Dear Mark: Training Edition

I’m no stranger to spending the bulk of your time thinking about training, programming your training, planning your meals so that they support your training, modifying your training to affect your performance, and modifying your training to affect your body composition. I was an elite endurance athlete who dabbled extensively in strength training; I’ve been there. I’ve dug into the minutiae of it all. I’ve reveled in perfecting my post-workout and pre-workout nutrition. It’s fun, and a little addictive. And although I’m no longer concerned with that stuff for my own training, I know that many MDA readers care about it, so I try to keep up with the current research. Today’s edition of Dear Mark is all about training. Let’s dig in.

Hey Mark,

My husband and I are looking into joining the National Guard, and I was wondering what’s the best way to go about prepping myself to handle the endurance running and high count push-ups and pull-ups (especially as a woman!), etc. that NG demands. Would it be worth our while to try to eat Primally during training?


chez Bliss

To get into the NG (as I’m sure you know), you have to satisfy the Army Physical Fitness Test Standards. The requirements differ depending on age and gender, but you can take a look at this page to figure out what to expect for your particular situation. The test itself is just a 2 mile a run, a max set of pushups, and a max set of situps, and training for it should be pretty straightforward. Once you’re in, basic training involves more varied fitness, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

Here’s what I’d do:

Do a couple runs each week, mixing it up between “race-pace” (around 2+ miles) runs and higher-intensity intervals (alternating 400 meters and 800 meters every week; start with however many you can comfortably do at an intensity level of 7-8 on a scale of 10 with a couple minutes walking to recover; add one additional interval each week).

Go for “intense” walks or hikes a couple times a week, preferably with a heavy pack. Fill a hiking backpack with books or even rocks wrapped in towels. This will get you used to marching with your gear. Keep the pace up and try to maintain your normal stride length. Do about an hour, and try to improve the distance you’re able to cover over time.

Get a pullup bar in your house or office, and do pullups, pushups, and situps every time you get an opportunity. Going to the kitchen to grab a bite? Do a quick set of pullups. Commercial break? Drop down and do some pushups or situps. The key with these movements is to accumulate volume without ever going to failure. Get used to the movement – “grease the groove,” as many wise men have said – and do it as often as you can without straining or pushing too hard. If your max is 10 pullups in a row, do five crisp, easy reps every time you pass the pullup bar.

One day a week, test yourself. Do a 2 mile run, max pushups, and max situps. Make sure you’re hitting (and better yet, surpassing) the requirements.

Honestly, while Primal eating would certainly help your training, I’m not sure you should get too used to good, clean, Primal food. Once you’re in basic, you eat what they provide. It may make sense to loosen up a bit on the diet, just so your body isn’t shocked by a sudden and sustained dose of less-than-ideal food. Can any service members with experience in basic training for the National Guard help us out here?

Good luck with the National Guard!

To bulk up I increased my carb intake with sweet potatoes, pasture-raised/organic whole milk, white potatoes, and fruit. It has worked well, my lifts have increased as well as my lean mass. The only problem is that the carbs make me tired and lazy. How can I keep the energy I have with low-carb while bulking?



Great name.

That’s the thing with carbs (even Primal ones like those you mentioned, in sufficient amounts) – they really make you dependent on them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it suits your goals, but the constant see-sawing of energy levels can really be annoying. When I was pounding multiple hundreds of grams of carbs a day to support my training, I had to constantly eat, or else I’d crash. Sound familiar?

I haven’t thought about bulking for years, but if I were going to bulk using carbs, I’d probably take a cyclical approach to my carb intake. On workout days, I’d eat higher carb and lower fat, preferably getting most of my carbs after the workout. On rest days, I’d eat high fat and low carb. Protein would remain high throughout. This way, you’re not pounding the carbs all day, every day, instead keeping them mostly post-workout, when your muscles are highly insulin sensitive.

Another option is to do a periodic carb refeed. Basically, a carb refeed is a big whack of carbs taken in the space of a half a day to a day. It’s a way to replenish glycogen stores and up-regulate leptin levels (if you’ve been hypocaloric). Used correctly, this can actually jumpstart your metabolism and allow you to train fairly hard while mostly sticking to a lower-carb approach for the rest of your week. When you do a refeed, you want to keep fat low for that day. Try one or two refeeds a week.

Ultimately, a bulk comes down to getting enough calories, particularly protein, and providing enough stimulus to your body. Eating some carbs tends to stimulate the appetite, thereby making it easier to get hypercaloric. Low carb tends to reduce appetite and increase satiety, thereby making it more of a struggle to get hypercaloric. That’s why low carb is so effective for weight loss, but it’s also why low carb isn’t as easy for bulking. The two methods I outlined – cyclic low-carb and carb refeeds – should help you bulk without making you feel lazy and tired.

Dear Mark,

Training for strength versus training for hypertrophy — does one have to come at the expense of the other?

Ever since adopting the ancestral health lifestyle in September of 2010, I’ve made substantial strength gains and put on a good 20 pounds of lean muscle mass — from 5-foot-10, 155 pounds to 175 pounds.

My delts, upper back and chest have responded favorably to the compound movements I’ve adopted into my training routine — bench press, overhead press, deadlift, weighted pull-ups, weighted dips. In other words, none of that sissy isolation stuff that seemingly every gym-goer performs religiously. I’m a fan of the Stronglifts 5X5 protocol. That is, five sets of five reps with the heaviest load I can lift.

The squat rack at my local (insert big-name gym franchise here) is hardly ever used. Very rarely does anyone attempt to bench press more than 185 pounds. The bros tend to congregate around the EZ Bar rack, performing triceps extensions and bicep curls to their hearts’ content.

What troubles me is that while I’m pound-for-pound stronger than any other gym-goer I’ve encountered, most of the regulars are, to put it one way, far more jacked. Their arms are flat-out bigger. Yet they throw around a lot less weight, preferring higher reps and a lighter load.

These observations seem to run counter to your suggestions, which I’ve based my training philosophy on. Could there be some truth to the widely-held Broscience notions that favor volume lifting for muscle-building? Does that even make sense from an evolutionary perspective? Or am I just doing something wrong?



There actually is some truth to the “broscience.” A 2007 meta-analysis of the available literature found that lifting 60%-85% of your 1RM max for reps is probably the most effective way to stimulate hypertrophy. Reps-wise, that translates to about 6-12 reps per set. Since you’re currently doing 5 sets of 5, try reducing the weight and increasing the reps to between 6-8, which is a nice sweet spot for strength and size. To focus more on size, move the reps up to between 8-10. You may not even have to drop the weight as much as someone coming from a 3×5 program, because 5×5 has prepared you for a good amount of volume.

Another option is to vary your reps and sets over the week. Do a heavy day of lower reps one day, maybe sets of three, then do a day of high reps, maybe sets of eight or ten. Play around with it to find what works.

It sounds like you’re mainly concerned with the size of your arms. 5’10 and 175 is pretty solid, but heavy squats and deadlifts can famously steer weight toward the lower body while leaving the upper body somewhat T-rex-esque. Am I right? Don’t worry, and just throw in some barbell curls, weighted pullups/chinups, lying tricep extensions, and weighted dips once or twice a week. Most of these are compound exercises, so you won’t be giving up Primal cred. You may not even have to vary your rep scheme if you relent and throw in some arm-centric stuff.

The good news is that you’ve built an excellent base of strength, a foundation upon which you can begin adding volume and hypertrophy-centric training. By starting with strength and then worrying about hypertrophy, you’re doing things the right way, and I’d bet a large sum of money that, in a year’s time, you’ll be in a better spot – strengthwise and sizewise – than the guys at the gym who neglect the compound lifts.

As mentioned in the previous answer, hypertrophy also comes down to diet. What I find is that lifting heavy for moderate reps puts a person at their baseline hypertrophy. To put on more muscle than you already have lifting heavy, you’re going to have to eat a lot. Protein is important, of course, and fat provides energy, fat-soluble vitamins, and hormonal precursors for important anabolics, but you’ll probably need to incorporate some carbs. The carbs will allow you to get more calories in, and they’ll support a shift toward higher reps and more volume by replenishing glycogen.

I think it makes sense, evolutionarily. If you look at photos of hunter-gatherers (perhaps our likeliest Grok analogues), they can be lean, “cut,” and strong, but not bodybuilder big. Strong arms are useful, but eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns. Would having bigger arms really help this guy do what he needs to do – bag game, support his family, gather food? Walking around with a perma-pump and 18-inch biceps simply doesn’t make sense in his situation.

Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself based on ideology. If you want big muscles, get big muscles. Just realize that you may have hit your “limit,” and you’ll probably have to adopt some evolutionarily “novel” strategies, like stuffing yourself with food and lifting heavy things over and over again for more reps than you otherwise would.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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