How to Build Lean Muscle – 6 Science-Backed Tips

Written by:
Vivienne Addo – Nutritional Advisor
Michael Addo – Nutritional Advisor

Reading time: 8min

Building muscle is a goal that should be on everyone’s mind at some stage of their fitness journey. The benefits are immense and the positive impact it has on the quality of your life is huge. However, the associations that many people have with building muscle are a masculine body, bulky shoulders, bulging biceps and a limited range of motion.

This depiction is wrong and if uninformed can lead to you avoiding an essential part of fitness training.

So, from hereon we want you to think of building muscle simply as strength training. Getting stronger, improving day to day functionality, enhancing the overall quality of your life and slowing down our natural ageing process.

The muscle-building process (quick and simplified version)

Muscle growth aka muscle hypertrophy is a fascinating and complex subject. It happens in several phases triggered by physically taxing movement and/or strength training.

There are two main types of muscle hypertrophy:

1) Myofibrillar – this is an increase in the number of myofibrils in a muscle fiber.

Myofibrils are very fine fibers that contain proteins responsible for the contraction and relaxation of our muscles.

An increase in the number of myofibrils typically leads to an increase in strength, more than size.                    

2) Sarcoplasmic – this is an increase in muscle cell fluid within the Sarcoplasm. This fluid surrounds the myofibril and contains water, ATP, proteins and other molecules responsible for muscle energy storage, production and endurance.          

Sarcoplasmic growth leads to increased fluid capacity which gives the muscles a larger appearance but does not cause a direct increase in strength.

You can tailor your training to focus on the type of muscle growth you are interested in.

Irrespective of this, research suggests that at the basis of all exercise-induced muscle growth, there are 3 primary mechanisms: Mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress (1).

1: Mechanical Tension

The force, load or stress that tries to stretch our muscle against contraction. For example, lifting a dumbbell to perform a bicep curl.

2: Muscle Damage

Exercise-induced muscle damage happens when we perform a new movement for the first time, do an exercise in an unfamiliar way, learn new techniques or increase the volume or intensity of an exercise. The greatest amount of mechanical tension typically happens in the eccentric (lengthening/stretching) phase of an exercise. For example, in the bicep curl the eccentric phase of the exercise is when you lower the weight back down to starting position.

The muscle damage caused is typically small and is often referred to as micro-damage or micro tears and is usually expressed post-workout in the form of muscle soreness.

3: Metabolic Stress

Metabolic stress during exercise refers to the build up of metabolites in your muscle as it starts to fatigue. Many of us are familiar with the ‘burn’ or ‘pump’ sensation after repeating exercise reps with minimal rest or until failure.

These primary mechanisms signal our bodies to release anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone which help to increase protein synthesis and limit muscle breakdown. We also release insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which influences metabolism and regulates how much muscle mass we can grow.

These hormones are essential for the repair, growth and recovery process. They also regulate our satellite cells (located outside of the muscle) to activate. Satellite cells are the primary stem cells in skeletal muscle and are responsible for postnatal muscle growth, hypertrophy and regeneration (2). These cells attempt to repair muscle damage by fusing together and increasing the length of the muscle fibers, making them stronger and slightly larger.

The physiological process of muscle growth beyond exercise is complex and varied. There are several factors to be considered ranging from genetics, age, gender and body composition to workout plan, nutrition, sleep routine and lifestyle. The sheer number of processes involved is one of the many reasons why just lifting heavier weights isn’t enough to make you bulky or dramatically change your body shape. So, we have compiled a list of 6 science backed tips that will help you build muscle, improve your functionality and slow down ageing.

6 science-backed tips to building lean muscle:

1. Eat in a slight calorie surplus

The concept of eating more when you are trying to build muscle and lose fat is scary for many people to come to terms with. The truth is, to maximize muscle growth you need to consume more calories than you burn. This helps put your body into an anabolic state (3) and gives you the energy and protein needed to repair, rebuild and grow the muscle. The amount of calorie surplus varies based on your goals, training frequency and metabolic needs. Our advice is to start with a small increase of 100-250 calories per day and track your weight progression weekly/fortnightly. If tracking your weight is an issue for you, take pictures of your progress, making sure conditions of the pictures are the same.

2. Eat enough protein

Protein is essential for muscle growth and the amino acids found in protein form the building blocks of your muscle. The aminos are involved in several processes including tissue growth, energy production, immune function and nutrient absorption.

A research study found that consuming between 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.4-1.8g per kg) was needed to stimulate the maximum degree of muscle protein synthesis (repair and growth post intense workout) (4).

You should aim to eat protein with every meal. If you struggle to get enough protein then you should consider supplementing with a whey isolate or plant-based protein powder. It is one of the easiest ways to help meet your protein requirements without increasing your fats or carbohydrates. The plant-based protein from Women’s Best gives 21.8g of protein per scoop and the Iso Whey gives 25g per scoop of protein. If you supplement with protein powders and your goal is to build muscle, we recommend taking at least 2 scoops per day.

3. Avoid Low-Carb Diets

Avoid low-carb diets when trying to build more muscle. Carbs are protein sparing and the main energy source of the body. They provide the quickest form of energy to fuel your workouts, they replenish your muscle glycogen stores and help prevent/limit fatigue. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that those following a low-carb diet took longer to recover, lost strength and had a decreased level of protein synthesis than those on higher carb diets (5).

Daily carbohydrate intake is dependent on your goals and day-to-day activity levels. We would recommend getting between 40-50% of your daily calories from carbs. 

4. Increase your training volume

Training volume refers to the total amount of exercise done within a given time period. The most common measurement of this is by looking at the total number of reps, sets and load you do in a workout (sets x reps x load).

A 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that there is a clear dose-to-response relationship between volume and muscle growth. The higher the training volume, the more muscle you grow (6).

What to consider:

  • Increase your training volume gradually
  • Follow a well-designed workout plan
  • Increase the training frequency of specific muscle groups (for example, training lower body twice a week)

A review conducted by Schoenfeld et al. 2017b found that completing 5-9 sets per week showed the most muscle growth (7). If you are a beginner or just starting out, we recommend starting with 8-12 reps of 4-6 sets per week when training the larger muscle groups (Back, Chest, Legs), as you begin to adapt, slowly increase this to 6-10 sets per muscle group per week.

5. Include more Compound Exercises

Compound exercises involve multiple joints and muscle groups. For example back rows, squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, pull-ups and push-ups etc. These movements require a lot more energy and produce a higher anabolic response than isolated movements. This response triggers a greater release in hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone which has a positive impact on muscle repair, growth and recovery (8, 9). In addition, compound exercises work your stabilizing muscles, help make your joints stronger and reduce your overall risk of injury.

6. Focus on Progressive Overload

Our muscles are very good at adapting to repeated stimuli and so it is essential to challenge them in order for them to grow. We achieve this through progressive overload.

There are several ways to progressively overload your training and prompt new stimuli:

  • Increase training volume
  • Reduce rest periods
  • Increase time under tension
  • Increase resistance/weights

Whichever method you choose, it is important to track your progress, adjust gradually and make note of what works for you vs what doesn’t.

Closing message

Building lean muscle is definitely a huge topic with endless amounts of research still being conducted. We have only touched a small surface with this article as there are so many considerations to factor in. However, the 6 tips we have mentioned are a great place to start and will help to bring about great results.

The biggest takeaway we can offer is for you to understand that you are on a continuous journey and placing your focus on getting stronger and more active is a sure-fire way to ensure that you will head down the right path. Remember to set yourself realistic goals, expectations and timeframes when it comes to your fitness journey as this will keep you both motivated and consistent.

Until the next post…have a wonderful day!

Mike and Viv aka MrandMrsMuscle

If you found this article helpful please share it with someone who can benefit.

1. Schoenfeld, Brad J The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 10 - p 2857-2872.
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
2. KAO R, GANOTE C, PENNINGTON D, BROWDER I. Myocardial regeneration, tissue engineering and therapy. Artificial Cells, Cell Engineering and Therapy. 2007:349-365. doi:10.1533/9781845693077.4.349
3. Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. 2019;6:131. Published 2019 Aug 20. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00131
4. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-S38. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.619204
5. Creer, A., Gallagher, P., Slivka, D., Jemiolo, B., Fink, W., & Trappe, S. (1985). Influence of muscle glycogen availability on ERK1/2 and Akt signaling after resistance exercise in human skeletal muscle. Journal of Applied Physiology, 99(3), 950-6.
6. Radealli, R., Fleck, S. J., Leite, T., Leite, R. D., Pinto, R. S., Fernandes, L., & Simao, R. (2015). Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(5), 1349-58.
7. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D. & Krieger. J. W. 2017b. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences 35 (11), 1073-1082.						
8. Kraemer, W. J., Fry, A. C., Warren, B. J., Stone, M. H., Fleck, S. J., Kearney, J. T., . . . Triplett, N. T. (1992). Acute hormonal responses in elite junior weightlifters. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 13(2), 103-9.						
9. Hansen, S., Kvorning, T., Kjaer, M., & Sjogaard, G. (2001). The effect of short-term strength training on human skeletal muscle: The importance of physiologically elevated hormone levels. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 11(6), 347-54.

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