Here are 10 strategies to help you do what was once thought to be impossible: growing muscle without growing your belly.
Building muscle without getting fat isn’t complicated, but many lifters search endlessly for the best new method or secret. The truth is, there’s no secret. The right method or tip can help, but the real way to get bigger, stronger, and leaner lies in sound principles performed with ruthless consistency.
Far too many young lifters step into the gym and expect one 4-week training cycle to transform them from a prepubescent boy to The Rock. Naturally, they don’t achieve their goal and they either begin searching “how to” articles on the internet or they throw in the towel.
The muscle building process is a journey. You need patience and a sensible idea of what you can achieve on what timeline. Author Alan Aragon devised a clear-cut breakdown of the maximum rate of muscle gain:
- Beginner: 1 to 1.5% total body weight per month
- Intermediate: .5 to 1% total body weight per month
- Advanced: .25 to .5% total body weight per month
Let’s put these numbers to work. Let’s say Ben is a busy dude who hasn’t lifted much. He’s 155 pounds, 19 years old, and he has the hormone profile of a raging bull. If Ben trains hard 3-5 times per week, nails his diet, and recovers adequately, here’s what he can expect:
Ben weighs 155 pounds at 14% body fat.
- 155 x .01 = 1.55 pounds per month x 12 months = 18.6 pounds per year.
- 155 pounds x .015% = 2.325 pounds of muscle per month x 12 months = 28 pounds per year.
If Ben is completely dialed in, he could be anywhere from 173-183 pounds after one year. We’ll pick 178 pounds, splitting the difference.
Ben weighs 178 pounds.
- 178 pounds x .0075% = 1.31 pounds per month or 15 pounds of muscle in a year.
Ben is still gaining at an impressive rate and now weighs about 193 pounds.
Ben weighs 193 pounds.
- 193 pounds x 0.0025 = .48 pounds of muscle per month, or 5 pounds in year three.
This puts Ben at 198 pounds at 15% body fat after three years of dedicated training. Now, this sounds great for three years, but young lifters seldom have the foresight to see three years down the road.
Genetic outliers and steroid use notwithstanding, you can expect to gain 2-3 pounds of muscle per month as a true beginner, 1-2 pounds of muscle per month as an intermediate, and 0-.5 of a pound per month as you get more advanced. Water weight and fat will add a few more pounds, but it takes a lot of time to build lean muscle, even if you’re doing everything right.
Tailor your expectations and buckle down for the long haul. Building muscle without getting fat isn’t a one-night stand; it’s a committed relationship.
The biggest mistake lifters make? Trying to bulk up before they’re lean enough to make the best use of the extra calories they’ll be taking in. As a gross generality, men should aim to be about 12% body fat while women should be between 17-21% body fat. A good indicator you’re on the right track is having some abdominal definition before trying to bulk.
If you follow a “dirty bulk” or attempt to bulk up when you’re too fat, you’ll face a plethora of issues:
- Fat Hyperplasia – Your body will increase the number of fat cells as a result of overeating. This makes it easier to store fat in the future and harder to lose fat in the here and now.
- Decreased insulin sensitivity – You’re making it harder for your body to break down food into energy. You’ll add fat more easily and struggle to build lean muscle.
- Poor habit formation – Sure, it’s fun to occasionally eat junk. But bulking isn’t an excuse to eat like a slob with the self-control of a 14-year-old boy visiting his first porn site. These habits are harder to break than you’d anticipate.
Ignore this advice at your peril. Sure, you’ll gain size more quickly, but it’ll be a muffin top over your jeans, not a sheet of armor over your pecs. Get lean and keep it clean. Progress will come slower, but you’ll build big muscles, not a big gut.
In a perfect world, eating more food would directly correlate to more lean muscle mass. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Except for those on anabolic steroids who are able to elevate protein synthesis around the clock, natural lifters need a moderate surplus to avoid gaining too much body fat.
What you need to do is calculate your calories and shoot for 300-500 calories above maintenance. Now, there are dozens of equations out there to help you do this and they’re all fairly similar. Here’s a simple one:
- Body weight (pounds) x 15 = maintenance
- 160 pounds x 15 = 2,400 calories per day.
So, to build muscle, this hypothetical person would need to consume 2,700 to 2,900 calories.
If you gain fat easily, shoot for the lower end of this range. If you have a crazy metabolism, shoot for 2,900 or a bit over. You’ll have to experiment and see what’s best for you, but this will get you in the neighborhood.
This sensible increase equates to one or two protein shakes and a banana or two per day above maintenance calories. Alternatively, this is an extra sweet potato and a chicken breast each day, not a 1200-calorie burger from a fast food joint.
Calories are king when it comes to building muscle, but the macronutrient breakdown is also important.
Keep it simple. Shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. There appears to be no major benefit to consuming more protein if you’re a drug-free lifter. Still, if you’re having trouble getting your calories, feel free to get more protein. Just realize it may not be beneficial, at least for muscle gains.
If you’ve followed rule two and are lean enough to begin with, carbs are your best friend for building lean muscle. Carbohydrates are protein-sparing, meaning they’ll prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue. Similar to banking, a penny saved is a penny earned. Consider carbs the key to saving the muscle you already have while promoting further growth.
Men who are 7-12% body fat and women who are 17-19% body fat should aim for 2-2.5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight.
Men who are 12-15% body fat and women who are 19-21% should try 1.5-2 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight. If you have a higher body fat percentage, get lean first.
The remainder of your calories should be from fat. Yes, there are exceptions. Some folks do better on a higher fat diet. But overall, far too many lifters suffer from carb-phobia. As a result, they stay smaller and weaker than they need to.
Your body needs rest, especially if you want to build muscle and stay lean. A 2010 study showed even a 14-day span of 5.5 hours of sleep versus 8.5 hours of sleep decreased the amount of fat loss by 55% and increased the loss of fat-free mass (muscle) by 60%. And this all happened in just two weeks.
And chronic sleep deprivation? It’s been shown in numerous studies that it causes cortisol to increase while testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone secretion decrease. Together, it appears a lack of sleep favors the loss of muscle mass, decreases your recoverability, and increases fat mass.
Make sure you get 7-9 hours of sleep if you’re serious about building muscle. Put down your phone and turn off Netflix. This is the lowest hanging fruit and easiest way for most lifters to get bigger, stronger, leaner, and healthier.
If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing. Most lifters spin their wheels for years, benching 185 for 5x5 and then immediately hopping onto barbell curls. Rinse, repeat. The same weight. The same volume. And the same paltry progress… for years.
To build muscle you must stress your body beyond what it’s currently doing. The simplest solution is to bring a notebook and write down your workouts. Aim to get a bit better each time you set foot in the gym.
Pick any of the fine programs here on T Nation or a program like 5/3/1. Without progress, there’s no progression. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. Just get it done. Track your workouts, assess progress, and add weight to the bar to add more stress.
If you’re a newbie, getting stronger is the most important thing you can do. Training purely for strength while eating a muscle-building diet will lead to slabs of lean mass simply because your body isn’t used to the high-stress environment of proper training.
Strength is important for those who’ve been around the block, but the mechanisms for hypertrophy are a bit different. Once you’ve built a sufficiently strong base, heavy strength work helps you build muscle through two mechanisms.
First, building more strength allows you to lift progressively more weight for more volume. For example, you might go from bench-pressing 80 pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 10 to 100 pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 10. This gradual improvement leads to a much greater overload stimulus.
Second, heavy strength work improves muscle fiber recruitment. Using hypothetical numbers, you could go from recruiting 40% of the muscle fibers in your chest to 70%. The more muscle fibers you recruit the more you can train.
So, strength is still important even for the advanced lifter. But instead of being the primary muscle builder, heavy lifting allows you to improve muscle fiber recruitment to engage more muscle fibers and improve work capacity to fatigue more muscle.
Rookies need to lift heavy to build muscle. Veterans need to lift heavy to make all subsequent training more effective.
Chasing the pump simply because Arnold said it feels like an orgasm is no longer bro-science, it’s science-science.
Muscle researcher Brad Schoenfeld found three major components to building muscle: mechanical tension (heavy strength work), metabolic damage (the pump), and muscular damage (soreness).
Mechanical tension is covered with heavy strength work and limited muscular damage should be a byproduct (and not the focus) of a slight progressive overload. In many cases, the best results come from hitting a heavy lift and then creating metabolic stress – the pump.
When you lift with moderate-high reps and short rests, the prolonged muscular contractions create an occlusion effect and short rests contribute to it because they don’t allow enough time for blood to escape the muscles. This leaves the byproducts of muscular contractions “stuck” in your muscles, which can activate mTOR (a central regulator of cell growth) while also increasing activation of satellite cells (precursors to muscle cells).
In short, it means hit the weights hard in the beginning. Then do 2-3 exercises with 8-15 reps per set, longer eccentrics (negatives), and incomplete rest to get a good pump.
Training to failure can provide a quick boost when done correctly. By blasting every possible muscle fiber and taking sets to mechanical failure, you create insane amounts of metabolic stress and muscular damage to further muscle growth.
But how can you train to failure safely? Lift light weights, around the neighborhood of 30% of your max. Pick your exercises carefully, too. Use cables, machines, and some bodyweight exercises. Please, no deadlifts or snatches.
Aim for muscular failure without “excess” cheating. Some body english is okay. Twerking off the machine chest press is not. Aim to attack one muscle to end a workout with a 2 x 50, 3 x 30, or 3 x 20 rep scheme.
Here are a few exercises that you can effectively go to failure on:
- Chest: Machine bench press
- Lats: Chest-supported row
- Biceps/Forearms: Machine curl or pinwheel curl (see video)
- Quads: Single-leg leg press, leg extension, goblet squat
- Triceps: Close-grip push-ups to failure
- Hamstrings: Stability ball leg curl
- Glutes: Single-leg hip thrust
- Traps: 2-minute farmers walks
You can follow an aggressive fat-loss diet and transform your appearance rather quickly, but building muscle is another story altogether. It takes months and years of hard work, not days and weeks.
Most lifters don’t fail in their efforts due to a lack of knowledge. They fail due to a lack of grit, perseverance, and consistency. You can’t bulk for a month, see your abs get blurry, and then flip to a cutting phase. If you’re dead serious about building muscle, then go all-in for six months.
Remember, the muscle building process is slow, no more than 2-3 pounds of muscle max per month when you’re eating, training, and getting plenty of rest.
Stick to your muscle-building diet, leave inconsistent training behind, and be as diligent about recovery as you are about hitting the gym. Above all else, keep the goal the goal. If you’re willing to pay the price, you’ll be rewarded with a stronger, leaner, and more muscular body.