If you are into your health and fitness, you have likely heard of the terms ‘bulk’ and ‘cut’, but maybe not lean bulk. These terms characterize the periodization that many fitness men – and sometimes women – go through in order to achieve their ideal physique and optimize their physical performance. In this article we’ll discuss the difference between bulking, cutting and lean bulking; to give you the information you need to achieve your fitness goals efficiently and enjoyably.
What is bulking, cutting and lean bulking?
Your body weight changes based on your energy balance. If you are expending more than you are intaking, your body breaks down energy stores to use for fuel, causing you to be in a negative energy balance; as a result, you will lose weight. If you are intaking more than you are expending, your body stores energy, causing you to be in a positive energy balance; as a result, you will gain weight. This is the basis of bulk/cut periodization.
During a bulking phase, you are in a positive energy balance – intaking more calories than you need and using the extra calories to focus on increasing your strength and muscle size. This is made possible because with extra food comes extra energy: allowing you to hit PRs, recover well and the circulating energy contributes to muscle protein synthesis for maximal muscle growth. The downside of bulking is that you’ll be eating an additional 500 calories more per day at a minimum, which may make you feel nauseous and heavy; also causing you to experience rapid fat gain.
During a cutting phase, you are in a negative energy balance – intake less calories than you are expending. Commonly, this is done through restricting caloric intake and increasing energy expenditure through increased exercise. During a cutting phase, your body breaks down the fat stores that were gained during the bulk, to show the muscular gains that were built during the bulking phase. This sounds great, but in reality – when you cut aggressively, you will break down muscle stores as well as fat stores, which can put you back exactly where you started. Plus, living in a caloric restriction and doing a ton more cardio isn’t an enjoyable way to live, and is associated with low libido, low energy, poor sleep, mood disturbances and cognitive decline.
Here’s your issue: you want to build muscle, but you don’t want the extra fat gain, plus you don’t want to have to go on a prolonged cut just to see your muscle development. So what should you do? Here’s your answer: lean bulk.
What is a lean bulk?
As you may be able to guess, a lean bulk involves increasing your caloric intake slowly and periodically based on how your body is adapting, to provide the additional calories you need to fuel your training and optimize muscle synthesis, without gaining additional body fat and force-feeding yourself.
During this phase, you often start off at maintenance calories, meaning you are intaking as much as you are expending so that your body’s thermogenesis mechanisms are well regulated. You would then increase your calories by around 10 to 20 percent of your total calories and see how your body adapts.
If you are a natural endomorph, predisposed to fat gain, you may want to err on the lower side when increasing your calories. If you are a natural ectomorph, you may have to increase your calories by 40 percent to feel any different and thus, a standard bulk may be better for you. Essentially lean bulking is about listening to your body and closely monitoring your progress, to see how your body is using the additional energy, to ensure it’s being used for muscle growth and strength gains, rather than just being stored as fat.
Lean bulk macros and calories
The specific macronutrient targets and calories will be different for each individual, however there are some aspects of a lean bulking diet that will be standardized for optimal muscle protein synthesis. According to a study published in 2004 by Sports Medicine, the optimal macronutrient breakdown for muscle growth should be 55 to 60 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 15 to 20 percent fat.
Manipulating your carbohydrate intake is arguably the most important part of a lean bulk.
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles as glycogen, the preferred fuel source during exercise activity. When carb intake is high, muscles have plenty of access to glycogen, which has been shown in numerous studies to positively affect anabolism and performance, particularly with individuals partaking with a high training frequency.
Protein intake should be kept high throughout a lean bulk, as its integral to muscle growth and retention. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine assessed the optimal protein intake for muscle gain in 49 studies. This is arguably the most reputable source of analysis, based on the eligibility criteria for each study needing to be a randomized controlled trial lasting for more than six weeks; the gold standard of research.
The researchers found that in every study protein intake positively correlated with muscle size and strength, but there was a cut off point. The upper limit of the benefits of protein capped at 0.7 grams per pound of body weight. This led the researchers to conclude that 0.8 grams per pound – including a double 95 percent confidence level – was the maximum upper limit of protein requirements for healthy individuals.
Lean bulk meal plan
Here’s an example lean bulk meal plan, the quantities can be adjusted to your own specific caloric targets and macros:
2 scoop protein powder
1 slice whole wheat bread with half avocado
10 oz chicken
100g brown rice
Pre workout protein shake with 1 tablespoon peanut butter
10 oz ground beef cooked in 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
100g brown rice
As you can see in the meal plan, the best foods for a lean bulk are:
- Complex carbohydrates (oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread, banana)
- Healthy fats (avocado, extra virgin olive oil, peanut butter)
- Complete proteins (protein powder, beef, chicken)
- Micronutrients (berries, broccoli, banana, peas, avocado)
Some great powders for lean bulking are
If you want to gain muscle and build your strength but you don’t want the downsides of a bulk like fat gain and lethargy, try a lean bulk for optimized training and physique developments.