This week’s coaching insights echo a post on the blog from last week: Aunt Betsy’s house and Your Failed Bulk.

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1. The Best Starting Point for Mass Building?

You grow best at your natural bodyfat set point, wherever your body “likes” to be.

That’s not the bodyfat percentage YOU like the best or what gets the most love on Instagram.

You want to create as low-stress an environment as possible to maximize anabolism.

Now that doesn’t mean deliberately overfeeding and stuffing yourself — that’s never helpful and actually a stressor.

Just constantly restricting food to “stay lean” is counterproductive, aka a road to nowhere.

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2. Mass Barriers

“Eventually I had to take in enough calories to slowly gain weight PLUS another 500 a day or so. That was the only way I would gain muscle & fat, not JUST fat.”

I’ve heard versions of this for decades and there’s something to it, at least in advanced lifters or those near their genetic ceiling.

The biggest problem with trying to “get bigger but stay lean” is that very modest calories typically fail to account for hidden calorie drains like non-exercise activity, NEAT, etc.

So you think you’re eating 200-300 calories above maintenance, but you’re REALLY 200 calories under.

Bumping up to a larger surplus provides a much needed calorie cushion to ensure adequate nutrients are available to create new muscle tissue, a fairly metabolically “expensive” process.

Yes, you’ll gain some fat at the same time. Nothing that a month or so of dieting can’t peel off. Again, unless you’re eating way too much.

Also, while bodyfat doesn’t have contractile properties, the extra bulk does help strength in lifts like presses and squats (deadlifts and chins, not so much). And slow gains in strength is strongly correlated to gains in size.

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3. Failed Bulks

“Whenever I drive I lose control of the car and crash.”

  • The road conditions are bad
  • Your car is a piece of shit
  • You’re a terrible driver

“Whenever I bulk, I just get fat. And then I spend all this time dieting off the fat only to look the same as when I started, or worse.”

Your plan sucks.

  • you’re too fat to bulk
  • you’re not healthy enough to bulk (chronic yo-yo dieter)
  • you’re eating way too much, too fast
  • you’re eating with no tracking or plan
  • you’re eating too much junk food
  • your accountability measures suck.

Of course you’re smoothing out. Focus on the process, the training, not just the mirror.

Your decisions suck.

  • you pulled the plug on the bulk WAY too soon (because you screwed up all of the above).
  • you jumped into a damage control diet before solidifying whatever gains you made.

So what you did was:

  1. Eat Too Much Phase x 1-2 months
  2. Strict Diet x 2-3 months
  3. Eat Too Much Phase x 1-2 months
  4. Strict Diet x 2-3 months
  5. Decide bulking doesn’t work.

When it should’ve been:

  1. Reasonable Surplus x 3-4 months, gradual increase as per biofeedback
  2. Lean gaining/recomping/maintenance. Calorie reduction closer to maintenance x 2 months, or until you seem to stay relatively weight stable without trying. Vague perhaps, but there is an individual “art” to this.
  3. Calorie Deficit x 1-2 months, though the shorter the better if your big picture goal is to get bigger. I’d avoid getting very lean more than once a year (every other year is better)
  4. Lean gaining/recomping/ maintenance.

Calories above maintenance x 1-2 months.


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4. The lean gains “modest surplus” approach?

As stated in #2, many cruising around maintenance are actually are in a deficit rather than even gentle surplus, and as a result are slowly getting leaner and harder. Low bodyfat gives the illusion of size.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that, and you can tilt it towards actual gains by adding occasional re-feeds.

But it’s a terrible approach for building significant muscle or addressing a weak point.

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5. Is lean gaining/gentle surplus EVER a good option?


  • when you want to add muscle but have higher than ideal bodyfat;
  • when focus can’t be on adding muscle or getting ripped (accountants at tax time, family);
  • returning from a lay-off;
  • when you’re big enough and just want to maintain;
  • in-between growth & fat loss phases. As noted earlier, this is when you settle in and re-establish your habits and your “new normal.”

You can’t blast up or down all year, nor must you maintain all year. Unless you can look in the mirror and say “I’m done.”