13 Tactical Lean Bulk Tips to Build Muscle & Stay Lean

It’s bulking season. That means it’s time to hit the weights and pack on pounds. But how do you make sure those pounds are muscle, not fat?

That’s where lean bulking can help. And I’m going to show you the best way to lean bulk to minimize fat.

With this tactical approach to nutrition and training, you’ll come out of this bulking season in the best shape of your life.

How to Lean Bulk - Gain Muscle Not Fat

What Is A Lean Bulk?

A lean bulk is a diet and workout plan that prioritizes muscle gain while minimizing fat gain. The idea is to add muscle while gaining as little fat as possible. With this strategy, you look better while bulking and it’s easier to get really lean when you decide to cut.

In relation to other bodybuilding phases, lean bulking is below bulking but above recomposition and cutting.

phases of bodybuilding lean bulk

Figure 1. Comparison of 4 phases of diet and exercise for bodybuilding – bulking, lean bulk, recomposition, and cutting.

The graphic above makes it easy to see where lean bulking fits in the big picture. But it doesn’t provide a quantitative comparison. So let’s look at the numbers.

Why Should You Lean Bulk?

First, it helps to understand why people bulk and cut in the first place. It’s all about making the most progress in the least amount of time.

For example, traditional bulking maximizes muscle gain with the understanding that some fat gain is going to happen. And it can take a long time to burn off that excess fat when you’re done bulking.

Whereas, aggressive cutting maximizes fat loss at the expense of losing muscle. When a cut goes on for months, that can result in a significant loss of hard-earned muscle.

lean bulk rate of muscle gain
Lean bulk rate of fat loss

Figures 2 & 3. Relative comparison of rates of muscle gain and fat loss between bodybuilding phases.

On the other hand, lean bulking is a less aggressive approach with a trade-off of its own. You will gain muscle at a slower rate than a full-blown bulk. Yet you prevent the accumulation of body fat. In some cases, you can even lose some fat.

As a result, your body fat stays lower year-round. This way you can get shredded faster when you decide to cut. And the less time you spend cutting, the more muscle you’ll maintain.

Essentially, lean bulking is a way to transform your body without the dramatic seasonal swings of fat gain and muscle loss.

Still, lean bulking is not for everyone. So let’s take a look at some situations where you should (or shouldn’t) lean bulk.

Who Is Lean Bulking For?

Before we get into who lean bulking is for, let’s look at who it’s not for. Because this is the larger subset.

You probably shouldn’t lean bulk if:
  • Your body fat percentage is more than 17% for men and 25% for women

  • Or, you need to gain a significant amount of muscle

  • Or, you have the ectomorph body type (aka hardgainer)

When you have “average” or higher body fat, it’s usually best to start with a fat loss plan. Also, those looking to gain a significant amount of muscle (more than 1.5 lbs per month), would be better suited with a bulk.

In addition, if you have an ectomorph body type you might have a hard time gaining muscle on a lean bulk. Therefore, you would likely get better results by going all-in with a full bulk.

Lean bulking might be right for you if:
  • Your body fat percentage is less than 17% for men and 25% for women

  • And, you’re not trying to gain as much muscle as possible

  • Or, you have the endomorph or endo-meso body type

  • Or, you’re transitioning from a recomp phase to a bulking phase

The best time to lean bulk is when you already have a lean or athletic build. Along with that, your goal is slowly adding muscle (1-1.5 lbs per month) while staying in relatively good shape.

Another time lean bulking can work well is if you have the endomorph or endo-meso body type. In that case, you tend to gain fat easier. So a lean bulk is a way for you to gain muscle without sliding down the slippery slope into excess body fat.

Finally, lean bulking can be used as a dietary transition period in which you gradually increase your calorie intake from a recomposition phase to a bulking phase. This incremental approach helps your metabolism adjust and allows you to stay leaner.

How Lean Bulking Works

Now that we have the basics out of the way, it’s time to get into how lean bulking works. When you understand the general physiology, the whole process will make a lot more sense.

First, it’s important to know a little bit about your metabolism and how it relates to fat loss and muscle gain. The metabolic processes that build your body up are called anabolic. While those that break it down are called catabolic.

lean bulk anabolic vs catabolic

Figure 4. Metabolism consists of anabolic (building) and catabolic (breaking) processes

Every day, your body flows through a rhythm of anabolic ups and catabolic downs based on the lifestyle choices you make.

Things like eating meals (particularly with carbs) and relaxing tend to bring about an anabolic state. While undereating/fasting, vigorous exercise, or high stress drop you into a catabolic state.

metabolic state vs time of day

Figure 5. Over the course of a day, your metabolism cycles between anabolic and catabolic processes. Note: This chart is for illustration purposes only, the metabolic cycle for lean bulking is discussed below.

When you bulk, you’re making this daily rhythm more anabolic through eating more calories/carbs and resting more. While cutting is more catabolic due to eating fewer calories/carbs and placing more stress on your body.

With this in mind, the key to lean bulking is striking a balance between anabolic and catabolic. Where the net result is slightly on the anabolic end of the spectrum.

lean bulk compared to other fitness goals

Figure 5. Comparison of net anabolic vs catabolic state between cutting, recomposition, lean bulk, and bulking.

As I mentioned, your lifestyle choices determine your metabolic state over the course of the day. So the next step is learning what choices to make while lean bulking.

How To Do A Lean Bulk: 13 Tactical Tips

The delicate balance of lean bulking is dictated by 3 things; diet, exercise, and recovery. First, I’m going to show you how to use nutrition to put yourself in the perfect state for lean muscle gain.

Lean Bulk Diet

When it comes to bodybuilding nutrition, I teach a simple 4 part framework consisting of calorie balance, food choices, macronutrient ratios, and meal timing.

This simple framework can be adapted for any fitness goal. But let’s look at how to optimize each piece for lean bulking.

1. Lean Bulk Calories

First and foremost, you must be in a calorie surplus during your lean bulk. Meaning you’re eating more calories than you burn. This is the best way to get your body into building mode.

However, you don’t want this calorie surplus to be too large, or you’ll start gaining fat. To find your calorie surplus you first need to know how many calories you burn. Also called TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).

Eat 5-15% more calories than you burn.

2. Clean Bulk vs Dirty Bulk

The second thing that makes a lean bulk effective is food choices. And the best way to ensure you gain muscle instead of fat is by choosing healthy whole foods whenever possible. This approach of clean eating is also known as a clean bulk.

In contrast, you may have heard of something called a dirty bulk, where you get to eat junk food. And you might even see fitness athletes posting about it. However, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Stick to eating clean foods 90% of the time during a lean bulk.

3. Lean Bulk Macros

When it comes to staying lean, carbs tend to get a bad rap. And perhaps rightly so. Too many carbs combined with a calorie surplus means you gain fat.

On the other hand, too few calories and carbs mean you won’t gain much (if any) muscle. Once again, a lean bulk is about finding that middle ground.

In addition, you’ll want to adjust your carb intake to your activity level. The more active you are, the more carbs you can have, and vice versa.

Finally, protein should remain relatively high to ensure you build muscle. And healthy dietary fat makes up the balance of calories.

Generally, we express macros as a percentage of calories. Check out my guide on how to count macros to learn how to convert this to grams.

On workout days target ~ 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat. On rest days ~ 20% carbs, 30% protein, 50% fat.

Adjusting your carb intake in this way is called carb cycling. And it’s one of the most effective nutrition tools for staying lean while you bulk.

lean bulking carb cycling

Figure 6. An example of carb cycling for a lean bulk.

4. The Importance of Meal Timing

The final piece of the nutrition puzzle is when you eat your meals. And what you eat for those meals. As illustrated in Figure 5, eating (especially carbs) promotes anabolism. While fasting or eating low carbs is more catabolic.

With this in mind, we can use strategic meal timing to strike the perfect balance of anabolic and catabolic simply by eating certain foods at specific times.

As an example, let’s say you workout in the evening. In this case, you might eat fewer carbs and calories in the morning. Then you’d get most of your carbs and calories later in the day.

lean bulk carb and calorie timing

Figure 7. An example of meal timing for a lean bulk.

Eat about 2/3 of your calories and 90% of your carbs within the 6-hour window around your workout.

By structuring your meals in this way, your metabolism will swing in a smooth arc between catabolic and anabolic. In addition, it helps to regulate your insulin sensitivity and improve your metabolic flexibility.

metabolic confusion meal plan

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Lean Bulk Workouts

Another key aspect of a lean bulk plan is resistance training. And, just like nutrition, there are several factors that you can adjust to optimize your workouts.

Those factors are exercises, reps, rest periods, and volume. In addition, I’ll teach you how to mix cardio with your weight training to keep fat at bay.

5. Mix Compound & Isolation Exercises

When your goal is muscle gain, compound exercises are king. This includes squats, bench press, and deadlift. As well as any movement that uses multiple muscle groups in unison.

In addition, you should include some isolation exercises. These generally use only one muscle group. Such as leg extensions, cable flys, or bicep curls.

Include 1 to 4 compound exercises per workout depending on the muscle group being worked.

6. Use Medium to Low Rep Range

In resistance training, the number of reps per set generally correlates with the weight being lifted. That is, the heavier the weight, the lower the reps, and vice versa.

For example, powerlifters commonly lift heavy weights for less than 5 reps to build strength. Whereas conditioning workouts often consist of 20 reps or more. And bodybuilders usually target 8-12 reps.

When your goal is optimizing muscle gain, it’s best to live in the low to medium rep range. That means you fail after 5 to 12 reps with a given weight.

Perform some exercises in the 5-10 rep range and others in the 8-12 rep range.

7. Rest ≥ 90 Seconds Between Sets

An often overlooked aspect of resistance training is the rest period between sets. Most people don’t pay attention to the importance of the downtime between the action.

However, the amount of time you take between sets has a direct effect on your power output as well as the energy system used.

Too short of a rest period and you overload your cardiovascular system before making your muscles fail. But too long and the muscles won’t be stimulated to grow.

Rest for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes between sets.

8. Low Volume, High Intensity

In resistance training, “volume” is the total number of sets you do in a workout. And there is an indirect correlation between volume and intensity. That means as volume increases, intensity decreases.

In other words, you can work hard or you can work long. But you can’t do both!

Once again, lean bulking is about balance. You can’t be in and out of the gym in 30 minutes. But you can’t be doing marathon workouts at half-ass intensity either.

Target 24 to 30 sets per workout with high intensity – meaning every set ends in muscular failure.

9. A Little Cardio Goes A Long Way

Last but not (not) least, is cardio. Many bodybuilders, including myself, tend to avoid cardio during bulking season. Because it just means you have to eat even more to be in a surplus.

But cardio does have its place in a lean bulk. And recently, I’ve found more value in using cardio as a tool to balance your daily metabolic state. That’s because cardio is inherently catabolic, especially when carbs and calories are low.

Therefore, I recommend doing cardio a few days a week in the fasted state. This maximizes fat burning and sets you up to be more anabolic later in the day.

lean bulk fasted cardio

Figure 8. This study shows the increased fat oxidation with fasted vs fed cardio.

By doing cardio this way, you take advantage of fat burning when your insulin is at it’s lowest. And prime your body to be more anabolic later in the day so you can build more musle.

Do about 30 minutes of cardio at 110-150 bpm a few days a week.

But if early morning cardio doesn’t fit your schedule, it’s ok to throw it in after your lift. Nothing crazy, just 20-30 minutes at low to medium intensity.

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Lean Bulk Lifestyle

Finally, the choices you make outside of the kitchen and away from the gym also have a big impact on the effectiveness of your lean bulk. Those decisions include how you sleep, how much water you drink, and how you handle stress.

Once you master these final pieces, all you have to do is repeat the process and your body will transform dramatically.

10. Make Sleep a Priority

We’ve all been told from a young age to get 8 hours of sleep each night. Yet 2 out of 3 Americans get less than that. And 40% of us get 6 hours or less!

As a society, we just don’t consider sleep a top priority anymore. Worse yet, people who sleep more are seen as lazy.

However, if you value your health and fitness, then sleep should also rank high on your priority list. Because without adequate sleep your body remains in a chronic catabolic state. Which leads to fatigue and less than optimal body composition.

Get 8 to 9 hours of sleep when your goal is building muscle.

11. Drink Plenty Of Water

Another recommendation that seems to go in one ear and out the other is drinking water. The minimum requirement is 8 cups (64 oz) per day. But most of us don’t even get that. Instead opting for sugary drinks that don’t provide the necessary hydration.

Furthermore, when you’re active, you need significantly more since you lose water to respiration and sweat. So if you really want to change your body, it’s time to swap the sugar for good old fashioned H2O.

High Quality H20

Drink 1/2 your body weight in ounces of water per day. And bump it up to 3/4 oz/lb on days that you’re active.

Click here to calculate your daily water intake

12. Stay Calm & Bulk On

It’s important to realize that metabolic state is also affected by mental state. As with metabolism, your nervous system has two states: fight or flight vs rest and digest. To decide which state it needs to be in, the nervous system takes cues from your environment.

If you’re anxious or stressed it flips you into fight or flight mode to help you evade a perceived threat. But if you’re calm and relaxed it eases into rest and digest mode to recover and rebuild.

While it’s perfectly okay to be under stress, it’s important not to let it dominate your daily life. And when it’s time to rest, you need to do things that help you calm down and relax.

Seek out relaxation by going for a quiet walk, getting some sunshine, or just following your breath for a moment.

13. Consistency Is Key

Lastly, lean bulking takes consistency and patience. When working in such a delicate balance, it’s important to adhere to your plan for at least a couple of weeks and pay close attention to your metrics like weight and body composition.

Avoid knee jerk reactions, make minor adjustments every 2 to 4 weeks if necessary.

Also, during a bulk it can be easier to slack off on your diet and justify eating junk food in the name of weight gain. But if you’re serious about gaining muscle, you should treat a lean bulk with as much diligence as you would a cut.

Admittedly the progress may be slow, which can make it hard to stay motivated. But you have to trust the process and stay the course.

With that in mind, how long should you lean bulk before changing to another goal?

How Long Should You Lean Bulk?

As with any fitness goal, I recommend sticking with a lean bulk for at least 8 weeks. Any less than that and you just don’t have enough time to get into your routine and see real results.

Of course, you can go much longer than that. The beauty of a lean bulk is that you can make continuous gains without the problems associated with chronically high carbs and calories. Such as excess fat gain and insulin resistance.

With that in mind, the duration really depends on how much muscle you want to gain. And the amount of weight you gain depends on your body composition and experience level.

Weight Gain During a Lean Bulk

Figure 9. Estimated weight per month of lean bulking.

When you’re new to weight lifting you can gain muscle at a faster rate, especially if you gain a little bit of fat with it. In this case, you could expect to gain 6 to 8 lbs a month for a few months before tapering off.

On the other hand, experienced lifters have a slower rate of weight gain. Usually more like 1.5 lbs per month. This slower rate also applies to those trying to minimize or even burn fat.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle and gain about 2 to 3 lbs per month after an initial bump. Based on these numbers, you can figure out how long you should lean bulk to reach your goal.

For example, let’s say you’re somewhat new to training and your goal is to gain 20 lbs while staying lean. Using the chart in Figure 9, find 20 lbs on the vertical axis, then travel right until you cross the upper line. In this case, you should lean bulk for 3 to 4 months.

Lean Bulk Results

As important as measurable targets are for setting goals, they’re not always easy to visualize. So let me show you some pictures as well.

In the example below, I started at a very lean 6-7% body fat, so I allowed for some fat gain. And my experience level means I gain muscle at a slower rate.

As a result, I gained 20 lbs in 10 months, a fairly average rate for a lean bulk. And my body fat was still only around 11%, which means I gained 12 lbs of lean muscle.

Again, you could gain more or less weight during a lean bulk. Your results depend on your individual situation.

Key Takeaways

  • A lean bulk is when you prioritize muscle gain while minimizing fat gain
  • This approach isn’t for everyone. It’s best for those who are already leaner than average and are okay with gradual gains.
  • It uses diet, workout, and lifestyle to strike a balance between catabolic and anabolic states
  • You must be patient and trust the process!

Starting Your Lean Bulk Plan

At this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all this information. And that’s totally understandable. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to optimizing your diet and exercise routine.

That’s why I offer a personalized lean bulk solution. With your meal plan, you’ll see exactly what to eat for each meal based on your actual schedule. Plus you can add a customized workout routine designed to help you maximize muscle gain.

Click below to learn more about the Lean Bulk Meal Plan.
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