The Lean Bulk

Ah the mythical lean bulk where you gain muscle without gaining fat.  It’s every gymbros’ fantasy.  Sadly, it just doesn’t happen.  If it does, either you’re new to training and overweight or hitting the juice.  For everyone else, you are probably just going to spin your wheels if you try any of the lean bulking schemes circulating on the internet.

Usually they recommend eating 20% more calories on workout days and 10% less on the rest of the days, but this buys into the (wrong) impression that muscle gain only occurs in a short window after a workout.  In fact everything points to hypertrophy NOT being a response to acute phenomena.  Neither bursts of testosterone or growth hormone or muscle protein synthesis seem to correlate that well with muscle growth.  That is, hypertrophy seems to be a complicated chronic response and trying to game the system with nutrition timing seems fairly hopeless.  If you want to try it you need to go to extreme lengths.  For instance Lyle Mcdonald’s Ultimate Diet strictly plans out an entire week of exercises and macronutrient ratios to try to optimize the partition ratio of fat and muscle gain.  I haven’t done it, but some people claim it actually works.  But be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.  He has you eat virtually nothing on some days and do a workout specifically designed to tire you out by depleting muscle glycogen.  It sounds terrible and I will probably never try it.

However, I have another idea that is not as exacting, but still follows what we do know about hypertrophy.  While hypertrophy is not a response to acute elevated muscle protein synthesis, it seems pretty clear that you will never build muscle unless MPS is greater than catabolism.  This is essentially an identity and we know that MPS is elevated for about 36 hours after a resistance training workout and actually peaks around 20-24 hours afterwards.  This is the so-called anabolic window.  Thus, we can see why the nutrient cycling scheme I talked about doesn’t work.  You are eating less the next day, but MPS is still elevated and is in fact peaking!  You are throwing away a large period where you could be growing.  This ignores other potential effects on hypertrophy from hormones that might be blunted by consistent dieting stimuli, which might be even more important than the anabolic window.

However, this does suggest a strategy which boils down to diet outside the anabolic window.  Unfortunately, this really limits your options since popular routines are 3x or 4x a week between Monday and Friday.  This usually leaves only the weekend as a two day rest between workouts and thus Sunday becomes the only possible diet day.  But we can work with that!  Do a so-called protein sparing modified fast where you eat almost nothing but protein for one day, at least a g/lb of lean mass, netting you somewhere around 800-1000 calories for that day.  For those just trying to lose weight, the alternate day version of this in that link is a great way to do so.  Dieting hard one day and then eating normally is psychologically much less grueling and it’s unlikely that even the “I was good yesterday so I can splurge today” mentality will blunt your losses.  It’s just really hard to eat so much that you compensate for such a harsh deficit of calories.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.  A man should bulk at a rate of at most 1 lb/week, a figure that goes down the more trained you are, and for most people that will probably be about half fat and half muscle.  For a woman you want to half the weight gain since there is much less propensity to put muscle on.  Anyways, that gives us at most a half pound of fat accumulation a week.  If one then engages in the dieting above on Sunday and assuming a 2500 calorie maintenance and about 3500 calories for a pound of weight they could lose about half a pound of weight.  Now because you are eating a lot of protein and you have been training hard and it is only one day so your hormone composition is still in bulking mode this should be a half pound of fat loss.  It’s outside the aforementioned anabolic window so it should not curtail your muscle gains and because it is one day a week it should not disrupt your hormone levels like a prolonged diet can.

Thus, in theory you can achieve a lean bulk where most of the week you are above maintenance calories and then in one day you try to drop all the fat that you accumulated.  I haven’t seen such a technique really pushed on the internet and I currently do not have any empirical results.  I will be testing it on my next bulk though.  As stated before, an already well-trained person should bulk at a slower rate and thus in effect could actually lose weight while gaining muscle, but again this is all theoretical at this point.

Finally, lets say you still gain a bit of fat because you gained weight too fast or have a bad nutrient partitioning ratio, at the end of the bulk you could try Lyle Mcdonald’s Rapid Fat Loss scheme where essentially you do the above diet for two weeks straight.  No more than that if you are pretty lean, otherwise you will mess yourself up.  You would be looking at like 5 pounds of mostly fat loss, which should more than cover any fat accumulation during your bulk.  Thus the final plan would look something like this:

Deload to 80% of working weights and increment back up over one or two weeks

Now push the weights up for something like 4-6 weeks

Deload again for one to two weeks

Do RFL for two weeks if needed, otherwise push max weights again

Take a one week break from training after an RFL or Deload to reset body’s response to training stimuli as I mentioned in a previous post

In this way we can minimize fat gain and maximize time we are gaining muscle.


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