The Do’s and Don’ts of Building Lean Muscle

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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The Do’s and Don’ts of Building Lean Muscle

Muscle growth (also known as “hypertrophy”) is a unique training goal that requires a different approach than increasing strength or shedding fat. Follow these key do’s and don’ts to help focus your training and increase your odds of success — keeping in mind that the amount of muscle you can expect to add with any hypertrophy program also depends on several factors outside of your control (i.e., sex, age and genetics).

You may have heard of “muscle confusion,” or the idea you need to continually switch up your exercise routine in order to see results. But while it’s fun to give your workouts a constant refresh, it’s not the best approach for building muscle mass.

Progressive overload is the way to go, notes Noam Tamir, certified strength and conditioning specialist and  founder of TS Fitness in New York City. This training method has you doing the same program for 4–6 weeks, while manipulating variables like reps and sets, weight, workout frequency and intensity.

When it comes to building muscle, exercise is only half the equation; the other half is rest and recovery. Exercise is where the muscles break down, while recovery (plus protein) is where the growth happens, Tamir says. If you never take a day off, your muscles continue to break down without ever repairing, which only slows — or even reverses — your training progress.

Train 2–3 days per week if you’re doing full-body workouts or 3–4 days per week if you’re following an upper/lower body split routine, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). In either scenario, aim to work every muscle group twice per week, giving worked muscles at least one full day to recover before hitting them again.

You might think your muscle gains are dependent on you squeezing every possible last rep out of your set, but lifting to absolute failure (e.g., the point at which you can’t perform another single rep) only increases your odds of injury. What’s more, research in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports shows it’s unnecessary for muscle growth.

Instead, volitional or technical failure is better. It’s the point at which your form begins to break down. You should end your sets with a few reps in reserve.

Protein is every muscle-seeker’s best friend. “You can’t build muscle without the building blocks,” Tamir says, and those building blocks are amino acids, the units that link together to create protein.

Aim for 1.2–1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, Tamir says. However, if you’re also trying to lose fat, you may want to increase your protein intake so you don’t lose any hard-earned muscle as well. One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had 20 young men follow a reduced-calorie diet while performing a combination of resistance and high-intensity interval training six days per week, except half of the men consumed higher amounts of protein than the other (2.4 grams per kilogram body weight per day compared to 1.2). Although they were consuming fewer calories than their bodies needed, the men in the higher-protein group managed to add muscle over the course of four weeks, while also losing more body fat than the lower-protein group.

Conventional muscle-building wisdom says you need to lift a moderate weight for 6–12 reps to make gains. Now, a study in Journal of Applied Physiology reveals your target rep range is wider than you might think. Researchers had 49 trained men perform a total-body strength training program. One group lifted weight equivalent to 30–50% of their one-rep maximum for 20–25 reps, while the other lifted 75–90% of their one-rep max for 8–12 reps. By the end of 12 weeks, both groups had packed on equal amounts of muscle.

By training at every rep range, you’ll increase strength at lower rep ranges and boost endurance at higher rep ranges, all while adding muscle. According to researchers, the key to building muscle at every rep range is to take your sets to technical failure.

Focusing on your music or the external environment may help pass the time, especially during higher-rep sets, but new research in European Journal of Sport Science shows you may be able to score more muscle by focusing on your muscles as they’re being worked. By simply making a mind-muscle connection during sets of arm curls for eight weeks, a group of untrained college-aged men saw nearly twice the biceps growth as their unmindful peers (12.4% growth versus 6.9%).

To encourage the mind-muscle connection, think “squeeze the muscle” during each rep, and your gains will follow.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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6 responses to “The Do’s and Don’ts of Building Lean Muscle”

  1. Avatar rytiski . says:

    I really don’t see any muscles on the writer so there’s no way that I would listen to this one. The only thing I agree with is the protein, recovery and maybe zoning out. May help for losing weight though. But I’m looking for them gains!

    • Avatar Robin Petti says:

      I don’t she even has experience with working out or competitions or even modeling let alone if she in the age group of 40 and above cause that’s when you start to have loosing weight problems I’m sorry I’m being blunt but just speaking from experience as well as facts also degrees don’t make you they just give you information not hands on

    • Avatar Kendra Staub says:

      What an ass. Just because someone doesn’t look ripped doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about, and you literally can’t even see her in that photo. Half of you meat heads just listen to any random person that chugs protein powder, regardless of their lack of expertise or education. Just because certain techniques and diets build muscle does not mean that it is safe or effective in the long run. Take your toxic masculinity elsewhere

      • Avatar rytiski . says:

        First of all, watch your mouth. I didn’t say she didn’t know what she was talking about nor did I say anything about ripped. Just because you have muscles don’t mean you’re ripped dummy. I said that I, as in me, wouldn’t listen to her because of what I am looking for. I don’t drink protein powder or listen to random folks or what a college expert says either. I actually agreed with 3 points that she pointed out. I work out with women who have muscles, not ripped, that goes to absolute failure and change up on the workout. Most articles (research says, college recommended, studies) are written because of things they have read, like you, and haven’t experienced those things. The body can handle anything you throw at. If you are not exhausted when you leave the gym, park, or the living room, then you haven’t achieved anything. And you can’t let you body get use the same movements…not even for 6 weeks. So before you come onto this website angry and bashing everyone, why don’t you go out, experience everything this article says not to do and see what your results will be. Maybe you’ll be happier.

        • Avatar Brottany says:

          It’s been proven time and time again that progressive overload is key. It is also important for beginners to stick to the same exercises for awhile to master the movements. It’s good to have training blocks where every so often(no more than every 4 weeks) you switch up a few exercises. Switching exercises entirely every week or two will not be anywhere near optimal for strength and could impair growth if you aren’t doing the movements correctly. It’s important to avoid injury, not overcomplicate things and avoid increasing life stress by burning yourself out. I agree you should be dead immediately following a workout, but if you’re entirely zapped the rest of the day after a morning workout, you probably need to work on your recovery methods, how many exercises and sets youre doing, and/or increase food intake. Reading recent studies with proper study designs is important to keep up to date, but few people know how to properly read/interpet studies and university professors aren’t immune to misreading studies either. We unfortunately live in a time where people will argue to death their opinions and manipulate data to back up said opinions when the research actually contradicts what the individual in question is trying to prove. There are tons of ways to get in shape, but there are specific (and proven) ways to build muscle and increase strength. Weekly conjugate periodization has been proven to not be optimal for strength which is why the westside method has received such critiques. Ideally you want some aspects of all periodization for strength, but you have to be intelligent about it. Long story short: if you want to get stronger (and add size more easily), stick to the same exercises for a month (or a few) and work on adding weight or increasing reps or both.

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