Lean gains. Building lots of strength and muscle, WITHOUT getting fat.
Doable, or just a myth?
If you're anything like me, you've probably had a bulk that went something like this...
"I'm pretty lean right now. I'm going to maintain this level of leanness, while building muscle!"
*8 weeks later
Even worse, you don't seem to have any noticeable gains (other than to your belly) to show for the last 8 weeks.
Sound familiar? I know I've been in this exact situation MANY times in the past.
It's way too easy to spend years (or even a lifting career) stuck in a miserable cycle of:
a.) "I feel fat...time to cut."
b.) "I feel too skinny... time to bulk."
Rinse and repeat.
No real progress is made here - you just constantly watch your body morph from looking kinda lean, but not muscular enough yet to way too fluffy.
Again, I'm speaking from experience here, because I've been stuck in the cycle myself for literally YEARS in the past.
Fortunately, I've learned how to stay lean and build muscle, and since helped many online clients do the same.
Making lean gains (building muscle while staying lean) IS definitely possible. It just requires you taking a different approach than what you've tried in the past... which is exactly what you'll learn how to do in The Lean Gains Blueprint.
To simultaneously build muscle AND stay lean, having your nutrition absolutely dialed in is a must.
This is honestly where most people mess up.
In fact, I tell my online clients starting a lean gains phase right out of the gate:
"Building muscle and actually staying lean takes much more discipline than cutting."
When you're in a fat loss phase, it's easy to see why NOT going over you macro goal is of the utmost importance.
When you're bulking, it's 1000x easier to justify to yourself why going "just a bit" over your macros is OK.
"The extra calories will help me build more muscle!"
There are A LOT of myths out there, claiming that you need to eat thousands of calories in excess to build muscle.
In reality, muscle building is a very slow process, and you just don't need to eat that many calories over your maintenance intake to build muscle.
Eating MORE food doesn't linearly mean more gains.... just more fat.
So again, the biggest piece nutritionally to you making lean gains while also staying lean, is hitting your macros on the head.
Setting Your Macros For Lean Gains
Since we're on the topic of macros, let's break down exactly how to set YOURS up to optimize lean gains.
Before you can set up a macro goal, you need to know exactly how many calories you'll be eating.
Setting Your Calories
Again, eating MORE calories does not mean MORE muscle growth.
Now, eating in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than you burn in a day) WILL be more conducive to maximum muscle growth.
The difference between getting fat and getting more muscular while staying lean all comes down to how big of a calorie surplus you're eating in.
For most, eating in a 10% over maintenance calories will yield the same amount of muscle growth as eating 50% over maintenance calories... but you'll get a lot fatter eating 50% over.
So, your starting point for calorie intake will be 10% over your maintenance calorie intake.
If you don't know your maintenance calorie intake, find it HERE.
Multiply your maintenance intake X 1.1
Setting Protein Intake
If you want to build muscle, you HAVE TO get adequate protein.
Your dietary protein is quite literally the building blocks for all of the new muscle tissue you'll be building following this approach.
Protein is also very satiating. The reality of a lean gains approach is, you WON'T be eating to the point where you're stuffed very often - so eating plenty of protein will help keep you full enough to eat the right amount, without overdoing it.
While protein DOESN'T have to be quite as high when you're eating in a calorie surplus, for the lean gains approach about 1g protein/lb of body weight daily is optimal.
Set protein at body weight X 1
Setting Fat Intake
Getting adequate fat is super important.
Fat plays a key role in hormonal production and function. So if you're under-eating fat, key hormones to muscle growth (e.g. testosterone) WON'T be produced in adequate levels. This will also result in you feeling MUCH worse, and training performance will suffer, blunting your ability to stimulate new muscle growth in the gym.
So there is clearly a minimum "fat threshold" that needs to be met in order to make optimal gains. This threshold is generally thought to be around .3g of fat/lb of body weight. (Anectdotally, this number is closer to .4g/lb of bodyweight for women.)
Now, realize two things:
1. Increasing fat more than the recommend threshold does not mean testosterone and other beneficial hormones linearly increase as well. It's VERY similar to the idea of bulking at 10% more than maintenance calories vs. 50% of maintenance calories.
Your body needs this minimum fat threshold to function properly. Past this point - unless you're in ketosis - (hopefully not if the goal is gains) extra calories from fat don't do much of anything to fuel better performance in the gym, or more gains.
2. When you increase fat, you're making a trade-off for decreased carbs. Given the minimum fat-threshold is meant, extra carbs will do MUCH more to fuel your gains than extra fat.
So, when you take these factors into consideration, it makes sense to keep fat a bit lower when bulking.
Set fat at body weight X .3-.4
Setting Carb Intake
As we just discussed, carbs play a key role in your ability to perform in the gym.
Insulin is also a key hormone to muscle growth. Carbs stimulate insulin release, and help shuttle nutrients to your growing muscles.
It's a good idea to focus on driving your carbs up over the course of a lean gains phase. (More on how to go about this later.)
After setting protein and fat calories, fill your remaining calories with carbs.
Things like nutrient timing are typically disregarded as unimportant in the fitness space.
Now, while you WILL get 80-90% of the result from hitting your daily macros, following a smart training program, and sleeping enough - making lean gains requires A LOT more attention to detail.
You're chasing a very specific result here, which requires you getting very specific with the process.
Protein Timing Across The Day - You've undoubtedly heard tons of people bash the idea that eating 6 meals a day is entirely unnecessary. Now, while it's true that calories are the primary driver of weight loss or weight gain, for optimal muscle growth you need to consider muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Muscle protein synthesis is basically the process of your body building new muscle proteins (bigger, stronger muscles).
Consuming protein (with the most optimal amount being 30-40g) increases muscle protein synthesis for ~3-6 hours. So, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis through your day, it's most optimal to spread your protein (and meals as a whole) across 4-6 meals, with 30-40g protein at each.
Protein Timing Pre-Workout - What you eat pre-workout meal is key for kick-starting the recovery process. (Since you're chasing optimal gains here, I wouldn't recommend going into your training fasted.)
To prevent as much muscle
protein breakdown (the opposite process of muscle protein synthesis -
muscle protein is being broken down) as possible, and create optimal
circumstances for recovery/growth, you should consume ~30-40g of protein
in this meal. If you really don't have the option to eat a pre-workout meal
(e.g. you workout super early), I'd recommend at least drinking a
protein shake before hand. This will digest very quickly, and shouldn't
give you issues.
Typically, you'll feel best eating this 1-3 hours before you workout. I like to split the difference here and go with 2 hours pre-workout. Eating this meal too close to your workout will have you lifting with food still digesting in your belly, making you feel sluggish.
Protein Timing Post-Workout - Honestly, this isn't as important as long as you got protein in pre-workout, but I'd also aim to eat another ~30-40g of protein within an hour post-workout (as it will have been about 3 hours from your previous bolus of protein at this point.)
Carb Timing Pre-workout - Some prefer to have a fast-digesting carb source pre-workout as well (e.g. white rice), but the reality is having available glycogen to fuel your training is a product of what your nutrition has been like the last 24 hours. Carbs eaten ~2 hours before training likely WON'T be available as a fuel source. So again, getting in your protein pre-workout is the most important factor.
Carb Timing Post-Workout - Insulin sensitivity is highest post-workout. (Basically, your body will most efficiently use carbs for muscle-building purposes at this time.) So it makes sense to time lots of fast-digesting carbs post workout (e.g. white rice, spotted bananas). THIS is the most important time to consume carbs, as far as timing goes.
On a similar note, an intense training session will trigger a stress response. Basically, when you experience stress, cortisol (the stress hormone) rises and your nervous system enters a sympathetic state or “fight-or-flight mode”. In this state, your brain perceives an imminent threat, and slows or stops all bodily processes but the most vital to either “fighting or fleeing”. This means processes crucial to your recovery - food digestion, hormone production, and muscle growth itself - are slowed or essentially stopped.
So obviously, to optimize recovery, you want to get out of a sympathetic state as fast as possible post-workout, and get into the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state. Here, your body focuses on nutrient absorption, repairing damaged tissues, etc.
The beauty of timing your carbs intra/post-workout like this is, carbs help decrease cortisol levels. So consuming carbs post workout will help you enter a more anabolic environment.
Carb Timing Intra-Workout - Ok, here we’re DEFINITELY splitting hairs, but an extremely fast digesting carb source can help slightly improve your training quality and recovery.
Specifically, Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (HBCD). HBCD is an EXTREMELY fast digesting carb source (comes in a powder form you drink). Sipping on HBCD during your workout will give you a bit of extra fuel almost immediately, help give you better pumps (which helps with muscle growth), and kickstart your muscle growth by already having available carbs during the period of increased insulin sensitivity.
Fat-Timing Pre & Post workout - Eating large amounts of fat with your pre or post-workout meals will slow digestion a bit, so it’s best to keep these meals lower fat.
Pre-Bed Meal - Now, sleep is a crucial part of your body actually being able to make build muscle. Eating too close to bed will slightly disrupt your sleep quality, but we also want your body to have some protein available throughout the night. ~1 hour before bed, eat 30-40g protein from a slow digesting source (casien powder, greek yogurt, cottage cheese.)
All of these recommendations combined leaves your day looking something like:
Meal 1: Low carb, moderate protein, high fat.
Meal 2: Low carb, moderate protein, high fat.
Meal 3 (Pre-workout): High carb, moderate protein, low fat.
Meal 4: High carb, moderate protein, low fat.
Of course you don’t HAVE TO split things up like this. Adherence is the most important factor for getting results. That said, 4 meals seems to work best for most of my online clients.
80-90% Whole Foods - The focus here - keeping your diet composed of 80-90% foods that “grew from the earth, or had a face at one point”.
Basically, you’re eating primarily whole foods. Things like: steak, chicken, fish, pork, sweet potatoes, rice, nuts, avocados, etc.
While it's true that calories ARE king, and we're NOT bypassing the rule of calories in-calories out here... eating Pop Tarts and protein bars instead of steak and rice means you're missing out on TONS of nutrients that will have you feeling and performing MUCH better.
A BIG part of you growing new muscle tissue is your ability to push hard - feeding your body lots of nutrient-dense foods helps make this happen.
Protein sources - Here, the key is choosing protein sources with good bioavailability. Animal products have a more complete amino acid profile, which means they can be easily used by your body to build new muscle. On the flipside, plant protein has much worse bioavailability - your body can't make use of as much of the protein you consume via plants - so if you’re eating primarily plant protein, you will need to increase your overall intake a bit.
Supplements are far from a MUST... but again, since you're on a mission to optimize everything in your pursuit of lean gains - here are a few that'll help:
Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin - As discussed, this rapidly-digesting carb source will give you fuel during your workout, and aid recovery. 25-50g, sipped throughout your workout.
Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s) - Mixing EAA’s in with your HBCD will again put you in a better position to recover to your absolute fullest potential and get the most gains out of each training session.
Creatine - HIGHLY studied and proven to be effective. Although its effects are far from “steroid-like”, ceatine supplies your body with slightly more ATP, which can allow you to bust out an extra rep on a challenging set - over time this adds up. 5g creatine monohydrate any time throughout your day.
Caffeine - Caffeine before your workout will increase your performance in the gym, translating to more gains.
Fish Oil - If you're not eating fish at least a few times per week, supplement with fish oil daily to get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Speed Of Weight Gain
Unless you're new to training and eating properly (or have been off the wagon for a bit), it’s unlikely that you’re recomping (losing fat and building muscle simultaneously). This means that as you build lean muscle, the number on the scale should be going up.
Pay attention to the scale, as this is what you'll be making a lot of your nutrition adjustments from. (Take your weight AT LEAST 3x/week, use the average to determine weekly change.)
Aim to gain .25-.5% of body weight per week.
You should also be tracking:
Body measurements - Body measurements give you an idea of what muscle groups are growing, as well as how much your waist is growing. They're also a bit more time consuming, so don't take them as often as weight. Online clients typically take these once per week.
For accuracy, measure in centimeters with a soft tape measure.
1. Chest - Take a circumference measurement, with the tape at the level of the nipples.
2. Bicep - Take a circumference measurement around the biggest part of your right bicep, both relaxed and flexed.
3. Waist - Take a circumference measurement of your torso with the tape 2 cm above the navel, directly over the navel, and 2 cm below the navel.
4. Hips - Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the hips.
5. Thigh - Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the right thigh.
Weight Lifted - If you're making gains, it'll translate over to you being able to do either a) more weight b) more reps with the same weight. Tracking your weight also helps you stay extremely mindful of consistently implementing progressive overload (key to making progress in the gym).
How To Adjust If You're Not Gaining
Ever heard of “hardgainers”? People that claim to be able to eat endless amounts of food, and not gain weight?
In reality, hardgainers either:
1. Haven’t accurately tracked their calorie intake before. They likely eat a lot - at times - and then subconsciously adapt by going long periods of time without eating. This is extremely common with new online clients that claim to be hardgainers.
2. Have an extremely adaptive metabolism. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the daily calories you burn outside of the gym, through activities like fidgeting, pacing, doing chores, etc. NEAT is a BIG part of your metabolism.
In response to overfeeding (eating in a calorie surplus), some people will naturally (without even being conscious of it) increase NEAT. This increases your daily calories burned, and in turn prevents weight gain, despite the fact that you're eating more.
Now, how a clients metabolism reacts to a calorie surplus is highly individual (this is the beauty of having a coach - to see trends and adjust the plan specifically to YOU). But the gist of it is, some people WILL have to increase calories higher than 10% over maintenance in order to see gains.
So, if you’re NOT seeing increases in weight, body measurements (outside of the belly measurements), or strength in the gym after a week, it’s time to increase calories.
Increase your total calorie intake by 5% (via carbs). Continue this weekly until you're gaining in the recommended range.
How To Adjust If You're Gaining Too Fast
If you’re surpassing the recommend rate of gain, bad news - you’re likely adding a lot of excess fat.
Time to dial it back.
Decrease calories by 5%. Repeat this weekly until your rate of gain falls back in the recommended range.
Ideal Starting Body Fat %
All of this is written with the caveat that you’re already relatively lean.
There is most definitely an ideal body fat percentage to be at when bulking:
10-15% for men
15-25% for women
This is where your Partitioning Ratio (P-Ratio) is the best - basically, your body shuttles a great percentage of the nutrients you eat to muscle.
To far below or above this rate, and a much greater percentage of the overall weight you gain will be fat.
Now, you WILL inevitably gain a bit of fat regardless of how well you stick to these guidelines. As you approach 14-15% body fat, your abs will start to disappear, and your P-Ratio will be less than optimal for lean gains.
Although I could (and will) write an entire blog just on mini-cuts, here’s the basic premise:
A mini-cut is an aggressive fat loss phase. The goal here is to drop body fat, and get your P-Ratio back to the optimal range for making gains.
This is NOT a long, drawn out cut. The goal here is to shed excess fat quickly, so you can get back to making lean gains ASAP. This means you can get pretty aggressive with your deficit.
Your mini-cut is in such a short time-period, you don’t need to worry about muscle loss (unless you’re in an extreme deficit).
I’d recommend starting with a 20-30% deficit.
You should be losing ~1% of your total body weight per week. Adjust your deficit (+ or - 5-10%) depending on your rate of weight loss.
Typically, a lean gains approach for an online client looks something like:
Lean gains phase (10-15% surplus): 8-12 weeks
Mini-cut phase (20-30% deficit): 2-6 weeks
Rinse and repeat until you've reached your lean mass goals, or are ready to go into an extended cut.
While your nutrition is incredibly important to making the lean gains dream happen - you can’t build muscle without a proper approach to training. Here's what to do in the gym.
Manipulating Training Volume
Again, since you’re likely coming off of a cut, your training volume likely isn't super high.
Think of your training volume as the total number of hard sets (sets completed with 1-3 reps in the tank) done weekly.
As you know, volume is the main driver of hypertrophy (muscle growth).
So, when an online client enters a lean gains phase, our goal is to gradually drive volume up more and more. If done properly, this WILL lead to more gains (but like everything else, the devil is in the dose here).
As you increase training volume, you increase the amount of growth stimulus you’re hitting your muscles with. You’re also increasing calories burned. Both of these mean your body has an increased need for recovery resources (food).
If we DON’T increase your food intake, but continuously increase training volume, you’ll eventually start to lose weight as a result of all the volume burning tons of calories. While great for fat loss, you’re likely NOT building muscle here.
On the flip-side, if we just keep increasing food intake and don’t increase training volume, you’ll start to gain excess fat.
We gradually drive up both training volume and carbohydrate intake simultaneously. The extra food is helping you recover and grow from the extra volume. The extra volume is helping the extra food be shuttled to muscle, NOT fat storage.
Now, the thing with volume is - if you just take a MASSIVE jump in number of hard sets, your body won’t be able to adapt to the sudden increase and you’ll get worse results.
Volume needs to be increased gradually.
This process for an intermediate/advanced online client typically looks something like:
Weeks 1-8: 4x/week Upper/Lower Training Split
The upper lower split typically allows enough volume to grow coming out of a cutting phase.
At this point, clients typically aren’t ready for any more volume than this. The primary focus the first few weeks after a cut is getting your body and gym performance back to feeling normal after the diet. Training more than this would likely be counter productive.
Weeks 8-16: 5x/week Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Lower -OR- Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper -OR- Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper
By this point, you’re feeling MUCH better post diet, and your body is in a much better place to focus on pushing the training volume in the gym, and focus on building lean mass. Increasing training from 4 to 5 sessions weekly adds quite a bit of training volume, and in turn more gains - if you're recovering well. (Note: this is describing a typical intermediate/advanced trainee. If you're newer to the gym, lifting 5x/week will likely be too much to recover from.)
By the time we hit week 16 of this process, we’ve driven up carbs and training volume quite a bit. From here, you have two options:
1. Keep training 5x/week. The reality is, most people CAN’T work training more than 5x/week into their lifestyle. Unless you have dreams of being a pro bodybuilder, you can get great results training 5x/week.
2. If you're all in on maximizing gains...
Weeks 16 - end of lean gains phase: 6x/week Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower -OR- Lower/Push/Pull/Lower/Push/Pull
This is unrealistic for 90% of online clients, as most people just aren’t willing to devote that much time to the gym. BUT, if your recovery is good, ramping volume up more is a viable option.
In any of these cases, you want to watch out for signs of doing too much:
1. Low motivation to train.
2. Strength is stagnate or regressing.
3. You feel run down/beat up
If this is the case, start by taking a deload week.
A deload is simply a week where your dial back training volume and intensity. This allows your body to drastically reduce fatigue, increases recovery, and in the long-term translates to you making more gains.
Lower RPE (Rate Of Perceived Exertion) on every set by 2 digits.
Drop 1-2 sets from every movement
Reduce load by 20-30%
Regardless, I’d recommend taking a deload week every 10-12 weeks.
If you STILL have the above symptoms, you’re sleeping well, and body weight is increasing (so you know you’re eating enough calories), you’re straight up probably just doing too much.
Start by decreasing each training day by a few hard sets (I would pull hard sets from movements that DON’T focus on muscles you want to prioritize.) From here, decrease training days as necessary.
For more specific details on EXACTLY how to set up:
Your training split... read THIS BLOG.
Each Individual training day... read THIS BLOG.
Getting your training a nutrition on point is crucial - but making sure you’re RECOVERING properly is where we actually facilitate growth. This is where we take everything you’re doing with training and nutrition, and actually turn it into lean gains, instead of just wasted time.
Now, I get it - this shit is boring to talk about - so I’m just going to provide you a recovery checklist, to help optimize your gains:
Appropriate training volume
Deload week minimum every 10-12 weeks
MINIMUM 7 hours of sleep every night (8-9 is MUCH more ideal)
Routines in place to manage life stresses (the most effective way I’ve found to do this with online clients is implementing morning and nighttime routines - I break ‘em down in THIS BLOG.)
Eating 80-90% whole foods
Relatively normal amount of movement/active recovery on off days from gym
And that's the blueprint to achieving lean gains.
Follow this strategy and you WILL the 1% that actually builds muscle mass while staying lean.
If you want more help individualizing your training, nutrition and lifestyle to build your leanest, strongest physique - CLICK HERE to apply for Online Coaching.