Illustration of a skinny guy doing a lean bulk, gaining no visible fat.

One of the most common issues that us skinny guys run into while bulking is gaining too much fat. For someone who’s already muscular, gaining some fat makes them look beefy. Not a big deal. But for someone who’s still fairly thin, it can make us look skinny-fat. It can make us look worse than when we started. Better to bulk more leanly, right?

Thing is, when you look up how to do a lean bulk, you’ll hear about how you need to gain weight very slowly—just a pound or so per month. You might hear about how you need to restrict certain foods or eat a cleaner diet. And sure, those can be factors. But one of the best ways to build muscle more leanly is to stimulate more muscle growth. After all, the faster we’re building muscle, the more calories are being invested in lean mass, leaving fewer that can spill over into fat storage. This is especially powerful for us skinny guys, given how much more muscle mass our frames can hold.

So in this article, we’ll cover why people gain fat while bulking, how to gain muscle faster, how to minimize fat storage, and how to do a proper lean bulk.

Illustration showing a man bulking leanly, losing fat as he gains weight.

What is Lean Bulking?

So, first of all, there are a lot of terms that get thrown around:

  • Bulking: going into a calorie surplus to facilitate muscle growth.
  • Lean bulking: going into a calorie surplus to facilitate muscle growth while also trying to minimize fat gain.
  • Aggressive bulking: going into a calorie surplus with the goal of maximizing muscle growth.
  • Dreamer bulking: attempting to bulk up but accidentally becoming chubby instead.

What complicates things a little bit is that most people who bulk are trying to gain muscle, not fat. And we’re no exception. We always recommend minimizing fat gain. So keep in mind that whenever we talk about bulking—even when we’re talking about aggressive bulking—we’re always trying to gain more muscle, less fat.

What separates a regular bulk from a bonafide lean bulk, though, is that instead of trying to fully maximize muscle growth, the goal is to truly minimize fat gain. That shifts the priorities around a little bit. It often means gaining weight less quickly, building muscle more slowly, but cutting our fat gains way down. Many people prefer this approach, and it’s one of the two paths we recommend in our bulking programs.

There’s a second disadvantage to lean bulking, though. There’s a smaller calorie surplus, giving us a smaller margin for error. It’s very easy to under-eat by just a little bit, fail to get into a calorie surplus, and fail to gain any muscle that day, or that week, or that month. Or it’s possible to overeat one day, gaining both muscle and fat, and then under-eat the next day, failing to gain any muscle. So what people often do while lean bulking is to track their calorie, protein, carb, and fat intake using a calorie tracking app. That way they can keep a small, precise daily calorie surplus.

People who are new to bulking often find it much easier to eat in a larger calorie surplus, gaining weight faster. That way even if they mess up a little bit, they’re still gaining muscle at a good pace. They gain a bit more fat, yes, but sometimes having more reliable muscle and strength gains can be worth it. It all depends on your goals and how precise you’re willing to be with your diet.

Setting Realistic Lean Bulking Expectations

How Fast Can You Build Muscle?

How fast you can build muscle depends on several factors, ranging from genetics to how stressful your lifestyle is. But one of the biggest factors is how far you are from your genetic potential—how much room on your frame you have for muscle growth. And this can vary widely when comparing guys people against overweight guys.

According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the average American man weighs 200 pounds and has 80 pounds of muscle mass. And if you ask most muscle-building experts, most agree that the average man can add around 40 pounds of muscle to his frame (naturally), with steadily diminishing returns as he gains more of that muscle. That gives us a chart that looks something like this:

Diagram showing how fast the average person can gain muscle mass, giving us an idea of how quickly we should gain weight during a lean bulk.

This assumes that people are gaining muscle at full speed right from their very first workout, and that they don’t ever take a break from lifting, or from eating in an optimal calorie surplus. Almost nobody builds muscle that quickly or that steadily. But it’s theoretically possible.

Anyway, we’re seeing that the typical beginner can gain around 20 pounds of muscle during their first year of training for muscle growth. That early phase of rapid muscle growth is often called “newbie gains.” But what happens if a beginner is starting off with even less muscle mass, even further away from their genetic potential?

During my first two years of serious training, I gained 55 pounds, finishing with no visible fat gain. That doesn’t mean I gained pure muscle, it just means that at a glance, my gains appeared to be lean. While doing that, my roommate at the time gained 27 pounds in 4 months, with 3 of those months spent bulking, 1 spent cutting. By the end of it, he looked visibly leaner than when he started:

Before and after photos showing Jared's results from doing a lean bulk and then a cut.
My business partner and former roommate, Jared Polowick.

There isn’t a lot of research looking into why our results are so exaggerated, but we’ve seen this same accelerated rate of muscle growth play out time and time again over the past ten years, helping over 10,000 naturally skinny guys bulk up. As skinny guys, we tend to be able to gain muscle quite a bit faster than the average beginner.

Diagram showing how skinny guys might be able to build muscle faster than the average man.

My guess is that our faster rate of muscle growth can be explained by our skinnier starting point. For example, if we imagine a skinny guy starting off with half the muscle mass of the average man—40 pounds instead of 80—then we have a guy with far more room for muscle growth on his frame, and so his rate of muscle growth is much faster when he first starts bulking. To be clear, this is hypothetical, but it lines up with our own personal experience as skinny guys, as well as our experience coaching thousands of others.

Now, one common objection is that skinny guys have a lower muscle-building potential. That’s not necessarily true, and even when it is, it’s grossly exaggerated. Some skinny guys have a tremendous potential for muscle growth, but there is some truth to the idea that the narrower our bones are, the less muscle mass they can support. For example, if your wrists are smaller than average, you may not be able to build your arms quite as big as a guy with thicker wrists. And a common trait of so-called “ectomorphs” is to have narrow bones. According to the research of Dr Casey Butts, this tends to give us a disadvantage of around 10% compared to the average man, giving us a graph more like this:

Graph showing that skinny "ectomorphs" tend to have a lower muscular potential than the average man.

If you’re skinny right now, I wouldn’t assume that you have a lower muscle-building potential. I have extremely narrow bones and very small wrists, and so I assumed that I was destined to be smaller and weaker than most other guys. I remember wondering if it would be possible to bulk up to 150 pounds and bench press 185 before hitting my genetic potential. But I built muscle quite fast, quite leanly, and the other day, at a bodyweight of 195, I benched 315 pounds. Your potential may be higher than you think, and it’s hard to tell based on your starting point.

We’ll go over some more examples in a second, but to summarize, how fast you can build muscle depends on how much room for muscle growth there is on your frame. If you’re skinny, there’s a ton of room on your frame, and so you can probably gain muscle faster than the average man, and so even when lean bulking, you can be more aggressive.

How Leanly Can You Build Muscle?

If you do a proper lean bulk, you should be able to build muscle quite leanly, especially if you’re a beginner or early intermediate, and especially if you’re naturally skinny. For example, here’s one of our members after going through the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program:

Before and after photos of a skinny guy doing a lean bulk.

He bulked quite aggressively, but he was following a good hypertrophy program, eating a good diet, and his lifestyle was on point. That allowed him to gain muscle quickly and leanly, and he was able to finish his bulk looking leaner than when he started.

Now, some people see this and think that this is what a typical lean bulk looks like. They compare themselves against this and are disappointed if they lose site of their abs. Thing is, GK started off quite thin, he was following a professionally designed muscle-building program, he was consistent week after week, and his genetics surely played a role, too.

Before and after progress photos showing Shane Duquette doing a lean bulk.
Shane Duquette gaining 20 pounds in 3 months.

For a more typical example, here’s my second bulk. I had already gone from 130 pounds up to 150 pounds, and here I am gaining another 20, as described in this article. To do that, I gained around a pound per week on the scale, I followed a good workout program, and I was consistent with my diet and lifestyle. In the end, I gained some fat, but it was stretched thinner over my larger muscles, and you can’t really see it. This is typical with lean bulking. You do gain some fat, it’s just that you don’t really notice it very much.

Most people do gain at least a little bit of fat while lean bulking. But the alternative would be to slow your rate of muscle growth so dramatically that you barely gain anything at all. In most cases, it’s better to accept at least a small amount of fat gain. And hopefully that fat gain won’t be noticeable.

How Fast to Gain Weight During a Lean Bulk

Okay, so we’ve talked about how fast the average person can build muscle, how skinny guys can often gain muscle faster, and how leanly you can expect to build muscle depending on how quickly you want to build muscle. The next thing to consider is whether there’s an advantage to intentionally pushing our calorie intake higher, and that’s a tough question to answer.

Let’s say that you gain 0.5 pounds of muscle per week. That might allow you to build muscle leanly, making it great for a lean bulk. But is that enough to maximize your rate of muscle growth? Would you gain muscle even faster if you gained a full pound per week? What about 2 pounds per week?

Diagram showing that lean bulking reduces fat gain at the cost of reducing muscle growth.

In our article about how quickly to gain weight while bulking, we cover a recent study that compared a lean bulking group gaining 1 pound per week against an aggressive bulking group gaining 2 pounds per week. We go into more of the nuance in the other article, but to make it simple, the lean bulking group gained 5 times less fat, but at the cost of only gaining half as much muscle.

What’s interesting is that if we look at a systematic review on how quickly we should gain weight to build muscle leanly, we get a recommendation to use a surplus of 350–500 calories, which means gaining about 0.7–1 pound per week. With this slower rate of weight gain, we’d expect even less fat gain, but also slightly less muscle growth.

To summarize, there are some skinny beginners who might want to gain more than a pound per week while bulking, and it may indeed help them gain muscle faster… but at the cost of gaining more fat. Gaining 0.5–1 pound per week tends to allow for lean gains while still building muscle quite fast, making it a good default pace for most skinny guys. But if you’re trying to do a bonafide lean bulk, use the slowest rate, aiming to gain just 0.5 pounds per week.

How to Train for Lean Muscle Growth

By far the most important part of limiting fat gain while bulking is to lift for pure muscle growth. Don’t do strength training, a bodyweight fitness routine, or CrossFit. Those are all perfectly good forms of exercise, but they aren’t designed with a primary goal of stimulating muscle growth. And if you’re stimulating less muscle growth, then more of the extra calories you’re eating will spill over into fat gain.

Illustration of a skinny ectomorph doing an underhand chin-up.

To build muscle quickly and leanly, you should train specifically for muscle growth. Most people call that “bodybuilding,” but that word carries some baggage to some people—thongs, spray tans, too many isolation lifts, and so on. But that’s not quite the right word anyway. The term we’re looking for is hypertrophy training, aka, muscle-growth training. Here’s a rough idea of how to do that:

  • Choose good exerciseswe want to build our routines on a foundation of compound lifts, such as the front squatbench press, deadliftoverhead press, and chin-up. After that, we can add in smaller lifts to work the muscles that aren’t being fully stimulated, such as our biceps, triceps, side delts, neck muscles, and so on. But those smaller lifts are icing on the cake—most of our growth will come from the big compound lifts.
  • Do enough sets per weekmost research shows that doing somewhere between 9–18 sets per muscle per week is ideal for building muscle.
  • Do enough reps per setanywhere from 4–40 repetitions per set will build muscle, but we tend to gain more muscle more easily when lifting in the 6–20 rep range. Usually, the big compound lifts are done for lower reps and the lighter isolation lifts for higher reps. For instance, squats for 6 reps, bench press for 10 reps, and lateral raises for 15 reps.
  • Rest long enough between setswe usually need to rest somewhere between 1–5 minutes between sets, allowing us to lift harder in subsequent sets. This allows us to lift more weight overall, stimulating more muscle growth. A good rule of thumb is to let your breathing return to normal before starting your next set.
  • Train often enoughto maximize our rate of muscle growth, we want to train our muscles 2–4 times per week. Newer lifters tend to do well with 3 full-body workouts per week, whereas stronger intermediate lifters often benefit from training 4 days per week. But there’s lots of room for personal preference here.
  • Train hard enoughto make sure that we’re challenging our muscles, we need to bring our sets within 0–3 reps of failure on most sets.
  • Outlift yourself: we don’t need to hit PRs every workout, but we should always try to either add weight to the bar or eke out extra reps. That’s how we achieve progressive overload, becoming bigger and stronger over time. This is arguably the most important point. You absolutely need to make sure that you’re continuing to get stronger.

This might go without saying, but also make sure to train all of your muscles, and especially the biggest ones. Most people know to do the bench press and the biceps curl, but make sure that you’re squatting and deadlifting hard, and doing plenty of chin-up and rows. The more overall muscle mass you stimulate, the more muscle you’ll build, and the fewer calories will be left to spill over into fat gain.

To summarize, if your goal is to build muscle quickly and leanly, then the very most important factor is to choose a good hypertrophy training program. The more muscle growth you can stimulate with your training, the more muscle you’ll build and less fat you’ll store.

The Lean Bulking Diet

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Once you’ve optimized your lifting routine for muscle growth—including finding a good workout program, following it consistently, and making sure that you’re pushing yourself hard enough—the next thing to consider is your protein intake.

Illustration of turkey, a lean protein source that can be used for lean bulking.

Most lifters know that they should be eating at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day. So at 170 pounds, that means eating at least 136 grams of protein per day. And that’s fairly simple in theory. Still, some people mess it up. It can take some effort to bring your protein intake that high. Plus, it helps if you spread that protein out over several meals, including at least 20 grams of protein in breakfast, lunch, dinner, and maybe a snack or two.

So if you’re having trouble gaining muscle leanly, consider tracking your protein intake for a couple of weeks to make sure that you’re consistently getting enough protein per meal and per day.

Eating Real, Good Food

Once you’ve got your ideal protein intake figured out, the next step is to make sure that most of your calories are coming from whole foods. We have an article going over good bulking foods, but you don’t need to eat specific foods, you just need to be eating real, good food.

Illustration of a man eating a lean bulking diet.

For an idea of what that might look like, here are some popular bulking foods that are good for building lean muscle:

  • Trail mix
  • Bananas
  • Dried fruits
  • Any fruits
  • Any vegetables
  • Nuts (and nut butters)
  • Muesli cereal
  • Beans and any legumes
  • Rice—white or brown
  • Protein powders
  • Smoothies
  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Fatty fish (and fish oil)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Ground meat
  • Any sort of chicken
  • Oats
  • Eggs

Now, the thing to note here isn’t the specific foods themselves, just that they’re all whole foods, with perhaps a slight emphasis on lean protein, starchy carbs, fruits and veggies, and unsaturated fats. The main thing, though, is avoiding deep-fried foods, industrially processed fats, and all of the stuff you already know is junk food.

When I was living in Toronto, I was getting my carbs from bananas, muesli, berries, and potatoes. I’d make meals like chilis and curries. Now that I’m living in the Caribbean, I’m getting more of my carbs from tortillas, corn, white rice, beans, mangos and passion fruit. My wife enjoys cooking meals like paellas and seafood stews. In both cases, despite eating a different lean bulking diet, I’m eating real food that I enjoy.

Finally, it’s okay to have some junk food sometimes. It’s okay if you add some sugar to your coffee, and it’s certainly okay to make your veggies with butter instead of olive oil. The trick is to make sure that your diet is good overall, that most of the food you eat is minimally processed. All we’re trying to achieve is balance. And so as a default, we like to aim for a loose target of 80% whole foods.

To summarize, most of our calories should come from real food. When picking those foods, veer towards lean protein sources (like chicken and fish), starchy carbs (like rice and legumes), and unsaturated fats (like nuts and olive oil). But any whole foods are good, and the specific foods you pick probably won’t have a noticeable impact on how leanly you build muscle.

Lean Bulking Macros

The energy we get from food comes in several forms: protein (amino acids), carbs (glucose), fats (fatty acids), and margaritas (alcohol). These different forms of energy are called macronutrients, or “macros.”

  • Protein: contains 4 calories per gram, is used to build lean mass, is easily burned off as heat, and is very difficult to store as body fat.
  • Carbs: contain 4 calories per gram, are used as our primary source of fuel, are stored in our muscles as glycogen, they improve our ability to build muscle, and are very difficult to store as body fat.
  • Fats: contain 9 calories per gram, are used as a secondary source of fuel, are an important part of maintaining healthy hormone production, and are super easily stored as body fat.
  • Alcohol: contains 7 calories per gram, and is generally fine in moderation, and you can read more about how it affects muscle growth and fat gain here.
Illustration of a bowl of rice, a great source of carbs when trying to hit your lean bulking macros.

Once you’re eating enough protein and getting most of your calories from whole foods, your diet is solid. You don’t need to track your macros. But if you’re determined to bulk as leanly as possible, it might be able to help in a small way, especially if you discover that your diet is disproportionately high in fat compared to carbs.

Graph showing muscle growth and fat storage while bulking on carbs or fat.

As we cover in our article on bulking macros, it seems that when thin people overfeed on a higher-fat diet, they tend to gain more body fat and less muscle mass than when they bulk on a higher carbohydrate diet. For example, this 2-week study found the results shown in the graph above, with the high-carb group gaining muscle faster and more leanly. Now, is that a big deal? No, not really. The differences are fairly small, and it’s only a 2-week study. Hardly conclusive evidence.

The case for a higher-carb diet becomes more compelling when we consider that lifting weights is an activity that runs on glycogen, and the more carbs that we eat, the more glycogen we store in our muscles. That becomes even more compelling when we consider that even simply having more glycogen in our muscles seems to increase the rate with which we can build muscle. Plus, packing our muscles full of glycogen makes them look fuller and harder, improving our appearance.

Illustration of a skinny bodybuilder bulking up leanly.

If this sounds controversial, it shouldn’t. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends getting most of our extra calories from carbs, which often works out to around 40–60% of our overall calories. The National Strength & Conditioning association makes similar recommendations, noting that getting 45–65% of our calories from carbohydrates tends to be best for our general health, best for weight training, and best for gaining muscle. This recommendation also lines up with bodybuilding research looking into muscle growth (studystudy). And if we look at expert recommendations, such as from the hypertrophy researcher Eric Helms, PhD, his default lean bulking diet has around 50% of calories coming from carbohydrates.

Now, this doesn’t mean that fat is bad or that you should avoid it. And it doesn’t mean that if you want to eat more fat, it will ruin your ability to build muscle leanly. We’re just talking about a default diet, here. If you want to eat more fats and fewer carbs, that’s okay. It shouldn’t have a huge impact on your results. But to make the leanest gains, eating more carbs tends to help.

The other thing to consider is appetite. If you’re someone who has a hard time eating enough calories to gain weight, then eating a balance of carbs and fats tends to make that easier. If you go all the way towards a low-carb, ketogenic diet, not only are you missing out on the muscle-building advantages of carbs, but you may also find it hard to gain weight, which will sabotage your ability to gain muscle.

So, if your goal is to fully optimize your diet for a lean bulk, what you’ll want to do is:

  • Eat enough protein to maximize your rate of muscle growth, which is at least 0.8 grams per pound bodyweight per day. This will probably be around 20% of your total calorie intake, but we aren’t using protein for energy, we’re using it to build lean mass, and so we care more about how many grams you’re eating.
  • Get most of your energy from carbs, with at least 40% of your calories coming from carbohydrates, and perhaps as much as 60%. That will probably wind up being 3–4 grams of carbs per pound bodyweight, but we’re mainly using carbs as a source of energy, so it makes more sense to calculate them as a percentage of our energy intake.
  • Fill in the rest of your diet with fats, with something like 20–30% of you calories coming from fat. If you’re tracking what type of fat you’re eating, try to split it between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Most people get enough saturated fat already (from dairy, eggs, meat, and coconut oil), so that typically means intentionally eating more nuts, olive oil, fatty seafood, fish oil, and avocados.
Ketogaining: can keto be used for and bodybuilding and bulking?

To summarize, when setting up your macros for a lean bulk, first make sure that you’re eating enough protein (at least 0.8 grams per pound bodyweight per day), then make sure that you’re eating enough fat (20–30% is ideal), and then fill in the rest of your calories with carbohydrates, which is where most of your energy should come from. If 40–60% of your calories are coming from carbs, great. But this is a more minor factor, so feel free to adjust it according to your preference.

How Often Should You Eat?

People can build muscle with a variety of meal schedules. Some people do LeanGains intermittent fasting, eating 2–3 meals within an 8-hour window. Other people use a classic bodybuilding meal schedule, eating every 3–4 hours. Both of those approaches can work, but for skinny guys who are trying to do a lean bulk, the bodybuilding approach tends to work best.

When we eat a meal that contains enough protein in it—at least 20 grams—we trigger a small burst of muscle growth, like so:

Diagram showing that our meals trigger muscle growth, and so to gain muscle faster and more leanly, we should eat more meals per day.

When we’re spreading out our meals over the course of the day, we’re getting plenty of opportunities to eat protein, plenty of opportunities to get our calories in. That allows us to maximize our rate of muscle growth throughout the day, and the faster we can build muscle, the fewer calories are left to spill over into fat gains.

Graph showing that we should eat more often during a lean bulk because each meal triggers muscle growth.

So, how many meals should you eat to fully maximize your rate of muscle growth? 3 meals per day will get you pretty close. 4 meals is probably slightly better. And by eating 5 meals per day, you might get a tiny extra advantage. So for optimal results, aim to eat at least 3 meals per day, and perhaps as many as 5.

Now, with that said, this is a fairly minor factor, and there’s still plenty of room for flexibility. You could eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then add a snack or two. And that’s perfect. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

To summarize, when organizing your meal schedule for a lean bulk, it can help to eat 3–5 meals spread out somewhat evenly over the course of the day. But not all of your meals need to be meals. A smoothie, snack, protein bar, or protein shake will do the trick.

Lean Bulking Supplements

There are a few supplements that can help with building muscle. Of them, the best are creatine, protein powder, and caffeine. The creatine can speed up our rate of muscle growth, which can help us bulk up more leanly. The protein powder can help us eat enough protein. And caffeine can help improve our energy levels, motivation, and workout performance.

You may also have some nutrients that you’re not getting enough of, such as vitamin D, magnesium, or zinc—all of which are popular bodybuilding and strength training supplements. In that case, supplementing might help.

Beyond that, most supplements have pretty lacklustre results. You can supplement with, say, citrulline malate, spirulina, or ashwagandha, and maybe it will help, but probably not noticeably.

Sample Lean Bulking Meal Plan

There’s no specific diet or meal plan that’s ideal for lean bulking. Still, there are some things you can do to gain muscle faster and more leanly. As a default, we recommend eating 3–5 meals per day (including snacks), having some protein in every meal, and eating plenty of carbohydrates—around 40–60% of the calories you’re eating.

In my case, my lean bulking diet looks like this:

  • First thing in the morning: coffee and a Quest bar
  • Mid-morning breakfast: a smoothie with some yoghurt, oats, fruits, nuts, spinach, and protein powder.
  • Lunch: leftovers, meat tacos, or some stew.
  • Before dinner: 1–2 margaritas or beers.
  • Dinner: salmon with broccoli and rice, or chili, or paella, or pasta.
  • Before bed: oatmeal mixed with casein, almond milk, greek yoghurt, and blueberries.
Illustration of a bowl of oatmeal, a popular food for lean bulking.

This is just what I like to eat. Your diet should be made out of things that you like to eat. Still, there are a few principles I’m thinking about, and if you understand how those work, you should be able to build your own lean bulking diet that works just as well.

  1. The overall amount of food I’m eating is enough for me to gain around 0.5 pounds on the scale each week, which is a good pace for building muscle leanly.
  2. I’m eating 156+ grams of protein per day (at a bodyweight of 195 pounds), which is enough protein to maximize my rate of muscle growth.
  3. Each of my 5 meals and snacks has at least 20 grams of protein in it, which is an ideal protein distribution for building muscle throughout the day.
  4. Around 80% of my calories are coming from nutritious whole foods, leaving another 20% of my calories to come from Quest bars and margaritas, which I enjoy quite a lot.
  5. When I’m adding calories into my diet, I’m leaning towards starchy carbs: fruits, pasta, rice, oats. That’s where I get most of my extra energy from.
  6. When I’m thinking of what fats to eat, I already eat some cheese, eggs, and meat, so I try to include more olive oil, nuts, and seafood. That gives me a more balanced fat intake.

Get Enough Good Sleep

Once you’re training for muscle growth and eating a good lean bulking diet, the next thing to look at is your sleep. A recent study found that when lifters were taught how to improve their sleep, they gained muscle 30% faster than the control group:

Graph showing faster muscle growth from improving sleep.

And, thinking logically, if more of the calories you’re eating are going towards muscle growth, then fewer will go towards fat gain, right? So we’d also expect that improving our sleep might allow us to gain something like 30% less fat, right? But that wasn’t the case. It turns out that the group who improved their sleep were building more muscle from fewer calories, achieving simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss:

Graph showing less fat gain while bulking from improving sleep.

This study isn’t an outlier, either. Previous research found the same effect. And we also see the same effect when people are given supplements that improve their sleep, such as melatonin (study). As time goes on, it’s becoming more and more clear that by improving our sleep, we can reliably gain less fat while bulking.

What’s especially cool about these studies is that anyone can replicate them. These participants weren’t put in a sleep lab, they were just given a few simple instructions about how to get better sleep:

  1. Get enough sleep: 7–8 hours is enough for most people. I recommend giving yourself 8–8.5 hours and then seeing if you wake up early. Then, if you find that you’re routinely waking up after 7 hours feeling refreshed, great. Switch to 7 hours.
  2. Get better quality sleep: the next thing is trying to get deep, restful sleep without waking up more than once per night. Dimming the lights in the evening and doing something relaxing in the hour leading up to your bedtime can help a great deal.

We can go much deeper on how to improve your sleep, though, and each of these points has some nuance. If you want more, check out our article on improving sleep for lean muscle growth.

By getting 7–9 hours of good quality sleep each night, you can radically improve your ability to build muscle leanly, making it one of the more important aspects of doing a lean bulk. More important than macros or supplements, without a doubt.

Live a Healthy Lifestyle

The next thing to consider is that you aren’t living an unbalanced or unhealthy lifestyle. We’ve covered all of the major points of training, diet, and sleep, but that doesn’t account for all of the other things in your life.

Illustration of a margarita.
  • Are most of your calories coming from whole foods?
  • Are you limiting yourself to 0–2 margaritas per day?
  • Do you spend some time being active, such as doing some cardio, playing sports, or going on daily walks?
  • Are you regularly getting outside and getting some sun? And if not, have you checked your vitamin D levels?
  • Are you managing your overall stress okay? Is life good?

None of those things are major factors for building muscle or avoiding fat gain on their own, but when you add them up, they may have a noticeable effect. If your lean bulk is going sideways, it’s wise to double check that your overall lifestyle is doing alright. You probably know most of this stuff already, but maybe you’ve been forgetting to ever go outside. Ever since Demon’s Souls came out on PS5, I have been living in a blissful dungeon. But maybe I shouldn’t be.

For more, we have a full article on how to bulk the healthy way.

Are There Any Secret Methods?

So far, all of this might seem fairly conventional. Follow a good workout program, eat enough protein, get enough sleep, live a healthy lifestyle, and don’t gain weight too quickly. But what about the secret, advanced methods that people are using?

It’s possible to dive deeper into bulking and find little ways to improve our routines. And those little tips and tricks might indeed help us build muscle a little bit faster or gain slightly less fat. But these are very modest benefits. The heavy hitters are the fundamentals, the conventional bulking methods. Lift well, eat well, eat enough protein, live healthy, and sleep like a Beast.

As a general rule of thumb, if a method is controversial, it’s likely because the results are unclear or inconsistent. If a method is new, it can be exciting, but it probably won’t stand the test of time. And if there are a couple of studies showing a benefit, that’s certainly promising, but it’s still best to wait until there are a hundred, or at least a dozen.

We aren’t trying to hide things away in our paid bulking programs. What makes those programs valuable is that we give you a specific workout program to follow, we teach you how to track your results, and we try to make things easier for you. For instance, our Bony to Beastly Program includes a recipe book full of great bulking meals that are quick to make or easy to prepare in bulk, and we calculate the macros out for you. Perhaps more importantly, though, the program includes a yearlong membership in our coaching community. We go through your lean bulk with you. We answer your questions. And when something inevitably goes wrong, we help you fix it.

The Dreamer Bulk Rite of Passage

I’ve gotten fat while bulking. Twice. I bulked up too quickly, lost sight of my abs, and wasn’t all too thrilled about becoming skinny-fat. And then I did it again, except this time, I had enough muscle underneath that I wound up looking kind of beefy. And that was okay. I still had to burn the fat off, but I had left skinny-fatness behind forever. The next time I bulked, the little bit of fat that I gained was barely noticeable, and that’s how it’s been ever since.

In fact, gaining too much fat while bulking is so common that almost every single person who’s big, strong, and muscular has gone through a period of aggressive bulking, gained too much fat, and had to spend some time burning it off. And that’s okay. It happens. Far worse would be to spend years training, too afraid to delve into a calorie surplus, too afraid to bulk. That’s how people stay skinny forever.

Before and after photo of Shane Duquette losing the extra fat he gained while bulking.

For example, the above photo is me after going through a too-aggressive bulk. And by this point, I should have known better. I’d already been lifting for a couple of years. But on the bright side, all of my lifts improved. I got 225×8 on the bench press, which was an all-time record for me at the time, and when I cut the extra fat away, I had the best physique of my life.

Before and after photos showing Shane Duquette bulking up leanly.
Shane Duquette at 130 pounds (left) and 195 pounds (right).

Without going through those periods of aggressive bulking, testing the limits of how quickly I could build muscle, maybe I never would have been able to gain 65 pounds. Maybe I never would have been able to bench 315 pounds. Maybe I’d still be skinny. Looking back at those few months that I spent at 18–20% body fat, does it really matter? I don’t think so.

That’s why you’ll often hear people call dreamer bulking a rite of passage. People bulk too aggressively and gain some fat, but in so doing, they also build muscle, get stronger on all their lifts, and they learn some valuable lessons. Then they spend a couple of months cutting off the fat, and that’s the end of their skinniness forever.

It’s wise to aim for a lean bulk. But if you mess it up, don’t worry. This stuff takes practice, and most people overdo it at least once. In the end, after you burn the extra fat off, that experience may even wind up being a positive.

Summary

Some people are able to gain muscle while losing fat, but without a hearty calorie surplus, muscle growth tends to be slow and inconsistent. That’s why the best way to build a serious amount of muscle in a reasonable timeframe is to bulk. But some guys take that idea too far, eating everything in sight and building muscle fast, but getting fat in the process. We want to do something in the middle, eating enough calories to build muscle at a good pace, but not so much that the extra calories spill over into fat storage. That’s what a lean bulk is.

Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up leanly.

There are a lot of little tips and tricks that you can use to bulk up leanly. But the best way to minimize fat gain while bulking is to focus almost all of your energy on the fundamentals:

  • Choose a good hypertrophy workout routine, follow it consistently, and bring your best effort to each rep of each set, especially on the big compound lifts. Your workouts should be challenging, with your sets brought within a rep or two of muscular failure. And you should be fighting to outlift yourself, trying to add weight to your lifts or eke out extra reps.
  • Eat enough protein, aiming to get at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day. For a 170-pound guy, that’s at least 136 grams of protein per day. And try to spread that protein out between your meals and snacks, with at least 20 grams every time you eat. Bonus points if you eat 4–5 meals per day (including snacks).
  • Get enough sleep, setting aside at least 8 hours in bed each night, at least until you get into the habit of waking up before your alarm clock. And the quality of your sleep matters, too. Try to ease into sleep with a relaxing bedtime routine so that you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle, keeping your drinking and stress under control, getting most of your calories from whole foods, getting outside on a daily basis, and engaging in physical activity, such as walking, sports, or cardio.
  • Don’t gain weight too fast! If you’re doing the above points correctly and you’re gaining too much fat, it’s probably because you’re gaining weight too quickly or inconsistently. Gaining 0.5–1 pound per week is good for most skinny guys, but when doing a bonafide lean bulk, aim to gain just 0.5 pounds per week.

The next thing to keep in mind is that gaining a little bit of fat while bulking is normal. Even if you’re doing everything perfectly, and even if you’re only gaining 0.5 pounds of fat per week, it’s normal for a little bit of fat to come along for the ride. That’s okay. Hopefully it won’t be so much fat that anyone notices, but even if it is, no worries—you can always burn it off. It’s much easier to burn fat than it is to build muscle.

Before and after photo of a skinny guy leanly building muscle and bulking up in one year

For example, here’s a before and after photo of Hugo’s lean bulking results. Kind of. What you’re not seeing is that between those two photos, he accidentally gained some fat and had to spend a couple of months burning it off. But does that really matter? I’d argue no. He still finished 40 pounds heavier while looking leaner than when he started. And in a single year.

So what I’d recommend is that you try to build muscle leanly, but that you approach it with confidence, unafraid of the possibility of gaining a little bit of fat. Then, if you notice some fat gain, adjust what you’re doing to minimize it going forward. Keep adjusting and pivoting as you build more and more muscle. That’s what bulking is all about.

And, as always, if you want help along the way, check out our Bony to Beastly Program. I think you’d really like it.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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2 Comments

  1. Duc Hoang on December 29, 2020 at 6:15 am

    Hey B2B,

    I have been a long time “lurker” on this amazing website and share many of the same struggles you guys have shared at the beginning of your fitness journey. I have thought about purchasing the program for a while but now is actually the first time I am able to spare the money for it.

    But there is another problem now; I have a gym membership and in Germany, the gyms have been closed for a while. It’s unsure when they’ll open again in the foreseeable future. Even if they do open again, I’m very conscious of going to the gym because the other people training there don’t wear masks at all (that was in July when gyms were still open). In your guys’ honest opinion, will I realistically be able to get the same results with your program by training at home? I have a pull-up bar, push-up handles, and some gymnastic rings at home, just for your information. I don’t think I would have the necessary money as a student right now to buy a home gym. Should I just wait to buy the program till the pandemic is over (although nobody knows when that is)? I would love to use the program to it’s full potential because 200 Dollars is still kind of a lot as a college student.

    Stay safe and happy Holidays

    Duc

    • Shane Duquette on December 29, 2020 at 8:49 am

      Hey Duc, thank you!

      Yeah, I hear ya. Here in Cancun, it’s much the same. We’re always wavering in and out of lockdowns. And then even when things aren’t locked down, we’re still mindful of trying not to make the situation worse.

      The harsh truth is this: it’s hard to bulk up your legs with bodyweight training, and that’s where all of your biggest muscles are, meaning that it’s harder to bulk up in general. Bodyweight training is also more painful than lifting weights at a gym. Barbells, dumbbells, and exercise machines make building muscle easier and more convenient, no doubt. Benching for a set of 10 reps with 1–2 reps in reserve is much easier than doing push-ups to failure, especially if you can do 15+ push-ups. It can also be hard to engage the biarticular muscles in your biceps and triceps, which prefer movements like curls and triceps extensions.

      But the good news is this: in the muscles that you can train properly, bodyweight training is just as effective as free weights and exercise machines. And you have a chin-up bar, which means that your upper back and biceps are among the muscles that you can train properly. So you can expect to make perfect gains in your chest, upper back, and abs. And near-perfect gains in your arms.

      So, overall, yeah, now is a good time to bulk up. Your chin-up bar is a huge asset, and the push-up handles allow you to do easy deficit push-ups, which are absolutely amazing for your chest. Because your legs aren’t growing at full speed, you may want to gain weight slightly slower. But in terms of building muscle, improving your appearance, and keeping fit and healthy, you’ll do great 🙂

      Plus, spending more time at home makes it a pretty good time to do more exercise.

      The next part of your question is about the b2B program. Our main workout program assumes access to weights. But we also have a free guide about how to do bodyweight training. So you can combine that with everything else that the b2B program includes: the diet, tracking, lifestyle, coaching, and so on. (Tons of guys in the community are bulking with bodyweight training, too, so you wouldn’t be alone in that.)

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