Gaining muscle without gaining fat in the process is a difficult task. Proper nutrition and training is necessary so that all your hard work in the gym (and kitchen) equates to maximal lean muscle growth and minimal fat gain.
So, how do you get lean muscle?
Getting lean muscle is done by eating slightly more calories (mainly in the form of carbs and protein) than normal, training with both heavy and light weights, and doing progressively more sets and reps every week.
The types of exercises, sets and rep ranges, and workouts can vary based on your individual goals and abilities.
In this article, I’ll discuss how to get lean muscle and the specific DOs and DON’Ts of getting lean muscle below.
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Defining Lean Muscle Mass
Lean muscle is a term used to describe the process of gaining muscle without also gaining a ton of body fat in the process.
Muscle itself is a lean tissue, however many lifters find it difficult to not gain a ton of fat while also gaining muscle.
This often is due to less than optimal diet strategies during a lean muscle growth phase, as well as workout programs that may not be the best suited for lean muscle mass growth.
Let’s dive into 19 tips for getting lean muscle growth right now!
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19 Tips For Getting Lean Muscle
Muscle growth is a byproduct of proper training AND eating.
Therefore, we’re going to split these 19 tips into:
- 8 Diet Tips for Gaining Lean Muscle
- 11 Workout Tips for Gaining Lean Muscle
1. Track Your Macros to Optimize Body Composition
When looking to gain lean muscle mass, you need to be sure to know how many calories, protein, carbs, and fats you are eating. Whether your goal is to gain 15lbs or 5lbs, understanding the total amount of calories you eat and where those calories are coming from is key.
For people who find they gain muscle and fat, rather than minimizing fat gain in a muscle growth period, it’s important to key in on the individual macronutrients rather than just look at the overall total calories.
Once you know your macros, you can then start to fine tune your diet to help you gain as much lean muscle as possible and minimize fat gain.
To find your ideal macros, check out the following articles:
- What Should Your Calories & Macros Be When Bulking?
- Does If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) Work For Weight Loss?
2. Eat Slightly More Calories Than Usual to Gain Weight
It is not always necessary to eat more food to gain muscle, however in most cases it will be needed for individuals who are already on the leaner side. If you are someone who is already lean and is trying to gain muscle, aim to eat slightly more calories than you normally do on a daily basis.
Start by eating 300-500 calories more than your maintenance calories (the amount of calories you eat where you don’t gain or lose weight) per day, for a week or two.
The goal is to gain 0.5-1 pound per week. If you are not gaining weight at that rate, bump up your calories another 300-500 per day for another one or two weeks, and repeat this process.
If you are gaining weight faster than that weekly rate, cut back a little bit on the calories so that you don’t gain weight too fast, as that is the number one reason for fat gain during a muscle building phase. Remember, muscle can only grow so fast, unlike fat, which can grow very quickly.
If you are a beginner or someone who isn’t as lean when starting out, track your calories and weight gain/loss, as you can adjust as needed down the road. You may actually be able to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time until you become more lean.
3. Eat Enough Protein to Grow Lean Muscle
Protein is a building block of muscle. Not only does it help you build new muscle, it is important in hormone production and recovery. It is recommended that you eat 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Ideally, you should aim to eat 1 gram/pound a day, as this may be more accurate for people who train on a regular basis.
It’s important to point out that protein intake of roughly 1 gram per pound per day is recommended during muscle gain phases and fat loss periods.
Protein intake can play a big role in muscle growth and muscle retention, so be sure to prioritize protein in your diet.
4. Prioritize Carbs In Your Diet So You Can Train Hard and Recover
Just like protein is important in the muscle building process, so are carbohydrates.
Without carbohydrates in the diet, your muscles will not be able to perform as optimal during workouts, and you will often not be able to train as hard, as heavy, and as often as you could if you were properly fueling the body with carbohydrates.
The muscles preferred fuel source is glucose, which is a byproduct of carbohydrate breakdown.
While the body can use fats as energy, and even metabolize them for energy use during workouts, fat usage for muscle growth workouts is a less than optimal fuel source.
Research has shown that carbohydrates restricted diets that are higher in fat do not enhance athletic performance, and may actually be detrimental. The same study concluded that diets rich in carbohydrates have been shown repeatedly to increase muscle glycogen synthesis, muscle growth, and recovery between training sessions (1).
If you have a hard time eating enough, check out this article:
5. Supplement with Protein Powders and Creatine to Build Lean Muscle
Very few legal supplements have been shown repeatedly to produce significant enhancements in lean muscle growth, strength, recovery, and performance.
Supplementing with protein powder can help you consume enough protein in the diet (as discussed above) at times when it may be difficult to consume enough through foods.
Creatine, mostly studied in the form of creatine monohydrate powders, has been shown to increase maximal power output, sprint performance, and even help you lift a few more reps during a hard work set (2).
Aim to consume 5 grams a day of creatine monohydrate, and use protein powders as needed to meet your overall protein intake daily goals.
If you don’t want to supplement with creatine, then check out our huge list of 30 Natural Sources of Creatine.
6. Track Your Weight Gain During a Lean Muscle Diet
Tracking the rate at which you gain weight on the scale can offer you a snapshot into your lean muscle growth, and provide you valuable feedback on how to tweak your diet.
If you are gaining scale weight faster than that, it may suggest you are gaining good amounts of muscle as well as body fat, which is not ideal.
If you consistently track your rate of weight gain, and can stay within that weekly weight gain range, you will better be able to monitor your lean muscle growth rate and minimize excess fat gain during that training period.,
7. Integrate “Mini-Cutting Diet Phases” As Needed to Lose Fat
This may or may not be necessary, however it can be a very useful diet strategy if you are someone who is gaining muscle and fat quickly.
If after 6-8 weeks of consistently eating more calories and finding yourself with more muscle, but also more visible body fat, you can do a mini-cut, which is a planned fat loss focused diet to stop weight gain, and help the body burn a little more fat to then allow you to resume gaining more muscle.
As you gain body fat, the body becomes better at storing more and more body fat. A temporary, short term mini-cut can be a 3-6 week period where you halt fat gain and hopefully lose a few pounds of fat to then extend the bulk phase a little longer.
Note: This is a more advanced diet strategy, and is not recommended for beginners. This is mostly pertaining to intermediate and advanced lifters who are typically on the leaner side and often have issues gaining lean muscle (hardgainers).
8. Don’t Eat Everything in Sight, Or Else
Bingeing on food to gain lean muscle is a very common issue with beginners or misinformed lifters. While eating a ton of food will definitely help you gain muscle, it will also help you gain a ton of unwanted body weight (fat).
Your body can only gain muscle so fast, so gaining weight faster than the body’s physiological capacity to build muscle will result in increased fat gain.
Aim to gain weight slowly, to gain as lean muscle as you can while minimizing unnecessary fat gain.
We cover this in more detail in our article:
9. Perform Heavy Compound Exercises to Build Lean Muscle and Strength
When looking to build massive amounts of muscle, heavy compound exercises are a great place to start. Movements like squats, deadlifts, pullups, bench press, and overhead press are some of the staple movements for most muscle building and strength programs.
When you train compound exercises, you often are able to place your body under heavier loads, which can increase muscle growth, hormone production, and help you add muscle in a time efficient manner.
10. Use Machines and Isolation Exercises to Build More Muscle
In addition to performing compound exercises, machines and more isolated style training exercises are a great way to add more training volume and push a muscle to failure safely.
Machines and isolation exercises also allow you to train a muscle more directly, which may not be the case during heavier compound exercises.
For example, if you want bigger quadriceps and are already doing back squats, you could also add in leg press or hack squats to add more direct quadriceps training without adding too much volume or excessive stress to the lower back.
This is key for advanced lifters as recovery from heavy compound exercises can be more of an issue as lifters get stronger.
11. Don’t Rush Through Reps
Time under tension is a key factor when determining muscle growth from exercise. By performing slower repetitions, primarily during the eccentric phase, you can increase the muscle damage placed on a muscle, often with less loads, and produce the same if not even more muscle growth than heavy, faster reps.
One study found that leg extensions performed at 30% of max, using slow repetition speed (6 seconds up, and 6 seconds down) and done to compete muscle failure produced significantly greater muscle protein synthesis (growth) than the same weight done with fast reps (1 second up, 1 second down) (4).
Using a combination of heavier, moderate speed reps (1-2 seconds per phase), and lighter, slower speed reps could result in both muscle growth and strength increases for beginners, intermediate, and advanced lifters.
12. Lighter Weights and Higher Reps Can Build Muscle Too
Lifting weights builds muscles, with research showing that both heavy and light loads can build significant amounts of muscle if performed to failure.
One study found significant increases in lean muscle growth for both heavy and moderate load groups. The heavy load group trained in the 5-7 rep range, whereas the moderate load group trained in the 10-14 rep range, with all reps taken to near failure (5).
For best muscle building results, it is recommended to train in the 5-15 rep range. You can diversify your training as well by training a muscle a few times throughout the week in different rep ranges as well (5-10, 10-20, and even in some cases 15-25).
13. You Don’t Need to Add More Weight Every Week
Progressive overload is a term used to describe progressively overloading the muscle with more stress week to week to bring about physical adaptations.
When most lifters think of progressing week to week, they often think of adding weight to a movement, however this should not always be the case.
Instead of adding more weight to the movement, you can also do any of the following to increase muscle stress and produce growth. For best results, you can cycle through these as needed.
- Increase Repetitions: Perform a few more reps with the same weight for the same amount of sets as last week.
- Increase Sets: Perform the same weight for the same amount of reps, however perform one or two more sets than last week.
- Increase Range of Motion: Hopefully you are already training in the full range of motion, however if not, you can increase the range of motion (squat deeper for example) to increase the mechanical stress and distance travelled.
- Increase Time Under Tension: You can perform slower repetitions, as discussed above, with the same reps, sets, and weight as last week
Note: That you could also decrease rest periods, however this has not been shown to be an effective means to increasing muscle growth, and in some cases could impede your ability to train as hard as you could, which indirectly would be detrimental to your lean muscle growth goals.
14. Add A Few More Reps or Sets Per Week
Increasing training volume is one of the most effective ways to to build more muscle (6). Training volume can be calculated by multiplying the total number or reps performed by the total number of sets completed by the amount of weight lifted.
For example, if you perform 5 sets of 10 reps, with 20 lbs on a bicep curl, you perform 1,000lbs of loading on the biceps.
By simply performing one more set of 10 reps the following week, or adding 2 reps per set (12 reps instead of 10 reps), you increase your training volume from the previous week and can increase muscle growth.
By manipulating sets and reps (as well as loading, time under tension, and range of motion), you can continue to stress the muscle week after week and increase growth.
15. Train the Muscle in the Fullest Range of Motion
Training in the full range of motion (versus partial range of motion) has been shown to be more beneficial for muscle growth. In a meta analysis, it was found that full range of motion lower body training (deep squats vs half squats) was more beneficial at increasing muscle development (7).
Furthermore, training in the full range of motion has been shown to increase muscle mass at similar rates as heavy partial rep training, and often with less volume needed (8).
Increasing the range of motion is a great way to increase muscle growth, without needing to add more weight or extend the length of your workouts.
16. Train a Muscle to Failure or Very Near Failure
Training a muscle to failure is a key factor for muscle growth. Generally speaking, you want to perform a set to the point where you only perform 0-3 good repetitions left. Learning to push your muscles to the point of failure, without losing your form takes practice, however it is a critical aspect in muscle growth and is one of the more common reasons why people fail to make progress.
It is important to note however, that training to muscle failure promotes muscle hypertrophy in low load training but is not necessary in high load training (9).
17. Keep Some Light Cardio In Your Program
While cardio is not a necessary component of fat loss or muscle gain, it can be beneficial for some lifters looking to gain lean. Adding in light intensity cardio, such as incline walking or elliptical, could help you increase work capacity, improve recovery, and help increase blood flow for recovery purposes.
Curious what the best cardio routines are? Check out what 3 pro bodybuilders and muscle building legends recommend you do for cardio.
18. Don’t Skimp On You Rest Periods for Heavy Exercises
Resting between sets is key for building muscle, especially during heavier training and/or when training to failure.
Research has shown that short rest periods are no more effective than longer rest periods for increasing muscle growth with heavier loads. (10).
Furthermore, longer rest periods may enhance a lifter’s ability to train harder and perform more volume (sets, reps, and load) in a workout session.
The more volume you can train, and recover from, has been repeatedly shown to be a significant driver for muscle growth.
19. Lighter Exercises Can Be Done With Less Rest Between Sets
While longer rest periods have been shown to be effective for muscle building, shorter rest periods, especially when done with lighter movements and when done training to muscle failure, are a great way to sneak in more training volume in a workout.
By cutting rest periods shorter, you are able to create higher levels of muscle fatigue in less time.
Again, this is really useful when training with lighter loads, as muscle failure is the key, however with heavier loads, it is recommended to rest as long as needed to push as hard as you can and train as heavy as needed based on your program.
If you are out of breath and that becomes the reason you cannot perform enough reps to have muscle failure, you need to rest longer.
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The most important things to remember when looking to get lean muscle is to eat enough calories to fuel hard training and muscle growth, focus on protein and carb intake, and train properly using moderate and heavy loads done to failure or very close to failure.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
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