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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Building Muscle: A Lean Bulk Meal Plan

Building Muscle: A Lean Bulk Meal Plan

Reading Time: 6 minutes 30 seconds


DATE: 2024-01-31

Admittedly, most people exercise to lose weight. They push their cardio to burn extra calories. They use resistance exercise to reduce body fat. But some people want weight gain instead. They’re more interested in bulking up than weight loss. For this category of clients, lean bulking can help.

What Is a Lean Bulk?

Lean bulking involves eating in a way where a surplus calorie intake doesn’t increase your body fat. With a lean bulk, processed foods are limited in favor of whole foods. Thus, a lean bulk is also sometimes referred to as a clean bulk.

This approach to weight gain is the opposite of eating anything and everything in order to increase muscle size. It still involves eating a higher calorie count. However, each calorie is nutrient-dense versus being empty or void of nutrition. 

As an example, someone doing a lean bulk might increase calorie intake by adding more lean protein to their diet. Or they might add more complex carbs. People not following this type of plan might add more fast food or high-calorie, high-fat snacks to promote bulking. This does increase weight but it also increases body fat.

Benefits of Lean Bulking

Bulking typically involves increasing your calorie intake. This helps increase body size for people who are working on muscle growth. Lean bulking also helps increase body weight but in a healthy way.

Even if people want to get bigger, their goal is not generally to increase their body fat. What they’re really after is building muscle. They want muscle growth and increased strength. A clean bulk achieves this purpose. It promotes muscle gain without unnecessarily increasing body fat.

This is important because consuming any type of calorie with the goal of bulking can create negative results. One is a lack of energy. Eat junk food all day and you are likely to feel it in the form of fatigue. High fat, high carb meals tend to weigh you down. They make you want to sleep instead of working out, which doesn’t help if your goal is to build muscle. 

Not paying attention to the type of food you eat when bulking can also hurt your physical health. If your diet is high in saturated fat, for instance, the American Heart Association warns that it can raise your “bad cholesterol” levels. This puts you at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Conversely, following a diet high in healthy fat food sources has the opposite effect. The Mediterranean diet is a good example of this. This diet includes higher fat foods such as nuts, olives, and olive oil. And research has connected this diet with many positive benefits. Among them are improvements in blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and inflammation.

A Lean Bulk Meal Plan: Counting Calories and Macros

Part of following a lean bulking meal plan involves keeping your total daily calorie intake within a desired range. How many extra calories do you need to gain weight? 

Take the calorie intake needed to maintain your current body weight and add 300. If you have stayed at the same body weight eating 2,000 calories per day, for example, increase your daily calorie count to 2,300. If you’re maintaining your weight by eating 2,800 calories per day, aim for 3,100.

Tip: If you’re unsure how many calories are needed to maintain your body weight, first calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Then add how many calories you expend daily based on your activity level. This provides a rough estimate of your maintenance calorie intake.

You might do this by adding one or two snacks to your daily meal plan. Or you could increase the size of your meals, increasing the number of calories each one provides. Realistically, 300 extra calories aren’t a lot. Keeping track of your calorie count makes it easier to not ramp up your intake too much.

It’s also important to recognize that everyone is different. So, a 300-calorie increase is just a starting point. See how your body responds and increase or decrease intake as needed. Through trial and error, you can find the best calorie intake for muscle growth without increasing body fat.

Another part of a lean bulking meal plan involves counting your macros. Paying attention to your intake of protein and carbs, specifically, helps ensure that you get the nutrients needed to best support muscle growth. Let’s go into each now.

Ideal Protein Amount for a Clean Bulk

Protein is the building block of muscle. Getting enough in your diet helps promote the growth of lean muscle. It does this by helping repair muscle tissue after a tough workout. Through muscle protein synthesis, the body creates more muscle protein. This, in turn, makes it easier to build muscle. Adequate protein intake is also good for boosting energy. 

Typically, it is recommended that people consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This equates to roughly 0.36 grams of protein per pound. Athletes and active people generally need a higher protein intake, or between 1.2 and 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. 

When lean bulking, aim for around 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is approximately 0.7 to 1.0 grams per pound.

Space your protein intake throughout the day for the best effect. According to research, the body can only utilize so much protein at a time. So, if your target consumption is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, try to eat 0.4 grams per kilogram of body weight at each of four meals. If your goal is closer to 2.2 grams per kilogram per day, you would need 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight at each of these meals.

Healthy lean protein options include chicken, fish, turkey, cottage cheese, and eggs. You can also increase your intake with high-protein snacks. This helps keep your hunger satisfied while providing the nutrients needed to grow muscle mass. Nuts, Greek yogurt, and protein shakes are all healthy, protein-rich snacks.

Ideal Carbohydrate Intake When Lean Bulking

In addition to protein intake, finding the right carb intake is important as well. Carbs help build muscle by giving you the energy needed to power through your workouts. They also keep the muscle from breaking down as they supply the glycogen used for energy, stopping the body from trying to pull energy from muscle instead.

When bulking, carbs should account for about 40% of your total calorie intake. Depending on your weight, this equates to roughly 4 to 7 grams per kilogram of body weight daily. 

The main thing to remember when meeting your carb intake is to focus on consuming nutrient-dense options. This includes oats, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and fruit. Stay away from processed carb choices such as cookies, crackers, and chips. 

Increase your carb intake before workouts to supply the energy needed to work on building muscle. Increase your carb intake post-workout to support muscle recovery.  

Additional Ways to Gain Weight in a Healthy Way

Following a lean bulking meal plan can help you gain weight while boosting muscle mass. And it does it without promoting weight gain in the form of fat. Other strategies good for increasing weight and muscle building at the same time include:

  • Eating frequent meals. Typically, a weight loss diet involves reducing the number of times you eat throughout the day. When the goal is weight gain, it’s best to eat more often. This helps you get the calories and macros needed to support this goal. 

  • Using a mass gainer. Counting macros isn’t for everyone. To increase weight and muscle mass without getting bogged down with the numbers, you might want to consider a mass gainer. These often supply a large amount of both protein and carbs. This helps you meet your daily needs without trying to redo your entire meal plan.

  • Paying attention to timing. Notice how you feel after eating and how this impacts your workouts. You might find that having a certain amount of protein or carbs before working out makes it easier to push through. Or maybe a certain amount after working out helps reduce soreness while also building muscle. This helps identify the right diet makeup for you.

  • Spending more time on weights. Build lean muscle and you will gain weight. So, spend more time in the weight room when bulking up. Strength training also helps lose weight in the form of fat. This provides a firmer physique when working on your weight gain.

  • Monitoring your results. When trying to lose weight, the scale can help monitor your results. If the goal is weight gain, the scale can help with this too. It’s also helpful to take muscle measurements. This tells you whether your bulking plan is working or if needs to be modified. You may need to change your diet to get better results. 

How Long Does It Take to Gain Weight and Muscle When Bulking?

Gaining weight isn’t too difficult and can occur fairly quickly. A few simple changes to your diet can cause you to start to gain weight almost immediately. It may not be as fast as the weight gain that occurs with an unhealthy diet, but it likely won’t be particularly slow either.

Bulking takes more time. When bulking, expect to not see lean muscle gains for one to two months. Though, it could take several more months before really increasing muscle strength or size. Your results depend, in part, on how much and how hard you exercise. 

Learn how to provide your clients customized nutrition advice with ISSA’s Nutritionist Certification. This course covers nutrition for both weight loss and weight gain. It also discusses goal setting, lifestyle strategies, and supplementation.

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By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.


Saturated Fat. www.heart.org. (2021). Retrieved 10 August 2022, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats.

Martínez-González, M., Salas-Salvadó, J., Estruch, R., Corella, D., Fitó, M., & Ros, E. (2015). Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Insights From the PREDIMED Study. Progress In Cardiovascular Diseases, 58(1), 50-60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2015.04.003

Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1

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