(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’m a 24 year old guy who wants to get lean and build muscle, but the problem is that I don’t want to build TOO much muscle and get TOO big.
I’m not interested in looking like a bodybuilder, powerlifter or anything even close to that. I’m trying to get more of a lean fitness model body. How do I build a body like that and avoid building one that’s too big?
ANSWER: I’ve gotten pretty used to people telling me their goal is to build muscle without getting “too big” in the process. It always makes me laugh for reasons you’ll understand in a minute.
Most of the time I hear this sort of thing, it’s from women who want to get “toned” but are afraid of getting too big and manly looking. This of course is a fun subject I’ve actually written about before (Why Workout Routines For Women Suck) and continue to make fun of on a regular basis.
But believe it or not, it’s not only women who have this concern. There are PLENTY of men who want to avoid getting too big as well.
Or as they often like to put it, they want to look more like a lean fitness model than a bulky bodybuilder, powerlifter or whatever else. Sometimes they’ll even take it a step further and tell me the exact celebrity/athlete/model whose body they’re trying to get, and the exact celebrity/athlete/model whose body they’re trying to avoid getting.
But hey, that’s cool. We all have specific goals in mind, so why should this be any different? So… let’s figure it all out. Let’s figure out how you can build muscle without getting “too big.”
First Of All… Steroids.
Before we can go any further, I need to throw the word “steroids” out there.
Why? Because the majority of the guys (and girls) asking this question are looking to avoid building as much muscle as someone who reached that level with the help of a shitload of drugs. Without that same shitload of drugs, you will NEVER come close to getting that big, which means you’re trying to avoid something that can’t ever actually happen naturally.
This is always the first point I bring to the attention of the many women who tell me they’re scared of their body becoming too “bulky and manly” like some freaky looking female bodybuilders, all of which used that same aforementioned shitload of drugs to get that body.
This point is equally relevant to men, too.
So the good news is, as long as you’re natural, it’s impossible for you to get anywhere near as big as the big/bulky pro bodybuilders you’re trying to avoid looking like.
But Let’s Ignore That
Now that I’ve made that point clear, let’s ignore it for a bit. Why? Just because.
Let’s also assume that “too big” to you is something that is legitimately attainable for you naturally (and genetically). Let’s think of it as a point your body IS capable of reaching, but it’s just a point that is “bigger” than the lean fitness model (or whatever) body you want.
Sound good to you? Cool. Let’s continue.
Second Of All… Muscle Is Muscle.
Another point that needs to be brought up before going any further is that many guys (and girls) seem to be under the impression that there are different types of muscle at play here.
You know… as if the lean fitness model has built a special kind of smaller, leaner, more toned, “fitness modely” muscle, while someone who’s “too big” has built bigger, bulkier, thicker, bodybuilder/powerlifter muscle.
As I’ve written before, there is no such thing as lean, toned or bulky muscle. There aren’t different textures of muscle. There’s just muscle, period. You can either build it or lose it, or build a little of it or a lot of it. That’s about it.
Sure, it can sometimes APPEAR as though different people have built different “types” of it, but that’s just an illusion created mostly by the amount of muscle that person has built and/or the amount of body fat they have (or don’t have) covering it.
Which means, the difference between the body you want and the “too big” body you don’t want isn’t the “type” of muscle being built. It’s that the body that is “too big” for your liking has MORE muscle on it than the “just right” body you prefer.
Or, it just has a higher body fat percentage, which means there’s more fat sitting on top of that muscle and preventing that body from looking as lean, ripped, toned and pretty as you’d prefer it to look.
Third Of All… Muscle Growth Is Slow As Hell.
A final point that needs to be made before going further is just how slowly muscle growth happens.
I bring this up because guys (and girls) seem to be under the impression that one day they’ll have the perfect body with the perfect amount of muscle and perfect degree of leanness, and the next day they’ll wake up and… oh no!!! They accidentally got too big!!!
As I’ve explained before (How Much Muscle Can You Gain & How Fast Can You Build It?), the average man past the beginner stage doing everything right might gain about 0.25lb of muscle per week (if they’re lucky). The average woman might gain half that.
So the potential for you to accidentally build too much muscle too fast and unintentionally get bigger than you wanted to be is like… virtually nonexistent. Trust me, you’ll have PLENTY of time to see it coming and stop it from happening.
In fact, many of the people reading this will fail to gain the amount of muscle they’re trying to gain and therefore won’t ever come close to exceeding that amount.
Seriously. There are people in gyms around the world whose #1 goal in life is to get as big as they can as fast as they can, and most are failing miserably. And the few that are succeeding? Not a single one of them is doing it even half as quickly as you think you might.
So How Do You Build Just The “Perfect” Amount Of Muscle?
With those 3 important points out of the way, it’s time to answer the original question.
And that is, how do you build just the “perfect” amount of muscle you want and avoid building more than that amount and getting “too big?” Or, as this specific person put it, how do you get that lean fitness model body and avoid getting that big and bulky bodybuilder/powerlifter body?
- By training for muscle growth as though your goal was to build TONS and TONS of muscle beyond what you actually want to build.
- By lowering your body fat percentage to your preferred level of leanness.
Let’s begin with #1, because this is the part you need to understand the most.
Step 1: Training To Build As Much Muscle As Possible
I bet you’re wondering why I just said you should train as though your goal is to build TONS of muscle even though you’re specifically trying to avoid building TONS of muscle?
It seems stupid, backwards and counterproductive, right? And that’s where you’d be wrong.
Why? Because approaching the goal of muscle growth at anything less than 100% (because you’re trying to not get “too big”) will only hinder your ability to get as “less big” as you’re actually trying to get.
Let me put that another way…
- There is what works best for building muscle.
- There is what works worse for building muscle.
- There is what doesn’t work at all.
Regardless of the amount of it you want to build, you need to always go with option #1 if you want to get the best results as fast as possible.
But what happens is that trying to avoid gaining “too much” muscle and getting “too big” often leads you into categories #2 or #3. In category #2, you might take 10 years to do what you could have done in 2. In category #3, you’ll just get nowhere whatsoever.
Or to put that even another way, there should be no training or dietary differences between someone looking to build a little bit of muscle and look like a fitness model, and someone trying to build a ton of muscle and look like a huge bodybuilder.
The sole difference is that once that first person reaches their goal, they’d simply stop doing what’s needed to build additional muscle, and start doing what’s needed to just maintain the muscle they’ve built. The second person would just keep on building more.
And yes, this applies just the same to men who don’t want to get “too big” and women who are afraid of getting “too big.”
But Isn’t There A Small Chance I Might STILL End Up Getting Too Big?
As long as you’re not a dumbass… then no.
As mentioned in the first point from earlier, if you’re natural, you won’t ever come close to getting as big as the “too big” bodybuilders, powerlifters, athletes, etc. most people asking this question are trying to avoid getting.
And as mentioned in the third point from earlier, muscle growth happens at a rate so painfully slow that you’ll have all the time in the world to A) notice when you’ve built your ideal amount, and B) switch over to maintenance where your new goal becomes maintaining what you’ve built rather than continuing to progress further and build more.
Which, by the way, is as simple and obvious as eating at your maintenance level and maintaining your strength on all of your lifts rather than attempting to increase them.
This is why I’m so confident in recommending that even if you only want to build 10lbs of muscle, you should still train as if you’re trying to build 100lbs of muscle. Hell, train as if you’re trying to build 1000lbs of muscle!
When you hit your goal of building those 10lbs (or whatever your ideal amount is), just stop trying to build more.
Trying to preemptively stop it or slow it down before you’ve reached that point will just impede your ability to actually reach that point in the first place.
So basically… shut up, stop worrying, and just focus on effectively building muscle.
How Do I Do That?
Combine an intelligently designed workout program aimed at muscle growth with a diet designed to support it.
The weight training guide will walk you through first part of that (or you can feel free to use a proven program from The Best Workout Routines), and the diet guide will walk you through the second part.
Or, if you would rather have me put every single aspect of your diet and workout together for you in the way that will produce the best results your body is capable of getting, I would highly recommend my Superior Muscle Growth program.
Step 2: Getting Lean
Now for the easy part… or at least the part that will take less explaining.
Leanness is the difference between someone who looks “toned, defined and ripped” and someone who… well… doesn’t.
And getting lean is solely a matter of losing body fat, thus uncovering the pretty muscle that is hidden underneath it (which is what creates the “tone and definition” you want).
And losing body fat is solely a matter of creating a caloric deficit. The full details of that are explained here: How To Lose Fat and How To Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle and that previously mentioned diet guide has you covered, too.
Now Please Stop Worrying About Getting “Too Big”
Do you know how many people there are in the world right now who have unintentionally built more muscle than they wanted to build? People who are walking around thinking “dammit, I’m much bigger and more muscular than I ever wanted or intended to be… how the hell did this happen?!? I can’t believe this!!”
I’m going to guess zero.
Do you know how many people there are in the world right now wishing that they were bigger and could build more muscle? People who are walking around thinking “dammit, I’m much smaller and less muscular than I want to be… why aren’t I building more muscle and getting bigger?”
I’m going to guess millions.
Which is all just my way of saying that you should put 100% of your focus on building muscle as quickly and effectively as possible, and no focus at all on preventing yourself from becoming “too big.”