I could have made the title really fancy and thought-provoking but I decided to keep it simple and straight to the point. This post is all about how to gain lean muscle. Please take notice that I did not say “this post is all about how to gain weight.” That equation is pretty simple.
Eat a lot of processed food + play a game of freeze tag with yourself (aka don’t move ever) = weight gain.
Today we’re talking about how to add some nice lean muscle so that your metabolism is lightening fast and burning tons of fat, so that you’re super strong, and for you guys adding a little weight to the frame and for you ladies adding some toned muscles to your frame.
So how are you going to do it?
The healthy way. Good calories, the best exercises, and proper rest. The following is a simple approach that I used when I game back from my trip around the world. I was able to stay in good shape but lost about 15 pounds of muscle due to the lack of weight training. This is how I was able to put it back on relatively quickly. Game on
Before we dive in lets touch on a few quick things. For the ladies reading, training in the following manner will not make you bulky. Long story short, million of men are desperately trying to gain weight right now and they have the advantage of testosterone on their side. Something that you beautiful ladies are lacking.
So unless you want to supplement with some testosterone and apply a feedback to your face so that you eat enough add weight I would not stress out about it. Training in the following way will probably help you burn some serious fat by adding some nice lean muscle tissue.
Now for you fellas. The following plan will not add TONS of massive superhero weight to your frame. It should however add some serious lean muscle. The goal of the following is to help you fellas gain some weight but not at the expense of athleticism. If you want to do that you can check out any of the many bodybuilding sites that are on the world-wide web. Huge muscles are pretty cool but not at the expense of functionality. I prefer to be lean and strong, agile, fast, and athletic as opposed to a massive ball of mass. I more so admire the Gymnast than the bodybuilder any day.
Ok, that’s my rant. Lets roll.
It’s important to understand a little bit of the science behind lean muscle gain (LMG from here on out). There are three main hormones in the body that work together to promote muscle growth and strength.
- Growth Hormone
- Insulin Growth Factor-1
These three bad boys do not work independently of each other. I like to think of them as BFF’s. They work together as a team. So essentially if one is lacking, so will your lean muscle growth. For example, testosterone increases Insulin growth factor but not without growth hormone.
For you ladies, this is why it can be difficult to add muscle and why you don’t need to worry about looking bulky. Men have roughly 20 times more testosterone than you ladies and they… WE 🙂 have a hard enough time adding muscle.
The goal is to manipulate these hormones through training, nutrition, and REST… yes, REST. More on this later. To facilitate LMG while minimizing body fat and possibly even reducing it. Yes, gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is entirely possible. The idea of “bulking” and “cutting” cycles still amazes me. I like to think of those more as “an excuse to eat like shit” and “damn it, now that I added all this fat I need to eat chicken and broccoli.” Hopefully this post gets you past that idea.
One more hormone to discuss and that is what I like to call the stress hormone… Cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone because its levels tend to get elevated when we are caught in a “fight or flight” response, lacking adequate rest, recovery, or sleep, or under stress and feeling anxious. One reason you may crave sugary foods when you stressed out is due to this. Elevated cortisol can effect your blood sugar which can lead to these cravings.
Elevated cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and can reduce amino acid uptake which is vital for LMG. It also inhibits protein synthesis which is necessary for repairing muscle tissue after it has been damaged following a curling workout. Elevated cortisol might be the culprit if you are having a difficult time recovering from workouts. It also converts broken down muscle into blood glucose which can raise insulin and promote fat storage. One way to combat this is by resting, focusing on recovery, and avoiding marathon training sessions.
LIFT HEAVY THINGS AND PUT THEM DOWN… REPEATEDLY
I’m not going to bullshit you. If you want to put on some muscle you are going to have to train with weights. If new to exercise you will be able to put on a little bit of muscle and get stronger solely with bodyweight exercises but if you really want to pack on the muscle weight training is necessary.
Focus on big compound movements The lifts you will want to learn and perfect (form) are olympic lifts, upper body pushing and pulling, as well as lower body pushing and pulling movements. I have videos of most of the following exercises in the exercise section of this site.
The following are some of the best exercises to increase lean muscle and promote strength. Yes, there are many more that you can do but simplifying things is much better than giving you a shit-ton of info and making it confusing.
Lower body pushing:
- Back squat
- Dumbbell walking lunges
Lower body pulling:
- Romanian dead-lifts
Upper body pushing:
- Bench press (chest)
- Overhead barbell press (shoulders)
Upper body pulling:
- Bent over rows
Visit the Exercise Section of the Limitless365 Fitness Program for video demonstrations.
Yup, that’s it. No machines, no calve raises, and no bicep curls. All of those muscles will indirectly be worked through the exercises above. Those exercises engage many muscle and promote a greater hormone response than arm curls and calve raises. So basically by doing the big boys we are getting the most bang for our buck and not wasting any energy or time.
A quick note on our nervous system: It’s important to note that our central nervous system is a big reason we get gain muscle and get strong as well. The problem is that it is one cheeky S.O.B. He want to be as lazy as possible and not be disturbed. In order to wake his ass up you really have to mean business and let him know. The best way to do this is to get in a proper warm-up and then to consistently challenge him with heavy weights and sprints (if you are doing cardio). High reps and lifting the same weight week after week just won’t cut it.
You’ll want to make sure you keep track of this by recording your workouts: Write down what you are doing and try to progress each week little by little by adding a little weight. More on this in a few.
A WORKOUT APPROACH
There are a few different methods that you can use. A simple approach is to structure your workouts like so. If are familiar with olympic lifts and doing them you can add and extra day here to include an oly-lifting day. Chances are if you are doing olympic lifts you are a fairly advanced trainee and already know how to properly structure workouts. If not, just email me and I can give you some tips on how to improve your olympic lifting.
If you are not familiar with reps, rest, sets, and temp READ THIS
Workout A: Monday
- A1: Squat, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
- A2: Pull-ups, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes *add weight to pull-ups if needed
- B1: DB Walking lunges, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
- B2: Bent over rows, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
Workout B: Wednesday
- A1: Dead-lift, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
- A2: Bench Press, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
- B1: Overhead press, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
- B2: Romanian dead-lift, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
Friday: Repeat workout A or Make it your olympic lifting day
For gaining lean muscle and strength your sets for each exercise will be roughly between 3-5 and reps between 4-10. Rest about 1 to 2 minutes after each exercise and up to 3 or 4 minutes if you are lifting extremely heavy that day and your reps are in the low range. You’ll need more time to recover. With that said, the idea is to out of the gym in about an hour and that includes warm-up. Those muscles are built during recovery so fight the urge to train longer. It is not necessary.
Little tip: shorter rest will release more growth hormone and might lead to greater fat loss. Longer rest periods would be a good idea if strength and LMG is your goal.
Also very important is to progress from week to week. So if you were able to bench press 155 pounds for 8 reps this week try to add a little weight (even if it is only 2 more pounds) next week. Remember, that nervous system is lazy and so are the muscles. You really have to challenge them from week to week.
If you are looking to get in some cardio stick to sprints or mix in some cross fit WODS. They are usually short enough and focus on the big muscle groups like the ones mentioned above to promote LMG and fact loss. JUST DON’T OVERDUE IT! Make sure to rest please 🙂
Some other programs (Intermediate and above)
YOU’VE GOT TO EAT RIGHT TOO
You just beat yourself up in the gym but you’ve got to make sure you are eating properly to recover and help those muscles grown. A good place to start is to take a week and log everything you eat. I mean EVERYTHING.
If you pick an M&M up off the floor and eat it, log it. This will give you a good idea of how many calories you are averaging a day and per week. If your weight is staying the same and you are looking to gain simply start by adding 250-500 calories.
Record your nutrition for another week and check again to see if you are gaining. If you are putting on about 1-2 pounds per week and staying athletic you are doing a pretty good job. No need to adjust calories. If not, keep adding calories but do so slowly in order to avoid and fat gain. Fitday and My Fitness Pal are pretty good resources to log nutrition. Livestrong is another good place to do so.
Another good place to start when thinking about calories is to take your bodyweight and multiply it by 16-18. This should give you a good starting place. You can then adjust calories up or down depending on whether or not you are progressing as you see fit.
Example: 150 pounds x 18 = 2,700 calories per day. (To use this as a fat loss template start with 150 x 12-14)
If you are not used to eating this much it can be tough so maybe start at the low-end and work your way up. Your digestive track will thank you.
BUT WHAT KIND OF FOOD? HOW MUCH PROTEIN, CARBS, AND FAT?
I am a huge fan of kissing. Yes, both kissing people and keeping it simple stupid. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of ancestral or paleolithic eating habits due to emphasis on eating the most nutrient dense foods that supply plenty of vitamins and minerals and lack inflammatory properties that can put our tummies and bodies for that matter under a ton of stress. In order to recover, be healthy, and grow muscle while losing fat you need an environment that eliminates as much stress as possible. Proper diet is a great place to start.
Please download the food chart from the free guides section. This will give you a good idea of the foods you will want to focus on.
Protein: As long as you are roughly eating about a gram per pound of bodyweight you should be getting plenty. Can you eat a little less or even more. Of course. But the gram per pound of bodyweight is a great place to start.
Example: 150 pounds = 150 grams of protein.
From the chart you can see that salmon, buffalo, chicken, beef, and eggs are great sources. Try and divide this evenly throughout the day. So if you eat 4 times per day that’s a little over 35 grams of protein per meal.
Carbohydrates: I am not an advocate of anyone eating over 200 grams of carbohydrates per day unless they are doing a ton of endurance training are an extremely competitive athlete. Even then I would be weary. For carbohydrates I would suggest including veggies with each meal but be aware if they make it difficult for you to consume enough calories. They can be very filling. Starchy carbs like sweet potato, banana, and plantains would be excellent after workouts. Berries and some other non-tropical fruits would be great choices during the day. If you eat roughly 2-3 servings of fruit per day with 1 starchy carb post exercise you should get plenty of carbohydrate throughout the day to help fuel workouts.
If you are eating enough good dietary fats (see below) and allowing yourself time to rest you should have plenty of energy for training.
Fats: Should be your best friend. Focus on saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, grass-fed meats, and mono saturated fats like avocado and olive oil. Add as much as it takes to complete your calorie requirements. Fats will help to blunt your insulin and increase testosterone both necessary for keeping off the fat and putting on the muscle.
Here is an example meal plan:
- 3-4 eggs + 2-4 bacon strips
- 1 cup berries
- 1 avocado
- Veggies optional
- Large serving grass-fed beef 85/15 or 80/20 (more fat to add calories)
- 1-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 apple
- Large serving grass-fed beef
- 1 sweet potato (if post workout)
- 1-2 tablespoons coconut oil
- Large serving of salmon
- 1-3 tablespoons of macadamia oil
- Optional 1 cup berries
Note: Nuts are a great dense calorie source as well for fat and a little protein if you need help adding calories. I have a tough time eating enough and they really help a ton.
If you are not gaining the muscle you would like take a good look at if you are skipping meals. Remember to be prepared by cooking food ahead of time and carrying around snacks like mixed nuts, jerky, or even a shake if needed. You’ll really have to be consistent. It’s no different from someone trying to lose weight or fat.
Gaining is also not an excuse to eat junk. Keep it clean. I’ll leave it at that.
This post is getting pretty lengthy so I wanted to finish it up with some FAQ with regards to adding some muscle.
Q: How long will it take me to add muscle?
A: It will take some time. But if you are adding at least a pound per week I’d consider that excellent results. Take body measurements (chest, arms, legs, waist, etc..) or get a body fat test done to make sure what you are putting on is mostly muscle. Consistency! with what ever your approach is.
Q: How many meals should I eat?
A: It doesn’t really matter. Strive for at least 3-4 per day spaced out every couple of hours. Most important thing is to track those calories initially to make sure you are eating enough.
Q: Can I use a protein shake?
A: I’m personally not a huge fan of protein shakes but they can make it easy to get in enough calories. If you are going to use one try to keep it to post workout only. The following is a post workout ONLY shakes that may come in handy.
Apricot Goat Milk Shake (if you tolerate dairy):
1 cup goat milk yogurt (unsweetened)
1 scoop protein powder (what every brand as long as it sits well in your tummy)
1 servings of a greens supplement
10 dried apricot halves (or frozen apricot) make sure no sugar or sulfar was added. Only ingredient should be apricots
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 cup ice
Q: What if I don’t have access to weights or I’m not ready to train with weights yet?
A: Honestly, the weights will make adding that lean muscle so much easier. But if you can only do body weight stuff focus on push-ups, dips, pull-ups, Inverted rows, and air squats (with a weight vest). Something that will not only work great with body weight training but also your weight training is to slow down the tempo.
Take a little extra time to lower yourself to the ground when doing a push-up or pull-up. The same goes with a squat. So when you do the push-up for example try to count to 4 or 5 before your chest touches the ground. Then come up explosively and repeat. You can do this for any of the exercises mentioned here or for any program you use.
Q: Can I do cardio?
A: Try and avoid it. Sprints, crossfit style workouts/metcons, would provide plenty of conditioning and allow for you to keep on lean muscle while burning fat. I would suggest no more than 2 sprint session or 3-4 crossfit/metcon workouts.
Q: What if I am skinny-fat?
A: This is when you are slight of frame but still carrying around a little pudge. Thus, lacking some muscle definition. I would suggest getting lean first but not at the expense of muscle. The program here and the link available are great training programs to start with. You can add some muscle and lose some fight by limiting the rest in-between sets (30-60 seconds max) and adding a couple of interval sprint training sessions a couple of times a week on off days (make sure to get at least 1 full day of rest). Eat a diet full of real food and try keeping the carbs to no more than 150 grams per day. Keep the starchy carbs like sweet potato for post workout only.
Q: What if I’m a girl
A: You won’t get huge. Don’t stress 🙂
PPS: Below are a few books I recommend if you’d like to learn more about strength training.
- Starting Strength, 3rd edition
- Modern Trends in Strength Training: Volume 1, Sets and Reps (Second Edition)
- The German body comp program: Burn fat and build muscle on the only program that uses weight training for weight loss
- Strength Training Anatomy-3rd Edition
- Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week
- Olympic Weightlifting for Sports
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