The One Thing That Will Help You Reach Any Fitness Goal: Part II
If you missed part I of this article where we discussed why more muscle is a good thing, check it out HERE before continuing on.
Since you read part I, you now know that building muscle is almost always a good thing. The only exception can occur when someone needs to stay within a certain weight class for competition, and the extra muscle makes it impossible to stay within that limit.
Other than that, gaining more lean, functional muscle will help with pretty much every fitness, performance and aesthetic goal.
And now, we answer the big question…
What is the best way to gain muscle?
You could easily follow a progressive training program (adding weight and/or volume over time) and eat a metric s@*t ton of calories from sources such as pizzas, burgers, creamy pastas, etc. and you will gain muscle mass. The problem is you will also likely gain an excessive amount of fat mass.
Since I will assume that most of us want to gain as much muscle as possible without accruing significant amounts of body fat, we must approach training for muscle gain (hypertrophy) intelligently.
There are a few main components to hypertrophy that you will want to consider in order to optimally increase muscle mass, while limiting fat accumulation.
- Overall calorie is king, quality of food is queen
When it comes to gaining muscle mass, the easiest way is to be in a caloric surplus. But this doesn’t mean going way overboard.
You will want to be roughly 200-500 calories over maintenance level (the amount of calories it would take to maintain your current weight).
For many of us, calculating our maintenance caloric level is as easy as taking our bodyweight and multiplying that number by 14-16.
For example, for a 185 pound male, a good ESTIMATION of the calories necessary to maintain weight would be 2,590 to 2,960 per day.
For someone looking to gain quality weight, I would recommend adding 200-500 calories past your maintenance level.
Again, these are estimated numbers so if you notice that you are not gaining muscle, or if you are gaining muscle but also too much fat, you can add or subtract 100 calories accordingly.
And although the common understanding is that you must have a caloric surplus to gain muscle (or weight in general), if you take in close your maintenance calories, or just below, and train correctly, you can lose fat while gaining muscle.
The key with this is that the quality of your food needs to stay high.
No matter if you are going into a caloric surplus, or you are trying to stay at or just below maintenance levels of caloric intake to lose more fat, different foods will have a different impact on your body.
250 calories of lean meat will not have the same effect on your body as 250 calories of Boston Cream Donuts…sorry.
So calories are king, but you need to make sure your intake is made up primarily of whole food sources (not processed sources) such as meat, eggs, fish, veggies, fruits, low processed grains (quinoa, oatmeal, etc.), potatoes, rice, etc.
2) Focus on protein
Piggy backing on the first point, you want to make sure that you are taking in an adequate amount of protein.
Recent research has found that the recommended RDA amount for protein is likely too low for those of us who are putting our bodies through stressful training.
For this reason I recommend that you take in a minimum of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Taking this into your caloric consumption, lets use the 185 pound male athlete example.
Being 185 pounds this athlete would want to shoot for a minimum of 185 grams of protein per day.
Protein has 4 calories per gram, so this athlete would be consuming 740 calories worth of protein per day.
If we take the numbers mentioned from point one for maintenance, let’s put a nice even number of 2700 calories for maintenance. That would leave this athlete with just under 2000 calories from other sources such as carbs and fat to make up the rest of his calories.
For this reason, I would say you can bump up your intake of protein to 1.2-1.5g per pound of bodyweight.
Having a significant amount of protein in your diet will help you build muscle as protein, more specifically amino acids, are responsible for many critical components of bodily processes such as repair and maintenance (this is where hypertrophy fits in), energy, hormones, enzymes, transport, etc.
So if protein levels are not sufficient, not only will building muscle be extremely difficult but sufficient energy levels to train, and hormones to signal anabolism (growth) will be in short supply.
For this reason, I recommend focusing on consuming enough protein. Take a look at your current diet and determine whether or not your are taking in enough protein (at least 1g per pound of bodyweight).
If not try adding in more meats, eggs, fish, milk, cheese, nuts, and protein powders for convenience.
Just remember to keep overall calories at a good level.
3) Don’t forget about carbs and fats.
Although we just spent time discussing how important protein is, we can’t forget about quality carbs and fats.
Carbs will help provide the energy necessary to continue to put in a consistently high effort with your training, and fats are key to many bodily functions that are critical for health, performance and growth.
Good sources of carbs include veggies and fruits, potatoes, rice, quinoa, low processed grains such as Ezekiel bread and pastas.
Good sources of fats include fish, nuts, avocados, olive oil, etc.
Once you make sure you are taking in enough protein, fill in the rest of your diet with quality carbs and fats.
4) Spend the majority of your time between 6 and 12 reps.
It has been hypothesized that hypertrophy has three main drivers. Those being mechanical tension (lifting heavy stuff), muscular damage and metabolic stress (the “pump”).
While completing exercises through various rep ranges is recommended for optimal growth, performance and health, placing a heavy emphasis (pun intended) on reps between 6 and 12 will spur the anabolic responses within the body to a greater degree.
The key is to make sure that you are approaching technical failure during your sets. You will want to finish your last rep in the set knowing that you could complete one more perfect rep.
If you can complete more than one rep you are likely not going to obtain the stimulus needed to maximize anabolic responses, as well as other wanted adaptations (strength gain, fat utilization, etc.).
So focus on placing 70-80% of your program within the 6-12 rep range to entice greater hypertrophy, and going to near technical failure with your sets.
5) Don’t forget to get strong and feel the burn.
Although the rep range of 6-12 has beens shown to be the sweet spot for the 3 components of muscle hypertrophy (discussed in last point), there are other rep ranges you will want to hit.
Just like carbs and fats are to your diet, working within strength and “pump” rep ranges is to your training.
Since you will be placing 70-80% of your training within the 6-12 rep range, you have 20-30% to allocate to lower and higher reps.
Start your training session off with a few (2-4) sets of strength/power work that takes place in the rep ranges between 1 and 5 reps.
Finish off your program with a few sets (2-4) of higher “pump” work to engorge your muscles with blood and nutrients.
This will allow you to better emphasize the mechanical tension and metabolic stress part of they hypertrophy equation.
Here is a quick full body example:
1a) Deadlift 3×4
1b) Bench Press 3×4
2a) Reverse lunge 3×6/side
2b) Chin Up 3×6
3a) Goblet Lateral Lunge 3×8/side
3b) Single Arm DB Row 3×10/side
4a) Single Leg Squat 1-2 x 12-15/side
4b) Push Up 1-2 x 12-15
6) You must progressively overload the system.
In order to progress training, and your results, you need to progressively overload your body.
Really what this means is that in order to spur further adaptations (growth, strength, fat loss, etc.) you need to continually challenge the body past the point it is currents threshold.
The most basic way to do this is to add intensity (resistance via weight to the bar, etc.) and/or volume (more reps and/or sets).
Make it a point to not continuously use the same weight or sets/reps week after week, as without more of a challenge the body will not adapt any further.
There is no set amount you should try to increase every week (such as 5 lbs each week). The bigger consideration is overall workload, which can be calculated by taking your resistance x reps x sets.
For example, if you are deadlifting with 100 pounds (easy number to use) and you complete 3 sets of 6 reps, that would be a total workload of 100 x 6 x 3 = 1800 pounds. Trying to progressively increase that total workload over time is the key, so you can manipulate weight used, reps or sets to do so.
While increasing weight/reps/sets is the easiest way to overlaod, there are other ways to challenge the body such as tempo (the speed of movements), different exercises, different grips, manipulation of rest periods, etc.
These come into play when increasing resistance or volume is no longer possible (or recommended) and will be covered further in a future article.
7) Condition high or low…not in the middle.
When it comes to maximizing muscle gain, and losing body fat, conditioning at either a high or low intensity is key.
This means that prioritizing high intensity intervals (sprints, bike sprints, row sprints, etc.) in conjunction with longer slower conditioning (easy 20-60 minute jog, bike ride, etc.) is the best approach to lose body fat while sparing muscle mass.
When you spend too much time in the “middle zone,” such as consistently trying to beat a 1+ mile time, you are more likely to start degrading your muscle mass for energy.
When you are training at a higher intensity you are more likely to prioritize muscle glycogen, and when you are at a lower intensity you are more likely to prioritize fat. Both will help you spare muscle mass while you work on burning through non functional energy storage (fat tissue).
Try completing intervals (sprints) 1-2 times per week and a longer slower session 1 time per week.
This may in fact be the most important point of this article, although it is the last.
The fact is that many of us do not sleep!
Well, we do, but we don’t sleep long enough, or well enough.
Making sure to get at least 7 hours of high quality sleep each night is key to maintaining optimal hormonal levels that will help you recover.
When you recover well, you can train harder, you spur greater adaptation and experience greater results.
It would take another article alone to cover all of the benefits of sleep and how to entice a better night’s sleep.
But here are a few quick tips…
- Avoid too much caffeine throughout the day, and stop drinking caffeine around 3pm. Any later and you are flirting with caffeines effects when trying to shut it down at night.
- Go to bed early(ier)…get to bed well before midnight whenever possible!
- Stay away from the light…turn off the lights and electronics including your phone at least an hour before bed.
- Black out…your room! Making your room as dark as possible will help stimulate a deeper sleep. This includes getting rid of your clock, or at least covering it.
- Block out the noise. Try using a white noise app / machine, or if you can get through a couple weird nights, try using ear plugs. Less noise will also stimulate deeper sleep.
Questions, comments or random thoughts? Leave them below. And if you found this information useful, be a boss and send it along to your friends and family.
To your health and performance,