Though we all want bigger muscles, the last thing we want to do is bulk and get fat. This is why it’s important to work out the right macros for a lean bulk.
The biggest mistake I see people making when bulking are one of 3 things:
- Dirty bulking – eating everything in sight
- Not eating enough, due to the fear of fat
- Dieting again as soon as they see a sudden change in the scale
If you want to see a growth in muscle, without getting fat or spinning your wheels it’s vital you find the right macros for a lean bulk.
Why dirty bulking doesn’t work
The problem with dirty bulking is that you gain more fat than necessary. You may gain a little more muscle, but for the amount of fat gain and risk you create, it’s not worth it. Excess fat can lead to various health issues. The reason we train is to improve our health, that’s why I find it immoral to allow someone to increase their health risks when working with me. This is why it’s important instead to work out your macros for a lean bulk.
Gaining excess weight can increase the risk of heart disease, strokes and diabetes. (1)
Another issue with dirty bulking is the quality of food being eaten. A lot of guys will use highly processed foods to gain weight. This is to help get the calories in. I’m not saying processed food is bad. But processed foods tend to be high in saturated fat and salt. Both these things are fine in moderation, but too much can lead to health issues. (2)
So, please don’t dirty bulk.
Not eating enough
You then have those on the other end of the scale. Those who don’t eat enough and wonder why they never see results. The thing is, even if you want to gain muscle and bulk without getting far, you still will gain some body fat.
Emphasis on some. You will gain some body fat, but you won’t get fat. You may lose some ab definition, but it won’t be anything major. But the amount will be so small, it’ll take very little time to lose it.
There are some exceptions of people who can build muscle at calorie maintenance.
People such as those:
- Completely new to training
- Not trained for a long time
- Combing back after an injury layoff
- Carrying a lot of excess body fat
If you’re not one of these people, then you’ll see better results by eating a little more in a calorie surplus. (3)
There is potential for you to do a body recomp, where you lose fat and build muscle at the same time. But unless you’re one of the above, the process will be painfully slow. Instead, workout out your macros for a lean bulk, accept a little bit of fat and be consistent.
Finally, there’s this group who definitely make a habit of ruining their lean bulk. These people tend to be a little more neurotic about their bulking approach. They may have calculated that they need to gain let’s say 1% of their body weight per month. Yet they may gain a couple of pounds in a day.
Instead of realising that the majority of this weight gain is not fat. They will go into panic mode, worry that they’re getting fat and go on a diet.
The problem with this is that they’re never giving their body enough time to be in an anabolic environment to grow. After 6 months to a year of this, you’re not going to make any progress. I’ve been there and I get it.
When you cycle between a calorie deficit and a caloric surplus, you’ve not given your body adequate fuel. Thus it won’t stimulate progressive overload when training.
So if you’re not committed to bulk, then don’t.
What are the macros for lean bulking?
There are no exact macros that one person must follow. Yet there are a solid set of ranges, which will do a great job.
For most people, a small surplus will bring the best results. If you fall into one of the categories I mentioned earlier, then maintenance might be a good place to be.
It used to be stated that you’d want to be in a 500 calorie surplus. The only problem is that a 500 calorie surplus will cause a different effect on different people. A 500 calorie surplus will have a greater effect on someone who weighs 70kg compared to someone who is 110kg.
That’s why small percentages work better, they are individualised.
The surplus only needs to be small. 10-15% percent more calories than what you burn (TDEE) is adequate. (4)
If you want to know the number of calories you burn in a day, use my calorie calculator. Then add 10-20% to your maintenance.
Larger surpluses tend to go fat, your body can only build so much muscle at a time. In the same kind of way, your car doesn’t benefit if you try and cram in more petrol than what the tank can take.
You could potentially go lower than 10%. The only problem being is that we are only working on estimates, so adding 10% it gives us a greater sense of certainty you are in a small surplus.
There is a lot of debate around protein.
The old-school bodybuilders would proclaim to have 1 gram per pound of protein. Or more. This would be 2.2g per kg of protein.
Whilst the latest research shows that 1.6g of protein per kg is enough. Increasing it to 1.8g per kg to play it safe. (5)
Yet other research still shows that non-drug bodybuilders respond better to more protein. Up to 2.3-3.1g per kg. (6)
A lot of the studies, where 1.6-1.8g of protein is enough, usually give the participants highly bioavailable sources of complete protein.
These are sources such as lean meats, eggs and dairy. These protein sources have all the essential amino acids and are easily absorbed by the body.
Yet in real-life situations, our protein intake doesn’t only come from those foods. If you’re tracking your macronutrient intake on Myfitnesspal or Nutracheck. You’ll notice that you also get protein from foods such as bread, rice and vegetables.
These proteins are incomplete sources and less bioavailable, thus the protein quality will not be as good as the animal sources.
So, if you eat a lot of these foods, you may want to aim for the higher end of the protein. (7)
Thus, I generally recommend 1.6g-2.2g per kg and go on where you feel best. (8)
Best sources of protein include:
- Chicken breast
- Protein powder
- Lean pork
- Lean beef
- White fish
Where a lot of people go wrong in bulk is the type of fat they eat. A lot of people will eat a lot of junk food to get their calories up. Junk food in moderation is fine. But in a lean bulk, I advise against it for every meal.
The problem is, with that mentality, a lot of the fat you eat will be saturated and maybe trans fat.
A little saturated fat is fine, but too much isn’t. It’s recommended not to have more than 30g of saturated fat per day. (9)
Excess saturated fat can increase the risk of raising your LDL (bad) cholesterol. (10)
What’s even more interesting is that there is a study showing saturated fat when bulking can influence your body composition.
A 2014 study, which shows diet quality might be as important as quantity, for increasing lean mass. (11)
This study compared a caloric surplus, either relying on saturated or unsaturated fat.
Both groups ate in a caloric surplus for 7 weeks (+750 kcal).
One group ate muffins made with palm oil (saturated fat).
The other groups ate muffins made with sunflower oil (unsaturated fat).
Both groups gained on average 1.6kg of weight.
The unsaturated groups’ ratio of fat to lean mass was 1:1. So they gained 800g of fat and 800g of lean mass.
The saturated groups’ ratio of fat mass to lean mass was 4:1. So they gained 1280g of fat and only 320g of lean mass.
So the type of fat your clients eat may affect how much lean mass they can build.
Finally, the fat distribution differed. The saturated group gained more fat in the liver. Whereas the unsaturated group decreased their liver fat.
Accumulation of fat in the liver is linked to Type 2 diabetes, so that’s something to avoid. (12)
My take-home advice. If you’re struggling to eat enough, look to increase their unsaturated fat. Foods such as:
- Olive oil
- Unsalted nuts
- Low salt nut butter
- Oily fish
Instead of relying on foods rich in saturated fat, such as:
- Fatty meat
Which I tend to see being recommended to get calories up, for hypertrophy. Which I do understand. But health should always come first, that should always be our first priority.
The UK government recommends not to exceed 30g of saturated fat per day. The W.H.O recommends no more than 10% of your calories from saturated fat. Either works. (13)
I know the second list tastes better, but that’s life. They are perfectly fine in moderation, but too much has been shown not to be conducive to good health.
This study shows calories matter for growth, but the quality also matters too.
When it comes to fat, keep it simple.
There are 2 ways to go about how much fat to have.
Either have 0.5-1.5g of fat per kg of bodyweight. So if you weigh 80kg, have at least 40g of fat per day and adjust as you go along. (14)
Or around 35% of total calories should make up your fat amount. So if you’re on 3000 calories, that’d be around 115g of fat per day. (15)
Carbohydrates are simple. Whatever calories you have left, fill with carbohydrates.
Unlike protein and fat, carbohydrates are not actually essential. We can live without them. But there are many things we can live without, but would rather not.
But when it comes to sorting your macros for a lean bulk, not having carbohydrates would be criminal.
For instance, carbs are our main source of energy during a workout. Though nutrition is important for building muscle. The most important element is the actual training. You need to be increasing your volume over time. The best way to do that is by allowing your body to use its preferred fuel source. (16)
Overall finding out your macros for a lean bulk, isn’t that difficult.
Though nutrients arent as an essential component as macronutrients. They are still important when looking to build lean muscle.
What often gets neglected when people are looking at muscle growth is their general health.
Because you’re looking to eat in a daily surplus, people tend to eat a lot of junk and stuff to hit their calories.
Fat loss and weight loss are down to being in a caloric deficit. When in a deficit it’s usual practice to eat nutritious foods and keep up activity levels. This is because nutritious foods are packed with fibre which keeps you full.
Yet for attaining muscle mass people tend to do the opposite. Eating junk and being lazy and using bulking as an excuse.
The issue with doing this is that you’re putting your health at potential risk.
Diets high in saturated fat and salt regardless of energy balance or activity levels will bing a greater risk to your health.
So when following the protocols I’ve listed, make sure to get at least 80% of your calories from whole nutritious foods first. Whatever calories you have leftover, then of course enjoy some chocolate or some cake.
So I advise you follow the basics of a good diet.
- Eat at least 5 fruit and veg a day
- Don’t eat more than 6g of salt a day
- Don’t eat more than 30g of saturated fat or 10% of calories from saturated fat
- Eat at least 30g of fibre or 14g of fibre per 2000 calories
- Keep free sugar to under 20g for women and 30g men (or 5% calories)
- Eat oily fish at least twice a week or take a fish oil supplment
There aren’t many secrets when it comes to finding the macros for a lean bulk. When it comes to muscle gain, it’s important to know your total daily energy expenditure and to make sure to be eating slightly above that.
Then you want to be eating enough protein. Then splitting that evenly at the very least 3 times per day.
Make sure to be consistent.
This will take at least 6 months before you see a big difference.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.