Build Lean Muscle Without Getting Bulky

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If you don’t train and eat properly, you could end up looking bulkier rather than having that lean muscular appearance that you’re after. I’m gonna tell you how you can get around that. And I’m also gonna address the most common myth when it comes to building lean muscle. And if you’re one of these people who started working out and you did start to look bulky, I’m gonna tell you exactly what went wrong.

What “Lean Muscle” Actually Means

If you’re looking to build lean muscle, it’s really about maximizing your muscle growth while minimizing added body fat building muscle takes time. A lot of effort. It’s all about patience. When it comes to weight loss, it’s actually fairly simple. If you get yourself into a calorie deficit, the weight will start to come off, but building muscle takes consistent effort. And that’s where a lot of people struggle.

Ivana, I wanna put on muscle, but I don’t wanna get bulky. I just want lean muscle.””

So I’m guessing they’re thinking something along the lines of this:


And for those of you who don’t know body building, this is eight time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman.

He is pretty much the GOAT in professional body building.

This is a genetically gifted, extremely strong – enhanced – individual who worked his butt off for years, hours a day to get this result. And yet many people are afraid that if they start working out say three times a week in the gym, that they’re in some sort of danger of also achieving that same look.

Well, obviously that’s ridiculous.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a risk of developing a bulky appearance if you don’t get your nutrition and weight training right.

Protein Intake To Build Lean Muscle

To maximize your muscle, you wanna take in about 0.7 to one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.

So as an example, if you weigh 170 pounds, then you want 119 to 170 grams of protein per day for weight loss.

Protein Goal Per Meal

It doesn’t really matter how many meals a day that we have, but for muscle hypertrophy, muscle growth, it’s been shown that breaking down your protein into four meals, maximizes muscle anabolism, and that’s what you’re aiming for.

So if we use that example for that 170 pound person, let’s go roughly somewhere in the middle at about 140 grams, just to make it even, and you break that 140 grams into four meals. So that means 35 grams of protein per meal.

Now, if you’re not really a protein person, this might seem like a lot, but it’s actually not that hard. If you choose the right protein sources and you make sure that you base each of your meals around a protein source.

I have a whole video with breakfast ideas, because that’s often where people get stuck.

Putting Together Your Meals Around Protein

But let’s just use eggs as an example. And you could put in one egg or two eggs, that’s only 12 grams of protein, but adding egg whites significantly increases the protein. So you just wanna make sure that at that meal, you’re having 35 grams of protein.

You could do that with a combination as well. So maybe it’s two eggs, that’s 12 grams of protein. And then you need to find 23 grams of protein elsewhere. That could come from Greek yogurt for instance. And then you can combine that into your first meal.

Now your next meal, just base it around fish or chicken or any other lean protein source. If you start selecting protein sources that are much higher in fat, you’re also adding a lot of calories. And I’m gonna talk a little bit more about why that’s important a bit later. So try to stick with those lean protein sources, extra lean ground meats can be helpful.

Protein Options For Vegetarians

if you’re not consuming meat, it does get a little bit trickier, but there are options as well. Particularly if you can add dairy sources. Higher protein, milk, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, for instance. You can also look at things like lentils and legumes and perhaps tofu as well. Those are things that are higher in protein.

My Current Protein Sources

My protein sources in general, chicken, breast fish, and low fat dairy sources. You can also have leaner cuts of beef or pork, whatever gives you the required amount of protein for that meal and you wanna measure or at least ballpark.

Protein Serving Sizes If You’re Not Tracking Calories

So you know how much protein is in each serving for my clients who don’t like to measure or don’t wanna do calories.

I often use that rough guideline for protein, where a woman would have one palm sized amount of protein per meal, and a man who will generally be larger would have two palm sized amounts of protein. It’s also determined by your palm size. So if you’re a larger person, you’re going to have more protein there.

That’s a way you can do it if you don’t wanna deal with the numbers for protein.

But I generally recommend at least figuring out the approximate size for each of your favourite protein sources, and then just keep repeating the same protein sources or cycling through them, knowing that you’re getting the right amount of protein per meal in order to maximize your muscle growth.

Adding Liquid Protein To Build Lean Muscle

It’s much easier to take in protein in liquid form.

So that’s why I often recommend for one of the meals that you have a protein shake. That means that you might have protein in there, maybe some milk. And then I sometimes throw in Greek yogurt as well and blend that up. It’s pretty easy for me to take in 40 to 45 grams of protein. And it goes down really smooth and easy, especially if you add a bit of fruit as well.

That takes care of one of those four meals. And it knocks off a decent amount of protein from your protein goal for the day, sticking primarily to lean sources of protein, where there isn’t a lot of added fat means that you’re keeping the calories at a reasonable level. And that means that you’re less likely to add extra fat as you build the muscle.

Tracking Calories To Build Lean Muscle

It can be helpful to track the overall amount of calories that you’re having per day as well.

For people that are primarily looking to add muscle mass, I multiply their body weight by 14 or 15 in order to get the approximate number of calories that they’re going to need in order to build that muscle.

With our 170 pound person, we would multiply that by 15. And that means a total of 2,550 calories per day.

Now, if that particular person is carrying a lot of extra body fat, I might drop that a little bit. So it might be 2,400. I mean, these are all rough numbers. Anyway, it’s not precise. It’s only about having a starting point to work from, and then you see how it goes.

Monitoring Your Progress

So basically taking things two weeks at a time, monitoring your progress, how much muscle are you putting on?

Does it feel like you’re putting on fat? You’re weighing yourself. If you’re seeing a weight increase of four or five pounds in two weeks, you’re putting on fat because you’re taking in too many calories and you wanna take that calorie gold down.

We’re roughly aiming for about two to four pounds per month. So you don’t really wanna be putting on any more than five pounds a month. That’s allowing a little bit for fat, a little bit for just the natural variance of your weight, but anything more than that, you’re putting on fat. That’s what’s gonna create that bulky effect.

Building Lean Muscle With Weight Training

Now all this nutrition advice is really great, but you’re not gonna get anywhere if you’re not doing the right amount of strength training and you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.

So I generally recommend three to five times a week. Initially three times a week is gonna get beginners some results. If you’re more advanced, you’re probably going to need those four or five sessions to get more muscle growth. You can eat all the protein that you want, but it’s not naturally going to build the muscle. You need to stimulate the muscles to grow first.

How I Started To Lose Muscle

That’s actually, what’s happened to me over the past few months. I haven’t been doing enough weight training. It’s been very sporadic in between all the outdoor activities that I enjoy doing in the summer. So I haven’t been maintaining my muscle mass as much as I normally would when I’m doing the three to four weight training sessions that I normally do.

Weight Training To Build Lean Muscle

You really need to get those weight training sessions in and you need to be consistent. It’s not about doing two sessions and then the next week one session, and then maybe the next week three sessions, you really need to have that consistency. A minimum of three sessions a week for most people every single week. It’s really important that you engage in progressive resistance training. That means simply that you are just pushing yourself harder as you get stronger. And as your muscles adapt, that’s, what’s going to get you the muscle growth over time.

Pushing Yourself For Muscle Growth

Some people are following all the nutrition guidelines and they’re going to the gym, but they’re really just going through the motions and they’re not really pushing themselves hard enough.

The Most Common Myth Related To Building Lean Muscle

And now I wanna address the most common myth when it comes to building lean muscle.

Many people think that if you’re lifting heavy weights and doing lower repetition, say three to five, that you’re going to be building big bulky muscles. If you’re doing lighter weights and you’re doing higher repetitions, like 15 or 20 reps, then you’re going to be building lean muscle and long and lean muscle.

This myth is perpetuated, especially towards women where they’re telling women that they should only do lighter weights.

But it’s completely false. Basically muscle is either there or it’s not there. You’re either building muscle, losing muscle or keeping the muscle you have, you don’t build lean muscle or build bulky muscle.

You either build muscle or you don’t. So really what you wanna do is build muscle as much as you possibly can. And it is hard.

Building Massive Muscles?

Many people don’t have the genetic capabilities to have really large muscles, certainly not at the competitive bodybuilder level.

I mean, we’re not all built the same way.

Getting Too Big?

Keep in mind too, that when you’re going through this process of building muscle, you can stop at any time. If you’re starting to think, oh, my muscles are getting too big, then just back it off a little. But I have trained a lot of people over 20 years and nobody has ever said, “Oh, my muscles are getting way too big. We need to scale this back.”

Most people don’t realize until they get started, how hard it actually is to build muscle. You will have those initial Neva gains where it feels like, oh, I can see a difference, but then getting beyond a certain level, all those incremental changes are extremely difficult to make.

When it comes to rep ranges, we used to talk a lot about how power is for lower repetition. So one to five. Eight to 12 was what we considered the real muscle hypertrophy range. So maximum muscle growth. And then beyond that, we were considering that to be muscle endurance.

Research is starting to show that you can get muscle growth or maximum muscle hypertrophy, which is what we’re aiming for with different rep ranges.

If you’re doing higher repetitions with lower weight, say 12 to 15, you can still put on muscle mass with that. What’s actually most important is that you’re putting in the right amount of effort. So it doesn’t mean complete failure with every exercise, but it does mean hard, consistent effort with most of your training sessions.

If You Started To Get Bulky With Weight Training

So what if you’re one of these people who started working out and you did find that you were getting bulky, this is all about how many calories you’re taking in.

Maybe you’ve done the right thing and you added a bunch of protein, but you added higher calorie protein sources. And as a result, you’ve put yourself into a calorie surplus. And while you might have put on some muscle, you’ve also put on extra fat.

The combination of that muscle and that fat together is making you feel bulky.

So what you need to do is be more cognizant of your protein sources and your overall calories for the day. You need to drop them down. So you can start to lose that fat for most people. It’s unlikely that you’ve built up so much muscle, that you feel huge it’s that you’ve added too much fat as well. Because if what you’re looking for is lean muscle.

What you’re actually after is as much muscle as possible while keeping yourself lean. And that means keeping or getting to a lower body fat percentage.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 9-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training, chocolate, mountain biking, and ice cream...not always in that order of preference.
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