The Lost Art of Lean Bulking: How To Gain Muscle Without Fat

June 21, 2016 | 188 Comments

lean bulking diet

Updated 08/07/2015: I just updated the article below to include more detailed information on how to structure your calorie surplus while lean bulking plus included more information for women as well..

So lately I’ve been getting a bunch of emails and they look something like this:

  • “Hey Keith, what’s the best way for me to gain muscle without fat. I want to pack on the size but I don’t want my six-pack to disappear.”
  • “Dude I need help gaining muscle but I don’t want to get fat. Is there any way to gain muscle mass without any fat?”
  • “I’m not really looking to lose weight anymore, but how do you build muscle without getting fat?”
  • “Neglected and lonely housewife. Looking for company. Interested?”

So if you’ve ever wondered what the best way to build muscle with minimal fat is, then this is the article for you.

And my best tip for responding to sex messages on the internet? Don’t respond to sex messages on the internet.

Stay safe.

A note to beginners

If you’re a complete beginner who has never weight trained before, then you have no business reading this article.

Read this article instead.

Beginners can get away with eating more calories since they have never been exposed to weight training, thus any extra calories will primarily be used to build muscle.

Whereas on the other hand, intermediate and advanced trainees need to be more careful. They tend store any excess calories as fat since they’ve already gone through the initial “beginners growth spurt.”

Structuring your diet for maximum muscle and minimal fat

Gaining muscle with minimal fat is a relatively simple process.

You simply need to eat more on your training days, and less on your off days.

That’s it, in the simplest explanation possible.

By increasing your caloric intake on training days, you’re ensuring that the excess calories are used to build new muscle tissue.

And by eating less on off days, you’re ensuring that you don’t gain any weight.

Make sense? Cool.

Let’s get into more detail.

Calculating your calories for training days and off days

If you already know your maintenance intake then great, use that.

But if you don’t then here is a crap shoot formula that you can use.

I call it a crap shoot because there are simply too many variables to say any formula is 100% accurate. No matter how complex a formula may seem, in the end, it’s just a formula.

Formula to estimate maintenance intake: 15 kcals x bodyweight in pounds.

Women can start a bit lower and a 14x multiplier.

Like I said, the above formula is a crap shoot but it’s a good starting point.

For example, if you’re a stripper and doing your thing on a pole all night, then you’re going to need more calories than some who’s um…not a stripper.

But if you’re sitting at a cubicle for most of the day, then you’re obviously not going to need that many calories.

Basically the more active you are, the more calories you need.

For lean bulking, here’s what your calorie intake is going to look like:

Training day intake: maintenance intake + approx. 500 calories

Off day intake: maintenance intake + approx. 100 calories 

Why approx. 500 calories  more on training days?

On training days, I want you to eat approximately 500 more calories than your maintenance intake.

I say approximately because it depends on a handful of factors including sex, age, activity levels.

Older guys and women typically need less calories to build muscle. If this is you and you’re only going to the gym and not doing much else, then use a 500 calorie surplus.

But if you’re more active…for example, if you go to college and walk around a lot between classes or have a hard labor job like construction, then you’re probably going to need more than a 500 calorie surplus.

In cases like these, make sure to bump up your calorie surplus anywhere from 700-1000+.

Why approx. 100 calories more on off days? Why not just eat at maintenance levels?

So why do I still want you to eat 100 calories more on off days instead of just staying at maintenance levels?

Because it’s dangerous.

To maximize protein synthesis, you need to be in at least a slight calorie surplus. I have no problem with someone staying at maintenance levels while lean bulking on off days but by doing so you’re being too risky and have a higher chance of being in a deficit than anything else.

This is why you should still aim to be in a slight surplus (i.e. about 100 calories) to reduce any risk.

And no, you won’t get super fat. 100 calories isn’t very much but it’s enough to ensure you’re not in a deficit.

But also remember, if you’re more active on off days, you need to eat more to compensate for whatever extra activity you do.

For example, if you go for a hike on off days, be sure to eat a few extra hundred calories to compensate for the calories burned during the hike.

How should you train?

There is no right or wrong way to train, although most people respond best to hitting each muscle twice per week.

This can easily be done with a 4 day upper/lower body split which has been shown to be incredibly effective with people.

The Titan Series (my intermediate workout series) in Superhero Shredding 2.0 has exactly that.

What’s wrong with traditional bulking?

There are 2 problems with traditional bulking:

1) You get fat as fuck (aka you look like crap)

2) Gaining excess body fat is unhealthy

From a psychological point of view, traditional bulking is 100x easier than losing weight.

You don’t have hunger pangs, you always have energy in the gym, and you can go out to eat stress-free.

This is why people get so excited to bulk. They see it as an excuse to eat whatever they want and rationalize any fat gain with the need to bulk.

Don’t be like most people.

Stay lean and gain muscle.

Patience my friend. Lean bulking takes time. A lot of time.

Remember, the whole point of lean bulking is to gain muscle with minimal fat.

And when you’re not gaining a lot of fat like most people, you’re going to think that you’re not progressing.

If you’re like most intermediate trainers, you shouldn’t expect to gain more than 1 pound of muscle per month.

Sounds pretty shitty, huh?

But what were you expecting?

Everyone has a genetic muscular limit and the more muscle you continue to gain, the slower the gains will come.

And the “1 pound per month” refers to pure 100% lean muscle tissue. If you add 1 pound of muscle, especially if it’s to your arms or shoulders…the differences in your physique are going to be pretty massive.

Bulking foods
These are one pound steaks. Imagine these being added to your physique. Oh yeah…


Basically here’s lean bulking in a nutshell:

  • Traditional bulking for non-beginners is unnecessary, sloppy, and unhealthy.
  • Eat approx. 500 more calories on your training days depending on your sex, gender, and activity levels.
  • Eat approx. 100 more calories on off days depending on your activity levels.
  • Train each muscle group 2x per week with a well-structured program.
  • Don’t expect to gain more than 1 pound of muscle per month (yeah, muscle growth is painfully slow once you past the newbie stages)

Have a question on lean bulking.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

188 Comments - Leave Your Thoughts

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  1. Hey Keith,

    I’m 15 years old, and I’m 5’9″ and 125 pounds. I’ve lifted for 3 years now, but I am also a competitive swimmer (I lift about 3-4 times a week for 45 minutes, and swim 6-7 days a week for 1.5-2 hours). Right now, I eat around 2300-2500 calories a day, and at my most recent doctors check-up, my doctor said I am completely fine, but he would like to see some weight gain. I burn roughly 800-1000 calories per swim practice, and that is not including weight training. I also go to a big high school, and walk a lot between classes and getting too and from school. How much would you recommend I eat a day? I am trying to hit 140 lbs, but still remain fast in the pool, and not gain too much fat (I am currently rocking a 6-pack, and I’d like to keep it that way haha).

    1. Your #1 goal should be to eat slightly above maintenance levels each day to provide the optimal environment for building muscle.

      So if u burn 1000 cals swimming, you need to eat 1000 more cals on the days you swim.

      I would definitely avoid falling into the trap of trying to maintain your exact level of body fat while you gain muscle. You won’t get fat if you eat more but in order to build muscle, a slight increase in fat is almost always inevitable.

      I would multiply your bodyweight by 16 to get your starting daily calorie intake. And on the days you train add 800-1000 cals on top of that.

    1. If you gain, let’s say 1/2 a pound of muscle in 3 weeks, it would be incredibly difficult to distinguish what % of that is fat since 1/2 a pound of anything is hard to measure on a scale.

      So in short, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can give you a definitive answer on that.

      Best solution is to take tape measurements around your waist and make sure that’s not creeping up too much.

  2. Hey keith I’m a 18 year old skinny guy that weighs 240 lbs and that has been weight lifting since i was 15 i eat around 2,000 calories a day but never seen any results how many calories do you recommend for me to get a perfectly good physique I’m 5/8 of height

    1. assuming you’re trying to lose weight, 2000 calories should definitely work.

      Are you 100% sure you’re counting calories correctly and not overestimating?

      1. I’m positive I’m not overestimating and i don’t want to loose weight i want to gain weight well muscle but my fast metabolism won’t let me.

  3. Hi. Can I bulk if I’m doing body workout? Or it’s too Low intensity and lead to most fat gain? Basically I’m doing squads, push-ups, lunges, rows, planks and jumping jacks all out for 20min with less rest in between if needed for 3 times per week. And also I’m doing slow relaxing Swimming on off days. By the way I’m 19 years old about 5ft 5 , 132lbs. Skinny and abit of fat here and there. I got abit of experience on weight lifting last time but due to minior injuries I have stopped and gotten lazy until now. My goal is to get big and muscular. Thanks very much .

    1. If you’re a beginner, yes it can help build some muscle. But after a while you’ll find that bodyweight exercises alone wont provide enough resistance to build muscle and you’ll need to start adding some weights to the equation.

  4. Hi Keith,

    I’m an intermediate “weight lifter”. I’m 5’8 and 123 pounds. I’m trying to build booty but still stay toned in other areas. I’m not sure what to do anymore, I think I’ve hit a plateau. I want to be more toned but build a bigger booty. I’m afraid to gain weight and afraid to lose too much weight. I train legs 2-3x a week and I also box about 2-3x a week as well. In boxing I burn at least 700 calories or less. What’s the best way to gain muscle mass in my ass? Thanks

    1. You’re afraid of fat gain, not weight gain because you want to gain weight in your booty.

      If you’re already training legs 2-3x per week, that’s definitely enough frequency. But you need to be eating in a small surplus. Doesn’t need to huge, but you def need a tiny surplus.

      Of course you still need to make sure you’re progressively getting stronger in your workouts in some way, shape or form. And of course, do exercises that target the glutes properly.

  5. Hi Keith my name is Drew I’m 5’11 172lbs , and I am a competitive swimmer who swims 6 days a week for 2 hours and I burn anywhere from 1000-1500 calories a practice, and I also like to lift 3-4 times a week, and I do a lot of core training. My goal is to be gaining lean muscle while dropping my body fat percentage. I used to be addicted to video games and food and I used to weigh 235 and I lost a lot of weight, and I am just really scared of gaining fat back and not muscle. It’s just I train like an athlete, and I kinda look like one, but I wanna get more ripped and have a bigger lean body, and not look fat. I can also feel my abs hiding under some fat and loose skin and they are like rock hard and only show a little bit. It would really mean a lot if you could give me some advice. It’s just I don’t know what I would do if I got fat again, because I am not a smart guy in the classroom. Thanks for your time (if you reply).

    1. Are you beginner? If not, you’re not gonna lose weight and build muscle at the same time. It’s better to focus on lean bulking first. At your height, i doubt you’re “fat”

        1. if you eat in a slight deficit and start lifting consistently, you should lose fat and build muscle at the same time. Just make sure your swimming isn’t impacting your ability to lift with intensity.

  6. Hi Keith! I would consider myself an intermediate “weight lifter”. I’m 21 and around 110 pounds and 5’1. I want to lose fat from my stomach, but also gain a booty. I’m not sure whether to bulk or cut. I feel when I cut i lose too much muscle while I’m at it. I do about 3 leg sessions a week and 2 upper body. I’m not sure what to do to lose the excess fat in my stomach but also gain in my legs and booty. I also am confused on whether I should be doing HIIT cardio or LISS.
    Thank you so much for this article! It was super helpful.

    1. Cardio isn’t really what determines if you gain muscle or not. Building mass comes down to increasing work load and eating a bit more. That’s it.

      Hard to say if u should cut or bulk, but if u dont have a lot of fat, then just do a lean bulk.

  7. Hi,

    Any suggestions on: 155 lbs , 5 feet 10 and 14,5 body fat %..
    Lean bulk or normal bulk? Slight deficit and high protein?

  8. Hi there

    Need a bit of help! I’m female , 5ft 8, weight 9st 10 and believe I am eating to little calories, I weight train and also do around a 20 minute circuit too at CrossFit 5 days a week. . Currently sitting at 1700 calories and track macros too. I’ve come to a plateau and my body shape isn’t changing that much. I want to gain more muscle but of course worried about putting on fat. When I do up my calories and carbs I feel bloated and lose definition on my stomach. I would like to gain more muscle definition and get rid of the last stubborn bits of fat around my hips. Should I be now leam bulking ? And if so would 2000 be too high to aim for ? Thanks


    1. 1700 doesnt seem like enough to do a lean bulk. That puts you closer to a deficit. It’s pretty much impossible to gain 100% muscle with zero fat. You can minimize it by controlling the surplus but trying to never gain fat is unlikely.

      A little over 2000 is good for training days. Of course you also need to make sure your form is on point.

  9. Hi Keith! Thanks for the article and thanks for getting back to every single one of the comments, I’m sure we all appreciate it. I’m a female, 5’1,115lb low intermediate weight lifter currently cutting (goal is 110lb). Measurements are Bust 35in, Waist 26.5in, Hips 36.5in. I’ve got a little booty but I want it bigger, also want to lose thigh circumference and define my stomach. Otherwise I’m happy with my body. My Fitbit says I need about 1700 calories per day for maintenance. Once I finish my cut should I do lean bulk or recomp? Or a quick traditional bulk with a focus on bum? I’ve never properly bulked before but I’ve been lifting for a few years.


    1. dont do recomp. It’s pretty much pointless for anyone who is past the beginner stage of lifting. Do lean bulk and train glutes 2-3x per week.

  10. Hey!
    im 5,7 and 172 pounds, so i want to do a lean bulk, to lose fat and gain more muscle.
    i am eating about 2000-23000. shouldi i increase the amount of kcals? or is it enough?

    1. Uh well the def of a lean bulk is to gain muscle with minimal amounts of fat. You will not be a happy man if you try to lose fat and gain muscle.

    1. that’s the thing, it’s very hard to do both at the same time unless you are a beginner. So if you are a beginner trying to lose fat and you’ve never lifted before, chances are you’ll lost fat and build muscle at the same time.

  11. Hey Keith,

    I’m 6’ 3” and about 190 lbs. Used to focus only on cardio but have been hitting the gym for about 6 months now and have gotten leaner and have had some muscle gains. Not trying to put on fat so obviously lean bulk seems like the way to go. I pretty much eat the same thing every day and probably average 2400-2700 calories. Am I hitting a high enough number? Don’t want to gain fat back as I used to weigh as much as 240. Not running as much as I used to either as I lost too much weight and really restricted my eating.

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