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June 10, 2021 10 min read

There are several different ways to sculpt your own body. If you’re trying to chisel your musculature down into a lean body type, full of muscle, low on fat, and slim, then you’re going to need to put in some pretty specific effort.

It’s not hard, and once you’ve figured out a good routine, it’ll put you right on the road to success. We’re going to be sharing some tips and a handful of the best exercises for building lean muscle, if you’re ready to transform yourself, then come along for this ride.

a lean and muscular man with a gym towel around his neck

What’s Lean Muscle?

So, let’s get this out of the way first. Technically all muscle is lean muscle. When we talk about muscles, we’re naturally talking about a part of your body that’s low on body fat. Your muscles are a part of your body that are energetically demanding and don’t leave a lot of room for fay within themselves.

You can have a little bit of what a butcher would call “marbling,” which is fat interlaced throughout your different muscle groups. This is called intramuscular fat. When we talk about building lean muscle, we’re not talking about burning off fat within or between your muscles. If you did that, you’d have bigger problems to worry about than losing a little bit of weight. 

With that out of the way, we can get to what this is really about. You’re here to build a lean body with plenty of muscle. We tend to imagine a body that’s not very bulky in terms of either fat or muscle. It’s a body that’s trimmed the fat (literally) and focuses on building muscle that’s well-defined without becoming cumbersome or overbearing. 

The short version is that you’re going to need to burn away your excess fat and feed your body a steady diet of protein and exercise.

Building Muscle

If you don’t understand the mechanics of building muscle, then you’re going to get nowhere fast in this process. Your body is a machine that’s constantly responding to external stimuli, and if you’re trying to build muscle you’re going to need to trigger the growth process.

Hypertrophy is going to become your best friend If you’re training to get lean. This is the process your body goes through to increase your muscle mass. Hypertrophy is a series of things, it’s not just slapping on more muscle cells.

When you’re working out, you’re tearing into your muscle cells. They’ll tear along the fibers under the strain of the weights you’re lifting and your body doesn’t like incurring damage like that. Intense exercise that deals damage to your muscle tissue is met with resistance by your body.

This is what kicks off the hypertrophic process. Your body wants to overcome obstacles you place in front of it, so when you rebuild those torn fibers, you’re building them back bigger and stronger than they were before. Your body also loves efficiency.

That means that during the process of rebuilding damaged tissue, you will make more room in your muscles for glucose storage. When building muscle you’re building up storage space and mass, these things together make your muscles more prevalent, useful, and hungry.

When you finally start building a little bit of muscle, you start creating a positive feedback loop on the path to building lean muscle.

Burning Fat

To understand what it takes to burn fat, you need to understand what fat cells are, to begin with. Your fat cells are a storage system in your body. When you eat more than your body uses, you don’t just throw away the excess. Your body wants to use everything you put into it, so extra glucose is bound up in triglycerides and stored around your body as emergency energy.

The only way to get rid of this emergency energy is to give your body a reason to use it up. This is why we talk about the importance of diet when it comes to losing fat and slimming down. If you’re working out all day long, but you’re eating more energy than you use, then you’re just going to be exactly where you started.

Often people will talk about operating at a calorie deficit to burn these fat cells, but it’s simultaneously more and less complicated than that. Calories are a broad measure of what’s in your food, but it’s not really useful when it comes to the actual nutrients being imparted to your body.

You should think less about counting calories when you’re trying to burn fat and more about using the carbohydrates and other sugars in your body. Your body is powered by glucose, so you need to be burning through that energy during your workouts and your daily life.

If you focus your diet more on reducing the amount of glucose you need to burn through before your body starts breaking into your fat cells. 

Getting It Done

You’re going to want to keep a couple of things in mind. Once you’ve taken these to heart, you’re going to be well on your way to building lean muscle. Your body is complex and difficult to master if you’re going in blind, but that’s what we’re here for. We’re going to keep you from flying blind and set you up for success.

Heavy Lifting

The most basic aspect of building muscle is how hard you push them during your workouts. You’re going to want to break out the weights, the compound exercises, and the calisthenics.

You want to push your muscles to the breaking point (literally). 

Lifting weights is one of the most straightforward and efficient ways to build muscle. When you’re lifting weights it’s simple to track, quick to wear down your muscles, and readily available in most circumstances. 

Building your muscles using weight lifting can be complicated if you’re aiming for a specific body type, but if you remember two things you’ll lower the difficulty levels for yourself:

  • If you’re trying to build bigger muscles you want to aim for low-rep high-weight exercises, if you overcome massive weights your body will compensate by adding muscle capable of lifting heavy weights
  • Building towards a slimmer build requires a more endurance-focused mindset. You should be lifting lighter weights for higher reps. This wears down your muscles, which will induce hypertrophy, but rather than encouraging massive muscle growth you’ll be burning energy (and therefore fat) while building more slender muscles.

Isolation Exercises

These are otherwise known as single-joint exercises. Whatever you call them, we mean exercises that focus on a single muscle or muscle group. Isolation exercises are great for polishing a muscle group or strengthening a problem area in your routine, and honestly, there’s nothing wrong with isolation exercises.

The problem with isolation exercises in pursuit of lean muscle is the relative inefficiency of them. When you’re narrowing your workouts down into a series of isolation exercises, you’re sinking a lot of time into a single muscle group at a time when you could be blitzing several muscles at once is just going to slow down the time it takes to reach your workout goals.

We’ve already talked about the mechanics of fat burning, so it should be obvious why compound exercises are better for building lean muscle, but if you haven’t caught on yet, allow us to lay it out for you. When you’re filling your workout routine with compound exercises, you’re forcing your body to expend a prodigious amount of energy at once.

The faster you can blow through your body’s readily available energy, the faster you can get to the stubborn fat cells in your body. Building a lean body becomes much more simple when you’re utilizing efficient tricks like this throughout your routine.

Protein Shakes

Feeding yourself when you’re trying to build muscle is going to either make or break your efforts. What you need when you’re constantly expelling energy and trying not to load yourself up on excess carbohydrates is a simple meal supplement that will help you repair your damaged muscle tissue while filling you up.

Protein shakes, fat burners, and other meal supplements are a godsend for someone with weight loss or muscle gain-related goals. First of all, they’re excellent for suppressing hunger. Your body’s hunger response is quickly quelled with a relatively small amount of protein (especially when compared to the number of carbs you’d be eating otherwise).

Staving off hunger signals is going to make a world of difference when you’re trying to operate at the deficits you need to burn off fat cells. Protein shakes or bars also have the benefit of packing higher amounts of protein into much more efficient packages.

Your body absolutely needs protein if you’re going to be constantly working out. Your muscles are made from protein. Without it, you’re not going to be building any muscle, you’ll just be whittling away at your body without making any headway. 

Free Weights

Free weights are just weights that are free from any cumbersome weights. When we talk about free weights we’re talking about things like kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells. They’re crucial to building lean muscle. 

The versatility and accessibility that a set of free weights grants you is easily one of the best ways to burn energy and build muscle in pursuit of lean muscle. You can perform nearly every single exercise on the face of the planet with a set of free weights.

You can use them to target every single muscle group, and once you’ve found a range of weight you’re comfortable working in, you’ll be steadily pumping iron and packing on muscle. 


Plenty of weight lifters that aren’t totally dedicated to the craft will try to duck out on a good cardio session. If you want to build muscle and burn fat effectively, then you’re going to need to employ the dark cardio arts.

Cardio is great for tuning your entire body, if you’re doing something like the occasional jog, you’ll be totally engaging your body for an extended period of time, which will work wonders for your conditioning. The most important aspect of cardio, though, is making sure your cardiovascular system is working in tip-top shape.

Weight lifting is just like any other exercise, you need to be able to move nutrients around your body and get oxygen to the muscles doing the work in a timely manner. This is where your cardio comes in. If you can last longer in the gym, you can get more work done per session.

This will wear your body down more quickly each session and get you to the fat-burning part of your routine more effectively. 

strong athletic rough man pumping up back muscles deadlift

Best Exercises for Building Lean Muscle

Remember it’s not just the fact that you’re building muscle, it’s that you should be going at these exercises with enough weight to wear you down, but not so much that you can’t perform high-rep exercises.

1. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are the master of compound exercises. If you have the time and space to work deadlifts into your workout routine, then you should definitely make sure to add them in. 

The only real problem with trying to slot in deadlifts is going to be the space they take up. This isn’t something that most people can take on at home if they live in a tight space. You’re almost always going to need access to an external gym if you really want to get yourself deadlifting. 

2. Yoga

Never underestimate a good yoga session. Yoga is all about using the weight of your body, you'll be working on the flexibility of your muscles, and it will teach you all about how difficult isometric exercise really can be. Yoga is great because you essentially need zero equipment.

As long as you’re dressed for it, you can spend a few dozen minutes every day perfecting even the most difficult poses. Yoga is also almost entirely a compound workout. You’ll be contorting several muscle groups at once to achieve these poses and you need to hold them in unique positions against your body weight, giving you a thorough workout every time.

3. Squats

We tend to think of squats as an exercise that focuses just on your quads, but the mechanics of them work out multiple muscles at the same time. They're an excellent way to burn a lot of energy and you can do them anywhere at any time. 

If you feel like you can’t always get to the gym, squats are an exercise you can do at work, no matter what kind of job you have. Call centers, office jobs, and restaurants all have space for you to step away and get a set or two in during your shift.

4. Lunges

Lunges are similar to squats in their effectiveness and versatility. If you feel squats are too hard on your knees, you might find that lunges fit into your routine a little bit better. They have the added benefit of working on your balance and adding a little bit of core work to your workout. 

5. Chest Presses

The whole family of chest presses are a great way to burn a lot of energy and push your upper body to build muscle in a lot of areas. You can work your upper arms as well as your chest if you're smart about it. 

6. Push-ups

If you don't have any weights at home or you're feeling like maybe you want to build slimmer muscles than your chest presses will allow, then push-ups are a great way to go

You have a lot of wiggle room with push-ups. As your muscles become used to the workout, you'll find that there is a world of variants for you to choose from. 

7. Pull-ups

When you're building muscle it's important to make sure you're working to build in balance. Pull-ups are a great way to build up strength in your back, your arms will thank you too. 

8. Bent-Over Rows

These are a good way to build muscle in your back and shoulders. If you feel like you could use some more strength in your delts or you're having trouble building up to your pull-ups, then you might find a little more success with bent-over rows.

9. Snatch 

These are an exercise that people tend to add into their workouts to show off their strength.

10. Overhead Presses

Overhead presses are great for stability, your shoulders, and your back. Combine these with a power clean and you'll work out your entire body quite thoroughly. 


Getting lean is all about carefully considering the food you’re eating, effectively using your energy and dedication to the work. Building the body you want isn’t easy, but when you equip yourself with the right knowledge up front, you’ll be able to trickle those lessons down into your routine without having to wrestle with yourself when it’s time for meals and workout shakeups.

Try planning out your workouts ahead of time, and you’ll see how easily you’ll start blitzing fat and building muscle.