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 major predictors of muscle hypertrophy is total volume (defined as total “hard sets”, which are sets taken 3 reps or closer to failure) done in a given time frame. For this reason it is very important that you track your total workload 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, of course.
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 guess work and 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 Don’t Neglect Strength
If you don’t already know the benefits of training for strength, check out my article Why everyone should train for strength. To put it short, progressive overload comes in different forms, but the one tried and tested form of progressive overload is gaining strength and adding weight to the bar. While doing more volume will result in more hypertrophy, so will consistently adding weight to the bar. This is why beginners can make such rapid muscle building progress without having to constantly increase the total amount of sets (volume) they’re doing. There is only so much volume you can do before you can no longer recover from the work being done, and once you reach those limits you’ll need some other way to progressively overload and there is no better method than good old strength training and adding weight to the bar. When you gain strength, the loads that you can now use on your volume days become heavier, and thus the overall stimulus is stronger. This is a sure fire way to make sure that your body is constantly being pushed enough to adapt and elicit progress and will guarantee that your excess calories go to recovery and building muscle rather than fat stores.
#5 Allow Fluctuations In Caloric Intake
Just 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.