The Ideal Body Fat Percentage To Start A Lean Bulk

The main purpose of a bulk is to enter a calorie surplus with the aim of maximizing muscle growth. Some people however, view this as an excuse of even justification for carrying around extra body fat and eating whatever they want.

In terms of weight gain there is only so much that can be attributed to muscle mass on a weekly basis and therefore any additional weight gain is likely to be body fat and water retention. Starting a bulk at an already high body fat percentage would only make it more difficult to build muscle. 

What is the ideal body fat percentage when starting a lean bulk? The ideal body fat percentage when starting a lean bulk should be between 10% – 12%. If your body fat percentage is 12% and above then you should first diet down to lose this excess body fat before considering a bulk.

The idea of a bulk appeals to a lot of people because they imagine it as being able to eat excess calories whilst building muscle which seems like an ideal scenario. With phrases like “you need to eat big to get big” being advertised as well it’s easy to see why people go into a bulk with the wrong mindset and end up putting on more fat then they do muscle. This is one of the main reasons why you need to be starting off in the 10% bf range and considering a lean bulk.

What Is A Lean Bulk

A bulk is when you are consuming excess calories above your maintenance amount with the aim of building muscle. If you need to consume 1,800 calories everyday just to maintain the same weight then a bulk would technically be consuming anything above 1,800 calories. Therefore even if you are consuming as little as 50 calories above maintenance you are still technically on a ‘bulk’. 

Historically there have been two schools of thought when it comes to bulking, a dirty bulk vs a clean bulk. A dirty bulk is what people would consider to be eating above maintenance calories with a very flexible approach to what they eat and the most part the food choices are viewed as junk food. There are people who will make several trips to Mcdonalds daily in order to increase their calories even though the macro breakdown of these foods are not necessarily optimal for building muscle.

A clean bulk would be one in which you eat certain foods that contain a higher nutrient density (lean meat, rice, potatoes, leafy green veg, nuts and fish).

A lean bulk basically means you are eating just enough calories over your maintenance amount to facilitate muscle growth whilst aiming to minimize any excess body fat being gained. It follows the ‘clean’ bulk principle in terms of eating highly nutrient dense foods and the macro split for calories is also calculated.

A lean bulk certainly takes more planning and tracking to get right however it is likely the most beneficial strategy for body composition in the modern age when tracking your macros can be as simple as scanning the food into MyFitnessPal. 

How Many Calories You Need For A Lean Bulk

As with any question related to how many calories you need the answer will always come back to ‘it depends on the individual’, there are however a few guidelines that can be applied to anyone on a lean bulk. The first and arguably the most important rule to follow on a lean bulk is that the calorie surplus needs to be controlled and adjusted based on scale weight.

The calories needed for a lean bulk needs to be within a 200kcal – 500kcal surplus of your maintenance calories. Using an example from earlier if an individual’s maintenance calories are 1,800 then you would look to start your bulk on 2,000 – 2,300 calories and take a conservative approach.

If for example you started off with a 1,000 calorie surplus then it’s unlikely you will be able to utilize all of the excess calories and will quickly start to store this as fat. Taking a slow and steady approach is the best way to not only minimize fat gain but also track how your body is responding to the calorie surplus which leads into making adjustments based on scale weight.

It’s not ideal because no one has a scale that will accurately test your weight with factors such as body fat percentage and water mass however it’s one of the most accurate tools that people have to track progress on a bulk. Taking a daily scale reading upon waking and tracking it across the week will let you see how you are responding to your current calories.

If it’s been a few weeks and you have not gained any weight then you would need to look at adjusting your calories accordingly and upping them. If however you are gaining 2lbs-3lbs per week or more then this is likely not going to be muscle mass and you will need to pull back your calorie surplus to reduce this rapid weight gain. 

Macro Split For A Lean Bulk

When starting a lean bulk a lot of testing is going to be needed during the first few weeks so a conservative approach to macros will be required.

When losing weight you can select a certain macro split but doing something like extended HIIT cardio sessions will then accelerate fat loss and make it difficult to track whether the calorie deficit or energy expended is causing the rate of fat loss. For a lean bulk it will be a lot easier to track as you don’t want to be gaining more than 1lb scale weight per week (0.5lbs per week would be more advisable).

Use the following macro splits to start a lean bulk and then adjust as necessary, this is based on your maintenance calorie level.

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, I’m currently 180lbs, 6’1 and have maintenance calories at 2,500. My starting point would be a conservative 200 calorie surplus so daily calories will be 2,700 to start, the macro split will be as follows:

Protein – 1g per 1lb BW = 180g (720kcal)
Fat – 0.45g per 1lb BW = 81g (729kcal)
Carbs – To work out remaining calories for carbs you will need to do the following sums.
– 720kcal + 729kcal = 1,449kcl (protein and fat). 
– To make my calorie target of 2,700 I’ll then do 2,700kcal – 1,449kcal (protein and fat) = 1,251kcal carbs. 
– 1g carbs is equal to 4 calories so to get my carb amount in grams I do 1,251 / 4 = 312g carbs.

This is what you can use to start your lean bulk, if that carb amount is too high and you are gaining weight too fast then you can change the formula for protein to anything from 1g per pound body weight to 1.5g per pound body weight. For a lean bulk going higher than that will be excessive as it will leave you on very low carbs which is not of benefit when in a bulking phase.

Cardio When Bulking

One final consideration of a lean bulk and something that often sparks mixed opinion is cardio. Cardio is a tool traditionally used to burn fat, the two most common forms are low intensity steady state (LISS) and high intensity interval training (HIIT).

The purpose of a bulk is to gain weight and people are often worried that cardio will somehow prevent muscle building and even contribute to some muscle loss, it is however important to include some form of cardio a few times a week even when on a bulk. 

Eating in a calorie surplus combined with reduced energy expenditure (assuming you were fairly active and did cardio before starting a bulk) is a combination destined to result in gaining more fat than you would want.

The calorie surplus is set at such a low level during a lean bulk that it’s aimed at maximizing muscle gain and keeping fat accumulation to a minimum, doing some steady state cardio a few times a week will help to promote fat burning and make sure you are not developing excessive fat storage from the calorie surplus.

The purpose of a lean bulk is just that, you want to gain muscle (body mass) at a slower rate and therefore you want to keep your metabolism and cardiovascular system operating at a high level to keep the fat burning process active.

The worst thing you can do during a bulk is adopt the mindset of wanting to gain as much weight as possible,  the extra fat you gain during this time will take twice as long and twice as much hard work to lose once you are finished with the bulk and ready to go on a cut. Adding in a few cardio sessions a week (even a 30 minute walk 2-3 times a week) is enough to tick this box.

What Next

If you are looking to make changes to your physique by either losing body fat, building muscle or looking to maintain a lean physique then sign up to my weekly newsletter below. Each week I send out actionable tips to help you lose that extra 1lb of fat or build that extra 0.5lb of muscle mass on a weekly basis. 

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    Also check out:
    A guide to lean bulking – https://www.maximuscle.com/sports/bodybuilding/10-Hacks-for-a-Lean-Bulk-Transformation/
    Lean bulk without counting calories – https://bodiesbybyrne.com/how-to-lean-bulk-without-counting-calories/