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How to Build Lean Muscle

Exactly How to Build Lean Muscle, From the Top Moves to the Foods That Will Fuel Your Goals

gym training in the gym

Strength training can be intimidating for newcomers. Beyond the challenges of getting into a routine, sorting through reps and sets, and figuring out how much weight you should lift, there's the lingering fear for many women that all that hard work will cause them to bulk up instead of leaning out. Let's squash that now: "It can take months to see a standard fitness progression, let alone years for a complete muscular metamorphosis, and that's with specified intensive training," Josh Cox, an NASM-certified personal trainer at Anytime Fitness, told POPSUGAR.

In other words, you don't need to worry about looking like a bodybuilder, because that level of muscle mass isn't achieved by accident. Here, trainers share the formula for building lean muscle: a healthy combination of strength training, cardio, and proper nutrition.

How to Effectively Strength Train

"Building efficient and functional lean muscle is going to require resistance training of some sort," Josh said. "Resistance training is any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance with the expectation of an increase in strength, tone, or endurance." Josh suggests creating a circuit by choosing five or six moves from the list ahead. These are compound exercises — or moves that work several muscle groups at once — which are known to help burn more calories and fat, in addition to building muscle. Do each move for 30 seconds with 10 seconds of rest between exercises. Once you've done the same circuit a few times (Josh recommends strength training twice a week), switch up the moves to make sure you continue to stimulate your muscles.

What About Cardio?

One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to build lean muscle is doing too much cardio, Josh explained. "Although you're working up a sweat and burning calories, it's not effective long-term. You're not really enhancing anything once your body gets used to one activity," he said.

But that doesn't mean it's time to part ways with the treadmill or your bike. Cardio is still essential for burning fat and can even help reduce muscle soreness by circulating blood through the body, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found. It just shouldn't be your only form of exercise if you want to have some definition, in addition to staying at a healthy weight.

The fastest way to build lean muscle is a combination of cardio and strength training otherwise known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Bonnie Micheli, an ACE-certified trainer and cofounder of Shred 415, told POPSUGAR. "HIIT allows someone to burn calories even after a completed session, and that afterburn effect helps lean an individual out," she said. Sign up for a HIIT class at your gym or fitness studio or try one of the workouts ahead:

What to Eat to Build Muscle

For starters, post-workout fuel is crucial. Eating 20 to 30 minutes after a workout will reduce soreness and help you recover faster. "You want to be sure you're eating lean protein, healthy carbs that are minimally processed, and a healthy fat after a workout," Bonnie explained. Josh agreed, adding that a moderate amount of carbohydrates helps keep you energised, while protein repairs your muscles, and healthy fats help keep joints lubricated and increase fat burn.

If you work out in the morning, this means opting for a couple of hard-boiled eggs, a protein shake with chia seeds, or a jar of overnight oats as your recovery meal. For a midday or evening workout, reach for lean proteins, like organic chicken or fish, or less frequently, grass-fed beef. In general, Bonnie suggests trying to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet to fuel your body and take your workouts to the next level.

Image Source: Getty / miljko
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