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The Real Deal On Building High Quality Lean Muscle Mass

Phil Graham Bodybuilder - Biceps

In this article, I want to talk about the general perceptions held on bulking and mass gaining nutrition. In particular, I want to highlight the key problems that can arise when ones tries to gain too much too soon.

As always I will provide my own recommendations for what I consider an optimal approach to gaining lean muscle mass. And, of course, there will be exceptions to everything I say but for now, I am talking in a general context.

Key Points:

  • An athlete or individual striving to be in an optimal state of health and body composition (shape) has no need to gain excess fat. Gaining excess fat is unhealthy, unsightly and increases one’s risk of losing valuable muscle tissue as they try to diet it off.
  • Adding unnecessary levels of body fat can reduce insulin sensitivity. This is not an ideal scenario for building a lean, strong healthy physique.
  • Excessive fat gain increases the level of aromatase enzyme within fat cells. Increased levels of this enzyme increase estrogenic activity – i.e. the conversion of valuable muscle building testosterone into estrogen.
  • Excess body fat can be stored in many areas notably: adipose tissue, intramuscular/ectopic (within the muscle) and visceral (between the organs). All of these sites can mask muscular definition and lead to an unsightly/unhealthy looking physique.
  • Muscle tissue is a store of energy and thus requires you to consume a calorie surplus. However, there is a fine line of balance between gaining muscle and adding unnecessary fat. Adding 5lbs of fat to gain 0.5lb of muscle is just stupid. Fine tuning your nutrition and energy expenditure is paramount.

The Traditional Bulk/Cut Approach…

Back in the day when I first fell in love with the iron life, the idea of bulking up was considered essential when it came to building a more attractive and powerful physique.

Bulking phases could last anywhere from 6-12 months or specifically the time period between bodybuilding contests for those who were into that kind of thing.  A successful bulk often involved gorging down vast quantities of calories religiously every 2-3 hours, for some individuals, this even included waking up in the middle of the night to feed.

The idea was to flood the body with nutrients 24/7 in order to maximize total body mass and strength potential.

Where these nutrients came from was a different story. I came to learn there were two camps – the OCD bodybuilder and the all-round annoying stereotypical weekend warrior meathead. The OCD bodybuilder consumed the majority of his calories from healthful or ‘clean’ food sources – quality meats/fish, whole eggs, fruit, smart fats notably nuts, flaxseed oil, fish oil you name it, if it was good for you – eat plenty of it! A week of clean eating was usually rewarded with a cheat meal – which commonly attracted what can only be described as binge eating, some being worse than others.


On the other hand there was the good old weekend warriors who ate almost anything and everything: Pizza, candy bars, RTD protein shakes, protein bars, tinned tuna, baked beans, microwaved baked potatoes, s***t loads of peanut butter and surprisingly pots of baby food – which were believed to be the sole reason baby’s grow so fast. Talk about bringing an edge to your training…

TP07_StepsBaby1 copy

Wherever the calories came from didn’t matter – all calories were considered good. Talk about IIFYM – if it looked and tasted good you ate it!

Either way, both camps measured the success of their bulking campaign based on how much weight they could gain within a specific time period. It would be considered normal for gains of 2-3lbs per week, with some phases lasting up to 6 months or more, gains of 50lbs + were common. The sight of stretch marks (termed battle scars), increased belt and clothing size all provided verification things were going the right way especially when you backed this up with bigger numbers on the bar.


A period of calorie restriction and increased energy expenditure (cutting) ensued in an attempt to shed off the quilt of bloat and adipose tissue that accompanied the somewhat overly nourished muscle gains.

Initial weight drops of 6-10lbs are pretty normal once the diet was cleaned up.

Focus On Quality NOT Quantity

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that a good majority of these gains are body fat and water bloat. Even those who were genetically blessed and/or chemically assisted to their eyeballs would struggle to achieve such quality lean tissue gains (more on that later).

It is important to consider that not all body fat is created equal. There are different forms of fat within our bodies all of which serve unique purposes well beyond the scope of this article. Being obsessed with all things health and performance I want to focus on one particular type of fat, one that causes major problems on both males and females – visceral fat, the fat that fills and circulates one’s abdominal cavity.

Visceral fat is an on demand 24/7 metabolic factory that produces inflammatory signals and abnormal cell to cell hormone signal molecules known as cytokines. Inflammation occurs for a reason and is beneficial to the survival of any living organism especially when it occurs in acute peaks and troughs. Problems start to arise when inflammation becomes chronically elevated (i.e. it doesn’t shut off)


The more visceral fat one possess the greater the level of inflammation one will experience. Inflammation can also be further exacerbated by lifestyle and environment.

Over time, chronic inflammation can prove detrimental to health by contributing to a host of conditions, such as; depression, poor cardiovascular health, joint problems and or abnormal insulin responses (diabetes/insulin resistance).  A key point to take away is inflammation breeds inflammation within the body – chronically, this is not good for health, body composition and performance – period!

Visceral fat also serves as a factory for estrogen production (in both sexes) the very same estrogen that promotes females characteristics in girls beginning at puberty such as a widening of the hips and growth of the breasts. The aromatase enzyme (within fat cells) is responsible for converting valuable muscle building testosterone into estrogen – hardly an ideal scenario for building a rock hard muscular physique. Surplus estrogen can contribute to an array of unsightly and unhealthy consequences including female fat distribution (man boobs/gyno) and accelerated cancer growth.

The list of other health conditions associated with excess visceral fat is long, but does include; dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and colon cancer. This is why waist circumference has proven to be a powerful indicator of such problems as well as mortality.

To summarise visceral fat is not just an unsightly deposit for excess calories but also fully functional endocrine gland much like your thyroid or pancreas that operates by its own set of rules against the health of the body. Its activity is dictated by the current level of fat one possesses.

Yet more reason to keep your waist in check during your next off season.

Another potential problem of gaining too much fat too soon is permanently increasing your body’s set point via the creation of new fat cells), which, subsequently makes it harder for you to get leaner when you diet back down. This process is called adipogenesis, and it occurs during periods of intense weight gain and calorie surplus.

There Is Always An Exception

I should note that, for very skinny folks or those looking for the most rapid rate of gain to reach their genetic limits, there is something to be said for the GFH philosophy. But, for most, I generally feel that the cons outweigh the pros. The only exception would be packing on weight to an underweight rugby player or someone who just needed to get big and strong fast and didn’t care about the excess fat gain (or actually needed it to be competitive).

Movie stars may also follow such an approach to ‘bulk’ up quickly for a particular role. Check out Christian Bale’s transition from one extreme to the next in two different movie roles.


Other than that I’d be unlikely to recommend this approach.

Lean Mass Gain – Is It possible?

The main theory behind lean mass gain is to pack on as much muscle as possible whilst staying as lean as possible. The proposed benefits allow you to remain in decent condition year round. This may prove useful for an individual making a living out of competing, photo shoots and guest appearances but for the average working man or woman it may not be feasible.

Meticulously obsessing over calories in an attempt to prevent adding a single gram of body fat to your frame will drive you crazy and may potentially promote binge eating disorder (once you crack). The main problem is too many individuals taking such an approach fail to provide themselves with sufficient nutrients/calories to grow at any meaningful rate. Quite often such individuals find themselves yoyoing between gaining and losing muscle. This is not an ideal scenario for those who need to make specific improvements in their appearance/performance within a set time frame.

The body needs the right training stimulus combined with the right building blocks (protein) and overall dietary energy (kcal) to train hard and grow.

I highly recommend keeping a close eye on your visual appearance to ascertain if that growth is quality or not. You could also make use of other assessments like skin folds, girths, and dexa scans to provide further reassurance your muscle gains are ‘clean’.

However, you must be prepared to accept that over time fat gain is inevitable.

The only exception to this is in assisted athletes/trainees due to improved nutrient repartitioning.

How Fast Can One Really Gain Muscle?

We are constantly bombarded with success stories based on short unrealistic time frames, whether it be a muscle mag, supplement, personal trainer or fellow gym comrade claiming you can pack on 24 pounds of lean muscle tissue in a mere 12 weeks. This is complete nonsense!

Before I go any further I want to make it clear there is a big difference between muscle tissue and lean body mass. Theoretically speaking muscle is what it is, whilst on the other hand lean body mass generalises anything in the body that is not strictly fat mass.  It mostly relates to water (which comprises 70% of muscle) and intracellular glycogen (stored carbohydrate). Other examples of lean body mass include bone, hair, organs and even fingernails.

It is possible to increase lean body mass more rapidly than muscle tissue. Take creatine for example, where do the majority of the gains come from? Lean mass gain – most notably intracellular water retention, which soon diminishes upon cessation of supplementation.  Mechanisms like this are used to tactfully market products supposedly capable of helping you gain X amounts of mass (making you think it’s entirely muscle) in no time. The reality is, gaining raw muscle is a slow and tedious process.

Provided a natural male trainee was doing everything by the book (nutrition, supplementation, rest, training) they would be lucky to gain at most a ½ pound of muscle every 2 weeks, which equates to 26lbs of muscle tissue over the course of a year. These kinds of gains would be around 50-60% less for your average female. Now, being realistic who on earth is going to be doing things by the book year round – take into account; injury, colds/infections, finance, family holidays and work /personal commitments.

You also need to take into account muscle gain isn’t quite as simple as this; plateaus arise and subsequently require specific changes to one’s training stimulus, nutritional requirements and need for rest.  Many people miss these plateaus by either ploughing on or bailing out and ending up backwards with their progress. This is where the watchful eye and assessment of an experienced coach can prove invaluable.

The main point to take away here is that true muscle gains are excruciatingly small compared to the vast expectations you hear people brag about in the gym or plugged by certain trainers on social media.

My Take On The Matter

  • You will gain fat when trying to add lean muscle mass. It is important fat gain is monitored and kept to a bare minimum.
  • A trainee should strive to be as lean as possible before deciding to pack on muscle mass. Not only does this prove healthier but it also allows looks better. Keeping body fat in check will allow you to see where the muscle is going and also whether or not your current approach is yielding too much body fat.
  • In relation to body composition males have no need to go over 14% body fat whilst females have no need to go over 18% body fat.
  • Once a trainee’s goal body fat has been reached, ideally over a prolonged period of successful mass gain, it would be wise to diet off some body fat In order to promote good health and a tidy looking physique.
  • Adding muscle mass will allow for increased food consumption and selection. Make the most of this in order to take advantage of the various tastes and nutrient properties such calorie dense foods can provide.
  • Assess overall calorie intake with current progress markers.
  • Appearance, skinfolds, body weight and performance will all highlight whether you’re going in the right or wrong direction.
  • Never over rely on junk food as the main source of your calories.
  • Prioritise foods that will boost brain power, reduce inflammation, improve bone health and support other key physiological purposes aside from providing energy to train.

So there you have, get a plan into action and go easy on the baby food.