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Do I Need a Certain Body Fat Percentage to Build Lean Muscle Mass?

author image Jessica Bell
Jessica Bell has been working in the health and fitness industry since 2002. She has served as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Bell holds an M.A. in communications and a B.A. in English.
Do I Need a Certain Body Fat Percentage to Build Lean Muscle Mass?
A man is lifting weights in the gym. Photo Credit nd3000/iStock/Getty Images

Trying to reduce or maintain low body fat levels while simultaneously adding muscle mass can be a bit tricky. You're probably familiar with the "bulking" phase that bodybuilders and other athletes often go through to add mass to their frames -- a phase that usually entails adding at least a little bit of body fat as well. However, if your goal is to gain lean mass, and if you're careful and systematic about the process, you can usually stay pretty lean in the process. It's helpful to understand a few things about minimum body fat levels and dietary requirements to aid in the process.

Minimal Body Fat Levels

Doctors and health specialists agree that too much body fat is a major health risk that can contribute to many ailments, including hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, having body fat levels that are too low can be problematic as well. Essential body fat levels of about 5 percent for men and 8 percent for women are required for energy production and basic metabolic functions. However, body functions can be disrupted if levels drop below the minimum recommended levels of 5 percent for men or 15 percent for women. For optimal health, it's recommended that women maintain levels around 18 to 30 percent, while men should stay in the 10 to 25 percent range. If body fat is within these recommended ranges, you'll likely find it easier to add muscle mass because your muscles won't be competing with the rest of your body systems for energy rations.

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Gaining Lean Mass

The diet dilemma of gaining muscle without adding body fat is that building muscle requires a positive calorie balance. If you're not consuming more calories than your body needs to simply maintain current composition levels, you won't provide your system with the building blocks it needs to generate muscle tissue. With that said, the astronomical daily excesses of 500 to 1,000 calories that some folks recommend aren't always necessary and may cause you to pack on fat. To find your ideal surplus, start by increasing your calorie intake by about 100 to 300 calories each day above your basal requirements, which is the number of calories approximately equal to your body weight times 16. For example, if you require 2,000 calories to maintain your current weight and muscle mass, begin by just increasing your daily calorie intake to 2,100 to 2,300 calories.

Adjusting As Necessary

If you're not noticing gains after a few weeks on a daily 100 to 300-calorie surplus, you probably need to bump your calorie intake up again. If that happens, add another 100 to 200 calories for a few more weeks and monitor your gains. The key is to slowly increase calorie intake until you find the optimal energy balance you need to build mass without adding body fat. If your activity levels remain the same but you begin to notice increases in body fat measurements, it may be time to drop your calories slightly or begin integrating short, moderate cardio sessions.

Diet Considerations

Because body composition is so closely related to diet, you must get a strong handle on your food intake to reach your desired levels of body fat and lean mass. All calories aren't created equal, and your body knows the difference. For example, 2,500 calories worth of cupcakes and nachos is not the same as 2,500 calories of clean, whole foods. Adequate protein intake is essential because it provides the amino acids necessary to build muscle. Aim for at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Choose lean protein sources such as ground turkey, chicken breast, fish, tofu and egg whites. Consume carbohydrates from unprocessed and nutritious foods like sweet potatoes, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Top off your diet with fats from unsaturated sources such as nuts and olive oil.

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