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The 8 Most Basic Rules of Clean Bulking

A how-to guide for packing on muscle and staying lean.

It’s an endless cycle for some guys: turn into a garbage disposal to bulk up, then crash diet to burn the belly that came with it (and reveal hard-earned muscle underneath.) We’ll never call it easy, but it is possible to get strong and stay cut (sans the yo-yo dieting) with the right balance of calories, nutrients, and training. We tapped Dan Trink, C.S.C.S., Director of Training Operations at Peak Performance in New York City, to explain the ins and outs of growing big—no sloppiness necessary.

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1. Increase Your Calories

“You cannot gain muscle or weight if you continue to be in a caloric deficit. You need to take in more calories on a daily or at least weekly basis,” says Trink. (Most guys, especially those new to the weight room, mess this part up.) A good estimate of how many calories you should be consuming is to take your body weight and multiply it by 16. (For example: 200 pounds x 16 = 3200 calories.) If you don’t see any gains after two weeks, try increasing your calories by 200 until you hit the sweet spot.

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2. Get the Right Fuel

Aim for a 40/30/30 percentage breakdown of protein to carbs to fats during the day. You’ll want to save most of your carbs for workout days to take advantage of that quick energy, and if you can, eat your biggest meal right after training. (Your metabolism is kickin’ into high gear at that point and you don’t want any muscle to be broken down into fuel.) 

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3. Stock Up on Protein

A juicy steak at dinner won’t cut it—protein needs to be spread throughout the day so you can fuel muscle growth 24/7. (Most guys hitting the gym need about .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day.) Pack it into four meals through sources like lean chicken and beef, salmon, eggs, quinoa, cottage cheese, and nuts.

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4. Skip Processed Foods

A double cheeseburger and fries will certainly get you to your calorie goals, but processed foods do zero for your insides and general physique. All that sugar, salt, and saturated fat can cause you to crash (lowering your odds of getting to the gym) and also tack on an unwanted layer of fat in no time.

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5. Hit The Weights Hard

You’ll want to clock around four strength-training sessions a week, says Trink. (Rest days are actually important—that’s when the muscles grow.) Mix it up with big, compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, presses, and pull ups, along with isolation work like curls or calf raises. “Splitting up days between body parts (so having a chest and back day, or a leg day) can be effective for gaining size, too,” says Trink.

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6. Keep Your Reps High

You don’t want to be known as the guy at the gym who half-asses his repetitions. If you have to bring the weight down slightly to finish the full range of motion and reps during a move, do it—you want to stress the muscles for a long enough time to stimulate growth. For most exercises, aim to finish “anywhere from 8-15 reps per set,” says Trink.

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7. Try Some Drop Sets

Finish your regular lifting set to failure, then grab onto some weights that are 25% lighter and crank out as many additional reps as you can. You’re forcing the body to use every muscle fiber it’s got for total burnout, which equals faster growth.

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8. Get Just Enough Cardio

A day or two of cardio per week will help you avoid fat gains and keep your ticker healthy, without burning off all the calories you need to get big. Keep it simple—pickup basketball, a light jog. This is not the time to throw in some weekend 18-milers.

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