Man With Dumbbell

How To Build Lean Muscle

If you ever tried building muscle, you probably know that it’s not an easy thing to do, especially as a natural lifter. However, simply knowing how to build lean muscle isn’t enough since it also requires discipline and attention to detail.

It’s common that people hardly change in the amount of muscle mass they have, from the day they started working out to this moment. It’s not surprising why it happens, especially if you look at all the misconceptions out there about the process of building lean muscle.

However, there is no reason to be frustrated about building muscle. If you follow the right workout and a lean bulk diet principles, you should not have any difficulties adding lean muscle mass continuously.

This article will teach you the most important workout and diet fundamentals of how to build muscle and stay lean. Additionally, the article gives out actionable tips and answers frequently asked questions about gaining muscle.

How to Build Muscle

The reason why some people struggle to increase their muscle mass is because of not following the fundamentals of a proper diet and workout routine. Instead, they follow a diet and workout plan of some famous bodybuilder, movie star, or the one that is currently trending.

Perhaps, such protocols could work for some people, and especially for beginners, but not for most people who want real results.

In short, here’s what is necessary to gain lean muscle:

  • Have sufficient daily calorie intake
  • Eat a high-carb, whole, minimally-processed diet with enough protein
  • Do mostly compound exercises with free weight
  • Aim to add weight to the bar and get stronger
  • Train each body part at least 2 times a week
  • Allow your muscles to recover and adapt

If you are already overweight, however, it’s best to lose some fat first, before looking to build lean muscle. Thus, knowing how to lose fat without losing muscle might be useful for you.

Keep reading to better learn the fundamentals of diet and workouts to ensure that you build lean muscle consistently.

How Long Does It Take to Build Muscle

At first, it’s crucial to be aware of the amount of muscle you can gain and how long does it take to build muscle.

CategoryRate of Muscle Gain (Men)Rate of Muscle Gain (Women)
Beginner (1 year of training)1 – 1.5% of total body weight/month0.5 – 0.75% of total body weight/month
Intermediate (2 – 3 years of training)0.5 – 1% of total body weight/month0.25 – 0.5% of total body weight/month
Advanced (>3 years of training)0.25 – 0.5% of total body weight/month0.125 – 0.25% of total body weight/month

The chart shows the maximal rate of muscle gain for both men and women, where on average women can gain about half of what men can gain, in the same time period.

How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Month

Putting the above values altogether, muscle gain per month would be:

  • Beginner – 1.5 lb/month (0.68 kg/month)
  • Intermediate – 1 lb/month (0.45 kg/month)
  • Advanced – 0.5 lb/month (0.23 kg/month)

For women, muscle gain per month would be 1/2 of those values above.

How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Year

Muscle gain in a year, however, for beginner, intermediate, advanced lifters would be:

  • Beginner – 18 lb/year (8.16 kg/month)
  • Intermediate – 12 lb/year (5.44 kg/month)
  • Advanced – 6 lb/year (2.72 kg/month)

Again, for women, muscle gain in a year would be 1/2 of those values above.

Be aware that the results above are based on the maximum rate of muscle gain. Your personal rate of muscle growth might not be as high, as it depends on various aspects – workouts, diet, sleep, stress level, rate of recovery, response to stimulus and your genetics. Therefore, you should take the presented rates with a grain of salt. Furthermore, you should know that some fat gain while building muscle is inevitable. However, this guide teaches how to keep it at the minimum.

Lean Muscle Gain Diet Fundamentals

A proper diet is one of the most important elements of building lean muscle mass. If you eat too little or don’t have sufficient amounts of specific macronutrients – you will have a hard time putting on any muscle. On the other side, if you eat too much of everything – you will probably some build muscle, as well as a lot of fat.

Therefore, consider the following fundamentals when making a meal plan for building lean muscle.

1. Have an appropriate calorie intake

By now, you probably know that the body spends a certain number of calories daily. Thus, if eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight. On the other hand, if you consume more calories than that calorie surplus can be stored as fat or used to build muscle.

There are many opinions about how many calories you need to build lean muscle – small, moderate or UNLIMITED calorie surplus. The truth is that to build lean muscle it’s best to have a small to moderate calorie surplus, which can also be referred to as the “lean bulk”. Contrary, if you do the “dirty bulk” and eat as much food as you want, then there is a high likelihood of you getting too fat.

Dirty Bulk Versus Lean Bulk

Some say that it’s best to do a dirty bulk, gain muscle and fat, and lose fat afterwards. However, for natural lifters, it’s challenging to lose fat while retaining muscle. Thus, it’s more common that people end up having the same or even smaller amount of muscle mass after a dirty bulk and a fat loss phase.

That being said, the advised calorie surplus to gain lean muscle is between 75 – 125 kcal above your maintenance calories or total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Of course, the exact amount depends on the individuals training experience, age and many other aspects, but it’s a rough estimate you could follow.

However, if you are very new to weight training and want to get muscular and get big muscles, it’s okay to have a higher calorie surplus. Beginners, especially the ones with a skinny body, can have a calorie surplus of about 200 – 400 calories and not be afraid about getting fat.

Development of Calorie Surplus for Lean Muscle Growth

2. Optimize Macros for Building Muscle

Next, you will need to calculate your lean bulking macros.

To find out how much protein you need to build lean muscle, simply take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 0.8 – 1. If you weigh yourself in kilograms then multiply your body weight by 1.8 – 2.2, that’s how many grams of protein you should eat daily.

For example, for a 150 lb (68 kg) individual it would be somewhere between 120 – 150 grams of protein. You may notice that the required amount of protein is smaller when building muscle in comparison to when you want to lose fat. It’s mainly because the body is less inclined to use protein as an energy source when being at a calorie surplus, as opposed to when dieting.

Thereafter, the rest of your calories can come from carbs and fats, it’s up to you. Just make sure that you consume the required amount of fats every day of 15 – 30%. It’s also a good idea to have a relatively high-carb diet since it helps you grow more muscle and improves performance in the gym.

However, at the end of the day, the ratio between carbs and fats depends on your preference and can be interchangeable. It doesn’t matter what exact macro ratio you decide to follow as long as are in a calorie surplus and eat enough protein.

Different Macronutrient Ratios for Lean Building Muscle Mass

3. Eat a Whole, Minimally Processed Diet

By now, you probably know that it’s possible to lose fat and build lean muscle eating just junk food. Although, it’s not something I would advise if you want to truly maximize your results and feel good throughout the process.

That being said, you also understand that there are no “best muscle building foods” that will guarantee you lean gains. A proper diet for building muscle includes a variety of whole, minimally processed foods.

Furthermore, it’s okay to include little amounts of “unhealthy foods”. It makes the diet more enjoyable and helps you consume the required number of calories easier if that’s something you struggle with.

Therefore, your muscle building diet plan should mostly consist of foods like:

  • Lean meat and fish
  • Eggs and dairy
  • Potatoes, legumes and various grains
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Natural nut butter, healthy oils, various nuts and seeds

Feel free to check out my healthy food sources list to see more food choices.

Lean Muscle Gain Workout Fundamentals

Eating properly on its own can be enough if you just want to lose weight and don’t care about preserving or building muscle mass. Nonetheless, to gain lean muscle, proper weight training workout routine is a must.

Therefore, consider the following fundamentals of muscle building workouts.

1. Do Compound Exercises With Free Weight

If your goal is to build muscle and do it efficiently, you want to do compound exercises with free weights for the majority of your workouts. So, you want to do exercises like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench presses and rows using barbells and dumbbells. Such exercises stimulate various muscle groups while performing the movements, giving you the most value for the time spent in the gym.

2. Focus on Getting Stronger

To have big muscles, you have to be strong, if you don’t have muscles then you simply must get stronger. You see, when you lift heavier weights, your body becomes stronger, and as a result, your muscles grow bigger. Muscle size increases so that you could lift those heavier weights next time you workout. This is why there’s a saying – “strength is size”, which especially applies for natural lifters.

The best way to build muscle and get stronger is simply adding more weight to the bar when performing the exercises. Therefore, you have to consistently focus on lifting heavier weights over time, which is the type of “progressive overload”. If you aren’t lifting more weight currently than a month or a year before, then you’re probably not building new muscle tissue.

Strength Is Size - the More Weight You Are Able to Lift the More Muscle You Will Have

Research shows that in the first 3 – 5 weeks of weight training you can get stronger week to week, but your muscles probably won’t get that much bigger. However, after those initial weeks of gaining strength your muscles will adapt and from then on you will have noticeable muscle size gains.

3. Train Each Body Part at Least 2 Times a Week

When you’re new to weight training, it’s probably best to do something like a beginner full-body program, when you train your entire body 2 – 3 times per week. When you become more advanced, however, you can split your whole body training in multiple days and increase your training frequency. You can also train each body part for more than 2 times per week – up to 5 or 6. That way you will be able to do more total work (more reps, sets and weight) for a specific muscle group.

Both, increased training frequency, as well as doing more reps, sets and weight is also the type of progressive overload – an essential part of muscle growth.

You can think of it this way – the more you train a muscle group, the more you stimulate it to grow. The more times you do a specific exercise, your technique improves, the better you get at it, and you can perform it with heavier weights.

Development of the Workout Splits

More Tips on Building Lean Muscle

By following the diet and workout fundamentals above, you would create suitable conditions for your body to build lean muscle effectively. However, there are always additional things you could do…

Therefore, I decided to give out 6 extra tips that could help you build every ounce of lean muscle you possibly can.

1. Track Your Daily Calorie Intake

Record your calorie intake to ensure that you eat enough allowing your body to gain lean muscle mass effectively. Additionally, calorie tracking can show you if you eat too much, which can lead to gaining not just muscle but also body fat. I suggest using an app like MyFitnessPal to make calorie tracking easier.

2. Have a Plan and Track Your Progress in the Gym

It’s important that you have a proper workout program in the first place. Your workout plan should tell you what kind of exercises, for how many sets, repetitions and with what weight you should do on a specific training day.

Thus, keep track of your strength training workouts – record all the sets, reps that you did and what weight you used. All of this can help you ensure that the rule of progressive overload is present in your training.

Simply look back at what you have done in the last workout sessions and try to beat those numbers. By performing more sets, reps or doing the movement with a heavier weight you progressively overload your muscles, stimulating them to grow bigger. Therefore, you must do more total work, month-to-month, year-to-year – tracking your progress in a workout log helps you do exactly that.

Example of a Workout Log

ExerciseSetsRepsWeightSet 1Set 2Set 3Set 4
Bench Press410 -1280 Kg11121210

3. Avoid Excessive Amounts of Cardio

To build lean muscle mass effectively you should also be aware of cardio exercise. As well as the pros and cons that come with such type of exercise.

It’s evident that cardio has multiple health benefits like:

It can also increase your total work capacity, that could help you perform more work in the gym. Therefore, it’s something you shouldn’t totally avoid when building lean muscle.

However, doing intense cardio too frequently can lead to overtraining which can negatively affect your strength and muscle size gains. Thus, limit yourself in doing more than 2 hours of vigorous cardio if you want to maximize lean muscle growth.

4. Prioritize Sleeping

As you could imagine sleep also plays an important role in performance and recovery. If you restrict yourself from sleeping a sufficient number of hours you have a risk of having lower testosterone levels. As well as losing lean muscle mass and gaining fat. Therefore, ensure that you sleep 7 – 9 hours every day to have the best chance of building lean muscle mass.

5. Pay Attention to Your Recovery

It’s also very important to pay attention to how sore your muscles are after your workouts. Most of the time you want to feel a slight soreness, the next day after your workout.

However, if you are very sore the next day after your workout – you are probably doing too much. Therefore, you should decrease the amount of total work you do and let your body recover properly and adapt.

Illustration of Positive Training Adaptation

You see, during the training session muscle fibres break down, after which they have to recover. Then muscles adapt and grow bigger to be able to handle better next time. If you don’t allow your muscles to recover and adapt, you limit yourself in building more muscle mass.

6. Have Realistic Expectations and Be Consistent

At the end of the day, to build lean muscle mass continuously you have to set realistic goals, stay consistent with the diet and workouts. Hence the first section of this article is about the time it takes to build muscle.

When it comes to staying consistent, it’s best to stop focusing on the end goal. Instead aim to improve every time you step into the gym. Be aware that you can’t gain lean muscle faster than it is – 18 pound in a year at best. However, if you stay consistent, eventually, you will get to the point when you feel satisfied with the amount of muscle you have.

Frequently Asked Questions About Building Muscle

How Do You Get Lean Muscle?

If you have significant muscle and fat mass, then to get lean muscle you need to know how to lose fat without losing muscle and simply lower your body fat level.
However, if you want to build lean muscle, you should:
– Be in a small calorie surplus
– Consume enough protein
– Do strength training workouts
– Focus on getting stronger in the gym

How Much Should I Eat to Build Lean Muscle?

To build lean muscle mass and avoid putting on body fat you should eat in a small calorie surplus. Beginners could have a 200 – 400 calorie surplus while more advanced lifters should be in a surplus of 75 – 125 calorie surplus every day. Such calorie intake could provide the body with all the extra energy it needs to build lean muscle while minimizing fat gain.

Can I Gain Muscle in a Calorie Deficit?

Even in a calorie deficit you can gain muscle if you do heavy weight lifting and eat enough protein daily. In fact, it’s very common for beginner lifters who have not done strength training workouts before. However, to build muscle mass effectively a calorie surplus is advised, while calorie deficit is a must for weight loss.

What Should I Eat to Build Lean Muscle?

Top 15 healthy food sources, packed with protein for building lean muscle mass are:
1. Lean steak
2. Lean ground beef
3. Lean ground turkey
4. Chicken breast
5. Salmon fillet
6. Shellfish
7. Eggs
8. Egg Whites
9. Milk
10. Greek Yogurt
11. Cottage Cheese
12. Protein Powder
13. Quorn
14. Tofu
15. Tempeh

What Exercises Build Lean Muscle?

The best exercises to build lean muscle mass are compound exercises like:
– Squats
– Deadlifts
– Bench Presses
– Overhead Presses
– Rows

What Supplements Do I Need to Build Lean Muscle?

Supplements that could help you build lean muscle are:
Protein Powder: can help you consume enough protein daily
Creatine: can help you gain strength and increase muscle mass
Weight Gainers: can help you consume more calories, more easily
Beta-Alanine: can help you reduce fatigue and improve exercise performance

Key Takeaways of Building Lean Muscle

Here’s what you have to pay attention the most when building lean muscle mass.

Diet Fundamentals:

  1. Have a small calorie surplus (100 – 400 calories surplus)
  2. Eat enough protein, while fats and carbs can be interchangeable
  3. Have the majority of your diet consists of whole, minimally processed foods

Workout Fundamentals:

  1. Perform compound exercises for the majority of your workouts
  2. Aim to get stronger on the main compound exercises
  3. Train each body part 2 – 3 times a week

Extra Tips:

  • Monitor Your Daily Calorie Intake to be sure you’re eating appropriately
  • Have a Workout Plan and Record Your Progress
  • Don’t do too much Cardio
  • Sleep 7 – 9 hours every day
  • Ensure that you’re recovering well from your workouts
  • Get Real and Be Consistent

Follow the steps and tips above, and you will see your body gaining lean muscle effectively!

Contact me if you have more questions about how to build lean muscle or any other fitness topic!

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