A lean bulk is the exact opposite of a classic “dirty bulk”. A dirty bulk is where people eat as much as they possibly can in order to have a higher calorie intake and be in a greater calorie surplus. However, the question is, how much of a caloric surplus do you actually need?
Lean bulking is also referred to as “clean bulking” and both are bodybuilding terms. It involves a specific diet that is designed to pack on muscle mass whilst minimizing fat gain. As is the case with all other types of bulking diets, your protein intake is essential. Additionally, there are also certain nutrient targets and foods that support your lean bulking phase.
What is lean bulking?
As we mentioned a moment ago, all forms of bulking require you to increase your caloric intake so that you’re eating more than you burn. The ultimate goal of a lean bulk is building muscle but not taking on fat mass.
Studies have shown that not gaining too much body fat is beneficial to bodybuilders, even when out of competing season. The higher the weight gain when off-season, the longer it’ll take to lose fat and be back at your best. Instead of piling on the pounds, make your life easier and focus on getting the right macronutrient intake. If you were to compare your bulking phase diet to the diet you eat during a cutting phase, the protein intake is likely the same, but you’ll eat slightly more fat and carbs.
Foods like potatoes, pasta, and rice are your best friends when in a bulking phase. Don’t ever be afraid of eating food, it’s important that you eat enough to reach your bulking calories goal. However, try not to go crazy and eat everything in sight.
As much as eating whatever you like with no restrictions may sound like a dream, it’s not good for your long-term physical and mental health. Having a more balanced diet with a slightly higher caloric surplus is more sustainable and better for your fitness and future competition
Eating large amounts of vegetables is a great way to feel full and satisfied, so make sure you’re adding plenty to your meals and snacks. It’s also important to eat your vegetables for micronutrients and for your nutritional needs.
Lean bulking vs. dirty bulking
So, as we already know, a dirty bulk isn’t like lean bulking. Dirty bulking is all about adding weight. During a dirty bulking phase, your diet would be crammed with as many extra calories as you can handle in order to increase muscle mass. It’s simple really, more calories = muscle gain.
Unlike a much cleaner, lean bulking diet, dirty bulking is a preferred method amongst many bodybuilders, weightlifters, and powerlifters. This may be because no food is off limits, there is no specific number of calories, and no need to worry about too much fat.
However, this type of diet doesn’t settle well with some. This is understandable as it can be confusing to understand why no matter how many calories you consume, you’re only concern is adding muscle mass and not worrying about the weight gain. Although, a disadvantage of dirty bulking is that it may cause you to gain weight and affect your blood sugars, therefore also your insulin resistance.
As much as we all love a bit of junk food every now and again, focusing on your calorie surplus with minimally processed foods and lean proteins is likely the best way to gain muscle.
The benefits of lean bulking
You could be smashing out the resistance training to build as much muscle as possible, but to maintain a healthy lifestyle, your diet matters greatly too.
Whilst you might be able to gain muscle and keep yourself fit with your current diet, eventually, the unbalanced attempt on a clean bulk will catch up with you. Lean bulking is not only a safer option, but the muscle gains you get from it are more likely to be long-term.
Research has shown that those who follow a healthier, balanced diet get better results. In comparison to a controlled group that was allowed to eat what they wanted to build muscle mass, study participants who were given nutrition advice during a clean bulk saw an increase in lean muscle mass one year after the study finished. Those who ate what they wanted in order to build muscle didn’t.
Your lean bulking meal plan
A clean bulk is as simple as, if you want to add weight, you must maintain a calorie surplus. That means your daily calorie intake needs to exceed your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
There are many online calculators out there, like this one from the American Council on Exercise, that is helpful for figuring out how many calories you burn each day. They can also help you determine the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight.
The likelihood is, that your goal is to pack on mass as quickly as possible. However, if it’s building muscle and not fat gain you’re after, a slower approach may be best. Studies have found that adding between 0.25 and 0.5kg per week is a healthy goal. In order to achieve this, aim for your calorie surplus to be 10 to 20 percent above your maintenance calories.
Protein, protein, protein
Your lean bulking diet needs to be centered around proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. These are also known as the three primary macronutrients. Research has shown that particularly if you’re lean bulking, getting the extra calories from protein can help in gaining muscle mass and improving body composition.
Amino acids in protein stimulate muscle growth, meaning you can build lean mass and it also helps to prevent muscle loss. Now you understand why protein-filled foods, protein supplements, and protein powder are staples in all bodybuilder’s diets.
When you plan your meals, start with your protein intakes and try and spread them out throughout your day. Aim for 15 to 25% of your calories to be from protein. In order to do so, you’ll need to eat large amounts of protein, around 1.8 to 3 grams of protein per kilo of body weight every day.
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Studies have revealed that for bodybuilders, 2.2g per kilo of body weight, per day is optimal for gaining muscle. As an example, someone who weighs 180 pounds should aim for 178g of protein every day.
If you’re looking for some high-protein foods to get into your meals then you could include any of the below.
- Meat – beef, lamb, and pork
- Poultry – chicken breast and turkey
- Dairy – milk, yogurt, cheese
- Legumes and beans
- Nuts and seeds
- Protein powders or supplements, such as whey protein shakes
You need your carbs
For anyone trying to bulk up, carbs are an absolute staple. Vegetables, fruit, and other carb-rich foods support your body’s needs and help regulate some vital hormones. Studies have found that people who choose to eat low-carb diets actually lose muscle mass even with resistance training.
Carbs should make up the most significant part of your diet—somewhere around 50% of your daily calories. At this level, research suggests you’ll optimize both your training performance and mass gains (Lima-Silva, 2013).
It may come as a surprise, but carbs should actually take up the biggest part of your diet, approximately 50% of your daily calories. Research has found that a carb-rich diet can support and boost your training performance and produce muscle mass, without the fat gain you’d get from dirty bulking. When planning out your meals and calorie intake, aim for 3 to 5 grams of carbs per kilo of body weight per day.
- Starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes
- Whole-grain foods, such as quinoa or whole-grain pasta
Fatty foods for a lean bulk
Fat is typically viewed as something to avoid like the plague. However, many dietary fats provide essential nutrients and your body needs them. Not only that but, very low-fat diets have been known to cause a drop in testosterone levels. When you’re aim is to increase lean body mass, this is not something you want. Lower testosterone levels could potentially affect your performance, muscle gains, and body composition.
Unfortunately, studies on dietary fats are all over the place. There may be some indication that a high-fat diet could cause problems for bodybuilders, even if they are just eating healthy fats.
In order to get the best out of it and get your fat intake right, take the Goldilocks approach, not too much, not too little. To get the best results from your lean bulk, aim for between 20 and 35 percent of your daily calorie intake to be from fat. That roughly works out a 0.5 to 1.5 g per kilo of body weight per day.
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish – salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines
- Peanut butter and nut butters
- Dairy products – milk, butter, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt
Lean bulking: foods to avoid
By now we’ve established that clean eating is not something you’d need to worry about when dirty bulking. However, when you’re in a lean bulk phase it’s best to steer clear of packaged and heavily processed foods. Not only do these kinds of foods have little to no nutritional value, but they also may lead to unwanted fat gain.
When lean bulking, you’re trying your best to be in a calorie surplus, without having to deal with any fat gain at the end of it. Here are some foods you may want to avoid or at the least limit to get the best results:
- Deep-fried foods – promote inflammation and when eaten to excess, can cause health problems. Maybe leave this one until you’re off season and more calories aren’t so much an issue. We’re talking fries, fried fish and onion rings… none of which would be good for your clean bulk and could actually mean weight gain rather than fat loss.
- Added sugars – these are just the types of foods that are packed with sugar but don’t provide any nutritional value. We mean the likes of candy, ice cream, cookies, and sodas.
- Alcohol – especially if consumed in excess, can negatively affect your ability to gain muscle and lose body fat. Also, some alcoholic beverages are high in calories but provide nothing nutritionally. Not great for your calorie surplus and drinking too much alcohol can also lead to weight gain.
Bulking phase advice
Now, we’ve touched on this slightly but we’re going to talk about protein timing. This refers to eating protein at certain times of the day, such as before, during, or after your workout. All of this is to encourage muscle growth.
Although, when it comes to packing on lean mass, a recent study found that timing protein intake with training doesn’t really matter. What does make a difference is eating enough protein. Getting it at mealtimes is just as effective as consuming it when you work out. Pre-workout supplements may be your thing and that’s fine, there’s plenty of protein in these too.
You also want to make sure you’re eating a variety of foods—especially fruits and vegetables. Doing this will ensure you satisfy all your body’s nutrient needs, not just that, it’ll stop you from feeling bored with your meals and keep you on track.
Packing on lean mass and bulk doesn’t mean you have to add a lot of body fat if that’s not your goal. If lean bulking is done right, it can help you put on weight safely.
Much of the time, it’s food myths or fad diet claims that cause problems between people and their diets. This is why most people think that pasta is bad for them, but the fun fact is that pasta actually contains the same amount of carbs and calories that rice does. So, switch it up and enjoy.
To fill that void between meals, snack on fruits and veggies. Apples and oranges have a high satiety index, this means they’ll make you feel full faster, with fewer calories.
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