How to Build Lean Muscle

3 Steps to Building a Ripped, Dense Muscular Body

PLUS 2 Workouts - 1 for Bulking and 1 for Cutting

My ultimate workout goal is not to be Mr. Olympia. What I do is bodybuilding, but I don’t aspire to build my body to the degree that I’d qualify for the Mr. Olympia contest.

That said, I do have decent muscle size and add to it all the time. However, I temper adding muscle size with working on my muscle definition by turning mass into lean muscle.

Most people interested in building muscle are interested ultimately in adding lean muscle. However, it’s the degree or how much lean muscle one wants to add that must be determined. Each person has their preference.

After all, any competitive bodybuilder has lean muscle. The fact is their muscle is ripped and it’s lean.

That said, different people mean different things when referring to lean muscle.

The starting point with discussing how to build lean muscle is setting out the types of lean muscle and going from there.

4 Types of muscular bodies

1. Pro Bodybuilder: Shredded huge muscle

2. Amateur Bodybuilder

3. Athlete: Lean physique

4. Trim and Lean

Arguably, all 4 types above have lean muscle.

Because most people won’t ever be a professional bodybuilder and don’t aspire to that career, I’ll continue this “how to build lean muscle” article for achieving a cross between an amateur bodybuilder and athlete body.

3 Steps to Building a Ripped, Dense Muscular Body

STEP 1. You Need a Muscular Base

In order to create lean, defined muscle of any kind, you need to have a muscular base or foundation. You must have some muscle mass that you can sculpt.

If you have a muscular foundation and are looking to carve that muscle into defined muscle, skip ahead to part 2 titled “Time to build lean muscle.”

Therefore, the starting point is adding on a muscular foundation for all muscle parts. This requires working out all muscles.

Even if you just want to add 10 pounds of lean muscle over the course of a year or two, you’ll need this base.

Adding muscle mass requires a combination of doing a workout that is designed to add mass and eating a diet that will foster muscle growth.

Which workout format is best for establishing a muscular foundation?

If you’ve never worked out before, starting with a simple full-body workout and doing it 2 to 3 times per week is good.

The full body compound lifting workout

For anyone just starting out with lifting weights, this is an excellent starting workout. It focuses on the absolute basics and it works out all of your muscles. The workout is as follows:

  • Chest: Bench Press: 2 x 12, 2 x 10, 1 x 8
  • Back: Lateral Wide-Grip Pull Downs: 2 x 12, 2 x 10, 1 x 8
  • Shoulders: Military Press: 2 x 12, 2 x 10, 1 x 8
  • Barbell Curls: 2 x 12, 2 x 10
  • Tricep Dips: 2 x 12, 2 x 10
  • Squats: 2 x 12, 2 x 10, 1 x 8
  • Straight Leg Deadlifts: 2 x 12, 2 x 10
  • Abs: Exercise Ball Crunches and Lying Down Leg Raises (3 sets of each to failure).

Some people might criticize the above with respect to the back exercise chosen. The criticism of the back exercise is that some people believe wide-grip or narrow grip pull ups are best. Yes, they are good, but most people starting out in the gym can’t do a single wide-grip pull up, let alone a set of 10. Therefore, I consider lateral cable wide-grip pull downs an excellent starting back exercise.

Full Body Workout Notes:

  • Warmup: for each muscle, do 1 light set of 12 to 15 reps.
  • This workout should be done 2 to 3 times per week.
  • Rest: 45 to 60 seconds in between each set.
  • Workout duration: 75 minutes
  • Lifting speed (cadence): 2 to 3 seconds up and 2 to 3 seconds down (or vice versa).
  • Cardio: Up to you. I always include some cardio such as 15 to 30 minutes 3 to 5 times per week. I walk a lot as well.

STEP 2. Time to Chisel

I don’t buy the argument that during a “lean muscle” phase or cutting phase that you don’t create new muscle. You do. It’s just that you aren’t building mass or putting on the same amount of weight as you would during a bulk phase.

In fact, I believe if you’re patient, you can maintain a lean muscle building regimen instead of doing the popular bulk and cut phases.

I do bulk and cut phases because I like the variety and I believe it’s faster; however, if you don’t want to bulk up at all, there’s no reason you can’t build lean muscle consistently. It’s slow going, but it works.

Cutting Workout

For a cutting workout program, I’ll move from a full body approach to a 4-day split routine.

Day 1: Chest and Biceps and Abs

  • Chest: BB Bench Press: 2 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6
  • Chest: Incline DB Press: 2 x 10, 2 x 8
  • Chest: Cable Crossover: 2 x 10, 2 x Drop Set (3 drop sets)
  • Bicep: BB Curls (Wide-Grip): 2 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6
  • Bicep: Cable Preacher Curls: 2 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x Drop Set (3 drop sets)
  • Bicep: Supinating Alternate DB Curls: 3 x 8
  • Abs: 4 x 30 Bicycle Crunches
  • Abs: 3 x 25 Lying Down Leg Raises

Day 2: Back and Triceps

  • Back: Bent Over Barbell Rows: 2 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6
  • Back: Wide Grip Cable Pull Downs: 2 x 10, 2 x 8
  • Back: Close Grip Seated Row: 2 x 8, 1 x Drop Set (3 drop sets)
  • Back: DB Rows (Lying Face Down on Incline Bench): 3 x 8
  • Triceps: Dips: 3 x 10
  • Triceps: Over Head Cable Extensions with Straight Bar: 2 x 10, 2 x 8
  • Triceps: Close Grip Cable Press Downs (Reverse Grip): 3 x 10, 1 x Drop Set (3 drop sets)

Day 3: Shoulders / Abs

  • Shoulder: DB Overhead Press: 2 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6
  • Shoulder: Wide-Grip Upright Row: 2 x 10, 2 x 8
  • Shoulder: DB Lateral Raises: 3 x 10
  • Shoulder: Rear DB Raises: 3 x 10
  • Shoulder: Barbell Shrugs: 4 x 10
  • Abs: 4 x 25 Leg Raises
  • Abs: 4 x 30 Exercise Ball Crunches

Day 4: Legs

  • Quads: Leg Extensions (toes pointed up): 3 x 10
  • Quads: Squats: 2 x 10, 3 x 8
  • Quads: Let Press (narrow feet placement): 3 x 10
  • Quads: DB Lunges: 3 x 10
  • Hamstrings: Seated Leg Curl (1 leg at a time): 3 x 10
  • Hamstrings: Lying Down Leg Curls: 2 x 10, 2 x 8
  • Calves: Standing Calf Raises: 4 x 10
  • Calves: Seated Calf Raises: 4 x 10

Workout Notes:

  • Warmup: For each muscle, do a light set of 12 to 15 reps (not included on the workout above)
  • Cardio: 30 to 40 minutes 5 days per week at moderate intensity.
  • Scheduling: Take 2 days off per split cycle.
  • Rest: 45 to 60 seconds in between sets.
  • Lifting Workout Duration: Approximately 50 minutes
  • Lifting Speed (Cadence): 2 to 3 seconds up and 2 to 3 seconds down.

STEP 3. Nutrition Plays a BIG Part

Cutting Phase

You need to maintain a caloric deficit. This means eating fewer calories than you burn. In order to do this, you need to know how many calories you burn in a given day, including your workouts. This takes a little time to determine.

HOWEVER, it’s imperative that your protein intake be sufficient so that your body doesn’t consume muscle for energy. If you maintain a caloric deficit for any period of time and don’t consume sufficient protein, you’ll lose muscle, which is not the name of the game. The name of the game is to burn fat!

The debate over how much protein is needed for any workout goal rages on. Some people claim 1 gram per 1 pound of body weight. Other people claim 1 gram of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight. I believe it lies somewhere in between.

I shoot for 20 to 50 grams of protein per meal. I don’t always achieve this, but for most meals I do. I eat 5 times per day; sometimes 6 times per day. I restrict my carbohydrate intake quite a bit and limit carbs to rice, legumes, root vegetables and some bread (I love bread).

I also add healthy fats to most meals. 3 great sources of fat are peanut butter, almond butter and flax oil. I hate flax oil, so I eat a spoon of peanut butter at most meals for that added fat. Yes, include some added fat even during a cutting phase. Regardless of what you’re workout objective, your body does need fat. Just because you consume healthy fat doesn’t mean you can burn fat and carve out lean muscle.

Building lean muscle without the bulking and cutting phase cycles

As I said before, it’s possible to build lean muscle without the bulking and cutting phase cycles. Take a look at athletes who train for performance. They don’t bulk up 20 pounds and then cut down. They train for their sport, lift hard, eat right and build quality lean muscle. You can too.

The workout regimen won’t change a whole lot in principle from the above cutting workout. You can switch up the workout every 8 to 12 weeks by increasing reps to 12. You can also add variety by doing the occasional heavy-lifting cycle with reps in the 5 to 8 range to increase strength and muscle density (building myofibrillar muscle versus sarcoplasmic muscle growth from higher reps).

The other components to a lean muscle building program are diet and cardio.

You’ll need to fine-tune your diet which will take a little trial and error. You want to avoid too much excess calories and avoid excess caloric deficit. The best approach is to look at your calories burned vs. calories consumed on a weekly basis instead of a daily basis.

Even if you get your caloric intake just right, you’ll want to ensure (again and as always) that your protein intake is sufficient. Just because you’re building lean muscle doesn’t mean you don’t need a lot of protein. You do, or you won’t build the muscle. Again, I believe each person is different … but somewhere in between 1 gram per pound of bodyweight and 1 kilogram of bodyweight will do it. Also, limit carb intake with respect to quantity and quality. Often people gain excess fat due to consuming lousy carbs.

For cardio, you’ll want to do 20 to 40 minutes five times per week. Maintaining a moderately intense cardio regimen will help burn unwanted fat so that as you grow, you’ll be developing quality muscle.

Nutrition Tip for all of the Above Workouts

Make your last meal a protein-only meal. I usually have a 30 gram protein shake before I go to bed. This way your muscles are fueled with protein while you sleep.

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