Is Bulking The Only Way To Gain Muscle? (A Coach Answers)

bulking the only way to gain muscle

As a coach who works with clients who want to gain muscle while staying as lean as possible, I’m often asked if it’s possible to build muscle without going through a bulking phase.

So, can you build muscle without bulking? Being in a caloric surplus (eating more calories than your body needs to maintain weight) and training hard is the most efficient way to build muscle, especially for leaner individuals (and non-beginners). However, those lifters who are higher in body fat and/or beginners may be able to gain muscle without bulking.

Building muscle without going through a structured bulking phase is tricky but I’ll share the 8 tips that I use with my clients to help them build muscle while minimizing fat gain.

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What Does It Mean To Bulk?

Bulking is a general term used to describe the act of eating more calories than your body needs to maintain its current body weight to gain size (i.e being in a caloric surplus). A bulk is often paired with intense weight training sessions to maximize muscle growth.

A calorie surplus (bulk) and resistance training are often paired together to facilitate muscle growth because muscle gain is more likely to occur when your body has excess energy (calories) available to put towards muscle growth.

However, some lifters perceive “bulking” as eating whatever they want, as much as they want, and gaining lots of muscle and fat. This is not entirely accurate, as there are different types of bulks that produce slightly different outcomes.

The two main types of bulking are:

  • Dirty Bulking
  • Clean Bulking

What Is A Dirty Bulk?

Dirty bulking is a term used to describe a bulking process in which the individual eats anything and everything in sight, with little regard for the quality of foods, the specific macronutrients they are consuming (protein, carbohydrates, fats), and how quickly they are gaining weight. 

Dirty bulking often results in muscle growth and high amounts of fat gain. Therefore, those who are nervous about gaining too much fat from bulking should avoid this type of bulking.  

What Is A Clean Bulk?

Clean bulking is a bulking approach that focuses on achieving a calorie surplus in a controlled and calculated manner to ensure they are fueling their body with enough calories (often from healthier sources) to build muscle, while not accumulating high amounts of body fat in the process.

This is a slower, and much more involved way of bulking (as it takes planning, consistency, discipline, and a diet plan); however when done correctly, most lifters can gain just as much lean muscle as those who are dirty bulking, but with a fraction of the body fat.

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Do You Need to Bulk to Build Muscle?

do you need to bulk to build muscle

The truth is some people may not need to bulk to gain muscle, however when in a calorie surplus it may be easier to gain more muscle than if you were not. 

Lifters who typically struggle to gain weight and muscle, and are on the leaner side will benefit from bulking (being in a calorie surplus) while training hard. 

Below we will discuss who can build muscle without bulking, and ultimately answer the question of whether or not you should bulk if you are looking to build more muscle.

Who Can Build Muscle Without Bulking?

1. Those Who Are New To Strength Training

If you are an absolute beginner, there is a high likelihood that you do not have a ton of muscle mass relative to your genetic potential, which means that you can certainly build muscle just by working out.

Those who are new to strength training will build muscle more easily than those who have strength training experience because it will be a brand new stimulus for the muscles making them more responsive to growth. 

In fact, beginners will be able to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, which is called “body recompositioning”. This unique ability may not last forever, so enjoy it while it lasts!

2. Those Who Have A Higher Body Fat Percentage

Those who have excess body fat (beginners and non-beginners) to lose (roughly more than 15% for men and 20% for women), may be able to build muscle without bulking. 

In one study, researchers had subjects undergo a large-scale weight loss program while resistance training and following a higher protein diet. The results suggested that the overweight and obese subjects were able to build muscle and lose body fat at the same time

This finding was also supported by a study done on overweight police officers, who underwent a resistance training program while eating 20% fewer calories than they need (being in a calorie deficit). This article found the subjects were able to increase strength and muscle while also losing body fat.

While these research articles may not be applicable to individuals who may only be slightly overweight, it may suggest that individuals who are higher in body fat may be able to build muscle without bulking and improve their body composition.

3. Those Who Took A Break From Lifting And Are Getting Back To It

Regardless of your training level, coming back to the gym after a break will often result in you being able to put on muscle at a quicker rate than if you didn’t take time off (similar to beginners). 

That said, it is important to note that not taking a break will still result in more overall muscle growth (consistency in training) so you shouldn’t take a break from training if you don’t have to.

By getting back onto a workout schedule and eating properly, even more advanced lifters who are coming back from a break, will find they bounce back pretty quickly and see some significant growth in the first month or so as their muscles adapt to the new stimulus.

Who Will Struggle To Build Muscle Without Bulking?

who will struggle to build muscle without bulking

1. Those Who Are Already Lean

For leaner individuals (roughly under 10% for men and under 15% for women), building muscle without bulking (being in a caloric surplus) will be difficult. 

The body prefers being in a calorie surplus when building new tissue, as this allows you to train hard, recover properly, and have enough energy left over to build more muscle mass.

This is not to say you cannot build muscle without a calorie surplus, but you may find it very difficult to gain a significant amount of lean muscle mass without bulking because you already have a lower body fat percentage and therefore less energy available to put towards muscle growth unless you’re consuming more energy (calories).

2. Advanced Lifters Who Have Been Training Hard For Many Years

If you are highly advanced, and have already gained a ton of muscle over the years, you may find your muscle growth progress to be slower with or without bulking.

However, some research does suggest that elite athletes may be able to still build muscle, strength, and power when in a slight caloric deficit, which suggests that advanced lifters can build muscle without bulking. 

That said, the amount of muscle that advanced lifters can gain without bulking is significantly less than it would be if they were in a calorie surplus. 

So the question becomes: Do you want to pursue muscle growth at a slower rate to stay as lean as possible, or do you want to bulk and potentially gain fat to speed up muscle growth?

8 Tips For Building Muscle if You Don’t Want to Bulk

tips for building muscle if you don’t want to bulk

If you’ve determined that you want to pursue muscle growth without bulking, then here are 8 tips that you should follow to improve your results.

1. Increase Your Training Volume

Training volume, which is commonly referred to as the total amount of work a muscle performs, has been shown to be one of the most powerful drivers of muscle growth in a training program. 

Generally speaking, you will want to train a muscle group with a total of 15-20 sets per week, which could be done over the course of a few workouts. 

If you are training more frequently (i.e 4-6 days/week), it will likely be easier to achieve 15-20 sets per week for each muscle group than if you’re training less frequently (2-3x/week).

Related Article: Sample 5-Day High Volume Muscle Building Program

2. Train Muscles 2-3 Days a Week

Aim to train each major muscle group 2-3x/week to maximize your gains. If you are only training each muscle group once per week, you may be missing out on a lot more muscle growth by failing to provide enough stimulus for muscle to grow.

For example, if you train 5 days/week, this could look like:

  • Day 1 – Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes
  • Day 2 – Chest, Triceps, Biceps
  • Day 3 – Back, Shoulders
  • Day 4 – Hamstrings, Glutes, Quads
  • Day 5 – Chest, Back, Biceps, Triceps, Shoulders

If you are training properly, muscle soreness should go away 2-3 days after you train a muscle group (or at least it’s not sore enough to impede your ability to workout again). 

By training a muscle more frequently, you not only deliver higher amounts of training volume (see above), but also continue to tell the body that it needs to add more muscle to adapt to the increased training stress.

3. Add In Cardio

Cardiovascular exercise can help you to stay lean while you work on building muscle; however, it’s important not to go overboard with it. I recommend adding 90-120 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week to help minimize fat gain while you build muscle.

Adding cardio will also improve the way your body delivers blood to muscle tissues and can boost recovery.

What cardio is best? Any form that allows you to work your heart rate in the 65-85% of max range for 30-45 minutes at a time. This can be lower impact exercises like the elliptical or cycling, or even jogging (as long as it does not impede your leg training).

That said, if you notice that you aren’t making gains (i.e your measurements aren’t changing and you’re not getting stronger) then you may want to cut back on cardio to ensure that it’s not interfering with your results.

4. Drink More Water

Staying hydrated is important for muscle growth because it allows you to train hard and recover properly. Being in a state of low hydration has been linked with enhanced catabolic hormone responses (muscle loss and breakdown) and blunted anabolic hormone responses to resistance training (anabolic hormones that promote muscle growth).

Most lifters should aim to drink a gallon of water a day. However, if you are nowhere close to this, then try increasing your intake progressively so that it feels less overwhelming.

5. Follow a Higher Protein Diet

When you’re looking to build as much muscle as possible, you need to ensure you’re consuming enough protein to support recovery, muscle growth, and hormone production. I recommend aiming for 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

For example, if you weigh 160lbs you should aim to consume 128-192 grams of protein per day.

Aim to get at least 80% of your protein from whole food sources (i.e. animal proteins, fish, dairy, and tofu) and 20% or less from protein powder supplements.

6. Supplement With Creatine

Creatine is a supplement that has been shown to increase muscle growth and can be a very effective supplement when paired with proper nutrition, sleep, hydration, and a training program. 

Creatine supplementation improves muscle gain by providing the user with energy to perform additional sets and reps in the gym before becoming fatigued, allowing the user to accumulate more total volume.

To make the most of creatine supplementation you should take 5g per day and be as consistent as possible because the effects of creatine are felt over time rather than immediately after taking it.

7. Aim To Get 8-9 Hours Of Sleep

Ensuring you sleep enough is key, especially when you are training hard and hoping to build as much muscle as you can while minimizing excess body fat gain. In fact, research suggests 8-9 hours of sleep to be a good amount of sleep to help preserve and build muscle mass while even losing fat.

Sleep deprivation has been linked with higher levels of cortisol and lower levels of testosterone in men and women. This means that by simply sleeping less, you blunt your ability to recover, produce muscle-building hormones, and ultimately limit your ability to build muscle.

8. Eat 10-15% More Calories Than Usual Per Day

If you have exhausted all of the above tips and are still not making the progress you need, then there is a strong chance you need to eat more calories to fuel muscle growth. 

Try increasing your daily caloric intake by 10-15% above your normal intake levels.

For example, if you normally eat 2000 calories per day, then increase your intake to 2200 to 2300 calories per day.

 Ideally, this increase in calories would be consumed around your workouts in the form of carbohydrates, which can increase protein synthesis (muscle growth), restore muscle glycogen (fuel for hard training sessions), and boost recovery. 

Related Article: How to Bulk Up Fast (10 Tips)

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Gain Muscle Without Bulking?

Most beginner lifters will be able to gain muscle without a dedicated bulk, however, leaner lifters (under 10-12% for men and under 15-17% bodyfat for women) may have some struggles gaining muscle without being in a calorie deficit, especially the more advanced and leaner they are. 

Is Bulking the Same as Gaining Muscle?

No, bulking is the act of progressively eating more calories to create an environment where muscle growth may occur more optimally (when paired with hard resistance training). Gaining muscle is the act of building new muscle tissue, which can happen for beginners and some higher body fat individuals without having to bulk.

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.