In order to create a “sculpted”, nicely shaped physique most people need to add a bit of muscle, otherwise we just look ‘flat’ or skinny fat at the end of a weight loss phase.
Even if you don’t aspire to have a muscly look, putting on some lean body mass also has amazing benefits for health reasons - an increased metabolic rate, likely better posture and more independence when it comes to carrying out day-to-day activities, a better hormonal profile (as strength training has many positive influences on hormones)...
Although it is possible to add muscle mass in a calorie deficit (eating less than your body is burning), in some scenarios, such as newbie to strength training or a diet high in protein, most people likely need to be at calorie maintenance or even in a small surplus when wanting to add a bit of muscle mass.
In most muscle gaining phases people also add a bit of body fat. Unfortunately, that is almost always inevitable. However, there are several things we can do in order to keep the fat gain to a minimum and maximize muscle growth at the same time.
In this blog we will explore 7 Laws that allow us to stay rather lean throughout a gaining phase.
- Keep Food Quality High
- Bunch Carbs Around Workouts
- Push Intensity in Training
- Optimize Digestion
- Don’t Get Too Flexible With Tracking
- Sleep and Maintain NEAT
- Fine-tune nutrient timing and supplements
When we talk about “Lean Gaining” what do we even mean?
By Lean Gaining we are referring to a muscle building phase where we want to keep fat gain minimal and get the most results (muscle gains) for the work that we are putting in.
As this is a ‘lean’ gain, rather than a bulking phase, where we anticipate adding more fat, we want to approach the calorie prescription conservatively with a small surplus or at first perhaps only at the upper end of maintenance.
Start with a 5-10% increase in calories, monitor weight and potentially bump calories up again after a few weeks rather than starting out too steep.
Depending on training experience we only want to put on about 1lbs per month.
Novice lifters (and people new to macros), can likely add a bit more weight (while keeping fat low), than more experienced strength athletes and macro trackers.
Generally, we also want to commit to a gaining phase for at least 6 months (9 months to a year would be even better).
If you are newer to training you can likely achieve some good results at maintenance as well, bu for most people and actual gaining phase of that length is going to bear better results.
Aside from macro increases and general strategies, here are 7 “Laws” that will keep your fat gain minimal, while pushing your lean body mass up.
- High Food Quality
This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when lean gaining, implementing too many processed foods again. The higher calorie allowance makes it tempting to add more cookies, pizza, ice cream etc. But the truth is that while those foods are absolutely fine in moderation, they will have you feeling fluffier, retaining more water and probably cause a bit more inflammation in your body than if you got the same calories from whole foods.
By still prioritizing 80-90% whole foods, you can prevent this fluffy feeling from set on. I have seen this several times, when clients start a lean gaining phase, just to want to pull out of it after a few weeks, because they blame the calorie surplus on feeling too fluffy too quickly when in fact it was the food choices that led to that.
- Carbs Around Workouts
By centering the ball part of your carbs around your workout, you can make sure that most of them are going to be used for performance and recovery.
This could be the addition of a pre-workout snack (for example a banana or rice cakes) or increasing the carbs in your post-workout meal (e.g. more rice, oats, potatoes, pasta…). Generally, the increase in calories will likely mostly come from carbs, therefore knowing when to add those extra carbs for best results is super important.
- Intensity in Training
In order to actually stimulate muscle growth of course we don’t just need the right food intake, we also need to send a signal to those muscles to grow. Progressively overloading your training is the exact way to do so. What does that mean though? It means on a continuous basis increasing training volume, so either increasing the weights that you use or the amount of reps or sets. Sounds pretty straight forward, but reality is that most people don’t push nearly hard enough! They feel challenged, but usually it’s not challenged enough. On average you should be pushing at least 80% at the majority of your lifts. Possibly a bit lower for compound lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses…), possibly a bit higher for accessory work and isolation exercises (leg curls, triceps extensions…). Progressively overloading also means that after a few weeks you should get to a stage where you likely have a bit of accumulated fatigue (from pushing so hard) and therefore need to take a deload week. That is a good thing and a sign that you have progressively increasing things. Take the rest and then start again. This time even stronger and recharged.
- Optimize Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
By optimizing digestion you are also optimizing nutrient uptake. It makes a big difference whether you are eating a certain amount of calories and most of the food you are eating just passes right through you or can’t be utilized for muscle growth, or whether you consume things that your body can utilize right away. Be mindful not to consume too much or too little fiber. Be mindful when to use simple vs complex carbs. Be mindful when to keep fats lower so that your body can utilize protein and carbs better. Be mindful to include probiotic and prebiotic foods to keep your gut microbiome happy. Be mindful to have regular bowel movements (at the right consistency of stool).
- Don’t Get Too Flexible With Tracking
Similarly to the first point, many people tend to abuse the increased food freedom they perceive when entering a gaining phase. They stop weighing things out as precisely, eat more meals out, eyeball more often… and then after a few weeks they are surprised they are feeling fluffier than they like and blame the increase in calories, when it is likely they are overshooting their surplus… Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to enjoy a bit more flexibility with more calories than in a cut, just be mindful that that could mean you add more fat in your gaining phase than you would like and don’t blame the surplus for sabotaging your results. If you are really adamant about keeping fat gain minimal, stay consistent with your tracking, have a limit on meals you want to eat out or guesstimate.
- Sleep and NEAT
Just like in a dieting phase, stress management, sleep and activity outside of the gym are really important for maximizing your lean gaining results.
While we want to keep NEAT (non-exercise-activity), rather steady, there is no need to go above 8-10k steps per day (leave something in the tank for any upcoming cutting phases) and in order to really prioritize the strength gains, we also advise staying away from unnecessary cardio. On the flip side, do make sure that you are getting in your steps, you also don’t want to turn into a total couch potato outside of your training window.
Regarding sleep, the more and better quality recovery time you can get, the better. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of good quality sleep and on occasion, the good old nap after training might actually add even more to your muscle growth.
- Nutrient timing and supplements
While overall total daily calories and macros always play the biggest role, when it comes to optimizing results, we can indeed do a lot of good by fine tuning our food intake and optimizing our supplement regime.
For example, are you eating within a reasonable amount of time after your training? Do you allow for ideal digestion by keeping your meal sizes in a good range (not too large, but also not just constant snacking). Do you optimize sleep by having a decent size dinner with enough carbs to help you unwind? Does your pre- and post-workout meal mostly include protein and carbs?
Additionally, when it comes to supplements - are you consistently taking them? Are you taking the right dose and kind of omega 3, creatine, vitamin D, magnesium… Would it be worth adding anything else? Or potentially an adaptogen to help with stress management? Lots of questions to ask yourself to see whether there is anything you could still do even better.
We hope this blog encourages you to embark on a lean gaining phase, taking your fear away from gaining too much fat in a calorie surplus and bringing across that indeed it is possible to add mass without feeling super uncomfortable in your skin.
Yes, your clothes will likely feel tight at some stage (remember you are trying to build muscle and that mass has to go somewhere), yes the scale will go up (that is the goal here), but aside from shaping your body even more nicely, getting stronger, having more energy for everyday life and improving hormones you will likely also improve your metabolism and long term health with this commitment to build a more muscular physique.
If you feel like you could use a little help navigating your gaining phase, we’d love to help you along the journey!