Gaining Muscle Size: Bulk Up Or Stay Lean?

It's the offseason and you are looking to gain some extra muscle size... so do you bulk up fast or stay lean while gaining size? Here are my tips for gaining muscle the right way!

Hello again! I recently was at a contest, and I was approached with one main question that came up time and time again. This question was, "How can I gain some good quality muscle size for competition in the off season?" No need to ask any longer. I will give my view on this subject and you can be the judge for yourself if it fits your body.

Q: "How do I gain good quality muscle size for competition?"

A. Through high school and the past couple of years I have tried different ways of putting on muscle size. I tried the conventional "bulking up", and I also took the "staying lean" route in my off seasons between competitions. I personally feel that with proper tracking of your nutrition and very intense training, the best way to gain that muscle size and keep it for your competition, would be to stay relatively lean and tight all year.

Bulking Up

I tried both methods more than once. In fact I tried bulking up this last year. Did I gain size, YES, about 15 lbs of lean body mass! The only problem was that I had to diet from 212 lbs to 177 lbs. The diet was very tough to do while trying to preserve all that hard earned muscle I worked so hard for. Some people aren't as fortunate as I was to preserve the majority of lean muscle tissue. The main reason for maintaining my muscle is that I personally know my body and kept precise records of my diet until I tweaked it just right to prevent muscle wasting. My diet, making sure I got enough high quality protein, combined with intense and heavy training assured me of putting on if not gaining muscle all the way to the show.

Staying Lean Year Round

On the other hand if you are very lean in the off season, when it comes to diet about 85% of the battle is over. If your body fat is low, you will be stronger and more mentally prepared to hit that shredded, ripped look. Also you will not have to diet as hard for a long period of time which can take a negative toll on your lean muscle mass. Also, from speaking with other top natural bodybuilders, staying leaner in the off season causes you to be tighter all over including the trouble areas such as the glutes and hamstrings. Ron Coleman said that he did not get his glutes striated until one year of consistent dieting and staying lean. I believe now that there are certain areas on our bodies that will not release the small amounts of fat stored there unless we are lean for a very extended period of time.

So how do we stay lean and tight and assure good quality muscle? Well for starters you need to have the right diet. I would make sure you eat small-medium sized meals every 2 - 2.5 hours. Each meal should contain a lean, high quality protein source (25-50 grams, depending on your body weight), a clean, low glycemic, complex carbohydrate source (approx. 50 grams), and a green fibrous vegetable. This is the time to write which foods you eat in your journal to see how your body reacts to them. Remember you need to learn what works for you to really start tapping in to your potential.


As far as training goes, overload that muscle with progressively heavier and heavier weights. Give that muscle a new stimulus to adapt to by growing. Try not to be in the gym for any longer than 1 hour and 15 minutes. I would even strive to get an intense weight training session in as little as 45 minutes. If you find you are going over that mark try doing less sets but going full intensity for each one... 6-8 reps have worked well for me in the past. Again your body may be different so try 3-6, 4-8, 8-12, until you find what is working best for your body.

Cardio? YES!!

You must make cardiovascular exercise a part of your lifestyle. This will keep your metabolism cranking all the time. It will allow you to eat more and stay leaner. It also helps your body assimilate and use most of the food you are consuming. I do it for the benefits in my training such as those last 3-4 reps when squatting or dead lifting. Depending on how you want to look I would perform 30-45 minutes, 5 days a week. If you want to eat more and have the discipline, do a little bit more cardio and increase your food intake.

Use The Mirror!

Yes, this is another must. DO not get on the scale to help determine if you are gaining muscle. Use the mirror. If you see you are getting a little smooth, you must adjust your cardio and diet accordingly until your physique reaches the leanness you desire. Vice versa if you feel weak and lethargic, boost you calories slightly, by about 100 a week, until you tighten and fill out. Do not remove the cardio; just eat more clean food.

Body Fat Testing

I would recommend that you also get your body fat measure by the same personal trainer every month. This will be a great way to see if you are putting the lean body mass on that you want. If you are 200lbs at 10% body fat in January, and in March you are 198 at 8% body fat, even though you may weigh less your lean body mass has gone up 2 lbs. This means not only are you leaner and lost fat, but you are also bigger. If you find that you have gained more fat than muscle, or lost muscle, go back to the diet and make the adjustments that need to be made such as raising your protein or lowering you calories, etc.


As you can see this does take discipline. Trust when I say it will make your life a whole lot easier come time for competition. Not only will you be mentally stronger, you will be physically stronger. You will be able to keep your calories higher ensuring you of keeping those extra pounds of muscle you earned. You will feel better in the off season because you will look better. Just remember to keep track of how much and what food you are eating to find out what is the best approach for you and your body. Sure, go enjoy yourself once or twice a week with your favorite foods, but keep it moderate.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or topics you would like discussed, or you would like to contact me for fitness modeling, appearances, or training/nutritional programs, e-mail CHRIS ZAINO at: