'Lean Gains' : Fact Or Fitness Fiction

By Aadam | February 19, 2015

A few years ago if you’d gone up to a Gymbro and said ‘hey man, I wanna get jacked – advice?’, you would have most likely heard something along the lines of:  ‘eat big to get big’. The idea being that if you wanted to pack on any appreciable muscle mass, the consumption of copious amounts of food – and in turn the resultant fat gains – was not only a necessity, but an expected part of the process.

Fast forward a few years and the pendulum has fully swung to the other end, bringing with it the rise of a new term: ‘lean gains’.

What Is Lean Gains?

‘Lean gains’ is the ‘cute’ name given to the supposed process of gaining muscle, while gaining no body fat.
So, how much truth is there to ‘lean gains’? Can we really gain muscle mass while not gaining any body fat?

Lean Gains’: Fact Or Fiction?

The idea that you can gain muscle without gaining any fat is a strong misnomer and quite misleading – it’s also my issue with having this sort of mentality when it comes to adding muscle.
While a many ‘fitness guru’s’ will tout this idea of being able to add muscle while not gaining any fat, if you simply follow ‘their one weird trick’, in reality this just isn’t true.
To gain weight and muscle ; you need to be eating more calories than you are burning. Even with the most optimised nutrition and training plan, there will be some fat gain.

Why ?

It takes around 2800 calories (roughly) to build a pound of muscle. Calories, however, aren’t exclusively reserved for the job of building muscle as the graph below illustrates :

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 08.22.48

Graph courtesy of bodyrecomposition.com

So if you simply try to consume enough calories to cater to your goal of getting jacked, your body will only attribute a small percentage of those calories towards actual muscle growth (if any) – using the rest for more important functions elsewhere in the body.
Hence the need to create a ‘buffer’ by consuming more calories and aiming for a bit more weight than what we would need to just build muscle with.

To Illustrate this  ~

if you’re a beginner and you’re aiming for 2-3lbs of weight gain per month (refer to charts under ‘optimal rate of growth’ later on in the article), let’s say 50-60% of that is muscle (1-1.5lbs) the rest would be water, glycogen and of course some body fat. But, what you’ve done is created a ‘buffer’ and in turn allowed for more growth rather than aiming for say 1lb of weight gain- in the hopes of  ‘lean gaining’- and only 0.2-0.5lbs of that being muscle growth, you’ve allowed yourself to gain more muscle by allowing more weight gain overall.
By trying to stay too lean during a gaining phase all that happens is you end up spinning your wheels and not making any gains at all.

The ‘Clean Bulk’ Myth

Before moving on, I want to quickly touch on ‘clean bulking’, the myth that just doesn’t seem to die.
You’ll often hear people claim that as long as you consume your calories from ‘clean’ foods rather than ‘junk’ foods. You will gain lean mass with no fat gain.
This is simply not true. ‘Clean’ or ‘dirty’, a calorie is a calorie – consume more food than your body requires and you will gain fat. Sure, there are some nuances to this and for the most part you should have a diet that focuses on whole nutritious foods, such as whole grains, lean sources of meat, fruits and veggies but don’t think that by depriving yourself of your favourite foods is going to keep you lean while building muscle.


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