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How to Build Lean Muscle - Diet & Workout Guide

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: February 16, 2021

I often have to bite my tongue when I have new clients come to me who haven’t seen the inside of a gym in decades, and despite being borderline obese want to get started with muscle building programs.

Unfortunately, the true reality is that you have to be in reasonably good shape and at least have the fitness capacity to get through a 45 to 60-minute gym session without feeling like you need a paramedic after the warm-up phase.

But, if you’ve been going to the gym for a while and need some tips to get into a bit more of a ripped appearance, then you’re in the right place.

Let’s start with your goal setting.

Setting The Right Goals And Expectations

So, I already addressed the fact that if you’re obese, in really bad health and break into a sweat when you eat, that muscle-building should not be your priority.

If that doesn’t apply to you, then the first step is to set your goals and understand what to expect from the efforts you put in.

How quickly you can get to your goals all depends on how much you change your diet and how often you train.

But, the first thing to do is to set your goal.

Lean Muscle Vs. Bulky Muscle

Lean Muscle Vs Bulky Muscle

Yup, there’s a difference.

Lean muscle is going to give you a healthy appearance with very well defined muscles. Basically, you’ll be able to see that there is something underneath your skin.

It’s what most people look for, and is the easier goal to achieve.

Bulky muscle is what you see on bodybuilders where they aim to create as much lean mass as possible. These are the kind of guys that will block a doorway

Setting An Achievable Timeline

Setting An Achievable Timeline

So, if you want to look leaner with some defined muscles that will make some heads turn at the beach, then your timeline should realistically be 6 to 12 months.

This would be based on sticking to a healthy diet and going to the gym at least 4 times a week for structured training.

If you want to bulk up bodybuilder-style, then you’re probably looking at closer to 12 months.

I have seen people do it in 6 months, but this was achieved by weight training twice a day with no more than one rest day per week.

OK, so go ahead and write down your goal and timeline, and we’ll start with what you need to achieve it.

What Does Your Body Need To Build Lean Muscle Mass

Most of my clients are surprised when I start by focusing on what they eat when we come up with a plan of how to build muscle.

But the truth is that your weight and muscle goals are 70% diet and only 30% strength training.

Vital Nutrients

man holding measuring spoon and jar

To gain lean mass, you will have to get your nutrition intake to the optimum balance.

That means getting the right mix of carbs, protein, and fat while making sure you take in enough calories.

You will also need to make sure you get more than the minimum need for vitamins and minerals, which your muscles will depend on both directly and indirectly.


man and woman training

Yes, you will have to work hard, and you’ll be lifting weights that you think don’t seem realistic. The number of reps will be reduced, but you’ll feel the burn a lot sooner than ever before.

If you do it right, then within a few days you should be feeling pain in places you didn’t know existed, but this will all be a positive sign that your body is starting to increase muscle production.

So, before you get all excited about the training program, let’s take a closer look at nutrition.

How To Structure Your Diet For Muscle Gain

OK, first things first. Those sneaky trips to Cinnabon and McDonalds have to be a thing of the past. The same is the case for the odd beer or glass of wine, and you want to make sure that you get rid of any sugary treats as well.

But what I really want to focus on here is the macro nutrition details that most people completely overlook.

You Need More Calories

tablet with app for calory count

The first thing you need to do is use a maintenance calorie calculator.

Based on your age, gender, weight, height, and activity level, it will tell you with reasonable accuracy how many calories you need to maintain your current weight.

Once you know this value, then add 300 calories to it every day. You will need this in order to gain weight in the form of new muscle tissue.

Anything at maintenance level or below will lead to weight loss, which is not what you want.

For serious bodybuilding goals with strength training twice a day, you will easily need to double that to 600 extra calories on a daily basis.

Essentially, exercise like weight training is only half of the question when it comes to building lean muscle mass. If you are trying to gain or build muscle mass your body needs to be in an energy surplus, so you may need to eat more -- at the correct times.
- Juliette SteenAssociate Editor

It’s All About Protein


To give your muscles all the amino acids they need to build new fibers, you’ll need to take in between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.

On very intense days you can increase that a bit more.

Most of this should come through the food you eat, but realistically you’ll also rely on supplements (more on this shortly).

Avoid Macro Balance Mistakes

notebook surrounded by fruits, vegies, and dairies

Some people work on a strict nutrition percentage range for carbs, protein, and fat. I tend to take a slightly different approach.

First, I work out what the protein intake needs to be based on 1 gram per pound of body weight.

For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, then you would need 180 grams of protein. Each gram contains about 4 calories, so you’d have roughly 800 calories from protein.

Then, I work with 25% of calories coming from fat, which for the average male would work out as 2,300 calories x 25% = roughly 600 calories.

We’ve accounted for 1,400 calories, so the remaining 900 calories would need to come from carbs. And I have to stress that these should be healthy carbs from mainly vegetables.

Take Advantage Of Supplements

The more you get into this training and diet regime, the more you’re going to need to consider taking supplements.

It can quickly happen that you struggle to eat enough calories, and you won’t exactly feel like a raw egg shake with some chicken breast after a trip to the gym.

​So, make sure you look at taking some mass gainers, as well as pre and post-workout protein shakes. They will really make your life so much easier. ​Take time to read How to properly use mass gainers to know more.

You can also check out our best supplement stack article.

Training Tips For More Effective Muscle Building

OK, now we get into the fun part with some tips on how to make your training more effective so that you develop muscle faster.

Limit Cardio To Warm-Ups


I see it all too often that people come to me with the perfect diet plan, and then they show me their training log. And it’s usually covered in cardio sessions.

When it comes to a bulking or lean muscle gain ambition, cardio is actually your enemy. It will take up loads of time, make you feel tired and will have practically no impact on building lean muscle.

While it can be helpful during a cyclical cutting phase to lose fat reserves, you should definitely limit it to a 5 to 10-minute warm-up phase.

If you're training to gain muscle, you will need to do less cardio training. Too much cardio can actually hamper your muscle gain by slowing recovery and burning up calories that your body needs for the process of building muscle.
- Nick NilssonPersonal Trainer

When You Lift, Make Sure It’s Heavy

Man lifting weight

Now, the big question is: What’s heavy?

For some people, a 20-pound dumbbell is already extreme, while for a bodybuilder it will just about work for a warm-up exercise.

The way you can tell if you’re lvifting at your limits is that you should plan for a maximum of 8 reps in a set, and during the last 3, you have to be fighting the burn.

But that’s only your starting point.

From here, you want to start working on progressive overload, which basically means gradually adding more weights so that you’re really struggling with that last rep. When you do this with compound exercises, then the magic really starts to happen.

Compound Vs. Isolation Exercises

people in gym

I’m going to be a bit controversial here and recommend that you stay away from isolation exercises altogether.

These are moves that target one or two muscles at most, and they are very effective if you have an area that has fallen behind.

But in reality, that’s only going to become a concern if you’ve done some serious bodybuilding.

Instead, focus on compound exercises that target entire muscle groups.

The result of this is that you put strain on more muscles in one training session, which increases the amount of testosterone and growth hormone production.

The result: faster and more effective bulking in more areas.

Introduce Isotonic and Isometric Exercises

man planking

Let me give you a quick explanation of what these terms mean.

Isotonic muscle contractions exert force by changing the length of a muscle.

Think push-ups, crunches, squats, and even biceps curls.

Isometric muscle contractions generate force by maintaining the same muscle length.

For example, the plank, wall sits, warrior pose, and the glute bridge.

You will get much better results by introducing both types of exercises into a gym session, as it will further trigger different types of muscle strain. The result is that your body will signal an increase in muscle creation.

Regularly Change Your Sets

Regularly Change Your Sets

One reason for doing this is that you won’t run the risk of getting bored with the same exercises all the time.

But more important than that is the fact that your muscles will become used to the same type of strain resulting in a plateau effect.

Instead, switch things around a bit. Change the days around and even swap out moves and exercises.

And very importantly, if you have one specific area of your body that needs to catch up a bit, then you’ll need to work on it twice a week, not just once.

When recovery times for a muscle group are too long, then you won’t see the same results.

Avoid Some Common Mistakes

People living healthy

Now, I want to draw your attention to some very common mistakes that I see people make. I would not be doing you any favors by leaving these out of this how to get lean muscle guide.

So, let’s start with one of the most important ones.

Not Getting Enough Rest

In order to build lean muscle tissue, your body has to rest, and your muscles need to be given a chance to relax and repair. And the best time for this is while you sleep. Aim to get 7 to 8 hours of good and continuous sleep every night, and you will feel the difference the next morning.

Focusing Too Much On One Body Part

training biceps and triceps

Yes, if you pay a lot of attention to your arms and shoulders, they will build lean muscle faster. But only for a while.

The muscles will become used to the same level of strain, and you can hit a plateau.

Also, such a program can end up with you looking rather out of proportion.

I’ve seen plenty of “bodybuilders” who look like lollipops because their leg muscles are underdeveloped.

Becoming Too Reliant On Supplements

Yes, your body will need a lot of nutrients, and some of those will need to come from supplements. But the best way to source your nutritional needs is through a balanced diet.

It’s a far more effective way to boost lean muscle growth, as well as being a lot more natural and healthy.

Fasting Too Much

fasting icon

A regular short fast period is by no means a bad idea.

It will certainly help you lose fat to make your muscles more defined.

But if you constantly fast and your weekly calorie intake doesn’t add up to a surplus, then you’ll quickly start losing weight.

Not Drinking Enough Water

No, not just at the gym while you’re working out, although that’s probably one of the most important times.

But you also have to make sure that you drink more during your recovery hours as your increased metabolism and muscle building process will require a lot of water.

Avoiding Food And Exercise Journaling

The first thing I ask my new clients to provide me with is their diet and workout journal. No rewards for guessing how many actually have one.

The only way you can monitor and assess your progress and tweak your diet and strength training is by keeping detailed notes of what you eat and how much you were lifting.

When you compare those notes to your weight gain, muscle growth, and BMI, you’ll have a much clearer picture of what’s working.


working out banner

How long does it take to build lean muscle?

It takes about 1 month to build about 1 to 2 pounds of lean muscle. This is based on the average person with a stringent diet and exercise routine at least 4 to 5 days per week.

How many reps should I do to build lean muscle?

You should aim to do about 8 reps per set to build lean muscle. The last three of those reps should cause a serious muscle burn that you’ll have to push through.

How much protein do I need to build lean muscle?

You need about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to build lean muscle. Most of this nutrition should come from your food, but supplements are great, especially after exercising.

Do high reps build lean muscle?

No, high reps don’t generally build lean muscle, because it results in a more cardio like effect. Keep the reps down and make sure you feel your muscles burning on each set to get the full benefits.

How much should I lift to get toned?

You should lift as much weight as needed to make your muscles burn in order to get toned. That pain that you feel in your muscles will signal to your body that more muscle tissue is needed.

Do you need heavy weights to build muscle?

Yes, you do need to lift heavy weights to build muscle, but heavy is relative to your current build. As long as you have to push through the burn with the chosen weight, you’ll be on the right track.

What Are You Waiting For?

OK, at this stage, I really think you have all the information you need to gain lean muscle and start your journey by setting goals and focusing your attention on exercising as well as diet.

You’ll understand that you can only get the full benefits from working out hard if you eat healthy at the same time.

If you have some other tips on how to build lean muscle, then why not share them on our Facebook page?

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2 thoughts on “How To Build Lean Muscle

  1. Muscles can be developed even without expensive equipments or getting a gym membership. The specially planned body weight workouts put enough resistance to the muscles to promote muscle growth and these no equipment workouts help in bulking up without using a single weight. But the key is to do the right exercises in quick progression that forces the muscles to be explosive. Body weight exercises constantly test your strength against gravity while pushing up the stamina of various muscle groups at the same time.

  2. Been searching the whole internet on how to build lean muscle because it’s been 3 months since I’ve been working out and nothing happens. Guess I have to change my workout routine and diet plan to focus more on muscle growth

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