Building muscle should be a goal for your workouts, and life in general—what’s not to like about being stronger? Body strength, in addition to contributing to overall health, allows you to more easily lift things (like dumbbells or groceries), keeps your bones strong, and lowers your risk for injuries. We also naturally lose muscle mass as we get older, so there’s no time like the present to start strength training. If you've been hesitant in the past because you don't want to get bulky, just know that not all strength training builds mass, and all muscle is technically lean muscle.
We tapped Joel Freeman and Robert Cadiz Saldarriaga to explain why there’s no such thing as “lean muscle,” why building muscle is important, how diet can play a factor, and what exercises you can do to increase strength (spoiler—not all of them require weights).
Meet the Expert
What Is Lean Muscle?
When it comes down to it, muscle is muscle. “There is no difference between lean muscle and regular muscle. All muscle is lean,” explains Freeman. However, you can achieve a leaner look by building muscle and losing weight. “The muscle fibers are already there, it's just about strengthening them and increasing their size (hypertrophy),” he says.
Cadiz Saldarriaga adds that training towards looking lean is training for a more defined and toned physique, while training for bulk is more focused on growing muscle size and mass. In the former, you may tend to focus on more reps and less volume, whereas in the latter, you’d do fewer reps with higher volume.
What Are the Benefits of Building Muscle?
Building muscle increases your overall body strength, but the benefits go beyond helping you work out better. Says Freeman, building and having more muscle mass can help increase your resting metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories while at rest), build stronger bones and support your joints, reduce the risk of injury, and increase your balance and stability.
Mentally, there are benefits too. “The positive endorphins your body releases, the mind-body connection you create throughout yourself, the blood pumping through your body that is pumping oxygen through you—it all just helps you genuinely feel better and, for lack of a better word, more alive,” says Cadiz Saldarriaga.
How Much Does Diet Play a Factor?
What you put into your body is just as important as how you move it. Your diet, as a source of fuel, plays a major role in building muscle. However, both Freeman and Cadiz Saldarriaga stress that balance (such as indulging every now and then) is key and important for long-term sustainability.
“It’s best to stick to mostly eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods, and counting macros is always a helpful tool to help you stay on track,” says Freeman. “Overall, I would recommend eating plenty of greens, making sure you’re eating enough protein, and avoiding sugary, processed treats 80-90 percent of the time.”
Cadiz Saldarriaga recommends consulting a registered dietitian or nutritionist and finding a diet that keeps you happy, but also gets you where you want to be in terms of physical strength. And don’t forget to manage your expectations. “Telling yourself that you will only have sweets once a week when you know how easily you succumb to sour candy ultimately does not work. Be transparent with yourself, and honor it. It’ll help you know where to cut back when necessary.”
If you’re incorporating heavy weights into your routine, Freeman says your protein intake should be sufficient to help with muscle repair and recovery. When you eat protein is a factor too, and Cadiz Saldarriaga advises evenly distributing your protein intake throughout the day. “Nutrient timing is key, and many studies have shown that more effective muscle protein synthesis (when your body creates protein to help repair your muscles, thus creating muscle growth) occurs when you spread your protein consumption throughout the day, versus directly before or after an intense training,” he says.
The Do's and Don'ts of Building Muscle
If you want to build muscle you should hit the weights, says Freeman. He also notes not to shy away from heavy weights, as they're the key to building muscle. Lifting heavy “stresses the muscles more, ultimately leading to more gains (but not bulk).” If you’re a beginner or want some guidance, you can follow a lifting program or a built-in routine (like LIIFT4 on Beachbody On Demand).
Cadiz Saldarriaga also recommends keeping track of your numbers when training—such as the number of reps, the weight you are using, and how long you are resting in between reps—to keep tabs on your progress.
As for cardio versus strength training, if your main goal is to build muscle, Freeman says strength training alone is enough. He does, however, recommend incorporating some cardio training into your routine because it’s important for heart health, and aiming for a schedule like weight training three to four days a week and doing cardio two days per week.
Even though cardio can impede gains in strength training for certain athletes, notes Cadiz Saldarriaga, that doesn’t mean you can’t do both if you’re trying to build muscle—you just need to make smart diet choices. “Think of the energy that your body depletes when you put it through a long run or intense bike ride. When you’re at a deficit of your glycogen stores (the energy your body uses), most athletes begin to see suffering in their performance. You need to find the yin and yang when fusing intense strength training with cardiovascular training. Proper diet and recovery will be key to ensure you are not just performing well, but also resting well and giving your body the time and nutrients it needs to build the muscle you have stressed,” he says.
Freeman suggests the following exercises for building muscle.
- Deadlifts: You’re working many muscles at the same time, and this move also helps with core spinal stabilization.
- Arnold press: This is great because it’s working the deltoid muscles in multiple ways.
- Glute bridge chest press: You’re simultaneously hitting your glutes and chest muscles.
- Squats: Squats help strengthen the spine (which helps with better posture), while also putting heavy emphasis on your quads and glutes.
- Pull-ups: Pull-ups hit a lot of your major upper-body muscles, working the lats, biceps, and triceps. Plus, they’re a great strength goal to work towards.
Cadiz Saldarriaga adds that regardless of what exercises you choose to do, in order to maximize your goals, you should try splitting your strength days to focus on specific goals. “For instance, one day can be a push day (think chest, shoulders, triceps, glutes, and quads) whereas another day can be a pull day (back, biceps, and hamstrings). Or you can have chest day, a back day, a lower body day, and a full body day. There are so many ways to create a regimen that makes sense to you and your lifestyle,” he says.
For those who don’t want to lift weights or are looking to mix up their strength training routine, there are other activities you can try. Freeman suggests boxing (“you get cardio, but it’s also going to totally shred your arm muscles, shoulders, core, and more”), yoga, or any type of bodyweight training like gymnastics and calisthenics. Pilates is also great for building muscle because it works your tiny stabilizer muscles and tissues, which we don’t frequently target, says Cadiz Saldarriaga.
Finally, keep in mind that everybody is different, so be patient with yourself and find something that is sustainable for your lifestyle and fitness goals. “You don’t have to follow the norm that says you must work out every X number of days for X number of minutes. What you know will work for you will certainly keep you on track longer than whatever anyone tells you to do,” says Cadiz Saldarriaga.
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Grgic J, Mcllvenna LC, Fyfe JJ, et al. Does aerobic training promote the same skeletal muscle hypertrophy as resistance training? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2019;49(2):233-254. doi:10.1007/s40279-018-1008-z