How to Get Lean Muscle – Beginners Guide

If you want to transform your body, whether you’re currently underweight or overweight, the key is building lean muscle mass. Building lean muscle mass in the gym will not only alter your body composition and improve your build, but it will also allow your body to work more efficiently.

Couple with lean muscle training in the gym

When you build a solid foundation of muscle, you’ll be burning more calories at rest, even if you’re just lounging and watching television.

Building lean muscle mass will require dedication and hard work both in and out of the gym. Diet plays an enormous role in determining your success. However, if you implement these next few exercise and nutrition principles, you’ll find yourself getting stronger and feeling better than ever.

We’ll cover everything from building your own program to meeting your daily protein requirements. So even if you’re a beginner, you’ll have all the tools you need to create your dream body.

The Basics of Building Muscle

Progressive Overload

The human body is an amazing thing. Based on what type of training you implement, your body can adjust and adapt to nearly any new stressor. This principle is known as progressive overload, and it’s the backbone of any strength-building program.

To gain lean muscle mass, you’ll need to keep your body guessing by constantly yet gradually adjusting variables such as the reps, weight, and sets. If you’re benching one hundred kilograms this week, try one hundred and five the next and so on.

If the body is not continuously challenged, your results will plateau. Plateauing is often why new weightlifters become discouraged with their progress. However, if you implement progressive overload into your training, you’ll gain strength and size with no major barriers in your way.

Types of Strength Training

When it comes to building muscle, there are two popular types of training you can utilise. Pro weightlifters and athletes use both methods. They are maximum strength training and hypertrophy training.

The kind of training you choose to implement can have a significant effect on your body composition, so choose wisely. Let’s break it down, so you can make the best decision for your personal goals.

Max Strength

The goal here isn’t to undergo a dramatic and total body transformation. The ultimate goal is to increase your overall strength. Powerlifting is an excellent example of maximum strength training. It’s a sport that utilises ‘big lifts’ such as:

These are compound movements, meaning that they work multiple muscles at once. A deadlift, for example, targets the hamstrings, glutes, back, and core simultaneously.

Powerlifters train using a high weight and low rep system. Expect to do no more than five reps for every set. Also, since the body is lifting so much weight, typically 80% of your one-rep max, maximum strength training requires rest periods lasting three to five minutes in between sets.

One of the most popular maximum strength programs out there is Stronglifts 5×5. This free powerlifting and full-body program will have you lifting heavy three times a week. The program uses long rest periods, and low rep ranges for optimum strength. It also focuses on teaching you important compound exercises.

Keep in mind, however, though you will feel stronger while training for maximum strength, you may not see noticeable differences in your physique. If you want to prioritize your aesthetic goals by losing weight and building visibly larger muscles, then hypertrophy training would be ideal for you.

Hypertrophy Training

In the fitness world, you’re bound to hear the word ‘hypertrophy’ thrown around quite a bit. This style of training is popular with bodybuilders and competitive bikini models. It’s also what you’re most likely to think of when weightlifting comes to mind.

Hypertrophy training is meant to increase the size of skeletal muscle mass. When this skeletal muscle is broken down in the gym, it repairs and builds upon itself, creating more definition in areas such as the glutes and biceps.

Unlike the low rep ranges and long rest periods associated with maximum strength training, hypertrophy training requires 6-12 reps for each set of exercise. This training also requires shorter rest periods, lasting no more than 60 seconds in between each set.

Hypertrophy training is also typically divided into a one body part per day split. For example, you’ll work out your legs on Monday, chest on Tuesday, back on Wednesday and so on. Hypertrophy also combines compound lifts—squats and deadlifts—with accessory work that targets one specific muscle group like bicep curls and tricep pushdowns.

The Significance of a Good Program

Programming is crucial for your success since following a program will give your gym routine some structure and help you stay on track.

Though you can roll up to the gym with no plan whatsoever, coming prepared with help you feel less overwhelmed if you’re just starting out. This can be something as simple as figuring out what body part to work on which day of the week.

Or you can create a more detailed agenda for yourself, and sort out what specific exercises to do each day and what you hope to accomplish each passing month. Having a detailed program is beneficial if you also wish to track your progress and strength gains.
Whatever direction you’re set on, consider the following when building your own program.

Your Personal Goals

These styles of training—maximum strength and hypertrophy—are vastly different from each other, and choosing the best one for you can feel overwhelming. If you are hoping to lose weight and build some muscle mass, a hypertrophy program would be best for you. If you’re number one goal is to gain strength over size, look into maximum strength training.

Creating a Program

Creating your own workout split may seem daunting. If you’re a beginner in the gym, odds are you’re unfamiliar with the world of fitness. However, creating your own split is rather simple with this template.

Think about what type of training you can benefit the most from. Selecting a specific style of training will help you understand what exercises you must include in your plan. Figure out how many reps and sets are necessary, and how long you must rest between sets.

Then, try a variety of exercises and see what feels the most comfortable and enjoyable. While a new weightlifter may not feel comfortable with heavy squats at first, they could very well love the goblet squat modification (a squat using a single dumbbell) instead. Experiment during those initial gym sessions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re confused on how to perform a specific exercise.

Next, plan out how many days you can see yourself realistically working out. Three to five days a week is standard for most strength and muscle building plans.

Create a split by breaking up those days into muscle group specific workouts.

A popular five day split you’ll often see beginners utilise looks similar to this:

  • Monday: Quads and calves
  • Tuesday: Chest and triceps
  • Wednesday: Cardio
  • Thursday: Back and biceps
  • Friday: Hamstrings and glutes

However, it can look different based off of your personal schedule and fitness goals.

Balancing Out Your Training With Good Nutrition

Figuring out what program to implement in your life is only half the battle. Since food plays a large role in determining your success, make sure you’re paying close attention to what’s fueling your body. Though there are a wide variety of diets out there, from keto to sugar-free, following a too-strict plan can do more harm than good. Building a healthy relationship with food, however, will guarantee continued and sustainable success.

Like your training, your nutritional needs will also vary based on what you hope to accomplish.

Weight Loss

If you are overweight and looking to lose a dramatic amount of weight, you’ll need to eat at a deficit.

Eating in a deficit means that you will have to consume fewer calories than you burn in a day. Make sure you’re consuming enough whole foods, emphasizing protein and carbohydrates, for satiety and energy respectively.

Begin by finding your total daily energy expenditure or TDEE. This calculation takes your age, weight, and activity level to determine just how many calories you burn in a day. This figure also accounts for calories burnt through exercise as well as your basal metabolic rate—the calories you burn at rest. Subtract 100 to 300 calories from your TDEE for the first week. The following week, reduce your calories by another 100.

Of course, if you find yourself feeling drained of energy, you may not be eating enough and have reduced your calories rather dramatically. Bump them up and try to find a happy medium that allows you to lose fat, yet still, give you enough energy for weightlifting.

A low-calorie diet is any diet equal to or less than 1,200 total daily calories, and should never be paired with a weightlifting program.

Low-calorie diets or crash diets are not a proper solution to achieving a healthy body and building lean muscle mass.


If you’re not necessarily overweight, but still feel like you can improve your body through healthy eating and exercise, you may need to eat at maintenance. Maintenance is ideal if you’re sitting at an average or slightly above average body fat percentage.

Unlike a deficit, eating at maintenance requires you to eat almost precisely what you burn in a day. The emphasis here is building lean muscle mass and strength, while still eating enough to keep you energized through those hardcore workouts.

Calculate your TDEE stick to those calories. When you feel that you’ve plateaued, bump up your calories slightly to fuel your newfound strength, and create greater gains.

Gaining Muscle Mass

If you are trying to gain weight, you may benefit from eating at a surplus. Eating at a surplus or ‘bulking’ is recommended if you’re underweight, or trying to pack on more muscle in a shorter amount of time.

Begin with a surplus of 100-300 calories more than your TDEE, train hard at the gym, and bump them up gradually when you find yourself struggling to make strength gains in the gym.

But keep in mind, that an excess of calories can lead to fat gain. Don’t go overboard and make sure you’re using those extra calories to your benefit by lifting heavy in the gym. If you find yourself gaining weight and not increasing your strength, try eating at maintenance before bulking up.

Tracking and Measuring Your Food

Tracking and measuring your calories and macronutrients is an excellent idea when you’re trying to clean up and improve your diet. Download a nutrition tracker onto your phone and order a food scale and measuring cups online.

Instead of following a strict plan and setting yourself up for failure, tracking will help improve your relationship with food and fuel your body adequately enough for the gym. Once you learn about portion control, and what foods to avoid, you won’t have to rely on tracking every bit of food entering your body.

The goal here is to create a healthy relationship with food and approach nutrition with a sustainable mindset.

Focus on eating whole foods, and keep an eye on your protein intake since it’s a crucial macronutrient when focusing on building muscle mass. Carbohydrates, however, will help fuel your workouts, so make sure your intake of both is sufficient.


Unless you’re deficient in a vitamin or mineral or eating an entirely plant-based diet (supplement with a B12 vitamin if you are vegetarian or vegan), supplements are not as crucial as you think. There are, however, a couple of exceptions.

If you find that you’re struggling to meet your daily protein requirements from food alone, drinking a protein shake is an excellent solution for a quick and easy post-workout meal or breakfast.

Creatine is another popular and effective supplement, intended to maximize your strength gains and can be taken before or after a lifting session. Though not completely necessary, feel free to add these two supplements into the mix if you struggle to pack on muscle mass.

Some frequent gym-goers swear by these supplements. While hard work and a clean diet will give you the results you’re aiming for, try them out if you want to kick things up a notch.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Did you know your body is actually building up that hard earned muscle outside of the gym? Sleep is so vital for a wide variety of reasons since this is the time your body recovers from those challenging workouts. If you’re trying to build your dream physique, you must make time to rest every night. Seven to eight hours is optimal.

While you’re resting, your body is repairing the muscle you tore and broke down at the gym.

Proper sleep also helps lessen the effect of D.O.M.S, also referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness. You’ll feel ready to bounce back the next day without any severe aches preventing you from working out and staying on track.

Lift Heavy

Lifting heavy is critical when it comes to gaining strength and dramatically changing your physique. You want to challenge yourself every single workout. Though it may be tempting to stay in your comfort zone, sticking with a pair of 2.5 kg dumbbells, this approach won’t benefit your body nearly as much as lifting heavy.

Many new weightlifters often ask, how do I know I’m lifting heavy enough?

There are two ways of determining you’ve reached the best level of difficulty for your body.

The 8/10 Method

When performing your set of reps, you want the last three reps to feel incredibly difficult, yet doable. Those last three reps of every set should feel like an 8/10 in terms of difficulty.

If you’re able to breeze through the entire set without feeling your legs quaking towards the end, crank up the weight.

If you’re struggling to perform the exercise with proper form after the second rep, bring the weight down and focus on performing the exercise correctly.

Determining Your One Rep Max

The second way you can calculate your proper starting weight is by figuring out your one-rep max on the heavy lifts discussed earlier.

You can calculate your one-rep max by doing the following:

  1. Warm up with a set of 10 unweighted reps of the exercise, or just use the barbell
  2. Add 2.5-11 kilos of additional resistance perform five repetitions
  3. Continue to add 2.5 to 11 kilos every set until you can no longer do the exercise with proper form
  4. When you’ve reached failure, consider this your one-rep-max, or 1RM

With hypertrophy training, you want to aim 60-75% of your 1RM. With maximum strength, you want to use 80-95% of your 1RM, so just calculate these figures accordingly.

Include Cardio

A well-rounded program, no matter what your fitness goals are, should always include some form of cardio.

From the Stairmaster to the elliptical, there are so many machines to choose from. Running may not be everyone’s preferred way to increase their heart rate, and that’s completely okay.

Some individuals may struggle to find running on a treadmill comfortable due to a previous injury, excess weight, or old age. But there are so many ways of performing cardio, from biking outdoors to swimming laps.

Completely neglecting cardio, however, is not advisable. Though the novice weightlifter should prioritize weight training over cardio, they should also make time for two to three cardio sessions a week. Perform cardio after weight lifting, so you can reserve the bulk of your energy and strength for lifting heavy.

Regular cardio can benefit your body greatly. It burns off extra calories, improves your heart rate and endurance, and lessens your risk of fatal diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Often men and women looking to increase their lean muscle mass in the gym will avoid cardio altogether for fear of losing muscle mass. While performing an excessive amount of cardio can kill your gains from lifting, dialing it back to one to three high-intensity interval training sessions a week will preserve your lean muscle mass. High-intensity interval training also burns excess fat and will help improve your athletic performance in the gym.


Building lean muscle mass takes commitment, hard work, and some basic exercise and nutrition knowledge. Many newcomers to weightlifting become discouraged when they find themselves struggling to make progress at the gym.

But, if you’ve read through the information we’ve listed here and done your own outside research, there’s no reason you can’t build impressive lean muscle as a beginner.

By selecting the right programming, making use of the right supplements, and eating a clean and balanced diet that meets your nutritional needs, you will sculpt a healthy and fit body that will physically embody your hard work and drive.

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Team MT

Team MT is the editorial team of MuscleTalk. With over 20 years experience we write quality, evidence based, articles. In addition to creating original content, we also edit and fact-check any articles we feature by external writers.

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