The Best Way to Build Lean Muscle

Fit girl working out
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Building muscle is often looked at as the ultimate goal of the gym-goer, which makes sense. Muscles are great! They make you look better, ease the aging process, and can protect you from injury as you get older.

But what's the best way to build muscle?

That question has puzzled many for a long time, and it's not quite as simple as "lift a bunch of heavy things," though that's not the worst idea. There's plenty of information available about obscure lifting techniques and dietary tricks that are supposedly going to help, but a straightforward set of rules is tough to come by for anyone who's not looking to go full bodybuilder.

Not anymore. Here are the basic exercise and dietary principles anyone can follow to build lean muscle.

Choose mainly compound lifts (lifts that have multiple joints moving at a time)

Compound lifts work well for muscle-building purposes because they force a large number of muscle groups to work at once, and you can typically lift heavier weights. This combination leads to more overall strength and size gains.

A few examples include squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and overhead presses.

Lift eight to 12 reps for three or four sets, most of the time

While it's true that you can build muscle lifting extremely heavy for just a couple of reps, or much lighter for 20 reps, for most people a moderate rep range seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to building lean muscle.

The eight-to-12-rep range typically means you’re using heavy enough weight to build muscle, yet it's also light enough to allow you to get in enough overall work.

Train between three and five times a week

One of the most critical aspects of muscle-building is recovery -- unfortunately, this is the aspect people most frequently overlook.

When you're trying to build muscle, you’re actively damaging muscle tissue via lifting weights, causing it to adapt by growing bigger and stronger. But in order to adapt, you've got to take time off to allow the body to recover.

Shoot for anywhere between three and five training sessions a week, and leave it at that. More isn't always better.

Incorporate interval training

Interval training is one of the most popular forms of training for people who are looking to build muscle, yet also stay lean enough to proudly shed their shirt at the pool this summer. But to many, interval training is a bit ambiguous. What exactly is interval training? 

At its most basic, interval training is periods of high-intensity exercise with periods of rest or lighter exercise mixed in. You take resistance training and cardio, and blend the two to get a form of exercise that melts fat and builds muscle. 

The good news is that it’s actually easier to start incorporating than most people think. If you're lifting weights, you're also interval training. If you're looking to turn your weight workout into a blend of muscle-building and fat-burning, the simplest thing you can do is start paying attention to how long you're resting. I typically recommend most people rest between 45 and 60 seconds between sets. 

That time frame seems to be the sweet spot for giving you enough time to recover, while also keeping your heart rate high enough to torch through calories.

raw steak
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Get plenty of lean protein

When it comes to nutrition, protein is the all-important macronutrient that helps you build more muscle. There's also plenty of it in steak, which is a nice bonus.

Protein helps your body repair muscle tissue to come back bigger and stronger than before, but this can only happen when you’re getting enough of it. Aim to get a palm-sized serving of protein four to five times a day, and you should be good.

Don't be scared of carbs

Carbs have been demonized for a long time, but it's time to set the record straight. While it's true that Western societies depend too much on heavily refined carbs, that doesn't make all carbs bad.

The truth is that even vegetables contain carbohydrates, and getting plenty of healthy carbs throughout the day fuels your metabolism, gives you energy, and helps you recover from workouts. Aim to get a handful of carbs along with each serving of protein, which should keep you fueled. Just make sure you're getting your carbs from natural sources, not brightly colored packages.

Make sure you eat enough

Whether your goal is losing fat or building muscle, calories are king. If you're not eating to support your goal, you're spinning your wheels. If you're trying to drop fat, you need to be eating fewer calories overall. Which means if you're trying to build muscle, you need to be eating more; presumably, you're going to be working out more.

This is part of the reason why getting plenty of lean protein and carbohydrates throughout the day is so important. Not only do those foods help fuel recovery, but they're a surefire way to make sure you're getting enough healthy calories to support your muscle-building, fat-dropping goals -- and it's important to remember that not all calories are equal. If you don't want to jump up several shirt sizes, you might not want to eat an entire ribeye for every meal. If "lean" is what you're going for, you'll have to adjust your caloric intake accordingly.

Now, while all of these principles are sound, keep in mind that building muscle isn't easy; it takes time and effort, but it's absolutely worth the wait. Follow these principles, and you're going to be well on your way.

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Tanner Baze is a trainer and writer who's got loads of lean muscle. Follow him: @dtbaze.

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