Can Bulking Make You Look Leaner

People are often surprised to see that after the first few weeks of a bulking phase (designed to build muscle with an acceptance of some fat gain) that they actually start to look leaner and end up questioning whether they are consuming enough calories. 

This is a dangerous trap and mindset to fall into, everything you read about bulking says that you will gain fat and hold water in the process so when you realize that you look leaner than you did during a cut it will of course raise some alarm bells. 

Can bulking make you look leaner? During the initial few weeks of a bulk you will start to look leaner as you replenish muscle glycogen stores and start to hold more water in your muscles though an increased carbohydrate intake. A fuller looking muscle belly will therefore give the illusion of looking leaner.

Macronutrient manipulation is something that professional bodybuilders use during a peak week (the week leading up to a competition) in order to bring out muscle definition, vascularity and size whilst still maintaining minimal body fat levels. 

The key influence here is more often than not carbohydrate intake, people respond differently to carbs as the more carbs you consume the more water you hold as a result, therefore it takes years of learning your body to find how you best respond to an increased carb intake whilst at low body fat levels. 

For the average gym goer fresh for their first or second however, you won’t have this in depth knowledge of macronutrient manipulation and this will lead to people responding differently to a reverse diet (transferring from a caloric deficit to a caloric deficit on a bulk).

Can Bulking Make You Look Leaner

Bulking can make you look leaner initially however this is not a guarantee, as mentioned everyone responds differently to macronutrient manipulation and much in the same way that a cutting diet might work well for person A doesn’t mean it will necessarily work well for person B. 

There is always a critical point in a person’s physique when certain chemical and hormonal reactions just mean that you suddenly look great, bodybuilders get the closest to manipulating these at contests but many still get the process wrong as their body reacts differently to a certain food or meal. 

Therefore it needs to be said that you shouldn’t get your hopes up for looking better during a bulk after the initial few weeks as this will certainly not be the case and for most it will be the complete opposite!

With that said, here’s how bulking can actually make you look leaner:

  1. The introduction of a calorie surplus, particularly in the way of carbohydrates will replenish previously depleted glycogen stores in the muscles as well as water retention within the muscles.
  2. The reintroduction of higher carbs and fats will lead to a better pump in the gym, this is a superficial aspect but with lower body fat levels and a better pump your muscle to fat ratio with look better
  3. Your body is hypersensitive to macronutrients after a cutting phase so your nutrient partitioning will be optimal for a few weeks whilst you adapt to a bulk. This means that your body will prioritize nutrients to the muscle groups rather than for fat storage.
  4. During a cut you are essentially in starvation and survival mode so your body will try to hold on to body fat, as soon as you reintroduce a calorie surplus however and starting lifting heavier in the gym leading to a greater energy expenditure some people actually lose some body fat as a result because they are not truly in a surplus yet

The key point to note is that this is unfortunately an illusion with a temporary effect and the results will of course vary for everyone.

If you go straight into a high calorie surplus (>500kcal) after a cut then it’s likely you will rebound hard, hold a lot of water weight and start to put on body fat and weight very quickly. This is a trap many fall into and is what is referred to as rebound dieting.

Those that look leaner at the start of a bulk typically control their calorie surplus and increase slowly over the first few weeks and months which is why you will look leaner when compared with those that rebound hard.

Why You Look Smaller When Bulking

As I mentioned, looking leaner on a bulk is very much a short term result that comes from replenishing your muscle glycogen stores giving the illusion of larger muscle groups. This muscle to body fat ratio is what will give the appearance of looking leaner.

The reality of a bulk however is that you are going to actually look smaller. Despite lifting heavier, having the scale weight go up as a result of the calorie surplus and building lean muscle tissue you need to be prepared to actually look smaller when bulking. 

This again is to do with the illusion caused by manipulating (primarily) your body fat levels. With low body fat levels your muscles will look more defined and this will therefore give the appearance that they are larger. 

Minimal fat around the midsection for example will mean that of course your waist appears smaller because it will be but this will in turn mean that your shoulders look larger due to the tapered look of your physique. 

This is why many strive for the V-taper, larger shoulders and a smaller waist give the illusion of an overall larger physique. I don’t want to keep using the term illusion as though it’s a trick but when it comes to building a physique certain aspects are loss or more appealing because of the way we view them.

This is unfortunately the worst when bulking. During a bulk you will not only start to retain water meaning that you look less vascular and defined but will also start to store more body fat. As soon as you go over 10% body fat your muscle visibility will start to diminish the higher your body fat level. 

This means that where previously you had definition around a muscle group you will now have some fat storage that diminished the appearance of a larger muscle. A well defined muscle will give the appearance of being larger whereas a muscle covered with a layer of body fat will appear drastically smaller. 

This goes back to the V-taper example, as you store more body fat around your midsection then your shoulder to waist ratio will be reduced and you will appear smaller and less muscular. 

That’s why it’s important to know that if you start to look leaner during a bulk then it is a very temporary look and you need to be mentally prepared that you will lose muscle definition (despite hopefully gaining lean muscle mass) and unfortunately appear smaller to an untrained eye.

Can You Get Leaner While Bulking

There are actually some that experience getting leaner whilst bulking, this is known as a body recomp phase and is mostly relevant for those that live a very sedentary lifestyle, have a moderate body fat level (in the region of 15%), have low levels of muscle mass and have minimal training experience.

For anyone getting started on building a physique I would always advise that you cut down your body fat first to a level between 10%-12% for multiple reasons. 

  • Your body will utilize nutrients better at lower body fat levels giving priority to muscle groups for those that engage in resistance training
  • You are more sensitive to muscle building hormones at a lower body fat level, particularly testosterone and insulin
  • You learn to follow a diet plan and track calorie and macronutrient intake (a skill that is still required when bulking)
  • You learn good form on key compound exercises as you are not yet concerned with chasing number for your ego but more focused on the fat burning process
  • Bulking at a higher body fat level will just lead to gaining fat at a quicker rate, there is therefore no benefit to that approach

These are quite a few reasons why I feel you should be cutting before starting any bulking phase as a beginner and I cover this in more detail here:

When to bulk and cut

The reason why some appear to get leaner while bulking however is that the increased energy expenditure of weight training combined with beginner gains (beginners see more muscle growth in their first year of training than at any other time during their life) means that it’s possible to burn body fat whilst building muscle. 

The only real reason for this is that you are not truly in a bulking phase. If you base your initial maintenance calorie requirements on your current lifestyle before starting a bulk then your surplus calories will be off. 

This is because the introduction of weight training will drastically boost your energy expenditure, it’s something that your body is not used to and will be highly demanding for the first few weeks and months as you adapt.

Many beginners hit their first session or two very hard and then suddenly can’t move a muscle for a week while they recover. This increased energy expenditure means that you have based your calories on a sedentary lifestyle base and now your increased energy expenditure might actually put you into a calorie deficit.

This is why a recomp phase for many might involve increasing calories even when they want to lose weight, the introduction of weight training and potentially cardio will boost your energy expenditure and mean that even though you consume more calories you are still in a deficit overall and the same applies to a beginner bulking.

What Next

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