If you’ve been searching for advice on how to gain weight and muscle, here’s one tip that you might not have expected to read:
Forget what every muscle mag’s bulking guide tells you—you don’t need to eat like a cart-horse to bulk up fast.
In fact, setting your bulking calories too high is counter-productive. I’d even go so far as to say that’s the single biggest misunderstanding about how to gain muscle without gaining fat.
The truth is, you have to use a calorie surplus for muscle gain, but it should be much smaller than most people realize.
What’s more, it’s also important to understand right off the bat that you can’t build a significant amount of muscle with diet alone. You also need to be lifting weights properly to bulk up fast.
So if you want to learn how to bulk correctly (and by which I mean gain muscle without much fat), this is the article for you.
Table of Contents
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Bulking Calories: Do You Have to “Eat Big to Get Big?”
Most people think they need to eat way more than they actually do to gain muscle, probably because that’s the type of advice you’ll find in most every “guru’s” bulking guide.
This is the single biggest mistake you can make while bulking. No matter how much you eat, your body can only gain muscle so fast—you can’t force your muscles to grow faster by eating more calories. Instead, the extra calories are simply stored as body fat.
And while many people who are dead-set on bulking up fast brush off this fat gain as a minor inconvenience in their pursuit of gains, it actually hurts their long-term progress in several ways:
1. Gaining too much fat will make you want to end your bulk early.
If you gain fat too quickly, there’s a good chance you won’t like what you see in the mirror.
This often leads people to cutting their bulk short (seeing abs is more fun than seeing belly fat) which significantly limits how much muscle you’ll be able to build.
2. Gaining too much fat sets you up for long, grueling cuts.
The more fat you allow yourself to gain during a bulking phase, the more fat you have to shed when it comes time to cut.
If you don’t want to be stuck in a gruelling calorie deficit for months on end (and let’s face it, who does?), “eating big” during your bulk isn’t the way to go.
3. Gaining too much fat is bad for your health and may even impair muscle growth.
Aside from increasing your chances of suffering a host of health complications, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, and high cholesterol, gaining excessive fat might also impair your ability to build muscle.
It also causes insulin sensitivity to drop, which impairs your ability to burn fat and increases the likelihood of extra weight gain.
While it’s true that you have to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle effectively, you don’t have to be in a very big one.
Here’s the reality about using a calorie surplus for muscle gain:
The size of your calorie surplus should be based on how quickly you can build muscle, and it should probably be smaller than you think.
People who are new to lifting weights or who’ve been weightlifting for less than a year can gain muscle much faster than people who’ve been weightlifting for longer than this (a phenomenon known as “newbie gains”). That is, someone who can gain one pound of muscle per week (an untrained beginner) can benefit from a higher calorie surplus than someone who can only gain a pound per year (an advanced weightlifter).
Even if you’re new to lifting weights, though, there’s probably little point in eating more than about 10 to 15% more calories than you burn per day. Eating more than this simply results in more fat gain. And in advanced weightlifters, a 5 to 10% calorie surplus is more appropriate.
An excellent example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. They found that well-trained athletes who maintained a small calorie surplus gained the same amount of muscle (~2% of their body weight) as athletes who maintained a large, 600-calorie surplus after 8 to 12 weeks. Here’s the kicker: the group maintaining a small calorie surplus only increased their body fat levels by about 3% (relative), whereas the large-calorie surplus group increased their body fat levels by 15%.
I recommend you think of calories as fuel for your training rather than catalysts for muscle growth in and of themselves. This isn’t entirely accurate (excess calories do help drive muscle growth), but it keeps you from falling into the trap of overeating while bulking.
Another helpful mental model for gaining muscle without too much fat is to try to maximize how long you’re in a calorie surplus, rather than the size of your calorie surplus. The reason for this is that muscle growth is a slow, arduous process, and the more time you allow for it, the more muscle you’ll build.
Here’s how Dr. Eric Helms, a natural bodybuilder, coach, researcher, and member of the Scientific Advisory Board of my sports nutrition company Legion, explains it:
“The hard fact is, once you’re no longer a novice, gaining muscle and strength takes not only effort, but time. Meaning, you can’t have the same “bomb-and-blast” attitude toward training, follow the “see food” diet, or program-hop from influencer to influencer and expect much to happen.”
The bottom line is that a large calorie surplus is not better for building muscle than a slight one, but results in far more fat gain. Eating 30% more energy than you expend every day isn’t better for building muscle than eating just 10% more, but you will gain quite a bit more fat.
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How Many Calories to Gain Muscle Without Fat?
Now that you know what not to do with your bulking calories, let’s talk about how many calories you should eat to “lean bulk” successfully.
1. Maintain a moderate calorie surplus of 10 to 15% when bulking.
For most people, this works out to around 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day.
If you’re a man or very active person, I recommend you use the upper end of this range (17 to 18 cal/lb/day). If you’re a woman or less active person, I recommend you use the lower end of this range (16 to 17 cal/lb/day).
Setting up your bulking calories like this allow you to gain 0.5 to 1 pound per week, which is a good goal if you’re a man. Women should shoot for half of this.
If you’re new to weightlifting, you can easily double those numbers for your first couple of months, but you should see them settle into this range after your first 6 to 12 months of weightlifting.
If you want a more precise method of calculating your bulking calories, use the Legion TDEE Calculator to determine exactly how much you should eat to maintain a 10 to 15% calorie surplus.
2. Don’t screw it all up with massive cheat meals or days.
A couple days of gorging per week while bulking is enough to cause you to bulk up fast, but you’ll gain fat at double or even triple the normal rate.
Don’t do this. Learn how to “cheat” intelligently instead, and control your calories while bulking the same way you would while cutting.
3. If you’re a guy and you’re over 15% body fat, reduce this to about 10% before bulking. If you’re a girl and over 25% body fat, diet down to ~20% before bulking.
This is ideal for several reasons:
- It preserves insulin sensitivity and hormonal balance.
- It allows you to maintain a calorie surplus for many months before having to reduce body fat levels.
- It saves you from long, grueling cuts.
- It allows you to look better during you bulks, which makes the process more enjoyable and makes it easier to see whether you’re gaining muscle or not.
If you’re not sure what your body fat percentage is, check this out:
How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage Easily & Accurately (With a Calculator)
4. Once you reach 15 to 17% (men) or 25 to 27% (women) body fat, stop bulking and start reducing body fat levels.
Don’t “slow cut,” either.
Do everything you can to safely and healthily lose fat as quickly as possible, like reducing your calories to about 20% below maintenance, eating plenty of protein, and continuing to lift weights just like you were while lean bulking.
5. Juggle your bulks and cuts like this until you’ve gained the size you want.
If you’re like most people, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re happy with your overall muscle size and development.
The name of the game then becomes getting and staying lean while still training hard and progressing in your lifts and addressing weak points in your physique.
How to Set Macros for Bulking
In addition to eating the right number of calories, it’s also important that you eat the right amount of protein, fat, and carbs (“macros”) while lean bulking.
Protein: Eat 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is enough to maximize muscle growth—eating more than this won’t help you bulk up faster. That said, there’s also nothing wrong with eating more than this, and some evidence shows that following a very-high protein diet (1.5 to 2 grams per pound) while bulking may help minimize fat gain. This usually works out to around 20 to 30% of calories for most people.
Fat: Eat around 20 to 30% of your calories from fat. This is enough to optimize health and add flavor to your meals, while still leaving plenty of room for protein and carbs.
Carbs: Get the rest of your calories (~40 to 60%) from carbs. The reason you want to follow a high-carb diet while lean bulking is that this keeps your glycogen levels topped off, which improves your performance in the gym and positively impacts genes related to muscle growth.
What to Do When You’re Not Gaining Weight
If you’re following your bulking calories but not gaining weight, the solution is simple: eat more.
Specifically, increase your daily calorie intake by ~100 calories per day for two weeks and see how your body responds. If you don’t start gaining weight, increase it by another ~100 calories, and continue until you’re gaining weight.
It’s also best to get these additional calories from carbs, as this will have a more positive affect on your training than getting them from protein or fat. For reference, 100 calories of carbs is about one large apple, a medium-size banana, or half-cup of cooked rice.
By gradually increasing your calorie intake in this way, you’ll find your body’s “sweet spot” for muscle growth without gaining much fat.
I should note, however, that some people (guys usually) need to eat downright hoggish amounts of food to gain weight steadily. I’m talking 160-pound guys having to eat 4,000+ calories per day just to gain 0.5 pounds per week (“hardgainers“).
Some people struggle to hit these calorie targets by increasing carbohydrate alone.
In such cases I recommend capping carbs at about 3 grams per pound and, if more calories are needed, increasing fat intake instead.
For example, a 160-pound guy would want to increase his carb intake up to around 480 grams of carbs per day, and then start increasing his calorie intake in the form of fat.
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What About Building Muscle and Losing Fat at the Same Time?
Building muscle and losing fat simultaneously (or body recomposition or “recomp,” as it’s often called), is doable, even as a natural weightlifter.
However, there’s a catch: you may or may not be able to do it, depending on your body composition, training experience, and more.
The long story short is this:
- If you’re new to weightlifting at all or to proper weightlifting—which emphasizes heavy, compound training with the primary goal of getting stronger over time—then you probably can recomp.
- If you’ve been following a proper strength training program for a year or more, you probably can’t recomp to any significant degree.
If you want to learn more about why this is and how to actually go about doing it, read this article:
The Secret to Body Recomposition: Lose Fat & Gain Muscle
The 10 Best Healthy Foods to Help You Bulk Up Fast
Setting your bulking calories and macros is a good first start, but it’s also helpful to have a list of staple “bulking foods” you can use when preparing meals. Here are some of my favorites:
Lean Proteins for Bulking
- Sirloin steak
- Ground beef
- Pork tenderloin
- Chicken breast
- Seafood (especially low-fat fish like tilapia, cod, catfish, etc.)
- Egg whites
- Greek yogurt or Skyr
- Cottage cheese
- Low-fat milk
Healthy Carbs for Bulking
- White or brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grain pasta
- Ezekiel bread
Healthy Fats for Bulking
- Whole eggs
- Olive oil
- Almonds or almond butter
- Peanuts or peanut butter
- Coconut oil
- Chia seeds
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What About Supplements?
I saved this for last because it’s the least important.
Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to help you bulk up fast. In fact, most muscle-building supplements are completely worthless.
But, here’s the good news:
If you know how to set your bulking calories to gain muscle without fat—following the steps we just covered—certain supplements can help. (And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
Here are the best supplements for gaining muscle fast:
- 3 to 5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from exercise. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine, that also includes two other ingredients that will help you boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- Between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical. If you want a clean and delicious source of protein, try Whey+.
- One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.
+ Scientific References
- Coyle, E. F. (1995). Substrate utilization during exercise in active people. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(4 SUPPL.). https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/61.4.968S
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Orris, S., Scheiner, M., Gonzalez, A., & Peacock, C. A. (2015). A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women - a follow-up investigation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-015-0100-0
- Antonio, J., Peacock, C. A., Ellerbroek, A., Fromhoff, B., & Silver, T. (2014). The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-19
- Garthe, I., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P. E., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2013). Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. European Journal of Sport Science, 13(3), 295–303. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2011.643923
- Iraki, J., Fitschen, P., Espinar, S., & Helms, E. (2019). Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports, 7(7), 154. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7070154
- Shanik, M. H., Xu, Y., Skrha, J., Dankner, R., Zick, Y., & Roth, J. (2008). Insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia: is hyperinsulinemia the cart or the horse? In Diabetes care: Vol. 31 Suppl 2. Diabetes Care. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc08-s264
- Zhang, J., Hupfeld, C. J., Taylor, S. S., Olefsky, J. M., & Tsien, R. Y. (2005). Insulin disrupts β-adrenergic signalling to protein kinase A in adipocytes. Nature, 437(7058), 569–573. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04140
- Dyck, D. J., Heigenhauser, G. J. F., & Bruce, C. R. (2006). The role of adipokines as regulators of skeletal muscle fatty acid metabolism and insulin sensitivity. In Acta Physiologica (Vol. 186, Issue 1, pp. 5–16). Acta Physiol (Oxf). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.2005.01502.x
- Rohrmann, S., Shiels, M. S., Lopez, D. S., Rifai, N., Nelson, W. G., Kanarek, N., Guallar, E., Menke, A., Joshu, C. E., Feinleib, M., Sutcliffe, S., & Platz, E. A. (2011). Body fatness and sex steroid hormone concentrations in US men: Results from NHANES III. Cancer Causes and Control, 22(8), 1141–1151. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10552-011-9790-z
- Djalalinia, S., Qorbani, M., Peykari, N., & Kelishadi, R. (2015). Health impacts of obesity. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, 31(1), 239–242. https://doi.org/10.12669/pjms.311.7033