The Ultimate Guide To Lean Bulking Part 2: Macros and Calories

Following on from Lean Bulking Part 1, where we introduced the overall concept of lean bulking and why it is superior to traditional “more-food-means-more-muscle”, “eat as much as you can” bulking for adding muscle aesthetically, here we’ll get into some specifics.

The important thing in fitness really is your nutrition. It will either make you or break you.

For a natural bodybuilder, many would agree results usually come from 80% nutrition and 20% training.

No matter how many hours you spend in the gym torturing every body part, if you’re not serious about getting an optimal diet sorted, you might as well drop the gym membership. You’ll be wasting your time and money.

Your diet is crucial to your success of achieving a bigger, more aesthetic body.

So without further ado, let’s get right down to business.

Optimal Lean Bulking Calories and the Importance of Eating a (Small) Surplus

What does every newbie in the gym rave about when it comes to building muscle?

You guessed it: Protein.

Getting enough protein in your diet won’t be news to anyone, whether you’re a wannabe bodybuilder who carries their protein shake everywhere, or someone that hasn’t even stepped foot in a gym.

Protein gets a lot of hype for building muscle and I’m definitely not knocking it. It’s vital.

But people forget the importance of overall calories and how they ultimately affect your muscle growth.

Your body burns a certain amount of calories (energy) every day. This amount varies from one person to another dependent on a variety of factors. Your age, weight, sex, body fat level, hormonal profile and the amount of activity you do in a day all greatly play a role.

Someone who works a physically demanding labor job will definitely burn more calories than the guy sitting on the couch all day watching TV.

The amount of calories you burn in a day is known as your “total daily energy expenditure” or TDEE, and can be calculated by several online calorie calculators. It’s not 100% accurate but it will give you a rough idea. Calculate your TDEE here.

Your TDEE tells you exactly how many calories you are burning in a day, and eating this amount of calories per day is what you need just to maintain the weight you are right now. This is also known as your maintenance calories.

If you eat lower than your TDEE, you are in what’s known as a caloric deficit. If you eat more than this number then you are in a caloric surplus.

So guess what you have to do in order to gain weight / aid muscle growth?

Right… eat more than your TDEE.

But here’s where lean bulking is different.

“Old School” bulking told us to stuff our faces to gain weight; eat as much as possible.

The problem with that is there’s a limit to how fast you can build muscle. The most you can expect is about 2lbs of muscle growth a month for a novice male trainee. Even less for more intermediate and advanced trainees.

So imagine a construction worker building a house. The worker can only build so much in a given time. Giving him more bricks than he can handle won’t make him build the house any faster. In fact, they will just pile up around him.

The same goes for building muscle. Muscle isn’t built out of nothing so you need to eat at a caloric surplus to gain weight, but your body won’t build more muscle any quicker just by eating more than necessary. It’s about eating just enough to facilitate muscle growth. Eat too much and the excess calories will just pile up like those excess bricks… and be stored as fat.

The Calorie Math

So assuming you have already calculated your maintenance calories, we’ll move forward.

Here’s a rule of thumb:

An extra 3,500 calories per week = 1lb weight gain

So what exactly does that mean?

It means that if you wanted to gain 1lb, you’d need to eat 3,500 calories over your weekly maintenance calories. And the same goes for the opposite; if you wanted to lose weight you’d need to eat 3,500 calories under your maintenance weekly calories.

Got it?

Why weekly and not daily?

When it comes to gaining or losing weight, what really matters is how many calories you get in by the end of the week, and it allows for more flexibility than aiming for a daily number.

So let’s look at an example calculation:

Let’s assume that you’re a 150lb male that lives a sedentary lifestyle.

Using a TDEE calculator, you’ve worked out that you need about 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight.

To find your weekly calorie number, simply multiply your TDEE by 7 of course (number of days in a week).

So in this example, multiply 2,000 calories by 7 and the answer is 14,000 calories per week.

Piece of cake, right?

You’d need 14,000 calories a week to stay at 150lb.

But suppose you want to gain an extra pound.

We know that 3,500 calories = 1lb. So simply add that to the weekly number.

3,500 + 14,000 calories = 17,500 calories.

You’d need 17,500 calories a week to gain an extra pound.

To get a daily calorie number, you simply divide that number by 7:

17,500 calories / 7 days = 2,500 cals per day.

We end up with a result of 2,500 calories a day to gain one pound a week. See how it all works out?

A daily calorie target is good to know but I truly believe that calculating and tracking with weekly calorie amounts is much better and easier. If you ended up overeating today, then you’d know how much to cut off from your calories the next day and you can relax, knowing it’s the weekly total that counts.

Now you’re probably thinking, “wow, so if I eat an extra 3,500 calories a week for 10 weeks, that means I’ll gain 10lbs of muscle?!”

Nope! Steady on.

Remember what we said about how there is a limit to how fast you can build muscle. You’ll gain those 10lbs, but who knows how much of it is real quality lean muscle and how much is actually fat.

How Many Calories Do I Need To Eat To Gain Muscle?

For the natural male trainee, I’d advise that you aim to gain about 0.5-1lb of muscle per week. I’d even argue that gaining a pound a week is a little too much unless you are a true novice.

Ideally 2lbs a month. Half of that for women.

As you can see, adding an extra 3,500 calories per week for a 1lb gain is a good place to start, being inline with the amount of muscle you can feasibly expect to gain, but it will probably be too much.

Typically, a good lean bulk calorie surplus in order to aid muscle growth is about 5-10% more than your maintenance calories.

So if your maintenance is 2,000 calories per day, that will mean eating an extra 100-200 calories a day.

I can’t stress it enough times that the key is to minimize fat gain during your bulk…. it’s called lean bulking for a reason.

But what if you’re still not gaining weight after using the recommended small surplus?

First of all, don’t come to this conclusion too quickly. Did you wait at least 10 days to make sure you haven’t gained any weight?

If so, provided you’re progressing in a structured, progressive weight training routine, the only advice is to eat more. Remember the guidelines are just a rough estimate.

There’s too many variables to calculate what you do in a day that can be burning more calories than expected on paper.

Just add an extra 100-200 calories and wait another 10 days. Still not gaining weight? Wash, rinse, repeat until you start seeing a steady slow gain.

Optimal Lean Bulk Macros

Now that you understand how calories affect muscle growth, it’s time to talk about macronutrients aka macros.

Because not all calories are created equal.

I remember when I was new to fitness and learning nutrition… the term macros sounded so alien, foreign and complicated.

In layman’s terms, macros are what make up calories and the three macros we humans need are: Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat.

1 gram of protein = 4 calories

1 gram of carbs = 4 calories

1 gram of fat = 9 calories

With that in mind, we can work out how many calories of each macronutrient we need and ultimately how many grams.

Here’s are some guidelines for determining an optimal macro ratio for a lean bulk:

  • Aim for 0.8-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight
  • 20 – 30% of calories from fat
  • And the remaining calories from carbohydrates

Protein is essential, with the amino acids being the building blocks of muscle cells. Gaining weight with little to no protein is likely to result in just fat. But the key rule to remember is to eat enough protein but also enough calories overall so that you are gaining weight.

The reason we say 20-30% of total calories for fats (preferably “good” fats) is because fat is important for optimal performance of many bodily functions. Fat aids in the healthy production of testosterone in men, is important for cognitive performance, and helps with sleep among many other things. A good amount of fat will also make the diet more satiating and, frankly, more enjoyable.

Carbs give the human body energy and fill the muscles with glycogen, so are pretty damn important.

So again with our 150lb male example that has determined his target overall calories for a lean bulk are 2,500 calories per day. We’ll go with 1 gram per pound of bodyweight and 30% of calories from fat, for the sake of simplicity.

Here’s how we would calculate his macros:

Protein: 1 gram x 150lbs = 150 grams of protein

… multiply this number by 4 to get the amount in calories (1 gram of protein = 4 calories)

= 600 calories

Total Protein: 150 grams / 600 calories

Fat: 30% of 2,500 calories (0.3 x 2,500) = 750 calories

… then divide that number by 9 to get the amount in grams (1 gram of fat = 9 calories)

= 83 grams of fat

Total Fat: 83 grams / 750 calories

Carbs: These will make up the remaining calories so subtract the protein and fat calorie amounts from the total amount…

600 calories protein + 750 calories fat = 1,350

2,500 – 1,350 = 1,150 calories from carbs

… divide this number by 4 to get the amount in grams (1 gram of carbs = 4 calories)

= 288 grams of carbs

Total Carbs: 288 grams / 1,350 calories

You can use a calorie / macro tracker such as MyFitnessPal to get an idea if what you’re eating is meeting your targets, and adjust and experiment accordingly.

What to Eat?

You’ll notice we haven’t mentioned any specific foods, and this is for a reason.

Technically you can eat whatever foods you want so long as you they fit your macros and you’re not going over your required amount of calories. This style of eating is aptly known as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros).

Your body can use the carbs from donuts, fats from the grease of your hamburger, and the protein from your pork-chops and as long as you stay within your caloric limit and macros, you’ll have no problem achieving the physique you want.

Of course, while this “works” for building muscle and gaining weight, it’s not necessarily ideal for optimal long term health. But that’s a debate all by itself and we’re not talking about that here. We’re talking about how to build muscle and ultimately look good naked. 😉

This plan will work with whatever food you decide to eat.

Hit your small calorie surplus for the day at your optimal macros and you’re guaranteed smooth sailing through your lean bulk without turning into Jabba the hut for the winter.

Wrapping It All Up

You don’t have to gain unsightly amounts of fat in the name of gaining muscle, as per traditional “bulking”. It’s unnecessary, a waste of time and probably counter productive. You can’t build muscle any faster by eating more, so don’t kid yourself.

Hopefully this lean bulking guide has laid the path for a more productive way to build muscle, that ultimately allows you to maintain a more aesthetic physique even when making gains.

Now just make sure to follow a well thought out, progressive weight training routine where you’re ultimately getting stronger each week, and you’ll start adding impressive amounts of muscle in no time. 🙂