For some time now, bodybuilders and body composition experts have been saying that you shouldn’t bulk (maintain a calorie surplus) unless you’re lean. 

In fact, I’m one of them—in the first edition of Bigger Leaner Stronger (2012), I recommended that men start a bulking phase around 10 percent body fat and women around 20 percent.

Thus, if a guy was, say, 17 percent body fat, I was telling him to cut down to around 10 percent before bulking. And if a gal was in the mid- or high-twenties, I was telling her to get to around 20 percent before trying to maximize muscle and strength gain. (If you aren’t sure how to calculate your body fat percentage, check out this article).

Is that still good advice? Does it still represent the weight of the evidence? 

Yes, for the most part, but not for the same reasons I once believed.

Back then, I explained that beginning a bulk with low body fat levels benefitted us in three ways:

  1. It allowed us to bulk for longer before having to call it quits because of body fatness (eventually we have to stop gaining fat).
  2. It made for shorter post-bulk cuts because we have less fat to lose to get back to our ideal “maintenance bods.” (Mini cuts, basically).
  3. It probably resulted in more muscle gain because our body’s “muscle-building machinery” seems to work better when we’re leaner versus fatter.

And now, my position is essentially unchanged on points one and two, but number three no longer passes muster.

It appears that lower body fat levels (10 to 15 percent in men and 20 to 25 percent in women) don’t meaningfully impact muscle growth rates.

Or, to put it differently, if you’re mostly after gaining muscle and strength, you’re never too fat to bulk.

I won’t bore you with the technical details of why the “lean people gain muscle faster” hypothesis didn’t pan out, but the abstract looks like this:

A series of studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s on weight gain observed that when people with high body fat levels gained weight, it was mostly fat (not muscle), whereas when people with low body fat levels gained weight, it was mostly muscle and not fat.

In time, evidence-based fitness folk came upon this literature and theorized that this phenomenon may also apply to bodybuilding. And like that, a dictum was born.

The rub, however, is the research didn’t involve people doing resistance training and included people recovering from anorexia (who were often seriously under-muscled).

In fact, in a later review of the data, another team of scientists concluded that once you remove the anorexia studies from the equation, body fatness appeared to have no influence on the composition of weight gain.

Now, there’s still ongoing speculation based on extrapolations from other studies about whether body composition can impair or enhance muscle building, but I’m no longer convinced that it’s a meaningful factor.

What definitely does matter?

  1. Steadily maintaining a slight calorie surplus (about 10% over your total daily energy expenditure).
  2. Eating enough protein (0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day).
  3. Following a well-designed strength training program that progressively overloads your muscles.
  4. Getting enough rest and recovery (sleeping well, taking a day or two off the weights per week, deloading regularly, limiting cardio, etc.).

And while I still tell people to consider getting lean before bulking for the two reasons given earlier (you’ll probably be happier with how you look, and it usually means longer, more productive bulks and shorter, less obnoxious cuts), it now comes with a rider:

If you’d rather bulk now and cut later—maybe because you feel “skinny fat” or are just excited to eat big and train hard—fire away. You won’t have to contend with anti-anabolic headwinds. 

You will have to execute well on the four points listed above, though, and if you’d like some help there (meal planning, training programming, supplementation, etc.), check out my bestselling fitness books for men and women.

For men trying to gain their first 25 pounds of muscle or get to 10 to 15% body fat, check out Bigger Leaner Stronger.

For women trying to gain their first 15 pounds of muscle or get to 20 to 25% body fat, check out Thinner Leaner Stronger.

For advanced lifters trying to reach their genetic potential for muscle and strength, check out Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger.

These books have helped tens of thousands of people of all ages and circumstances build their best body ever, and they can do the same for you.

Readers' Ratings

5/5 (9)

Your Rating?