Many bodybuilders are using alternating phases of bulking up and leaning out. Traditionally, bulking involves eating large amounts of food, training hard and heavy, and gaining an appreciable amount of muscle along with a good amount of fat.
Leaning out, sometimes called cutting, involves eating less and relying on stored fat to make up the energy shortfall. It’s something like walking 2 steps forward and one step back.
Pros and cons of bulking
There are a couple of disadvantages to this typical bulk/lean cycle. For one thing, the associated fat gain can interfere with athletic performance, cardiovascular fitness, mobility and general appearance.
Your abs will disappear
Say goodbye to your six-pack while bulking! Also, the cutting phase often results in muscle loss as well. This means at least some of your hard work has been wasted. Finally, eating so much food, day after day and week after week is hard work!
Forget the idea that an apple or banana constitutes a snack. Each meal, all five to seven or more per day, has to be big – possibly 500 calorie or more each and every time. This requires organization, a schedule that allows you to chow down food every 2-3 hours and also the willingness to carry food with you wherever you go.
There is no doubt that bulking is an effective way to add mass and strength but, for many people, the cons outweigh the benefits. For these individuals, there is an alternative way to gain muscle while minimizing fat gain.
It should be noted that gaining lean muscle is quite hard. Building muscle, an anabolic process called hypertrophy, requires an energy surplus which means you need to eat more.
This is easy enough using the traditional approach to bulking as the aim is to strategically overeat. If, however, you want to add muscle but very little fat, you need to be more selective with the types and quantity of food you eat and also resign yourself to slower muscle gain. On the plus side, there should be relatively little requirement to switch to a harsh cutting cycle and lose your hard-won muscle.
The most important thing you need to build lean muscle is eating clean – really clean. Plenty of good quality protein (at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight), unrefined, slow releasing carbs such as oats, brown rice and whole grains plus lots of vegetables and some fruit, healthy oils like olive oil and fish oil.
Your biggest, most carb-dense meal will be immediately after training where, because of elevated insulin sensitivity, your muscles will absorb just about any nutrients you throw at them.
The rest of the time, go easy on the carbs and focus more on protein and good fats plus fibrous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, celery, cabbage and so on.
Unlike the traditional bulker who generally avoids cardio like the plague, you will need to include some cardio in your routine but steer away from catabolic activities like long distance running. Instead, focus on interval training, bodyweight and kettlebell circuits and other more intense but relatively short duration workouts.
Your aim is to spike your metabolism, increase insulin sensitivity, trigger EPOC (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption or after burn) but avoid raising cortisol levels which will interfere with muscle gain.
You program may look something like this:
Monday – Upper body plus interval training to finish e.g. 60 seconds sprint/120 seconds recovery for 6 to 8 sets
Tuesday – lower body plus core circuit
Wednesday – rest or active recovery e.g. walking
Thursday – upper body plus bodyweight circuit training to finish e.g. as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pull ups, 10 press ups, 15 squats and 20 jumping jacks
Friday – lower body plus core circuit
Saturday – intervals and circuit training for 30 to 40 minutes
Sunday – rest or active recovery e.g. walking
Here is another hypertrophy routine you can use – 4 Day Hypertrophy Training Program.
With regards to supplements, whey protein is going to be a useful addition as it means you can make every meal protein based even if it doesn’t contain meat, fish, eggs etc.
2 bananas and a double dose of whey protein equals a meal where as one banana or just a single portion of whey protein does not.
Creatine is also very useful as it can help you train harder and recover faster form your sets and workouts. It can cause some water retention but this soon goes when you cease using it.
Fat burners may be beneficial as a pre-workout energiser but really aren’t what you need right now. Feel free to use them to give you an energy boost and on non-training days to keep your metabolism humming along but in reality, green tea extract and/or caffeine work just as well.
Omega three and omega six fatty acids may be a useful addition to your nutritional arsenal as they provide an easy way to add healthy fats to each meal.
Using our banana and whey protein shake meal outlined above, add in 3-5 grams of omega three and six oils and you have a very complete, lean muscle building meal.
Unlike traditional bulking, your aim is to minimize fat gain so keep a close eye on your weight and your waist measurements. If your weight is increasing but your waist measurement is staying stable then you know you have your calorific intake right. If your waist is also increasing along with your weight, reduce your food intake slightly to avoid getting fat.
Lean bulking takes time, persistence and self-control but the results will be worth it as you’ll look great and feel even better!