Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I work out a lot, but never quite get the results I want. How can I get buff?
A: The ability to easily build lean muscle is partially genetic, but you can certainly make lifestyle choices that will enhance that “cut” look-or at least improve your body’s fat-to-muscle ratio. And remember: it’s not just about looking good. Muscle burns large amounts of the glucose we obtain from food, which prevents that glucose from turning into fat. So the more metabolically active muscle we have, the better it is for our overall health.
In general, there are five basic considerations for shifting the fat-to-muscle ratio in your body:
Get a diet tracker. This isn’t about “judging” yourself, but just keeping track of what you eat and calories you burn. There are many great online tools and apps that can help.
Don’t forget to detox. Many toxins get stored in fat, so when you burn fat, they get released into the body. Flush them out efficiently and safely with liver-supportive supplements and other detoxification strategies.
Find a replacement. Healthy meal replacements, especially protein shakes with no or low carbs, can help you burn fat and add muscle.
Boost metabolism. Supplements of green coffee bean, chromium, garcinia, or raspberry ketones can give your body a little extra fat-burning power.
Support lean muscle mass. Branched-chain amino acids (see below), combined with exercise, can make a significant difference.
The amino acids L-isoleucine, L-leucine, and L-valine are collectively known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). I first learned about their muscle-building prowess from the Teta brothers, Jade and Keoni, authors of The Metabolic Effect Diet. BCAAs not only improve available energy, but they also help control hunger and reduce stress-related cravings that occur from dieting and other life changes.
Studies show that taking 5-15 grams of BCAAs daily can help build muscle. I generally recommend starting lower, with 2 grams daily, in combination with 1-3 grams of buffered vitamin C and 50-150 mg of vitamin B6 in the pyridoxal-5-phosphate form. Increase the dosage from there if needed.
Other than taking BCAAs before you work out, the best support for lean muscle mass is resistance training. Think squats, push-ups, or those stretchy exercise bands. You don’t need to add extra weight-usually, your own body weight will be enough. You’ll also need to increase your intake of lean dietary protein (up to 100 grams daily) when building muscle. Go for lighter, healthy sources such as whey, fish, and legumes. Try 20-40 grams of whey protein in water right after you work out.
Diet-wise, low carb is better than low fat for short-term weight loss, but either way can work. The important thing is to find an eating plan you can stick to for the long haul. And tap into your social network when trying to implement healthy lifestyle changes. Food choices are hugely impacted by your social situation-especially when it comes to junk foods and alcohol. Don’t hang out with friends who are going to pressure you to drink or pile up those “all you can eat” appetizers on the table in front of you.
Developing healthy habits also means that you have to get out of “autopilot” with your food and activity choices and do things intentionally. Every time you walk into the kitchen, stop and ask yourself what your body needs-or if it really needs anything at all. And hard-wire exercise time into your day. Workouts rarely happen spontaneously, so set a schedule and make yourself stick to it. That’s the only way to get consistent, long-term results.