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The lean bulk – How to stay lean while bulking

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by Yuan

The lean bulk is another one of those elusive achievements. Some people do it naturally without even trying, cruising through those gains for months and years while staying lean. Others fail repeatedly and miss out on a lot of progress. The third group gets limited success before running into a brick wall, trying to stay lean while bulking.

People that struggle with the lean bulk generally fall in two camps:

  1. Able to make progress, but has trouble staying lean
  2. Able to stay lean, but can’t make progress

Let’s go over these 2 cases:

Trouble staying lean while bulking

The problem here is excessive calories. Tracking calories and making small adjustments accordingly is an obvious step to staying lean.

But even though you’re bulking, you still need to stay disciplined with your diet for low body fat levels. Here are two simple methods to make dieting more manageable.

Intermittent fasting can work on a daily basis or a weekly basis to control your food intake.

An example of daily fasting is Leangains style fasting where it involves fasting for 16 hours and eating during the remaining 8 hours. This is great for people that love eating big. You’ll need to eat all your calories in a much shorter window and this makes you feel more satiety.

An example of fasting for weekly calorie control is Eat Stop Eat. This is where you eat regularly and fast for 24 hours once a week to drop your weekly calorie intake by 10-15%. If you’re trying to make progress in the gym, I don’t recommend more than once a week.

Carb Cycling can optimize your fat loss/body fat maintenance by improving insulin sensitivity. Go high carb/low fat on workout days to help you recover and go low carb/high fat on resting days.

Calorie Cycling can help optimize your recovery. Eat at a higher surplus on training days (especially after your workout) and less on resting days.

Calorie and carb cycling are just the icing on the cake. The vast majority of results still comes from managing your diet and workout properly.

Trouble making progress while staying lean

In order to grow, you need to eat at a calorie surplus and be able to recover from your workouts.

If you have trouble making progress, you are either not eating at a sufficient surplus or you’re doing too much work for the amount of food your eating.

For me, the easiest way to figure out proper workout volume/intensity is to use strength as the indicator for growth. You are growing if you can consistently make strength improvements and increase your work weight.

The workout routine has to make it possible for you to make continued strength improvements on the major lifts (bench press, deadlift, squat, overhead press). Whether you’re capable of increasing your lifts by 5 lbs every week/once every 2 weeks/4 weeks/etc, just make sure you can keep it consistent for the best long term growth.

You’ll grow fastest by keeping track of your growth consistency. It’ll be obvious when something is not working and adjustments can be made without wasting time.

Here are 2 variables you can adjust in the workout programming:

  1. Volume
  2. Intensity

Volume or Intensity

If you’re natural, you can’t go high intensity (heavy) and high volume every week to make consistent gains. If you don’t eat at a bigger surplus, this becomes even more sensitive. You’ll need to drop the volume or intensity.

When it comes to strength focussed programs, the most effective ones don’t work well if you’re trying to stay lean (unless you have the genetics for it). The texas method, madcow, smolov, sheiko, etc all work very well at a bigger calorie surplus.

With a lower calorie intake, you may be able to work each major lifts only once a week followed by some assistance work. 

The low volume/high intensity approach will not work well for beginners or most intermediates. In the beginning, you should get more volume to build a strong technique and muscle recruitment pattern. Otherwise, your muscles will not work effectively enough to create results at low volumes.

Making adjustments before it’s too late

You’ll have a better time if you can avoid getting stuck as opposed to getting stuck and then trying to get unstuck.

If you can’t recover properly between sessions, your body will give you signals. These signals can be different from person to person, but you will stall and get stuck if you ignore it and keep pushing.

Some of these signs include:

  • can’t/don’t want to eat as much
  • feeling lethargic
  • can’t focus as well
  • having a harder time falling asleep
  • random pains in the joints/tendons/ligaments

When you get these signs, try adjusting one of the training variables we talked about earlier. If you’re already sleeping well, it’s a matter of eating more or doing less volume/intensity at the gym.

Basic diet guidelines for the lean bulk – macros

Besides these tips, you will still need to count your macros, I talk about how to calculate them in my post about counting macros.

Once you get your BMR, apply some of the nutrient cycling strategies we talked about earlier.

Cardio or not to cardio

You don’t need cardio to stay lean, it will just eat away at the calorie surplus that you’ve created. I’m a fan of doing as little as possible to get the results I want. So spend the effort on adjusting your calorie intake, macro ratios and work volume/intensity.


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