My Top Five Tips To Build Lean Muscle

It's so frustrating when...

You've been going to the gym for years, and you're stuck in the rut of endless bulking phases, only to feel like you've put too much fat on.

Which then means you start 'cutting' and end up paranoid that you're actually losing muscle so stop trying to get lean altogether!

It kind of keeps you stuck somewhere permanently in between big and fat but lean and skinny, right?


And it's every serious gym goers, training nightmare, so to help push things along and get you on the level of achieving the results you want, here are my top 5 tips to build lean muscle tissue, FAST.

1. Don't Fall Into The Trap Of 'Fat Bulking'

The situation goes like this, when you're cutting and trying your hardest to get abs, you'll track your food and you'll eat healthily.

But when it comes to bulking?! bulking?.... Oh my god, you go all out.

Whatever is on the menu, you're going to be eating it!

After all, calories fuel muscle growth, right?

Well, yes and no. The truth is, when you're looking to add lean muscle tissue, you're not actually going to need as much of a calorie surplus as you think, if the goal is to not add too much body fat at the same time. 

Slowly but surely start by adding 300-500kcal bi-weekly and assess how your body responds. 

Keep a keen eye on your training performance too! In the gym, you should start to see your lifts increasing concurrently with your calorie increases. This is vital feedback to let you know that you're getting stronger. 

And like we said above, increasing strength and training performance is a key driver behind building lean muscle tissue!

2. Be Honest About Your Effort

To grow muscle tissue we're looking to do one of two things;

1. Increase the number of muscle cells 


2. Increase the thickness (density) of existing muscle fibres

To do either or these two objectives we need volume of training (think the amount of work you're performing in your reps, sets and total sessions) and we need intensity (think load lifted during the workouts).

But we also need another crucial element to our muscle building triangle. 


Without effort and pushing our body to a level that it isn't use to, we aren't going to create enough load on the muscle fibres to initiate the General Adaptation Syndrome that it must go through to ensure remodeling.  Make sure when you're training, you're giving everything you can into your sets to keep progressing.

3. Stimulate Each Muscle Twice Per Week  

Studies have shown that training a muscle twice per week, produces a better hypertrophy (muscle building) response than stimulating the muscle once per week. 

Schoenfeld et al (2016), (1), concluded a systematic review and meta analysis of the data, finding two stimulus per week per muscle group to be more optimal for hypertrophy response than one or three stimuli per week.

These findings are of particular importance to us as trainers and you the reader, as essentially it means that we can grow without necessarily having to resort to super volume training programs that we often see promoted by seasoned body builders training multiple times per day, never mind per week!

We have some great options here in terms of program design, right the way from whole body style programs to upper / lower programs to '3 in 5' bodybuilding split programs.

4. Eat Enough Protein (Alongside Calories)

Protein is a powerhouse macro nutrient, of that there can be no doubt.

Amino acids are essential for life, not just building muscle! From energy creation to cell formation to helping our immune system, amino acids are more than just the building block of muscle cells.

Which means for you, the trainee interested in building a Jason Statham like physique, you're going to want to become friends with protein. And it's going to have to be in most meals that you eat to help you get jacked and lean.

Protein recommendations for each day provided that your goal is the above and you're training consistently and hard, stands around 1.8g/kg of body weight (Phillips and Van Loon, 2011), (2)

Some interesting things start to occur when you're consuming enough protein in your diet;

1. We increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and not muscle protein breakdown (MPB). Muscle protein synthesis is a biological process that helps us repair and build new muscle tissue as a direct response to resistance training consistently. 

2. Through the stimulation of MPS and the fact that you're eating enough protein based foods in your diet, we're now able to shuttle the available amino acids into the muscle cell to be used for repair and growth. 

3. Because of this enhanced recovery and growth, you're now able to repeat intense resistance training sessions to continue building lean muscle tissue!

5. Train Across A Broad Spectrum Of Reps

It's pretty well established in the research that power and strength training (1-5RM) produces more central nervous system adaption and increasing reps produces more metabolic / hypertrophy adaptations (6-15RM).

Interestingly, research has gone one step further in a quest to help us quicken our gains and build lean muscle faster

The takeaways from recent study by Schoenfeld et al (2014), (3), where groups were assigned to a high rep based whole body workout (25-35 reps per set) or a moderate rep based whole body workout (8-12 reps per set) no differences were observed in muscle mass response in either group. As you'd expect the higher rep group increase muscular endurance whereas the lower rep group increased strength.

What this essentially means is that it is possible to gain lean muscle mass on higher rep, lower load workouts if that was your preferred style of training.

In 2015 Schoenfeld et al went one step further. This time pitting groups of powerlifting style workouts vs traditional body building style workouts with volume equated. The powerlifting group performed 7sets of 3RM per exercise with the bodybuilding group performing 3 sets of 10RM, again equated for volume. In both groups again, no differences in hypertrophy response were observed over the 8 week study. But again as above, the group performing the highest load (and lowest reps) style of training, achieved greater improvements in strength. 

In conclusion, this means that we have numerous options available to us to achieve the results that we wanted. We could choose a linear style approach to training, for example a block of 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise per workout.

Or we could choose undulating periodization as an approach where we might start the week with 3-4 sets of 8-12 per exercise  for an upper body training session and in the next upper body training sessions of that particular week, throw in 3 sets of 15-20 reps per exercise to train across the broader spectrum of reps and challenge the body to adapt.

We could also decide to go the other way and begin our upper body week with 7sets of 3 like above and finish the week on 3-4 sets of 8-12. The options here are endless!

The trick is to not just marry yourself to one style of training with one approach in mind. 

Now go and build the muscle you want!


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1. Schoenfeld, B J, Ogborn, D and Krieger, J W, Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med, 2016, Nov;46 (11):1689-1697

2. Phillips, S M and LJ Van Loon, Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci, 2011, 29 Suppl 1: p. S29-38

3. Schoenfeld, B J, Ratamess, N A, Peterson, M D, Contrerar B, Sonmez, G T and Alvar, B A. EFFECTS OF DIFFERENT VOLUME-EQUATED RESISTANCE TRAINING LOADING STRATEGIES ON MUSCULAR ADAPTATIONS IN WELL-TRAINED MEN. J Strength Cond Res, 2014 Oct; 28(10):2909

4.  Schoenfeld, B J, Peterson, M D, Ogborn, D, Contreras, B and Sonmez, G T.  EFFECTS OF LOW- VS. HIGH-LOAD RESISTANCE TRAINING ON MUSCLE STRENGTH AND HYPERTROPHY IN WELL-TRAINED MEN. J Strength Cond Res, 2015 Oct; 29(10):2954-63

Chris Mason