Lean bulking 101: how to get amazing results (effortlessly)

"eat until you puke"

"eat big to get big"

Sound familiar? 

I thought so...

These lines have been echoed by bodybuilders for decades...

These lines have been echoed by bodybuilders for decades...

It's a well known fact that nutrition plays an important role in building muscle.

But what if you don't want to look like Jabba the Hutt?

Can you really build muscle and keep your glorious six pack abs? 


In fact, today I'm going to show you how to do just that 🙂

Here's a sneak peak of what you'll learn:

  • Why slow weight gain is optimal for muscle growth
  • The best macros for muscle building 
  • My personal favourite foods for lean bulking

And much more..

Let's dive in!

What is lean bulking?

lean bulking

Contrary to what you may have heard, a lean bulk isn't determined by how 'clean' your diet is.

The goal of a lean bulk is to build muscle and minimise fat gain.

A lean bulk requires you gain no more than 0.25-0.75lb per week.

You can do this by reducing your surplus calories and closely monitoring weight gain.

Sound simple?

It is!

There is no voodoo or witchcraft involved here...

Dirty bulking

lean bulking

Dirty bulking is on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

The goal of a dirty bulk is to stuff your face and gain as much  weight as possible. 

The logic behind it is simple; a calorie surplus is beneficial for muscle building, so the more food you eat, the more muscle you gain. 

But does this stand up to scrutiny?

Unfortunately, not.

You need to understand that rapid fluctuations in bodyweight are incredibly unhealthy.

But that's not all...

As a natural lifter, muscle growth is capped.

Weight gain beyond a certain point just leads to excessive fat gain.

Lean bulking vs dirty bulking

Lean bulking is the clear winner.

Slow and steady weight gain is healthier and less stressful on the body in the long run.

The consequences of excessive fat gain far outweighs the recovery benefits of a dirty bulk.

Should you bulk or cut first?  

In order to get the most out of a lean bulk, I recommend you start at a moderate bodyfat %.

Why is this, you're wondering?

Well, Your body is more primed for fat storage at higher BF% levels...

And testosterone levels are significantly lowered once you tip over 15% bodyfat.  

If you're at a high level of bodyfat,  I would recommend dieting down for 4-8 weeks first.

Once you've reached the 10-13% bodyfat range, you can begin the lean bulk. 

Useful resources:

How to transition from a cut to a bulk 

lean bulking

A popular question I'm asked from beginners  is "how do I go from a cut to a bulk" 

I've got good news for you- it's dead simple.

Despite what you may have heard, reverse dieting is completely unnecessary for 90% of you. 

But there are a few rare cases where it might be beneficial:

  • If you lost a lot of weight (50+ pounds)
  • If you dieted down to sub 8% body fat (bodybuilding competition/magazine shoot).
  • For psychological reasons- I.e. you've had a bad relationship with food in the past and are scared of rebounding.

If this doesn't apply to you, I recommend bumping your calories up to maintenance and staying there for at least 2 weeks.

This is necessary for two reasons:

  1. It resets your hormone levels (ghrelin and leptin)
  2. It gives you a chance to accurately determine your TDEE.

(To find out how to do this, read the section below)

How to lean bulk (step-by-step)

In this section, I'm going to show you how to do a successful lean bulk, step-by-step.

Step #1 Determine maintenance calories 

The first thing you need to do is determine your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).

To do this, click here to go to the calculator. 

All you need to do is enter you sex, age, height, weight, and activity level.

On the next screen, you'll be given your projected maintenance calories.

This is just a rough estimate, so you'll need to test this number for 2 weeks.

If you gained weight, reduce calories by 200 per day and test again for another week (until you find your true maintenance calories)

Once you have your true maintenance calories, you're ready to move onto the next step.

Step #2 Add a small surplus 

Now you have your maintenance calories, you need to add:

  • 200 calories per day if you're a beginner 
  • 100 calories per day if you're an intermediate/advanced 

Because the surplus is so small, it's easy to offset it if you aren't tracking calories 100% accurately.

Instead of having a daily surplus, I recommend alternating between high and low calorie days.

Look at the example below for an idea of how to implement this:

  • Monday: training day (+250 calories)
  • Tuesday: OFF (Maintenance calories)
  • Wednesday: training day (+250 calories)
  • Thursday: OFF (Maintenance calories)
  • Friday: training day (+250 calories)
  • Saturday: OFF (Maintenance calories)
  • Saturday: OFF (Maintenance calories)

To replicate this for yourself, follow these 3 simple steps:

  1. Take your daily calorie surplus and x by 7 (e.g. 100x7= 700)
  2. Next, divide the number by how many days you train (e.g. 700 divided by 4= 175).
  3. Now all you need to do is eat this number of calories on your training days and maintain on your rest days.

Step #3 Set your strength training goals

Now you have your lean bulking calories, you're all good right?


It's time to set SMART training goals. 


Here's how: 


As a beginner, you have one goal- Build a foundation of strength.

You can do this by following my novice power-building program.

Intermediate/advanced lifters

If you're an intermediate/advanced lifter, you can get more specific with your goals.

You'll likely want to focus on body composition and strength goals for one or two key lifts.

Here is an example:

  1. I want to go from 10% bodyfat at 175lb to 10% bodyfat at 180lb in one year. 
  2. I want to add 30lb to my OHP in 6 months.  

Both these goals are specific, measurable, and time-based.

Step #4 (optional) Add cardio 

Before you skip this section- hear me out!

It's true, cardio doesn't build muscle, but it can help minimise fat gain on a lean bulk.

How so?

Nutrient partitioning.

Lyle Mcdonald explains this in one of his articles here.  

But that's not all!

Cardio is also a great tool for improving work capacity.

As a natural lifter, the amount of work you can do in a given session is largely influenced by your aerobic fitness. 

Doing LISS cardio a few times per week can improve your endurance greatly in the weight-room.

Not to mention that cardio is important for general health.

Useful resources:

Cardio routine 

​Day of the week



-Weight training -


30 Minute incline brisk walk (A)


-Weight training-


30 minutes of cycling @ medium speed (B) 


-Weight training-


30 Minute incline brisk walk (A)



*Alternate between A & B.

The best lean bulk macros

The next step is to determine your macros.

For lean bulking, a high carbohydrate, moderate protein, low fat diet is best. 


Research has shown that carbohydrates improve high intensity exercise performance. 

Carbs have also been shown to be beneficial for muscle growth.

I recommend 45-50% of your caloric intake come form carbs.


Protein provides essential amino acids that are used for protein synthesis.

Protein synthesis is the process in which protein is synthesised into muscle tissue.  

I recommend 1 gram of protein per 1lb of bodyweight.


The rest of your calories will come from healthy fat sources. 

Fat is more energy dense than carbs and protein:

A gram of fat equals 9 calories.

Fat is also more likely to be stored directly as bodyfat.

Useful resources:

My top 9 foods for a lean bulk

No. 1 Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are an awesome source of potassium and they taste damn good!

No. 2 Brown rice 

Brown rice is high in carbohydrates-  perfect for a steady supply of energy.

No. 3 Chicken

Chicken is incredibly filling, and is a cheap, healthy source of lean protein.

No. 4 Low-fat Greek yogurt 

Greek yogurt makes for a delicious dessert, and is high in protein. 

Pro tip: add strawberries, and a dash of honey for a sweeter flavour.

No. 5 Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese is rich in casein, and makes for a great high protein snack.

No. 6 Nuts 

Nuts are a healthy source of fat, and make for a great snack.

No. 7 High fibre brownies 

High fibre brownies are a tasty treat (and a sneaky way to boost your fibre intake).

No. 8 Dates

I like to think of dates as natures candy.

They can act as a natural vasodilators due to their high potassium content. 

No. 9 Popcorn

Popcorn is my all time favourite snack when dieting!

It's nutritious too, with a very high fibre content. 

How long does it take to build muscle for men?

lean bulking

A common question I hear is "how much muscle can I build in x months/years?"

As a general rule, the more advanced you are, the slower the muscle growth.

But how does this look?

Well,  beginners can expect to gain around 1.5lb of muscle per month (18lb per year).

Intermediates can expect to gain 1lb of muscle per month (12lbs per year).

Advanced lifters will gain at a much slower rate of 0.5lb per month (6lb per year).

For your first 3 years of training, you can realistically gain 30-40lb of muscle.

However, depending on your genetics this number may be lower, or higher.

You also need to factor consistency, injuries, and how well your training is periodized

How long does it take  to build muscle for women?

lean bulking

Women can expect to gain muscle at half the rate of men.

This is due to their lower production of testosterone.

Beginners can expect to gain around 1lb of muscle per month (12lb per year)...

Intermediates can expect to gain 0.5lb of muscle per month (6lbs per year)

Advanced lifters will gain at a much slower rate of 0.25lb per month (3lb per year).

Useful resources:

4 Tips for better results 

If you want to make the most of your lean bulk, you'll want to use these 4 tips:

Tip #1 | Use calorie cycling  

As I mentioned earlier, it's easy to eat above your daily calories (if your surplus is small).

This is especially true if you're either:

  1. A woman
  2. Intermediate/advanced

Calorie cycling gives you more room to manoeuvre.

It's not as complex as the name suggests either...

All you need to do is eat above maintenance on your training days and eat at maintenance on your rest days.

Simple, right?

 Here's how to do it:

Take the total surplus and divide it by the number of days you train.

E.g. 100 calorie surplus x 7 days= 700 calories

700 calories divided by 4 training days= 175 calories  

So if you train 4 days per week you would need to eat 175 calories on training days and just maintain on rest days.

Tip #2| Add cardio 4x per week 

Cardio is great!

Here's why you should consider adding it to your lean bulk:

  1. It improves nutrient partitioning 
  2. It improves endurance 
  3. It's good for you 
  4. It burns calories- meaning you can eat MORE!

I recommend LISS (low intensity steady state) cardio because it has a low impact on recovery. 

You should aim to do a minimum of four 20 minute sessions per week.

Tip #3 | Use intermittent fasting

If you find it hard to gain weight, you can safely ignore this tip...

But if you're like me, this tip will be a game changer.

Intermittent fasting is great on a lean bulk because it keeps you disciplined and structures your diet. 

If you have a big appetite, this will prevent you from exceeding your calorie surplus.

Tip #4 | Be flexible 

I'm a big proponent of 'clean eating',  but I still recommend you include some junk in your diet once in a while. 

A more flexible approach to dieting is good for morale and prevents eating from becoming a chore. 

I recommend the 80/20 rule:

80 % of your calorie intake should come from nutritious whole foods and the remaining 20% can be filled with foods you love. 

Useful resources:

The best alternative to lean bulking 

Lean bulking is great, but what if you want to build muscle and lose fat at the same time?

Is it possible?

Yes, it's called the recomposition method.

With the recomp method, you cycle between a caloric surplus and a deficit.

Sounds great, but what's the catch?

It's MUCH slower.

But there are a few people that might benefit from a recomp vs a traditional lean bulk: 

  1. Advanced lifters:   Men with a a few years of training experience gain muscle at a much slower rate. For these individuals, a bulk will lead to excess fat gain (even if the surplus is small). 
  2. Competitive athletes: If you compete in a sport, you likely have to stay in a given bodyweight range. Re-comping is a great way to build muscle without effecting bodyweight.
  3. Women: Because women have much lower testosterone, they gain muscle at a slower rate. Bulking is more likely to produce extraneous fat gain.

If you fall into any of these categories, you should seriously consider re-comping.

*Bonus: FREE lean bulk meal plan (PDF)


Lean bulking is the best way to build muscle and minimise fat gain.

There are steps you can take to optimise the process, such as:

  • Adding cardio to your routine.
  • Eating a high carb, moderate protein diet with minimal fat.
  • Using intermittent fasting and calorie cycling to keep your diet structured (and prevent excess fat gain). 
  • Strategic use of supplements to maximise muscle gain.

Just remember, all of this is pointless unless you're progressing in strength over time.

Now, it's over to you...

Which do you prefer;  lean bulking, the recomp method, or dirty bulking? 

Let me know in the comments below! 

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