Gain muscle you can really see!
Gaining lean muscle requires a good gym routine (which we cover here) and the right diet.
What to eat to gain muscle
Generally, you can gain around 0.5 kilograms of lean body mass (muscle) per week with a good routine and diet, although this depends on your experience (beginners can gain muscle faster than intermediate or advanced lifters). As fat and muscle are separate tissue systems, you can gain muscle whilst losing fat, giving you a muscular but lean appearance.
You should eat around 2g of protein per kg of body mass (about 1g per pound) per day, although this will vary depending on your weight, body fat % and body goals.
This should be high quality protein foods, such as eggs, dairy, meat, fish or protein supplements, which contain essential amino acids (EAAs). The most important EAA for muscle growth (also known as muscle protein synthessi, or MPS) is leucine*. You can also get protein from plant sources, such as soy, although these generally contain less EAAs. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may need to eat more protein to get the same amount of EAAs to gain muscle, and/or take a vegan protein supplement.
*Leucine is also a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA); you may have seen BCAA supplements, which are commonly taken to help gain muscle (see our supplement recommendations here)
As well as eating a high level of protein, you also need to consider your overall macronutrient balance (learn more about macronutrients here). Protein should make up around 25-30% of your diet (calorie intake).
How can I lose fat and still gain muscle?
To gain muscle that you can really see, you need to reduce your body fat percentage. You can get visible abs at around 12-14% body fat (depending on the size of your ab muscles). You can reduce your body fat in three ways:
- You gain more lean mass (muscle) than fat
- You lose more fat than lean mass (muscle)
- You lose fat and gain lean mass (muscle)
Therefore, you need to think about both losing fat and gaining muscle.
Training effectively and eating to fuel your body will help you to gain lean mass (muscle). As your body recovers from training and builds muscle, you will burn more calories.
To lose fat, you need to think about what you eat. Although you don’t have to count calories, it helps to think about the total number of calories you eat (and need to eat based on your body goal), as well as the balance of macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein) in your diet. You also need to eat a healthy diet with lots of nutritious food and little processed or sugary food (or drink). Calculator.net can help you to estimate your calorie intake and macronutrient balance.
Generally, to lose body fat without muscle, you should reduce calories by 10 – 20% and maintain a high protein intake (around 2g per kg of body weight depending on the intensity and amount of your weight training). you should aim to lose no more than 1% of your body weight per week. If you try to lose weight too quickly, you may lose muscle as well as fat – your body needs enough protein and calories to build muscle. Learn more about fat loss on our lose weight page
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Tips to gain lean muscle
If you want to gain LEAN muscle, muscle that you can really see, follow the tips below.
- Improve the quality of the food that you eat. Eat more vegetables, avoid processed food and food that is high in saturated fat, and eat lean, healthy and high quality protein such as lean beef, chicken, fish or tofu. It’s also important to cut the sugar in your diet.
- Eat a high protein low sugar breakfast and reduce sugary drinks. If you drink coffee, take it black rather than with milk and drink water instead of sugary drinks. Cutting sugar will help you to keep the fat off, improve your energy levels and reduce the risk of various diseases.
- Work hard in the gym. You can eat the perfect diet, but you still won’t gain muscle unless you work hard enough in the gym. This means that each session you should be aiming for progressive overload by: improving your technique, lifting more weight and/or doing more reps. Learn more about effective weight training and progressive overload here.
- Improve your food timing. You should eat high quality protein food about every four hours. This will help you to eat enough protein per day (around 2g of protein per kg of body mass per day is recommended) at regular intervals to help your body to repair and grown muscle (muscle protein synthesis or MPS). Avoid big meals shortly before workouts, as they may make you feel sluggish, but you will need a high calorie and protein meal after a big workout to help refuel your body.
- Plan and prepare your food. To eat enough protein, you may need to plan and prepare meals and/or high protein snacks such as eggs, nuts, greek yoghurt or protein shakes. Bring healthy snacks with you to work, or when you go out for a long time, so you will be less tempted to eat unhealthy food. You may want to use supplements, such as whey protein, which can be a cost-effective and easy way to get the right amount of protein.
- Take the right supplementation – Consider taking a supplement to help consume enough protein and ECAAs for muscle growth. Leucine is needed to build muscle (MPS) and creatine is also helpful for muscle repair and gain. See our recommended supplements here.
- Fuel your body before and after your workout. Your body will need carbs for energy, especially with high effort or intensity workout. If your body isn’t fueled, you will find it harder to perform your best in the gym. Caffeine can also help you feel more alert and energetic. After your workout, you will also need to eat carbohydrates and protein to help fuel MPS.
- Rest and de-stress. Rest is as important as exercise. Rest is when your body heals itself and grows muscle. Your body needs time to heal, so schedule rest days and try to get at least eight hours of sleep a night – sleep is crucial for building muscle. Stress affects you mentally and physically, impacting your diet, exercise and how your body reacts to training. Find time to de-stress and do things you enjoy. Having a strict diet and gym routine is not easy and takes discipline and willpower. Being less stressed will help you to stay positive and motivated to reach your goals.
- Focus on body fat not weight. Measure your body fat regularly to show you whether you are losing fat and not not lean mass (muscle). This will help to show you whether your diet and routine is working. Gaining muscle will increase your weight, whilst losing fat will reduce your body fat percentage. You can measure your body fat by using calipers or scales that read your body fat percentage. If this is not possible or practical, you can take weekly photos to help track how much fat and muscle you have – to be consistent take the photo on the same day and time.
Check out our other health and diet pages: