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Building and Understanding Lean Mass

No matter your fitness and health goals, everyone can benefit from building lean muscle mass. Lean mass means less fat and muscles that are fit and strong. If you are interested in building serious strength, you are interested in lean mass. For those of us who are just interested in being fit and looking good, lean mass means a low BMI.

Lean mass also means strength training and lifting. Some type of resistance training is to build lean mass. We do not all necessarily need to lift weights, but everyone can benefit from some kind of resistance training that builds lean mass. 

But we need to make a distinction between big bulky muscles and lean mass. Lean mass is not the same thing as having giant muscles. For people who are looking for a sleeker build, lean mass is what you are after. Those who do want to bulk up will need to start with lean mass to build up muscles. 

What do we mean when we talk about lean mass? How do we build lean mass? How do we calculate lean mass as opposed to other body metrics? This guide will give you the information you need to understand lean mass and get your fitness and training program working toward your goals.   

What is lean body mass?

Lean mass, or lean body mass, is your total body weight minus the weight of your fat mass. Lean mass includes the weight of organs, skin, bones, body water, and muscle mass. 

As distinguished from lean muscle mass, lean mass describes a total weight factor that subtracts only the weight of body fat. Lean muscle mass is a different calculus. While lean muscle mass and fat mass will change as your workout and exercise, but lean body mass, or lean mass, changes only according to your fat mass. Your bones will become less dense throughout your life, but the weight of your bones and organs will remain largely constant. 

The key factor to lean mass as it pertains to your fitness goals is lean muscle mass. This is what you will be working on as you work on lean mass. 

The benefits of building lean body mass include: 

  • Improved balance
  • Enhanced posture
  • Increased coordination
  • Prevent injury
  • Bone health
  • Ease pain
  • Reduce fat
  • Prevent weight gain
  • Slow age-related muscle loss

As you work on improving lean mass and lean muscle mass, you are working on your overall health and long-term fitness. 

How to build lean body mass?

The best way to build lean body mass is to build lean muscle. You do not need to get into powerlifting to build lean muscle. You can do much of this work with the weight of your own body. Lifting is of course a great way to build lean body mass. 

Try one of the following workouts two to three times a week to build lean body mass: 

  • Lifting
  • Power yoga
  • High-Intensity interval Training
  • Bodyweight exercises

Some form of resistance training and a cardio workout will get you toward building lean body mass. Some tips to consider:

Weight training is not the only way

If you want to avoid the weights, or if you just do not like working out in a gym, working with your body weight will build lean body mass. Some recent research shows that light loads and more repetitions can be just as effective for building lean body mass as weight training.

This means squats with only your body weight can get you results that are on a par with working out with weights in a gym. Start with three sets and increase as you get stronger. 

Reps are not necessarily the only way

Repeating a movement is only one way to get results from exercising but it is also a sure way to fatigue muscle groups. Holding a movement or pose can be just as effective as repeating a movement. 

Movement requires a mix between isometric movement and isotonic movements. Isotonic movement is a type of muscle contraction. The term “isotonic” comes from ancient Greek and roughly translates into “same tension” or “same tone.”

Isometric training is essentially a fancy way to categorize exercises that recruit muscles and exert tension without actually lengthening or shortening the muscle. In other words, your muscle is flexed, but it’s not expanding and compressing. It’s a stagnant way of placing a demand on a desired muscle or group of muscles.

To gain the right level of lean body mass, include a combination of both types of exercises. 

Isotonic exercise includes:

  • Pushups
  • Squats
  • Crunches
  • Donkey kicks
  • Triceps dips

Isometric exercises include:

  • Plank
  • Warrior pose
  • Wall sit
  • Boat pose
  • Glute bridge

For both types of exercises, try for 3 sets.

Compound Exercises

Compound exercises work for more than one muscle group at a time. These most often require more than one movement within one exercise. Below are some examples of compound exercises: 

Push-ups

This exercise works your core and your muscles. Get into a plank position. Check that your body is flat in the mirror. Then, lower yourself as far as you can go while maintaining the plank and push back up. For a better compound push up, do knee lifts while you push up or move your hands in and out between repetitions to target triceps, chest, and biceps.

Weightlifting on tiptoes 

Put your feet in a ballet first position. Raise on your tiptoes, and move your heels together. Perform bicep curls while you balance to target your calves, thighs, glutes, abs, and arms at once.

TRX bands

These weightlifting devices are extremely versatile. You can do rows, chest presses, bicep curls, tricep curls, push-ups, and much more. Your body is in a plank position to work your core while you lift.

Burpees

Often touted as 1 of the best total body exercises, a burpee combines jumping, squatting, push-ups, and core work. Start with your knees hip-width apart. Squat until your hands touch the ground. Jump your feet back into a plank position. Jump your feet forward and jump up. Extend your arms toward the ceiling as you jump. Repeat as many times as possible in 1 minute.

Kettlebell workouts

These weights are designed for dynamic use. Hold the top of the kettlebell. Squat and set the ball on the ground. Lift it and rise from the squat.

Lifting

There is nothing wrong with old-fashioned lifting for building lean body mass. Lift weights for at least 30 minutes a day, 3 days a week. You can use machines, free weights, or even TRX bands. These will get you results. 

Target specific muscle groups for best results. If you are new to lifting, it is recommended that you work with a trainer to get the best results from lifting and to avoid injuries. 

How do you calculate lean body mass?

There are a few methods for calculating your lean body mass percentage. You can do this at home by using what is called a skinfold assessment. This involves taking measurements at 3, 4, or 7 parts of your body with calipers that can measure the thickness at those areas. You can then plug these numbers into a chart that will give you a body fat percentage number.  

With your body fat percentage, you then use a simple formula. Divide your body fat by 100 to get a decimal. Then multiply that number by your total body weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and your body fat percentage is 20 percent, multiple 200 by 0.20. You then take this number and subtract it from your total body weight. This is your lean body mass (LBM). 

You can also find out your lean body mass by using a bioelectrical impedance scale. These are sophisticated digital tools that are generally only available to doctors, but these will give you an exact number for your lean body mass.  

Lean mass nutrition

Lean body mass nutrition just involves eating smart. Up your proteins and lower your carbs. 

Protein

To build lean body mass, protein should make up about 10-35 percent of your total calories. To maintain lean body mass, you need to reduce this level of protein. Ideally, maintaining lean body mass requires about 0.37 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for an adult. 

The best way to get protein is from dietary sources. Some of the best protein sources include:

  • 3 ounces skinless, baked chicken = 26 grams
  • 3 ounces of lean ground beef = 22 grams
  • 3 ounces grilled salmon = 21 grams 
  • ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese = 14 grams
  • 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt = 12 grams
  • ½ cup cooked lentils = 9 grams
  • 3 ounces firm tofu = 9 grams
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter = 8 grams
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa = 8 grams
  • 1 cup low-fat milk = 8 grams
  • ½ cup cooked black beans = 7 grams
  • 1 large egg = 6 grams

Carbohydrates

Carbs are important for fueling your muscles. Carbs convert to glycogen and this is the source of energy for your muscles. That said, you need to watch your carbs when building lean body mass. Eat quality carbs from things like whole-gram bread and cereals. Low-fat milk and yogurt along with fruits and vegetables are also great sources of carbs. 

Fats

Contrary to what we might believe, fats are important for building and maintaining lean body mass. The trick is to eat the right fats. Fats from things like olive oil, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, and fatty fish are great sources of healthy fats that will build lean body mass and help maintain lean body mass.

Lean mass vs bulky muscle

Lean body mass generally refers to toned muscles and has more to do with the fat percentage than the muscles themselves. Lean muscle mass does not require the specialized training that weightlifters do. Lean muscle mass means toned muscles with low-fat content. 

Bulky muscles are what we associate with intense strength training. Weightlifters, for example, need muscles that are bulky and big. Fat content is not an issue unless they want to tone and “cut” their muscles. This last requires reducing the fat on their body and muscles. 

Lean body mass FAQs

What is lean mass? 

Lean mass, or lean body mass, is your total body weight minus the weight of your fat mass. Lean mass includes the weight of organs, skin, bones, body water, and muscle mass. 

How do I workout for lean body mass? 

Lifting weights is the obvious method to gain lean mass. You can also do a mix of exercises that involve isotonic and isometric training using only your body weight. 

How do I eat for lean body mass? 

Eat plenty of protein from healthy sources. Make sure you get healthy carbs and fats. 

Is it difficult to calculate lean body mass? 

Lean body mass can be calculated with a simple formula. You can also ask your doctor to perform a quick assessment of your lean body mass. 

Conclusion

It is easy to confuse lean body mass with big bulky muscles and for people who just want to be fit and tones, the confusion can lead to mistakes in how they approach their workouts. Lean body mass simply means keeping the fat component of your body low relative to the other features of your body mass. 

Lean body mass means toned muscles and a fit body. It does not mean giant muscles. Anyone interested in being fit and looking fit will benefit by understanding lean body mass. By getting an understanding of lean body mass you also understand how to work out and eat right to keep your body in tops shape. Lean mass is about health as much as looking good. 

By doing the right kinds of muscle toning exercises like weight training and body mass training, and by eating right, you can even out lean body mass. Lean body mass means better health, feeling better, and aging more gracefully. 

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