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How to Build Lean Muscle

Updated: Jun 5, 2021

Weight lifting woman

It is a myth that by eating large quantities of protein or having protein shakes you will automatically get bigger and stronger - so I bet you're wondering how to build lean muscle?  The only way that you can increase your muscle mass is to follow a structured strength training programme.  This needs to be supported by a diet high in energy to support training and daily requirements. 

Resistance training provides a stimulus (something that causes a response) that helps the body adapt to the increased working load resulting in muscle gain. 

There have been many studies looking to see if athletes require more protein than the normal population.  Guidelines indicate that more protein is required to gain muscle

(1.2 to 2g protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.54 to 0.91g per pound of body weight). 

The most crucial dietary factor on how to build lean muscle is making sure that you are eating plenty of calories.  You should be taking in more calories than you are using, known as ‘positive energy balance’.  Most people who are training hard can meet their protein requirements by their diet.

There is no evidence to suggest that taking protein supplements is better than taking protein from food sources.  Generally, protein and amino acid supplements are more expensive than taking protein-rich foods.  Protein when taken in excess can reduce appetite, and prevent adequate fuelling for training. 

The timing of protein has been found to be helpful with resistance training.  Studies suggest that consuming a small amount of protein (10g) immediately before the gym session may help with muscle gains. 

There is also strong evidence of taking a small amount of protein (10–15g) with carbohydrate immediately after strength training helps stop muscle breakdown, and enhances muscle repair and refuelling.  There are commercially available protein-based carbohydrate recovery drinks and snacks that are convenient and available on the market today.

Your muscles can only use a certain amount of protein, and provided there is adequate dietary energy excess, the protein taken will be broken down and used as fuel, or removed in the urine. 

A high protein intake at the expense of carbohydrate fuel will leave you feeling tired and exhausted and unable to training effectively.  

Researchers have also shown that diets low in fat with excessive protein can compromise the anabolic hormonal response.  Therefore, ensure you have a well-balanced diet that is low in fat, moderate in protein and adequate in carbohydrates to maximise muscle gains.

Top tips on how to build lean muscle:

  • Increase your food intake when starting weight training.

  • Don’t over-consume large amounts of protein, or protein shakes.

  • Eat 2-3 portions of protein-containing foods per day.

  • Go for lean meat or fish to keep the fat intake low to moderate.

  • Include some protein of high biological value, such as eggs or lean meat.

  • If vegetarian, make sure you eat a good variety of vegetable protein sources over the course of the day from beans, tofu, Quorn, pulses, cereals, nuts and seeds.

  • Use protein recovery bars or drinks for convenience post-training.

  • Try and take a small amount of protein before the gym such as; a low-fat yoghurt, glass of milk, fruit yoghurt drink or a small packet of nuts.

  • Eat a protein & carbohydrate-based meal as soon as possible if training again within 24 hours.


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