Fitness

How to Build Lean Muscle Fast
The Complete Guide

Your Complete Guide To Building Lean Muscle
Written by Isaac

While some people have the goal of losing weight when they start their workout and nutrition program, for others, it’s all about building lean muscle mass.

There are a great many benefits to building lean muscle tissue and it’s one goal that everyone should have at some point or another.

Don’t let the notion that building muscle is only for bodybuilding types fool you.

Building muscle is for all individuals, young or old, beginner or advanced.

When you do, the benefits you’ll reap will last for many years to come.

How to Get Lean Muscle 101

In order to successfully build lean muscle fast, three key factors need to be in place. They are:

  • An overloading stimulus
  • A calorie surplus
  • Sufficient rest

Let’s look at each individually.

1. An Overloading Stimulus (Your Workout)

In order to build muscle, you need to provide your body with a reason to build muscle. You can’t just hit the gym and do the same thing over and over again and expect change to take place.

You need to challenge your body with more than it’s handled before. This is what causes the muscle tissue to break down, which will then grow back stronger and larger than it was before.

If your body can already easily handle what you are doing in the gym, there’s no reason for it to grow stronger.

2. Diet - Eat a Calorie Surplus

Arnold Schwarzenegger showing his muscles on a white background

Building muscle requires energy and resources and if those are not provided by your diet, you simply aren’t going to be making progress.

It’d be like trying to build an addition on your house without providing any wood or bricks.

How far would you get? Clearly, you wouldn’t get far at all.

Do keep in mind that your body can only build so much muscle each and every day.

However, it’s not just a matter of eating as much food as you can possibly consume. If you do that, you will build some muscle, but you’ll also build a lot of fat in the process as well.

Determining your target calories

Consuming anywhere between 250-500 calories above maintenance level is sufficient for building lean muscle mass.

Use this tool to calculate your maintenance calories.

If you are someone who tends to put on body fat easily, go on the lower end of that scale (250 calories surplus) while if you are someone who is naturally thin and has trouble gaining weight, you’ll want to go on the higher end of that scale instead (500 calories surplus).

Monitor your progress and adjust from there. If you start gaining body fat too quickly, simply reduce your calorie surplus to slow things down.

In addition to adding more total energy to your diet plan, you’ll also need to ensure that you are eating adequate amounts of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and dietary fats. 

  • Protein provides the amino acids, which serve as building blocks to build new muscle mass tissue. Protein intake should be 0.8-1 g/lb of body weight per day. (1g protein is 4 calories)
  • Fats help to keep your hormonal profile in check, which will then ensure that your body is optimized for building lean muscle mass. Fat intake should be approximately 25% of total calories (1g fat is 8 calories)
  • Carbohydrates provide the energy that you need to not only get through your workout sessions, but also to complete the repair and building process. Carb intake is then the remaining calories leftover from your target calories (1g carbs is 4 calories)

3. Sufficient Rest

Finally, the last requirement to build lean muscle mass is sufficient rest. After you break the muscle tissue down in the gym, you need to provide time for it to recover and grow back stronger than it was before.


Generally speaking, you should allow for 48 hours between training the same muscle group again and you should always take at least one, if not two full days off each week for complete rest and recovery. 

Kittens sleeping on a colorful  towels

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the harder you train, the faster your progress will be. Often, too little rest is the one reason why people do not see the results they desire.

It’s at rest that your body is actually completing the muscle building process. In the gym, you are just breaking it down and getting weaker. Short yourself of rest and you won’t be making progress.

Designing Your Lean Muscle Workout Routine

When it comes to actually structuring your weekly lean muscle workout sessions, there are a few things to keep in mind. They are your current fitness level, how much time you have available to exercise, and your recovery ability.

The three main types of program set-ups you should consider are:

  • Full body approach 
  • Upper/lower split
  • Push/pull/legs split

There are many different ways to structure any given workout program. Keep in mind that your workout program is never set in stone.

It’s important to be changing your workout around every 6-8 weeks anyway in order to keep seeing results and ensure your body doesn’t hit a progress plateau.

1. Full Body Split

  • Great for: Beginners
  • Frequency: 3x per week

Beginners are typically best off doing a full body approach as this allows them to hit each muscle group with a maximum frequency level while still providing plenty of time off for rest and recovery between gym sessions. You'll focus primarily on the main compound exercises, which is great way to build a foundation of strength.

With the full body workout, as you need to allow 48 hours of rest between working the same muscle group twice. This means you can go to the gym Monday/Wednesday/Friday or alternatively, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.

2. Push/Pull/Leg Split

  • Great for: Intermediated - Advanced
  • Frequency: 3x per week or 4-6x per week.

This is where you work all the pushing exercises on one day, all the pulling exercises on another day, and then legs on a third day.

With the push/pull/legs plan, you can choose to either do three workouts per week or if you would like something more frequent, you can rotate between them, doing four to six workouts per week. If you don’t fit in two full cycles each week, the next week will just pick up where you left off.

3. Upper/Lower Split

  • Great for: Intermediated - Advanced
  • Frequency: 4x per week

This is where you divide the body up in half, hitting upper body twice per week and lower body twice per week. A typical week may look like Upper and lower on Monday and Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, and upper and lower on Thursday and Friday. You'll then take Saturday and Sunday off. 

More suited towards intermediate to advanced lifters as you break the body down into smaller sections, allowing you to do more volume per muscle group.

Best lean Muscle Building Exercises

In order to build lean muscle fast and most effectively, it’s important that you are focusing on providing that overloading stimulus we noted earlier.

This comes from putting more stress on the body than it has handled before.

The best way to provide overloading stimulus is through compound exercises.

Strong Athletic Man Fitness Model Torso showing six pack abs.

Compound movements are the ones that will work multiple muscle groups at the same time, thus you’ll be hitting more overall muscle fibers than you would with isolation exercises.

Here are the main exercises that will give you the best results for your time investment.

1. Bench Press

Muscles Utilized: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps, Core (to a small degree)
How-To:

  • 1
    Position yourself in a flat bench, back down, and place both hands up on the barbell above you. Use a shoulder width grip.
  • 2
    Press the barbell up until the elbows are extended but not locked.
  • 3
    Keeping the back pressed into the back pad, lower the barbell down until it’s almost touching your sternum. Pause and then press back up to complete the rep.
man doing chest press

2. Bent Over Rows

Muscles Utilized: Latissimus dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Biceps, Posterior Deltoid, Core

How-To:

  • 1
    Assume a standing position with a barbell down in front of the feet.
  • 2
    Bend the back until it’s at a 90 degree angle, keeping the knees relatively straight (a slight bend is permitted).
  • 3
    Reach down and grab ahold of the barbell using a shoulder width grip pattern.
  • 4
    Pull the barbell up towards the chest, keeping the back flat and avoiding using momentum to hoist the weight up.
  • 5
    Pause when it’s as high as it can go and then lower back down to complete the rep.
Man showing how to perform bent over row exercise

3. Pull-Ups

Muscles Utilized: ​Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapeszius, Posterior Deltoid
How-To:

  • 1
    Grab a hold of an overhead bar, hands placed slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • 2
    Bend the knees slightly and keep the body in a straight, vertical line. Begin to contract the back and arms as you pull the body up to the bar.
  • 3
    Pause when you reach the top and then slowly begin lowering again to complete the rep.
  • 4
    Continue on until all reps are completed.
  • 5
    Note you may do this in an assisted pull-up machine if necessary.
Man showing how to perform pull ups

4. Shoulder Press

Muscles Utilized: Front Delts, Lateral Delts, Triceps, Biceps, Core (if standing)
How-To:

  • 1
    In a seated position, hold two dumbbells resting on your thighs.
  • 2
    Next, ‘kick’ those dumbbells up (or bring them up yourself) until they are resting just above shoulder height. Elbows should be tucked in, back straight.
  • 3
    Begin to press the dumbbells up over your head, extending the elbows but not locking.
  • 4
    Pause for a second at the top and then lower the weight back down to complete the rep.
Man showing how to perform shoulder press

5. Squats

Muscles Utilized: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves, Core, Back
How-To:

  • 1
    Stand in an upright position, feet about shoulder width apart.
  • 2
    Hold a barbell across your back or place the hands directly in front of the body.
  • 3
    Keeping the body upright, bend at the knees as you lower yourself down, coming into the full squat position.
  • 4
    Pause in this lowered position briefly and then press up to complete the rep.
Woman showing how to perform squats

6. Deadlifts

Muscles Utilized: ​Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core, Lower Back
How-To:

  • 1
    Stand with a barbell in front of the feet in an upright position, feet about hip width apart.
  • 2
    Bend over, bending the knees as you do while keeping the back flat.
  • 3
    Once at 90 degrees, reach forward and place both hands on the barbell.
  • 4
    Press up, keeping the back flat as you resume a standing position and lift the weight off the ground.
  • 5
    Pause at the top before lowering the weight to the ground to complete the rep.
Man showing how to perform deadlift

6 Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises are those that isolate just a single muscle group and they can be good for helping to bring up lagging muscle groups or really add maximum shape to any given muscle that you’re training.

For instance, if you want to add more shape and size to your shoulders, the barbell shoulder press is a great go-to move to be doing.

Once you’ve finished that, you’ll also want to do some higher rep sets of lateral raises and possibly even front raises as well.

Man doing biceps workout

These isolation exercises will work just the specific delt you are targeting, putting more stress on it so that it will then grow back to be stronger than it was before.

It’s okay to include isolation exercises in any muscle building workout program, just ensure they come after the primary compound exercises that you are doing.

This way, you are fresh for the big ‘heavy’ lifts and can focus on achieving maximum muscle fatigue later on when doing those isolation moves.

1. Bicep Curls

Muscles Utilized: Biceps
How-To:

  • 1
    ​Get into an upright position, holding a set of dumbbells down by your sides, one on each side.
  • 2
    ​Keeping the core tight, curl the weight upwards until it’s near the top of the body.
  • 3
    ​Pause and then lower down through the full range of motion to complete the rep.
bicep workout

2. Tricep Rope Press Down

Muscles Utilized: Triceps
How-To:

  • 1
    Get into an upright position, holding the handles of a rope, one hand on each side.
  • 2
    Keeping the core tight with the elbows locked into the side of the body, press the weight straight down until the elbows are fully extended.
  • 3
    Pause and then allow the weight to return to the starting position to complete the rep.
Woman showing how to perform tricep pushdown

3. Lateral Raise

Muscles Utilized: Lateral Deltoid
How-To:

  • 1
    Get into an upright position, seated or standing, holding a set of dumbbells down by your sides.
  • 2
    Keeping the core tight, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side of the body until they are parallel to the floor.
  • 3
    Pause in this position and then lower back down to complete the rep.
Lateral Raise

4. Rear Delt Fly

Muscles Utilized: Rear Deltoid
How-To:

  • 1
    Hold a set of dumbbells in either hand and then get into a seated position, chest bent over and pressed into the thigh’s, dumbbells on the floor.
  • 2
    Lift the dumbbells up and out to the sides of the body as if you were doing a reverse hug.
  • 3
    Come up until you are at about even with the shoulders and then lower the weight back down to complete the rep.
Rear Delt Fly

5. Leg Extension

Muscles Utilized: Quads
How-To:

  • 1
    Position yourself in the leg extension machine and then place the feet behind the foot pads.
  • 2
    Begin to lift the legs up and extend the knees as you raise the weight upward.
  • 3
    Pause at the top of the movement and then lower back down to complete the rep.
Woman showing how to perform leg extension exercise

6. Hamstring Curl

Muscles Utilized: ​Hamstrings
How-To:

  • 1
    Position yourself in the hamstring machine and then place the feet behind the foot pads.
  • 2
    Begin to bend the knees and raise the weight upward.
  • 3
    Pause at the top of the movement and then lower back down to complete the rep.
Hamstring Curl

3 Advanced Training Techniques

In order to build muscle effectively, it’s important that some element of your workout is always changing.

The minute you hit the gym and perform the same workout over and over again is the minute you’ll be on a fast track to hitting a plateau.

One way to create this change is through performing advanced techniques that push your body a little harder. Here are a few techniques to know about.

  • Supersets - This involves you performing one exercise back to back with another, resting only after that second exercise is completed. You can either do supersets for the same muscle group (same muscle supersets), supersets for opposite muscle groups (antagonistic supersets), or supersets for upper/lower muscle groups. 
  • Drop Set - A drop set is similar to a superset only this time, you are sticking with the same exercise.You’ll perform one set with your usual weight, drop the weight by 5-10 pounds, perform a second set, drop the weight again, and then perform a third and final set. You’ll typically do this towards the end of your workout as it is quite intense and will bring you to that state of final fatigue.
  • Pyramid Sets - This type of structure has you moving through rep ranges – 6 reps, 8 reps, 10 reps, 12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps, and 6 reps. Note that you can structure the specifics however you prefer, but you should move up and then back down, adjusting the weight accordingly. It’s a great way to see both strength and size improvements all within the same exercise.

5 Supplements To help You

As you go about your journey to build lean muscle, there are a few supplements that you’ll want to consider. These products, while not entirely necessary, can help you take you results up a notch.

They’ll help you work harder in the gym, recover faster, and accelerate the muscle building process.

1. Creatine

Creatine monohydrate is a very well researched supplement that can help to increase overall muscular strength and power, while combating fatigue.


By using this supplement before or after your workout, you may be able to perform an extra couple reps in each exercise you do, which then leads to faster overall results.


For best results, you’ll want to take five grams per day, either before or after your workout period. 

MuscleTech Platinum Creatine
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2. Whey Protein Powder

When focusing on building lean muscle, you're protein intake will need to be higher which means you'll need a good source of whey protein powder.

Whey isolate protein powder is fast to digest in the body and will help kick-start the muscular repair and growth process as fast as possible, as stated by research published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

It’s ideal for taking immediately following the workout session as well as at any point throughout the day when you need an extra boost of protein.

Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard
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3. Glutamine

Glutamine is the next important supplement that you should consider using. This is another amino acid that is involved in proper immune health, which influences your ability to recover quickly.

Taking glutamine following your workout as well as before bed can help accelerate your recovery between sessions, ensuring you are feeling ready to train hard each time you step into the gym.

Research shows that after intense exercise, your natural levels of glutamine may be suppressed, so bringing your levels back to a normal and healthy range is critical.

Optimum Nutrition L-Glutamine
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4. BCAA’s

BCAA’s, which stand for branched chain amino acids are the next product to consider.

These are particular amino acids will provide additional energy for your muscle tissues as well as helping prevent muscle break-down, thus decreasing the total time for repair and recovery.

Studies also show that they may help maintain a more anabolic state as well.

Most people will take these before their workout, during their workout, or after their workout. During tends to be most popular as then they can assist with keeping you hydrated as well. Mix them with water and sip that throughout the session.

Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard BCAA
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5. Caffeine

While this is often considered to be a fat loss supplement as it can speed your metabolic rate and improve energy levels, it can also work well to help you push harder in the gym, maintaining greater endurance when the goal is muscle building as well - taken about 15-30 minutes prior to the workout

You do need to be careful how much of it you take and how often however as the body can adapt to it, wakening its effects.

Plus, taking too much in the later part of the day may interfere with sleep, so that’s another reason to be mindful of how much you are using.

200 mg per day should be your upper limit for caffeine on a regular basis.

Prolab Caffeine Tablets
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4 Factors That Impede Muscle Growth

There are a few things that can impede muscle growth, so learning about these and being sure to avoid them will help you move closer to success.

  • Poor Sleep - If you are not sleeping enough at night, this will decrease how fast you recover between workout sessions, therefore lowering your ability to hit the gym on a regular basis. Get at least seven hours of sleep each night, if not eight or even nine if you can
  • Chronic Stress - High levels of stress also cause the body to release the catabolic hormone cortisol, which serves to break down tissue in the body and can also lead to the accumulation of excess body fat tissue.[1] Additionally, if your stress level grows too much, you may not see any progress at all and may need to take time completely away from the gym altogether.
  • Diet - As noted earlier, you must be in a calorie surplus to build lean muscle mass tissue. If you are taking in too few calories as so many women often do, this will directly impede progress.Good muscle building nutrition is a must.
  • Over-Doing Cardio Activity - You can and should add some cardio to a muscle building workout routine as it will help keep you in good physical shape. Just don’t overdo it. This isn’t a fat loss phase where you may be doing cardio training daily. 2-3 sessions of 20-30 minutes per week of cardio training (low to moderate intensity) is plenty to keep your body fit and healthy. 

Building Lean Muscle: Final Words

There you have the in’s and out’s about how to build lean muscle properly.

By getting all of these elements in place in your workout program, you can ensure that you are seeing maximum results, feeling better and better about your performance and appearance with each workout that passes by.

It really does pay off to put time and energy towards the goal of lean muscle building. 

Healthy living quote

For every woman, it will help improve your body composition, add curves in all the right places, and will make you more capable to do all the activities you want to do throughout your life.

About the author

Isaac

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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