When women set the goal to “lose weight,” often, what they really mean is that they want to build lean muscle. While used interchangeably — there is a lot of distinction between the two goals. For one, sometimes building lean muscle means the number on the scale actually goes up, instead of down, but don’t let that discourage you. (It means you’re replacing fat with heavier muscle, which is key to that lean toned look you’re after!)
There is more to building lean muscle than just spending a lot of time working out. It means you have to eat enough calories to support your body, with an emphasis on protein and strength training being part of your routine. The last piece of the puzzle is adequate recovery to let your muscles repair themselves so they can continue to grow.
Here, we break down what you need to know to start toning up.
1. Find The Right Lean Muscle Workout
Building lean muscle and increasing muscle definition doesn’t mean you need access to a full bench-press set up. (So yes, you can still build lean muscle while working out at home!) Instead, there are many types of exercises that can help you achieve your goals.
To build lean muscle, strength training should be at the core of your workout routine. A rule of thumb is to try to incorporate two to three strength training sessions per week, which can include…
- Traditional weight training and weight lifting
- Power Yoga/Pilates
- HIIT routines
- Isometric and Isotonic Bodyweight exercises (think planks, wall sits, squats, and push-ups, among others)
When you’re at the beginning of your fitness journey, it’s important to play around with each of these types of exercises to find what motivates you to get out there and sweat. Once you have that foundation, you can build a sustainable workout routine — and know when it’s time to switch things up.
2. Eat Right
Finding your workout routine is only part of the battle when it comes to building lean muscle. Fueling your body properly is every bit as crucial!
It is often our first impulse to restrict calories and undereat when we are trying to make a visible change in our bodies. But ensuring you get enough calories each day is crucial to giving your body what it needs to build those lean muscles. To figure out a relative benchmark, calculating your Resting Metabolic Rate (the amount of calories your body needs to sustain itself with no physical activity) is a great place to start.
Once you figure that out, tracking what you eat in a day (yes, everything) for about a week without any parameters will give you a good idea of where you’re at. MyFitnessPal is a great tool for this. A general macronutrient split for most people looking to lean out is 30% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 40% protein.
3. Increase Protein Intake
Let’s talk more about protein. The 40% figure included above is a rough estimate of total calories, but a more calculated number is between .55 and .9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (for a 125 pound person, that would be between 69 and 113 grams per day).
For lean muscle, you’re going to want to hit the higher end of that range which can be difficult to consume in whole foods like meat and dairy. For this reason, protein shakes are not just for “gym bros,” they are also a great supplement for anyone looking to build lean muscle. If you’re unsure where to start when it comes to protein powder, take our questionnaire to find out what will help you unlock your fitness goals. We get to know you — lifestyle preferences, dietary restrictions and all — to build a blend of protein powder and supplements that is optimized for you. That way, you can rest easy knowing you’re getting everything you need, and nothing you don’t.
4. Focus on Recovery
Though people make jokes about not needing rest days, they are so important for lean muscle growth. You are literally putting small tears in your muscles when you work out, so your body needs the time to repair them — which is where your rest days factor in.
That’s not to say you have to give yourself permission to be a total couch potato (although, sometimes you need those days, too!), but you shouldn’t engage in an intense workout. This article provides some great ideas for how to make the most of your rest days to ensure you’re still working towards your fitness goals.
Building lean muscle means playing the long game. As much as we’d all like it to, it just doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be willing to commit to eating well-balanced meals, get your protein in, add or increase strength training to your fitness plan, and focus on recovery to see those beautiful gains.
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Katie Ferraro is a lifestyle writer based in Santa Cruz, CA who is passionate about fitness, sustainability, and holistic wellness. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring the beauty of California, or really anywhere in nature.