Most men, and women to a various degree, lift weights with the intention of putting on muscle. And so for the majority of trainees the end goal is to achieve a lean and muscular body. But unfortunately there is still a fair bit of confusion as to what’s the best approach to achieve this impressive physique.
There are two common approaches. One is the more traditional “bulking-phase”. Often with this approach the trainee doesn’t worry too much about the initial fat gains. Mainly because the bulk is followed by a “cut” where the goal is to drop the excess fat while maintaining the previously gained muscle.
The second option is trying to add muscle and stay as lean as possible while doing so. This means that theoretically the trainee should be able to avoid the strict cutting phase altogether.
But which one is a better way for a muscular and lean physique? Let’s investigate.
The Bulk and Cut – Approach
It’s not uncommon to gain as much as 10 kilograms of weight within a typical bulking phase of three months. Definitely a solid amount of weight to add to any frame in a relatively short period of time. But more often than not this weight gain comes with a major downside.
For the non-genetically gifted, drug-free trainee it is not uncommon to gain 10 kilograms of weight in three months, with only 2-3 kilograms of that being lean muscle. The rest is gained as fat.
In terms of looking pure numbers this could mean a 2.3kg of fat for every kilogram of muscle, at best. At worst, the numbers are even more daunting. If 2kg of that 10kg of weight is lean muscle it means 4kg of fat for each kilogram of lean muscle. That seems like a lot of food and effort wasted. Only to work even harder to get rid of the fat.
Not that pure fat is not necessarily the end of the world for someone who starts the cycle with extremely low body fat below 8%. Or for a typical hard-gainer who struggles on putting any weight. But for anyone else the end result is probably not the most desired look. Even if they’d start at relatively lean 12% of body fat.
To reverse the fat gain that same bulk now has to enter a “cutting – phase”, which involves strict dieting to drop that 7-8 kilograms of fat gained during bulking. What makes this challenging is trying to make as much of the weight being dropped fat, not muscle. Not always easy on a calorie deficit.
Again, this is especially true for those who are not genetically gifted and drug-free (read: most lifters). But also for those who are already experienced in resistance training and are closer to their “genetic ceiling”.
And after all has been said and done, because of the extremes of bulking and cutting, it’s not uncommon to see a trainee ending up only slightly heavier with a higher body fat percentage.
So where does that leave us?
The one upside of bulking-phase
Bulking without any regard to the quality of weight gained can be fun. After all it means that you can probably eat everything and anything in sight. But that’s about all the benefits that this approach has.
The downsides outweigh the upside
The downsides are far reaching. The are the physiological factors of poorer insulin sensitivity which could affect the fat loss later on. You are also more likely to feel lethargic and tired. And that’s just to name few physiological negatives.
Physiologically bulking and cutting is not a walk in the park either. At first, looking at your tired, overweight self in the mirror. And then depriving yourself from food during cutting phase.
And unless money is not an issue, there is the financial burden of wasting excessive money on food that doesn’t materialise as lean muscle.
A Better Way to Gain Lean Muscle
If you are currently overweight, focus on cutting weight while maintaining muscle mass. Get down to a leaner body fat of at least 12%. Then focus on gradually adding more muscle mass without gaining too much fat at the same time. This way you can look good all year around, avoid the lethargic feeling that comes with force feeding yourself, and keep your health markers in check.
A slow, progressive lean bulking is the way to go. These are the things to focus on to make it work.
Progressive Strength Training
You need to keep challenging your muscles to grow. This means getting progressively stronger. Aiming for 3-4 strength workouts a week is a good goal. Remember that once you’ve provided the muscles with enough stimulus, they grow at rest. Not by doing more training.
Calories and Protein
As important as training is, muscle gain doesn’t happen without having your diet in order. To gain muscle you need to provide the body with calories to use as building blocks for the muscle tissue.
First, calculate your basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you need to maintain your current weight before any activity is factored in). For that use The Mifflin-St Jeor – method.
(10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) + 5
(10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) – 161
Once you have your number for calories, factor in exercise by multiplying your calories by 1.2-1.9, depending on how often you train each week and how active you are outside of the gym.
On that final number add around 250 calories for each day, to start with.
Then set your proteins for each day as it is the main building block for your muscles. As you can learn in this article, to grow you most likely need at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Maybe more when you are trying to stay as lean as possible. But, start at 1.6.
Next comes the challenging part that most people struggle with. Trust the process. Keep those calories and protein for two weeks and then assess where you are.
If you are not gaining any muscle, add extra 250 calories to your diet.
If you are gaining too much fat, drop calories. I recommend by 250 calories each day, no more.
Then, reassess after few weeks and adjust accordingly.
And as you are doing all this remember that this are only general guidelines. Your body might require more, or less. It all depend on your genetics and training-age, as well other lifestyle factors.
Beginner: 1 to 1.5% total body weight per month
Intermediate: .5 to 1% total body weight per month
Advanced: .25 to .5% total body weight per month
Don’t think where you can be in a month’s time. Rather focus on where you’ll be in a year. Focus on the process and you’ll be rewarded with a more muscular physique. All the while staying lean and not sacrificing your health.
You can follow ICON’s fitness expert, Jono Castanoacero on instagram @jonocastanoacero.