The typical goal of any male gym goer and also many females is to build muscle, get bigger, or something along those lines. It seems like a simple task. When you walk into the gym and see all the muscle-bound body builders you assume it won’t be long before you lifting weights leads to having muscle on top of muscle and finding it hard to fit into your clothes.
I started out when I was 14 years old when I bought a set of weights from Rebel Sport. I did curls every night before bed plus a few crunches and push ups to maintain a ‘well-rounded’ physique. After reading Flex magazine and Men’s Health and Fitness I decided I needed to do a 3 day split, just like the pros did. Chest and Tri’s, Back and Bi’s, Legs and Abs. So I joined a local gym and started chasing the pump.
I found out pretty quickly that I was a ‘hard-gainer’, a term used to describe someone who had a hard time gaining muscle or even weight in general. I had just finished rugby season so I decided to invest in some protein powder going for anything that had ‘bulk’ or ‘mass’ in the product name to put on some size for next season (Mutant Mass to be exact). A shake in the morning, a shake after my workout, and a shake before bed. It wasn’t long before I added about 8kg of body weight, I was getting gains!
At the time I was playing senior club rugby as a winger (read: speed is essential!). Up until this point I was always pretty quick, while in college I ran 100m in 11.3sec and was always confident in my speed. I still clearly remember a game where I was passed the ball in a clean gap only to get chased down within a few steps. I probably would’ve brushed it off if my coach hadn’t brought it up next week at training when we reviewed the game. I had been chased down by an overweight, middle aged centre! If you don’t know rugby, a winger should never get chased down by anyone let alone the guy who caught me.
Why is this relevant? Well this taught me something very important about the difference between functional weight i.e. muscle, and non-functional weight or FAT. I spent the summer getting fat. Lucky for me I was able lose the weight pretty quickly and to be fair I did retain a small amount of weight gain which I like to think was muscle.
Over the next few years I figured there was more to it than isolating muscles and drinking protein shakes. It wasn’t until I did the following that I started to see steady and maintainable increases in LEAN body mass.
- Eat More
If you ever hear someone call themselves a ‘hardgainer’ or even find yourself identifying with this classification then this applies most specifically to you. You can’t gain weight because you’re eating nowhere near enough to create an anabolic environment in your body aka hypertrophy aka gains.
When you lift weights it creates tiny tears in your muscles that should heal bigger and stronger than before. If you aren’t eating enough protein or even food in general you’re missing out on the tiny building blocks called amino acids that repair those tears and help your muscle grow.
You need to eat calorie dense food and fuel yourself with protein throughout the day.
You can do this by having 20-30g servings of protein throughout the day, either via protein supplements or good foods.
If you have trouble putting on weight you probably need to stop chowing down on chicken salad and throw in some nuts, avocado, and pasta into your diet. The bottom line is you NEED the calories.
WARNING: Don’t be fooled into thinking more protein is better or that excess protein is ‘excreted’ in our urine (like I used to think). Studies have shown that servings over 30g of protein cause a spike in blood glucose. In a process called gluconeogenesis, your liver takes that protein and turns it into sugar. And unused blood glucose is eventually stored in your adipose tissue, in other words it becomes fat!
- Stop trying to get bigger AND ripped at the same time!
What I’m trying to say is, stop doing so much cardio! This goes against the idea of eating more to give your body more fuel. Think of it like stealing a builder’s timber as he tries to build your dream home, you’re literally robbing your body of the resources it needs to rebuild your muscle. Any exercise we do sends our body into a catabolic state, where we are literally breaking our own tissues down. To combat this we need to ingest food and rest.
If you are one of those crazy health conscious people who care about your heart and stuff then here’s a way you can keep fit and it ain’t walking on the treadmill with a level 5 incline; Sprint! High intensity work like sprinting has been proven to have a huge impact on capillarisation of muscles (better blood flow), increased cardiovascular and respiratory capacity (heart and lungs) and boost natural growth hormone production. This is all you need:
5 sets of 20-30sec all out sprinting with 3minutes rest, 3 days per week
If you’re like me this will be hard to do, by this I mean the low volume of cardio, another reason why I had a hard to gaining weight. Keep this in mind whenever you want to do some extra sprints or even do a 10km cross country run. Rest, you need to rest!
- Squat and Deadlift
Why does everyone recommend these two lifts? Apart from the fact that they are the kryptonite of every gym-douche, they also do something that no leg press or leg extension will ever do.
These two exercises allow you to move massive amounts of weight. Why? Because they are what is called compound movements, meaning they recruit many muscles including stabilisers and core muscles. And aside from helping you grow your chicken legs into thick tree trunks they also have a profound effect on hormone release.
Because you create so much oxidative stress performing these movements your body responds by firing out a myriad of anabolic hormones. This is brings about that anabolic environment I talked about.
Other exercises that have a similar effect are (standing) military press and bent over row variations. Although Olympic weightlifting movements are great compound movements they require a huge amount of skill to be performed safely at heavy loads and therefore I don’t recommend using them as a go to movement for your anabolic hormone boosting lifts.
- Lift Heavy!
Your body is an extremely intelligent machine that is able to adapt to just about anything. It is because of this that you must continually push it beyond its limits.
Early on in my training I would hit plateaus that would last for weeks or even months. I would be stuck at a certain weight on a lift and couldn’t progress. This ultimately came down to my attitude and a poorly planned program where I would only progress when I felt extremely comfortable with the weight.
I have learnt over time that a new, heavier weight never feels comfortable. It feels immovable, like it’s going to crush your bones. Get used to it.
To make sure you always lift heavy and push your limits you must have a well-planned program with long term linear progression and the mindset of a madman who isn’t afraid to move a heavy weight.
Let’s say you’re doing 4 sets of 8 reps on the back squat. If you complete every set then add 2.5kg next week. Rinse and repeat.
All in all, building muscle should be enjoyable, it’s a very egocentric pursuit so have fun with it because no one else really cares how big you want to be. Relish the fact that you can eat all that food. Every workout is a challenge to push more weight. And when you’re bloodied, beaten, and bloated look forward to tomorrow, and the next week, and the next month.
Because putting on muscle is way better than cutting!