When it comes to the task of packing on muscle mass, the term “analysis paralysis” comes to mind. To be blunt, many people just make it more complicated than it really has to be. That’s not to say that adding any amount of significant muscle mass is an easy task. On the contrary, if it was easy, we would have a bunch of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Dave Tates walking around instead of all these “weenie girly men” who wear Under Armour to the mall in an attempt to impress the local 18 year-old girls.
Needless to say, I think many tend to over think things when it comes to packing on those slabs of man meat (or woman meat; I don’t want to leave out the ladies). Many will debate and discuss every minute detail regarding what the optimal macro nutrient breakdown should be and what new and advanced training program they will be following; in reality, all they really need to do is stick with the basics that have been proven to work for decades. In the realm of training and nutrition, nothing is really new or revolutionary, and many would be well served to just shut up and get down to business.
Come Hither, My Disciples
Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own personal time machine? Just imagine if you had access to one and the things you could do with it! If I had one, there are several key missions I would do with it. First, I would most certainly use it for purely selfish reasons. I would go back and tell myself not to throw that 0-2 curve ball to the jerk who hit the 450-foot home run off me in my first college start with five professional scouts watching in the stands. I would become best friends with Bill Gates. And, heck, I might as well throw in a chance encounter with Mariah Carey (circa 1995, before she turned into a hooch). Last, but not least, I would have to say that the main thing I would use it for is to go back and kick my own ass for literally wasting years with my training and eating habits.
I look back at my training and eating habits from when I was in school, and I have to cringe in embarrassment. Yep, you guessed it; I did three sets of ten for everything, hitting body parts once per week while not eating nearly enough calories. Sound like anyone YOU know? I trained this way for years, and while I made decent progress and was better off than most guys, I still wasn’t entirely satisfied. It wasn’t until I started looking past most (not all) mainstream magazines and the typical foo-foo weight room banter, and started reading and educating myself on the more “old school” principles (as well as the more recent research) that I started to make the gains that I had always coveted. To say “I wish I knew then what I know now” would be an understatement of epic proportions.
With that being said, I think another important mission I would undertake with my time machine would be to go back and play God, and instead of telling Moses to write the 10 Commandments as we all know them, I would have him write “The 10 Commandments to Becoming a Magnificent Mass Monster.” Oh, and since I would be taking on the role of God, I would also make a point of ensuring that George Lucas never made those last two pieces of crap he calls Star Wars (Revenge of the Sixth excluded).
The 10 Commandments (As They Should to Have Been Written)
1. Thou Shalt Use Compound Movements
These are the movements that should make up the bulk (I’d say ~ 80%) of any program you follow – PERIOD.
In order to get big, you have to do movements that will make you big. So, it is high time that you do away with those isolation biceps curls and leg extensions, Peggy Sue, and start doing some deadlifts, squats, bench presses, dips, pull-ups, good mornings, and rows. These are the movements that will allow you to use the greatest amount of weight and promote a MUCH greater growth stimulus in the muscle cells. Think about it; what do you think it going to elicit a greater growth stimulus – a set of leg curls using 120 lbs. or a set of deadlifts using 300 lbs.? Not only that, but doing the compound movements (in conjunction with doing them HEAVY) will automatically activate high threshold motor units, which have the greatest potential for growth, and since these movements target the largest muscle groups in the body (thighs, hamstrings, mid/upper back, chest), you will be getting bigger in the right places. And let’s not forget strength. As I noted, compound movements will allow you to use more weight and I always stress that one cannot get bigger without getting stronger first. Ever seen a really small strong person? So, implementing these movements to get stronger now will undoubtedly lead to more significant hypertrophy gains in the future.
As an aside, I would also like to mention that these compound movements should also be used when one is trying to “lean up.” And yes, ladies, you need to pay attention to this, as I know there are some out there reading this thinking to themselves, “Well, I don’t want to get big and bulky.” However, I will say that by doing the compound lifts, you will be using multiple muscle groups as opposed to ONE when doing isolation movements (think Cybex Circuit). Which do you think is going to burn more calories and provide a greater caloric deficit to promote fat loss – a movement using your entire body (as do squats and deadlifts) or those worthless hip abductor machines? If you guessed the latter, please go back to reading “Good Housekeeping.”
2. Thou Shalt Lift Heavy
This goes without saying, but the compound movements are challenging. It takes time to learn the proper technique and to acquire the proper motor learning patterns to become efficient in these lifts. So, when I say “lift heavy,” I don’t necessarily mean one should do it right away if they’re just learning to perform these movements. I know many people jump into the gauntlet and try to lift heavy right off the bat and end up hurting themselves not too long afterward. One should definitely take a few weeks (especially if he is a newbie) and use higher rep ranges (6-12) to learn proper form and to gain confidence in his ability to perform the compound movements. Most of the strength gains early on will be due to neuromuscular recruitment improvements rather than hypertrophy, but one will still put on a fair amount of muscle mass right off the bat even with the high(er) rep ranges. Once that newbie period is out of the way, though, if you want to get the most out of your training buck, you HAVE to incorporate heavy lifting.
As I stated in the introduction, I wasted many years doing 3×10 of just about everything. While it does have its place and is rather effective for people just starting out, it is only going to take you so far. When people talk about hypertrophy, there are a few major factors that come into play, some of which are time under tension, load (mass), and acceleration. The latter two interact in terms of their ability to produce intramuscular tension (ability of a muscle to produce force: force = mass x acceleration). For the sake of this article, I am just going to discuss “load,” but for further insight, check out Christian Thibaudeau’s superb book, “The Black Book of Training Secrets.”
Low rep/high intensity strength training is effective mainly due to the fact that it leads to degradation of the contractile proteins actin and myosin, which results in sarcomere hypertrophy. In layman’s terms, this means increased thickness and density of the ACTUAL muscle fibers. On the flip side, higher rep/lower intensity training leads to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the size of non-contractile elements such as collagen and improves one’s ability to store substrates such as glycogen. Including training protocols that target BOTH types of hypertrophy is definitely going to elicit the greatest amount of muscle growth than if you were to just concentrate on one or the other. However, if you want to be big and strong, implementing heavy, low-rep strength training is a must and is a concept that many tend to overlook. Some of the biggest guys out there are the ones who do absolutely no heavy training, and tend to be “all show and no go.” Simply put, they’re big, but weak. By implementing heavy strength training into your arsenal, you can rest assured that you will not only put on a fair amount of mass, but you will also be strong to boot. And besides, it is just so darn fun to lift heavy things.
Let’s say that someone has been doing 3×10 for most of their training sessions and for a particular bench press session, they used 200 lbs. for each set. We can calculate that 200 lbs x 10 repetitions comes to 2000 total load for one set. Obviously, at this weight and rep scheme, three sets yield a total tonnage of 6000 lbs. for that particular bench press session. Now, when we talk about heavy strength training, typical set/rep schemes usually flip that 3×10 around. So, instead of doing three sets of ten repetitions, you would do ten sets of three repetitions.
Essentially, you are doing the same volume (very important), but with heavier loads, which you’ll recall activate high threshold motor units and fast-twitch muscle fibers (given a fast concentric) that have the greatest propensity for growth. So, that same individual will now use 225 for his “working sets” because he is using a low-rep set-up. Now, we have 225 x 3 repetitions comes to 675 lbs. for one set. With ten sets, we get a total tonnage of 6750 lbs.: 750 lbs. more than the typical 3×10 set/rep scheme that was originally used! Which do you think is going to elicit more muscle growth? 6000 lbs. or 6750 lbs.? So, when you hear your local gym warrior (who looks the same now that he did five years ago) proclaim that you can’t get bigger lifting heavy weights and that high reps are the way to go for maximum hypertrophy, tell him to go back to the 3rd grade and relearn how to add.
*** I will say that one needs to take into consideration the entire training session’s volume as well as any individual time constraints. Performing 10×3 is going to take quite a bit longer than 3×10, so you obviously will have to plan accordingly. Both protocols have their place as far as maximum hypertrophy is concerned and one is not inherently better than the other; they’re just different. However, I do feel that many tend to neglect the advantages of heavy, low-rep training and would be wise to start incorporating it into their programs. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised if you do so.
3. Thou Shalt Limit Cardio
Not too long ago, a gentleman approached me because he was all flustered that he couldn’t put on any significant amount of muscle and was perplexed that his bench press wasn’t going up. Outside of asking him what he was currently doing in terms of his exercise selection and whether or not he was using set/rep schemes that allowed him to lift heavy, I asked him how much cardio he was doing each week. He responded, “Oh, I run about 20-25 miles per week.” YOWSA! Listen, I am not going to be the guy who says that cardio is a waste of time and that only housewives use the elliptical machines. However, if putting on muscle is your goal, participating in that much cardiovascular exercise is going to be counterproductive. In short, it can be very catabolic and can sacrifice a lot of hard earned muscle.
An analogy that I like to use with clients is to compare a marathon runner to a sprinter. Marathon runners, while they do have very low levels of body fat, have little to no muscle mass. On the flip side, sprinters are ripped and have a ton of lean muscle mass. That alone should get my point across. For this reason, I tend to advocate that people who are trying to add on size should just stick to doing 1-2 High Intensity Interval Training(HIIT) sessions per week, brisk walking, or GPP (General Physical Preparedness) to keep their conditioning up while trying to add on some quality muscle mass. Cardiovascular exercise does serve a purpose and does have many important benefits (more efficient oxygen transport, increased nutrient partitioning, as well as general “heart health”), but if one is trying to put on size, they have to be cognizant of the amount they are doing and be careful not to overdo it and sacrifice too much lean body mass. A general way to approach things would be to perform 1-2 HIGH intensity sessions (HIIT) per week and possibly 1-2 LOW intensity sessions (walking) per week. Try to avoid the drawn-out, steady-state cardio as much as possible.
4. Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Post-Workout Nutrition
If you have been training for any significant amount of time and have not been utilizing proper post-workout nutrition, then you need to hightail it to Barnes and Noble and purchase “Post-Workout Nutrition: Where the Heck Have You Been the Past Five Years?” (side note: this book doesn’t really exist). It should come as no surprise to you that the 4-6 hours after a training session should be a time where you try to push the envelope and take full advantage of the anabolic window. I once had a guy tell me that he usually waited two hours before eating anything after training because he thought that he would burn more body fat if he did so.
Needless to say, I put a stop to that rather quickly. As I stated previously, this is a time when you WANT to feed the body. A quality post-workout drink containing at least a 2:1 ratio of carbs: protein would be a great start. (Opticen is a great choice) Liquid formulas are ideal at this juncture because they are absorbed by the body at a much faster rate than whole food sources and they serve three vital functions: replenishing depleted glycogen stores, promoting protein synthesis, and staving off further muscle protein catabolism (by restoring positive nitrogen balance). Ideally, you should drink half of these calories during your workout and the other half immediately afterward. Then, you should wait about an hour or so and have a whole food protein and carbohydrate (P&C) meal that will probably end up being your largest meal of the day. During my last bulking cycle, this meal would easily total 1200-1500 calories! Again, a good rule of thumb is to use a 2:1 ratio of carbs: protein. Options include pasta with chicken, oatmeal with whey protein, cold cereal with added whey protein and a piece of fruit, or a combination of everything! About two hours later, I would ingest yet another P&C meal, but with a ratio of around 1:1 (carbs: protein). As you can see, you will be eating the bulk of your daily calories during this time; this might scare some people, but you have to realize that your body will be using these calories for a specific purpose: getting BIG.
Disclaimer: If you are prone to storing fat easily, I would alter things slightly in that I would stick with the PWO drink, but use a 1:1 ratio with your first whole meal and then revert back to P+F meals from then on.
5. Thou Shalt Get Ample Rest
As impossible as it may seem for many of you, you need to make sure that you are getting ample rest at night in the form of a solid 7-9 hours per night. I’m sure many of you know how your performance plummets in the gym when you are dead-tired, so I don’t really need to elaborate any further about how imperative it is that you get enough rest. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try to get a short 20-30 minute “power-nap” at some point during the day (preferably right after a training session). Personally, I have found that this works wonders and helps with recovery. Additionally, many individuals get into the mindset that more is better and want to be in the gym every day. I’ll be honest and say that sometimes I have to force myself NOT to step foot in the gym. Incorporating planned back-off or active rest periods every 4-6 weeks is a great way to keep your body fresh and to stave off lingering injuries. I have found that most do well with just cutting their overall training volume in half (as most tend to overtrain due to volume) and keeping the intensity high during these weeks. This is highly individual, though, so you will just have to play around to see what works best for you. Either way, taking a planned back-off week every 4-6 weeks is a superb way to allow the body to heal and to come back even stronger than before.
6. Thou Shalt Eat at a Surplus
How many of you have heard the following a few hundred times: “Dude, I am eating all the time, but I just can’t put on any weight. What’s the deal?” Newsflash: you’re not eating enough; it’s as simple as that. Well, it isn’t entirely THAT simple, but assuming they aren’t being complete sissies in the gym, then yes, it is that simple. I know it sounds a bit hypocritical of me to be busting the chops of these people, but I like to consider it a healthy dose of “tough love.” If you want to get big, you have to eat big. Now, I am not saying you have to go out and eat fast food every day and down a half-gallon of ice cream every night, but you do need to eat at a caloric surplus to grow any significant amount of muscle. It takes calories to build and maintain muscle and if you’re not taking in enough calories to do so, then you’re just not going to get the results you want. Think of calories as a foundation. You can’t build a house without a solid foundation, right? Well, the same can be said of building a big and muscular body. Again, I am not a huge advocate of eating whatever you want, but rather I prefer “clean bulks,” where one attempts to limit fat gain. By using the foods listed in that article, I find that most do quite well in this regard.
How much should you eat? Everyone is different, but I feel a good starting point is adding 500 calories to your maintenance intake. To figure out your maintenance intake, a good starting point would be body weight x 15-18 (the leaner you are, the higher you can start). So, a “lean” 200-pound man would start his maintenance at 3600 calories (200×18) and eventually work up to a 500-calorie surplus of 4100 calories per day. I say eventually because one shouldn’t just go ahead and eat at a +500 surplus right away, especially if fat gain is a concern. Rather, gradually increase calories by 100-250 per day for a few weeks and gauge progress as you go. If you find that you’re putting on fat a little too fast, reduce calories. If you find things are progressing nicely, then I see no reason why you can’t gradually increase calories as you go.
7. Thou Shalt Train Often
The more times you stimulate a muscle to grow (given proper recovery, ample nutrition, and varying training stimuli), the more likely it is to grow. It’s an outdated, senseless concept to train a muscle group and then wait 7-10 days before you train it again. This is why many of the training programs you will find here on Wannabebig advocate that you train as often as possible without overtraining or persistently over-reaching. The key, however, is that you feel motivated to train and you use shorter, yet more frequent training sessions that emphasize compound lifts. Many of the routines you see in the popular muscle magazines are geared towards individuals who are using “help” and just have way too much volume for your average gym rat. More often than not, someone will attempt to follow one of those programs and be burnt out faster than you can say BALCO. Ideally, the best split is where you can train using short, frequent training sessions or programs designed by strength and conditioning coach Chad Waterbury. All of these programs use compound lifts, and most are designed in a way where you are training as often as you would like and provide a different training stimulus in each session to help stave off over training.
8. Thou Shalt Train With Like Individuals
Ask any power lifter whether or not it helps his strength or performance to train in an environment with other strong people, and he will more than likely retort with, “does a bear shit in the woods?” I know firsthand how much of a drag it can be to train in your typical commercial gym, where butt-blaster machines and 45 year-old women wearing pink spandex surround you (of course, with REO Speed wagon playing on the radio). There are times when I can literally feel the strength being sucked out of me as soon as I walk through the doors. I do a fairly good job at sucking it up and mustering enough motivation to train on my own on a daily basis. However, when I have the opportunity to train with a friend or with like-minded individuals, or in a facility that caters to the “non-wussified,” it is like night and day in terms of intensity and performance. This became quite apparent when I had the opportunity to train at Highland Strength and Fitness last summer just outside of Boston with several friends of mine. The gym itself was amazing and I was like a kid in a candy store with first-time access to a dead lift platform, glute-ham raise, reverse hyper, and all the goodies that come with a power lifting/strongman-designed gym. More importantly, guys who like to train hard and heavy surrounded me; you don’t find many housewives in your commercial gym that enjoy that! Even though I was training around injuries, I was able to set a personal best, with a rack pull for 575×2. Prior to this, I had never even attempted a rack pull over 500 lbs!
Needless to say, a training environment, where I was able to train with other people with similar goals made a HUGE difference for me. With that being said, try your best to get a training partner with similar goals or to train around people you know will push you and not allow you to back down from lifting heavy weights. Trust me, you will be surprised as how much it helps.
9. Thou Shalt Stick To the Gameplan
Raise your hand if this sounds familiar. You read about the latest “it” training program, get all fired up cause it fits your goals to a “T,” and then rush to the gym on Monday to try that puppy out. Then by the following week, you read about yet another program that is PERFECT, and decide to ditch the one you were doing and start the new one ASAP. The cycle repeats itself every two weeks or so and more often than not, you are left perplexed as to why you are not getting the results you want, even though you have been in the gym almost everyday busting your butt for the past six months.
I’ll admit that I have been a culprit of this in the past and I constantly come across individuals who do the same on a weekly basis. I understand that there are hundreds of quality programs out there designed to get you big and strong, but constantly switching from one to the other is just not a smart way to train and is more counterproductive than helpful. How do you expect to gain a true sense of progress if you are constantly switching programs faster than you can save money by switching to GEICO? The take-home message is to find a program that fits your goals and needs and STICK TO IT for the duration (most only last for 8 weeks, 12 at most). That new program you read about isn’t going anywhere and will be there when you complete your current one.
10. Thou Shalt Not Fear the Macronutrients
Because I am such a nice guy, I am going to take this time and tell you how much of each macronutrient you should try to shoot for when trying to add on size. I am not a big fan of trying to aim for a specific percentage of each because depending on one’s total caloric intake, doing so can equate to either too little of a particular macro, or too much. And besides, it is just a pain in the ass to do so. Rather, I prefer that one shoots for a specific gram total of each.
Protein: I see no reason to go above 1.25-1.5 grams per pound of body weight. Many bodybuilders tend to get in the mindset that the more protein you eat, the more muscle you grow, which is just not the case. Yes, you need to make sure that you are getting enough protein to ensure a positive nitrogen balance, but if you’re eating at a surplus it won’t necessarily matter where those extra calories are coming from in order to build more muscle mass. In other words, eat your carbs and fat.
Carbohydrates: I think a good number to shoot for would be 2.0-3.0 grams per pound of body weight. The approach I like to take is to ingest the higher number on training days and the lower number on non-training days (this usually just means subtracting your post-workout drink on days that you don’t train), but this can be highly individual. Of course, this number can be deflated a bit for less-lean individuals or for those who have a slower metabolism; for these individuals, about 1.5-2.0 grams per pound of bodyweight is more appropriate, but I think the above criteria would serve most well.
Fat: Simple. Fat will serve as a caloric ballast and make up the rest of your calories. All I will say here is that it would be in your best interest to make certain that you are ingesting “healthy” fats such as fish oil, flax oil, olive oil, natural peanut butter, mixed nuts, etc. These are in addition to the fats you will be ingesting naturally from your protein and carb sources.
So, for a 200-lb. person with a caloric goal of 4000 calories per day, a typical day would look something like this:
- Protein: 200 x 1.5g/lb/BW= 300 grams. 300 x 4kcal per gram= 1200 calories from protein.
- Carbohydrates: 200 x 2.0 g/lb/BW= 400 grams. 400 x 4 calories/g= 1600 calories from carbohydrates.
Note: this would represent a training day.
- Fat: 1200 calories (protein) + 1600 calories (carbs)= 2800 calories. 4000-2800= 1200 calories from fat. 1200/9 calories/g= ~135 fat per day.
As the weeks progress, if one notices that they are putting a little too much fat on for their liking, I would say that decreasing carb intake would be a smart thing to do. Conversely, if one finds that their weight is holding steady, then I would add some more carbs and work their up way to the higher end of the spectrum listed above.
And That’s About It
So there you have it: the Ten Commandments for Becoming a Magnificent Mass Monster. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a monster per se, but I know that by following the above suggestions, I was able to put on close to 30 lbs. of lean body mass in only one year. To clarify, putting on mass is not an easy task and definitely takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and CONSISTENCY.
In all honesty, though, I just think that many tend to over analyze things and worry about the minutia to the point that their progress stagnates. Get your butt in the gym, lift heavy, use movements that will make you grow, eat a lot, get ample rest, and repeat.
Written by Tony Gentilcore
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