How to build serious lean muscle mass, the healthy way.
Now before we begin I should say that every man wants, or thinks he wants, more muscle. But it’s quite possible he may be wrong. What most actually want – deep down – is to look ripped. You know the look: defined abs, obvious pecs, and a tapering waist. And they’re sure that more muscle is the ticket. Yet most are mistaken.
For most men, especially those over 30, what they really need, to look the way they hope, is lower body fat, not more muscle. So this article is really aimed at the individual who wants more strength or the ‘skinny guy’ – not the chap (or chap-ess) who really needs to start by losing 4 inches around the waist. For them this is not the best approach to looking their best or improving their health or fitness.
With that plainly said, we can commence.
The key to putting on lean mass is heavy lifting. There’s no getting away from this. The foundation of your routine should be the big compound lifts: squats, deadlifts, presses (bench and overhead), pull-ups, rows, dips, snatches, power cleans, clean and jerks. These engage multiple muscles while triggering your hormonal response systems. Bodyweight stuff, while valuable, simply isn’t going to get you the strength and mass increases you’re looking for. Testosterone, while useful, only gets really anabolic when you start lifting. You need to get under some decent weight, enough so that your CNS and endocrine system are blasted, but not so much that you can’t maintain proper form.
A popular routine is the 5×5 method. Doing compound lifts for five sets of five reps allows you to strike a balance between strength building and superficial muscle hypertrophy. Done this way, your hypertrophy won’t be purely sarcoplasmic, which results in fluid-filled muscles that look big but don’t see a corresponding increase in actual strength. Instead, the 5×5 method promotes myofibrillar hypertrophy: hard, dense muscle fibres that increase strength and size (with no puffiness).
If you’re lifting heavy and lifting hard, keep your workouts spaced at least a day apart and don’t lift more than 3x/week. Three exercises per session should be perfect. That may not sound like much, but it’ll be plenty if you do it right. Remember, you’re doing big compound movements that will really shock your system, with an emphasis on intensity and power. You don’t want to overwork yourself, release lots of cortisol, and set yourself back a few weeks.
Squats and deadlifts are absolutely required. No excuses. They engage the most muscles and produce the biggest hormonal response. They will be the bedrock of your mass building campaign. Most programs recommend doing squats every session, and I tend to agree. You can handle it. Deadlifts are a bit more taxing and so should be relegated to every other workout. So, one week you’ll deadlift once, the next week twice. You can also use power cleans for the occasional deadlifts (or do them in addition) if you’re comfortable with such a complex movement. Presses are paramount, both overhead and bench. I’d alternate both types of presses every session. Pull-ups are great, but weighted pull-ups are even better. Same goes for dips. Just try to get one pulling, one pushing, and one squatting exercise in each session.
An example for beginners, with sets coming first in the sequence:
Pull-ups 5xFailure (add weight if “Failure” is becoming more than 12 reps)
Overhead Press 5×5
Deadlift 1/2/3×5 (your choice; deadlifts can be incredibly taxing, and with exhaustion comes poor form, so be careful; sometimes it’s better to do a really heavy load for a single set)
Bench Press 5×5
Overhead Press 5×5
Do this sequence every week (maybe Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and steadily increase the weight each session. Once you’re making progress, feel free to add in other exercises like dips or more Olympic lifts. For more mass, more lactic “burn” (and more GH secretion), reduce your rest periods between sets or even superset them. If you feel like doing some cardio, stick to sprints in a once weekly workout, or maybe maybe some Tabata squats. The key is conserving strength and giving your body time to rest and recover for the next round of squats, deadlifts, and presses.
This “program” can be tweaked and altered. Just make sure you’re doing big movements while maintaining extreme intensity and great form. Oh, and always make sure to squat and deadlift. Always. They produce the most testosterone, GH, and IGF-1.
Eat Lots of Plants and Animals
Another fact you can’t avoid is you’re going to have to eat even more than before. Stuff yourself. I always say that body composition is 80% diet, and that goes for putting on mass as well as losing fat. You need to provide plenty of protein for all those hormones to synthesize, after all.
- Never let your protein intake go lower than 1g/lb of body weight when you are aiming to add long-term muscle. It’s the building block of muscle, and your body is going to be starving for it.
- Eat plenty of saturated and monounsaturated fat. Fat blunts insulin secretion while increasing testosterone production. Insulin may be useful for stuffing your muscles full of glycogen, but that’s not what you’re going for… right?
- Dietary fat, in conjunction with all the GH you’ll be producing, also spares muscle wasting.
- You may have heard of the popular GOMAD method – Gallon of Milk a Day for easy mass-building. It undoubtedly works, but a gallon of milk isn’t exactly healthy and I can’t recommend it. If you will use it, use raw milk. Instead of milk, why not a dozen eggs a day? ADEAD? If you can manage it, eating them on top of your regularly scheduled meals is a great source of affordable protein, fat, and vitamins (Vitamin A in particular may have pro-anabolic effects).
- Eat often. If you’re going for pure size and strength, fasted workouts and skipped PWO meals may not be the ticket. You’ll burn more fat with the extra GH secretion and existing muscle will be spared, but you may be missing the chance at prime protein synthesis when you fast. A PWO meal of protein and fat will still blunt the insulin secretion and provide fuel for your muscles.
- Increase caloric intake. You’re going to be expending so much energy on the lifts (and you’ll continue to burn through it even on rest days) while eating clean, natural foods (and keeping insulin low as ever) that fat accumulation shouldn’t be an issue at all. Eat!
- On those days when you do expend a ton of energy – maybe on your sprint day – having a low GI starch, like squash or sweet potato, is a decent way to replenish depleted glycogen stores.
- Eat a big piece of fatty meat every single day. Steak, whole chicken, lamb leg, organs, whatever. Just eat a solid piece of animal flesh for a powerful protein infusion on a daily basis.
- A hard-gainer is often someone who doesn’t eat enough. Sure, genes play a role, but you can ultimately have a significant say in how those genes rebuild you. To a point. Eat more and lift harder to grab the reins.
I’m a firm believer in the body’s natural ability to achieve proper homeostasis, provided we supply the right environment and the right foods. For some of you, that might mean lower body mass, lower than you’d like. In my opinion, that amount of muscle is probably “right” for you and I wouldn’t recommend going above and beyond to achieve more of it… but I also wouldn’t condemn it.
If you are a hard-gainer looking to add a few pounds, as long as it’s not just show muscle and you can actually lift some decent weight and at the very least manipulate your own body weight comfortably, eat those dozen eggs and gain that weight.
And lastly a plea: please stay away from useless, expensive supplements; cheap protein powders filled with unhealthy, fattening artificial sweeteners; weight-gain mixtures (more sugar); and, of course, steroids! (Which of these will expedite your early death more effectively, I couldn’t possibly say…)
Paleo Training – Oxford, Bicester, Buckingham.
With acknowledgement to Mark Sisson for the knowledge and advice reiterated in this article.