Training for lean mass - our top tips

Training for lean mass requires the right approach, as well as a good diet and a lot of hard work. Strength and conditioning coach Adam Hearn gives his advice on what works best. The majority of those who lift weights have the goal of increasing lean body mass. Increasing lean body mass, scientifically known as muscular hypertrophy, refers to increasing the size of your muscles whilst not gaining excess fat. The principles behind hypertrophy are relatively straightforward - the body responds to a training stimulus resulting in an increase in the cross sectional area of the muscle (size) and an increase in the muscle's ability to generate force (strength). Enlargements of approximately 10-15% have been reported after just 10-14 weeks of a hypertrophy programme. If we keep it simple, the body either builds/repairs muscle tissue (anabolic) or breaks down muscle tissue for energy (catabolic). Therefore, when training for lean mass the aim of your training session should be to induce an anabolic hormone response for muscle growth. Achieving this anabolic state requires a combination of optimal nutrition, training and rest. This article discusses the hormone responses to training. Follow these research-based guidelines to increase your chances of success when training for lean mass gain:

Use compound (multi-joint) exercises for 6-12 reps

After a thorough warm-up, you should start your workout with an exercise that requires a large volume of muscle mass (e.g. squats or deadlifts). Even on an upper body workout you ask? My answer would be yes! Lower body exercises, when performed through a full range of movement, recruits much more muscle mass than upper body exercises and creates a greater testosterone response. Testosterone is a male sex hormone with huge anabolic potential; remember, anabolic = muscle growth. In terms of intensity and volume, the optimal training strategy for the release of testosterone has been reported as 3–5 sets of 6–12 repetitions working towards failure. For those ladies reading this worried about looking like a bodybuilder, testosterone levels are generally 15-20 times lower in females, which make it harder to gain muscle when training for lean mass.

Short, passive rest periods between multiple sets

When you're lifting weights towards your 10 rep max, lactate and blood accumulates within the muscles and leads to temporary swelling of the cells ("the pump" as described by Arnold). Lactate concentrations are enhanced further when you slowly lower the weight with each rep (eccentric contraction), which increases the time under tension. If you find 10 reps easy with a given weight, try slowing the eccentric part of the exercise down to around 3 seconds. If you still find this easy, maybe it's time for a heavier weight! The high lactate concentration and increased testosterone level promotes growth hormone release, which stimulates insulin-like growth factors, more anabolic hormones. These hormones cause an increase in the uptake of amino acids, specifically glutamine, and lead to muscle growth. After a set, you'll probably feel a burning sensation in the muscles you've just worked. During your rest periods between sets, try to relax and avoid stretching to keep the lactate in the muscles so the next set they can increase further. To enhance this, when you are training for lean mass you should keep your recovery periods fairly short, depending on experience.

Keep gym sessions short by splitting up you routine

When you're training for lean mass, limiting each session to an hour reduces the catabolic effects of the hormone cortisol; remember, catabolic = muscle breakdown. When energy levels are low, cortisol is released, which stimulates the breakdown of muscle for energy. Time is limited, therefore you need to be intelligent with the exercises you choose – think compound. You’d be wasting your time if you stayed in the gym attempting four different variations of a bicep curl in the mirror. If you are training for lean mass, splitting up your routine will help to overload of each movement and ensure a short session. Training each movement once a week allows more recovery between sessions where mild DOMS (soreness) is common caused from the muscular damage. The recovery between sessions is where the growth occurs so make sure you utilise it and don’t overtrain by bench pressing every day!

Train movements not muscles

When training for lean mass I believe you should train movements and not muscles (functional hypertrophy), unless you're training to become a competing bodybuilder. For example, I suggest you avoid the age-old chest and triceps workout (muscles) and replace them with pushing exercises (movements). This is how your weekly four day split may change:
Typical four day split Modern four day split
Monday Chest and triceps Push
Tuesday Back and biceps Knee dominant
Thursday Legs Pull
Friday Shoulders and arms Hip dominant
Notice I've added two separate lower limb sessions, anyone who is deadlifting and squatting maximally for volume in the same session is crazy! You'd be walking like John Wayne for days. Also, your lower limb has more muscle mass and therefore you're able to lift more weight leading to more muscle recruitment and a greater hormone response.

Untrained trainers

If you're new to the gym and training for lean mass, stacking on the muscle may be difficult initially, with the majority of gains resulting from neural adaptations. However if you keep training consistently over a prolonged period of time, the benefits of hypertrophy will become the dominant adaptation to training. Make sure you start light with longer rest periods and progress up slowly. Try and find a training partner/coach to ensure your technique is up to scratch.

Advanced trainers

For the more advanced individual who is training for lean mass, evidence suggests it may be beneficial to selectively include forced reps, drop sets, supersets, and heavy negatives within the training programme, although more research is required for actual exercise prescription. These suggestions are all temporary to break through a plateau, traditional weight lifting cannot be beaten and should make up the bulk of your programme when training.

Training for lean mass: in brief

Increases in lean muscle mass are optimal when 3-5 sets of 10RM are used with short rest periods (≈60 seconds). Moderate loads are required focussing on increased eccentric loading where muscular failure is recommended in the final sets. Sessions should be short (up to 60 minutes) and should be split up to target specific movements through a full range of movement. However, there's more to gaining muscle size then just heavy resistance training. Lean gains are optimal when stress (e.g. work/home life), recovery (e.g. sleep), and nutrition (e.g. calorie surplus) are also carefully monitored. I would also recommend minimising the volume of cardiovascular training and competitive sports for optimal gains because they will increase cortisol levels significantly. The other thing that matters is diet, of course. For more details on this and to see which products GoNutrition™ recommend when you're aiming to gain lean mass check out the Lean Muscle Bundle which includes everything you need.

Further reading on training for lean mass

1. Kraemer WJ, Vingren JL, and Spiering BA. Endocrine responses to resistance exercise, Chapter 3, in Essentials of strength training and conditioning, 3rd ed., Champaign, Illinois, Human Kinetics, 2008. 2. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 2010;24(10):2857-2872. 3. Schoenfeld BJ. The use of specialized training techniques to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength and Conditioning Journal; 2011;33(4)1:60-65. 4. Turner A, Comfort P, Moody J, and Jefferies I. Neuroendocrinology and resistance training in adult males. Professional Strength & Conditioning; 2010;17:15-24.
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