The Practical Guide to Build Muscle and Get Lean

Muscle burns more fat, keeps us safe, and lets us live a fuller life as we age
By Jennifer Chesak , Healthline
March 13, 2019 Updated: March 13, 2019

Get strong and lean while you spur fat loss and stave off the effects of aging.

Whether you call it strength, resistance, or weight training, anybody can benefit from gaining muscle. A strong core and limbs can help you avoid injury and make lugging groceries up the stairs easier.

Then there’s the added bonus of a leaner composition and weight loss, if that’s your goal.

Benefits of Strength Training:

  • improves balance
  • enhances posture
  • increases coordination
  • prevents injury
  • protects bone health
  • eases pain
  • reduces fat
  • prevents weight gain
  • slows age-related muscle loss

“Weight training truly is the fountain of youth when it comes to keeping your body healthy,” explains Allison Jackson, a certified personal trainer.

“As we age, we generally lose muscle,” she explains, adding that in addition to building muscle, weight-bearing exercises are key to building stronger bones.

If you’re worried about muscles changing the body you already love, keep reading. We’ve got the science-backed info on why muscle matters and how to build strength training into your workouts to fit your goals.

Muscle-Building Basics

The guide to lean muscle.

You already own one of the best pieces of equipment for building muscle: your amazing body. And you don’t have to follow a rigid routine to glean lean-inducing returns. You can choose the types of movements or fitness styles you enjoy and incorporate strength training into your lifestyle.

Aim for two or three strength training workouts per week, whether that’s weightlifting, power yoga, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or body weight exercises.

guide to lean muscle

1. Pumping Iron Isn’t the Only Way to Get Buff

Sure, you can head to the gym, but if you’re tight on funds or prefer the privacy of home, you can get lean just by using your body weight.

A recent study shows that training with lighter loads and more repetitions is just as effective at building muscle as training with heavy weights and fewer reps. Just do the exercise until your muscles demand a break.

That means you can squat with no added weights and get a similar result as doing weighted squats—simply go until you can’t do one more.

Strive for three sets, adding to your number of reps as you get stronger.

2. Toss Out Rules About Reps

Push-ups (Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)

If you prefer holding lunges in a yoga class rather than doing walking lunges around your apartment, you’ll still reap the strength benefits.

Repeating a movement to fatigue is a great way to gain strength, but muscle contraction of any kind will produce powerful results, says one small study.

Aim for a mix of isotonic (moving with muscle contraction) and isometric (non-moving, constant tension) exercises in your fitness regimen. If you’ve got achy joints, aim for more isometric exercises. Hold for 30 seconds to start and work your way up to more time.



For both types of exercises, try for 3 sets.

3. Bust the Moves That Give You the Most Bang

Whether doing reps or holding a static pose, compound exercises, which target multiple muscles or muscle groups, will make your efforts the most efficient.

Think burpees, side-plank rotations, and mountain climbers. These exercises often get your heart rate going and give a dose of cardio, especially if you do them as part of a HIIT circuit.

4. Modify Movements to Suit Your Needs

jumping on fit box
Illustrate (Dotshock/Shutterstock)

Altering an exercise is all about meeting your body where it’s at right now. If your wrists aren’t pleased, drop to your forearms. If you aren’t ready for standard push-ups, use a wall or a bench so you can do them at an incline. Over time, you may be able to work your way to the floor.

Most exercises have several modifications. Or you can try a “sister move” that produces similar results. Step ups can sub in for box jumps, for example, if you don’t have a box, are worried about banging your shins, or just want to go easier on your pelvic floor.

Before getting started, consider doing your own research or schedule a session with a personal trainer who can teach you moves that make sense for you.

The Loss That Comes With the Gains

If you’re striving to sculpt a leaner physique or you want to lose fat, gaining muscle can help you do both. Muscle also protects your body from injury and can ease pain by addressing posture or body imbalances.

1. Look Leaners

If you compare a pound of muscle to a pound of fat, you’ll see that muscle takes up less space than fat. This concept leads to confusion because of the myth that muscle weighs more than fat. But a pound weighs a pound, regardless of what it contains.

Ultimately, adding muscle can give you a more svelte look in your skinny jeans, even when the number on the scale doesn’t change.

And regardless of your gender, you’re not going to get a “bulked-up” bodybuilder look without a serious fitness and diet program specialized for that purpose. So ditch that myth if it’s holding you back.

2. Burn More Calories, Easier

Although the difference isn’t huge, muscle tissue torches more calories than fat tissue does, both during physical activity and at rest. If you’re trying to increase your calorie burn, increase your muscle mass.

3. Amp Up The Afterburn

The process of the body attempting to recover or return to its resting state after a workout produces an extra calorie burn that can last for several hours to more than a full day.

This afterburn effect is known in scientific lingo as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The higher the intensity of your workout, the longer EPOC will last.

Research shows that strength training can enhance and extend EPOC, especially when it’s done as part of a HIIT workout.

4. Change How You Eat

Although more research needs to be done on this topic, research suggests that increasing your muscle mass may make you less hungry, which could help with weight loss and decrease the risk for developing type 2 diabetes.


guide to lean muscle

5. Prevent Accidents

Many of our daily movements involve our transverse abdominal, located behind the “six pack.” It acts like a girdle wrapping around the spine.

When it’s strong, we can protect ourselves from falls or other mishaps, and enhance our form and ability to do the activities we love.

6. Better Posture

Our muscles hold us up, whether we’re standing in line at the coffee shop or sitting at our desks. If we have weak muscles and slump because of fatigue, we might experience aches or stiffness.

If we strengthen our muscles, however, we can hold a good posture for longer and stave off pain, according to a study.

Strength training can also correct imbalances in the body like lordosis or uneven shoulders that could lead to discomfort.

7. Ward Off Issues As We Get Older

exercise build muscle
Illustrate (Gutesa/Shutterstock)

After age 30, we say goodbye to approximately 3 to 8 percent of our muscle mass per decade, with even more significant losses later in life. This muscle loss may account for more fatigue, weight gain, and increased risk for fracture.

We can ward off age-related muscle loss, termed sarcopenia, with exercise that includes a combo of cardio and strength training.

Get Stronger With These Courses and Apps

You can craft your own muscle-making routine, but if you’re looking for some guidance, ideas, or just a jump start, you can follow a program that fits your preferences, lifestyle, and budget.

  • DailyOM gives you a list of 3-week courses to choose from, each with instructor-led video workouts that show up in your inbox. Courses are “pay what you want,” and once you’ve made the purchase, you can access your courses repeatedly. DailyOM caters to yogis and people in need of joint friendly HIIT-based workouts.
  • Freeletics offers take-anywhere, no-equipment sessions based on your goals, current fitness level, and age. The subscription-based app teaches you to use your own body weight to get results via customized, guided plans. Workout recommendations will change based on your feedback.
  • BodyBoss sends you a 12-week progressive HIIT program. Their one-time payment is more economical than a recurring gym membership and it includes a bonus pre-training section to prepare you for the main action. Share your progress, enjoy camaraderie, learn helpful modifications, and glean motivation from the online Facebook community. The program and community are geared toward women, but all genders can benefit from the movements.
  • Mark Lauren’s Bodyweight Training provides more than 200 exercises you can do using your body weight and everyday items. Tackle any of the 10-week programs that fit your fitness level or goals. Pay $5 for the app download and then choose which in-app purchases you want.

Realize Your Power

The benefits of muscle-building transcend giving you an athletic or lean physique. Adding brawn can give you confidence to do new things, improve your health, amp up your life enjoyment, and keep you feeling agile and able throughout the years. That’s reason enough to hold that plank.

Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. This article was originally published on