How To Minimise Fat Gain When Gaining Muscle
After getting very lean (I naturally find this easier to do), it’s time for a muscle building phase. This requires the intake of more food!
Unfortunately, there’s a problem that always seems to rear its ugly head whenever I do this,
I get fat too quickly!
It happens pretty much every time I try to “bulk”.
Fast forward a couple of months into the gaining phase, and I’m usually not happy with the way I look. I feel I’ve gained fat too quickly, and I dislike not being able to see my abs as clearly.
To understand why this happens, we need to understand the natural limitations for building muscle. Unfortunately, we CAN’T just eat as much as we want of whatever we want, and expect it all to go towards building muscle.
How much muscle is it possible to gain?
The following does not apply to people on drugs. But If you’re a natural lifter, there are certain limitations on how much muscle you can gain in a certain amount of time.
This is how you know someone is talking rubbish when they say “I gained/my client gained 10 pounds of lean muscle in 2 months.”
In fact, the absolute best anyone can hope for is about 2 pounds of muscle gain per month. Anything else gained on top of that is just fat and possibly water retention and food weight in the gut.
Bear in mind that this number is for someone with outstanding genetics who is doing EVERYTHING right in terms of training, eating and recovering.
Put another way, this is not you (or me). These people have never had any problem gaining muscle, and they won’t be reading this blog.
Normal people can expect about ONE pound of muscle gain per month.
This requires a calorie surplus of about 3,000 calories (slightly different to the 3,500 calories to store a pound of fat). Clearly, you can’t have this surplus all on one day of the month, it needs to be spread somewhat evenly across the month, so you’re always in a very small surplus.
That works out to only about 100 calories a day.
Only 100 calories a day?
No wonder fat gain was so fast! Even on a 500 calorie surplus, that’s a 400% bigger calorie surplus than I needed.
The logic is that a 100 calorie surplus is a very small margin for error, and you run the risk of NOT being in a surplus because of tracking inaccuracies, and also because the extra energy you’re consuming may just be burned off with more intense workouts and increased NEAT.
Neat = Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – the energy you burn simply by moving more, waving your arms around more when you talk, tapping your feet more, rolling over in bed, etc.
The Mental Side of Bulking
It’s VERY easy to relax your tracking and generally be less strict on yourself.when you’re eating more food.
I find myself no longer saying no to things I would have if I was losing fat. I’ll finish my son’s dinner when he’s done (and my wife’s), I’ll sneak more random bites here and there. If I’m offered to try something or someone brings in free food, I’ll be more likely to say yes. I’ll eat out and get takeaways slightly more (which come with a large degree of inaccuracy and a high chance of going way over the calorie target).
All these things are more difficult to track, and I end up estimating (and probably estimating wrong) or not estimating at all and just enjoying myself. This probably led to me having an even bigger weekly surplus (which was already too big).
Track to Maintenance Instead
Recently, I’ve been doing something different.
I’ve gained about half a pound a week (slightly less actually) for the last 3 months. My abs are still there, I still look pretty lean, and all my lifts are going up consistently in the gym.
The surplus I had estimated may have been too high in the past, and then additional calories were consumed on top of that through being less strict on myself and allowing more “untracked” stuff to sneak through.
This time, the number in my head and in MyFitnessPal is what I estimate to be my maintenance calories. It makes quite a difference to see “700 calories remaining” as opposed to “1200 calories remaining”. This alone just gets me into a different mindset where I’m less likely to overeat.
It also means that all the extra small bits I sneak can go untracked and this is what gets me into my small surplus that is seeing me gain at the desired rate.
I am also relaxing my tracking and not bothering to track non-starchy vegetables. I eat a lot of broccoli, green beans, carrots, brussels sprouts etc. and this will also contribute a very small amount (after deducting fibre) which will help me to be in a small surplus.
Limit Intake of Crap, Even on a Bulk
I’m not using this bulk as an excuse to eat crap. I mentioned before that seeing “700 calories remaining” puts me into a different mindset as opposed to “1200 calories remaining”.
Before, I’d sometimes “reward” myself by still eating as if I was trying to lose fat. Then I’d use the remaining calories (typically 1000+) to eat all the things I avoided when losing fat.
This would mean I’d regularly eat whole tubs of Ben and Jerry’s, packs of cookies and big bars of chocolate.
This type of food:
- Is addictive – it’s hard to stop eating, so I’d probably finish the pack rather than weigh out the appropriate amount. I’d eat the whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s, even if I was only “allowed” 80% of it.
- Has a lower thermic effect compared to whole foods. This means you absorb more of the calories as it’s not very difficult for the body to digest it.
- Is not nutritious.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to enjoy some pizza or an ice cream (and I have done). However, when I do, it is in a sensible way. It’s when appropriate and fitting in with my social life – rather than going out of my way to eat it.
Overall, I’m enjoying this bulk much more – it’s far more sustainable!
The more time you can spend in a calorie surplus bulking as opposed to in a calorie deficit trying to lose fat, the better your results will be over the long term.
Lift for 5 years, in a calorie surplus gaining muscle 75% of the time
Lift for 5 years, get fat too quickly when you bulk and spend 50% of the time in a calorie deficit NOT gaining any muscle.
I know which results I’d prefer!