If you plan on going on a muscle building phase and you're afraid that you'll put on too much body fat, here are a few tips to help you build muscle while adding minimal body fat to your frame. As long as you focus on these five tips and make them a priority, you should have no issue with staying relatively lean while packing on muscle.
#1 Moderate Your Surplus.
Make sure your calorie surplus is very moderate and not excessive. As a natural lifter your ability to build muscle is very limited and is much slower than what most muscle magazines and so called "gurus" will have you believe, and any calories in excess of what is required to recover and synthesize new muscle will simply be stored as fat. There’s really no need to go any higher than 300-500 calories over maintenance and I’d even advise against most people going as high as 500. If you are female, then I would cut these figures in half. Again, any additional calories after your body is finished repairing muscle tissue will simply result in fat storage that you will have to lose later and the more fat you put on during your bulk, the longer it will take to lose later which will put you at an increased risk of losing that hard earned muscle.
Just because you increase your caloric intake does not mean that muscle growth will increase as well. If you are only capable of building 2 pounds of muscle per month, gaining 4 pounds in a month will not magically result in more than 2 pounds of muscle growth.
Another method of reducing your overall surplus would be to perform steady state cardio one to three times per week for 30-60 minutes at a time in order to increase your total daily caloric expenditure. This will allow you to continue eating more while also reducing your chances of putting on excess fat. I recommend steady state cardio over more intense cardio such as HIIT, because the goal of a bulk is to progress as much as possible in the weight room to elicit muscle growth, and high intensity cardio can be detrimental to this process due to being very taxing on the body.
#2 Progressively Overload
As you’ve probably already learned, progressively overloading your body by making your workouts harder over time is the key to making progress. When progressive overload ceases, so does progress in both strength and muscle. If you are not constantly forcing your body to adapt and become better and stronger, the excess calories that you are consuming have nowhere to go other than your fat stores. So while your diet is extremely important when it comes to bulking without gaining a ton of fat, so is training hard and intelligently. Aim to constantly increase your performance whether that be adding reps, sets, weight on the bar or some other variable. By doing this, you always have a reason for your excess calories to go towards repairing muscle tissue and recovering from your workouts rather than being stored as body fat because you didn't give your muscles enough stimulus.
This will require that you have a proper understanding of programming and training in general. If you are relatively new to strength training, I would highly advise against designing and following your own routine and to find a routine designed by someone who has a solid foundation of knowledge regarding strength training. There are plenty of free resources online, including this one, where you can acquire a solid understanding of how proper programming works as well as free routines.
The last thing you want to do is follow a bad program that has no proper progression system built in while you are bulking. This will result in spinning your wheels, making sub optimal progress and packing on a ton of body fat for no reason at all. You need a solid system of progression that will have you performing better and better, week after week, without recovery issues.
#3 Track Training Volume
One of the best ways to make sure that you do not pack on too much body fat during your bulk is to make sure that your training is optimal and that you're doing enough in the gym to facilitate optimal levels of muscle growth. One of the major predictors of muscle hypertrophy is how much volume (total sets) you're doing per week. For this reason it is very important that you track your total volume and make sure that you’re doing enough total work in order to facilitate as much muscle growth as possible, without exceeding your capacity to recover.
Each muscle group has what we call Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) and Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). In short, MEV would be the minimum amount of sets you could do in a given week and still make some progress, while MRV would be the maximum amount of volume you can do without causing recovery issues. The closer to your MRV you train, the more progress you will make, but exceeding this limit can actually cause you to stall and regress due to under recovery.
You want to train between your MEV and MRV while trying to stay closer to your MRV. These ranges are highly individual and also fluctuate within individuals, so staying in these ranges will require constant trial and error. I’d suggest starting out on the lower end of sets per week and then slowly doing more and more sets over the weeks, and once you feel as though you are having difficulty recovering between workouts, back off slightly and continue training in that range.
#4 Utilize Mini Cuts
One of the best ways to stave off body fat accumulation and allow yourself to continue bulking even longer is to periodically take a short break from bulking to focus on losing the body fat that you have accumulated. Unlike a traditional cut, a mini cut can be more aggressive, meaning you can use a more aggressive caloric deficit and lose more weight per week. This is because the duration of a mini cut should be no longer than 3-4 weeks so that you can quickly lose body fat and stop just before the negative side effects of having a large deficit kicks in.
There is no perfect time for when to start a mini cut during a bulk, as this is highly preferential and will be based on how happy you are with your current body fat levels. When you start to feel uncomfortable with your body fat levels, consider using a mini cut instead of stopping your bulk all together to go on a long, traditional cut. You may be surprised at how fast you drop body fat and can jump right back into a muscle gaining phase.
#5 Allow Fluctuations In Caloric IntakeJust because you may have heard that “the best surplus is x amount of calories over maintenance” doesn’t mean that you should stick to this amount religiously. Let’s face it, for many us our daily activity can vary a lot. Some days we may walk a lot and be very active, while others we may be at home and watching Netflix like a couch potato. On days where your activity is lower than average, it’s a good idea to slightly reduce your caloric intake to match the reduced activity. If you’re typically eating 500 calories over maintenance during a day where you’re very active, what do you think happens when you also eat 500 calories on a day where you’re very inactive? This can cause your surplus to actually become 600-700 calories rather than the 500 you aimed for, increasing your risk of unnecessary fat storage.