Beginner's Guide to Getting Lean the Right Way

While getting fit and leaning out are great goals to have, implementing sustainable workouts, as well as nutrition and lifestyle habits will be vital to your success. Using your friend's fitness program or trying the latest trendy diet may sound like a good quick-fix, but what works for one person isn't always best for another. Everyone has different exercise and nutrition needs. Here is what you need to know about getting leaner the right way.

What You Need to Know About Fitness and Nutrition Goals

Social media posts and diet websites do not always represent complete truths about fitness and nutrition. It's important to approach a fitness plan realistically while researching accurate information to reach your goals.  A key step to achieving your fitness goals is knowing how to do it the right way.

This will mean researching evidence-based nutrition proven to actually work, as well as consulting with a healthcare provider to ensure you're approaching your health and fitness goals in a manner that supports your health needs. Many do-it-yourself (DIY) nutrition and fitness programs are not recommended for newcomers, or even for active adults.

While it can be tempting to use the latest trending diet promising a fit body in a month, empty promises often equal disappointing results. When it comes to your health and fitness goals, it's essential to be prepared with the proper tools that can actually provide lasting results in a healthy way. This means getting your information from reputable sources and talking with a healthcare provider like a registered dietitian.

Why Restricting Calories Can Be Counterproductive

Many people believe cutting back calories is the best way to lose weight and reduce body fat. But as with any lifestyle change, if you can't maintain the change long-term, the quick results you achieve won't last long. While quick-fix diets may offer rapid weight loss, research indicates reducing calories may actually work against you.

According to the American Council on Exercise, calorie restriction can result in fat storage. When calories continue to be reduced, the body begins metabolizing lean tissue and muscle mass instead. Other adverse effects may include fatigue, dizziness, constipation, stomach upset, and even an increased overall cholesterol level. 

In order to lean out the right way, eating the right diet for your body's needs is a better approach. Nutritious foods, particularly plant-based foods, are lower in calories but higher in nutrients, which allow you to eat more of them on a daily basis.

When we eat nutritious forms of all macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats), we are able to lean out without disrupting vital body functions. Appropriate caloric intake maintains our metabolism and allows us to lose fat and increase muscle mass accordingly.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, women should consume no less than 1,200 calories per day and men should consume no less than 1,800 calories. If an individual is participating in regular exercise, caloric values would increase to meet increased physical demands and refuel the body. 


Avoid very-low-calorie diets and instead eat to fuel your body, replenish lost nutrients, and improve athletic performance. This combination will promote getting fit and lean while being able to maintain good health. 

How to Make Wise Nutrition Choices

Nutrition plays the largest role in achieving a lean muscular body. Without proper food intake to support muscle development, you will most likely be disappointed and frustrated. Active adults and athletes will quickly understand that nutritious food intake will serve as an enhancement to their workouts and body composition. 

If you apply nutritious eating habits from the start, you will have an edge up on those wishing they would have done the research and put it to the rest. Exercise alone is beneficial, but it will be the addition of good nutrition that will make the biggest difference. Don't forget to also focus on hydration and make sure you're drinking enough water (and fewer sugary beverages or alcoholic drinks) every day.

Many active adults and athletes apply an 80/20 ratio strategy. This type of plan indicates 80% of our fitness success comes from nutritious food intake and the remaining 20% from exercise. We can also look at the 80/20 ratio in strictly nutritional terms. This would mean 80% of what we eat comes from quality healthy foods, with the majority being from plants. The remaining 20% allows for those little indulgences (the occasional ice cream for dessert, for example) as part of a balanced diet. 

Either way, applying healthy nutrition that works will be vital to losing weight, reducing body fat, and gaining muscle. Apply a healthy nutrition plan to support muscle growth, maintain a healthy metabolism, and stimulate fat-burning mechanisms.

Nutritious Meal and Snack Ideas

Plan nutritious meals and snacks to achieve your goals.

  • A "power breakfast" may include a nutritious protein source like scrambled egg whites, a slice of organic seeded toast, and 1/4 of sliced avocado. This is an ideal combination of lean protein, healthy high-fiber carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
  • A snack could include a sliced apple with 1 tablespoon of natural peanut butter or other nut butter. This will provide simple good carbohydrates and healthy fats.
  • Lunch may include a 4-ounce grilled, skinless chicken breast with a side of green veggies for a good mix of lean protein and fibrous carbohydrates.
  • Another snack may include 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese and 1/4 cup fresh pineapple for protein and simple healthy carbohydrates.
  • Dinner may include 4 ounces of grilled salmon, 1/2 baked sweet potato, and a power green salad (made of spinach, kale, and chard) topped with balsamic vinegar. This will give you a good ratio of protein, healthy carbs, fibrous carbs, and healthy fats.

Why Focus on Muscle Gain and Not Weight Loss

Getting lean the right way ensures we are able to reduce body fat while gaining muscle. This is not the time to restrict essential nutrients needed to support pertinent bodily functions. Building muscle is hard work and requires excellent sports nutrition. Plus, muscle is a highly metabolically active tissue requiring all the macronutrients, especially protein.

When your focus shifts to the fact that nutritious food intake is a powerful tool to achieve our goals, you will worry less about the idea of depriving ourselves. The goal is to become lean and muscular, which is unobtainable without adequate nutrition. 

You want to avoid typical diet mistakes like restricting carbohydrates and fats keeping in mind that carbs are the primary energy source for the body and healthy fats stimulate our metabolism and help maintain hormone function. Additionally, eating enough protein is vital for muscle growth and repair. 


Apply an "eat right, not less" philosophy to stimulate fat loss and muscle growth. Consuming the right balance of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins will enable you to achieve your fitness goals. 

Workout Tips to Create Muscle Definition

Applying a progressive workout program is vital to creating lean mass (muscle) and reaching your goals. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, resistance training is an important part of an adult fitness program. It should be challenging enough to improve muscular strength and endurance while also increasing muscle size. 

At the same time, incorporating cardio is just as important both for leaning out (and promoting heart health), especially if you've got some initial weight to lose. Combining both types of exercise will give you the greatest chance of success when it comes to leaning out and building muscle.

It's important to select the right exercise program for your individual needs and goals. Allow yourself to be a beginner and enjoy the process of learning how to challenge your body physically. Already active adults and athletes should continue on with progressive programs to create muscle confusion (i.e. maintaining a variety of workouts) and reduce workout plateaus. 


Incorporating weight resistance and cardio training are vital parts of any fitness program if the goal is to create lean muscle.

A Word From Verywell

If you do your research and consult with a healthcare provider before beginning a well-rounded nutrition and exercise plan, it's possible to achieve fitness gains you'll be satisfied with. With patience and a commitment to a healthy routine, you can achieve lasting results.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ, Wildman R, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body compositionJ Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:16. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y

  5. Hernandez J. 80/20 Diet efficacy in regard to physiology and psychosocial factors. Obes Weight Loss Ther. 2017;7:6

  6. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM Information on: Protein intake for optimal muscle maintenance.

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Additional Reading

By Darla Leal
Darla Leal is a Master Fitness Trainer, freelance writer, and the creator of Stay Healthy Fitness, where she embraces a "fit-over-55" lifestyle.