One of the worst mistakes I get the pleasure of observing on an almost daily basis is people trying to put on muscle mass through a very heavy ‘bulking’ phase.
Now don’t get me wrong, to build new muscle tissue we need to be in a calorie surplus – this is fact.
But, like most things, this can be taken much too far. People using a traditional bulking phase tend to overeat to the absolute extreme. Although this will undoubtedly make gaining muscle mass slightly easier, it can also lead to large increases in fat mass, hormonal dysfunction, and a host of other health implications (included an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes).
As a result, it is by no means the most effective (or healthy) way to add muscle to our frame.
Fortunately for us, there are a number of ways we can manipulate our diet to maximise the development of new muscle tissue while limiting fat accumulation (and all the other negative effects associated with a heavy ‘bulk’).
In the following article I outline the key dietary tips allowing us to put on lean mass.
Manage your caloric surplus
Now while this may sound a little obvious, it does undoubtedly require emphasis when discussing increasing lean mass while minimising fat accumulation.
Where most people go wrong when trying to put on muscle mass is they simply eat too much. This results in a number of problems, one of which is the excessive accumulation of fat mass. This means that once you have completed your ‘bulking phase’, you have to lose a heap of excess fat before you can actually see the muscle mass you have gained.
But by managing our energy intake closely and efficiently, we can bypass this step entirely by only adding lean muscle mass to our frame.
This can be done by only increasing our energy intake by 10-20% above maintenance on training days, and eating at maintenance on non-training days. This will ensure that the excess calories consumed will strictly contribute to the development of new tissue.
So for example, my maintenance calories are approximately 2500 per day, so my weekly breakdown might look something like the following:
Monday – Lower Body: 3000 calories
Tuesday – Upper Body: 2750 calories
Wednesday – Rest Day: 2500 calories
Thursday – Lower Body: 3000 calories
Friday – Upper Body: 2750 calories
Saturday – Rest Day: 2500 calories
Sunday – Rest Day: 2500 calories
By limiting my energy intake on rest days I can reduce my risk of increasing fat mass considerably, as I am not actually eating enough to promote fat deposition. Alternatively, by only consuming excess energy on training days, I can almost completely guarantee that those excess calories are going to the repair and development of muscle tissue, and NOT new fat tissue.
Don’t fear fat
Most people concerned with improving body composition are stuck in the mindset that fats are bad, and as such should be avoided at all cost.
In reality, there is nothing further from the truth.
This holds particularly true when discussing natural fats. These include monounsaturated fats (such as those found in nuts, avocados, and fish) and saturated fats (such as those found in red meat, eggs, and dairy). The fats from these sources are known to improve cellular health, and also contain naturally occurring cholesterol (trust me when I say that this is actually a good thing – even despite what the mainstream media may have said…).
You see, Cholesterol is absolutely essential to the production of steroidal hormones. One of the most important steroidal hormones found in the human body is Testosterone. Testosterone is known to increase the synthesis of muscle tissue, while also promoting the metabolism of fat so it can be used for energy.
As a result, maintaining a high testosterone production is absolutely essential to the devilment of new muscle without increasing fat mass.
But unfortunately, if we limit our consumption of these fats (and subsequently limit our intake of cholesterol), we can seriously reduce our testosterone production.
As such, 20-30 percent of our daily energy intake should come from fats directly. As suggested above, these should be saturated and monounsaturated fats coming from natural sources. It is also worth mentioning that we should try to limit our intake of highly processed, polyunsaturated fats entirely, as they have shown to cause inflammation and are known to lead to a number of diseases.
Eat adequate protein
Now this one is obvious, but again, it can’t go without saying.
Protein consist of amino acids. Amino acids are the building block of our cells. They are what make up our active (think muscle) and connective (think tendons and ligaments) tissue. As such, we need to provide our body with enough amino acids to guarantee the recovery and development of muscle tissue after an intense session.
For most, a protein intake of 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is more than enough to maximise recovery and promote the development of muscle tissue. While there is no danger in eating more than this, it is certainly not necessary.
Don’t rely on supplements
Something that most people do when starting to increase muscle mass is go out and buy a whole heap of supplements because they truly believe that they are necessary to building muscle mass. And while I do admit that supplements have a (somewhat small) place in the development of new muscle, tissue, they are not nearly as important they are often made out to be.
Supplements are merely what their name suggests– supplements.
They are meant to supplement a good diet and exercise routine. If your diet is not up to scratch, then supplements are not going to do a thing to help you achieve your goal.
BUT, if your diet and training are rock solid, then there are some (note: some) supplements that can definitely improve our ability to put on muscle mass.
Of these, the two most important (and honestly the only two that I ever recommend) are creatine monohydrate and a high quality protein powder.
Supplementing with creatine monohydrate has been shown time and time again to increase strength and power output, and also lead to improved increases in muscle mass after a solid a training cycle. Similarly, protein powder is a simple and effective way to maintain a high protein intake, allowing us to hit our macros easily, without overeating on carbohydrates and fats.
Training to increase muscle mass does not mean that you have to accept some extra fat mass as well. By manipulating certain aspects of diet we can guarantee the growth of new muscle tissue while simultaneously limiting the accumulation of new fat mass.
This includes the smart and efficient management of our calorie intake, which ultimately requires only eating above maintenance on training days (and ensuring that we don’t eat too much above maintenance), and eating at maintenance on non-training days.
We should eat adequate dietary fat to ensure regular testosterone production. This will improve our ability to use fat for energy, while also increasing the development of new muscle tissue. We also need to eat adequate protein to ensure muscle growth.
And finally, we should not become reliant on supplements.
By ticking all of these boxes (and of course training hard) we can genuinely maximise the growth of lean muscle while reducing the likelihood of increasing our fat mass – a serious win!
Luke Cafferty is a fitness junkie, personal trainer and blogger. He’s passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a strong and well-rounded physique, while inspiring others to do the same.
Luke found a passion for human performance and the ability to optimize his nutritional intake for muscle growth, better immunity and different cardiovascular benefits at a young age. This passion has since grown and he continues to deepen his knowledge on all aspects of fitness and health.
Sun, Guang, et al. “Skeletal muscle characteristics predict body fat gain in response to overfeeding in never-obese young men.” Metabolism 51.4 (2002): 451-456.
Unger, Roger H., and Philipp E. Scherer. “Gluttony, sloth and the metabolic syndrome: a roadmap to lipotoxicity.” Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism 21.6 (2010): 345-352.
Cano, Pilar, et al. “Effect of a high-fat diet on 24-h pattern of circulating levels of prolactin, luteinizing hormone, testosterone, corticosterone, thyroid-stimulating hormone and glucose, and pineal melatonin content, in rats.” Endocrine 33.2 (2008): 118-125
Esmaillzadeh, Ahmad, and Leila Azadbakht. “Home use of vegetable oils, markers of systemic inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction among women.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 88.4 (2008): 913-921
Andrews, Ryan D., David A. MacLean, and Steven E. Riechman. “Protein intake for skeletal muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in seniors.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 16.4 (2006): 362-372.
Cribb, Paul J., and Alan Hayes. “Effects of supplement-timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 38.11 (2006): 1918-1925.