3 Essential Tips from a Functional Medicine Doctor for Building Lean Muscle

Effortless Strategies from a Functional Medicine Doctor to Build Lean Muscle

Gabrielle Lyon, D.O.Image by Gabrielle Lyon, D.O.
October 2, 2023

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The last time functional medicine doctor Gabrielle Lyon, D.O., author of Forever Strong, joined us on the VoiceAngel podcast, we had a fascinating conversation around lean muscle mass and protein consumption (check out the highlights here). We promised to have her back on the show to dive even deeper into these topics—and, well, the time has come!

Today, Lyon shares her must-have muscle-building tips for any age, including the daily habits she personally swears by. Below, find a few tips to strengthen your “organ of longevity.”

1. Start early

It’s never too late to start working on muscle mass, but the earlier you commit, the better. “Because let’s face it: It doesn’t get easier,” says Lyon. “In your 60s, 70s, and 80s, it becomes more challenging to maintain healthy skeletal muscle mass.”

She even argues sarcopenia (aka, a decrease in muscle mass and strength) can begin as early as your 30s❶, due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles. “So when you are in your 20s and 30s, this is your prime time for optimizing the health of skeletal muscle,” she adds. And for those past their 30s, she recommends starting as early as you can.

You might think you have to “get in shape” or lose weight before you can focus on strength training, but according to Lyon, this could not be more false. “People struggle to go to the gym because they feel that they have to get in shape first,” she explains. “If we can shift from what people have to lose to what they have to gain from muscle and strength, that’s a much better strategy, both physically and mentally.”

By “starting early,” Lyon also refers to a morning workout: “I hate working out in the afternoon,” she says of her personal preference. “I feel like it is very hard to get into the zone later on in the day…I find it a lot more difficult, and it can affect my sleep.” Of course, everyone’s bodies are different—those who love an evening training session, you do you! It’s just important to find the workout schedule you’ll actually commit to; after all, the best type of movement is the one you’ll actually do.

2. Use kettlebells

There are plenty of strength training moves to try (check out this list of expert-backed exercises), but Lyon’s favorite workout tends to include kettlebells.

“I will do some kind of kettlebell activity, whether it’s a carry, swing, or a Turkish get-up. I will also do a push-press or some kind of squat with kettlebells,” she says. She doesn’t have a rack of weights at home; she finds it safer to have kettlebells on the floor in a house with young kids. “We also have a Bulgarian bag—sometimes I’ll throw [it] over my shoulder—and we have various levels of kettlebells. I’ll hold those, and I’ll just walk around in the garage.” (Here’s a set of three you can buy from Amazon.)

Not only do kettlebell exercises help build lean muscle, but they also work on your grip strength, which can significantly enhance your quality of life as you age. Research shows that it can even help reduce all-cause mortality❷.

3. Prioritize protein

Thought we’d have a conversation about lean muscle mass without discussing protein? Think again. Eating enough protein is nonnegotiable for building muscle (and overall longevity, we’d say). “When someone is not eating a diet that is robust enough in protein, the body will dip into its own protein reserves, which are skeletal muscle,” Lyon explains. The problem is, she adds, “dietary protein has been an afterthought.”

She references a study in which researchers compared two groups of women who ate the majority of their calories from carbs versus protein. The women on a high-protein diet wound up losing more weight, despite eating the exact same amount of calories, had better cholesterol levels, and reported greater satiety. “So when we correct for dietary protein, it allows the body to work more efficiently,” she notes. “By adjusting dietary protein first, you really can improve body composition and the metrics that follow.”

Those women in the high-protein group ate 125 grams of protein per day, which can be pretty difficult without conscious effort. Lyon recommends eating a protein-rich breakfast to start your day on the right foot: “[I’ll have] four eggs, and I’ll have some kind of shake or some kind of dairy product, believe it or not,” she notes (kefir, Greek yogurt, and the like). See here for some more high-protein breakfast ideas to try.

The takeaway

According to Lyon, focusing on muscle mass is one of the best things you can do for longevity. But make no mistake: It takes work. The work doesn’t necessarily have to be grueling, but you can’t expect to maintain lean muscle without any effort. Just take it from Lyon: “Skeletal muscle is metabolic currency, and it is a currency that you cannot buy.”

We hope you enjoy this episode! And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or YouTube!