Why You Should Try a Lean Bulk
Avoid excess fat gain and build muscle efficiently
Bulking and cutting are two strategies used by bodybuilders and fitness fans around the world. The goal is to optimize muscle growth and to carve out a lean, strong physique. However, it’s massively misunderstood. Social media has given many people the illusion that you can binge on pizza and milkshakes during a bulk and then live off 1000 calories a day during a cut. IF you do this, you’ll be disappointed.
There is a scientific basis behind bulking and cutting. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can adjust it for best results.
What is the difference between bulking and cutting?
These two terms are commonly used in the health and fitness industry, but what do they actually mean?
Bulking involves consciously eating more than your TDEE requirements, as an attempt to build muscle.
Cutting involves consciously eating less than your TDEE requirements, to lose fat. Oftentimes, people will go through a cycle of these two phases, as a way to optimize the process towards their goals. For example, a bulking phase to build muscle, and then a cutting phase to lose the excess fat gained in the bulking phase, and to reveal the new muscle that has been built.
How do you know whether to bulk or cut? If you want to lose fat: cut. If you want to build muscle: bulk.
But we understand that it’s not always that simple. Maybe your fitness goals aren’t as rigid as ‘I want to build muscle’ or ‘I want to lose fat’. Many people want to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Or maybe you want to increase your fitness levels, or improve your strength. If that’s the case, the best recommendation would be to eat at maintenance level (TDEE energy balance — your intake matches your energy output).
When you eat at maintenance calories, you have enough energy to build and retain muscle, while performing effectively during workouts. This is a great option if you are a natural mesomorph — someone who loses body fat and builds muscle easily. However, if you’re an endomorph — someone who gains fat easily — you may end up gaining body fat at maintenance.
What is bulking, cutting and lean bulking?
Your body weight changes based on your energy balance. If you are expending more than you are intaking, your body breaks down energy stores to use for fuel, causing you to be in a negative energy balance; as a result, you will lose weight. If you are intaking more than you are expending, your body stores energy, causing you to be in a positive energy balance; as a result, you will gain weight. This is the basis of bulk/cut periodization.
During a bulking phase, you are in a positive energy balance — intaking more calories than you need and using the extra calories to focus on increasing your strength and muscle size. This is made possible because with extra food comes extra energy: allowing you to hit PRs, recover well and the circulating energy contributes to muscle protein synthesis for maximal muscle growth.
However, what is often forgotten is that you will also gain some body fat; particularly if you are eating substantially more than you need (also referred to as a dirty bulk). Dirty bulks are better suited to natural ectomorphs — people who are naturally skinny and small, with a faster metabolism — but are not typically recommended for the average person looking to gain some lean muscle.
This is because if you constantly eat way more than you need, your body won’t be able to use all of the excess energy, and so it will be stored as fat. In a lean bulk (a small caloric surplus), you can expect to gain 0.5–1 pound of body weight per week — half of which is fat. If you’re a beginner, you can expect to gain muscle more quickly — approximately a pound a week. During a cutting phase, you are in a negative energy balance — intake less calories than you are expending. Commonly, this is done through restricting caloric intake and increasing energy expenditure through increased exercise.
During a cutting phase, your body breaks down the fat stores that were gained during the bulk, to show the muscular gains that were built during the bulking phase.
There are side effects of being in a cut. When your body doesn’t have enough energy, it may start to downregulate other activities as a way to conserve energy. For example, 15 percent of your TDEE is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Examples of NEAT activity include fidgeting, hand movements while taking, brushing your teeth, walking around your house, or laughing. Essentially any activity that requires energy that isn’t exercise.
If you are in an intense cut — roughly defined as cutting 500 calories or more from your diet — your body will downregulate NEAT and you will perform worse in exercise, to save energy. You will break down muscle stores as well as fat stores, which can put you back exactly where you started. Plus, living in a caloric restriction and doing a ton more cardio isn’t an enjoyable way to live, and is associated with low libido, low energy, poor sleep, mood disturbances and cognitive decline. If your cut continues for too long, your metabolism also slows as a way to conserve more energy. This is not what you want!
The most effective way to lose weight is to create a small caloric deficit (up to 300 calories) and be consistent. This will encourage mobilization of fat stores without sapping your energy. You will continue to perform effectively during your workouts and your physique will look lean and toned.
As well as this, it’s important to carefully monitor your cut. The lighter your body weight, the less energy you need. So if you start off on a cut at 200 lbs, your cutting calorie targets might be at 2,500 calories per day. But now, months later, you’re at 180 lbs — if you continue to eat 2,500 calories per day you may end up gaining weight. Remember: the less you weigh, the less you need to eat.
So to summarize the issue of a normal bulk/cut cycle: you want to build muscle, but you don’t want the extra fat gain, plus you don’t want to have to go on a prolonged cut just to see your muscle development. So what should you do? Here’s your answer: lean bulk.
What is a lean bulk?
As you may be able to guess, a lean bulk involves increasing your caloric intake slowly and periodically based on how your body is adapting, to provide the additional calories you need to fuel your training and optimize muscle synthesis, without gaining additional body fat and force-feeding yourself.
During this phase, you often start off at maintenance calories, meaning you are intaking as much as you are expending, so that your body’s thermogenesis mechanisms are well regulated. You would then increase your calories by around 10 to 20 percent of your total calories and see how your body adapts.
If you are a natural endomorph, predisposed to fat gain, you may want to err on the lower side when increasing your calories. If you are a natural ectomorph, you may have to increase your calories by 40 percent to feel any different and thus, a standard bulk may be better for you. Essentially lean bulking is about listening to your body and closely monitoring your progress, to see how your body is using the additional energy, to ensure it’s being used for muscle growth and strength gains, rather than just being stored as fat.
Lean bulk macros and calories
The specific macronutrient targets and calories will be different for each individual, however there are some aspects of a lean bulking diet that will be standardized for optimal muscle protein synthesis. According to a study published in 2004 by Sports Medicine, the optimal macronutrient breakdown for muscle growth should be 55 to 60 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 15 to 20 percent fat.
Manipulating your carbohydrate intake is arguably the most important part of a lean bulk. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles as glycogen, the preferred fuel source during exercise activity. When carb intake is high, muscles have plenty of access to glycogen, which has been shown in numerous studies to positively affect anabolism and performance, particularly with individuals partaking with a high training frequency.
Protein intake should be kept high throughout a lean bulk, as its integral to muscle growth and retention. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine assessed the optimal protein intake for muscle gain in 49 studies. This is arguably the most reputable source of analysis, based on the eligibility criteria for each study needing to be a randomized controlled trial lasting for more than six weeks; the gold standard of research.
The researchers found that in every study protein intake positively correlated with muscle size and strength, but there was a cut off point. The upper limit of the benefits of protein capped at 0.7 grams per pound of body weight. This led the researchers to conclude that 0.8 grams per pound — including a double 95 percent confidence level — was the maximum upper limit of protein requirements for healthy individuals.
Lean bulk example meal plan
Here’s an example lean bulk meal plan, the quantities can be adjusted to your own specific caloric targets and macros:
2 scoop protein powder
1 slice whole wheat bread with half avocado
10 oz chicken
100g brown rice
Pre workout protein shake with 1 tablespoon peanut butter
10 oz ground beef cooked in 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
100g brown rice
As you can see in the meal plan, the best foods for a lean bulk are:
Complex carbohydrates (oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread, banana)
Healthy fats (avocado, extra virgin olive oil, peanut butter)
Complete proteins (protein powder, beef, chicken)
Micronutrients (berries, broccoli, banana, peas, avocado)
Key takeaways The focus should be on clarifying your goals, and understanding your body. If you want to gain muscle and build your strength but you don’t want the downsides of a bulk like fat gain and lethargy, try a lean bulk for optimized training and physique developments.