Lean Muscle Mass 101: Understanding the Basics and Getting Started

Jonny Mace

6/5/20233 min read

So, what exactly is lean muscle mass? What does hypertrophy mean? What is the best way to gain muscle?

In this article I will explain the basics of increasing muscle mass, and what you should be doing that you probably aren't.

Lean muscle mass, a phrase we’re going to discuss that is thrown around a lot in the fitness world. You will typically hear this used in ads, especially when a product or service is trying to be marketing towards you. A claim like “proven to increase lean muscle by 15%” can have you assuming that specific protein powder or supplement is some miracle because it’s “specially formulated”.

But don’t be fooled by marketing tactics, because even if something is “scientifically proven” doesn’t necessarily mean that the science was sound. For example, if there was a study done on 20 people that were consuming a protein powder after a workout for 12 weeks and 20 people showed an increase in lean muscle mass, that would mean that the protein powder was the cause, right? Most people would assume so. But if we were to take a closer look at the study, maybe it was 20 people who had never worked out before that would have an increase in muscle mass regardless of the protein powder. Maybe it might have been people who were working out consistently, but had nowhere near enough protein in their diet.

So that brings us to the question: What is lean muscle mass exactly? Lean muscle mass is just muscle. Yes, you read that right. Lean muscle mass is just a marketing phrase for plain old American muscle. Many people tend to think "lean muscle" is gaining muscle without gaining fat. Generally,

That brings us to nutrition: what do you need to eat in order to gain muscle? While the answer to that can become complex because each person is unique, but essentially you need to be consuming enough macronutrients in your diet. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats all have their own role. The main macronutrient we will focus on in this article is protein, because not having enough protein in your diet will cause muscle to break down (which is obviously the opposite of what you want).

As a general rule of thumb, it is recommended that an active individual has 0.5g-1.0g of protein per pound of body weight. As someone who has trained over 50 clients, I tend to lean toward the dogma of 1g per centimeter of height. The main reason being body weight doesn't express a person's lean body mass. A simple conversion is to take your height in inches and multiply by 2.54 to get your height in centimeters. I am 6’2, which would be 74 inches. Multiply that by 2.54 and you get 187.96, rounded up to 190. I typically try to have at least 190 grams of protein a day when I’m meal prepping and eating adequate amounts of food. That is plenty of protein for my body to be able to build up muscle tissue after a workout. As long as you are in a caloric deficit (eating less Calories than you burn) and eating enough protein to gain/preserve muscle mass, you will be gaining “lean muscle mass” over time. Just do keep in mind that the rate of muscle gain will definitely be slower while in a Caloric deficit vs being in a Caloric surplus (eating more Calories than you burn).

Everyone knows working out builds muscle right? So how do you actually trigger what’s called hypertrophy, which is the increase in the actual size of a muscle. The body’s ability to adapt is nothing short of astonishing. It can react to a stimulus, change to accommodate that stimulus, and end up thriving afterwards. To build muscle, you want to focus on increasing that stimulus over time.

Increasing the stimulus over time is a principle of training known as progressive overload. If you can bench 100lbs for 6 reps, you don’t want to only be able to bench 100lbs for 6 reps a month later. That wouldn’t make any sense. I always track my progress with a notebook the old fashioned way. A very beginner-friendly way to advance in your weight training is called linear progression.

Linear progression simply means that you have a repetition (rep) range and a certain number of sets that you are going to do each week. Your goal is to hit the top of that rep range for all of those sets, then you can move up in weight. So for example, Timmy is staying in the 8-12 rep range (hint: this is typically the best range for muscle growth) on dumbbell curls for 3 sets. He starts with 15lbs and does 12 reps on the first set, 9 on the second, and 8 on the third. The next workout where he does dumbbell curls he is going to use the same weight and go for 3 sets of 12 reps.

Let’s say he does 12 reps on all 3 sets, he has 2 options to progress. My personal favorite is to go up in weight and hit another set that same day. So he could go up to 20lb dumbbells and might get 4 or 5 reps. The other option is to just wait until the next time he does dumbbell curls to go up in weight. Either way, the next time he does dumbbell curls he is going to start with 20lbs and start the process over again until he can do 3 sets of 12 with 20lbs. Rinse and repeat.