Lean bulk vs bulk and cut is a decision that many struggle with when it comes to physique development.
To grow muscle, lose fat and ultimately build a pretty decent physique you will have to adopt phases based around building muscle or losing body fat, these phases are more commonly known as bulking and cutting.
There are arguments to say that you can lose fat whilst building muscle and there is definitely truth to this for a select few individuals (those that lack training experience and carry a significant amount of body fat already) but for the vast majority of people you will need to spend a dedicated amount of time in a bulking or cutting phase to really build your physique.
When it comes to training, a sole focus on a specific goal will often reap the best results. Whilst exercises like a deadlift have carry over to different aspects of physique development if you wanted to specifically build your calves then you would need to make them a priority in your training and put everything else into maintenance mode.
The same is true for overall physique development, to see the best progress you need to focus on one specific goal at any one time when it comes to body composition.
The key point of this article is to look at the best long term strategy when it comes to building muscle. A diet phase from a programming point of view is pretty straight forward, it’s the optimal way to build muscle that has a multitude of views.
For most it usually comes down to two popular approaches. The first is a sustained lean bulk whereby you stay very close to your maintenance calories and look to build muscle while minimising fat gains. The second is a bulk and cut approach whereby you push calories high (above maintenance) in a growing phase and then go on a mini bulk to lose the unwanted fat built up in the process.
Both approaches have merits and drawbacks so the best approach will depend on your views around body composition and also your physiology. If you struggle to lose body fat for example then the slower calorie controlled approach may be best whereas if you really struggle to build muscle then you may have to really up the calories and cycle through bulking and cutting phases.
By the end of this article you should have a good idea of what approach best suits you (there are of course other ways to build muscle and improve your physique) and how you can start utilising it straight away.
Table of Contents
What is a Lean Bulk
A lean bulk is an approach based around staying close to your maintenance calories whilst building muscle in an attempt to minimise fat gain and attain a year round aesthetic physique.
You might also have heard this referred to as a clean bulk, these are not to be confused though. A clean bulk really focuses around the psychology of food and categorises food as good food ‘clean’ and bad food. The purpose of a lean bulk is to control calories and weight gain so is less concerned with food choices and more about the process.
If during any form of diet you start to label foods as good and bad or dirty and clean then this will instantly open a negative loophole and association with food. There are of course food choices that that be more beneficial for body composition and I’d recommend that around 80% of your diet should be made up of nutrient dense foods but don’t fall into the psychological battle of labeling food.
Now that it’s clear we are focusing on a process instead of individual food choices the most important thing to know to successfully lean bulk is what your maintenance macro calorie requirements are. This is how many calories you need to consume daily just to maintain your current weight and factors in age, activity level, current weight as well as everyday bodily functions like breathing, digestion and controlling blood flow.
There are online calculators that will work this out for you, simply google ‘maintenance calorie calculator’, if however you’d be interested in working this out for yourself and understanding the process then you can follow this method below:
Note – this calculation is pulled from my previous article which looks at the breakdown in more detail
First you need to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the amount of energy required by the body to sustain everyday functions when at rest, this includes breathing, regulating body temperature, blood circulation and brain/vital organ functions. To calculate this you need to take your weight in kilograms and times it by 15 (some vary it between 15 – 18 but 15 is the most conservative figure) and then add 700. This will give the following formula:
BMR = (15 x weight in kg) + 700
My BMR would therefore be: (15 x 82) + 700 = 1,930
This figure is one part of working out your maintenance calorie requirements, the other part is factoring in your activity level.
The formula for maintenance calories is BMR x Activity Level. You need to be very honest with yourself for this selection, if you work a desk job and live a very sedentary lifestyle then you need to accept this as your starting point.
My maintenance calorie requirement is the following – 1930 (BMR) x 1.55 (activity level) = 2,992kcal
Therefore just to maintain weight I need to be consuming roughly 2,992kcal per day. Without even taking into account any muscle building requirements this is already a very high calorie requirement for a lot of people.
If you are struggling to put on size then this will be your starting point, it’s very easy to say you are consuming every calorie under the sun and can’t possibly consume more calories on a daily basis but the actuality is that you are probably massively underestimating just how many calories you currently consume in relation to what you maintenance requirements are.
The next step is to then get a good starting point in terms of your macronutrient breakdown. Rather than going into detail about why this is a good macronutrient split just use the following as a starting point, you can always adjust these numbers depending on personal factors.
Protein – 1 gram per pound of body weight
Fat – 0.45 grams per pound of body weight
Carbohydrates – make up from whatever calories you have remaining after calculating protein and fat
To illustrate, I’ll use myself as an example again, I’m currently 182lbs (82kg), 6’1 and have maintenance calories at 2,992.
Protein – 1g per 1lb BW = 182g (728kcal)
Fat – 0.45g per 1lb BW = 81.9g (737kcal)
Carbs – To work out remaining calories for carbs you will need to do the following sums.
- 728kcal + 737kcal = 1,465kcl (protein and fat).
- To make my calorie target of 2,992 I will do 2,992kcal – 1,465kcal (protein and fat) = 1,527kcal carbs.
- 1g carbs is equal to 4 calories so to get my carb amount in grams I do 1,527 / 4 = 382g carbs.
- 182g protein
- 82g fat
- 382g carbohydrates
Benefits of a Lean Bulk
The most obvious benefit of a lean bulk is that it focuses on minimising fat gain meaning you can sustain a relatively lean and aesthetic physique year round (providing your starting body fat percentage is <13%).
Excessive body fat, whilst not a direct cause, Is still a contributing factor to a number of common health issues plaguing western society including obesity, diabetes and blood pressure.
Now, you’ll be actively pursuing a healthy lifestyle so your activity level and overall health markers should be better than the average sedentary person who suffers these issues due to poor lifestyle choices. Either way, prevention is always the best route to take when it comes to your health so keeping excess body fat to a minimum is key.
The next benefit is that a leaner physique is optimal for training performance, recovery and nutrient partitioning. The last point is of particular importance when it comes to long term physique development. It’s an often abused visualisation but think of your body as a machine and how optimally these run after an MOT, you’ll need to bear with me for this next bit!
Getting lean is a form of an internal MOT for a number of reasons but the main one I’m focused on is nutrient partitioning. Nutrient partitioning works based on a number of factors including genetic predisposition, energy requirements and hormonal balance.
In its most extreme example if you lead a very sedentary lifestyle and are heavily overweight then any surplus calories that you eat will be stored as body fat.
Your muscles have no requirements for them so the body won’t shuffle nutrients somewhere that doesn’t require them and they will be stored as fat. In contrast look at the Olympic swimmer Micheal Phelps, he’s been reported as consuming up to 10,000 calories on training days which is an enormous amount (4 times the average recommended amount). Yet despite the hefty calorie intake he remained lean during competition and actually thrived.
I’m not a swimming fan by any means but this was to demonstrate that his physical requirements were so high that he utilised all these calories so that there wasn’t any left over to be stored as fat.
From a body composition viewpoint you therefore want to eat the calories that you can utilise based on your training intensity and requirements. The goal, and overall reason for that mini essay is therefore to give your body a reason to send more of the nutrients you consume to your muscles and less to be stored as body fat.
As mentioned genetics do play a part but a lean bulk will also benefit ideal nutrition partitioning for the following reasons:
- The smaller the surplus the less your body can store as fat, it will therefore prioritise replenishing glycogen stores within the muscles
- Insulting receptors are more sensitive with lower body fat levels, the more fat you have the more insulin resistant you become. Insulin is a key player when it comes to nutrient partitioning so just being lean can actually contribute to staying lean.
One final benefit of a lean bulk is that you can more accurately track your key body composition indicators (scale weight, body measurements and fat percentage) and make key adjustments much more accurately to build muscle.
You can only build lean muscle mass at a certain rate naturally, the rate of which is much less than you might expect.
The above diagram is based on research by Alan Aragon that shows that the rate of muscle built is much slower over time and therefore large calorie surpluses will amount to larger stores of body fat as the rate of muscle growth is capped.
There are other theories which take into account fat free mass index and natural limits for bodybuilders however this gives a good indication of what you can expect.
Drawbacks of a Lean Bulk
The main drawback of a lean bulk approach for overall body composition is the length of time required to see progress. We’ve established that you can only build muscle up to a certain rate for the most part however if you dive straight into a calorie surplus then this process will obviously start sooner.
With a lean bulk you are going to initially need a 3-6 week period to set the foundation for a lean bulk. Not only will you need to track key markers and learn your numbers inside out (by this I mean how many calories you can consume to either gain or lose 1lb) but you will also need to ensure your starting point is a comfortable sub 13% body fat, ideally closer to 10% body fat.
This initial body re-comp phase will set you up for a successful long term bulk and will also allow a buffer of a few percent body fat to work with. It is difficult to get this right from the outset and is a steep learning curve to see what your body responds to so you’d need to be fully content playing the long game when it comes to physique development with a lean bulk.
The other drawback ties into the first to an extent and is the fact that a lean bulk is mentally challenging.
To maintain a lean physique you need to track macros and weight daily, stay relatively strict and exercise willpower the same as you would when dieting and accept that it’s a long term approach and you therefore won’t have the instant satisfaction that you would when seeing the scale weight move up.
On average, and depending on how well you can partition nutrients, for every 1lb of muscle you build there is likely a 3lb fat gain that accompanies it (see here for a more in-depth look at nutrition partitioning).
Now this is clearly and argument for lean bulk as calorie control would play a key part in this however the fact is if you gain 4lbs over the space of a few weeks then this is a mental victory.
Weight scales and judging your physique by eye will not how much you’ve built in terms of muscle and therefore seeing scale weight progress can be a motivator for sticking to your muscle building routine. On a lean bulk however progress can be very slow which will have a knock on effect to your motivation and adherence to following the plan.
The only real solution is to either be accepting of this fact before you start a lean bulk or more likely that you stay more motivated to maintain a lean physique than you are to build muscle as quickly as possible and at all costs.
Bulk and Cut
What is a Bulk and Cut
A bulk and cut is the more traditional cycle of dedicating certain phases of the year to either a muscle building (bulking) or fat loss (cutting) phase.
This comes from bodybuilding cycles whereby you diet for a set number of months leading up to a bodybuilding show and then afterwards you have a bulking off season that it dedicated to making improvements and building more muscle in preparation for the following year of competition.
A modern bulking and cutting cycle is a lot less rigid as most people don’t enter bodybuilding shows however strong comparisons can be used for everyday life. From January 1st every year you will see countless people start a diet to lose fat they’ve put on over the festive period, look to get lean as a New Years goal or start cutting to work towards a beach body for a summer holiday.
Once summer is out of the way you’ll then see people tend to go on a bulking phase and make use of additional body fat during the cold months of winter when you’ll likely be fully covered up and have no reason to be visibly lean (based on the fact that your body won’t be visible).
The bulk and cut is admittedly a good structured routine to follow because you have one specific goal and can work towards it, those that lean bulk can find themselves in limbo about whether they want to get truly shredded or build a mass amount of muscle.
This structured focus makes it very easy to stick to a goal, once you stick to a goal you are also far more likely to actually achieve it!
Before I get into the benefits and drawbacks of a bulk and cut cycle it’s worth making you aware of one thing, whether you goal is to build muscle or lose body fat a long term approach will reap much greater benefits.
Whilst fat loss can be accelerated (at the cost of muscle mass, more on that here) building muscle is very much a long term process and you therefore need to be of the mindset that you’ll stick to a bulk for at least 6 months to start to see progress.
Benefits of Bulking and Cutting
The main benefit of a bulk and cut cycle is that you can spend an extended period of time focusing on one specific physique goal and this approach will almost always bring you the most progress and benefit.
If you want to move heavy weights and build muscle then a calorie surplus is the most obvious way to go about supporting this. That may seem obvious but if you have half a mind on retaining 6 pack abs and don’t want to push calories too high for fear of losing these then you will be doing yourself an injustice.
Sacrificing a short term physique to build a truly impressive physique that will last you long term should be the goal and a dedicated bulking phase would be preferential for this.
The same approach goes to burning body fat on a cut. It’s very much possible to burn fat at an accelerated rate with a steep calorie deficit and heavy focus on cardio but this approach comes with a sacrifice to potential muscle mass. The faster to lose weight the more likely that this is coming from more than just stored body fat and therefore your overall physique will be affected with this approach.
A slow sustained fat loss period is the best way to ensure that you lose the optimal amount of body fat whilst maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. There are further strategies that can be employed to maintain muscle mass whilst dieting but as far as bulking and cutting goes a dedicated period of 12 – 24 weeks is realistic.
The next benefit of following a bulk and cut cycle is the lifestyle flexibility that comes with it, your mental adherence and ability to stick to a plan is just as important (if not more important) than the plan itself.
A lean bulk for example restricts the number of calories you can consume within the week and means that you need to be very compliant with your program year round which requires a lot of mental capacity.
Adherence to a plan should not be underestimated, someone following a ‘boring’ plan of 3 set meals everyday and a basic strength training programs than someone following a flexible approach to dieting (with significant cheat meals) and constantly program hopping.
I am generalising a bit to be honest but think carefully about whether you could constantly record meals out on MyFitnessPal, monitor your daily cardio and energy expenditure and have the willpower to say no on occasion?
When in a dedicated bulking and cutting period you still need to be strict in terms of your routine but the mental pressure required to follow it is a lot lower and this I believe will lead to more progress on average.
Drawbacks of Bulking and Cutting
If your relatively new to training and have less than a years experience then going into a bulking and cutting mentality of training will not yield the necessary results. As mentioned earlier traditional bulking and cutting cycles were popularised but professional bodybuilders who already have a significant amount of muscle mass.
The average gym goer or beginner on the other hand is not blessed with this physique as a starting point.
In this instance you likely don’t have the body composition that is preferable to take on this type of physique development cycle. Regardless of fitness level or weight your first goal should be to get to <12% body fat at a minimum, 10% is a more realistic target for most.
The reason for this is because it’s the optimal level from which to start any diet or bulk or physique development and should be a starting point for anyone building a long term physique.
If you read articles about bulking and go straight into this with a high body fat percentage then you will not be doing your physique much benefit. The ability to build muscle becomes more difficult at higher levels of body fat due to hormonal influences.
Once at this starting point you should then go into a dedicated bulking period that is much longer than a few months at Christmas. You need a calorie surplus to facilitate lifting heavy weights needed to build muscle so whilst I’m still recommending a form of bulking and cutting here it’s over a much longer time period than the 3 month cycles you see advertised.
Which is Better for Physique Development (Lean Bulk or Bulk & Cut)
As with most things this will vary based on the individual but there will be an optimal plan to follow for physique development based on the following characteristics:
Starting Point & Training Experience
If you are completely new to training and dieting then neither of the approaches listed above are particularly ideal but I’d recommend a bulk and cut cycle that’s significantly longer than you might expect. An initial cutting phase of 3 – 5 months is likely necessary followed by an extended bulking period of 1+ years.
I know that sounds like a long time but during the bulk you can of course factor in a few mini cuts (2 – 4 week diet phase) for a digestive, hormonal and nervous system break. This recommendation is based on the fact that you’ll be most receptive to muscle growth in your first year of training and should therefore take full advantage of it.
If however you have had numerous years of training and have already developed a decent physique (in which case you’d have got nothing from this article) then maintaining this physique on a lean bulk would be a good way to go.
The next thing to take into consideration is your current lifestyle. Whilst this may sound counter intuitive, a busy professional may actually benefit more from a lean bulk due to habit building. Those with a successful career will have already built up daily habits based around productivity, routines and daily exercise, therefore adding another system in place to track calories won’t be too mentally strenuous.
On the other hand if you are in an entry level position or a student where daily stress is much lower, then a bulk and cut approach would be best. This is particularly true for a student where you can take advantage of term time breaks and work solely towards a specific physique goal.
This is really the most relevant point when it comes to choosing your diet strategy. What are your personal goals?
If you’re just starting out then again I’d strongly recommend following a cut to get to a sub 12% body fat level and then look to go on a bulk for an extended period of time whereas if you are already in decent shape then you should trial out a lean bulk even just to experience the challenge of maintaining a lean physique over a longer period of time.
Unfortunately, social media marketing and the ease of entry into the fitness industry mean that programs are very much results driven (rightly so) but over too short of a time frame. Regardless of which option you decide on you should go into it with the mindset of a long term goal to really see significant physique development.
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