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How to Get Lean: The Ultimate Guide

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Let’s get one thing straight, if you want to look like The Rock, then this guide probably isn’t for you. 

When hoping for a lean physique, many people envision cutting down body fat or building natural-looking muscle to complement an already slim build. But what does it really mean to be lean? And what tools do you need to get there? 

In this article, we try to answer some of these questions. We will also argue that whether you’re short, tall, thin, or stocky, a lean physique might not actually be as unattainable as you think. 

What Does it Mean to Be Lean?

A lean physique lies somewhere in between a beach body and a ripped one. While these terms are interchangeable, there is actually a distinct difference between them. 

A beach body refers to the aesthetic physique that boasts just enough muscle to reveal abs, but is still considered slim. Whereas, bulging biceps are typical of the ripped look, while body fat remains limited. A shredded body takes this to another level, requiring the highest percentage of muscle mass possible. This can only be maintained for a maximum of a few hours.

So what does it mean to be lean? Lean body mass is calculated as the difference between the total weight and the weight of body fat. A body fat percentage between 7 and 10 is generally considered to be lean.

Lean physiques are common with athletics as muscle contributes to strength and power, and a lack of bulk helps with flexibility and recovery. This has also become the epitome of male attractiveness, being typical among celebrities and sporting stars. 

What Does Lean Look Like?

While it can imply being skinny, lean muscle combined with low body fat makes an individual look both slim and strong. A lean body boasts less bulk than a ripped one and higher body fat than the shredded look. 

Physical Signs

Physical signs that indicate someone is lean include defined abs and other muscles across the body. Because there is low body fat, veins protrude and muscle striations are prominent.  

Being lean is not exclusive to sporting stars. A lean body tends to be built small. An individual’s weight needs to be low relative to their height to have a low body fat percentage. For this reason, taller people may find it easier to reach a lean state or naturally harbor one. But with the right diet and exercise, anyone can be lean. 

BMI

BMI, or Body Mass Index, can be a good indicator of leanness. Similar to body fat percentage, BMI takes your height and weight to estimate how healthy you are. 

Rather than producing a percentage, BMI generates a number in the range of 10 to 40 to determine where your weight sits in comparison to other people of the same height as you. However, BMI doesn’t give an accurate depiction of overall health, as the balance between muscle and fat that makes up an individual’s mass is not taken into account. 

It’s said that muscle weighs more than fat. This is because 1lb of fat takes up more mass than 1lb of muscle, although they technically weigh the same. This is why extremely muscular physiques may generate an obese BMI reading despite boasting limited body fat. Because lean bodies balance slim muscle and low body fat, a healthy BMI reading can signify a lean physique. 

How to Get Lean

So now that you know what a lean body looks like, it’s time to figure out how to get you there. 

There are two important aspects to getting lean. When most people want to get lean, they may mean they want to cut down their body fat. And there’s only one way to do this. Consume less calories than you burn. 

However, leanness is not just being skinny. Building lean muscle is essential to the lean physique.

Calories 101

The diet industry will tell you that your eating schedule, the food you eat and your exercise routine are what will make you lose weight. While these can contribute to maintaining a healthy diet, the only way to lose body fat is by eating in a calorie deficit. This means burning more calories than you’re putting into your body. 

To figure out how to eat less calories than you burn, you need to know your maintenance calories. This is the amount your body naturally burns to maintain your current weight.

The number is specific to you and is determined by your age, gender, body composition and weekly activity levels. There are many online tools that make this easy to calculate, but the average maintenance calories for men sits at around 2500 calories per day.   

If you need to lose a lot of weight or want fast progression, a 500 calorie deficit will get you on your way to leanness. This means consuming 500 calories less than your maintenance.

Non-exercise Aerobic Thermogenesis

The daily calories you burn are increased by the movement you do throughout the day. Many people may think that you need to spend hours doing cardio in the gym to lose weight. But most of the calories you burn are from non-exercise aerobic thermogenesis or NEAT.

Your NEAT refers to the activity you do outside of structured exercise, like walking to the shops or cleaning your apartment. Increasing your NEAT can have a significant effect on weight loss, more so than working out. 

If you view exercise this way, your time in the gym can become purely about changing your body composition and building lean muscle.  

Lean vs Skinny

Skinny legends are not necessarily the ideal lean figure. If you’re already built slim, then you’ll need to add lean muscle to have this physique. 

This means building definition in your abs, biceps, chest, quads and calves, but also maintaining low enough body fat so that these muscles aren’t bulky or “swole”. The brawn would still have to show through the skin though. 

Staying in a calorie deficit and focusing on NEAT whilst trying to build muscle will give you this balance. 

Working Out

Now that you know the importance of lean muscle and low body fat to your new physique goals, I’m sure you’re wondering how to use them effectively. Let’s look at some of the ways that exercise can aid both muscle growth and weight loss. 

Cardio

Spending hours on the treadmill won’t instantly give you the lean physique that you’re after. This could even hinder recovery and muscle growth. But cardio is a good way to increase your daily energy expenditure without having to restrict too much of the food you love from your diet. 

A few weekly runs or 10 minutes of cardio to warm up for your workout could have you burning those extra calories. This will make sure your lean muscle growth isn’t hidden by excess body fat. 

HIIT

High intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT, is the perfect cardio for a tight schedule. HIIT can have you building up a sweat in just 15 to 20 minutes. Performing HIIT will also let you burn more calories throughout the rest of your day. 

Try a circuit with five of your favorite explosive movements, giving each exercise your max effort for 30 seconds followed by a 30 seconds rest. Repeat this 3 to 5 times for a full body cardio burn. Jumping squats, push ups, burpees, all these movements will get your heart rate up but also contribute to lean muscle growth. 

Free Weights

The free weights section will be your best friend for progressive overload. This is the process of gradually increasing weights, frequency and repetitions within a programmed workout routine. 

Free weights allow you to start very light and work your way up to heavier lifts, targeting specific muscles or multiple muscle groups at once. But being lean isn’t about building big muscles. Use free weights for endurance and good posture, but don’t overdo it. 

Calisthenics

Calisthenics rely purely on body weight to build strength. This makes it an accessible way to get lean with no gym or weights required. However, it shouldn’t be underestimated. While intensity varies, performing calisthenics can take immense control and core strength.

Bodyweight is used as resistance to perform exercises that use large muscle groups. Often they are done in slow and rhythmic ways. Exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, handstands and single-armed variations of these. More advanced exercises include flag pole holds, 90 degree push-ups and handstand walks. 

Calisthenics require more movement than weight training, and so it increases heart rate. This means that it can be better at burning calories than a conventional weights session. 

This type of training is favored for the production of lean muscle, as without progressive overload and a steady increase in weight, calisthenics won’t build bulk. Rather, it can improve flexibility, form and balance, as well as aid fat loss. 

Powerlifting

Powerlifting isn’t conventionally favored for retaining lean muscle as powerlifters perform best at 12 to 15 percent body fat. This is because power lifts require high energy levels, expended at short explosive intervals. 

This exercise differs from cardio and more intense endurance exercises as your heart rate doesn’t stay at a high level for a prolonged amount of time, so less calories are burnt. 

Powerlifting is about maximum muscle growth as the heaviest weights are lifted within the lowest rep ranges (1-3). A purely powerlifting-based program is unlikely to produce a lean aesthetic, but it can be used to improve compound lifts and form.

Hypertrophy

Being able to focus muscle growth in specific areas makes hypertrophy valuable for building lean muscle. Hypertrophy concentrates on performing exercises within higher rep ranges (10-15), so it will raise your heart rate, burning more calories than powerlifting.

Hypertrophy training can help retain muscle whilst in a calorie deficit to ensure that fat loss doesn’t lead to muscle loss. Increasing muscle percentage also adds to your BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate, which is your maintenance calories before NEAT. The more muscle you build, the more calories your body will burn without doing anything, so this can be useful when cutting fat.

Calorie Counting

We’ve touched on the importance of calories to your lean aesthetic goals. But keeping track of what you’re actually consuming can be laborious.  

Calorie Trackers

Calorie tracking apps can be helpful not only for remembering what you’ve eaten, but also for finding out the calories in food that don’t offer nutritional information. For example, MyFitnessPal breaks down the macronutrients and calories in a wide variety of popular chain restaurant food so you don’t have to seek this information for yourself. 

Like many other services, MyFitnessPal also calculates the daily calories you need from your specific measurements and fitness objectives that you tell the app. This makes the service personalized and tailored to your goals. 

Tracking calories with a macro focus can be enlightening and helpful for controlling portion sizes. 

Diet

The fitness industry is spewing out new dieting schemes and products every day. You’re likely to have heard of the Atkins diet, Keto and juices cleanses, but you’re probably wondering, do any of these work?

We know “eating clean” is easier said than done, and there are definitely tips and tricks that can help you on your way. But how can you tell the difference between a diet that suits your goals and a fast-track solution that only lines someone else’s pockets?

Fad Diets

A good diet and exercise routine won’t promise a miracle ten-day turn-around. Reaching your peak physical fitness or a favored aesthetic takes commitment, and there’s no way around this. A new diet should be viewed as a new lifestyle, rather than a fast fix.

Detox teas and coffees, famed through Instagram advertisements, are really just dressed up laxatives. You may feel less bloated, but you won’t be satiated. These products also haven’t been subject to extensive scientific study, so the long term effects remain a mystery.

The same goes for diet pills and hunger suppressants. They mess with the hunger signals in your brain to trick your body into thinking it doesn’t want to eat. You need food to fuel your body, especially to build lean muscle. 

The clue is in the word ‘diet’, if you’re looking to eat cleaner then you need to focus on what you eat, rather than how not to. 

Eat What You Want

A good diet needs to be sustainable and enjoyable. Cutting out entire food groups is not a long term solution and is more likely to lead to cheating on your diet out of starvation. 

The keto diet, which completely excludes carbs, has seen a rise in recent years as a fast weight loss tool. But carbs are essential for energy and recovery. If you want to build lean muscle, a Keto diet is likely to halt your progress. 

However, reducing certain food groups in place of more nutritionally-dense foods can be a helpful way to reduce your daily calorie intake. For example, fats carry 9 calories per gram, in comparison to the 4 calories that each gram of protein contains. This means increasing your protein intake will allow you to eat a higher volume of food whilst still reaching your calorie intake goals. 

This isn’t to say don’t eat fats at all, rather the opposite. Consuming food as much as you can within your calorie range, rather than eating as little as possible, will avoid restrictive habits. 

Consider Your Allergies

That said, if you find yourself suffering from bloating or stomach cramps after eating, it might be wise to think about removing certain foods from your diet for the long-term. An allergen test can give you a conclusive answer, but try avoiding foods you’re suspicious of for a few days at a time and see how your gut reacts.

Gluten and dairy are two of the most common offenders. People can go years without being aware of their intolerances. You can even develop intolerances randomly in adulthood. So don’t ignore your body’s reaction to food, especially if it’s new. 

Turning a blind eye can lead to chronic diseases, stomach ulcers and even weight gain and loss. Listen to your body if you want to fuel it correctly. 

Veganism

Veganism has to be the most talked about diet of the 21st century. Plant-based lifestyles have moved away from animal rights, and toward a health and weight loss focus instead. 

This diet excludes many types of food that are traditionally associated with high fat diets, like red meat and dairy. For these reasons, switching to a vegan diet may result in rapid weight loss. But with vegan replacements now being found on most fast food restaurant menus, is veganism really going to benefit your health?  

Those hoping to get lean on a vegan diet may also be concerned about reaching the daily protein requirements needed to build muscle. Many high protein vegan substitutes now line our supermarket stores, but this diet still remains class privileged. Plant-based items average at a 65 percent higher cost than meat options on restaurant menus. 

Considering veganism definitely shouldn’t be taken lightly. Consult a doctor before switching to a plant-based lifestyle, as well as your bank account. If you want to do your bit for the planet, consider gradually reducing your meat intake. But do this with your protein needs in mind. 

80:20

Following a macro-focused diet of nutritious whole foods 80 percent of the time, will help you meet your calorie requirements and fuel your body with food that improves athletic performance. But this diet also allows you to treat yourself to whatever food you want 20 percent of the time. 

The 80/20 rule promotes a nonrestrictive diet but with your aesthetic and calorie goals still guiding your approach to eating. Removing “treat days” and replacing them with a more fluid approach discards toxic diet culture while also making you aware of the necessary nutrition for a lean physique. 

This attitude to dieting is also more sustainable as you won’t be craving your favorite food all the time. This reduces the chances of abandoning healthy eating altogether and even developing binge eating disorders. You may even find yourself not yearning for the treat food at all in the end.

Fasting

We’ve established the benefits of fueling your body, so what place does fasting have in this guide? 

Although exercise and strenuous activity must be met with nutritious food, recent studies have pointed toward the benefits of prolonged periods without food. Apparently, this is not only good for your gut but also your mental health. 

Depriving your body of food is said to allow your organs to switch their focus from constantly digesting what you eat, to performing other vital bodily functions like cell repair.

Fasting is also said to enhance heart health, increase metabolism and control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But the scientific research around these claims is inconclusive. Not eating for long periods of time will reduce body fat, but your muscles may suffer as a result.

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting is an umbrella term for the practice of reducing your daily eating window and fasting for the hours in between. A popular approach is the 16/8 method which involves only fueling your body within an 8-hour window, so that you go without food for the remaining 16 hours of the day.

This eating schedule is said to prompt some of the positive effects of fasting, like fighting inflammation and boosting brain function, without needing to fast for multiple days.  

It’s important to note that intermittent fasting doesn’t actively promote weight loss. Rather, reducing your eating window will only encourage you to eat less food because you have less time to do so.

Many people have recorded successfully using intermittent fasting to tackle eating disorders and toxic relationships with food. But simply reducing your calorie intake will have the same effects as intermittent fasting on body fat.

Juice Cleanse

Like intermittent fasting, consuming only juiced or blended food will help reduce your overall calorie intake but won’t promote weight loss by itself. Replacing food for blended substitutes will also give your body a break from digestion, perhaps prioritizing other processes. 

Juice cleanses are considered a more manageable approach to fasting, as your body can still be fueled with nutrients and vitamins while you take a break from whole foods. But this diet is most relevant for those who struggle to consume fruit and vegetables naturally in their diet. Blended food shouldn’t be used as a long term replacement for real food.

Getting Lean Tips

If you’re struggling to stay on track, revisit our top tips.

Eat Low-calorie Dense Food

Low-calorie dense food have less calories but high mass. Although you don’t need to avoid all cheat food, eating low-calorie dense meals like salads is more worth your time. You get to eat extra and feel fuller, all without jeopardizing your diet.

This means piling up your plate with leafy greens like broccoli and spinach which you can eat in large volumes for only little calories. 

Eat More Protein

Protein not only aids muscle growth but takes longer to digest than fats and carbs. This will have you feeling fuller for longer. 

The fitness apps we’ve recommended will help break down the specific macros you need for your calorie intake goals. But try to dedicate a quarter of every plate of food to protein. 

If you’re struggling to meet your protein requirements, choose starch and greens that have high protein content like quinoa and spinach to help get you there. 

Eat More Fiber

Fiber not only takes longer to digest, helping you to feel satiated, it is also essential for regular bowel movements. If you’re eating a lot of protein, this is really important. 

Eating too much protein without enough fiber can clog your stomach, possibly making you suffer from constipation. Try integrating more whole grains into your diet to up your fiber intake. Avocados as well as other fruits and veggies are also great sources of this nutrient. 

Frequently Asked Questions On How to Get Lean

Is there a secret to getting lean?

There’s no clear-cut solution to getting lean. As we’ve warned, anything that promises you this is likely a fad. If you’re committed to getting lean or starting a fitness journey of any kind, you have to trust the process. 

The key to maintaining your goals once you’ve reached them is to treat your new attitudes to health and fitness as a lifestyle, rather than a quick fix. Don’t be disheartened by slow progress and track your progression in the mirror, rather than on the scales.

Can walking make you lean?

Walking is one of the best ways to increase your NEAT. This means that the overall calories that you burn throughout the day will rise by making a conscious effort to walk when you can. 

While walking can help tone your leg muscles, it won’t aid muscle growth. But if you’re not a fan of conventional cardio, walking can be your best friend for cutting fat.

What is the recommended amount of walking to get lean?

Ten thousand steps is a great place to start. Many fitness apps or smart watches will automatically guide you towards this goal and help you reach it by tracking your steps and updating you throughout the day. 

On days when you’ve had an intense workout, don’t exhaust yourself just to meet your step count. But on active rest days, walking will help keep you on track and aid recovery.

Lean Body Recipes

A Final Word From Energetic Lifestyle

Getting lean is a journey and this guide doesn’t offer a fast-track solution. The elaborated steps might just switch your focus from purely aesthetics to lifestyle improvements. 

A leaner lifestyle will lift your energy levels. You may even find yourself harboring a healthier attitude towards fitness and food. So what are you waiting for? It can be an uphill battle, but the view is great at the top. 

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Energetic Lifestyle Team

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