Bulking is a controversial topic.

Some say it’s the only way to gain muscle effectively, and others say it’s a relic of the Dark Ages bodybuilding.

“You gotta eat big to get big,” the former say.

“No,” the latter reply, “you just have to eat right.”

That is, traditional bulking maintains that, to achieve maximum muscle growth, you should do whatever it takes to cram down thousands of calories per day (GOMAD, for example), and accept rapid fat gain as a price to be paid.

Followers of the new philosophy, however, say that you don’t have to eat a large surplus of food and gain a large amount of body fat to build muscle effectively.

If you train right, and ensure you’re recovering adequately, they claim, you don’t need to cudgel your body with calories to grow.

Who’s right? Well, both are.

Old-school bulkers are correct in that you need to eat more food than usual to build muscle efficiently, and new-schoolers are correct in that ballooning your body fat percentage is not only unnecessary for muscle building, but detrimental.

There’s a sweet spot is in the middle, which is where clean bulking enters the picture.

It marries what bodybuilders have known anecdotally for decades with what modern scientific research into muscle hypertrophy has revealed, giving you the best of both worlds.

In other words, clean bulking allows you to gain muscle as quickly as possible, without forcing you to get fat in the process.

And in this episode, we’re going to break it all down.

You’re going to learn where “dirty bulking” misses the mark, why clean bulking works better, and how to actually go about doing it.

Let’s get started.

Episode Transcript:

Mike: [00:02:13] Hey everybody, Mike here from Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics. And in this video podcast, we are going to talk clean bulking.


[00:02:22] Now, bulking is a controversial topic these days because many people say that in order to maximize muscle growth and strength gain, you have to cram down thousands and thousands and thousands of calories every day and you got to pretty much do whatever it takes to do that. So if that means you have to drink a gallon of milk per day on top of eating six or seven meals, then that’s just what you’ve got to do.


[00:02:44] And on the other hand, many people say that approach is nonsense and that it is mostly just a good way to get fat as quickly as possible. And these people also usually say that you only need a very slight caloric surplus, or in some cases, people say you don’t need a caloric surplus at all to maximize muscle growth and strength gain.


[00:03:03] Now, when you survey the evidence that we have, both in terms of scientific literature and anecdotal evidence, and you also dive into the physiology of muscle building and the physiology of strength gain, the long story short is: it looks like that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Looks like the truth is that, yes, a 20 percent or 30 percent caloric surplus does not seem to be more conducive to muscle growth and strength gain than, let’s say, a 5 to 10 percent surplus. 


[00:03:35] And that five to 10 percent surplus, so that slight surplus, is probably going to be better for gaining muscle and strength, than trying to eat at maintenance. So basically trying to eat the exact number of calories that you’re burning every day, which of course, is impossible because you can never know with 100 percent accuracy how many calories you’re burning every day, but you can get fairly close.

And in practice, what that means then, if you are eating at maintenance, you know, some days you’re going to be in a slight surplus. Maybe it’s two percent. Some days you’re gonna be in a slight deficit. Maybe it’s two percent, three percent, four percent, or whatever. And you’re just going to kind of go back and forth. You might be a slight surplus several days in a row and then in a slight deficit several days in a row. It really just depends exactly what you do on those days and exactly what you eat. You, of course, though – it’s a moving target. You’re never going to hit it every day right on the Dot and have a perfect energy balance.


[00:04:28] Now, this approach of using a slight caloric surplus to maximize muscle and strength gain is known as clean bogging. And the approach of just eating everything, eating big to getting big, is usually referred to as dirty bulking because it usually involves eating a bunch of junk food. Because good luck trying to eat five, six thousand calories a day of relatively unprocessed, highly nutritious foods. It’s very difficult.


[00:04:54] And the reason this clean bulking approach is best for maximizing muscle and strength gain, it really comes down to energy balance. I don’t want to go into all the technicalities here, because I want to keep this video short, and, I mean, I could do a different video on really a specific physiological factors, but the long story short is: by maintaining a positive energy balance, a state of positive energy balance, over an extended period of time, it allows your body to run its muscle-building machinery at full capacity.

You can just think of it that way. It optimizes your body’s muscle-building machinery. And the reason for that is a lot of the processes that need to occur, the physiological processes that need to occur for these adaptations to take place in the body that result in more muscle mass and more strength require quite a bit of energy. And the body is very cognizant of energy balance. It’s very cognizant of the relationship between the amount of energy that it is receiving via food, and the amount of energy that it is spending via just basic metabolic functions and physical activity and so forth.


[00:06:00] And when energy balance is in a negative state, so when your body is receiving fewer calories than it’s burning, it goes into a sort of state of energy triage, so to speak. And what I mean by that is it really starts to prioritize its energy expenditure. It gets kind of stingy with its energy expenditure and it wants to expend energy only on the things that are absolutely necessary to stay alive. And muscle building, of course, is not high on that list.

This is also, by the way, the primary reason that many women lose their periods after having dieted for some time, after having been in a caloric deficit for some time. The physiological processes related to menstruation are just not very high on the list of priorities. And so they get skipped over until energy balance is restored to at least, you know, a neutral or positive state.

Which is, again, why many women get their periods back after they stop dieting. It used to be believed that the menstrual regularities were more due to body fat levels. So used to be believed that if a woman gets to lean, then that’s what causes her to lose her period and that it basically will not come back and thus she gets fatter. But a number of studies have disproven this and shown that it is more related to energy balance than anything else.


[00:07:16] So in this video podcast, I want to break down how to clean bulk properly. And this is going to be high level, I’m going to give six simple steps. I’m not going to go into all the specifics on how to do each step, but I will tell you where to go to get the information you need to do each step.


[00:07:31] First, though, let’s talk mistakes. So the three biggest bulking mistakes that you can make. 


[00:07:38] The first one is eating too many calories. Dirty bulking. Now, as I mentioned earlier, a slight caloric surplus, so let’s say 10 percent on average. So you’re eating on average, one hundred and ten percent of the calories you’re burning every day. That is probably equally conducive to muscle growth and strength gain as 120 percent or 130 percent and so on.

So by drastically overeating, you are probably not going to gain muscle and strength faster, however you are going to get fat faster. And depending on how those calories break down in terms of macros, you might get fat a lot faster.


[00:08:16] And that’s undesirable for several reasons. The one reason is, of course, the esthetics. That’s not exactly what we’re going for. We want to minimize fat gain so that when it comes time to cut, we can do it faster and easier. Which means, of course, you know, if you end your cut around.

Let’s say, 15 percent body fat if you’re a guy, or like 25 percent if you’re a girl, you’re going to have an easier time getting back to the lean category of, let’s say, 10 percent for a guy, or about 20 percent for a girl, Than if you are ending at 20, 25 percent as a guy, or 30, 35 percent as a girl.

But it’s also bad because it causes physiological adaptations that are counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve with a clean bulk, which is maximum muscle gain and minimum fat gain. So one: research shows that as you get fatter, your insulin sensitivity drops. So your body responds worse and worse to insulin as you get fatter.


[00:09:14] Now, insulin is a hormone whose primary role is shuttling nutrients into your cells. And studies show that as your body becomes more resistant to its signals, its ability to burn fat drops, the likelihood of weight gain rises, and also, protein synthesis rates tend to be suppressed. So in other words, the lower your insulin sensitivity is, the easier it is to gain fat, and the harder it is to gain muscle. And this is why preserving insulin sensitivity is an important part of bulking properly. And one of the best ways to do this is to minimize fat gain.


[00:09:50] Another downside to fat gain and especially rapid fat gain is: studies show that this depresses testosterone levels and increases estrogen levels. Now, as you probably know, testosterone is the primary hormonal driver of muscle growth and high levels of estrogen does promote fat gain. So lower testosterone and higher estrogen is basically the opposite of what you want when you’re bulking.


[00:10:14] Now, unfortunately, there aren’t many things you can do naturally to raise your testosterone levels and push your estrogen levels down, but you can at least prevent that from occurring to any significant degree by minimizing fat gain.


[00:10:29] Okay, so the second big mistake that many people make when they bulk is: they just eat too much junk food. And you can get away with more of this when you’re bulking because you have more calories to play with. So let’s say, you know, if you know what you’re doing with your diet and you have a good foundation of relatively unprocessed highly nutritious food.

You’re getting some fruits and vegetables and every day, you’re getting some wholegrain, some healthy fats, visa, stuff like nuts are good, avocados are good. Any source of monounsaturated fat is going to be good and a bit of saturated fat as well. So long as you have that in place, you know, you might still have a thousand calories a day to eat whatever you want with. And so if you want to take that thousand calories and eat junk food, you probably will be okay.


[00:11:12] It’s not what I would do personally. It’s not really what I recommend personally, if nothing else, for the reason that when it comes time to cut, it might be hard psychologically to stop eating so much junk food because you’re going to have to. So, you know, I would prefer to keep my junk food to probably no more than maybe 20 percent of my daily calories.

And again, I’m not big on junk food personally, but that’s my general recommendation, is no more than 20 percent. And depending on how many calories you’re eating, if you are someone that needs to eat four thousand plus calories a day to gain weight effectively, and there are those people out there, I would probably recommend that you don’t get any more than 10 percent of those calories from junk food.


[00:11:55] And eating too much junk food and having too shitty of a diet when you’re bulking is a mistake. Because, remember, food is not just calories and macros. Your body does need to get a lot of micronutrients. There’s A lot of nutrition that your body needs to get from food. It can synthesize a fair amount of the nutrients it needs, but it does need to get a large number of them from food.

And if you don’t provide it, you’re not going to nationally notice any difference over the short term. But over the long term, you can develop nutritional deficiencies that can become a big problem one day. They can lead to disease, dysfunction and even death. If you really were to take it that far. And even via disease, right? So you can develop diseases through extreme nutritional deficiencies and just unhealthy living that can kill you.


[00:12:42] Okay, so the third common mistake that people make when bulking is just cheating too often. And by cheating what I mean is eating too many calories, basically. Going off your meal plan and eating a lot more than you normally would eat.


[00:12:56] And the reason why this is particularly a problem when you’re bulking is you’re already in a caloric surplus steadily every day. So you’re already gaining a little bit of fat every day. And if you add now, let’s say, a couple 2,000, 3,000 calorie surplus days on top of your normal surplus, you can really start gaining fat quickly. And that’s especially true if you are eating the normal types of things that people like to eat when they cheat.

So if you’re eating very fatty foods, you are going to gain fat even faster. And that, of course, is undesirable for the reasons we already discussed earlier. You want to minimize your fat gain when you are bulking and a major part of that is sticking to a meal plan. So being just as strict, so to speak, on your calories and your macros when you’re bulking as when you are cutting.


[00:15:08] Okay, so now let’s get to how to clean bulk correctly. So the first step is you have to calculate your calories. The first step is figuring out your energy balance. You have to figure out approximately how many calories you need to eat every day to be in that slight, you know, 5 to 10 percent surplus. And to do that, head over to LegionAthletics.com and search for “clean bulking” and you’ll see an article I wrote on this subject has a calculator that makes it very easy. I might be able to put a link up here as well. So if I can, then you’ll see a link here to the article.


[00:15:38] Okay, so you have your calories. Step two is: figuring out your macros, your macronutrients, turning those calories into protein, carbs and fats. And the easiest way to do this is to set your protein at 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. I personally just go with one to keep it simple. Some people like to go with a bit less so they can free up calories for more carbs and more fats. So that’s up to you.


[00:16:02] So once you have that set your fat to about 0.3 to 0.35 grams per pound of body weight. And this is, of course, per day.  And you can go up to as high as 0.4 if you really want to, but I don’t recommend it because the additional carbs that you can eat are going to do more for your progress than the additional fat. So I’d say if you can enjoy your diet at 0.3 grams per pound of body weight per day, then set your fat there so you have a lot of calories for carbs.


[00:16:33] And lastly, carbs. And for your carbs, you allot all of your remaining calories to carbs. So a gram of protein contains about four calories. I know there’s research that shows it might be like 3.2, but just keep it simple, let’s just say 4 calories per gram of protein and about 9 calories per gram of fat. So you add up your calories to your protein, you add up your calories for your fat, you sum them together, you subtract that from your total daily calories. What you have left is your calories for carbs. And a gram of carbohydrate contains about 4 calories, so you divide that number that you have for your calories for your carbs by 4. And there are your grams.


[00:17:13] And the reason why I won eating a lot of carbs when you are clean bulking is: carbs are very conducive to muscle growth. Not only do they make for better workouts because you’re generally gonna have higher glycogen levels. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in your muscles and your liver. And that is used primarily for anaerobic activities.

So I’m assuming you’re gonna be doing a lot of weightlifting if you’re bulking. More carbs are going to help you do better in your weightlifting workouts. Furthermore, studies show that higher carb diets are better for muscle recovery. They’re also even better for your hormonal profile because lower-carb diets, combined with intense heavy weightlifting, is generally going to result in higher cortisol levels.

And the higher your cortisol levels are, the lower your testosterone levels are going to be. And so you want to do whatever you can to keep your cortisol as low as generally possible. Of course, it’s going to spike when you work out, but that’s good. That’s what you want. Otherwise, you want to be generally low so it doesn’t impact your testosterone to any significant degree.


[00:18:15] And again, if you want to make this easy, if you want a calculator, just click on the link-up here. Pretty sure we can just click the link up here and it’ll take you to that article and clean bulking, which has a calculator that allows you to not only figure out your calories but also set your macros. It has little sliders and stuff makes it really easy.


[00:18:30] Okay, step number three is to make a meal plan. So you have your calories, you have your macros. Now you need to turn those into actual foods that you’re going to eat every day. And when you’re going to eat them.


[00:18:42] Now, some people don’t make me a plan. They just kind of track on the fly, use MyFitnessPal, and that’s fine. That can work. If you know that works for you, then go for it. However, most people find it easier to stick to a meal plan. To eat the same foods every meal, every day and swap things in and out as desired.


[00:19:02] And for that, again, I’ll put a link up here to a different article that I wrote on meal planning that breaks it all down for you in terms of how to do it correctly.


[00:19:10] Okay, so the fourth tip for successful bulking is to cheat intelligently. And I have three little rules of thumb here. The first one is: cheat once per week and don’t exceed 150 percent of your calories that you’d normally be eating for the day. So what that means is: once a week you can have a cheat meal, or you can make more of a cheat day, so to speak, and sprinkle foods, you know, throughout the day that you wouldn’t normally eat.

But make sure that your calories are not exceeding 150 percent of what you’d normally eat for the day. So if you’re bulking calories are 3,000 calories, make sure you’re not going over 4,500 calories on your day that you are cheating. And the reason for that is simply to minimize fat gain so you don’t go crazy and gain several weeks’ worth of fat that week.


[00:19:57] Now, the second tip here, which is something I actually prefer that you do over even going 150 percent of your overall intake is actually to save up calories for – this is better for a cheat meal. If you’re trying to just eat stuff throughout the day. You know, that you normally wouldn’t eat or eat more throughout the day than you’d normally eat, this doesn’t quite work. But if you like to just have one big meal on your cheat days, then this works.


[00:20:24] And it’s very simple. What you do is: so let’s say it’s dinner. And it’s easiest to do if it’s dinner. Dinner is going to be your cheat meal. You go to a restaurant and you want to order what you want. You want to get an appetizer or two, you want to eat an entree, and you want to get a dessert. So what you do then is: you basically just eat protein throughout the day.

You have lean protein and you have as few carbs and fats as possible leading up to the dinner. So when you arrive at the dinner, let’s say you’ve already eaten your protein for the day, but you have a lot of carbs and fats just to reach your normal daily caloric intake.


[00:20:57] So to put numbers on it, let’s say that you are eating 3,000 calories a day, those are your bulking calories. And you’re eating about 200 grams of protein per day. And so you do that throughout the day and you eat your 200 grams of protein. It comes as some carbs and some fats. So you come into that dinner having eaten a thousand calories.

You now have 2,000 calories to eat before you’re even eating more than you normally would. And unless you have an absolutely insane pathological kind of appetite, you start to slow down after 2,000 calories. That’s a lot of food. That’s 500 grams of carbs. Or if it’s a mixed meal, you know, if it’s like 250 grams of carbs in a hundred-ish grams of fat, for example, those are both about 2,000 calories. That’s a lot of food.


[00:21:43] Now, my third little tip, my third little rule of thumb for cheating intelligently is: do your best to keep your dietary fat intake below 100 grams for the day. And this isn’t imperative. It’s helpful because it does minimize fat gain. What you need to understand is dietary fat is your body’s primary source of energy to replenish its own body fat stores. So it costs the least amount of energy to convert dietary fat into body fat. And so that’s really what your body does with most of the dietary fat that you’re eating is stored as body fat.


[00:22:20] And so if you can when you’re cheating, if you want to minimize fat gain and also possibly see a nice boost in your workouts, go really high carb, keep your fats moderate, but go really high carb. You know how I like to personally do it: pasta’s very good for that because you can find in restaurants or make lower fat pasta sauces. Pancakes are really good for that.

I love pancakes for carving up because you keep the fast relatively low, but go super high on carbs. Or if you want to stick to more “clean foods” then, you know, have whole grains. Oatmeal is really good for that if you can eat a lot of it. of course, rice and whatever types of grains that you like. Some people will like bread, eating a loaf of bread. If you like doing that, that’s fine, whatever.


[00:23:08] Okey-dokey, moving on to step number five and clean bulking is: adjust your food intake based on how your body’s responding. And what you want to see is: if you are new to weightlifting, you want to see anywhere from let’s say, a pound to two pounds a week for the first 10 to 12 weeks. And if you’re not new to weightlifting, you’ve been lifting for a while, then you want to see something closer to probably a quarter to a half a pound a week.

So personally, if I’m bulking, that’s what I’m looking for, a quarter to a half a pound a week of weight gain. And those numbers are for men, I’d say for women is probably about half of those numbers. So if you’re new to weightlifting, you’re a woman who is new to weightlifting.

I would like to see a half a pound, to about a pound of weight gain per week for the first ten to twelve weeks if you are in a surplus. Now, I’m just saying that, like, if you’re a woman and you’re starting out in a deficit, so if you’re starting out looking to lose fat, then you won’t necessarily gain weight at the beginning. You may gain a little bit, but you may not.


[00:24:03] And for more advanced female weightlifters, you want to see about the same as men. About a quarter to a half-pound a week. And in my experience, working with a lot of women, it’s usually closer to a quarter-pound a week. You find the sweet spot in terms of calories and work in the gym that allows you to put on about a quarter of a pound a week on average. What that means, then, is you need to see: how are you doing? And then if you’re not where you need to be, you need to adjust your food.


[00:24:33] So, for example, and I’ll see this often with guys, especially skinnier guys that have always had trouble gaining weight, they are getting a little bit stronger in the gym, but they’re not gaining any weight. You’ve got to eat more. So what you want to do is bump your daily caloric intake up by 100 to 150 calories. I’d recommend starting with just bumping your carbs up and really pushing your carbs up as high as you can.

If you need to keep on increasing your calories, there is a point where you have to stop eating more carbs simply because it gets physically hard to do. But in my experience, working with a lot of guys, that usually doesn’t start becoming the case until they’re eating 500 to 600 grams of carbs per day. And in some cases, that’s not enough.

So you have a guy eating 80 to 100 grams of fat per day, 500 to 600 grams of carbs per day, and maybe 150 to 180 grams of protein a day still not gaining weight consistently, then usually we start going to an increasing protein more if they’re willing to do that because that can get the needle moving and research also shows that it will minimize the additional fat gain. So, in other words, if he were to increase his dietary fat instead of his protein, he would gain more fat, essentially.


[00:25:47] And on the flip side, if you’re gaining weight too quickly, then, of course, you need to dial your calories down a bit. So if you’re an experienced weightlifter, your guy, you’re gaining one to two pounds per week and not, you know, into the bulk, because you might see that initially as your body gets this influx of more carbs primarily. So that brings with it more glycogen storage, more water storage.

You might see in your first week or two, a nice little bump, but then it should stabilize, then where does it go from there is the question. So if you see a bump and then you’re gaining one or two pounds per week, it’s probably time to dial those calories down. So I’d trim 100 to 150 calories off the daily intake. Would probably just take them from carbs. Use carbs as your primary macro that you manipulate up and down. 


[00:26:29] And as far as women go, if you’re an experienced female weightlifter and you’re putting on somewhere around a pound a week after the initial bump up, again, it’s probably time to dial that back a bit. It’s likely that anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of that is going to be body fat. So let’s bring it down.


[00:26:47] And my sixth and final clean bulking tip is to be patient. Understand that it takes a lot of time to build a lot of muscle. It does not come as quickly as some of the people on Instagram with all that #dedication running through their veins would have you believe. 


[00:27:03] And to put some numbers on that, men can gain anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds of muscle in their first year of weightlifting if they do the major things more right than wrong. And women can gain about half of that.


[00:27:16] And then in year two, for most men, you’re gonna be looking at 8 to maybe 13 pounds of muscle gain, assuming, again, that you do all the big things more or less, right. You do a lot more right than wrong, you’re still only looking at maybe 8 to 13 pounds of muscle gain in your second year. And for women, you can cut those numbers in half.


[00:27:36] And in year three, most guys are going to be able to gain maybe five or six pounds of muscle. And yes, that means a year of hard work sticking to your diet, you know, sticking to your calories, to your macros, not missing too many workouts, following well-designed workout plans, pushing yourself, pushing for progression, doing everything right, five to six pounds is a realistic expectation for most guys in year three.


[00:28:01] And from there, from year four and on, you’re looking at probably two to three pounds per year of maximum muscle gain. And of course, all these numbers are, I’m assuming natural, of course, no drugs. So, yeah, year four and on, most guys you’re looking at two to three pounds per year as the most muscle they can gain.

And according to Lyle McDonald, you get to a point where it just becomes basically negligible, regardless of what you do in the gym. And again, for women, you can have those numbers. So you can say two to three pounds is probably realistic for most women in their third year. And then maybe one to two pounds per year from there on out.


[00:28:34] And the reason why I want to share those numbers is to just to put the overall journey in perspective. So if you want to go from having a normal physique to being super fit. So if you’re a guy or a girl and you want to go from looking normal to kind of like a fitness model, that means that for guys, you’re probably gonna have to gain anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds of muscle depending on where you’re starting and where you want to end up. And also how tall you are. So the taller you are, the more muscle you have to gain to look really big.


[00:29:03] And for women, you can assume about half that. So most women are going to have to gain anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds of muscle to have the look that most women want. That kind of lean, curvy, athletic look where you have muscle definition, but you don’t look bulky, you don’t look jacked.

And so when you consider that against the muscle gain per year numbers that I just shared, you’re looking at anywhere from one to four years to get the body that you really want. And again, in my experience, working with a lot of people, I’d say two to three years is probably the sweet spot.


[00:29:39] Two to three years of hard work is usually what it takes for most people to be really happy with their physiques. And of course, at that point, they usually have new goals and they want to keep on going and they’re usually not as satisfied as they anticipated going into it. But at that two to three-year mark is where you can start looking really fit.

What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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