The typical gym bro lives his life in one of two states: cutting or bulking.
Cutting is another way of saying “getting lean” or “reducing body fat”. The cut starts somewhere around February or March so the bro can have abs in time for summer.
But in reality, most gym bros will give up trying to cut after a week or two, usually because it requires a level of discipline they don’t possess. So they go back to the other state.
Bulking is another way of saying “building muscle”. The gym bro will consume huge amounts of calories in order to maximise the amount of muscle he can build.
Unfortunately, this will usually result in 10-20 lb of extra body fat.
In other words, bulking is just a way for the gym bro to rationalise the fact that he just consumed an entire pizza and a bucket of ice cream himself. Alone. On a Saturday night.
Yes, you need to eat a little more to build muscle. But that doesn’t mean you can justify stuffing yourself full of sugar and trans fats. And can you really not see how huge your love handles are?
There is another way: a lean bulk.
A lean bulk is how you build muscle without gaining excessive amounts of body fat. It’s a lot healthier, and you feel a lot better doing it.
It does require discipline. It does require hard work. But the end result is worth it, and the gym bros will be jealous.
Just follow the guidelines below.
LEAN BULK: HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE WITHOUT FAT
1. Get to an optimal body fat percentage first
Don’t try to lean bulk if you’re not already lean. OK, I understand you might not want to get any more fat, but the point of a lean bulk is to keep your waistline trim while you build muscle.
And you’ll also find the whole process easier if you’re lean because you’ll have a much better hormonal profile:
– you’ll produce less cortisol, which is good because cortisol promotes fat storage and breaks down muscle tissue.
– you’ll be more insulin sensitive (you won’t need to produce as much insulin) which is good because excessive levels of insulin promote fat storage
– you’ll produce more testosterone, which is great because testosterone promotes fat burning and muscle growth.
So the first thing I’d like you to do is to get lean.
What does lean mean exactly? For men, it means having a body fat percentage of less than 15%. For women, less than 25%.
If you don’t have access to scales or a machine that can tell you your body fat percentage, use the photos on this page to estimate.
Then, if you feel you need to drop a few pounds, follow the guidelines on my “How to Lose Fat” blog post before coming back here.
RELATED – How to Lose Fat: 19 Simple Strategies
2. Full body strength training 2-3x per week
Make sure you train every basic human movement: hip hinge, knee dominant, upper push, upper pull, core. Then feel free to do some isolation work on arms and calves.
As for the set and rep schemes, I’m a big fan of Vince Gironda’s methods, although I’m not such a big fan of the nutrition and supplement recommendations, which are extreme and more targeted towards bodybuilders.
I use similar set and rep schemes to Gironda with my clients who want to lean bulk, albeit modified according to their abilities and needs. I’ll train that way myself if I’m in a muscle building phase.
But please don’t blindly do the exercises recommended on that page. In my experience as a personal trainer, the average person has too much hip and hamstring tightness to safely deadlift. They might also lack the shoulder mobility to safely perform exercises that involve overhead pushing (e.g. shoulder press) or overhead pulling (e.g. lat pulldown).
Find an expert who can assess your movement using a tool like the Functional Movement Screen and offer suggestions for fixing any movement issues.
3. Go balls to the wall
Your workouts shouldn’t be easy. You shouldn’t be on Instagram during your rest periods. There’s no time for selfies and chats with gym buddies during these workouts.
Listen, these workouts should be tough. You have to push yourself if you actually want results here.
If you find yourself talking to your buddy on your AirPods while doing bicep curls, you’re not working hard enough.
4. HIIT 2-3x per week
There, I’ve said it three times. Hopefully, you now understand that I don’t want you to jog.
I’ve written about it elsewhere on this site, but there was a fascinating study of ultra-marathon runners a few years ago during a 5-day, 338 km (210 miles) race. The runners didn’t lose any body fat, but they did lose a significant amount of muscle.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t have a slow, pleasant, 20-30 minute jog along the waterfront once a week if you really enjoy it. But enough of the long-distance running. You won’t build any muscle, which is the point of a lean bulk.
Now, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is one of the few forms of cardio you can do to avoid fat gain while still building lean muscle. You pick an exercise and perform it for time, say 10-15 seconds, at the highest intensity you can manage, and then rest for 30-60 seconds or so.
Here are a few HIIT ideas:
– Battle ropes: 10 seconds as fast as you can, 30 seconds rest. Perform five times.
– Stationary bike: 10 seconds as fast as you can at a very high resistance, 50 seconds recovery at the lowest resistance at a slow pace. Perform five times.
– Sprints: sprint 100 metres, and walk back slowly. Perform five times.
To be clear: you’re not doing HIIT to burn body fat. You’re doing it to minimise the number of calories you store as body fat. And twice or three times per week is fine.
5. Sleep as much as humanly possible
8 hours of sleep will positively affect your hormones in a similar way to losing body fat: you’ll produce less cortisol and you’ll be more insulin sensitive.
You’ll also improve the balance of leptin and ghrelin, which are the hormones responsible for appetite regulation. This means you’ll be less likely to want to snack on junk.
And don’t forget, recovery and muscle growth takes place while you’re sleeping. The more sleep you get, the more muscle you’ll be able to build.
6. Take a day off every week
You need to recover. If you’re training 6 days a week, take it easy on that 7th day. Go relax at a spa, get a massage, or take a light yoga class if you’re one of those people who just can’t stop moving.
7. Change your exercises every month
The body adapts surprisingly quickly to new exercises. I make small tweaks to my clients’ exercises every 3-5 weeks, and I’ll give them completely new exercises 3-5 weeks after the initial tweaks.
Not changing exercises is one of the most common reasons why people plateau (stop making progress).
To all the bros: you don’t need to do bench press and lat pulldown every bloody week.
If you don’t have the benefit of working with a trainer, the simplest thing for you to do would be to just change all your exercises the first week of every month.
8. Eat whole foods only
Food plays a massive role in the success of a lean bulk.
Stick to whole foods. The way to identify a whole food is “Face Ground”, which means you should ask yourself two questions:
1. Did this food ever have, or would it have developed a face? (which means unprocessed meat, fish, and eggs are all good)
2. Does this look similar to how it looked when it was in the ground? (veggies and fruit are good. But bread? No way).
You need one yes before you can consider something a whole food. My “Healthy Food List” is a good starting place if you’re new to this way of eating
However, it isn’t quite as simple as that. You can’t just eat as many whole foods as you want. You need to consider how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate you actually need. The next couple of points will guide you…
RELATED – Healthy Food List
9. PROTEIN, PROTEIN, PROTEIN!!!
I cannot emphasise this enough: you need to eat more protein.
We want to make sure that, even on days where you’ll be eating fewer calories (see point 11), you’ll still be building muscle.
Now, some people will be thinking “but wait, you can’t build muscle if you’re eating at a calorie deficit”. I’m not so sure. There is some evidence that keeping protein intake high will allow you to build muscle when you’re eating at a slight calorie deficit.
So, how much protein do you need?
Your minimum target is 1g protein per lb of bodyweight. If you weigh 175 lb, you need 175 g protein per day, every day. Feel free to go 10-20% over your target.
And I want you to get your protein from the following sources:
Avoid processed meat, although ground meat is fine.
10. Eat low carb except before and after strength training
You should stick to a generally low-carb diet:
– no starch
– limit fruit to two servings of low-sugar fruit, such as berries
– no dried fruit
– no refined sugar
– no processed carbs
The exception is immediately before and after strength training. Feel free to have a high-sugar fruit (like a banana) 30-60 minutes before your workout, and have some potato or rice with the meal that follows your workout. The carbs will help you both fuel and recover from strength training.
Here’s what a day of eating might look like on days you strength train, assuming you train in the early evening:
7 am. Breakfast: check out my “6 Fat Burning Breakfast Ideas” blog post
1 pm. Lunch: chicken salad with lots of veggies and a good amount of an olive oil-based dressing. No rice, quinoa, beans, croutons etc.
5.30pm. One banana
6 pm. Strength training.
7 pm. Post-workout protein shake (more on this below).
8 pm. Dinner: steak, a medium-sized sweet potato, and a green salad with an olive oil-based dressing
On days you don’t strength train, remove the pre-workout banana and the potato at dinner.
And, in general, you’ll need to increase your consumption of healthy fats to make sure you’re getting enough calories in the first place: avocado, avocado oil, butter, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and regular olive oil are all great.
RELATED – 6 Fat Burning Breakfast Ideas
11. Eat more on strength training days, less on other days
If you want to build muscle, you have to eat.
Now, if you’re trying to lean bulk, your aim is to either minimise or totally avoid gaining fat. One way to do this is to change how much you eat on strength training days vs. days you don’t strength train.
On strength training days, you’re going to need more calories and more protein. I’m not going to ask you to start counting calories because it’s tedious, but what I want you to do is eat more at dinner on strength training days.
Specifically, eat more protein: take whatever protein source you’re planning to eat, and eat double the amount you usually would. Choose a fatty source of protein, like a steak or fish, for optimum results. You should feel full after dinner on those days.
On days you don’t strength train, I just want you to feel not hungry after meals. Following the “not hungry” protocol will mean you’re probably eating at a calorie deficit on non-training days. As long as you’re keeping your protein intake high (see point 9), you don’t need to worry about losing muscle.
12. Intermittent Fasting every day
I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting, which basically means skipping breakfast and eating a slightly larger lunch and dinner.
Intermittent fasting will make you more insulin-sensitive, making it less likely that you’ll store calories as fat. This is perfect for a lean bulk
Also, if you’re following the dietary guidelines I’ve laid out in this blog post, you’re going to be eating a higher fat, lower carb diet. You’ll gradually move from being a sugar burner to a fat burner, meaning your body will find it easier and easier to use fat rather than carbs to fuel daily activities.
During the morning fast, instead of feeling that gnawing hunger that sugar burners often experience, you’ll just feel a vague “emptiness” in your stomach that you’ll have no problem ignoring. It’s at this point that your body is burning your own body fat for fuel.
I’ve easily gone 24 hours without eating before, and that was with an active job.
You should feel free to drink water and black coffee during the morning fast.
If you want to strength train in the morning, forget intermittent fasting that day. I’m not a big fan of strength training on an empty stomach, but feel free to try HIIT on an empty stomach. Just make sure you mix a pinch of sea salt in a glass of water to hopefully avoid dizziness.
RELATED – Intermittent Fasting: The Ultimate Guide
13. Forget cheat days
As much as I love cheat days, they’re not a good idea during a lean bulk. 12-16 hours of spiking your insulin levels with crappy food is, in my experience, going to encourage fat accumulation for a good two or three days.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a cheat meal once per week, preferably in the evening after a tough strength training session. Skip breakfast the following day to bring those insulin levels back down.
But keep an eye on your waistline: if it starts getting bigger, remove the cheat meal.
14. Don’t drink calories
Drinking calories causes an insulin spike. Why? Because calorie-filled drinks are usually high in sugar, and there’s no fibre present to slow down digestion. The glucose enters your bloodstream very quickly, and the body’s only way to deal with a large amount of glucose is to produce a large amount of insulin. You’re going to store most of those calories as fat.
Totally avoid the following:
– fruit juice
– soda (even diet soda. Your body responds to artificial sweeteners as if they were actual sugar)
– sports/energy drinks
Now, there is one exception to this. Maybe some of you are used to drinking coffee blended with butter or coconut oil (aka Bulletproof Coffee) in the morning. Fortunately, you don’t need to stop drinking this (unless you decide to try Intermittent Fasting), because fat doesn’t cause an insulin spike. Only protein and carbs do.
15. Protein shake post strength training only
A protein shake consumed after strength training, despite containing liquid calories, is totally fine.
There’s a theory that raising insulin levels will reduce cortisol levels. Therefore, raising insulin levels immediately before and after strength training might negate the catabolic (muscle-destroying) effect of the cortisol that’s produced during exercise, thus promoting muscle growth.
And insulin is an anabolic (tissue-building) hormone. It’s not a bad idea to be in an anabolic state immediately before, during, and immediately after lifting weights.
You’ll raise insulin levels before strength training with a carb source (e.g. banana) and after strength training with a protein shake. Stick to one scoop of protein powder with water.
16. Use creatine daily
Creatine monohydrate is one of the few supplements that actually works. Take one scoop (5g) with water every day. On strength training days, take the first scoop before your workout, and throw another 5g scoop in your post-workout protein shake.
17. Drink 3-4L water every day
You need a lot of water during a lean bulk.
First of all, creatine only really works if you’re consuming 3-4L water every day.
And keeping hydrated is a great way of ensuring optimal performance while you’re training. You’ll be able to lift heavier weights for more reps, giving better results.
18. Destress every day
I’ve already talked about cortisol in relation to sleep. You also produce cortisol when you feel stress.
We all experience stress in our daily lives, and I’m not asking you to eliminate all sources of stress. Instead, I want you to work on stress management.
The simplest new daily habit you can implement is meditation. And you don’t even have to spend too long doing it: I love the One Moment Meditation app, which is just one minute of meditation.
19. Reduce alcohol consumption
I’ve already said to avoid liquid calories, but I know most of you aren’t going to give up the sauce. So I’m just going to ask you to drink less.
Please, be smart about alcohol intake. You don’t need more than a couple. And stick to dry red wine or clear liquor (gin, vodka, tequila) with club soda and lemon or lime.
By the way, if you’re a heavy drinker, suddenly reducing your intake is a dangerous idea. Go see a doctor before you start drinking less.
There you have it. 19 habits you need to form if you want to lean bulk.
Do you think I missed any? Disagree with something? Just leave a comment below.