How to build lean muscle and a lean body (and why your definition of lean matters)

Personal trainer spotting female client

I could have made the title really fancy and thought-provoking but I decided to keep it simple and straight to the point. This post is all about how to gain lean muscle. Please take notice that I did not say “this post is all about how to gain weight.” That equation is pretty simple.

Eat more calories than you need + play a game of freeze tag with yourself (aka don’t move ever) = weight gain.

Today, we’re talking about how to build lean muscle so you can have a strong and healthy body without carrying extra body fat. And we’ll do it in a healthy way.

  • with the right foods and calories
  • the best exercises
  • proper rest.

Ok, let’s get on with it

What is lean muscle?

All muscle is lean muscle, meaning muscle does not contain fat. Although, intermuscular fat can be found between muscle groups and within the muscle. 

I know, a little confusing. But you know when you buy a fattier cut of steak at the grocery store, and it has that marble look to it? That is what intermuscular fat is. It’s not actually a part of the muscle, but in between or beneath the fascia of a muscle. 

fat types on steak
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Lean muscle is often confused with lean body mass, which is the combined weight of your muscle, bone, tendons, ligaments, internal organs, and any fat found around those organs.

What are the benefits of lean muscle?

Well, to keep this section short so you can move on to the “just tell me how to do it” sections.

  • Injury prevention to ligaments and tendons
  • Better posture (core and low back strength)
  • More efficient metabolism (1)
  • Increased bone density (2)(3) 
  • Help with issues as we age (fatigue, weight gain, etc…) (4)

And I guess, general look good nakedness. Not to mention the psychological and emotional benefits it seems to have on confidence and well-being.

What is a lean body type?

This is subjective and may mean different things to different people. It’s in your best interest to define what a lean body is for you.

  • What does a lean body type look like to you?
  • What can you do with a lean body type?

Generally speaking, we can probably agree that it’s a body with low levels of body fat, not too bulky, and not too frail. Maybe it looks like Chris Evans or Allison Stokke.

lean muscle examples

Again, there’s no universal definition of what a lean body is, and it doesn’t really matter. If your goal is to build a lean body that you’re proud of, create a clear definition of what that is for you and forget what anyone else is saying.

How do you build lean muscle?

Keep in mind that you already have lean muscle. So a better question might be how do I increase my lean muscle or lose enough fat to see more of my lean muscle?

It really comes down to getting good at the basics and repeating them consistently over an extended period of time. I know, such a boring answer but there are too many “hacks” on the internet making a simple process far too confusing for most people

So what are the basics of building lean muscle or losing enough fat to see the lean muscle you already have?

  • To build muscle you need to be in a caloric surplus. Eating more calorie than your body needs
  • To lose fat you need to be in a calorie deficit. Eating fewer calories than your body needs
  • Eating enough protein to help build and repair the lean muscle you break down when resistance training (5)(6)(7)(8)
  • Resistance training with progressive overload to let your body know that it needs more lean muscle
  • Enough sleep and rest to allow your body to recover and repair
  • Managing stress 

I know what you’re thinking. So to build lean muscle I need to eat more calories. But to lose fat so I can see more lean muscle I need to eat fewer calories?

Um, this makes no sense Justin.

And you’d be right. A real catch-22 isn’t it.

So can I build lean muscle and lose fat at the same time?

Short answer, yes it is possible and I’ve worked with thousands of clients who have done it. 

Those most likely to both build muscle and lose fat are overweight beginners to exercise. Someone that has taken a long break from consistent exercise. Someone doing illegal drugs to help enhance performance. Or a person with fantastic genetics. 

For the rest of us, it’s in our best interest to choose one goal over the other. Either focus on losing body fat first, or building muscle.

Because most of the clients I coach want to lose some amount of fat so they can see more lean muscle. The rest of the article will cover a general outline of how lean muscle is built as you lose enough body fat to see it.

How much should I eat for lean muscle gain?

To build lean muscle there are two important factors.

  • Eating in a calorie surplus (more than your body needs to maintain it’s weight)
  • Consuming enough protein to help with recovery, repair, and lean muscle growth

An easy way to get a rough estimate of how many calories you need per day to maintain your weight can be done by the following.

  • Current bodyweight x 14-16 (150 x 14-16 = 2,100 – 2,400)

Please keep in mind that you may need more or less. This is simple to give us a target to shoot for and with a target, it’s much easier to aim. 

calorie target

A calorie surplus of around 300 per day is enough for most to help build lean muscle without adding a lot of body fat. So take the number you get and add 300 to it. In this example, 2,100-2,400 would equal 2,400-2,700 calories per day.

To get a rough idea of how much protein to consume to build lean muscle take your bodyweight and multiply it by .8 to 1.3

  • 150 x .8-1.3 = 120 grams – 195 grams of protein per day

If losing fat so you can see more muscle is your goal a simple way to figure out the calorie deficit you need is to take your maintenance calories and subtract 500 from them.

  • 2,100 to 2,400 – 500 = 1,600 – 1,900 calories per day

Your protein ranges would remain the same which means you would be reducing your calories mostly from the carbs and fats that you eat.

Again, these are estimates and not gold standards. If you’re obese your requirements could be different. Same depending on age, gender, individual metabolism, and some other factors. But for the majority of us, this is a place to start, and starting matters.

By taking your weight, girth measurements, and photos on a weekly basis you can adjust what and how much you’re eating based on the feedback you get. 

What should I eat for lean muscle gain?

There is no specific food that will help you build lean muscle. No magic berries. No special drink. All foods can be eaten for lean muscle. Yup, you read that right. 

  • Chicken
  • Broccoli
  • Pizza
  • Banana
  • Ice cream
  • And everything else

Now that doesn’t mean we should just go hedonistic Rick on food and eat whatever we want. 

hedonism rick gif

The quality of our food does matter but calories matter most when it comes to weight gain and weight loss. And adherence to our diets matters the most. For the majority of us, this means balancing the healthy foods with the not-so-healthy stuff in the right amounts.

A short list of some “healthy” foods could be:

  • Protein: Chicken, beef, fish, tofu, eggs, greek yogurt
  • Veggies: Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, brussels sprouts
  • Carbs: Apple, banana, berries, oats, rice, potato
  • Fats: Avocado, olive oil, nut butter

I encourage you to choose 3 to 5 of your favorites from each category and use those to make up the majority of your meals. If you need some help, click and download a copy of the food list below.

A sample day of eating

Meal 1:

  • Protein: Greek yogurt + protein powder
  • Veggies: Nah, who eats veggies for breakfast 🤣
  • Carbs: Berries
  • Fats: Nuts

Meal 2: 

  • Protein: Chicken thigh
  • Veggies: Big ass salad
  • Carbs: Rice
  • Fats: Avocado

Meal 3: 

  • Protein: Salmon (or other fish)
  • Veggies: Asparagus
  • Carbs: Potato
  • Fats: Olive oil

Snack if physically hungry

  • apple + string cheese

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What exercises are best for building lean muscle?

Every exercise or form of exercise can help you build lean muscle. You can build lean muscle by doing yoga, training with your own body weight, with kettlebells, using dumbbells, machines, doing squats, performing chin-ups, and push-ups. It all comes back to your definition of what a lean body looks like and feels like. 

In my opinion, if building lean muscle is your goal, it will make the process easier if you strength train with weights using compound exercises that target multiple muscles or muscle groups. 

Olympic lifts:

  • Cleans
  • Snatch
  • Jerk

Lower body pushing exercises:

  • Squats
  • Lunges

Lower body pulling exercises:

  • Deadlifts
  • Hip thrusts

Upper body pushing exercises:

  • Chest presses
  • Overhead presses
  • Push-ups
  • Dips

Upper body pulling exercises:

  • Pull-ups
  • Rows
  • Pulldowns

Work with the level that you’re at. If you’re new to exercise or starting again after a long layoff it’s ok to start small. Use your own bodyweight, use machines to build confidence, and progress at a rate that you’re comfortable with.

If you need a specific plan use our free 12-week beginner’s guide.

A 4-week workout to help you build lean muscle

Below is a simple workout when combined with progressive overload can help you build lean muscle. 

Workout A: Upper body

  • A. Chest press (bench press), 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
  • B. Pull up (lat pulldown), 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
  • C1. Incline chest press, 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 1-2 minutes
  • C2. Rows (dumbbell, barbell, cable), 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 1-2 minutes
  • D1. Overhead press, 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
  • E1. Curls (barbell or dumbbell), 2 sets, 12-15 reps, rest 30-60 seconds
  • E2. Tricep extensions, 2 sets, 12-15 reps, rest 30-60 seconds

Workout B: Lower body

  • A. Deadlifts, 3 sets, 6-8 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
  • B. Squats (leg press). 3 sets 8-10 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
  • C1. Hip thrusts, 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 1-2 minutes
  • C2. Leg curls, 3 sets, 8-10 reps, rest 1-2 minutes
  • D. Abs, 3 sets, 8-15 reps, rest 1 minute

You can use this workout 3 days per week in the following way:

  • Monday: Upper body
  • Tuesday: Rest
  • Wednesday: Lower body
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Upper body
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

On the following Monday, you will do the lower body workout and alternate upper and lower body days. Continue this for 4 to 8 weeks before changing exercises.

Oh, and don’t forget progressive overload.

Dude, you keep mentioning progressive overload for lean muscle and strength. What the hell is it?

Well, you should have clicked the link I keep referring to. But if you didn’t I got you.

Without progressive overload, it’s virtually impossible to get stronger or build muscle. In order to get stronger, build, or maintain muscle – The stimulus has to be more than it is used to. If you do the same thing over and over again nothing will change.

There are multiple ways you can do this.

  • Intensity: Lifting more weight in your next training session.
  • Volume: Doing more reps, sets, or exercises.
  • Frequency: Doing more training sessions than the week before.
  • Tension: Increasing the duration of each repetition within an exercise. For example, taking 5 seconds to lower yourself in a push-up.

There are just a few ways.

Does cardio build lean muscle?

marathon running

I’m sure you’ve seen cyclists with some serious quads on them or figure skaters with a nice muscular rump. Keep in mind we don’t know what else their training and diet look like. 

Some research shows that lower intensity cardio when combined with resistance training, may lead to lower production of muscle hypertrophy and power production (1) (2). While other studies are showing that high-intensity cardio may help to improve lean muscle mass (3)(4). But cardio can help you create the calorie deficit needed (along with diet) to help you lose body fat, which could help you to see more lean muscle. 

Ultimately, cardio alone probably won’t help you build a significant amount of lean muscle. But, a certain amount of cardio is probably in our best interest for overall health. For most of the clients, I work with I encourage them to walk as often as they can with their cardio. It’s a low-impact way to improve cardiovascular health, recover from workouts, and de-stress.

The hormones involved in lean muscle gain

I’m a little reluctant to include this section because the role of hormones in health and fitness often gets over-emphasized. For the majority of us, this isn’t something that we’ll need to worry about. If you focus on eating, training, and being consistent you’ll be able to build lean muscle

But for the hell of it let’s briefly review the hormones behind lean muscle gain. There are three main hormones in the body that work together to promote muscle growth and strength.

  • Testosterone
  • Growth Hormone
  • Insulin Growth Factor-1

These three bad boys do not work independently of each other. I like to think of them as BFFs. They work together as a team. For example, testosterone increases Insulin growth factor but not without growth hormone.

This is why it can be difficult for women to add muscle and why you don’t need to worry about looking bulky. Most men have a hard time putting on lean muscle and have roughly 20 times more testosterone than women. The goal is to manipulate these hormones through training, nutrition, and rest. 

One more hormone to discuss and that is what I like to call the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone because its levels tend to get elevated when we are caught in a fight or flight response, lacking adequate rest, recovery, sleep, or are under stress and feeling anxious. 

Elevated cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and can reduce amino acid uptake which is vital for lean muscle gain. It also inhibits protein synthesis which is necessary for repairing muscle tissue after a workout.

Frequently asked lean muscle building questions

This post is getting pretty lengthy so I wanted to finish it up with some FAQ with regards to adding some muscle.

Q: How long will it take me to add lean muscle?

A: This will vary amongst individuals based on numerous things. I can’t give you a specific time frame, that would be unprofessional of me. But if you take your measurements on a regular basis you’ll know if you’re adding lean muscle by look, feel, and numbers. 

Q: How many meals should I eat for lean muscle

A: It doesn’t really matter. As long as calorie intake and protein is where it needs to be you’ll be fine.

Q: Can I use a protein shake?

A: Yes. It can be difficult to hit protein numbers and a shake can help. Here’s an apricot protein shake recipe.

  • 1 cup of goat milk yogurt (unsweetened) or beverage of choice (almond, coconut, etc…)
  • 1-2 scoops of protein powder (what every brand as long as it sits well in your tummy)
  • 1 serving of a greens supplement
  • dried apricot halves (or frozen apricot)
  • coconut oil
  • ice

Q: What if I don’t have access to weights or I’m not ready to train with weights yet? Can I sill build lean muscle

A: Honestly, the weights will make adding lean muscle easier. But if you can only do bodyweight stuff, doing that is better than nothing. Apply progressive overload by doing more reps, sets, changing the tempo, or adding weight from a vest. 

Q: Can I go from bulky to lean? 

A: Yes. By losing weight and body fat you can go from bulky to lean. Your genetics may determine your overall physique when you get lean. Maybe you have broad shoulders, thicker thighs, or short arms. Just something to keep in mind.



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PPS: Below is a few books I recommend if you’d like to learn more about strength training for lean muscle.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash