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  • Writer's pictureErin White

New Year, New Goals – How to Build Lean Muscle

Here we are a week into 2021 and I’m sure most of us have set ourselves some health and fitness goals. A lot of our goals can be hard to attain if we don’t have the right knowledge and plan in place. As a physical therapist I have a pretty good foundation of knowledge on weight training for specific goals, so I wanted to share that with you all. Before I found the weight training routine I currently use and alternate through I would often fluctuate in weight between 120-130 lbs. For a reference point, I’m 5’6 and currently weigh 124. My weight doesn’t fluctuate as much as my muscle mass does depending on how much cardio I do weekly.

Below is a picture of me doing a lot of cardio 4-5 days a week, eating fairly healthy (left), vs when I started lifting more 4-5x a week and doing cardio 1x a week (right). I also really dialed in my nutrition with the help of this guide (blog post here). When I started combining increased weight training with nutrition, I could tell my body composition changed a lot and quickly.

One thing that is important to note when trying to build lean muscle is that you’re going to need to eat more. So, when I start to do more weightlifting vs cardio I eat close to 2500 calories a day in order to fuel my body properly so it can gain muscle mass. Initially there is a really good chance that you will gain weight and not love how it feels/looks but just hang in there. It’s a hard process when you’re trying to gain weight and muscle, trust it! Once you get up to the weight, you’re wanting then it’s time to cut down your daily caloric intake to a more normal range (for me that’s 1500-1700). Within a couple of weeks of this new calorie bracket, you’ll notice your body getting more toned, but you also might notice that your weight doesn’t change. Usually when I go from bulking with calories and weight training to cutting calories but continuing to lift heavy my weight doesn’t change but my physic will. This is due to your body being able to burn fat and gain muscle simultaneously.

Once you’ve gotten your normal routine back on track you can really focus on certain body parts you want to build up. But you also need to continue to EAT while you increase your weights, otherwise your muscles cannot grow. For example, if you want to build up your leg strength then dedicate 2 days a week to lifting HEAVY weights and doing leg exercises. With lifting heavy comes eating more carbs. I would increase your daily carb intake by 2 container (if following the container system) or by 60-80g if measuring on days you lift heavy.

Everyone’s bodies are different and will react to training and eating differently. It takes trial and error to get this kind of thing down. I highly recommend following the guide I provided in the post above to really get in tune with your goals and body, because it’s really important to know what your body specifically needs in order to achieve your goals. If your goal is to tone and define your muscles, you don’t necessarily have to train heavier or eat more. But if you want to gain more muscle mass then you will have to train heavier AND eat more (especially carbs).

For me, when I do more cardio and lift less, I am a lot skinnier and a lot less toned. But when I eat more food, lift heavier, and do less cardio I gain way more muscle mass and am more toned. But remember, once you’ve eaten more to gain muscle, you’ll need to cut back a little and continue to lift heavy. You will still retain the extra muscle mass you’ve built because you aren’t cutting your carbs low enough to burn the muscle, just the fat. Also, a little fun fact is that the more muscle you fain the more fat you burn at rest (sweet!).

It is also very important to remember that the “softness” you might feel during the bulking phase is only temporary so stay with it! In order to gain muscle, it is necessary to go through this phase, but it’s also a reason why I suggest knowing your daily caloric intake/macros.

Here are some questions you might have along your journey, so I hope this helps!

  1. Best type of workout to get a lean, toned body? – This is going to vary for everyone, but I would suggest lifting medium to heavy weights 3-4x a week (or 4-5 if you work out 7 days a week) to add more lean muscle. It’s okay to sprinkle in HIIT training with the heavy lifting, but don’t do cardio every day.

  2. How much weight should you be lifting? – This also depends for everyone; I recommend doing 2 sets of 15 or 3 sets of 10 of every exercise. Or doing a pyramid approach of 15 reps light weight, 12 reps medium weight, 10 reps heavy. Choose weights that are challenging but allow you to keep proper form.

  3. How do I get toned stomach and abs? – Hello NUTRITION! You’ve got to clean up your food intake or you won’t get a lean stomach. Also add in ab/core exercises into your daily routines but do more reps, not more weight.

Hope this post helps with your new health and fitness goals!! Comment any questions you may have and I would be happy to help!



Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I am a wife to my amazing husband Zach and a momma to an angel baby and now a beautiful baby boy. I am an anxiety warrior, a follower of Christ, and a devoted wife, mother, daughter, friend, and sister.

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