I’m often approached with questions regarding the best methods to gaining muscle mass. Many athletes will go on about the countless hours they’re spending in the gym and tell me about the list of exercises they’re performing. While they’re rambling on about their bench press, biceps curls, and military presses, I’ll usually stop them and ask two simple questions, what’s your sleep schedule like? And what are you eating? Yes, there are many variables that need to be played with to create the best environment for you to gain muscle mass. I believe two of the most important, and often most neglected, take place outside of the weight room.
In honor of the skinny guy or for who ever desires to become an absolute monster this winter I’ve decide to make a list of the 3 most important factors that will help you gain lean muscle mass.
1) Calories from High Quality Sources
Do you know that guy who sits at the lunch table crushing cereal, chicken nuggets, and Snack Packs claiming he’s just trying to get his “weight up?” Yes, this will more than likely help him pack on pounds of fat mass and probably have him feeling terrible day in and day out. Calories are important, and no one is ever going to gain a tremendous amount of lean mass without consuming a high amount of calories, but they must come from high quality sources. Quality must ALWAYS come before quantity. I’ll give all the credit to a professor of mine for the following scenario. Imagine this. I’ll take two people, each on the same training regimen, and all other lifestyle factors are going to be controlled. The goal of both is to gain muscle mass. Both are told to consume 3,500 calories daily. But, one can only consume a cocktail of Skittles, Hi-C, Fruity Pebbles, and why not throw in some butter, glazed donuts, and french fries. The second individual is given free range to an organic farm filled with fresh produce. It has fruits, vegetables, chicken, beef, and pork. You name it and its there. It’s obvious that the second individual will yield better training results and will develop much more muscle mass.
So, what is a quality food source? Are you saying a bowl of Cheerios won’t improve my heart health? And the cheeseburgers at school won’t get me jacked? Exactly.
Most of us probably grew up with the old Food Pyramid with the base of it being grains, 6-11 servings a day. To make a long story short, obesity has been on the rise ever since. Many top scientists in the field today have been linking this to the consumption of the processed carbohydrate and the enormous amounts of added sugars in food today. Gary Taubes (linked is the 1st of a 7 part lecture) does an excellent job helping to explain this phenomenon. We must eat REAL FOOD. Here’s a list a compiled from Brian St. Pierre and Michael Pollan. Both are huge names in the field when discussing nutrition.
- If you couldn’t hunt, fish, pluck, grow, or ferment/culture the food, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
- If it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it isn’t food today.
- If grandma wouldn’t know what it is, it is most likely VERY processed and refined, it isn’t food today either.
- If it comes in a box or a plastic wrapper, it most likely isn’t food; it is a food product.
Now, we need to look at our protein sources. Protein turnover is key to allowing muscle growth. We need to create a state where we have more protein synthesis than degradation, more building than breaking down. How is this accomplished? By eating dead animals. Or more politely said, eating meat. Animal-based foods are known as complete proteins. They provide us with all of the essential amino acids (those we can’t produce in our body). Essential amino acids are going to stimulate protein synthesis at a greater rate than those that are non-essential, especially leucine. Make sure to consume an essential amino acid source post-training to ensure a positive net protein balance. It is also important to have an understanding of what types animal-based foods are of high quality. According to Marion Nestle, and her outstanding book What To Eat, there are three major types of meats to examine, conventional, organic, and natural.
- Conventional: This is what we most likely consume while eating at restaurants and in school. I won’t get into slaughterhouse treatment of the animals themselves. That’s for another time. Conventional meat is much more processed than that of its counter parts. Do you think you’re just eating one cow on that cheeseburger? You could be eating hundreds. The animals are fed grains and other animal by-products, and given hormones to get them to grow faster. Last time I checked cows aren’t supposed to be eating grains. This often leads to infection and pumping the animal with antibiotics to help rid it.
- Organic: Must be certified and undergo inspection by the USDA. The animals are forbidden feeding of animal by-products, there are no antibiotics or hormones used, and are kept under more human conditions (unrestricted outdoor access) and are grass fed and/or given organic grains. Grass fed meats also contain more omega-3 fats that decrease inflammation our bodies!
- Natural: Does not have to meet strict criteria. It’s on the honor system. May choose to follow or not follow USDA organic guidelines.
Work Hard, Sleep Hard. That’s what I say.
A consistent sleep schedule along with an adequate duration of sleep is key to adding lean muscle to your body. You’ve probably heard of your circadian rhythm before. In our brain we have a suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) which is the clock that regulates it. A consistent sleeping routine can trigger the SCN to allow for a regular, deep sleep. While in a deep sleep our bodies are producing optimal levels several anabolic hormones including growth hormone, testosterone, and IGF-1. High levels of these hormones will greatly enhance our recovery from training. Inconsistent sleep cycles and poor sleeping conditions can lead to increased cortisol production. Which is catabolic and linked to the accumulation of body fat in the abdominal area.
Tips for Improving your Quality of Sleep:
- Get to bed before midnight- Some say an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after.
- Sleep in the dark- Create a pitch-black environment to sleep in. This will help ensure pressor centers are inhibited in your brain and allow for a deeper sleep.
- Quiet- Sleep in complete silence. Buy noise-cancelling headphones if you live in a noisy area.
- Relax- Try to start to shut down shortly before your bedtime. Create a routine for yourself every night.
- Avoid late night training if possible- If it’s the only time you can then go for it, but cortisol is stimulated with late night training which will inhibit you from going into a deep sleep.
3) WORK YOUR ASS OFF
Train hard. Enough Said.
Your body won’t adapt unless you properly challenge it. Hence, the overload principle, exercising at intensities greater than normal stimulates highly specific adaptations within the human body. The more the body gets forced away from homeostasis, the more adaptations it will make. This will allow it to tolerate similar deviations in the future.
It is also important to include a variety explosive, compound, and single leg exercises in your training program. The first two will recruit the greatest amount of muscle mass while the later will allow for great amounts of tension at the muscle with less stress on passive tissues. Proper conditioning will also help to create an even more anabolic environment in you body. Check out my article Do This, Not That Part II: Conditioning Edition to learn more.
Get your calories from high quality sources, and eat plenty of them. Train hard and get a consistent and deep sleep. Use these as your base and you’ll be sure to gain muscle mass this winter. Remember you spend many more hours outside of your training sessions than you do in them. What you do outside the gym is just as important as what you’re doing while you train.