The 5 Best Ways to Gain Muscle While Staying Lean

Gaining muscle
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Growing bigger, stronger muscles requires feeding a growing appetite.

After all, you need ample fuel to power your workouts and replenish nutrients to build major gains, so is it really possible to gain muscle and stay lean?

Finding the perfect strength training regimen and diet plan for your body may take some trial and error, but it ​is​ possible to be lean and muscular. Here are the best exercise and nutrition tips for building a skinny but muscular body.

1. Strength Train Strategically

How fast you'll gain muscle will depend on what your goals are exactly and what your current fitness level is. Strength training newbies can expect some muscle gain pretty quickly, but if you're a more seasoned athlete, it can take anywhere between three to six months to see major changes, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

There many personal factors that can affect your rate of muscle gain, including your genetics, biological sex and age, according to the ACE. And while these are things out of your control, you can design your workout plan and nutrition to cater to your fitness goals as much as possible.

For example, if your goal is to build lean muscle size, aka hypertrophy, strength training should be your main form of exercise, with other exercise modalities and cardio activity sprinkled in (more on that later). You should aim to complete 6 to 12 reps for 3 to 6 sets per strength exercise, the ACE recommends.

Building lean muscle, specifically, is a multi-pronged process, says certified personal trainer Carolina Araujo, CPT. Your strength-training routine and nutrition strategy need to work together to both build strength and keep your total body fat percentage low and healthy (more on nutrition below).

Keeping your training routine on point involves some record-keeping. Logging your lifts, including the weight, sets and reps in a notebook or on your phone is a great way to make sure you're moving in the right direction. The key to muscle growth is an increase in volume over time, a type of progressive overload, Araujo says.

"In order to grow your muscles, you do have to increase your training volume as your body adapts to it, whether that's through increasing your weight, sets or reps in order to continue stimulating your muscle fibers," she says.

Work on increasing the weights you lift during your workouts over the course of six to eight weeks, she says. The amount of weight you want to add each week will depend on the program you're doing. If you feel recovered walking into your training sessions and are starting to see results with the workouts, you can increase the load of each exercise up to 5 or 10 pounds each week.

"The weight increase would also vary on what movements you are referring to," Araujo says. "Compound movements may require smaller increases in load for both safety as well as the rate of strength increase."

If you can't perform an exercise with good form after you've increased the weight, either minimize the incremental increase or keep the weight steady and add repetitions instead, she says.

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2. Sprinkle in Some Cardio

Although strength training is the key to gaining lean muscle and burning fat, that doesn't mean you should totally neglect cardio.

"Cardio won't be the leading cause of body fat reduction," Araujo says. But it does help you stay lean while building muscle by adding to your total daily caloric burn.

Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise — like walking, hiking or running — each week, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But if you want to increase muscle size and strength, incorporating some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may be a bit more strategic. Often, the exercises incorporated in HIIT workouts, like burpees and jump squats, include a body-weight, strength-training element, whereas steady-state cardio doesn't offer the same muscle-building advantage, Araujo says.

You can overdo HIIT, though. When you exercise, your muscles experience micro-tears, which your body repairs and transforms into larger, stronger muscle, she explains. HIIT is a high-impact activity that's tough on the joints and muscles, so you need to give your muscles enough time to recover between sessions. Stick to three high-intensity workouts per week, she says.

Bottom line: Do HIIT up to two to three times per week.

To make the most out your sessions, use short rest intervals (up to 60 seconds) and cap your workouts to 45 minutes tops, Araujo says.

Just like you want to vary your strength-training exercises, changing up your cardio will help increase strength and cardiovascular health, she says. "You can vary cardio by changing up the intensity [sprinting instead of walking] or switching up the medium of training [cycling instead of running]," she says.

Also, consider taking up a new fitness activity you haven't done before, she says. You can try a dance workout or go for a hike. Or, add a quick few cardio intervals at the end of a strength-training session to ramp up your heart rate without going into a full-blown cardio workout.

3. Find Your Ideal Calorie Count

Strength training and cardio are just one part of the muscle-building puzzle. Your nutrition is another big element you need to tailor to build a slim but muscular body.

It's possible that you may gain a little fat while you're gaining muscle. That's because you need to eat more calories than you burn (called a caloric surplus) to build muscle, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

However, you can minimize the amount of fat you gain — and even lower your total body fat — while strength training by keeping your caloric surplus small. If you add on too many calories too quickly, there's a higher chance you'll gain a little fat, too. But too little and you won't gain any lean muscle.

To create the best caloric surplus for your body, you first need to figure out how many calories your body burns to maintain your current size and weight, also known as your maintenance calories.

You can do this value by tracking your food intake for about a week. Then, assuming you don't gain or lose any weight, you can add between 300 and 500 to this daily total to create a muscle-building surplus, according to NASM.

Pay attention to how your body responds and tweak from there.

Once you've built the muscle you want, you may need to decrease the amount of calories you eat to achieve a small caloric deficit to lose any fat you gained while building muscle, Araujo says. This is completely normal.

This process works just like a calorie surplus but in reverse. You'll want to minimize the calories you eat each day to burn more fat. And while it may be enticing to cut a ton of calories at once, that actually won't help you reach your goal. A slower rate of fat loss will help prevent your body from burning up muscle and will help keep the fat and weight off in the long term, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Are you on track to hit your fitness goals? Download the MyPlate app to track your calories consumed and burned for a complete picture of your overall health.

4. Build Your Menu With Care

When it comes to fueling your muscles, the quality of your calories is just as important as the number of calories you're consuming each day. So when you're talking about having a calorie surplus, it doesn't mean you should go ham on cheeseburgers and fries every day. It's important to get essential macronutrients and micronutrients to replenish your muscles' glycogen stores and jump-start the repair that they need for growth.

As you have probably guessed, the type of protein you eat plays a large role in the muscle-building process. Ideally, you want protein to make up between 10 and 35 percent of your daily calories to increase strength, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

And you don't want to fill up on fatty cuts of meat. Lean protein options like poultry, fish and low-fat dairy are great to get this key macronutrient while keeping your overall caloric intake relatively low.

Although low-carb diets may be all the rage, they aren't the best muscle-building method. Your body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in your muscles, which your body uses for energy during your workouts, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But that doesn't mean you should go ahead and gorge on pizza (at least not every day). Incorporate quality carbs, like whole grains and starchy vegetables, to power your workouts.

Eating enough healthy fats will also ensure your muscles are getting the energy they need to grow, too, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Focus on eating unsaturated, heart-healthy fats like olive oil, avocado and fish.

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5. Prioritize Your Recovery

Without enough rest, your body won't have the energy to build muscle or get you through your training sessions. While you sleep, blood flow to the muscles increases, which promotes tissue repair and growth, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

During sleep, your body also produces muscle-building hormones, including human growth hormone (HGH). Plus, getting enough sleep can help improve your overall muscle coordination.

Everyone's sleep needs will vary but you should generally aim for between seven to nine hours each night, recommends the National Sleep Foundation.

Foam rolling after your training sessions is another way to promote recovery after your workout, according to the NASM. Regular self-massage with the roller can not only promote recovery and pain reduction but may also help improve flexibility and movement efficiency.

Taking enough recovery days throughout your week can also help ensure you stay injury-free. Try to take two or three rest days per week, Araujo says. At least one of the days should be a full rest where you don't do any extra physical activity aside from your daily tasks and errands.

The other days can be recovery-focused, she says. You can go for a walk, do some yoga or take some time to stretch and foam roll — whatever feels good for your body.

Ready to build muscle and burn fat? The HIIT strength workout below takes just 23 minutes and requires zero equipment.

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