08 Jun The Myth of Lean Gains – Why You Won’t Build MAXIMUM Muscle If You Stay Too Lean
I’ve probably got as many clients now chasing muscle mass than I have clients who want to get lean.
And one thing I’m asked more than ever is:
Can I build muscle while staying lean?
From years of experimenting on clients and myself, as well as observing some of the best bodybuilders in the world, both natural and assisted, I’ve come to the conclusion that while it may be possible, it’s certainly not optimal.
It comes back to the whole concept of the one thing, and how you can’t ride two horses with one ass.
If you want maximum fat loss, you don’t split your week between a surplus and a deficit, right?
So why is it when people try to gain size, they stay in a deficit or at maintenance for 2-3 days in the week?
All this does is hold you back and slows down the whole process.
If you’re after maximum size, you need to focus all your efforts on this.
And this means you should not only be progressively overloading the bar in the gym, but also adding more food to the plate.
You should be as strategic and diligent with your meals as you would be mid-way through a transformation.
This is tough, because eating 500-600g (or more) of carbs on a daily basis can be cumbersome, especially if you’re naturally a skinny dude.
Most of my guys chasing size are similar to me. Previously skinny, and now on a mission to get bigger and fill out their T-shirts.
The question they need to ask themselves before starting a muscle building phase is this:
Am I willing to be a little fluffier to gain maximum muscle?
Am I willing to accept I won’t gain at the optimal rate, but I’ll be able to stay lean?
In the case of the former, it won’t be comfortable, as you won’t be your usual lean self. But you know that when you do diet down next time, you won’t end up only 0.5lb heavier, or worse yet, the same. Which is often the case with the latter group.
I understand this is a hard question to answer for many people, as if you’ve come off the back of a fat loss transformation and in the shape of your life, you probably want to keep the condition.
And that’s OK! Many of my guys don’t want to get any bigger, they like staying lean year round. But you have to accept the compromise that you probably won’t be gaining much muscle during this time.
This past off-season I spent a good 15-18 months really chasing size. The 12 months before that I didn’t take it seriously enough, and got nowhere. But when I really dialled it in and treated it like a contest diet, I made some serious progress.
Strength in the gym skyrocketed and I was getting bigger in all the areas I wanted to be.
I capped out at 90kg, and this is how I looked:
Now I may look pretty fluffy, but I know I can get this off with a good, steady diet. That’s the easy bit for skinny guys like us. The hard bit is getting the weight up in the first place.
And for people who complain about getting food in; I remember in Adam’s last off season he was pushing food so hard that he was even blending up chicken breasts with rice just to get it in.
If you look at the difference in his competition pictures from recent years, you can see the noticeable size he’s added (to his chest and legs in particular).
Recently two long term clients of mine finished dieting down after lengthy muscle building phases, and here’s the improvements:
The top row was an initial diet. The second was the bulk. The bottom right was the final cut. Compare top left with bottom right!
You can see not only are they peeled, but they’ve packed on a LOT of muscle size.
How did we do this?
Consistently eating big, lifting big and treating the ‘bulk’ as serious as the ‘cut’.
If you’re reading this and in the 15-20% body fat range, you have no business starting a muscle-building diet.
You need to get lean first. That’s critical. Your body is much more sensitive to growth when you’re lean to begin with. It also gives you a much bigger ‘space’ to grow into.
If you start at 15% body fat, you’ll get fat quick and find yourself in need of dieting again.
That’s why when I take on new muscle building clients, I always diet them for 4-8 weeks first so we can prime them for a lengthy phase of big eating.
An example is my client Kedar here, who came to me for size, but was at a body fat where I knew we’d cap out too soon.
So we ran a 6-week mini-cut to get into this shape (he’s also vegetarian):
We’re now 4-5 months into the bulk, with the view of it lasting 12-18 months before we max out and diet down again.
He’s someone who’s naturally lean, so needs to be reminded of the importance of eating big, consistently:
He isn’t the only one. I have this conversation almost daily with at least one muscle-building client. It’s that important.
For these guys, where they tend to also go wrong is weekends, when their usual routine is often disrupted.
Waking up late and being busier socially often means forgetting to eat and missing meals. These lost calories add up, and before you know it, your weekly average is back at maintenance.
How Fat is too Fat?
When your appetite is completely shot, your pumps in the gym are going to shit, your strength is stagnating or maybe regressing, your joints are always hurting, or you’ve lost the faint borderline of your abs/obliques/serratus, you’ve probably gone too far.
Not to mention at this level your hormones won’t be optimal and your nutrient partitioning will be poor.
At this stage you’ve got one of two options:
- Run a mini-cut for 6-8 weeks to resensitise and bring body fat in check again, before pushing again.
- Get completely peeled and see where you end up. I would only do this if you’ve been bulking consistently for 12-18 months and you’re happy with your level of size. Or if you have a shoot or competition. Otherwise it’s premature and will slow the overall process down.
What about the guys who preach staying lean year round?
The problem now is that many of the famous fitness guys all preach they stay lean year round. Which dupes us into thinking that we need to the same.
However, what people miss is that what you’re seeing now, is not how they got there.
The guys who stay lean year round now are guys who are happy with how they look and have maxed themselves out genetically.
If I was in the same situation, I’d do the same. But I guarantee you that every one of these guys went through a period in their life when they were a little fluffier than they’d like to be, and they were pounding the food.
It’s exactly the same in training, with all the ‘stretch and squeeze’ BS that has come out in the last few years.
The big guys promoting this might train like this now, but that’s because they’re at their strength ceiling, have tons of injuries or are happy with the size they’ve built.
I guarantee you that that is not how they built the size in the first place.
It was from setting PRs on the bar, and PRs on the plate.
It’s always been, and always will be the best and fastest way to build the maximum amount of muscle size, in the minimum amount of time.