Putting together an effective workout plan can be confusing and frustrating because there are many details to consider and workout approaches to try.
A good lean muscle workout plan is one that provides sufficient stimulus without leading to overtraining. There should be enough volume (training sets), multiple exercises per muscle group, and the use of various loads (light, moderate, and heavy) to create sufficient mechanical tension and metabolic stress.
Despite the seemingly daunting task, you must make an effort because improvising too much is not a good way to make good progress or stay motivated on your training journey.
5 Considerations For An Effective Lean Muscle Workout Plan
Training volume refers to the amount of work you do at the gym. The most straightforward way to track it is by counting the number of sets you do per muscle group.
Research suggests that doing more volume leads to better hypertrophy, which makes sense. Putting more effort and time into your training is bound to deliver superior results.
However, it’s worth noting that too much volume can be harmful because it can interfere with your recovery and lead to excessive soreness, putting you at risk of overtraining and affecting your performance in subsequent workouts.
I recommend doing 10 to 16 weekly sets for large muscle groups (the back, chest, glutes, and quadriceps) and 6 to 10 for smaller ones: the biceps, triceps, shoulders, calves, hamstrings, etc.
It’s better to start with less volume to see if it produces results before adding more sets to your training. That way, when progression inevitably stalls, you would have room to add more volume, so long as you’re well rested.
Training frequency measures how often you train each muscle group (e.g., the chest) or perform an exercise (e.g., the bench press). Prevailing wisdom suggests that training each muscle group two to three times per week is more beneficial for hypertrophy. Research also indicates that to be true.
The primary reason why that can be the case is volume allocation. Training a muscle group two to three times per week allows you to split your training volume into smaller, more manageable chunks. As a result, you can lift more weight across all sets and experience less severe muscle soreness.
Think of it like this:
Say you have to do 16 training sets for your chest each week. Doing that volume in one workout would be challenging because your pectoralis major, shoulders, and triceps would become fatigued, affecting your performance beyond a certain point. Plus, you would be more likely to experience significant soreness.
In contrast, training your chest twice weekly would allow you to split up the volume. That way, you won’t accumulate as much fatigue during each session and can lift more weight for more reps across all sets.
There is also the idea that working out stimulates muscle protein synthesis, but levels return to baseline within 36 to 48 hours. So, the thinking is that you should train the same muscle again within three to four days to keep protein synthesis elevated.
The idea sounds good, but there isn’t any research to suggest that it be of enormous importance for long-term growth.
Intensity refers to the amount of weight you lift in relation to your 1RM. A high-intensity set would be one where you lift 80, 90, or even 95+ percent of your max. In contrast, a moderate or low-intensity set would be one where you lift at or below 70 percent of your 1RM.
Paying attention to your intensity is important because it will dictate how many reps you can do per set, which plays a role in muscle gain.
For example, if you load 90 percent of your max on the barbell, you wouldn’t be able to do more than one or two reps, which isn’t highly beneficial for muscle growth.
According to research, high and low-intensity sets can lead to muscle growth so long as trainees push themselves close enough to failure (more on that below). However, solely focusing on a single repetition range could affect hypertrophy.
Most trainees would be better off training in various repetition ranges, depending on the exercises they are doing. Doing so would allow for a more varied training stimulus with enough mechanical tension and metabolic stress, both of which are necessary for growth.
Here are some suggestions for rep ranges across exercises:
- Compound lifts (barbell squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.): 4 to 8 reps
- Assistance lifts (goblet squats, Romanian deadlifts, incline press, etc.): 8 to 12 reps
- Isolation exercises (leg extensions, bicep curls, chest flyes, etc.): 12 to 25+ reps
4. Exercise Selection
Performing at least two exercises for each muscle group is beneficial for recruiting a larger percentage of motor units and promoting more balanced development.
A prominent example where that is the case is the pectoralis major (the chest). While it's true that a single compound exercise can lead to decent development, targeting the chest from a couple of angles can lead to more even growth.
For instance, perform the flat barbell bench press but also include an incline press variation to target the upper (clavicular) portion. Research suggests that an incline of 30 to 45 degrees leads to better upper chest activation.
The same goes for all other major muscle groups. Here are some examples:
- Back - horizontal pull (e.g., bent-over row), vertical pull (e.g., lat pulldown), and a hip hinge (e.g., rack pull)
- Deltoids - overhead press (e.g., seated dumbbell shoulder press), lateral raise (such as with dumbbells), and a rear delt movement (e.g., face pulls)
- Biceps - curl movement (e.g., barbell curl), hammer curl (e.g., dumbbell hammer curl), and a preacher curl (e.g., machine preacher curl)
- Triceps - pushdown (e.g., cable tricep pushdown), overhead extension (e.g., dumbbell overhead tricep extension), and a close grip press (e.g., close grip bench press)
- Quadriceps - squat movement (e.g., barbell squat), lunge (e.g., walking lunges), and a leg extension (e.g., machine leg extension)
- Glutes - hip thrust (e.g., barbell hip thrust), glute bridge (e.g., weighted glute bridge), and a squat variation (e.g., goblet squat)
- Hamstrings - hip hinge (e.g., Romanian deadlift) and leg curl (e.g., lying leg curl)
- Calves - standing calf raise (e.g., barbell standing calf raise) and seated calf raise (e.g., machine seated calf raise)
- Abdominals - torso crunch (e.g., sit up), a torso twist (e.g., cable woodchop), and a leg raise (e.g., hanging leg raise)
5. Progressive Overload
You know, progressive overload is kinda like the "secret sauce" to strength training. It's all about upping the ante of your workout bit by bit over time. Let's break it down into more digestible bites:
Muscle growth: Lifting heavier weights or doing more reps than your muscles are used to will make them stronger and bigger.
More strength: Progressive overload is like a gym challenge — it pushes your muscles to work harder and lift heavier, and you get stronger.
Better performance: It is not just about looking good; it also makes you better at other things like sports because it boosts your overall strength and endurance.
Let's imagine you're doing bench presses to paint a clearer picture. You start with 100 pounds for 10 reps. Over time, you add a bit more weight, say 105 pounds, and do the same number of reps. Then, maybe you do 100 pounds but for 12 reps. These little increases? That's progressive overload in action.
In short, progressive overload is your best pal if you want to keep getting stronger, build muscle, and stay fit in the long run. Always remember to challenge yourself, but do it wisely to avoid injuries.
A Simple Lean Muscle Workout Plan For Intermediate Lifters
Here's a fun and challenging muscle-building workout plan if you’ve been lifting for a while:
Day 1 (Upper Body) – e.g., Monday
Barbell bench press
Incline dumbbell press
Bent-over barbell row
Seated dumbbell shoulder press
Lateral dumbbell raise
Cable rope tricep pushdown
Day 2 (Lower Body) – e.g., Tuesday
High-bar back squat
Standing calf raises
Day 3 (Upper Body 2) – e.g., Thursday
to RPE 8-9 (leave 1-2 reps in the tank)
Seated cable rows
Dumbbell shoulder press
Straight bar cable pushdowns
Dumbbell hammer curls
Day 4 (Lower Body 2) – e.g., Friday
10-12 (per leg)
Lying leg curl
Seated calf raises
Progressive Overload Ideas and Examples
So you want to know how to keep upping your game each week with the lean muscle workout plan, right? Here are some easy tips to keep you improving:
Lift a bit more: As you get stronger, those muscles will need more challenge. Each week, try to add a smidgen more weight, like an extra 2.5-5 pounds.
More sets or reps: Add an extra set or a couple more reps to your routine. For instance, you can bump your 3 sets of 10 reps to 4 sets of 10.
Quicker breaks: Want to make things spicier? Shorten your break time between sets. If you've been chilling for two minutes, try bringing it down to 1.5 minutes.
Shake things up with new exercises: Keep your muscles guessing by throwing in new moves. Been doing regular squats? Mix it up with front squats or Bulgarian split squats.
Play with the tempo: Change the speed of your lifts to add an extra challenge––like lowering your weights more slowly or hanging out for a bit at the bottom of a squat or bench press.
By pushing yourself a bit more each week, you'll keep building that lean muscle and shaking up your workout routine. And don't forget, eating right and getting plenty of rest are super important for making those gains!
Let's get into some real-life examples to make things clearer:
Example 1: Your Best Friend, The Bench Press
Imagine it's week one, and you're comfortably bench pressing 100 pounds for three sets of 10 reps, taking a two-minute pause in between. Here's how you can jazz things up over the next few weeks:
Week 2: Let's push that weight a tiny bit up to 105 pounds, keeping your three sets of 10 reps.
Week 3: Keep the 105 pounds but toss in one extra set. So now you're doing four sets of 10 reps.
Week 4: Still at 105 pounds and four sets, but what about a shorter break? Try resting for only 90 seconds.
Week 5: Time to switch things up with an incline bench press. Same muscles, new challenge.
Example 2: The Classic Squats
You're kicking off with 135 pounds squats, getting in three sets of 10 reps with a 90-second rest in between. Here's how you can step it up over time:
Week 2: Add a bit more weight, say 140 pounds while keeping your three sets of 10 reps.
Week 3: At 140 pounds, try pushing for three sets of 12 reps.
Week 4: Everything stays the same, but this time, take a shorter, 80-second break.
Week 5: Now, how about trying a new kind of squat? Front squats or Bulgarian split squats could be your next big thing.
Remember, these are just ideas. Always listen to your body and push yourself at a pace that feels good to you. The goal is steady progress, not risking any injuries.
5 Workout Tips and Recommendations
Think of tempo training like dancing with weights - it's all about getting the rhythm of your lifts just right. Here's how to bring this fresh beat to your routine:
Reading the rhythm: Tempo is typically measured in four digits. For example:
The first is the time taken to lower the weight, the second is your pause at the lowest point, the third is your lift time, and the last is your pause at the top. So, a tempo of 3-0-1-0 for a bicep curl means you take three seconds to lower, don't pause, lift in one second, and then no pause at the top.
Setting your pace: Your tempo should sync with your goals. For strength and muscle growth, slower tempos like 4-2-1-0 are great. For boosting speed and power, you might prefer faster ones like 1-1-1-1.
Form before speed: Always ensure you're doing the movements right, even when trying to do quicker reps. Feel free to lighten the weights or slow down your pace if your form is sloppy because of the tempo.
Track your groove: Note the tempos and weights you're working with. As you get stronger, look for opportunities to up your game - either increase the weight or pick up the pace.
Just remember, tempo training is one piece of the fitness puzzle. Mix it with other workout styles to reach your goals and keep your routine exciting.
Now, let's put it into action:
Example 1: Bench Press
You might start with a 2-0-2-0 tempo. That's two seconds down, no pause, two seconds up, and no pause. When you feel stronger, you could push it to a 3-1-1-0 tempo.
Example 2: Squats
You could start with a 3-1-1-0 tempo: three seconds down, pause for a second, one second up, and no pause at the top. Give a 4-2-1-0 tempo a whirl to push those muscles as you improve.
But remember, these are just starters - always listen to your body and go at a speed that feels good to you.
2. Rest Periods
Giving yourself a break between sets is essential when you're hitting the weights. Think of these breaks as tiny pit stops for your muscles to recharge before the next race.
Now, you might wonder how long these pit stops should be. That depends on a few things: your workout goals, how challenging your workout is, and how fit you are. Here's a quick guide to rest times:
For heavy lifting: Take a 3-5 minute pause between sets if you're pulling up heavy weights (about 80% of your max effort). This gives your muscles a chance to rest up so you can power through your next set.
Moderate lifting: Rest for 2-3 minutes between sets when working with weights that aren't too heavy but still challenge you (think 60-80% of your max).
Light lifting: A quick one to two-minute break between sets will do if you're playing it light and breezy with your weights (less than 60% of your max).
Circuit training: If you're bouncing from one exercise to the next without breaks, try to take a one to three-minute break between circuits.
But remember, these are general guidelines. Your body knows best, so listen to it. Adjust your rest time depending on your fitness level, goals, and workout intensity.
3. Effort & RPE
Ever heard of RPE? It stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion, a fancy way of saying "how tough you feel your workout is." It's like a scale from 1 to 10, with one being a walk in the park and ten feeling like you've climbed Mount Everest. (Well, not really, but you get the point.)
Now, if you want to build muscle, your goal for the last set of each exercise should be an RPE between 7 and 9. Your workout should feel challenging but not so hard that you can't finish your reps with good form.
Imagine you're knocking out some squats. As you reach that last set, you should feel like you're pushing yourself - think 7 to 9 on the RPE scale - but you shouldn't be gasping for breath.
You should still be able to maintain good form and complete all your reps. If you breeze through it or struggle to finish, it's a signal that you might need to change up the weight for your next gym session.
But remember, RPE isn't the be-all and end-all for muscle growth. There are other things to consider, like gradually increasing your workout intensity (a.k.a progressive overload), eating right, and getting enough rest.
4. Warming Up
Warm-ups are a vital ingredient in your workout recipe, especially if you aim to pump up those muscles. Warming up is like waking your body up and saying, "Hey, it's time to work!" It gets the blood racing, your heart thumping and loosens you up so you're ready to go.
Here's a relaxed guide to warming up:
Kick it off with cardio: Start with something nice and easy, like a leisurely jog on the treadmill or cycling on your stationary bike. The goal is to get your blood flowing and your heart ticking faster.
Try dynamic stretching: After you've got a bit of cardio in, switch it up to dynamic stretching. This isn't about holding a stretch but moving through a range of motion. Imagine doing walking lunges, swinging your legs back and forth, or doing arm circles to get more flexible and mobile.
Activate those muscles: Now, we're onto specific exercises that wake up the muscles you'll be using in your workout. If squats are in your workout plan, doing bodyweight squats now would be perfect for getting your glutes, hamstrings, and quads ready for action.
Slowly increase the intensity: Make things more challenging as you continue your warm-up. Start with bodyweight exercises and then introduce light weights.
Try warm-up sets: If your workout involves heavy lifting, it's smart to do some warm-up sets with lighter weights. It's like a little rehearsal for your muscles for the big show to come.
Finally, always remember that your warm-up isn't a race. Take your time. It's all about avoiding injuries and making your workout awesome. So enjoy it and let your body get ready for some action.
Adding cardio to a muscle-building plan might seem counterintuitive, but it has some significant benefits for overall health and muscle recovery. However, integrating cardio into your training schedule can make a difference in your muscle growth, thanks to the interference effect.
The interference effect refers to the concept that cardio can potentially interfere with muscle growth, mainly when done right before strength training. This is because your body uses different energy systems for cardio and strength training. Doing cardio first can deplete the energy you need for a productive strength workout.
Here's where scheduling becomes important. There are three main ways you could incorporate cardio into your muscle-building plan to minimize the interference effect:
On rest days: This method separates your cardio and strength workouts by at least a day. You can give you all to both types of workouts without worrying about the interference effect.
At least 6 hours between cardio and weight training: So, you want to mix in some cardio and strength training on the same day? No problem. Just space them out by at least six hours. This gives your body enough time to recover and stock up energy for your next session.
After weight training: Can't fit in two separate workouts in your day? Here's a trick: slot in your cardio right after weight training. That way, you're giving your all to your muscle-building workout, and whatever energy is left, you're burning it off with some cardio.
And here's a practical spin on it. Suppose you're working on those muscles on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can easily squeeze in cardio on your rest days, like Tuesday and Thursday.
That way, you're focusing on muscle-building and getting your heart rate up, creating a perfect balance. But if you're the type to enjoy relaxed weekends, here's another plan: have your strength training in the morning and follow it up with some cardio in the evening, only on some of your training days.
This plan lets you maintain your routine during weekdays while still enjoying your weekends off.
Lean Muscle Workout Plan Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. What rep range is best for muscle gain?
There isn’t a single ‘best’ rep range for growth. Doing enough volume (training sets) and lifting a variety of weights (light, moderate, and heavy) allows you to create a large and varied enough stimulus to promote hypertrophy.
2. Shouldn’t I train as hard as possible for the best results?
While the occasional set to failure can stimulate growth and strength gain, pushing yourself to your limits all the time is not ideal. Doing so generates too much fatigue, which affects your performance and hinders your ability to do enough productive work.
3. What exercises are best for lean muscle?
There are no ‘best’ exercises for lean muscle. Pick movements that activate the correct muscles, provide a decent overload, and allow you to train through a full range of motion with proper technique.
4. How should I eat to build as much muscle as possible?
Ideally, you should maintain a slight calorie surplus (100 to 300 calories over maintenance), coupled with a high enough protein (0.7 to 1 gram per pound) and fat (0.35 to 0.45 grams per pound) intake.
And there you have it. We've strolled through the ins and outs of a lean muscle workout plan.
Remember, mixing up your rep ranges, figuring out how cardio fits into your plan, and nourishing your body well are all part of the equation.
Always listen to your body, and don’t be afraid to adjust the plan as you see fit. Consistency and patience are your two best buddies on this journey toward a lean and muscular physique.