pm: 45g protein, trace carbs, 8g fat

7pm: 45g protein, trace carbs, 8g fat

10pm: 45g protein, trace carbs, 8g fat

I simply took my lowered carb macro (half of the original 370g) then divided it equally across the first 3 of 6 meals.

In both examples above, you'll see that I have my fat macro split evenly across all 6 meals. Again, this is just what I do, it's not necessarily what you should do. Particularly on the lower carb days, you can lower the fat content in the higher carb meals, and use that extra fat in the no carb meals to make them higher fat. At the end of the day (literally and figuratively), overall calories haven't changed, only the macro placement.

Food Choices

Since 'bulking' and especially 'dirty bulking' aren't part of my vocabulary, my philosophy is that food choices don't change based on goals, only quantities do. With that said, all of the obvious foods should be considered. And for God sake, please have some variety in your diet!! I see so many diets with chicken for almost every meal. Do you REALLY think that's a sustainable diet for any appreciable length of time!? It isn't. You'll get sick of it, and most likely feel discouraged and quit. There are plenty of foods to choose from. Aside from helping you keep your sanity, you'll also take advantage of varying absorption rates and in the case of proteins, different amino acid profiles.

Lean Proteins
Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast
Boneless, Skinless Turkey Breast
'White' fish - e.g. tilapia, flounder/fluke, snapper, orange roughy, tuna, etc.
Egg whites
Lean Ground Beef (I try to stick with 95% lean or better)
Lean Bison
Lean pork (trimmed center cut chops, loin, etc)
Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
Nonfat Greek Yogurt
Various Protein Powders

Complex (starchy) Carbs
Sweet Potato/Yam
Red/White/Yellow Potato (note - I don't make much of an issue over 'white' potatoes vs. sweet potatoes, especially when adding mass is the primary goal. As long as you're not eating the carb source by itself (and you shouldn't be), the differences beyond vitamin/mineral content are negligible IMO)
Cous Cous
Rice (all types... even white)

to a lesser extent (i.e. a few days a week):
whole grain 'brown' breads
whole grain 'brown' pasta

Nuts (all kinds)
Nut butters (all kinds - e.g. almond, cashew, peanut, etc)
Oils (all kinds - olive, coconut, etc)

Note on fats: Generally, I find it unnecessary to add fats to my diet, as I get enough from my protein sources + some supplemental fish oil (which is a great idea for many reasons... but I digress). However you may have higher caloric requirements than me, and will need to add a small amount of fats to some meals, particularly low/no carb meals.

Protein/Fat Combos
Whole Eggs
Higher fat ground beef (I'd stick with 90% lean)
Various cuts of steak (e.g. top sirloin, flank, flat iron, filet, etc. Porterhouse, T-Bone, Ribeye etc. are VERY high fat and not acceptable choices, IMHO)
Oily fish - salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.

Fibrous Carbs (veggies)
Various green lettuces (not iceberg!!)
Brussell Sprouts
Green Beans
Alfalfa Sprouts
many other options... think anything leafy green.

Do I HAVE To Eat Veggies?
I don't want to digress too far into why eating veggies is an excellent idea. You'll just have to trust me that it is. Briefly:
Antioxidants (look up 'free radicals' and you'll see why you should be eating foods high in antioxidants)
Essentially, if having a healthy diet and lifestyle is of interest to you (I can't imagine why that wouldn't be of interest to everyone), you should be eating plenty of veggies. Can't stand em'? Don't have time to cook em'? Supplement with a green 'superfood' powder, or do like I've recently begun doing, and start juicing! No, not that kind of juicing - this is the nutrition section, not the AAS section! Vegetable Juicing FTW!!!

Note the above is far from a complete food list, but should give you enough to work with to get started.

GB, What About Fruit?
Fruit is a controversial food in bodybuilding due to the sugar content. Yes you get fiber, tons of great vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, etc. But you still get sugar. There's no avoiding that. My personal preference is to avoid fruit while cutting, and allow it in small quantities while adding lean mass, focusing it around my workout window. Even then, I try to stick with something like blueberries over apples for instance. More nutrients, less sugar. Everybody wins!


Cardio is another one of those topics with many different schools of thought. Personally, I would do a light amount of cardio PWO on training days (think 20 mins HIIT, 30 mins MAX) but would definitely do moderate intensity cardio on my non-training days, preferably in the morning while still in a fasted state. 45-60 mins. Whatever you choose to do, the important thing is that you DO CARDIO!!! Don’t let people tell you about how you’re trying to add muscle, and cardio is counterproductive, bla bla bla. When done right, this shouldn’t be a concern. And since you're meticulously monitoring your progress (RIGHT!!? ), you'll know when you need to cut back... or add more.

Use the link below to be taken to the open thread for Q&A and I will do my best to keep up with responding to all inquiries. I hope you find this helpful!!! GB

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