In the same boat as “I want to be toned but not bulky,” we have “I want to build ‘lean’ muscle.”
First off – I get what this person desires: I believe it is to have the appearance of muscles at rest without carrying “too much” muscle (whatever that means to this human). But let us be clear – muscle is lean tissue. Period. We build it, lose it or maintain it. These are the options we’re diving into today.
But people seem to be after what is subjectively seen as a lean physical appearance. Perhaps you see a certain kind of athlete or physique and think “I want muscles that look like that.” Followed up with “if I train like them, my muscles will look like theirs.” This is a faulty thought process, but I get why one would have it. So, let’s lay out some facts.
The chart below lays out muscle fiber types, and their characteristics – which will determine how your muscle develops.
You’re born with your individual potential for muscle fiber type development. Some people have higher numbers of type 1, type 2a or 2b. And when hypertrophy takes place (muscle growth), you are increasing the SIZE of each individual muscle fiber. Not growing MORE muscle fibers. Hypertrophy will take place across all muscle fiber types based on recruitment. They do not function like an “on-off” switch – ie: “if I do x, I am only training type 1 muscle fiber types, therefore I am building the “smallest” muscle fiber and will look lean.” FALSE.
Research shows that hypertrophy can happen along a LARGE range of volumes (set and reps) and loads. It is much less black and white than previously thought. If you want to build muscle, the overall intensity will likely challenging – above 7-8 on the RPE scale for instance. Again, that RPE is not reserved to a given set and rep scheme or load. But as stated in the graphic below, you need a stimulus intense enough to demand adaptation if you want to BUILD muscle (which you 100% need if you want “lean” tissue). That happens via muscle protein synthesis.
Now, don’t get too married to the idea that you’re heavily restricted by your genetic predisposition to muscle fiber types. Undoubtedly, you have all three muscle fiber types. You can build muscle. You can build lean tissue and break down lean tissue through resistance training.
I’ve spoken in other posts about the fact that “bulky” muscle is subjective. There is no definitive definition for this term. It has been created by the fitness industry. Lean on the other hand is more easily defined. Leanness does in fact refer to the level of visible subcutaneous fat vs muscle tissue – how “lean” someone is. As you can see here, that is largely dependent on:
1.) How much muscle tissue someone has built.
2.) The level of fat between that muscle and skin.
With that, where someone’s body develops muscle and stores fat is genetically determined.
Spread the good word you filthy animals.
What area are you currently trying to build? Happy lifting. Happy gains.
If you want to get strong, enjoy your workouts and make #educatedgains, then get on the Built by Annie waitlist.
Join my mailing list for weekly blog and podcast updates. You may or may not get VIP discounts as well. Just saying. Join the fam!
I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
You love my style, trust my reviews, and want more Annie Miller Concepts vibes in your life? Shop my favorite brands. You get awesome products and yours truly gets a little kick-back.