So you want to gain muscle and NOT excess fat?

Since man and woman began lifting weights, we have sought to gain muscle and strength.

In the 1940’s there was a popular comic book advertisement from Charles Atlas which promised skinny kids the secrets to gaining size and confidence and all you had to do was send back the little cut-out piece of paper with your address for his free book. I never read that book, I was born in 1974, so I can’t vouch for its contents, but I have studied the iron game, and lifted long enough, to understand that the universal truths I am about to write down for you will apply now and through the next several hundred years.

The first set of rules pertain to food and how to eat to gain size. The commonly asked question is usually about protein intake and how much you need. Ideally you want to eat approximately 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. When I say lean body mass I don’t mean your entire bodyweight, I mean fat free mass. If you are 250 pounds with 25% bodyfat that means your LBM (lean body mass) is 188 pounds and you will eat 188 grams of protein per day. Protein can be increased up to 1.5 grams per pound if you wish but that just takes away from other macronutrients that have a critical role in building muscle. Start with 1 gram per pound and adjust from there.

To find your carbohydrate intake you just double your lean mass. If you are 188 pounds of lean mass, this means you will be eating 376 grams of carbohydrates a day. Finalize your macro count by cutting your LBM in half to come up with the amount of fat you will eat; at 188 pounds this is 94 grams of fat per day. This ends up being a total calorie load of 3102 calories per day. This is a start, and you adjust from here. Adjustments should happen slowly, not in large jumps, if you increase your calories too quickly, you run the risk of gaining excess fat, which is counterproductive to an aesthetically pleasing physique.

That very basic determination of your daily caloric load for gaining size is just a start, next you want to fill it up with quality food.

Your food shopping list should contain the following types of food:
  • Lean Meats like 90% fat free ground beef (and higher), chicken breasts, lean turkey, lean fish, egg whites, Greek yogurt, add a couple yolks to your whites
  • Fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, pasta, whole grain items, rice, oatmeal
  • Cooking oil, nut butters, nuts, avocados
  • Spices, marinades, sauces
  • Fermented foods

Ideally you want to eat 90% of your daily calories in whole foods and 10% of those calories can be “junk” items. I am not a proponent of using a dirty bulk for health reasons because nothing beats the nutritional punch of fruits, vegetables, and fermented foods. Not only are they good for you, they also help foster a healthy microbiome (gut health) which is critical for digestion and overall health. Most of you won’t ever see a bodybuilding stage, so take care of the important factor in training, your health, before you lose sight of it.

You can expect to gain a little fat while in a calorie surplus and that is perfectly normal. When I said earlier about excess fat gain, it means just that, excess. You are not going to gain size and expect to put all muscle on your frame, our bodies do not work that way, because if they did, diet coaches would be out of business. Be aware of your appearance in such a way that if you start to gain fat too quickly, back off the calories a little and slow it down. Be comfortable with some fat gain, but don’t allow yourself to gain too much that you later will undo all your hard work with a drastic cut.

To summarize this with a simple list, your food rules are:
  1. Eat 2.2g of protein per kg of lean mass as your baseline
  2. Double your lean body mass in carbs
  3. Half your lean body mass in fat
  4. Quality counts, dirty bulking is dead
  5. Don’t stress a small amount of fat gain, but don’t allow fat to accumulate in excess
The basic food rules are taken care of, let’s move onto the fun part; training.

There are thousands of programs on the market, and you will undoubtedly read about many of them in your online search, but if you are looking to gain size and strength you must adhere to the idea that simple is more effective than complex. Start your program around a heavy compound lifting base of squats, bench presses, overhead presses, and straight leg deadlifts. Why SLDL over deadlifts? Simple, deadlifts are an exercise for strength and are a poor builder of muscle. SLDL are more effective for slapping mass on your posterior chain and also help you build a deadlift. I am not saying don’t perform a deadlift, I am saying it isn’t the first choice for adding muscular size.

Once you have found a solid program, analyze it. How many exercises per day does it have? This may seem like a stupid question but if you are training with maximum effort per day for the sake of gaining size and strength, you don’t necessarily need a program with 8-10 exercises per day to blow your body up. Keep your daily lifting between 4-6 exercises per day with 3-5 sets per exercise. This will allow for the ability to focus more on the program, hit each exercise hard, and be able to recover better.

For example a lower body day could contain this series of exercises:
  1. Squat 4×8
  2. SLDL 4×8
  3. Leg Press 4×15
  4. Lunges 4×12
  5. Seated Leg Curls 4×10
  6. Standing Calf Raises 4×12

This is a basic, hard, and targeted lower body workout that will give you the desired result. You can change exercises as you wish, but unless you are specifically training for a bodybuilding show or a powerlifting meet, focus your training around the philosophy of keeping it simple and let the volume do the work.

As you progress along in your workout from week to week, add weight, add reps, and add sets to compensate for your increased workload and to promote adaptation and growth. In week one you may have performed 4×8 in squats with 185 pounds on the bar, and by week 4 you could be working up to 4×11 with 195 pounds. Progressive overload is the number one rule for gaining strength and size, as you increase workload, you will increase muscle.

These training rules are moot without the number one rule of training, which comes last because I want you to remember this rule as if it was your religion. Form over everything. You need to feel the muscle work, you need to take each exercise throughout the entire range of motion, you need to eccentrically lower the weight under control, and you need to control the concentric so the weight isn’t being moved with momentum. Control is imperative. If you want to throw weights around, take up Olympic Lifting. It is a fun sport and a challenging one. If you want to gain size and strength, controlling the weight under load is critical.

To recap all of these training rules, we can make another list for you:
  1. Build the base with compound lifts
  2. Simplicity over complexity
  3. Progressive resistance is the key with training for size and strength
  4. Form is your religion. Learn it, love it, live by it.

You have the food rules, the training rules, and now we will talk about a few intangibles which will be just as important as eating and training.

Resting is as critical as training. If you are training hard, you can theoretically train four to five days a week and rest two to three. My clients train 4 days, I train 4 days, and the only ones who are at 5 or above are ones who are preparing for a bodybuilding show or a sports season. You can make incredible progress with a 4 day per week training program, which means on those other 3 days you should be relaxing. Spend time with your friends and family, watch some TV, read a book, take up writing, just don’t drag your ass into a gym and think you are that special person who doesn’t need to rest. Yes, you do. We all do.

With rest comes sleep. Everyone is different with how much sleep they need per night, studies show that it ranges from 6-10 hours a night across the population. You will need more than 6. You are training hard, and your recovery depends on sleep. If you aren’t getting at least 7 hours per night, re-evaluate your daily schedule and make some time. If you truly cannot make time for 7 hours of sleep per night because of your schedule, then expect to not recover as well as someone who can. That is a cold hard fact of training, sleep matters.

The last rule I will go into, not because it is the most important, but because it is the most maddening rule of all and it has to do with supplements. The market is flooded with them, and while a lot of them work wonders, they are just what their general name says they are – supplements. If you are hellbent on taking supplements when your food intake isn’t adequate, you aren’t training hard, and you aren’t getting enough rest to facilitate recovery, you will waste your money. Supplements are designed to help you reach your goals when the basics are on point. They are not made for people who eat like a bikini model while trying to gain 20 pounds of lean mass in a year. That’s a “who you crappin” thought. Take care of everything else first before you start to research what supplement will help you the most.

When we round out these rules with:
  1. Rest days are important
  2. Sleep means recovery
  3. Supplements are supplements and not “vital”ments

You will find that you have a solid list to work with as you establish your footprint in the gym. Your footprint can be one of, “that guy is starting to look jacked, I wonder what he is doing differently than me”, or it can be “I have seen that guy in here for months and he looks the same, don’t do what he does”.

Which statement applies to you?

This list will ensure you start to become the jacked guy in the gym.

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