The Holy Grail: Big Yet Lean

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For many, the holy grail of physique development is achieving a big and lean physique. The big meaning a good level of muscular development and the lean, low levels of body fat. While this sounds simple on paper, few achieve this ideal combination. Many people that are considered big have higher than desirable levels of body fat. Many people considered lean are smaller than many serious gym goers.

Is it even possible for most to be big and lean? If so, what’s the best approach? Firstly, it’s important to consider what your starting point is. Do you need more ‘big’ or more ‘lean?’ Take a look below and, if you’re not already big and lean, see which best describes you.

  1. Carrying extra body fat, but a good level of muscle
  2. Lean, but with minimal muscle
  3. Average levels of muscle and moderate levels of body fat

Now, rather than following an entirely generic plan, you have a more specific starting point. Of course, all plans from magazines and websites are generic to a degree as your exact nutritional and training needs haven’t been determined, but determining your body type is a good starting point.

Extra body fat with a good level of muscle

This is generally classed as an endomorph and the priority in achieving a big and lean physique is to reduce body fat, while maintaining muscle.

To reduce body fat, calorie intake needs to reduce while energy expenditure needs to increase. To be more precise with these measures, it would be beneficial to have your body fat measured and gain an estimation of your daily calorie expenditure.

Protein should be kept around 2g per kilogram of bodyweight; this will help to ‘protect’ muscle and aid recovery from training. Carbohydrate should be consumed as and when it is required; post-training would be a key time, 30g carbohydrate alongside 30g protein would be beneficial. Breakfast is another important time along with small servings of complex carbohydrate throughout the day.

Nutrient timing is an important consideration – think of it as the body going between muscle building and fat burning by giving the body appropriate nutrients at the appropriate times.

Training should be a combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. The cardiovascular exercise doesn’t have to be 45mins on a bike or X-trainer. High Intensity Interval Training has a host of benefits for fat loss. This should be incorporated with 3-4 weights sessions per week.

Lean but with minimal muscle

This group are classed as ectomorphs. The priority here is to increase muscle mass; body fat levels aren’t a problem. Often, ectomorphs will express their frustration at “eating and eating” yet not putting on weight.

To increase muscle, an ectomorph will likely need to dramatically increase calorie intake. Like the endomorph (above), protein intake should be consistently at 2g protein per kilogram of bodyweight. However, the ectomorph will need more total calories relative to their bodyweight. Each meal should have an adequate quantity of carbohydrate, with a post-workout drink containing circa 60g carbohydrate and 30g protein. Fat intake should be around 20% of total calories, with a focus on essential fat.

One common mistake is seeing the above as an excuse to eat lots of junk food to get the calories in. Eating junk food is not the answer; it brings with it a number of health risks and doesn’t provide the quality nutrients the body needs to gain muscle. Some people follow an ‘if it fits your macros’ philosophy, but we don’t advocate that from a healthy eating perspective.

Training should be based on heavy compound lifts, with some slightly higher repetition exercises. Cardiovascular exercise should be undertaken for health and recovery purposes, but should be kept to a minimum as it increases energy expenditure.

Average levels of muscle with moderate levels of body fat

For this category, balance is fundamental as the aim is an increase in muscle and a decrease in body fat. For many, it is common to see increases in body fat when trying to increase muscle – this is often a result of ‘chasing the scales.’ An increase in weight isn’t necessarily an indicator of increased muscle – it could be a result of increased fat.  The scales can be used a guide, alongside body fat percentage. If measuring body fat isn’t possible, try to be objective when looking in the mirror.

One method that is popular for this group is based on nutrient timing; simply, giving the body food when it needs it the most. Key times include pre/post training as well as breakfast, alongside small regular meals. As with the other categories, protein intake should be kept around 2g per kilogram of bodyweight. Compared to the endomorph group, calorie intake (specifically carbohydrate and fat), would be higher, relative to bodyweight.

Training would be similar to the ectomorph group, focusing on compound lifts with some higher repetition work alongside 3-4 cardiovascular training sessions per week.

Be sure to be realistic in putting yourself in the appropriate group, and then try to be as specific as possible with your training and nutrition. With some consistency, that should see you well on the way to achieving the holy grail of big and lean.

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