How to Build Muscle While Staying Lean: Clean Bulking

A lean, muscular physique is the goal of most men. While some are blessed with excellent genetics and don’t have to really do much to maintain the shape they desire, the vast majority need to put some effort into achieving a picture-perfect, healthy, aesthetically-pleasing build.

Though weight loss, not weight gain, tends to be the goal of most, a lot of men are actually interested in packing on some pounds so that they can boost their muscle mass and strength.

Once upon a time, bulking up was something that was primarily reserved for skinny dudes who wanted to beef up their arm; however, nowadays, men of all shapes and sizes are well aware that lifting weight and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet are the best way to achieve a desirable physique.

As a matter of fact, there’s tons of evidence that proves that those who have more lean muscle mass not only have a better looking form, but they’re also healthier overall and have a much lower risk of developing serious illnesses.

Moreover, those who have lean muscle mass tend to have a much better quality of life. There’s just one problem with bulking diets, however: if you aren’t cautious and you don’t choose the right plan, you could end up putting on excess weight in the wrong places.

Fortunately, there’s a simple plan that is much easier to stick to and that shows much more promising results than other types of bulking diets. What is it? – Clean bulking!

What is clean bulking? Can you really gain muscle mass while remaining lean? Read on to find the answers to these questions and more and to find out how you can get on get on the path to achieve your best physique.

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What is clean bulking, anyway?

To understand what “clean bulking” is, you need to first understand what “bulking” is. In the most basic terms, bulking refers to a increasing your caloric intake, consuming more calories than you actually burn. The objective is to gain weight in either muscle or fat. This sustained caloric surplus is combined with a high intensity resistance training workout plan, which helps to transfer that weight gain into muscle and strength.

With a clean bulk (also referred to as a “lean” bulk), your caloric surplus is closely regulated so as to avoid gaining excessive amounts of fat. Typically, a clean bulking plan is comprised of eating whole, minimally processed foods, often prepared in bulk ahead of time and stored for quick/easy access. Junk foods that are laden with calories are either completely off limits or are kept to a bare minimum in order to ensure weight gain while maintaining a lean physique.

Athletes whose sports depend on both being lean and having a great deal of muscle mass often rely on clean bulking; boxers, mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, bodybuilders, etc., for example. With clean bulking programs, great care is used when making food choices. Typically, macronutrients are closely monitored and calories are adjusted on an as-needed basis so as to avoid packing on too much excess fat.

dirty vs lean bulk

Is there “dirty” bulking?

Since there’s such a thing as “clean” bulking, it’s logical to wonder if there is such a thing as “dirty” bulking, too. Why yes, yes there is, and basically, it’s the polar opposite. Whereas clean bulking focuses on closely tracking macronutrients and adjusting calories so as to avoid gaining excess body fat, with dirty bulking, there is very little regard for fat gain.

Those who dirty bulk tend to increase their caloric intake rapidly without monitoring what types of foods their calories are coming from; fast food, chips, cookies, cakes, ice creams, and other processed foods are common sources of increase calories when dirty bulking.

Which to choose?

Clean bulking vs dirty bulking: Which is right for you? It really depends. However, with that said, unless you’re a professional or competitive bodybuilder and you’re using other tools to help you manage your fat gain (“hormone assistance”, cough, cough), gaining and losing weight rapidly again and again really doesn’t make too much sense.

In fact, rapidly bulking up and then sharply cutting your caloric intake isn’t the most effective way to achieve your “perfect” physique; nor is it healthy. As such, gaining a minimum amount of fat is a much better approach. In other words, clean (or lean) bulking is a much better choice than dirty bulking.

bulking meals

Effective Lean Bulking Tips

If you want to build up your muscle mass while avoiding excessive weight gain, lean or clean (whichever you prefer to call it) may be the right option for you. In order to ensure that your clean bulking efforts are as effective as possible, here are some tips that you can use to set you on the right track.

How to start a clean bulk plan

First and foremost, in order to start a lean bulk, you’re going to want to set your maintenance calories; that is, the number of calories that you need to ingest in order to maintain your ideal weight. The amount varies and depends on several factors, but there are numerous online tools that you can use to successfully calculate the right number of maintenance calories for you.

Once you determine the appropriate maintenance calories, you’ll then want to add on an extra 10 to 20 percent calories surplus. For instance, if you’re a 175 pound male, you’ll want to add about 250 to 500 calories to your clean bulk program.

Next, you’ll want to make sure that your daily intake of protein is 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of your body weight in order to maintain your muscle gain. The remainder of your daily caloric intake should be comprised of healthy fats and carbohydrates, as per your particular preference.

In order to keep tabs on your progress, you’re going to want to weigh yourself on a regular basis. You should aim for a weight gain of 0.25 to 0.5 percent of your current body weight each week.

In keeping with the same example of a 175 pound male, that would equate to 0.4 to 0.8 pounds of weight gain each week. If you aren’t seeing any gains on your scale, slowly increase your weekly caloric intake by no more than 200 calories.

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What to eat and what not to eat

Unlike a dirty bulk program, which involves consuming processed foods, with clean/lean bulking, you are going to want to focus on eating primarily unprocessed, whole foods; however, minimal amounts of high calorie, processed foods are permitted.

Though all types of foods can be consumed in moderation, there are some kinds of foods that can make it harder to maintain a controlled amount of calorie surplus, and therefore, limiting or completely avoiding these foods may be in your best interest.

What to eat

Some of the best whole, unprocessed foods to eat for lean bulking include:

  • Healthy fats. Foods that are packed with healthy fats are great for clean bulking, like avocados, olive or coconut oil, nuts and nut butters, seeds (chia, hemp, flax, etc.), fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, etc.)
  • Lean proteins. Lean proteins are ideal for a lean bulking plan, like fish, beef, pork, chicken, cottage cheese, low fat cheese, tofu and tempeh, eggs (whole or whites), and even protein powders
  • Fruits. Fruits are a great healthy way to tickle your sweet tooth, like oranges, apples, pineapple, strawberries, blueberries, and bananas
  • Non-starchy veggies. low-starch veggies, like peppers, green beans, peas, zucchini, tomatoes, and celery are great options
  • Dark leafy greens. Loaded with essential nutrients, dark leafy greens, like kale, spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard are all excellent options for any diet plan, including lean bulking
  • Cruciferous veggies. Examples include cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts
  • Healthy carbs. Not all carbs are equal. For clean bulking, there are plenty of healthy, high-quality carbs to choose, like whole grain pasta, oats, quinoa, sweet and white potatoes, and brown rice
  • Drinks. Water is always a plus, as well as coffee, tea, seltzer, kombucha, and even diet sodas (sparingly)

What to eat sparingly or avoid

When you’re clean bulking, you should limit or completely avoid eating the following:

  • Processed foods. Fried foods (French fries, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, chicken fingers, etc.), sugary cereals, candies, chips, full fat ice creams, cakes, cookies, and processed meats, like bacon, ham, salami, and pate should be eaten sparingly or should be completely avoided
  • Fatty, processed meats. Examples include fatty cuts of pork, beef, or veal, processed pork, beef sausages, etc.
  • Saturated fats. Butter, margarine, certain types of oils, like canola and corn
  • Drinks. Avoid sweetened coffees, sweet teas, lemonades, soft drinks, and any other kind of sugary beverage
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Other helpful clean bulking tips

In addition to the above-mentioned tips, the following tips can really help to increase your chances of success with a clean/lean bulking program.

  • Eat protein with each meal. Since muscles are made of protein, protein is the primary nutrient that you’re going to want to eat when you’re trying to build muscle mass. By eating protein with each meal, you will support your body’s ability to bulk-up; plus, protein isn’t stored as easily as fat as carbs or fats (even high-quality fats) are. Aiming for 1.5 to 2 grams per kilogram of protein per bodyweight is recommended.
  • Get in the light cardio habit. Avoid doing excessive amounts of heavy cardio, as it can lead to catabolism, as well as stop you from building muscle; not exactly what you want to do when you’re trying to bulk up. Therefore, you should get in the habit of performing light cardio during each weightlifting session. For instance, you can do some light cardio routines as a warm-up before you lift your weights. Doing so will promote cardiovascular health and, if you really hit your weights hard enough, you’ll end up slashing body fat.
  • Opt for compound lifts instead of isolations. When you’re trying to build bulk, compound lifts are a much better option than isolations. That’s because compound lifts activate several muscle groups at one time, which boosts hormone secretion. Concentrate on doing heavier reps and make sure that you are doing things like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses into your workout routine.
  • Make the most of workouts with carb timings. It’s no secret that the better your workouts are, the more muscle mass you’ll build. During pre-training, munch on veggies and starchy carbs, as they slowly release energy. When you’re done training, eat carbs that have a higher glycemic index, which will replenish your body.
  • Get lots of rest. Getting plenty of rest is an absolute must. Catabolism happens when you over-train, and catabolism stops muscle growth; totally counterproductive to bulking. With that said, make sure that you are getting lots of rest and don’t shy away from lowering the volume of your workouts to avoid exhaustion. When you’re trying to build muscle mass, as long as you’re eating right and doing compound lifts, 3 to 4 days of training per week should be more than enough.
  • Know your limits. Not only should you get plenty of rest, but you’re also going to want to make sure that you know and pay attention to your limits. If you push yourself beyond your limits, you could end up over or under compensating. Gaining real lean muscle mass is hard and the majority of people can expect a maximum of about 2.5 pounds of muscle mass gain per month. Maintain your expectations. You aren’t dirty bulking; you’re clean bulking. While it might be harder to pile on body fat with clean bulking, in the end, you’ll see much better results.

Wrapping It Up

If you’re looking to build up your muscle mass while maintaining your lean physique, clean/lean bulking may be able to help you achieve that goal. With the above-mentioned tips – determining your caloric intake, watching what you eat, being smart about your workouts, getting plenty of rest, knowing your limits, etc. – you should be able to see real, long-lasting results that will allow you to build the body that you long for.

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