How To Build Muscle Without Fat

Training, nutrition and tips to help you build lean muscle mass

People have different fitness goals, but we can assume that we all want to build muscle without getting fat to a certain extent. However, there is no one-size-fits-all method, since we all have different bodies and they tend to respond differently based on factors like: gender, age, genetics, etc. In this article we will give training and nutrition tips to help you build lean muscle mass.

Once you start exercising you will get familiar with three phases of training:

  • Bulking: increase your caloric intake in order to build muscle and gain strength.
  • Cutting: decrease your caloric intake to lose fat while trying to keep your strength and muscle mass.
  • Maintenance: maintain your caloric intake to keep your strength and muscle mass without gaining or losing weight.

You've probably the saying "you need to be in a caloric surplus to build muscle". However, it's not necessarily true.

First, let's take a step back. How do we build muscle? When you perform resistance training (lifting or bodyweight exercises) to the point of failure, your body recruits muscle fibers to help you perform your workout. This will break down certain muscle fibers, which will get bigger and stronger once you've fully recovered by resting and eating enough protein to rebuild the muscle tissues. You can find more info on Understand Hypertrophy: The Best Rep Range To Build Muscle.

So do you need to bulk to build muscle? Not necessarily. Most people tend to bulk in order to build muscle, because it's simple to understand. Train hard, eat more, rest, repeat. Easy to remember, right?

However, your body doesn't think "now I'm in a caloric surplus, it's time to build muscle". Your body receives macronutrients (fat, carbs and proteins) and it decides how to use these calories. These calories can be used in different ways:

  • Energy production
  • Build muscle
  • Store as adipose tissue (fat)

Our body burns calories in order to operate, even at rest. Your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is the number of calories your body needs to function at rest. This varies depending on your age, gender, height and weight.

However, TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) would be a better indicator of how many calories you burn per day, by also taking exercising into account. You can calculate yours in the Gymaholic App.

Here are simple steps to describe how your body uses calories:

  • When you consume calories your body will use for energy (organ functions or working out)
  • If it doesn't need it for energy, it will check if your muscles need repair (primarily carbs and protein).
  • Finally, if it doesn't need it for muscle repair, it will store them as adipose tissue (fat).

Since we know how to build muscle, we can define this oversimplified formula:

  • Build muscle:
    • Train your muscle fibers close to failure.
    • Have enough energy to keep your body functioning.
    • Eating enough protein to rebuild muscle fibers and prevent muscles to be used as energy.
    • Rest.

If you look closely, the "have enough energy to keep your body functioning" variable can be provided in two different ways. Either by eating enough food or by burning the excess of fat that can be used as energy.

Therefore, it is possible to build muscle while being in a caloric deficit, caloric maintenance or caloric surplus. However, it can get tricky if you don't have much body fat to start with.

To make your life easy, look at your current body fat percentage. If you're overweight/obese (based on your BMI) you might not need to bulk in order to build muscle, since you can use your fat stores as energy.

Let's look at some examples to help you understand if should be bulking or not:

  • You have been consistent for less than 3 months: you will be likely to build muscle without being in a caloric surplus. You should focus on eating better quality foods without looking at their caloric intake.
  • You have been consistent for more than 3 months and you keep gaining strength and muscle: you should have a rough idea of what is your roughly caloric intake in a day. Then adjust your macronutrients ratio to minimize fat gain and maximize muscle gain, which is usually done by slightly decreasing your carbs and fat intake while increasing your protein intake. This can be done while being in a caloric maintenance. Try to find what works best for your body and your training routines. Same here, you will be likely to build muscle without bulking.
  • You have been consistent for more than 3 months, but you have a lot of body fat to lose: you are most likely to build muscle while losing fat. Aim to be in a caloric deficit, while adjusting your macronutrients ratio to have a high amount of protein (~35-50 %).
  • You have been consistent for more than 3 months, but you have not gained in strength or muscle size: adjust your macronutrients ratio, while slightly increasing your caloric intake (bulking) on a bi-weekly basis (we will explain how to bulk in the next sections).

Athletes have different approaches when it comes to bulking:

  • Dirty bulk: the goal is to to promote quick weight gain by getting a lot of extra calories from high-calorie foods and junk foods. This is usually followed by a cut in order to burn the fat loss gained. This is the preferred method for competitive athletes.
    • Pros: gain weight quick and eat whatever you want.
    • Cons: gaining a lot of fat and promotes bad eating habits, which can cause health problems on the long run.
  • Clean bulk: a moderate increase in calories while eating healthier food choices.
    • Pros: gaining lean muscle mass while eating healthy, which can help prevent health problems on the long run.
    • Cons: takes a longer to gain muscle mass.

I've had the chance to try both bulking methods and I highly recommend a clean bulk. It allows you to create sustainable eating habits that will allow to build muscles throughout your life. Whereas, the dirty bulk will put you in this mindset of "I will eat what I want" mindset, which can be difficult to change when you're trying to cut.

Don't get it twisted, a clean bulk, doesn't mean you will only eat salads for the rest of your life. The majority of your meal should be healthy, but you can still enjoy junk food from time to time.

The key to a good clean bulk is to adapt your caloric intake and macronutrients intake according to your training needs. You will aim to provide just the right amount of calories for your body to build muscle without losing fat.

Let's take a look at some examples:

  • Women's meal plan:
    • Toning Meal Plan
    • Caloric Intake: 2239 calories
    • Carbs: 33% - 748 calories - 187g
    • Fat: 37% - 819 calories - 91g
    • Protein: 30% - 672 calories - 168g
  • Men's meal plan:
    • Muscle Building Meal Plan
    • Caloric Intake: 2613 calories
    • Carbs: 37% - 960 calories - 240g
    • Fat: 32% - 837 calories - 93g
    • Protein: 31% - 816 calories - 204g

These caloric intakes need to be adjusted according to your body composition, age, fitness levels...

Once you have been using a caloric intake for 2-3 weeks consistently, you can make some adjustments:

  • Your weight has not changed, but you're getting stronger: keep the same caloric intake
  • Your weight has decreased, but you're getting stronger: keep the same caloric intake (you're probably losing fat while building muscle)
  • Your weight has increased, but you're getting stronger: keep the same caloric intake
  • Your weight has increased, but you're not getting stronger: slightly decrease your caloric intake of 100-300 calories (primarily from carbs), wait for 2-3 week then repeat this cycle.
  • Your weight has not changed and you're not getting stronger: slightly increase your caloric intake of 100-300 calories (primarily carbs and protein), wait for 2-3 week then repeat this cycle.

There might be cases I have not covered, but this should give you a good idea to help you build muscle without getting fat.

You can also adjust your caloric intake according to the type of training you will be doing. For example, you should be eating more calories on an intense day than on a moderate day. You can find more info on Carb Cycling

Strength training (weight lifting or body weight) will help you get close to failure in order to break down muscle fibers and promote muscle growth when you're recovering.

When I did my first bulk I remember people telling me "you should not be doing any cardio while bulking, otherwise it will your muscles as energy". However, it's highly recommended to do cardio, since it's great to help you burn the excess of fat, but also necessary for your cardiovascular health.

Thus, you can still do cardio (1-3 per week), but you should try to keep them short (less than 30 minutes) and separated from your strength trainings. You can find more info on Will Cardio Really Ruin Your Progress?

You don't need supplements to help you build muscle without getting fat.

However, some supplements can be beneficial to help you bulk with ease:

  • Protein powder: a convenient way to help you consume more protein throughout the day.
  • Creatine: an efficient supplement to help you have energy during your anaerobic workouts.
  • Omega-3: good fat to keep your heart, joints, mind (and others) healthy.
  • There are three common training phases: cutting, bulking, maintenance
  • Bulking means increasing your caloric intake to build muscle.
  • You can build muscle without bulking.
  • If you're overweight/obese, you probably don't need to bulk.
  • Clean bulk is healthier and more sustainable than a dirty bulk.
  • You can adjust your caloric intake based on your training that day, check carb cycling.
  • Strength training and cardio should be part of your routine.
  • Protein powder, creatine and omega-3 can help
  • Edda Cava, Nai Chien Yeat, and Bettina Mittendorfer. "Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss"
  • Gary John Slater, Brad P. Dieter, Damian James Marsh, Eric Russell Helms, Gregory Shaw, and Juma Iraki. "Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training"
  • Demling RH, DeSanti L. "Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers."
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