A new approach to eating for size can help you keep the muscle you gain.
By Vince Del Monte
“Lean bulking” and “lean gains” is based on the premise that you can build muscle without adding body fat, assuming you’re past the beginner stages of weight training. It’s also based on the intent to maximize the muscle-to-fat ratio in your favor (more than 50 percent of your gains being muscle versus fat, so if you gained 10 pounds on the scale, more than five of those pounds would be muscle).
Lean bulking is typically promoted with dietary strategies such as intermittent fasting, ketogenic, carb cycling, calorie shifting, and other nutrient-timing strategies that suggest if you eat the right combination of macronutrients at a certain time on certain days (training versus non-training days), you can “lean bulk.”
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the idea of adding muscle while losing fat or keeping the same body fat percentage. The problem is that it doesn’t really work. The only people who can successfully lean bulk are newbies or people coming off a long layoff, people on performance enhancers, or individuals doing a short overtraining protocol or specialization phase.
Why don’t any of the strategies above really work? Intricate and demanding nutrient timing simply isn’t practical—unless you have zero life and no issues with revolving your day around eating and training. It also requires minimal to no screwups, which is simply unrealistic for people who don’t live and breathe bodybuilding.
The biggest problem is that you will gain muscle at such a slow rate that you will suffer for a very long time, become overly neurotic and obsessive-compulsive about your food intake, which eventually leads to eating disorders.
Even if you get everything right, you’re looking at making gains slower than watching an iceberg move. We are talking one-half to one pound per year. Is it really worth it?
The Physiology Of Muscle Growth
If you’re looking to optimize muscle growth, you need to be in a caloric surplus and you need to give your body time to gain muscle. To lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit and you need to give your body enough time to lose fat.
The constant manipulation of your food intake doesn’t allow your body enough time to do either. Your body doesn’t know if you’re coming or going so to speak. It’s begging for you to “make up your damn mind!”
Here’s a better way: Alternate between dedicated bulking, stabilization, and cutting cycles in three easy steps.
Step 1: Bulk
When you’re doing a bulking cycle, it doesn’t mean you need to get super fat. It simply means you need to go slowly. How slowly? Adding one-half pound per week seems to work best for myself and the majority of my top students.
If you aim for half a pound of weight gain per week, then you’ll set yourself up for the best possible outcome of maximizing the muscle-to-fat ratio in your favor.
Weigh yourself seven times per week in the same state, and average the seven weigh-ins to get an accurate indication of your progress. Anything faster than half a pound per week will set you up to look like a melted candle.
Step 2: Stabilize
After you’ve gained a few pounds the next goal is to stabilize your new weight for four to six weeks. This is the step everyone skips.
As an example, I’ve recently bulked up from 210 pounds to 215 pounds over the past 10 weeks and I’m finding it extremely challenging to increase my calories. So instead of “force feeding” myself to induce more muscle growth, I’m maintaining my calories and stabilizing my new bodyweight set point. I’m listening to my body’s own feedback.
Remember this saying, “Coax your body and it’ll respond positively. Force your body and it’ll react negatively.”
As a side note, you may even notice a little bit of body recomposition during the stabilization phase. After four to six weeks of stabilizing your new weight, begin the half-pound weight gain strategy again.
Step 3: Repeat Until You Overshoot Your Goal
I recommend overshooting your “goal ripped look” by 15 to 20 pounds before doing a proper “cut.” So if you want to be a shredded 205 pounds, you’ll use this strategy until you hit 220 pounds. By stabilizing your weight every few pounds to ensure that when you start to cut, you won’t lose the last few weeks of new muscle gains. Then you can do a proper cut, repeating the same process on the way back down (which we will save for another article).
When I speak against “lean bulking” people think I’m promoting getting super fat for the sake of adding muscle. This couldn’t be further from the truth. My intent is to teach people that bulking takes time. A lot of time.
A proper bulk will take at least six months to two years. But if you incorporate the half-pound strategy and stabilization phases, you can avoid all the “mini cuts” along the way that detract from your overall goal of getting bigger.
You need to stick with one goal and give yourself ample time to reach it. You can’t bulk for two weeks and decide you’ll cut two weeks later. If you’re looking to add muscle, focus on that one goal and give your body a chance to reach that goal. If you’re going to stabilize, give your body at least four to six weeks to achieve that goal. IM