Get Fit By Gaining Weight
I’d be hard pressed to say which was the worst day of my life.
Maybe it was the day my wife informed me she wanted a divorce. I felt blindsided. That hurt stayed with me for a long time.
Then there was the day I woke up exhausted, stumbled into the bathroom and tipped the scales over 55 lbs overweight. In that moment I hated my reflection staring back at me in the mirror.
Both those days sucked.
But pain has signaling value.
I realized things had to change. And that it was up to me to make things better.
I tried but couldn’t save my marriage. But I could (and did) lose 55 lbs of fat.
So what does any of that have to do with getting fit by gaining weight?
In my journey to become a better man, I found out that you get fit by getting stronger, and that you get stronger by adding muscle.
Strength is the adaptation that leads to all other adaptations that we really care about:
- Muscle size,
- Sex appeal,
- Optimized hormone levels,
- Command presence,
- Quality of life,
Why Does It Matter?
After age 30, most people lose roughly 5 to 10 pounds of muscle each following decade of life.
So as you get older, you get weaker.
- Individuals over the age of 60 years, classified in the lowest third of strength, were 50 % more likely to die of all-cause mortality than individuals in the upper third for strength (study).
As you get weaker, your metabolism slows down…so you also get fatter.
Smoking, exercise, diet, and marital and economic status are significant, but one longevity factor stands out above all the others. In a study of eighty-four men and women aged 90 to 106 years.
Muscle mass was the most consistent longevity factor.
Muscle mass held true for smokers and nonsmokers, rich and poor, married and widowed.
Which Is Tougher: Losing Fat or Gaining Muscle?
I’ve written before I found losing weight is harder than making a million dollars.
(By the way losing a million dollars is easy. Just get divorced. I don’t recommend this).
I’ve demonstrated that you can lose weight and get fit in just over 1 hour a week.
Maintaining fitness and lean body mass can be done in as little as 15 minutes a week.
But gaining new muscle? Adding lean body mass is difficult — not impossible, of course, but adding lean body mass is hard to do.
Is it worth it?
Earlier I mentioned that pain has signaling value. Lean muscle also has signaling value.
Lean muscle is valued not only for its intrinsic benefits (listed above) but also because it signals perseverance and hard work.
People respect strength because they know its valuable and hard to acquire.
How Much Muscle Can You Add In 6 Weeks?
“Training Age” is an important concept when adding new muscle. It works like this:
“Rate Limiting” is another key concept. New muscle growth is fueled by nutrition.
- Inadequate macronutrients such as protein limit new muscle growth.
- On the other hand, eat too much and you will gain fat.
So based on my training age (1–3 years, intermediate) my goal was to add 4 lbs new muscle in 6 weeks (which works out to 0.67 lbs per week).
How To Add New Muscle
Adding new muscle is simple but not easy: you simply lift heavy things.
You can do this using:
- no equipment (bodyweight exercises),
- improvised equipment (bags of sand, backpacks),
- weights (machines or barbells)
You then need to do two things to get stronger:
- Add more weight and do more repetitions.
- The answer has never been:
- lift light weights for high reps,
- lift heavy weights for few reps,
- or functional training.
- The proven answer remains: Lift heavy weights for high reps.
To do this, I selected a 6-week program called Mass Made Simple by respected strength coach Dan John. Dan is a genius (some say a sadist) at programming training to break through mental and physical barriers (below I share my experience with his program in more detail).
Bonus: Any new muscle mass significantly improves body image and composition because skeletal muscle is only 45% of body mass (the other 55% is comprised of organs 25%, bones 15% and fat 15%).
- Stated another way, 1 lb of new muscle looks like 2 lbs.
Tip: Don’t be “supermodel in a snowmobile suit”.
- You have to lose enough fat to be able to see your muscles in the first place.
The Results: Before and After
Let me cut to the chase and start with my results in adding new muscle.
(Below I will go into more detail about the required nutrition, supplements, and the actual strength training).
In my previous experiment adding new muscle I gained 5 lbs muscle (good) and 5 lbs fat (not so good).
And the new approach worked! I was able to gain 4 lbs new muscle in 6 weeks (which works out to 0.67 lbs per week):
New Muscle Nutrition
Building new muscle requires attention to the following macronutrients:
- Consume 1 g protein per lb of bodyweight (or 2g per kg).
- This will prevent “rate limiting” of muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
- Research shows that excess protein does NOT convert to fat.
- However, excess protein above 1g per lb doesn’t produce extra muscle either.
- Carb Cycle on strength training days (more carbs) vs fat loss and cardio days (less carbs).
After years experiments with dozens of different routines, I developed this programming:
Tip: This 4-day schedule easily fits into a work week (7-day) cycle by doing the Day 4 only once a week.
Tip: This schedule is in effect a 2x week full body workout
- Some research indicates full body workouts produce more adaptive hormones and hence better results.
Subdividing 2X full body workouts into a 4x a week Upper/Lower body “bro split” amounts do the same thing, albeit with twice as many trips to the gym:
- M/Thur = 3 days, Thur/M= 4 days
- T/Fri = 3 days, Fri/T= 4 days
Here is my nutrition summarized for the 6 weeks of the strength trainmen program (You can see my detailed nutrition logs here. If you ‘Friend’ me in the MFP app, I will keep an eye out for you in the social feed).
Tip: Resistance (weight) training burns negligible calories. I don’t bother logging them.
- Over time these calories act as an offset in MFP for any food under-logging (i.e. it seems to cancel any cumulative errors out).
Lean Mass Supplements
Based on my experience and experimentation over the last decade, my position has evolved from supplement proponent to supplement skeptic.
My reasoning is as follows:
- Many supplement studies are on people with clinical deficiencies.
- If you are not deficient you will not see any benefit (i.e. more is not better).
- Many studies on are on untrained subjects.
- The thing is, everything works on an untrained subjects.
- Many studies are short-term and underpowered.
- Almost anything new works….for the first 6 weeks.
- Many observed “effects” do not rise to the level of statistical significance.
- What works in one population may not work in another.
- Most research is done on young college athletes….their results may not apply to you.
- Supplements can be adulterated
- Natural or herbal supplements are sometimes just ground up stems or rice powder
- Bodybuilding supplements are sometimes spike with pharmaceuticals (legal or otherwise)
- It’s really really hard to improve on Mother Nature
- Many supplements are just derivatives or reductions of what you could get from eating adequate fruits and vegetables
- See my Simplest Supplement Strategy. Ever.
Nevertheless, I do review the latest clinical supplement research for promising things to try.
I used the following natural recovery and testosterone boosters and share my experiences. While n=1 and confounding is an issue, I uses a rudimentary A-B-A testing protocol, introducing 1 item per week and noting any effect (or absence) and then stop using it after a few weeks, while carefully noting with any decrease in effect after discontinuing. Not exactly rigorously scientific, but anything that shows promise gets more experimentation and the rest gets chucked out.
- Protein supplement (low-carb isolate casein, 1–3 x 35g servings per day)
- Creatine (monohydrate, 5g / day)
- DHEA (50mg/ day)
Interesting, but pass:
- One or both of these increased my LH (luetinizing hormone) FSH hormone (follicle stimulating hormone), resulting in increased libido and body hair growth:
- A stack of tongkat ali (eurycoma longifolia) (200mg), maca root (500mg), and, tribulus terrestris (250mg)
- Armistane (75mg) — aromatase inhibitor (reduces free estrogen)
No observed effects:
- Sodium Bicarbonate (NaHCO3)
- Tried this on Workout Day#4, acute loading on empty stomach
- This “cleaned me out”, similar to a salt-water flush used when fasting
- Phosphatidylserine (100mg, cortisol suppressant)
- Beta Alanine (1.6g)
- Glutamine (3g)
- ZMA (Zinc, Magnesium, B-6)
Mass Made Simple Programming
As I mentioned before, adding new muscle takes focus and effort. This training program taught me a lot about overcoming mental and physical limitations. And as importantly, I learned lots about how my body responds to nutrition, training stress & recovery, fatigue and sleep.
Here is my diary of what it looks like (you can read my detailed lifting logs here).
- This is an intermediate program (training age 1+ years) and not recommended for beginners.
- Training age 1 means:
- Level 4 Healthy Executive peer levels,
- or 1 year using weight machines (such as Body By Science),
- or some barbell coaching and 6 months experience.
- The 6 week squat practice training outlined by Dan in his program is also recommended.
- Tip: Lean Out First.
Training Day 1
- I’m excited to get started! Day #1 is all about learning good exercise form and dialing-in the correct working weights.
Training Day 2
- Mostly doubling the (easy) volume of exercises from Day #1.
- I mentally psyched myself out for the high-rep squats — but when I actually did them they were easier than I expected.
- This pattern continued throughout the program — my mental aversion was tougher than the physical effort.
Training Day 3
- Logical increases in sets and reps from Day #2
- All my squats were box squats
- I used box squats because I am relatively new to the exercise and want to develop good form habits
- I found this handy way to judge squat depth (courtesy of USA Powerlifting)
- The top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees, as in the diagram
Training Day 4
- I learned working out fasted = bad idea
- I also tried acute loading sodium bicarbonate = bad idea
- I also had a poor sleep the night before = bad idea
- I was forced split my workout into 2 parts (went home and ate, came back later to finish up)
Training Day 5
- Overload of weights and reps progressed in a linear and manageable fashion
- I saw a certain genius in Dan’s exercise selection:
- one-arm dumbbell press = waiters carry = works core in anti-rotation and anti-flexion
- His ‘birddog’ stretch actually helps ‘cue’ chest and lordosis in anticipation of squats
- His ‘A’ Complexes include front and back squats, which are warmups for the main heavy sets
Training Day 6
- I had a extra recovery day before this workout (gym was closed the prior day)
- My first “to fifty” set of squats= 50 x 135 lbs
- I was very very sore afterwards
Training Day 7
- Set new benchpress personal best
- This day was generally a deload day
- Squatted for the first time with 185
- 185 lbs x 5 reps x 3 sets
Training Day 8
- 115 lb Complex A personal best (overhead press was my limiting factor)
- 185 “to fifty” in 10, 10, 10, 10, 11
Training Day 9
- Squatted 185 “to twenty”
Training Day 10
- I was fighting allergies
- I could feel myself dipping into energy reserve = feels like getting flu
- Squatted 185 lbs “to fifty” in 18, 18 and 15
Training Day 11
- I set a benchpress personal best of 185
- Also set one-arm press PR
- Squatted 185 lbs “to fifty” in 26 and 25
Training Day 12
- Squatted 135 lbs to 51 — in 1 shot
- I could really feel cumulative fatigue
- I required extra sleep
Training Day 13
- Squatted 135 lbs to 51 — in 1 shot
- New one-arm press PR
- Cumulative fatigue is definitely increasing
Training Day 14
- I set an overhead press personal best
- Squatted 185 lbs to 50 — in 1 shot
- This was by far the hardest workout ever in my life
- I knew from previous workout I could do 26 reps
- So I made my mental goal to improve to 35 reps
- When I got to 35 reps, I realized I was 67% of the way to 50
- I really wanted to quit, but I told myself I would not face this challenge again and to “leave it all out on the field”
- The words “rare air” got me through reps 40–50
- Read Dan’s book and you will know exactly what this means
- After completing this program, I reverted to maintenance exercising and discovered something interesting:
- Training is profoundly different than exercising.
- Training (i.e. progressing towards tangible goals in specific amounts of time) is highly motivating.
- Exercising to maintain fitness is all well and good, but does not present the stimulation of challenge.
Tip: One Habit To Rule Them All
- Consistently challenge yourself to improve your health and fitness (and have fun doing it!!)
Originally published at The Healthy Executive.