Lean Bulk, Caloric Surplus, and 5/2

Hey folks, I just wanted to hear your thoughts on the best way to structure my diet.

I’m at about 15% body fat @ 75kg right now. My goal is to reduce body fat to 10 to 12% and to increase muscle mass. If this can be obtained simultaneously, even better.

On the one hand it is always said that you need a caloric surplus in order to build muscle, and a caloric deficit to lose fat.

Then I came across the 5/2 article by CT. He basically said that there will be a total caloric deficit over the course of a week due to the 2 low caloric days and that it would still be possible to add muscle due to increased insulin sensitivity and the surplus on the other days.

Now, I can’t follow a strict 5/2 diet. I’ve tried it last year, and I was not able to keep sharp and concentrated, which I need to be when I draft contracts, write my PhD, etc. And while I was able to reduce my body fat, I was not able to add any muscle mass (I even feel like I lost some).

So I was thinking about a softer version of the 5/2 diet (or maybe make it a 4/3 diet):

I train weights on 4 days per week. On these days I would try to reach a caloric surplus, comprised mainly of carbs and protein. On my off days, I would stay very low carb and stay below maintenance, in a way that allows me to stay in a slight deficit over the course of a week.

Does this make sense and will it work? And if so, what caloric amounts should I aim for?

My basic metabolic rate is 1784 kcal, but I’m not sure how the maintenance level should be calculated. Most calculators only offer an average number based on the amount of exercise you do. Should I calculate two separate numbers instead (One for training days, taking into consideration that I burn like 500 kcal through training, and one for off days, where I spend my day in front of the desk)?

Thanks in advance.

It doesnt make sense at all. 5/2 is a fat loss diet ( Not suprised you didn’t build muscle) and insulin sensitivity doesnt work that way. You cant be more insulin sensitive after a day of low calorie/fast to the extent that you use carbs better and build muscle the next day

However after loosing fat, your body will use nutrients in a more effective manner, since you’re likely to be less insulin resistant.

I’d suggest you drop to %10-12 from 15, which shouldnt be too hard and then focus on building lean tissue.

Berardi wrote an article about calculating the numbers here, Massive Eating - Part 1

Good Luck

Best to pick one goal at a time, whether its to add muscle or lose fat, and stick to it. In my opinion it is 10x harder to build muscle than lose fat, so I would always recommend getting bigger then dieting off the extra fat. Building a substantial base physique can take years. Dieting off excess body fat can be done in months.

Thank both of you for your input. I god the idea of gaining muscle mass while dieting from this article: Breaking: Great Fat Loss News for Dieters
CT wrote that theoretically a lifter could even bulk while losing fat using this diet. (I may have misunderstood what he meant.)

On my off-days, should I aim for a caloric surplus as well?

I just might not have found the sweet spot yet, but the last time I increased my calories, most of the weight I added was body fat (poor nutrition partitioning), so I am looking for the magical lean bulk way.

Just from my personal experience, I did the 5/2 with great success, trimmed some fat and gained strength throughout. It takes careful analysis of your nutrition on the 5 normal days, but it can absolutely be done. I should note, that Indigo and Micro were taken, and Plazma during training. These are staples in my regime and am confident they played a contributing role to the gains I was able to make on 5/2.

I think the best thing for you would be a cyclical diet (carb cycling) for fat loss. You will support your training with good carbs, non training days you can back off and if you feel like it, one day a week do a low cal day as you normally would with the 5/2, so maybe like a 6/1 type thing. This article by CT will help you calculate your numbers: The Carb Cycling Codex.

Thanks Rob. Did you also gain lean muscle mass (not just strength) during that phase?

Carb cycling is what I keep doing anyways just in order to maintain my insulin sensitivity, but the question for me has always been how to set the calories on complete off days. Checking out the article in the link right now, but any recommendations would be appreciated.

I’m confident that I did, I didn’t get a DEXA or anything, but I lost fat, most definitely did NOT lose any LBM, and strength went up considerably from the beginning to the end, so I can only deduce that I did gain some LBM.

One extremely important thing to realize is you have to PRIORITIZE your goals. At the time, my primary goal was fat loss, but of course we want to minimize or eliminate any losses and possibly gain if we can, so I’d say it was a raging success. If your top priority is gaining LBM, then realize that fat loss has to take a back seat. Not saying you can’t do both, but you have to prioritize. It doesn’t take a huge caloric surplus to add LBM, but it’s important to really know your maintenance calories and go from there. Everyone in the world always wants to do a “clean bulk”, “get shredded but build mass” blah blah blah. Let’s define:

Broscience Bulk: = Pass that pizza bro, I’m BULKING! (no, you’re fatting)

Broscience Lean/Clean Bulk: = I’m gonna get yuge without gaining fat bro! In 3 months I’m gonna be diced! (doubt it)

Actual Lean Bulk: = Intelligently track your calories with consistency until you KNOW your maintenance, eat a couple hundred calories above that and put as many carbs in your workout window as possible. Eat clean, healthy, nutrient rich foods. Lather, rinse, repeat for a long time and don’t expect miracles. If your abs start going away you went too far. The leaner you are, the easier it is to add LBM.

So, what is your number one goal? Is it LBM gains, or fat loss? My recommendation would be to focus on fat loss and maintaining (maybe building but definitely not losing) your LBM, and when you’re lean and mean, use a carb cycling plan to start an intelligent bulk. Your nutrition and training both MUST mutually support your main goal to make progress.

If you’re serious about having a good physique, realize it is a long, never ending journey. Progress, REAL progress, happens slowly. Think about where you want to be 3, 6, 9, 12 months from now, and not just, “what plan is gonna get me there.” It’s never just one plan, it’s a combination of many different methods used over a long period of time.


It’s also important to emphasize that ultimately the only way to know what methods work best for you is to just try them for a few months and see what happens. It’s good to try to gather some evidence or other people’s experiences with different plans, but everyone is different, and the best plan is the one that works for YOU. Just because something worked well for me doesn’t mean you’ll have the same response. So, don’t get caught in analysis paralysis trying to dissect the perfect plan on paper. Pick one that makes sense to you and do it with consistency for 3 months, keep records, check out the data and modify as needed.

Thank you so much for your advice. As it has already been pointed out above, lack of prioritization may be the reason my wheels keep spinning. But since I don’t think I can afford putting on any extra aft right now (I’m hoping to look more muscular by getting some definition), I would say there is a slight tendency towards losing fat right now, so I’m gonna try to do exactly what you guys have been saying - lean down a little bit and start a clean bulk.

I hope it won’t take too long to get down to like 10-12ish, but I don’t want to lose any of my muscle mass either. What range of deficit and which time frame would be realistic from your experience in order to lose 3 to 5 percentage points of body fat?

Brain candy and what rob said.

Well, you will DEFINITELY look “bigger” once you get leaner, the wonderful illusion of stripping fat and maintaining muscle. It would be a little easier if you could post a picture to give a rough estimate of a time frame, and it’s really just a guess as everyone’s body works differently.

If you’re training 4 days a week, a cyclical diet would be perfect way to make it happen. Maybe start with one “high” carb day on leg day, 3 “medium” carb days for the other training days, and 3 “low” carb days where maybe you just have all P/F meals with veggies to keep ya full, possibly creating a more significant caloric deficit on your low days (not too much though). Using the Carb Cycling Codex article sited above, you can figure out a rough starting point, and you’d want to reduce calories for a slight deficit. On your training days, you’ll create a good deficit with your training. Keep carbs around your workout window is ideal.

So for example, let’s say your total RMR with activity level is 2500 calories. So, then we shoot for a slight deficit, maybe start out around 2200 calories. On your high day, you might have 250g carbs, 250g protein and the rest from fats. On a medium day, maybe 175g carbs, 250g protein and the rest from fats. On a low day, 250g protein, rest of your cals from fats, and fibrous veggies with every meal. If you wanted to toss in ONE low cal day in per week if you can, like from the 5/2, I don’t think you’d risk any muscle loss, especially if you have a Mag 10 or two throughout day.

There’s no way to know how long it would take, but if you’re currently 165lbs at 15% as you estimate, depending on your physique you might need to lose 10-15lbs (always more than you think it is) until you’re as lean as you want to be. I would think 3-4 months would be feasible, but remember the goal is to keep LBM, so slow and steady wins the race here.

Thanks, I will post some pics soon.

How did your training look like while dieting (when you even gained strength)? Was it rather strength or hypertrophy based?

It was last year, at the time I was doing a full body plan 3 days per week, (similar to the plan I’m on now for my prep) M/W/F as it worked best for my schedule. I respond well to full body plans, and the full body workout is also a great fat burner, eliminating the need for excess cardio. It was a modified version of Leroy Colbert’s plan from this article, “Full Body Workouts of the Legends” Full-Body Workouts of the Legends. There was both strength/compound movements and isolation work involved, it’s important to hit all of the rep ranges. So, some days/exercises were more strength based with lower reps and higher weight, other days/exercises were more focused on getting a good pump in the 12-15 rep range. Total of about 42-45 working sets per workout. So, I guess you could say focused on both. Here’s what I ate at the time:

Training Day Nutrition
8am breakfast - 1 egg, 3 or 4 egg whites, 3oz turkey, grass fed cheddar, veggies and organic salad greens OR a MD shake with nut butter
11:00 - MAG-10 pulse
1:00 - 6oz turkey sandwich w/ ezekiel bread, grass fed cheddar or 1oz organic cashews/almonds, organic salad greens
2:30 - Micro-PA
3:00 - Indigo
3:15 - Start sipping Plazma (2 scoops)
3:30 - 5:00 - training
5:30 - MAG-10
6:30 - Dinner, 6oz chicken or grass fed beef, grass fed cheddar, 2 cups veggies, organic salad greens
9:00 - 1 scoop MD protein and unsweetened almond milk

Tuesday-Saturday - Non Training Nutrition
8am breakfast - 1 egg, 3 or 4 egg whites, 3oz turkey, grass fed cheddar, veggies and organic salad greens OR a MD shake with nut butter
11:00 - MAG-10 pulse
1:00 - 6oz turkey sandwich w/ ezekiel bread, grass fed cheddar or 1oz organic cashews/almonds, organic salad greens
4:00 - 2 scoops MD protein w/ unsweetened almond milk, 1oz organic cashews/almonds
6:30 - Dinner, 6oz chicken or grass fed beef, grass fed cheddar, 2 cups veggies, organic salad greens
9:00 - 1 scoop MD protein and unsweetened almond milk

Thursday/Sunday - Non training low days. Hunger is definitely there but manageable, be sure to drink LOTS of water on these days!
8am breakfast - 4 egg whites, 1 cup veggies, 2 strips bacon (local farm raised)
Throughout the day I’ll drink coffee and Zevia sodas (naturally sweetened, 0 calorie soda) to stave hunger, and one or two MAG-10 pulses as needed. Fasted 1 hour walk (slow and steady pace) around 4pm.
6:30/7pm dinner - 4oz chicken breast, 1 cup veggies, half serving organic grass fed cheddar, organic salad greens

Also, some training days if I was feeling depleted or really low energy in the morning, I’d have carbs with breakfast instead of fat. So, sub out eggs and cheese for oats and protein powder, etc. It was a great plan to lean out for summer a bit, I followed it for about 3 months, after which I started a 4 day split.

Whatever your current training plan is, be sure to focus carbs around the workout window. It’s important to do both strength and hypertrophy work on a cut. Strength because you gotta tell your muscles, “hey, don’t go anywhere, I need you to work!” as you start cutting, and hypertrophy because…well…because we all want to get bigger!

45 working sets? How long were your workouts?

Yep, took about 2 hours start to finish, give or take a little depending on how crowded it was and if I was able to do some supersets. Right now if I move quickly and don’t talk too much I can get it done in 2 hours, factoring in a couple warm up sets for each muscle. It’s two exercises per muscle group, 6-7 sets total per muscle group, so even though it’s a lot of work, each muscle group stays relatively fresh, and you push hard but don’t go to fail because you have to work it again two days later. Not the most conventional of plans, but for me I respond very well and enjoy having a day off to recover between every session. Mentally and physically, it’s extremely helpful, and my body utilizes the recovery time well.

I’m doing the same plan now for my contest prep, slightly modified to include more variety of exercises to make sure I can hit all of the angles necessary. I wouldn’t do this in the off season, I like a 4 day split when I can. Right now it’s mainly because of my schedule, but also I think it’s a great contest prep plan. The goal is of course to get super lean without losing any LBM, so if I’m stimulating every muscle every other day, 3x per week, I am confident that will eliminate any chance of losing muscle.

The biggest factor is making sure I’m fueled properly and to be able to recover from the session. Right now I have 3 scoops of Plazma for training, plus a Finibar before, and plenty of carbs throughout the day. On a training day I get about 340g carbs right now, with 160g carbs for my workout window between the Finibar and Plazma. Then a recovery day after, also making sure I get enough sleep.

Thank you for your detailed description. Is there any value in hypertrophy work during a cut? It often sounds as if building muscle during a caloric deficit was close to impossible… or do the muscles actually grow, even at a deficit?

I’m been on this program now for a little over three weeks now. According to the scale I have lost three pounds.

The rep range I’m working in now is 6-10 for big lifts, and as high as 25 for other movements (bodyweight squats, pushups, plate raises).

I think I have cut calories too low or I’m doing too much NEPA. The last few workouts have been a grind and I’m really tired until I eat a meal with carbs. For NEPA I’ve been walking for 60-90 minutes everyday.

As for my diet, I have to eyeball everything as I’m eating out of a cafeteria right now. It’s causing me some grief and I’ve been adding in lots of NEPA to offset the shitty food.

I’m probably around 15% if not a little higher and trying to get down to 10% as well in the next 12 weeks. I’d like to compare notes with you.

There is absolutely value in doing hypertrophy work during a cut, which is why bodybuilders train the way they do. Hopefully you can still make some gains on a cut, but again the goal is to NOT LOSE anything on a cut. Every article you’ll find on T-Nation will emphasize the importance of hitting all the rep ranges as they all have different benefits. At this point you just gotta get started and allow it to happen. Again, there is no hard and fast, “if you’re on a cut you can’t build muscle.” You can’t build as much as if you’re on a caloric surplus, but you can still do it, and the leaner you are the easier it is to build LBM, better insulin sensitivity, the list goes on and on. You really just need to get your plan going and follow it consistently, and let the progress happen. Again, your ultimate physique is NOT 3-6 months away, it never ever is, with a rare exception maybe unless you’re an experienced off season bodybuilder who is about to start a diet for a show. You want to be lean and muscular, so get leaner, then build more muscle.

Get to it and keep us updated!

Pretty impressive for 3 weeks!

What’s your training plan like?

It’s possible but without knowing the details of your nutrition or training it’s hard to provide any meaningful insight. If you’re doing the 5/2, PLUS 60-90 minutes of NEPA a day, AND cutting calories significantly, yeah that might be too much. Remember the 5/2 diet is NOT a low calorie diet (with the exception of the 2 days.) You’re supposed to “eat normally for the 5 days” then follow the plan for the 2 low calorie days. If you’re on a serious deficit throughout the week, the 5/2 diet is not ideal. It’s meant to help you lose fat while maintaining or even building muscle, which will be absolutely impossible on a significant daily deficit. You should be at maintenance or even slightly (like 200-300 calories) higher than maintenance on a training day, then the 2 low calorie days will have a nice effect. If you’re too low throughout the week you’re just burning rubber.

Can you post more detailed info about your training and nutrition? How much P/F/C you get each day and total calories?

If you’re just guessing your BF it’s probably higher than 15%. 10% body fat means pretty defined abs, it’s totally possible of course but it’s not a walk in the park and most people don’t realize how long it takes to get there, and that it’s never just one plan that gets you there. The GOOD news is once you’re there, it’s pretty easy to stay there provided you can control your nutrition. The 5/2 may be a great plan to start with, then eventually you’ll probably have to adjust a little more to get down to single digits.

I train 5 times a week, with an Upper/Lower Split with an upper body complex day.

Upper 1 - Overhead press 3 x 8
Arnold Press 3 x 12
Inverted rows 4 x 12
Cable row 4 x 12
Hammer curl 4 x 10
Plate raise 4 x 25
100-200 pushups finisher

Lower 1 - Back squat 3x 8-10
Front squat 3 x 10
Rear Elevated Single Leg Squat 3 x 10 each leg
Machine Ab Crunch 3 x 10
Hanging leg raise 3 x 12
100-200 bodyweight squats

Upper 2 - Incline press 3 x 6-8
Flat DB press 3 x 10
Cable Row - 4 x 12
Face pull 3 x 15
Tricep pressdown w/rope 3 x 12
Lateral raise 3 x 15
Pushups 100-200

Lower 2 - Trap bar DL 4-5 x 8
SLDL 3 x 10
Back extensions focussing on glutes 3 x 12
Leg curl 3 x 8
Kettlebell swing 75-100
Various planks

150-200 pushups, bodyweight squats, and 100 burpees.
3x 10-12 of DB curls, shrugs, lateral raises, face pulls, pushdowns, etc. with some ab work

As stated, each day has at least 45 minutes of NEPA. I go for an hour long walk on the two low calorie days.

My normal eating days consists of around 2500 cals with 50-60 grams of fat, 150-170 grams of protein, and the rest coming from clean carbs. I’m eating at a cafeteria, so tracking macros is difficult.

Low day I shoot for 100 grams of protein and 40-50 grams fat.