10 Exercises for Building Lean Muscle

Building Lean Muscle

Not everyone goes to the gym to get huge. Some of us want to maintain what we already have. They’re plenty of us are on the constant lookout for building lean muscle.

It’s about shredding the fat and maintaining a cut, lean look. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

After all, bulking up isn’t for everyone.

If you’re in this category, you can take advantage of many of the same lifts as the mass builders and the strength seekers.

It’s all about how you lift as apposed to the lifts you do.

Reps And Sets For Building Lean Muscle

Your ultimate fitness goals are not necessarily defined by the kind of lifts you do.

A bench press is great for strength, size, and lean muscle mass.

It’s about how you lift it and how much you lift. This is really where the tri-fork in the road splits off. 

The rules of lifting are pretty easy to follow based on what your ultimate goals are.

First, if you want to build mass, you’ll shoot for lifting between eight and 12 reps per set. You want to life until you hit failure, which should be somewhere between eight and 12 reps. 

If you’re lifting for strength, you’ll shoot four around four to six.

With the goal of maintaining and building lean muscle, you want to aim for around 15 reps per set. However, the main difference here is you’re not lifting to failure.

With the other two forms, you’ll lift until you can’t lift any more. That’s not what you’re doing here. 

In order to build strong, large muscles, you’d need to tear down the muscle and really rip up the muscle fiber, which is why you lift big and you lift until failure.

That’s not what you want with lean muscle mass.

You want to challenge the muscles and engage the muscles, but you don’t want to fully blast your muscles to oblivion.

By lifting at 15 reps for two to three sets, you’ll engage your muscles and build strong, cut, lean muscle, all without bulking up on mass (Healthline, 2017).

Diet And Supplements

When lifting for lean mass you want to alter your diet a bit from what you would if your goal was to put on muscle mass.

When putting on mass you want to consume larger amounts of protein.

That’s not the goal for lean muscle mass. Here, you want enough protein to maintain your muscles, but not to bulk up. 

According to US News and World Report (2015), you should aim for around 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound you weigh to maintain the muscle mass you already have.

This will end up making up around 10 to 25 percent of your daily calorie intake, so you shouldn’t have much trouble with netting this kind of protein.

Try taking a scoop of protein powder before your workout. This might give you energy to improve your performance during the workout. 

Now, you won’t need to include supplements like creatine.

In fact, don’t pick up creatine if your lifting for lean muscle. Creatine helps increase the number of reps you get per set, which you don’t need.

Creatine can also make you retain water.  So do yourself a favor and avoid these kinds of supplements in your diet when building lean muscle.  

10 Exercises For Building Lean Muscle

To build muscle, you will need to start strength training several times a week.

Routine weightlifting focuses on toning muscles, rather than building them, so that you have a leaner figure.

While toning muscles, weightlifting burns fat, which encourages weight loss.

Here are 10 of the best exercises for building lean muscle. 

#1 Bench Press

The bench press is a great workout for hitting much of your chest. This includes your pectoral muscles, your biceps, your delts, and even a bit of your triceps, lats and traps.

Essentially it is one of the best upper body lifts you can perform. 

When you’re lifting for lean muscle instead of size or strength, you don’t need to head over to the bench press rack and load up a barbell.

In fact, skip the barbell for a pair of dumbbells. This will work better for what you’re aiming at.

With dumbbells you are not able to lift as much as with a barbell, but as you’re lifting for lean muscle that’s not an issue.

The main benefit here is your hitting the stabilizer muscles, so you’ll be able to tighten these side muscles at the same time as your target muscles. 

With the dumbbell bench press, aim for something you can do around 15 to 20 times per set.

You don’t want to lift until failure, but you still want to challenge yourself some. Do two to three sets. 

When lifting for lean muscle, you won’t need to hit each muscle group from varying angles. While you can, as it will improve definition, it isn’t as important as if you’re trying to build size and strength.

So while power lifters might perform a decline and incline bench press, you can skip these lifts for the time being (Shape, 2018). 

#2 Shoulder Press

You don’t need massive muscles to still have great shoulders.

Cut shoulders, even when not bulky, are excellent to look at and will help you feel better.

You can stay at your adjustable bench when performing the shoulder press as you should use dumbbells as well. 

You’ll want to follow the same weight pattern here. Pick out something you can do 15 to 20 times.

If you can’t put it up 15-20 times, you’re lifting too heavy. And if you’re blowing past 20 you’re not lifting enough. 

There are two variations of shoulder press you can pick from here, depending on what you like.

There’s the traditional shoulder press where you’ll have a dumbbell over each shoulder and push up.

Or you can perform the Arnold shoulder press (yes, named after that Arnold).

With this you’ll hold the dumbbells in front of your chest, palms facing you. You’ll then swing your arms back to your side, like you’re opening double-doors and push the weight up over your shoulders.

This does work more of your side delts than just the front delt muscles. However, it also works your forearms as well. 

Go with which shoulder lift you like as both are great to take advantage of. 

#3 Incline Curl

The curl is a stable lift that is great for builing lean muscle.

The incline curl doesn’t receive as much attention as it should, because you need that adjustable bench, but in reality the incline curl is better than the regular curl.

This is because it increases your stretch level on the muscle and it hits your triceps more as well.

The fact that it hits your triceps so much more than most other curl exercises is why we’re listing it here.

The tricep is one of the more forgotten muscles out there (as are many of the upper rear muscles on your body, but don’t worry, you’ll hit those if you follow these 10 lifts). 

With an incline curl you’ll set the bench so it leans back around 45 degrees or so.

Hold the dumbbells in your hand so your arms are pointing straight to the ground. Keeping your elbows in place curl upward. Once you reach your peak slowly allow your arms to move downward. When you hit the starting position squeeze your traps, hold, then repeat. 

#4 Lat Pulldown

For most of these exercises we’re going to try to give you lifts that you can do in your home gym with a few dumbbells.

However, there’s just nothing that replicates the lat pulldown.

You still want to target your lats, which are the butterfly shape muscles stretching out from the middle of your back.

You’ll want to shoot for 15 to 20 reps and two sets here. 

#5 Row

Here’s the other lift you’ll want to use the cable machine for.

The row can help in building lean muscle throughout your back.

While the lats hit almost exclusively your lats, the row will hit your lats and your traps, which runs up from the middle point of your back up to your neck.

Combine this with the delt lifts and you’ll have a great, tight, and defined back, which is one of the more impressive feats you can master (it’s easy to have nice biceps. Not everyone has a great, cut, and defined back). 

With the row, you can use the metal row bar here. Or you can use the rope.

The rope is good because you can pull the cable closer to you to the point where your arms are actually at the side of your torso, instead of at your front.

This increases the tension on your muscles, and thus improves the lift. 

#6 Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is challenging, and yet it’s not forcing you to pack on the weight like a regular squat.

With a goblet squat you’ll take a single dumbbell and hold it at the plate (the handle of the dumbbell will run vertical).

You’ll still want to maintain a straight back when you perform the squat, but this helps maintain all the weight directly over your core. 

If you want to target your butt more than your quads and hamstrings you can perform a sumo goblet squat, which is where your legs will be spread out like a sumo stance.

This puts most of the weight tension onto your gluteus and off of the quads/hamstrings. 

#7 Lunges

Lunges work your quads and hamstrings.

You should perform both forward and backward lunges.

This way, you make sure to hit both muscle groups. Aim for 10 reps per side with two sets.

#8 Superman

This move doesn’t require any weight.

It is a core exercise with a focus specifically on building lean muscle in your lower back.

Your lower back is one of the more difficult muscle groups to hit based on its location. This makes the Superman (or Superwoman) exercise a great option. 

Roll out a yoga mat, and lay on your chest, arms stretched forward, legs straight behind you.

Lift your arms and legs off the crown and attempt to “crunch” your lower back.

It’s as if you’re flying (Christopher Reeve classic flying, of course). Try to hold this for 45 seconds to a minute. Repeat one more time. 

#9 Ab Work

In reality you should still hit your abs several times a week (if not every day).

You can pick out seven of your favorite ab exercises, perform one for 45 seconds, rest 15 seconds, then move on to the next.

This is a great way to get your ab routine in and spend less than seven minutes doing it.

Some options include the crunch, reverse crunch, russian twist, planks, mountain climber, swimmer kicks, raised toe touches or any other combination.

If you’re going to do it every day, try to mix and match. It helps keep it interested and fresh. 

#10 Deadlift

You don’t need to use a barbell to perform the deadlift.

It’s more of the movement here than anything else, because you’ll hit all of your muscles.

Instead of lifting big, just grab some dumbbells (or put 25 pound weights on a barbell, just so you have some weight resistance).

Start with the weight by your feet, explode up, tighten your shoulders back, hold it, and return to starting position.

It’s kind of the swimming of lifts, as you’ll hit almost every muscle group. These kind of exercises are great for building lean muscle!

building lean muscle


Whether you’re lifting for mass or lifting to maintain lean, cut muscles, you don’t need to alter the lifts you perform all that much.

In fact, you’ll perform many of the same lifts when looking to cut the fat and define your muscles without packing on size.

This way, you’re able to hit all of your muscles without overloading the muscles.

By following these instructions, you’ll begin to see improved definition in your body without experiencing size growth.

This makes it the perfect workout for both men and women interested in having a great looking body without all the bulk. 

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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