We turn the experts on the best ways to build strength and tone. Discover how to transform your current workout program and get the best results.

Building lean muscle is all about stressing and fatiguing the musculature to the point that it needs to adapt, improving the image of the muscle beneath the skin. That said, the range of techniques currently available in the market and the difference between each individual’s training and nutrition history, lifestyle and body type means finding what works best for you is paramount.

“If we work with the individual to ascertain exactly how their body will best respond, then ideally we aim to create a process where they are training smarter, not harder,” says head trainer and owner of Oasis Health Club Alicia Gowans. 

Gowans suggests a mix of hypertrophy (endurance) and strength training be included in any given plan for best results. Hypertrophy protocols aim to fatigue the muscle to the point where a growth stimulus is triggered and the muscle swells. Repetitions should range between eight and 12 with short rests of 30 to 60 seconds. 

“Overload techniques like super sets and working to fatigue are extremely effective. By keeping the rest periods relatively short you increase the metabolic stress on the muscle, which is a further stimulus for growth,” says Gowans.

“For the purpose of lean muscle growth, compound movements that recruit larger muscle groups should be the focal point of a program. Think deadlifts, squats, bench presses and rowing movements.”

Strength-based sessions will recruit larger, more fibrous muscles. Reps should be kept between six and eight, and rests up to two minutes to aid recovery and to replenish ATP (energy) needed to move the heavier load.

“The heavier the weight, the more force required to move the weight in the first instance. Lighter loads in comparison recruit ‘slower to fatigue’ and fewer muscle fibres because of the lesser initial effort to move the weight,” explains Gowans.

“That said, you can recruit and overload more muscle fibres by lifting a lighter resistance at a higher number of reps and still achieve equally as effective strength gains and muscular hypertrophy – provided you train to the muscle to fatigue.” 

The take-home message? If lifting heavy is causing you to sacrifice form or controlled movement, then go lighter – just change up the rep range. A mix of both strength and hypertrophy weight training will see you push boundaries results-wise.  

Understanding your body

Having load and levels of training down pat is only part of the lean muscle equation – a deeper understanding of the way your body moves is often the remainder.

“I always consider my client’s physiology, musculoskeletal structure and movement patterns. I am not just referring to joint stability and range of motion, but also to the fundamentals of how a client engages and activates individual muscle groups to perform a movement,” says Gowans. 

“Developing a lean mass building plan without addressing muscular engagement issues, imbalances or neural deficiencies can not only lead to injury but also result in imbalances in symmetry and muscularity.” 

Given that lean muscle growth involves muscles being fatigued and broken down before being rebuilt into stronger versions of themselves, recovery is obviously also important – namely sleep and nutrition. 

 “I recommend my clients always take a zinc and magnesium supplement pre bed to enhance sleep quality, as well as an omega 3 oil supplement to add to the body’s natural inflammation-fighting capabilities,” says Gowans.

 “Soft tissue precipices such as stretching, foam rolling and self-trigger pointing are also essential to avoid cumulative muscle tightening and potential injury and should form part of any recovery regime.”

How to fuel your workouts

If you are finding it hard to tone and tighten, it may be because you are dieting too hard without the required protein levels. Current evidence suggests you need to be consuming 475 calories above what you are burning to gain muscle mass effectively according to accredited dietitian Paula Norris.

“If the body is in energy deficit then it is unlikely that the body will have the energy available required to lay down increased muscle mass,” she says. 

Protein provides the building blocks of muscle tissue to aid both the creation of new lean muscle and to aid recovery of what is already there. Amino acids at its centre stimulate the enzymes involved in protein synthesis, meaning it is especially important post-workout.

“Within 30 minutes following a workout, a snack rich in carbohydrate and containing 15 grams of protein will reduce protein breakdown and provide the amino acids required for muscle synthesis,” says Norris.

“Whey protein has been shown to be more efficient in getting the required nutrients to the muscle as it moves through the gut faster than casein protein.”

But be warned, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Norris suggests sticking to between 1.2 to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight – any more and you risk excess protein not used for energy being stored as fat. 

Read the full article by Katelyn Swallow in the August edition of Women’s Health and Fitness Magazine.