Lean Muscle Mass: How to Earn it and Keep it | Progenex


Imagine the sleek, lean physique of an elite athlete--that’s lean muscle mass. Medically speaking, lean muscle mass is anything in the body that isn’t fat, including organs like the heart and skin. But learning how to earn and keep lean muscle mass as an athlete, lean muscle building refers to those lean athletic bodies like those on elite athletes rather than the bulkier muscles often seen on bodybuilders.

Getting stronger and focusing on lean muscle building isn’t just about what you do at the gym. A big part of building up muscle comes from how you spend your workouts, but how you tackle the rest of the day--like dieting--also plays a huge part. In fact, what you put into your body is going to be a key component in lean muscle building. To start, every body is different and will need different amounts and types of nutrients. What works for a 220 lb man isn’t necessarily going to work for a 130 lb woman. You need to find the right balance of caloric intake to calories burned.

Additionally, you need to be eating high protein foods like crazy. Protein builds and maintains muscles, this is why it’s such a common thing for athletes to be taking protein powders; it’s not a fad. Aim for 1 gram of protein for every pound of target bodyweight a day, spread out over each meal. So if you want to weigh 180 lbs, you will need 180 grams of protein in one day (not one meal!).

Protein helps your body release carbohydrates a bit slower into your bloodstream which can prevent spikes in blood sugar and reduce hunger pangs. Along with getting the right amount of high protein foods in your diet, you will also need to be getting enough carbohydrate calories to refuel glycogen reserves post-workout. This is especially true if you are engaging in hard workouts dailys.

Consider a frequent eating pattern: five or six small meals a day can keep your metabolism running. When you don’t eat often enough, your body can consume muscle. If this happens, you can quickly lose that lean muscle you’ve been working so hard to build up. Start planning out your meals and calorie counting so that you can keep track of how often you eat and to make sure you’re getting enough protein throughout the day.

Rather than searching for a popular diet to hop onto, try this instead: eat 80 percent of your diet in whole and minimally processed foods that you really like, such as meat, fish, fruits, veggies, potatoes, milk, eggs, nuts, seeds, and beans. Think berries, salmon, quinoa, you know the drill.

A lot of these will be your sources of protein, along with clean carbs and fats. If you’re really dedicated to a lean physique, make sure that with these foods they are lean proteins, especially your meats. White meat is a lean protein, so think along the lines of yellowfin tuna, cod, and halibut. Then eat 10 percent in the whole and minimally processed foods that you don’t really like but also don’t necessarily hate. And finally, eat 10 percent in just about whatever the heck you want. If you have to, shoot for weekend-only sweets, or give yourself a small indulgence each day. Dark chocolate for example, 75% cocoa and higher is best.

Good lean proteins can come from a variety of sources. Focus on whole foods, meals with minimal ingredients you can’t pronounce. High protein foods include cottage cheese, which has 14 grams of protein in each half cup; greek yogurt has 23 grams of protein per 8 oz! Other high protein foods also include, halibut, jerky, mixed nuts, edamame, quinoa, and green peas. And of course, foods aren’t the only sources of protein. Protein powder for lean muscle can be one of the quickest and surest ways to get all those grams of protein in your diet each day. Make sure to mix in protein powder into your smoothies and post-workout drinks. A common recovery protein powder for lean muscle is whey protein as it has 23 grams of protein per serving. It’s one of the cleanest and fastest-digesting protein powders making it the best protein to build lean muscle.

Once you have your diet figured out with the right sources of lean protein for lean muscle, you should then focus on your workout. Core movements are one of the best ways to help in lean muscle building as they pull in more of the body. The following core movements are great exercises as they don’t focus on just one individual muscle and you aren’t sitting or standing stagnantly (the more muscles you can get involved, the better).

Box Jumps

Set your feet at about hip to shoulder width apart, with your toes pointing ahead towards the box, then do a minimal knee bend, loading your hips and hamstrings. Then jump up, landing and making sure your knees don’t cave in with your foot fully in contact with the box. Keeping your hands externally rotated also helps your shoulder joints to be in a better position. Your back should be flat and your hips are back. Don’t jump back down, especially when just starting, as it can risk rupturing your achilles tendon. Instead, step down slowly and gently. This will help strengthen your glutes.


Start with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders, toes pointing out slightly. Squat down and grasp the bar with a closed, pronated grip keeping your hands just slightly wider than your shoulders; elbows fully extended. Keep your back flat, chest up and out and your shoulder blades retracted with your head in a neutral position--eyes straight ahead. Lift the bar from the floor by forcefully extending the hips and knees as you exhale--DON’T bend at the waist. Keep your elbows fully extended and as you raise the bar keep it as close to your shins as possible.

Once you pass your knees, thrust your hips forward and slightly bend your knees to avoid locking them then quickly extend your hips and knees to stand on your toes. Your back should still be flat with your elbows now pointed out to the sides. When your lower body joints are fully extended, shrug the shoulders upwards, as they reach their highest elevation, flex your elbows to begin pulling your body under the bar. Pull your arms as high and as long as possible, after the lower body as fully extended and the bar reaches maximal height, pull your body under the bar and rotate the arms under it. At the same time, flex the hips and knees into a quarter squat position.

Now lift your elbows so the upper arms are parallel to the floor, rack the bar across the front of your collar bones and shoulder muscles. You should catch the bar with an erect and tight torso, and flat feet. Stand up, extending the hips and knees. Lower the bar gradually to allow a controlled descent to the thighs. Flex the hips and knees to cushion the impact of the bar. Squat down with the elbows fully extended until the bar touches the floor.



Hook your fingers around the bar in a position that mirrors the grip you use for a press or clean. Move so that the bar is above the clavicles while rotating your elbows upward; this creates a shelf across the clavicles and anterior deltoids. Take a deep breath, tighten your core and un-rack the bar with the same technique you need to squat the weight.


While facing the bar, grap it with a medium-tight grip and dip under the bar to rest it on your upper back. Raise your chest. Move your feet under the bar and un-rack by straightening your legs. Step back with straight legs, locking your hips and knees. Take a  deep breath and squat down, pushing your knees out while moving your hips back. Squat down until your hips are below your knees. While keeping your knees out and chest up squat back up.


Start with the bar on the ground, grap it keeping your hands wide. Lock your back while keeping your chest as high as possible. Push with your legs to bring the bar up and in toward your knees, straightening your legs slightly. Move your hips and shoulders upward at the same time, keeping your arms straight. After the bar passes your knees, the knees quickly re-bend to prepare to explode.

Your torso now becomes upright and the bar accelerates up your thigh, arms still straight. Push with your legs explosively as if you’re jumping. Shrug your shoulder to help transfer the force to the bar and begin your descent under the bar. At this point, the bar will continue to move upward due to the force of your “explosion”–do not pull the bar up with the arms. Keep the bar close to the body and elbows high. To catch the bar, receive its weight on straight arms overhead while at the same time your feet hit the ground in an overhead squat position. Keep your torso upright.

Pull Ups


Grab the pull up bar with your palms facing away from your, hands shoulder-width apart. Wrap your thumbs around the bar. Lift your feet off the ground so your body is in a dead hang. Initiate the pull by squeezing the bar with your hands while engaging the muscles of your upper body and core. Don’t strain your neck in an attempt to break the plane of the bar with your chin. Continue to pull until your chin clears the bar. Return to the dead hang slowly, allowing your arms to straighten as you lower.

Chest to Bar

Grab the bar with your palms facing away, hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart, arms locked out. Drive your hips, chest and head forward while letting your legs kick back. Now drive your hips back by pushing away from the bar and letting your legs kick forward, you should be swinging now. As you swing back drive your hips upward by kicking your feet up and at the same time pull upward until your collar bones are over the bar. Push yourself away from the bar at the top.

The Muscle Up

Start in a dead hang on a pull-up bar with a “false grip” - thumbs on top of the bar, not around. Pull your chip up to the bar, almost as if you’re pulling the bar down to your belly button while explosively throwing  your chest and head over the bar. Then, press your hands down so your arms are fully extended.


Stand with your mid-foot under the bar. Put your heels hip-width apart and point your toes slightly out. Grab the bar by bending over without bending your legs. Grip the bar about shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and drop into position by bending your knees until your shins touch the bar. Lift your chest and straighten your back by raising your chest. Keep the bar over your mid-foot, your shins against the bar, and your hips where they are. Pull by taking a big breath, holding it and standing up with the weight.

Keep the bar in contact with your legs while you pull. Don’t shrug or lean back at the top. Lock your hips and knees. To end, unlock your hips and knees first then lower the bar by moving your hips back while keeping your legs almost straight. Once the bar is past your knees, bend your legs more. The bar will land over your mid-foot, ready for your next rep.

The Push Press

Grab the barbell and hold it a little less than shoulder-width apart. Pull the barbell just above your shoulders with elbows close to your body. Bend your knees and lower your body into a half-squat position. Press the weight over your head as you press through your heels to explosively stand up. Pause and slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position.

Remember too that there is a big difference between athletic body types with lean muscle mass and bodybuilding body types. Bodybuilding focuses purely on the mass amount of muscles that an individual can build on their body structure whereas functional fitness focuses on athletic lean bodies that still have a lot of muscle but also gives the individual the capability of touching their own back. Lately, more often than not athletic bodies are more desired than a traditional “bodybuilding” body because of the oft grotesque features of bulging muscles and veins that can come with body building.

As with any new diet, lifestyle or workout routine, be sure to set goals. If this is the first time doing any of these exercises, start off slow and find where your optimal performance weights are. Once you establish the weights and number of reps you can do write down the goals you want to achieve and by what date you want to achieve them.

Remember too that smartphones make for dumb workouts. Ditch your phone at the locker, you lose intensity when you fiddle with it between sets. Instead superset with a pushing exercise between exercises like a set of pushups.

While consistency can be key, remember to shake up your exercises. Your body can quickly adapt to a workout, so constantly challenge yourself by adding different movements--the best muscle-building exercises are ones that mimic everyday movements like flipping tires, hauling jugs of water, paddling, or carrying logs.

Make a plan, set your goals and stick to it. Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t seeing a change after the first week, or even second week. Results rarely appear after the first work out, but repetition of those core movements lead to better results with time and diligence.

A great way to stay motivated is to workout with a buddy. Having a workout buddy can help as it keeps you accountable to someone; it’s easy to say “not today” when you’re talking to yourself, but a workout buddy can help motivate and push and challenge you to reach for a personal best (and get you out of bed). Plus, working out can be a lot more fun when you have someone to laugh and joke with when you mess up and when you succeed. The more fun you have trying to get lean muscles the more likely you are to want to continue doing it.

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