You want to gain mass, but you don't want to add excess body fat along with it. Seems reasonable, right? But the bro-science on the internet calls for extreme swings in the direction of "bulking," meaning eating as many calories as humanly possible, followed by a period of extreme "cutting." Many consider this to be the only way to put on mass, with the understanding that they will just have to cut down their body fat later.

While this approach can work, it's the wrong choice for those who train just to gain a little muscle while staying lean and avoiding the bulk. If that's you, don't worry—it can be done.

1. Have Realistic Expectations

The fact is, you can gain lean mass quicker if you are in a greater caloric surplus, but you run the risk of adding extra body fat. If you choose a more conservative approach in terms of calories in, it will take a bit longer, but you can avoid the body fat that commonly comes with bulking.

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2. Don't Do Too Much Cardio

If your goal is to stay relatively lean while adding a bit of muscle, you don't have to go crazy with cardio. Instead of doing hours of steady-state cardio, focus your efforts on a little HIIT which can help you preserve more muscle while staying lean.[1] The best part is, you don't have to get up at 5 a.m. every day for fasted cardio to achieve the results you want. The fact is, fasted cardio isn't all it's cracked up to be when it comes to fat loss.[2]

3. Don't Neglect Compound Movements

Common wisdom says that if you want to stay lean, you need to lift lighter weights for higher reps, but that often results in neglecting the big, compound movements, which work multiple joints. This is a mistake! Performing the big, compound lifts with heavy weights will elicit the best hormonal response from your body. If you have never deadlifted, squatted, pressed, or pulled heavy regularly, you are in for a real treat. When you combine the big lifts with lighter weight and higher rep accessory exercises, you will have a recipe for success.

  1. Schoenfeld, B., & Dawes, J. (2009). High-intensity interval training: applications for general fitness training. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 31(6), 44-46.
  2. Schoenfeld, B. (2011). Does cardio after an overnight fast maximize fat loss? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33(1), 23-25.

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John Papp’s authors consist of accredited coaches, doctors, dietitians and athletes across the world.

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