How to Gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat

Anthony J. Yeung
by Anthony J. Yeung
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How to Gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat

When it comes to the countless fitness goals out there, one of the hardest to achieve — and most sought after — is to gain muscle without gaining fat. This is often called “clean bulking” and it’s challenging for one fundamental reason: To gain muscle and size, you need to consume more calories.

But we all know what happens when you consume too many calories: You increase the chances of adding more fat. While you might see people who claim they’ve gained “10 pounds of muscle” in a month, the reality is you can only gain 1–2 pounds of lean muscle per month (or less if you’re already muscular).

To uncover the best strategies for your clean bulk, we’ll breakdown the best approach for your training and nutrition.


The right training program to add lean tissue requires four things. First, it must ensure your calorie intake is going toward muscle repair, recovery and growth, which means you need to lift weights 3–4 times per week.

Second, your workout should consist of heavy, complex exercises targeting several muscle groups at once — great choices include squats, presses, rows, chinups and deadlifts.

Third, focus on “hypertrophy,” which basically means increasing muscle size. The way to do that is by using a moderate number of repetitions — something between 8–12 reps and 5 or more sets is usually solid. This approach increases the “time-under-tension” (the duration your muscles have to work per set) and that creates more stimulus for muscle growth.

Finally, every time you go to the gym, aim to do a little bit more than you did last time — add an extra pound or two to your weights, do one or two more reps or add another set. That way, you’re constantly challenging your body and creating improvements.


Here’s the truth: Training for a clean bulk is only a small part of the battle; most of your results are won in the kitchen.

According to Sidney Fry, MS, RD, nutrition comes down to one word: Quality. “It’s all about the quality of calories you take in,” she explains. “If you’re working diligently on expert strength training but are fueling your body with poor-quality protein, refined grains, sugar, etc., then you likely aren’t doing your body or muscles any favors.”

Choose protein sources like wild seafood, lean grass-fed meat, free-range eggs, nuts and beans. But what about things like protein shakes and protein bars? “Protein from naturally occurring sources also contains essential vitamins and nutrients,” Fry adds, so always pick real food when you can.

Also, spread out your protein intake. “Unlike carbohydrates and fat, excess protein isn’t stored for energy so protein-loading at one meal isn’t beneficial,” says Fry. “If your goal is to build muscle, you’ll get the most bang for your protein buck by spreading your daily intake out among all your meals.”

As for how much protein you need, she recommends 1.6–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. “The most accurate way to determine the amount of protein in your diet is to look at the nutrition labels of your food and utilize the MyFitnessPal app to log that information,” she adds, “prioritizing the Verified Foods designated with a green check mark.”

Next, make sure you are getting the right number of calories — too much leads to fat gains while too little reduces muscle gains.

Start by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body burns at rest. “What’s most important to remember here is that this is an estimation — a reference number to get you started,” explains Fry. “Things like activity (both cardio and weight training), age and sleep habits will all affect how many calories you need to maintain a certain weight.” Thus, it takes a little time to understand your body’s exact needs.

Once you know how many calories you need to maintain your weight, eat 500 more calories on your lifting days and eat your maintenance level on all other days.


“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” the saying goes.

Every month, check your body fat, weight, measurements and photos to make sure you clean bulked correctly. If you gained a little fat, gently reduce your calories on non-lifting days; if you’re not gaining lean mass, gently increase your calories on lifting days.

About the Author

Anthony J. Yeung
Anthony J. Yeung

Anthony, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, is a fitness expert at Esquire, GQ and Men’s Health and gets guys in shape for their wedding at GroomBuilder.


9 responses to “How to Gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat”

  1. Avatar Mayank Gupta says:

    I always thought you had to eat less during a leaning out ?

    • Avatar shawnsBrain says:

      I’ve always thought it’s nearly impossible to add muscle and lose fat at the same time. If you’re going to add mass to your body, you have to have an excess of calories. Most bodybuilders eat a lot and bulk up then they cut afterwards. They lose fat and muscle in the cut though. The idea is that you add 10 pounds of muscle and 5 lb of fat then lose the 5 lb of fat and only 5 lb of the muscle leaving a net of + 5 lb of muscle.

  2. Avatar Eric Grimsley says:

    i dont know if it is just wishful thinking, but i feel like you can both gain muscle and loose fat if you hit your calorie goals perfectly and work out enough. what to eat and how much is obviously key to making this work. i am no expert so maybe this is just b.s….

    • Avatar arthong says:

      As a bodybuilder (non-pro), the basics of how your body builds muscle is that it needs the necessary calories to do so. This is usually by a caloric surplus. You can’t really make something out of nothing, right? So extra calories (from good nutrition) is needed to build muscle.

      Whereas to lose fat, the basics is to be at a caloric deficit. So you can see how the idea of doing both really doesn’t make any sense.

      However, with that said, that’s primarily the case if you’re aiming to be above average in muscle mass. If you’re just trying to lose fat and not end up looking scrawny, then you can potentially accomplish muscle gain and fat loss in the early periods of training.

      We call this the “newbie gains” period. For those who haven’t worked out in ages, or ever, you’re going to have relatively low muscle mass. At this point, your body is more susceptible to muscle gains if you eat the right nutrition and do proper workouts to stimulate muscle growth. At the same time, due to being inactive for so long, your body is eager to lose the excess fat, so just about any extra activity will prompt fat loss, assuming you aim for a caloric deficit.

      So with everything combined, you go through a body re-composition phase where you’re losing fat and gaining muscle. But this process doesn’t last forever. After your body is used to its workout regimen, and you’ve lost a significant amount of fat, you pretty much hit a plateau in which you now have to decide whether you’re going to try and gain more muscle (going into body building status, even if just for smaller gains), or you want to maintain your current physique and continue your workouts to improve muscle endurance (different than building muscle mass).

      That’s the basics of it. The only other way for body builders to continue massive muscle growth while staying super lean is through drugs, or in super rare cases, genetics where someone has higher than average testosterone levels at older ages.

      And of course, this varies from person to person, as it can be harder for others to gain muscle, or lose fat.

      • Avatar djaz says:

        I want to lose fat and gain muscle strength but not bulk up. It really is a balancing act and I’m not sure how to go about it.

        Very informative, thank you.

        • Avatar arthong says:

          If your intention isn’t to bulk up, you need not worry because it’s a very different workout regimen to do a bulk, in the form of body building, and it is quite difficult to get bulky.

          There is the misconception that just because some people pick up weights that they’re going to get bulky. If it were that easy, a lot more people would be bulky. This is not the case, as it takes a huge amount of effort, and supplements to get to that level. You have to intentionally aim for it, with specific workouts and nutrition. And for bulky body builders, it’s actually quite an effort to maintain all that mass too. It’s that easy to lose muscle mass by not eating enough once you get to a certain point. So it’s really a lot of work to keep it up.

          Especially for women, as it’s much harder for women to build muscle in the same way. There is no way in the world will you end up looking like an Olympian or Female body builder unless your intention is to train and eat like one. But for women body builders, more often than not, there are testosterone supplements involved. So nothing to worry about.

          If you’re just doing some very basic workouts with and without weights, you are not at all in danger of bulking excessively. You’re just going to see firmer arms and legs. And if your nutrition is on point, a firmer stomach. Nutrition is actually more important than the workout routine, if you’re looking to lose the fat. So aim for meal plans that will keep you at a caloric deficit for as long as you need to hit your goals. That’s the first thing to concentrate on.

          So don’t let a bulking fear stop you. Look into some online workout plans and nutritional guides and give it a go.

      • Avatar Eric Grimsley says:

        How long does the newbie gains period last? I’ve been in calorie deficit for 6 months, eating pretty clean. I have lost 40 pounds and started seeing some small muscle gains. In the last 2 weeks I have gone to a small calorie surplus and lifting heavier. I am afraid of undoing all the work I put in to loose that 40 pounds.

        • Avatar arthong says:

          First off, congratulations on your fat loss! While there isn’t a specific time frame for newbie gains for everyone, there’s an educated guess of anywhere from 3 months to 6 months, given that everyone responds differently. Newbie gains are noticeable due to rapid muscle gain, and weight loss, simultaneously. If you’re noticing a slowdown in muscle gain, then you may have past your newbie gains. But that’s also a good indicator that you’ve been doing well with your workouts because your body is transforming.

          To continue with your gains, it sounds like you’re on the right track. If you’re keeping track of your calories, and know your surplus and deficit, then you’re already ahead of the game. At this point, it’s really a matter of changing up your workouts checking your nutrition macros to see what your body responds to.

          If you feel like you’ve hit a plateau, now’s a good time to switch up your workouts. Doing the same thing too long allows your body to adapt. It’s good to switch things around every 6 months or so. Like new exercises, new weights, check your form, etc.

          For one, yes for more mass gains, definitely aim for heavier weights. Go with a range of 6-8 reps per set, and in your last two sets, aim to fail. For example, lets assume Bench pressing. After your warmup, aim to find a weight where you can complete 8 reps pretty well but you’ll still feel resistance. Your second set you should still hit 8 reps, but with some difficulty. 3rd set you may only hit 6-7 reps. 4th set keep going until you can’t lift anymore, which may very well be just 5-6 reps. Of course, in this case it would be good to have a spotter. If you don’t have a spotter, just go until you feel you’re about to fail your last set. Working out to fail is a good method to challenge your muscles.

          I assume you’re splitting muscle groups throughout the week? Chest/Tris, Back/Bis, Shoulder/Legs/Abs? If you’ve been doing the same thing for a while, try other excercises that also hit the same muscle groups, and switch it up. For example, for the Tris, instead of bar skullcrushers, try dumbbell skullcrushers, or vice versa. Every week or two, try to add another 5lbs-10lbs to your bench, or 2.5lbs to your dumbbells. See if there are improvements and keep track. Should always aim to increase your waits, as body allows.

          If you are watching your caloric surplus, and keep up a good workout routine, you’re in no danger of undoing your work. You will only be improving, as you gain muscle mass. Even if you end up gaining a little fat along the way, you should be gaining good muscle mass, and you can cut the fat down again. Pretty much how we go about Bulking off season, and cutting for the summer (to show off, lol). I’m usually not worried about gaining a little fat, knowing that I’m building more muscle mass and that I can lean down when I want to.

          If you’re still concerned, may I suggest just aiming for a surplus of 100 calories per day, and see how your body is growing. Try for a week or two, and adjust.

          And keep in mind, muscle is more dense than fat, and will add more weight in smaller volumes. So if you see some weight increase, check the composition of your body in the mirror. If you see your muscle groups taking shape, it’s because you’re adding weight from your muscles, and not because you’re gaining fat back.

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