How To Bulk Without Getting Fat (Science-Backed)

how to bulk without getting fat

Bulking without guidelines can quickly become a period of gaining unnecessary body fat. Most people assume that getting fat is part of the process, and while you may gain some fat, you would be shocked at how little you should gain if you bulk correctly.

When bulking, the goal is to put on as much muscle as possible. To minimize fat gain during the bulk, you want to closely monitor your weight gain on the scale, making sure to gain .25-.5% body weight per week, eat 1g per pound of protein, and stay within acceptable body fat percentage ranges for bulking.

To help you better understand how to bulk while minimizing fat gain, let’s dive deeper into what bulking is (and how it differs from putting on fat) and precisely what you should do to maximize your lean bulk.

I will also share a 4-day lean bulking workout program designed to help you maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain.

If you want to build muscle and strength this bulking season, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.

What Is Bulking?

Bulking is when you purposely and systematically eat more calories than your body needs to maintain weight (calorie surplus) to gain muscle.

Bulking is the most effective strategy for gaining muscle because it gives your body additional energy (calories) for muscle growth.

An effective bulk requires planning, proper nutrition, and adherence to a workout program. Below, we will discuss how to bulk without getting fat and offer tips to improve your bulking strategy.

Can You Bulk Without Gaining Fat?

When you’re bulking, there will always be some fat gain, but the amount you gain will depend on the bulk you implement and your current body fat percentage.

A lean bulking approach, where you increase calories conservatively, will minimize fat gain but may take longer to build significant muscle mass. An aggressive bulking approach, where you increase calories significantly, will result in more fat gain but may have the potential for faster muscle growth.

Additionally, individuals with a higher body fat percentage (typically higher than 15+% body fat for men, 30+% for women) can generally increase muscle mass without gaining fat, or at least gain very little fat mass.

However, it will be harder to see progress when bulking with a higher body fat percentage because muscle is built under your fat mass, which can cause you to look larger unless you enter a cutting phase after your bulk and shed some fat mass. 

Leaner lifters (under 15% for men, under 25% for women) will find it difficult to gain significant amounts of muscle without gaining some fat, but the muscle they gain will result in more drastic changes to their physique.

If you hope to add mass without getting fat, I’ll teach you how to do it in the next section.

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6 Steps For Not Getting Fat While Bulking

how to bulk without getting fat

1. Start Bulking From A Lean State

Implementing a bulk from a leaner state is the best way to produce better bulking results because the muscle you gain will dramatically impact your physique, and your body will be in a prime position to build muscle. Starting a bulk around 8-10% is ideal for men, and for women, between 18-22%. 

Research suggests that muscle-building hormones in men (testosterone) and women (estrogen) are highest at body fat levels of approximately 10-11% for men and 23-25% for women. Starting slightly below those body fat percentages will allow you to spend more time in those optimal ranges and maximize muscle growth (and minimize fat gain).

2. Establish Your Baseline Calorie Needs

Before starting your bulk, you need to establish your baseline calorie needs (aka maintenance calories) to know how much you need to eat to maintain your weight. 

You need to know your maintenance calories because you need to eat in a surplus (more than maintenance) to bulk; without knowing your maintenance, you won’t know how many calories per day would put you in a surplus.

The easiest way to find your baseline is to use a TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) calculator to estimate your overall calorie needs to maintain your current weight. While this is an estimate, it can point you in the right direction. 

If you eat the recommended amount of calories and your weight remains the same, that is your maintenance level. If you lose weight, you need to increase your calories to find your maintenance. If you gain weight, then you need to lower your calories to find your maintenance.

Once you have found your maintenance, you are ready to embark on your bulk.

Related Article: How to Calculate Your Macros and Calorie Needs During a Bulk

3. Eat Progressively More Each Week to Pace Proper Weight Gain

If your goal is to put on muscle, you must ensure you’re eating enough calories and protein to encourage muscle growth and enough carbs to fuel your performance in the gym.

First, you should eat 5-10% more calories than you need to maintain your weight and 0.8-1g of protein per pound

For example, if you weigh 155 lbs and your maintenance calories are 2300, you will need 2415-2530 calories and 124-155g of protein daily.

Next, you should consume 2-3g of carbs per pound, as this will ensure you get enough carbs to fuel hard training, refuel muscle cells, and grow new tissues. 

Continuing the above example, this would be 310-456g of carbs daily.

Once you’ve set your calorie, protein, and carb targets, you can allocate the remaining calories to fats. For reference, fats have 9 calories per gram, so you can divide the remaining calories by 9 to find your fat intake in grams.

To ensure your calorie target (and thus your macro targets) are set appropriately, you must monitor your weight gain.

4. Monitor Your Weight Gain

You must monitor your weight gain and body fat accumulation to know whether you’re on track with your goal.

 Ideally, you aim to increase your weight on the scale by 0.5-1% of your body weight per week. However, heavier individuals (over 200lbs) may need a slower rate of gain, somewhere between 0.25-0.75% of body mass. Staying within these ranges will ensure you gain muscle and limit fat gain.

If you have access to body fat scans, like a DEXA scan, this would be the most accurate way to track your weight and body fat percentage over time.

If the scans show you are slowly gaining weight while staying in the ideal body fat range (10-15% for men and 18-24% for women), you are doing great. If you aren’t gaining weight, eat more calories; if you’re gaining weight/body fat too rapidly, then eat fewer calories.

If you only have access to a scale, you can monitor your weight trend and aim to stay within the above ranges.

You may need to adjust your intake to stay on target based on changes in your body weight (and body fat percentage). Check out this clean bulk meal plan video to learn more about adjusting your intake.

5. Stop Bulking Once You Get Above Optimal Body Fat Levels 

The ideal body fat percentage for building muscle and bulking is 10-15% in men and 18-24% in women. If you exceed this range by more than 1-2%, it is time to stop your bulk. Otherwise, you will gain more fat than muscle (assuming you started your bulk below or within these ranges).

Let’s dive into why I recommend you stay within these body fat ranges while bulking.


One mechanism is that testosterone levels are at their highest in men at around 10% body fat, with decreases in anabolic hormone production the more significant the body fat percentage.

In another study examining identical twins, the leaner individual gained more muscle relative to body fat than the other. Once body fat levels approach 20% or greater in men, research has shown a higher rate of visceral fat accumulation (not good), more chronic inflammation (unsuitable for muscle growth), and decreased insulin resistance. 

If you are bulking above this range, you will increasingly gain more fat than you would otherwise. 


Estrogen is a female hormone linked to muscle growth; very low and very high body fat levels negatively affect estrogen levels in women. 

Another study found that women with between 23-25% body fat had the highest estrogen levels, with estrogen levels declining beyond 25% body fat. Therefore, women should aim to be within 18-24% body fat while bulking.

If you want to stay relatively lean during your bulk, you should end or at least slow down the bulk once you reach the high end of the range of 25% + (where you will start accumulating more fat than muscle).

6. Understand Some Fat Gain Will Happen

Gaining some body fat during a bulk is part of the process, so the weight gained from fat while bulking is often called “pounds for a purpose.” 

That purpose is to systematically increase your calorie intake to fuel muscle growth, knowing that some extra calories may spill over and body fat will accumulate.

For example, I am a 200 lbs male who starts my bulk around 10% body fat. I commit to a 12-week bulk, gaining roughly 0.25-0.5% of my body weight per week, which leaves me 10 lbs heavier at the end of 12 weeks. As a well-trained lifter, I can expect to gain 1 lb of muscle for every 3-4 lbs of fat. 

Beginners can have more of a 1:1 ratio, but intermediate to advanced lifters are more likely to have a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio of muscle to fat. 

That means that the 2-4 lbs of muscle I gained (and hopefully will have for a very long time) also came with 6-8 lbs of fat (which was collateral damage). Gaining the fat allowed me to eat more and gain 2-4 lbs of muscle, which I otherwise would not have achieved. 

Many lean individuals struggle with gaining body fat, but I assure you that you can easily lose the added 6-8 lbs of fat (and retain the newly built 2-4 lbs of muscles) from an 8-12 week cutting phase after your bulk.

If you did this cycle twice yearly, you could add 5-10 lbs of muscle each year, which is significant and will drastically change your body composition and potential for strength gain.

Related Article: How to Bulk If You Have A Fast Metabolism

6 Nutrition Tips For Lean Bulking

nutrition tips for lean bulking

Having been through multiple lean bulks, I’ve put together six tips to help you maximize your lean bulking results.

Tip #1: Track Your Calories

Tracking your calories allows you to have complete control over how much you are eating and know precisely how to adjust it based on your rate of gain. Too often, lifters try and eat whatever they want and either undereat or overeat, resulting in too slow/fast weight gain.

Tracking your calories also helps ensure you’re eating enough protein to encourage muscle gain and enough carbs to fuel your efforts in the gym properly. 

If your macro targets do not align with your goals, you will not gain muscle as efficiently despite eating enough calories.

Tip #2: Space Your Meals Out

Spacing your meals out allows you to maintain a stable blood sugar level to avoid energy crashes, consume enough calories without feeling overly full, and put the calories you’re eating to good use rather than overeating at specific periods.

I recommend you eat 4-6 meals daily and space them 2-3 hours apart. Spreading out your intake is especially useful for individuals who struggle to eat enough calories because they get too full.

Eating smaller, more frequent meals rich in protein will help ensure you eat enough calories and deliver enough protein to fuel muscle growth and recovery throughout the day.

Tip #3: Consume Protein Every Meal

Protein plays an essential role in muscle growth, and since you are bulking to build muscle, you want to ensure you are getting enough protein at every meal to keep your protein levels high, keeping your body in a state where it is primed to grow.

Research shows that distributing your protein throughout the day encourages muscle protein synthesis (a precursor to muscle growth) more than eating the bulk of your protein in one large meal.

To consume 0.8-1g of protein per pound of bodyweight, you can divide your protein intake by the number of meals you eat daily to find the optimal dose of protein per meal.

For example, if you weigh 200lbs and eat five meals daily, eat 32-40g per meal.

Tip #4: Increase Your Carb Intake As Calorie Intake Increases

Embracing carbs during your bulk will help you refuel from hard training sessions and push harder in your workouts. 

Carbohydrates are the muscle’s primary fuel source, so having ample carbohydrates in your diet means you can push harder in workouts, recover faster, and continue this process repeatedly.

I recommend people start eating 2-3 g of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight at the beginning of a diet and increase their carbohydrate intake every time they need to bump up their total calories. 

Seeing that your protein intake should remain constant (around 1g of protein per pound), the increases in total calories during a bulk should come from you predominantly eating more carbs (as well as increasing fat intake moderately).

Tip #5: Embrace the 80/20 Rule of Eating

When bulking, it is tempting to ditch the nutrient-dense foods to opt for higher-calorie “fun foods” like donuts, cookies, and fried items. However, eating these fun foods too often can result in excessive fat gain and negative health consequences.

That’s not to say you can’t have these fun foods; it just means you must be mindful about how much you’re consuming and fit them into your calorie and macro targets.

I recommend keeping 80% of your intake dedicated to whole, nutrient-dense foods and allowing the other 20% to go towards less nutrient-dense foods.

For lifters who need help eating enough, leaving room for lower-quality foods can be beneficial as they tend to fill you up less than whole foods.

Tip #6: Drink More Water

Increasing your water intake during a bulk is important because it aids digestion and helps deliver nutrients to the muscle tissues. 

During a bulk, you should be training most days a week with hard intensity and high training volumes (more on this next). Staying hydrated will help with recovery and increase your performance in the gym.

Most lifters should be aiming to drink a gallon a day of water. If you are a larger individual (200 lbs or more) who sweats heavily during workouts, aim to drink more than a gallon daily.

Training Considerations For Lean Bulking

training considerations for lean bulking

During a bulk, you need to strength train to give your muscles a reason to grow and to make use of the increased calories you’re consuming. Below, we will discuss sets, reps, loading, and training frequency related to maximizing your bulk with your workouts.


Your set count can be divided into a total number of sets per muscle group per week and session. Major muscle groups (chest, back, quads, and arms) should get between 12-20 total sets per week, whereas smaller muscle groups could get 15-20 weekly sets. 

Total sets per muscle group per session should average between 6-12; however, I recommend 6-10, as this increases intensity during the sets. 


The goal is to gain as much muscle as possible during a bulk. Generally speaking, you should train most reps in the 5-20 rep range. 

I will train 50% of my total volume between 8-15 reps, and then the other 25% and 25% is split between 5-8 reps for general strength development and 15-20% for higher rep muscle growth.

Training during a bulk should be geared toward muscle growth, so focusing on pushing your intensity in the 8-15 rep range is recommended; this allows you to keep training volume high, lift moderate to heavy loads regularly, and minimize your risk of an overuse injury.


Loading (percentage of your one rep max) should be between 30-85%. The range is extensive as it depends entirely on the rep range of the movement you are training. 

Seeing that you should limit your heavier training to no less than five reps, the weight you will be lifting relative to your max should be around 85% max. This loading percentage will allow you to stress the muscles enough for growth without creating so much fatigue that you cannot train hard the next session.

When training in higher reps ranges with lighter weights, you should still push the intensity (see below) despite using lighter percentages compared to lower rep work.


Your training intensity during a bulk should remain high as you will be in a well-fed, caloric surplus state where you can recover optimally. 

That said, you should keep 2-3 good reps in the tank (RPE 7-8) on most movements in the early phases of your program (weeks 1-2). Moving deeper into the training program, you can increase the intensity by training closer to failure (leaving 0-2 reps in the tank or RPE 8-10). 

When training with a barbell on heavier compound lifts, I recommend that lifters always leave one rep in the tank for safety. When training with dumbbells, machines, or cables, you can take them to technical failure (no reps in the tank, but able to maintain proper technique).


Aim to train each muscle group 2-3 times a week, as this will allow you to hit your total weekly set volume for muscle growth. For most people, I recommend a minimum of three workouts per week; however, 4-6 workouts per week is ideal.

Rest Periods

For heavier machines and strength sets (5-10 reps), I rest for 2-3 minutes between sets or until I am mentally ready to give my best effort. On exercises that are 10+ sets, I recommend keeping rest periods around a minute to ensure you are not wasting time in the gym.

Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.

Sample Lean Bulking Training Program

sample lean bulking training program

To help you implement the training considerations described above, I’ve created a 4-day lean bulking training program you can follow.

Note: These workouts are not found in the Fitbod app as they are written below; however, you can use this sample training plan as a template to create your own workouts within the app. All exercises are in the Fitbod app, complete with how-to videos.

Day 1 – Chest, Back Shoulders, Arms

  • Incline Bench Press: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Hammer Chest Press: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • T Bar Row: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 4 sets of 5-10 reps

Day 2 – Hamstrings, Calves, Calves, Arms

  • Lying Hamstring Curl  4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Hack Squat: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Bulgarian Split Squat: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Seated Calf Raise: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Machine Preacher Curl: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

Day 3 – Shoulders, Back Chest, Arms

  • Cable Lateral Raises: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Smith Machine Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Machine-Assisted Pull-Up: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Smith Machine Skullcrusher: 3 sets of 10-15 reps

Day 4 – Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Arms

  • Hack Squat: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Back Squat: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Goodmorning: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Seated Hamstring Curl: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Standing Calf Raise: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Cable Curl: 4 sets of 15-20 reps

Day 5 – Back, Chest, Shoulders, Arms

  • Bent Over Row: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Conventional Deadlift: 4 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Smith Machine Flat Bench Press: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Machine Assisted Dip: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Dumbbell Front Raise: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Triceps Pushdown: 3 sets of 10-15 reps

About The Author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.