If you’re after lean, toned muscles without the bulk, the key elements to your success include an emphasis on cardio and active recovery, and a focus on careful balancing of your nutrient intake. You might be glad to know, strictly eliminating carbs is not the answer.

Of course, all muscle is lean muscle, whether you’re gaining for size or a lean, toned look. But the difference is that if you’re focusing on lean, not on muscle mass, you’re probably looking to lose fat (or at least not gain any) at the same time as building muscle.

We’ll be straight with you, it’s tricky to build muscle and lose fat at the same time – especially if you’re already close to your goal weight and don’t have much fat to lose. Because you’re looking to fuel muscle growth, simply upping your protein and eliminating carbs isn’t likely to get you the results you want. It requires a precise ratio of macros (i.e. the key macronutrients: protein, carbs and fat), particularly if you have an intensive training programme to support.

But don’t worry, while every body is different, and it may take some persistence to find exactly what works for you, it is still possible to gain muscle while mitigating fat gain by changing your workout programme and tweaking your diet in line with a few simple tips.

So if your goal is to gain lean muscle, read on below for some tips in three key areas: nutrition, workout and recovery.

(If you are really looking to just lose fat for a leaner look, and not too worried about adding or maintaining muscle, read more on our weight loss Goal page.)

 

Nutrition.

You may have the tendency to eat less so as not to gain body fat, but if you are not supplying your body with the right amount of nutrients, you might neglect important nutrients your body needs to stay healthy, plus you won’t have the energy for your workouts or to fuel muscle repair and growth; and ultimately you’ll slow your transformation.

The key is in balancing your macros. This means enough protein to feed muscle tissue growth and repair and prevent catabolism, enough carb to fuel processes like muscle growth and provide energy for your workouts, (but without consuming excess that will be stored as fat), and enough dietary fat to support healthy cellular processes like building cell membranes, carrying fat soluble vitamins etc.

 

Here is a simple range guide on getting the balance right:

Macronutrient: RDI per kg of bodyweight:
Protein 1.4g - 1.8g
Carbohydrate 3g - 5g
Fat 1g (up to 80g max p/day)

 

Keep your metabolism high by eating smaller meals more often. Change how you eat rather than eating less. Feeding your body regularly maintains stable blood sugar, energy and hydration levels, and boosts your metabolism.

It is crucial to get your nutrition and timings right if you want to achieve your goals. Avoid rewarding yourself after training by thinking you can eat anything. Stick to a healthy whole food diet of protein, fat and carbs (the key macronutrients), and try to avoid excess sugar and salt, which tend to result in fat gain and water retention.

Breakfast is a great time to eat carbs as during this time, your body doesn’t need to create a lot of insulin to get nutrients to where they are needed. The nutrients you consume first thing in the morning get absorbed efficiently rather than being stored as fat. Even at the time of your second meal (mid to late morning), carbs work well as your insulin sensitivity is still relatively high. Aim to consume low GI carbs that are slowly released to the blood stream, for example wholegrain oats rather than white bread and pasta.

Post-workout is another time of the day when it’s a great idea to refuel with some simple carbs and protein. It’s important to take in some carbs with your post-workout protein. Carbs provide the energy to build new tissue from the building blocks of protein. Without enough carbs, that protein you’ve consumed is going to waste. In addition, when you work out you use stored carbohydrate called glycogen. Carbs post-workout help to replenish glycogen, speeding up your recovery.

Many athletes and bodybuilders like to use a quality protein powder during the day as it is a fast and easy way of ensuring you get enough protein. Horleys Elite ICE WPI is ideal for lean muscle building as it contains 90% pure protein from high quality cation-exchange whey and is ultra low in carbs and fat. If you are using it first thing in the morning or straight after a workout, you could add some fast carbs to your protein shake like a ripe banana or some berries.

Your last meal of the day should be high in protein, with some essential fatty acids to slow down the absorption of protein. This will help sustain you overnight.

Hydrated muscles perform better so keep your fluids up before, during and after exercise. Aim for a minimum of 2-3 litres of fluids a day, water is best but water from tea, coffee, and foods also count. You may need more than this depending on your training, fitness level and environment.

For more on hydration, go here.

 

Workout.

Aim to train 4-5 times a week and follow a programme with a mix of high intensity interval training (HIIT), strength (with high reps), and cardio workouts. For your strength training, start with single sets of 12 reps and work your way up to 3 sets of 12 reps. Increase your weights whenever you no longer feel challenged.

Be consistent and avoid missing any sessions by creating a schedule that works for you. Alternate your strength training with your HIIT and cardio to give your main muscle groups adequate rest. The rest period is when your muscles will grow back stronger.

 

Recovery.

During your days off, we recommend active recovery for lean muscle gains. Active recovery means neither complete rest, or serious training. What is it does mean, is keep moving. Generally speaking, an active recovery workout is less intense than one of your normal workouts, yet it still works enough to stimulate blood flow, and flush out, lubricate and hydrate the joints.

Here are 5 active recovery ideas for your days off:

  1. Swimming
  2. Walking
  3. Yoga
  4. Pilates
  5. Jobs around the house or garden

Put aside 20 minutes of your recovery day to stretch out. This will help with your mobility. Rolling out on a foam roller or lacrosse ball will also help avoid that stiffness that comes with resistance training. On your day off, aim to roll out for 30 seconds on each of your large muscle groups with a bit of extra time focusing on any problem areas.

Sleep is crucial to recovery especially if your goal is to gain lean muscle. During sleep, your body releases growth hormones, which are essential for lean muscle. Aim for at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

Keep your fluids up during your recovery time. Water is always best but other liquids count too.

 

Points to remember.

Now that you have some pointers to help you start gaining that lean muscle, you’ll be raring to go. With a bit of determination and grit, you’ll be looking cut before you know it. Just remember:

  • Eat your protein, carbs and fat at the right times
  • Eat small, regular whole food meals
  • Use a quality protein powder with limited carbs and fat
  • Train 4-5 times a week with a mix of HIIT, strength and cardio
  • Aim for high reps with your resistance training
  • Focus on active recovery on your days off
  • Get at least 7 hours sleep a night
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