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A Complete Guide to the Lean Bulk
Many athletes and bodybuilders do a bulking phase after cutting down to a fairly low body fat percentage. In short, a bulking phase involves eating more calories than your body needs to gain weight and build muscle mass. However, bulking also tends to result in increased fat gain, so some people choose to avoid it.
But what if we told you that there’s a way to increase strength and muscle gain without packing on excessive body fat?
Lean bulking — also called clean bulking — is an efficient way to build muscle while keeping your fat gain to a minimum. It involves eating minimally processed foods while strategically creating a calorie surplus.
This comprehensive guide will discuss how to lean bulk, its benefits, and the best foods to eat for a lean bulk transformation.
- A lean bulk, also known as a clean bulk, involves creating a moderate calorie surplus to promote muscle growth while minimizing fat gain.
- Unlike a dirty bulk, a clean bulk includes healthy, whole foods and limits unprocessed junk food.
- A dirty bulk is often thought of as a way to gain muscle faster. However, when done correctly, both are equally effective for muscle growth.
WHAT IS A LEAN BULK?
Bulking involves creating a calorie surplus — or eating more calories than your body burns — for a set period of time to promote weight gain. The process is important because your body needs extra calories to build muscle effectively.
Lean bulking is a cleaner method of bulking that results in muscle weight gain instead of unwanted fat gain.
During a lean bulk, a person eats in a moderate calorie surplus but avoids heavily processed foods, including pre-packed foods, fried foods, and foods with added sugar.
Instead, they get their calories from lean proteins, vegetables, healthy fats, and high-quality carbohydrates.
People who wish to maintain a lean physique during the off-season often choose a lean bulk.
LEAN BULK VS. DIRTY BULK
Lean = clean
Dirty = Dirty
- High Quality
- Nutrient Rich Foods
- Strategic Calorie Surplus
During a clean bulk, a person is more mindful of their food choices and chooses a moderate calorie surplus to achieve a slow, steady rate of weight gain.
- Junk Food
- High-Calorie Food
- Non-Strategic Calorie Surplus
On a dirty bulk, the goal is to gain weight as quickly as possible by creating a large surplus.
A dirty bulk is popular because many believe it is a much faster way to build muscle mass and gain strength. This theory can be misleading because your muscles can only grow so fast. Extra calories beyond what your body needs to maximize muscle growth get stored as excess fat, often in your abdominal area. Moreover, the more fat you put on while bulking, the harder it will be to come off when you begin to cut.
Since a dirty bulk is higher in processed, high-calorie foods, it allows for weight gain while consuming smaller quantities of food. People who have difficulty eating enough calories to gain weight often choose a dirty bulk.
However, large quantities of processed, sugary foods can lead to fatigue and health issues.
CALORIE INTAKE DURING A LEAN BULK
To begin a lean bulk, you’ll first want to figure out how many calories your body needs to maintain its current weight. Instead of manually calculating this yourself, we recommend using an online calculator.
Once you figure out how many calories your body needs each day, you’ll need to add on calories. To achieve a steady weight gain of 0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week, you’ll need to eat at least 10-20% above your maintenance calories.
For example, a 160-pound active man who is 35 years old and 5’10’’ needs around 2,500 calories to maintain his body weight. He would need to add approximately 250-500 calories to gain weight.
From there, calculate your protein needs. Aim for at least 0.7-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. The remainder of your calories can be split between carbohydrates and fat.
As a general rule of thumb, when lean bulking:
- Optimize your fat intake (consume .2-.6 grams per pound of body weight)
- Include high amounts of carbohydrates ( >1.3-2.2 grams per pound of body weight)
Weigh yourself first thing in the morning on an empty stomach once a week to ensure you gain 0.25-0.5% of your body weight each week. For reference, a 160-pound man should gain 0.4-0.8 pounds per week.
If you aren’t noticing weight gain, don’t be scared to increase your calorie intake by 100-200 calories per day.
BENEFITS OF A LEAN BULK
- Minimize Fat Gain
- Achieve Optimal Nourishment
- Reduces The Risk of Health Concerns
- Increase Strength
- Increase Muscle Mass
MINIMIZE FAT GAIN
Compared to other approaches to bulking, a lean bulk doesn’t go overboard with tacking on a ton of extra calories. As we know, increasing your caloric intake is necessary to effectively gain lean mass. This means you probably won’t lose fat. Naturally, you will gain some, but it's unlikely you will gain too much fat while lean bulking.
To minimize fat gain while lean bulking, aim for a caloric surplus of fewer than 500 calories.
Additionally, a lean bulk prioritizes protein intake, which in adequate amounts has been shown to protect against fat gain during a calorie surplus.
ACHIEVE OPTIMAL NUTRITION
If you follow a lean bulk correctly, your diet will be composed of nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats. These foods are far more nutritious than those commonly consumed during other types of bulking.
Whole foods are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that lay the foundation for athletic success. Eating a healthful diet can delay fatigue, increase energy levels, and promote peak athletic performance.
REDUCES THE RISK OF HEALTH CONCERNS
When a person eats processed, high sugar foods during a dirty bulk, they are placing themselves at risk for potential health concerns down the road.
For example, high intakes of processed carbs and added sugars can lead to obesity, elevated blood pressure, and heart disease.
On the flip side, dietary fiber is often consumed during a clean bulk. High amounts of fiber can decrease the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and improve insulin sensitivity.
PROMOTES HEALTHY DIGESTION
During a clean bulk, a person usually eats healthier fiber-rich whole grains. This can help improve digestion and promote regular bowel movements.
INCREASES LEAN BULK
By consuming more calories than your body needs, your body uses the calorie surplus to grow muscle size and strength as your strength train. A lean bulking diet is high in protein, which is associated with more gains in lean muscle mass.
HOW TO LEAN BULK
When starting a lean bulk, you’ll want to closely monitor your food intake and ensure your protein needs are met. Because it can get tedious, you may consider using a food tracker app to track your progress.
Although you can still enjoy your favorite foods in moderation during a clean bulk, you’ll want to limit going overboard.
To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of the best foods to eat and foods to avoid during a lean bulk.
FOODS TO EAT
Chicken breast, low-fat beef, pork, turkey, salmon, eggs, Greek yogurt, protein powder (grass fed whey protein or plant protein), cottage cheese, reduced-fat cheese, tofu, tempeh, legumes
Brown rice, whole-wheat bread or pasta, oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, white potatoes.
Olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butter, fatty fish (salmon), chia seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds
Broccoli, spinach, asparagus, green beans, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, celery, brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower
Apples, oranges, mango, pineapple, berries, bananas
FOODS TO AVOID
HEAVILY PROCESSED FOODS
Cookies, cakes, pop tarts, sugary cereals, chips, fast food, pastries, donuts, fried foods
Sausage, bacon, ham, salami, chorizo
Sweet tea, sugary alcoholic beverages, sugary coffee, lemonade, cola
MAINTENANCE AFTER A LEAN BULK
After you’ve successfully completed a lean bulk, you want your hard work to continue to pay off. Although some people choose to begin cutting calories right away, it's important to eat at your maintenance calories for several weeks to allow your body to adjust.
It can also help you retain your newly gained muscle mass. Jumping straight into a cutting phase can result in muscle loss. That’s something that you definitely don’t want!
Basically, what we’re saying is a maintenance phase sets you up for success during your next phase.
During this phase, you should continue to eat a healthy diet and train with a focus on strength training.
- Healthy Eating
- Moderate Calorie Surplus
- Gained Muscle
A lean bulk promotes a healthful eating pattern while focusing on a moderate calorie surplus to aid in gaining muscle.
Because it minimizes gaining fat, a lean bulk is often used by athletes who want to maintain some of their definition in the off-season.
Although it may be more challenging to follow than a dirty bulk, a clean bulk is more beneficial for your overall health and body composition.
Once you’re successful at gaining weight and building muscle, you want to begin a maintenance phase for a few weeks to help retain your muscle.