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How to gain muscle while staying lean

First, let’s get on the same page
Regardless of the plan you follow, how often you train, how many meals you eat and when you eat your carbs, make sure you’re doing the following:

1) weigh yourself daily under comparable conditions, record this and monitor the AVERAGE movement.

2) track your food intake and have both caloric and macro-nutrient goals, record your macro intake, observe relationships with weigh ins.

3) follow a progressive, periodised resistance training routine, keep a training log and add reps or weight on a weekly/monthly basis.

Now, no matter how bad your case of Fuckarounditis, you’ve covered your bases and you’ll make progress or at least know why you don’t.

The good thing about these rules – you can be paleo, vegan or Captain Pop Tart and still respect all three. However, without progression we are stagnant and without records we are blind. These rules are 90% of the battle, respect them accordingly.

Logical Fallacy
Many people associate muscle gain with being ‘fat’ or at least, ‘not lean’ and for the longest time, I was also of this opinion. In fact, for the majority of my training career, I’ve fluxed between periods of caloric surplus and deficit, usually of considerable magnitude – all in search of the lean AND muscular look that most seek. I was totally convinced that eventually, SOME DAY, I would reach homeostatic bliss, a point where I held significant muscle mass while being abs lean and the way to get there – bulk, cut, rinse and repeat.

As some of you may know, I’ve been working with a coach for the best part of a year now, two in fact. Eric Helms from 3DmuscleJourney and Bryce Lewis from The Strength Athlete. I can’t say enough good things about these guys. When I started working with them, I was in quite lean condition, and rather neurotic and specific with my diet. I’d worked hard to get lean and wanted to stay that way (left hand photo below). I was looking for a way to sustainably compete in powerlifting and primarily, reverse diet correctly.

So they slowly walked my calories back up and I ended the reverse phase of my diet on 230g protein, 500g carbs and 70g fat – around 3,500kcal. More importantly – I could still see my abs.

Erm….sorry….Eric, Bryce…..Are you wizards?

They held me here for a week or two before honing in my macros and dropping 25g carbs. I’d responded to the 500g carbs daily by holding a bit of water and my weight was over 91kg and counting, the 25g drop checked this increase and my weight dropped back down to 88-89kg and held stable…..thats right….STABLE.

At this point, I was confused. Wasn’t I in a mass gain phase? Shouldn’t I be GAINING weight rather than maintaining. Eric explained in  recent interview he did:

“Training is the actual stimulus while nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth. What do I mean by permissive? I mean that nutrition can permit the growth of muscle tissue but it is not the root cause. That is the function of training. “Eating to grow” is a misnomer. All you can do is eat to provide the ideal environment to permit growth. You can train to grow, but you cannot truly eat to grow.”

To quote Fight Club, “We have just lost cabin pressure…..”

To most, this is sheer Heresy – you mean you DON’T just eat loads to gain muscle? I saw the logic in Eric’s argument and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. The crux here is this:

Everyone wants to be muscular and lean. Pursuing these things concurrently is impossible unless under specific circumstances (think: new to training, coming back after a long lay off, drug use or you’re ACTUALLY THOR in which case I have no idea why you’re reading this…)

What we can do is set calories in such that we stay lean while allowing progressive loading to do its work and create growth. The key is to accept a snail’s pace of muscle growth, (years and decades to make change) and accept that overeating will just cause fat gain and perpuate the bulk-cut cycle.

What we need to do this: get lean and then gain muscle while staying lean

Enter the reverse diet:

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*GAINING MUSCLE WHILE STAYING LEAN*⠀ ⠀ These are the results of Jonny and Yusef's 'reverse diet', which involved slow, systematic increases in calories over the 9 months post-diet. ⠀ ⠀ While lighting isn't comparable, we both maintained the majority of condition while increasing our lifts and bodyweight. It CAN be done without going crazy on the bulking and gaining large amounts of unnecessary fat.⠀ ⠀ That's NOT to say it was easy. The reverse diet is psychologically harder than a regular diet in many respects. The horse is pulling at the reigns and you've got to let it go slowly to avoid overeating. Your appetite is that of your fat-self on cocaine. ⠀ ⠀ For full details, read this:

A post shared by Jonny & Yusef (@propanefitness) on

What do these photos show?
I want to be clear with what I’m trying to illustrate with these comparison pictures:

On the left, I’m 85-86kg, near to the leanest I’ve been. My lifts were 135kg Bench, 250kg Deadlift and 200-205kg squat

On the right, 40 weeks later, I’m 89-90kg, still with visible abs and obliques. My lifts are 155kg Bench, 270kg Deadlift and 232.5kg Squat.

A gain of 3-5kg bodyweight and 67kg added to my powerlifting total. Below is Yusef’s progress over a similar timeframe.

I’ve gained this weight in a very slow and controlled manner and my calories, after about 13-14 weeks of adjustments, have remained at 3,400-3,500kcal. The crucial point is that the diet facilitated what the training caused. Eric and Bryce ramped my calories up to where my weight was increasing by the smallest amount and held it steady.

I’m NOT saying that I’ve stayed shredded while gaining muscle – I’ve gained some fat as is visible but I have however remained abs lean. What I am illustrating is that even while spending 3/4 of a year in a caloric surplus I have managed to make significant gains while remaining relatively lean.

What they contrast against is both my own previous attempts (and most others attempts) at mass gain. Previously I’d spend 10-12 weeks in an intense surplus, drowning in hedonic glory, I’d gain a tonne of fat, become disheartened and start another cut – spinning my wheels. While in the above I’ve obviously not gained a load of muscle, I’d only have expected 1-2lbs of pure muscle gain in the time given my training age and I think I’ve achieved this while staying lean enough to feel content with my level of leanness.

More importantly, they show the power of getting lean first and then reverse dieting correctly in order to maximise metabolic potential and retain leanness while gaining weight and strength.

I’ve compiled a list of rules, and a process, to help guide you through a similar journey. But first, a caveat and disclaimer:

For the above, I had two coaches monitor everything, they added calories to my diet in accordance with changes in my weight and in order to be fully successful with this process, having someone tailor the adjustments to you is very important.

How to reverse diet
1) Get lean first
You can’t expect to stay lean if you’re not there already. My advice would be to diet from your current condition until the first of either:

1) you get as lean as you would like
2) dieting becomes incredibly unpleasant and/or difficult.

Unless you’re a competing physique athlete, this will be lean enough for your needs, sustainable and also much leaner than 95% of society.
Use Yusef’s guidelines, diet slowly with the view of maintaining gym performance and retaining as much muscle as possible

The below will assume you follow a framework of basic calorie and carb cycling:
2 examples
6 “low days” per week where carbs decrease and create a lower caloric load
1 “high day” higher carbs and perhaps lower fat on one day per week

4-5 “medium-low” days where carbs are slightly lower
2-3 “medium-high” days where carbs are slightly higher

The exact amounts/pattern you follow is individual. But lets assume you have between 4-6 days of the week with lower carbs/calories and 2-3 days per week with higher carbs and calories during your cut.

2) The importance of reverse dieting and how to do it

Hold on, hold on – WTF is a REVERSE diet?!
Put simply, a reverse diet is the gradual, systematic addition of calories on a weekly/monthly basis in order to both maximise metabolic function and limit fat gain in the post-cut window.

Here’s Eric (one of my coaches) discussing how to reverse:

Once you finish your cut, you need to add calories back into your diet in a controlled and planned manner. The worst mistake at this point is to increase calories drastically, , excess calories will likely be preferentially stored as fat.

Take your caloric intake at the end of your cut and add 25-50g carbs in week 1 of your reverse and fat back to 20-25% of calories if its lower than this. If you’re like most people, this will result in a bit of a tailspin in terms of weigh ins and you’ll start to see your weight fluctuate for a week, maybe two. This gets you out of the depths of the deficit and back to a reasonably sensible intake.

You next need to decide how much weight you plan/want to gain. Alan Aragon provides a good framework here:

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 09.59.57

So, for arguments sake, lets define these as
Beginner: < 1 year consistent hard training
Intermediate: 3-5 years consistent hard training
Advanced: > 5 years consistent hard training

Using my experience as an example:
I was 86kg after the cut
I’m “advanced”
0.2-0.4kg per month = around 0.6lbs per month or 0.2lbs per week
40 weeks * 0.2 = 8lbs = 3.7kg
I have gained 3.7kg exactly (89.5-85.8kg)

I’ll ask again, Bryce and Eric, please tell me, ARE YOU BOTH WIZARDS?!?!

Put simply, once you’ve set an expectation for the amount of weight you reasonably expect to gain in a period of time (year/month/week) then you can determine your own matrix of when to change carbs/calories

Average weight increases by less than desired amount: 5-25g carbs
Average weight increases by desired amount: no change
Average weight increases by more than desired amount for 2 consecutive weeks – deduct 5-25g carbs

You’d then make the changes as per the above matrix to the low days until all low days = high day(s)

Its worth saying that reverse dieting is VERY hard. Its harder than any cut you’ll ever do and you’ll likely struggle with consistency no matter how dedicated you are. The best advice here is to hire someone to take care of this process for you, mainly for your own sanity and peace of mind. Even if you make every macro adjustment at the correct time and magnitude you’ll be lean, stressed and second guess every decision you make. Removing this and allowing someone to objectively adjust your calories is a powerful tool here.

3) Knowing what to expect and the power of metacognition
Even if you’re a very level headed person who is emotionally disconnected from your physical appearance, this will be a tough period of time emotionally. You’ve spent the past few months watching yourself getting leaner, experiencing discomfort and difficulty but justifying it every time you notice a new area of definition or a visual improvement.

Now, the difficulty, , possibly increase, but now you’re going to watch yourself get slowly less lean.

But all is not lost.

This is a process that just requires you to dig in and stay your ground. Eventually some definition will return, the clouds will clear and your abs will return.

What will happen:
– strange and unexpected swings in weight

– the insatiable desire to over-eat
– you’ll doubt the process, become convinced you’re gaining fat, want to drop calories

I find a good mindset to be in for this is to almost EXPECT that you will deviate on occasion. EXPECT that no matter how dedicated you are, you may cave here and there. When this happens, don’t make crazy macro adjustments in the days after, just get back on the planned macros and stick with them. Worst case – you gain an unwanted pound or two but chances are, you’ll be able to put the thoughts of overeating out of your mind for a while.

4) Light at the end of the tunnel
The reward for sticking to your guns is that you maximise you metabolic position, setting yourself up for a very comfortable period of gaining. You will arrive at a calorie load that is as high as is possible, permitting muscle and strength gain, while retaining some semblance of leanness.

Personally, I actually had a potent realisation as a result of the 40 weeks I’ve so far spent with Eric and Bryce. Simply put, I’m not as bothered as I once thought about being super lean and in actual fact, as long as I have some level of definition, I’m happy. What’s more NO ONE else notices. Whether you’re 3%, 8% or 12% you look the same to most people. Sure, you’ll be able to tell but you have to really consider why that matters

I actually feel more self confident in my current condition, I have an ab outline while looking much fuller. What’s more, I feel like a Juggernaught in the gym

Come at me Bro...
Come at me Bro…

5) Striking a balance and getting comfy
As a result of digging deep in the reverse diet I now feel a lot more “balanced” with my approach and find hitting my macros effortless.

I eat out usually once or twice per week and factor it into my macros sensibly.
I drink alcohol at least one evening per week, again accounting for it.
I don’t avoid or restrict any foods.
I don’t time my meals, worry about macro timing or advanced peri-workout nutrition – I eat when I’m hungry or when its convenient
I’m adding KGs to my total on a weekly and monthly basis

I know Both Bryce and Eric have commented that I seem a lot more relaxed with my approach now and I can feel it, I’m aware of an actual mental shift, a re-gearing of the importance of leanness in my mind and what I truly value from this pursuit.

I couldn’t recommend this process enough and I feel I’ve learned more about myself both physically and psychologically over the last 40 weeks than I have in all my years of training.

The biggest take home of this experience for me is this:
When you’re lean, I’m talking very low levels of body fat, you’re in a very strange place mentally. You’re convinced that you always need to be that lean (or leaner), that its almost part of who you are and the thought of adding calories can seem like a somewhat daunting prospect when you know how much work you put in to get to that condition.

I know from myself, clients and close friends that dieting or just being very lean is a stress in itself – it creates a unique neurosis that I think a good proportion of the fitness industry is caught up in.

I think it can boil down to:
Most people are on a quest to be and stay as lean as possible.
In actual fact, I think we should seek to be as lean as needed….not leaner

What do I mean by this?

Well, unless you’re a physique competitior or bodybuilder, when was the last time someone truly analysed how lean you are? I’d pose that its actually NEVER happened without a prompt. A faint ab outline and a good frame is all you need to stand out – if thats your goal. And if like me you do it for a strength sport, you’ll feel and perform a lot better when your calories are higher and weight is increasing very slowly.

I think that staying lean while pursuing muscle and strength gain is the epitome of progress in this game – the true definition of what it is to be a better version of yourself, no longer relying on short term bursts of bulk and cut.

I hope my experiences over the past few months can help shed some light on what it means to reverse diet and how powerful it can be as a tool to in changing both your physique and mindset.

Once again, Thanks to Eric and Bryce for the fantastic coaching through the process

Eric and I got to meet Yusef last weekend, great guy
Eric and I got to meet Yusef from PropaneFitness last weekend, great guy

4 replies on “How to gain muscle while staying lean”

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Great article and a lot of very thoughtful comments included… I was nearly forced to do “reverse dieting” when I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, low free T3, and generally feeling like an emotional piece of crap back in the beginning of 2013. Doc requested I go from 1600/day (50-70g carbs) to about 2000/day (100-150g carbs). I sheepishly agreed because I knew I should, but in my mind I was thinking, “whaaaa, bitch you crazy!” It wasn’t a perfect scenario because I didn’t have much guidance, I just slowly ramped things up and stopped being neurotic about “not eating carbs” and “not going over my caloric limit for the day.” As soon as I was eating around 1900/day, I was hitting PRs like nobody’s business and I felt like a machine (oh, and I was still around 118lbs.) Unfortunately though, I realized there is a point of diminishing returns (I thought you could just keep increasing calories indefinitely and become superwoman. Nooot quite.) In the process, I ranged from 125-130. Now I’m at around 121 lbs, a little ab definition but certainly more “filled out” (in all the right places!) like you mentioned. I basically look less like a thin 16 year old girl and more like a strong woman, now maintaining at 1900-2000/day. When I was sitting around 17% BF, I feel like I ate just the minimum to feel satisfied. Worse, the less I ate, the less I wanted to eat. Now, at around 19% BF, I know making sure I eat enough is one of the best things I can do for myself! Thanks again for the good read, :-)

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