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.
TRAINING FOR LEAN TISSUE
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.
EATING FOR LEAN TISSUE
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.
FINAL STEP: REASSESS EVERY MONTH
“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.