Bulking without counting calories is a tricky concept, if you consume too many calories then you will likely gain excess body fat in the process
There are two components to building a physique, the first is building muscle and the second is losing body fat. It’s very difficult to both at the same time as both require different dieting strategies however there are arguments to show that it is possible to both build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
As with most things however, if you really want to accelerate your progress with something then it is more beneficial to commit to one action and completely nail it to see results. Therefore if your primary goal is to build muscle then your focus should be on heavy weight training utilising the principles of progressive overload, recovering fully after each session and finally consuming the right food in a calorie surplus.
The final point and key focus for this article revolves around the calorie surplus aspect, in that in order to build muscle you need to not only fuel the muscle but provide ample nutrition to recover and grow. To do this you will go on what is more commonly known as a bulk.
What Is a Bulk
A bulk is a dieting strategy used to build muscle by eating in a calorie surplus. A calorie surplus is determined by a range of factors that make up your maintenance daily calorie requirements, a quick google search will pull up an online tool to work this out for you. Your maintenance calorie requirements factore in age, weight, genger, height, activity level and an accurate one will also include body fat percentage.
It’s important to know your maintenance requirements because it will make up the foundations of your bulking phase. A bulk therefore requires eating in a calorie surplus (eating over your maintenance calorie requirements) to gain weight with the aim being to add quality muscle tissue to your frame.
There is no scientifically best method to bulking and this has therefore led to the emergence of three bulking categories:
A dirty bulk follows the mentality of eating in such a steep calorie surplus that you have no choice but to put on weight, this usually involves eating what are classed as ‘dirty’ foods. These are basically food options that are high in calories, easy to consume but are not the most nutrient dense.
A dirty bulk would therefore consist of fast food options (McDonalds & Pizza Hut), snacks high in sugar (pop tarts, ice cream & fizzy drinks) and also high carb or fat options that are not necessarily low in nutrient density (pasta, nuts, potatoes) but consumed in too high a quantity.
I don’t believe in any food being bad, there are obviously better food choices when it comes to body composition but the real issue with a dirty bulk is that people use it as an excuse to indulge in foods that can be restricted when dieting. This is therefore where moderation becomes excess and this is when unnecessary body fat is gained.
I’m fully against the process of a dirty bulk and feel it’s not only optimal but also easy to get better results whilst still consuming foods that you otherwise might not when dieting.
A clean bulk is in stark contrast to a dirty bulk in that the foods you consume are highly nutrient dense and calorie consumption is closely monitored. The reasoning behind a clean bulk is to maximise muscle gain through the macronutrients that will facilitate this, it’s not so much about calories consumed but rather the quality of the calories consumed.
This is a good approach to take and is based on more solid scientific reasoning than a dirty bulk which focuses on quantity of calories over quality. A clean bulk also refers to the food choices which tend to be more natural and are as far away from the manufacturing or processed options as possible.
To clean bulk think of food sources that can be labelled organic or free range and are free of preservatives or added chemicals. These tend to be fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, dairy, meat, nuts/seeds, potatoes/yams and fish.
All the foods listed above are nutrient dense, which means they have more nutrients per gram of food than a more processed alternative. Even with this method however it’s still easy to gain excess body fat if you consume too much and this is where the final bulking method comes in.
A lean bulk is centred around bulking by gaining as little fat as possible in the process and aiming for weight gain to be purely in the form of lean muscle tissue. When eating in a calorie surplus it’s inevitable that some body fat will be gained, it’s part of the process however, my main issue with a bulk is that once you put on a certain amount of fat you will then have to work just as hard to lose it, there is no benefit to gaining excess body fat.
A lean bulk is therefore more meticulous when it comes to calorie counting and tracking your macros (macronutrients). If you can’t tell, my preference is 100% to follow a lean bulking approach and aim for slower but more quality gains when it comes to a bulk.
You can only build so much muscle in a given period of time so the goal should not be to watch scale weight fly up but rather watch your strength increase and muscular endurance improve as this will signify muscle growth. Gaining scale weight in terms of mass takes months and years rather than days and weeks so a lean bulk is my prefered approach to achieve this.
How to Lean Bulk
Lean bulking is about restricting the amount of fat gained by managing the calorie surplus that you consume. Gaining weight is a simple equation regarding energy balance, if:
Calories consumed > Energy expenditure
Then you will gain weight. To look at the extreme end of the spectrum consuming 5,000 calories per day in the form of high sugar foods and doing nothing but sitting on a sofa watching tv will result in fat gain, and quickly at that! For overall body composition you therefore want your calories consumed daily to closely match your energy output, this is a key to maintaining a good physique.
To build that physique however requires the calorie surplus so that you can fuel workouts and recover to build muscle, a lean bulk therefore aims to keep your calorie consumption just high enough to facilitate this growth without going so high that you gain unnecessary body fat.
This seems like a very fine margin for error but in reality is easier to manage than it appears, you just need to put in some initial groundwork which we’ll discuss in this article and the rest simply comes down to maintaining it on a regular basis. Once you know how to brush your teeth it becomes an easy habit to adopt daily and this is the goal for a successful bulk.
Body Fat Percentage to Start a Bulk
Before starting a bulk you need to make sure that you are starting at an optimal point both in terms of body composition and also metabolism/digestion. To successfully start a bulk you need to be at a body fat percentage of no higher than 12% (you could do a mini bulk between 12% – 15% but <12% is optimal). If you get your body fat percentage measured and your 18% (male specific example) then you need to be prioritising a cutting phase as a bulk will not provide adequate results in this instance.
There are physiological reasonings behind this and I discuss the ideal body fat percentage to start a lean bulk in more detail here, but to put it simply the more fat you have, the easier it is to put on fat, your body will prioritise fat storage in adipose tissue whereas someone at a lean 6% body fat percentage with be fully utilising macronutrients to build muscle.
For most, and this does depend a large part on genetics, being lean is more beneficial for partitioning nutrients which is ideal for building muscle, the more fat you store the harder it is to burn off. There are of course exceptions to this, a very long cut could you start to put on fat due to a hormonal imbalance but these are extreme example of being severely overweight or dieting down for too long without a break.
As a regular person if you are in the 8% – 12% body fat range then this is ideal for both a bulk or a cut, this is also easier to manage for most people’s lifestyles and does not need extreme dieting and training methods to maintain.
This is also a long term approach, there is nothing to say that bulking at 18% body fat will not still produce gains in lean muscle tissue however it would not be optimal and would then require a significant amount of dieting to get down to an acceptable body fat level. It doesn’t matter what weight you are either and is purely down to body fat percentage when it comes to starting (and ending) a bulk.
Calories and Macros Needed for a Lean Bulk
Assuming you have took note of the last point and are ready to start a bulk from an acceptable body fat level then the first thing you need to determine is your daily calorie requirements. Whilst this article is about a complete guide to bulking I do want to focus purely on a lean bulk for optimal progress, all the principles can be applied to any form of bulk but a lean bulk in particular is where you can maximise progress with your physique.
As mentioned you will first need to determine your maintenance calorie requirements to get an estimated base to work from. For the ease of an example we will use a 200lb male whos maintenance calorie amount is 3,000kcal.
For you to test this yourself it’s a good option to take your maintenance reading from an online calculator and monitor your weight daily to check for any major fluctuations, take your weekly average and then adjust it accordingly. If you’ve gained or lost a pound over the week then you can add or take away 200kcal to have your starting point for a bulk.
Once you have the calorie requirements you are going to start your lean bulk at 3,300kcal, you can vary this from 200kcal – 500kcal surplus to test weight gain but 300kcal is a safe starting point for a lean bulk. Now that you have the starting calorie amount you will next want to work out your macronutrient requirements. Again, you don’t want to be eating junk food with little nutritional value so use the following guidelines to set your macro requirements.
Protein – 1g per pound body weight, therefore our 200lb example person will consume 200g of protein per day.
*1g protein = 4kcal
Fat – 0.45g fat per pound body weight, therefore our 200lb example will consume 90g of fat per day.
*1g fat = 9kcal
Carbohydrates – these are made up of your remaining calories after protein and fat requirements have been worked out. Our 200lb example person needs 3,300kcals, 800kcals will come from protein (200g x 4kcal, 810kcals will come from fat (90g x 9kcal) which means protein and fats total 1,610kcal, this therefore leaves 1,690kcals to come from carbs (3,300kcals – 1,610kcals). To convert this to grams you will do 1,690kcals/4 = 423g carbs.
*1g carbohydrate = 4kcal
A 200lb person whos calorie requirements are 3,300 calories per day should have a starting macro split of:
How to Lean Bulk Without Counting Calories
And now we come to the key concept of the article, lean bulking without having to count calories. The above tips are all applicable for any form of bulk that you choose and are principles to follow rather than set rules, the tricky part comes in tracking your calories/macros daily.
To count calories can be a time constraint and inconvenience for many, it needs to be noted however that with the introduction of apps and clear labelling this should be easily achievable for the vast majority of the public. MyFitnessPal is a game changer when it comes to counting calories and tracking macros so I’d strongly suggest downloading and trialing this app.
If however you really don’t want to track macros, especially on a lean bulk when it’s really a necessity, then there are some basic principles that you can follow to progress without counting calories.
The first and most important thing you will need to do is design a set meal plan and follow it everyday. Depending on your mentality and relationship with food then this can either be seen as a good or bad thing.
If you want minimal choice in your diet and want a set and forget approach then this will be ideal. Based on your target calories for your bulk and macro split you’ll design your plan based on food you enjoy and that covers the macros and then you just stick to this everyday.
This is essential for a lean bulk because any changes in calories will result in performance or aesthetic changes which you’ve not accounted for. To lean bulk without counting calories this approach is the only real one that could yield results.
With this though you will still have to adjust macros overtime as you adapt to your training and surplus diet. You can keep the diet plan the same however and just add new food/meals when needed.
This approach offers little flexibility however so if you want to have some variety then unfortunately you would need to count calories and track daily.
A hack you can use is to design meals you’d like in advance and rotate them whilst keeping within your calorie target. You could have chicken and rice for dinner one day and mince and pasta the next day, you’d just need to know quantities of each to closely match the macros.
This approach will require the initial planning but once this is all done and you are happy with it you can follow it daily and see progress. The key is to set something you can follow as adherence will keep you on track and progress will then come easily.
How to Minimise Fat Gain on a Lean Bulk Without Counting Calories
Another factor that people struggle with on a bulk, alongside counting calories is minimising fat gain as much as possible. As mentioned earlier the more fat you put on the more it will affect your progress and even more importantly is that it’ll take longer to lose than it is to put on.
It’s easy to relax your diet on a bulk and still see progress because the calorie surplus will facilitate muscle growth, it’s the feeling that you don’t need to be as strict on a bulk as you would when cutting that results in excess fat gain.
Whilst dieting down to get truly lean does take serious discipline, an optimal bulk will also require a certain degree of discipline. You don’t need to worry about the occasional meal outside of a diet plan as much because the surplus will still facilitate muscle growth. You do however need to be aware of an occasional meal outside of your plan becoming a regular occurrence.
The easiest way to minimise fat gain on a lean bulk is to simply follow a well detailed diet plan, this is however not always a possibility and therefore you need to consider applying some of the following tactics.
Keep Doing Regular Cardio and NEAT
Cardio is a tool used to burn fat when cutting, it’s usually ignored on a bulk however as people focus more on lifting weights to build muscle and less on burning fat. Much like when dieting you should look to maintain strength as this is what built muscle in the first place, you should also use cardio to prevent fat gain, not just lose it.
You don’t need to do hour long marathon sessions, 2 high intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions or 3-4 low intensity steady state (LISS) sessions will be enough to prevent excess fat gain.
You also want to maintain non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), this is energy expended outside of exercise and the best and most easily adoptable option is walking. Keeping your step count high, 7,500 – 10,000 steps per day will ensure you don’t gain excess fat on a lean bulk.
Eat Nutrient Dense Food
This follows on from an earlier point and is crucial when not counting calories on a bulk. There is so much choice in terms of processed food these days that it’s very difficult to stick to a diet made entirely of whole foods that are nutrient dense.
These foods also contain surprisingly high calories that you would not expect. A Mars bar for example contains the following nutritional information for a 51g bar:
Calories – 228kcal
Protein – 2.2g
Fat – 8.5g
Carbohydrates – 35.3g
A 57g Protein Mars Bar in comparison has the following nutritional information:
Calories – 351kcal
Protein – 33g
Fat – 8.1g
Carbohydrates – 39g
The protein bar obviously looks like the better option at first glance due to the high protein content however it has 125kcals more than a standard chocolate bar. It’s marketing strategies like this that will cause unnecessary weight gain if you are not counting calories as these additional calories for the so called ‘healthier’ options soon start to add up.
Prioritising nutrient dense foods first should therefore be a key strategy when bulking without counting calories. There are no hidden calories in a lean chicken breast for example and this will give the same protein content as what you’d get from a protein bar that has more calories through added sugars.
Track Your Weight
The final way to minimise fat gain on a lean bulk is to track your scale weight and use the mirror daily. You might not want to count calories but tracking your weight daily literally takes a few seconds per day and should be easy to include into your daily routine. The reason for this is because the rate of muscle growth is much slower than what you might expect.
Fat gain and fat loss are both quick processes with changes possible within a few days, it’s not uncommon for a 300lb individual to lose 5 – 10lbs of fat in a week through proper diet and an intensive exercise regime. It’s not however possible for a 150lb individual to gain 5 – 10lbs of muscle in a week period, therefore how you view muscle and weight gain needs to be reevaluated.
If you are new to weight training then it’s not unrealistic to gain up to and over 25lbs of lean muscle mass within your first year of training however as the years go on this rate of progress will slow down significantly. You want to ideally be looking at no more than 1 – 2lbs of weight gain per month for this to be close to optimal. There will of course always be exceptions and there is no set number but if you find you are putting on a few pounds per week then this is more than likely not all lean muscle tissue.
The other indicator to check is either looking in the mirror or taking body part measurements with a measuring tape. You could gain 1lb but lose 1 inch from your waist at the same time meaning you will have improved body composition. Scale weight is important to monitor as a general guide but it is not the only determinant of physique changes and therefore you need to monitor both how you look in the mirror and other general measurements to make sure you are progressing in the right direction
Also check out:
How to count calories