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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 09, 2009

How to Gain Weight and Build Muscle

By Mark Sisson
653 Comments

So you wanna put on some lean muscle mass. And you want to do it within the context of the Primal Blueprint, but aren’t sure where to start. It’s a common question and it’s about time I addressed it head on.

As I’ve made pretty clear, our ultimate goal is to achieve positive gene expression, functional strength, optimum health, and extended longevity. In other words: To make the most out of the particular gene set you inherited. These are my end goals, and I’ve modeled the PB Laws with them in mind. But that doesn’t mean packing on extra muscle can’t happen with additional input. After I retired from a life of chronic cardio and started living Primally, I added 15 pounds of muscle, while keeping low body fat levels without really trying, so it’s absolutely possible for a hardgainer to gain some. The question is how much and at what expense?

I’d be the first to tell you that lean body mass is healthier than adipose tissue. Generally, the more lean mass a person has, the longer and better they live. But to increase mass at the expense of agility, strength, or speed is, in my opinion, counterproductive. What would Grok do – go for enormous biceps or the ability to haul a carcass back to camp? Unless you’re a bodybuilder (nothing wrong with that, mind you; it’s just not my focus), I can’t advise simply packing on size without a proportional increase in actual strength. Those bulging biceps might look good on the beach, but then again, so does the body that comes with keeping up with the younger guys, knocking out twenty pull-ups in a row, and lifting twice your bodyweight. Form is best paired with a healthy serving of function. The two are quite delicious together, and, luckily, following the PB allows us to get both without sacrificing either.

Of course, we’re all built a little differently. The basic building blocks are the same in everyone, but sexual reproduction (as opposed to asexual reproduction) has the funny habit of producing unique genetics and small variations that affect the way we respond to our environments. It’s why some people are short and some are tall, or why some of us respond better to carbohydrates than others. Even though we all pretty much operate the same way, there IS a range of possible outcomes that is proscribed by your direct ancestors. By that same token, some people just naturally have more muscle mass. They’re usually innately more muscular than the average person, and putting more on through resistance training is often an easy task. Then there are those who can’t seem to gain a pound: the hardgainers. They might be increasing strength, but it doesn’t seem to translate into visible muscle mass. Now, my initial advice for a hardgainer is this – don’t worry too much about it! As long as you’re getting stronger, you’re doing it right.

Let’s face it, though. You’ve probably heard that enough already. It’s fun being the lanky guy at the gym who can lift more than most, but you’re dead set on bulking up (who doesn’t like a bit more muscle to go along with that strength?), and you want to do it in a Primal context. Besides, continuing to increase strength will eventually require increasing size. To do so, you have to target the very same anabolic hormones that others use to get big, only with even more enthusiasm and drive. Like I said, we all have similar engines, but some require more fuel and more efficient driving (sorry for the corny analogy). Activating these hormones will work for anyone, provided they work hard and eat enough food.

The main hormones that contribute to muscle anabolism are testosterone, growth hormone (GH), and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). A little more about each and how to utilize them:

Testosterone

Crazy bodybuilders don’t inject themselves with anabolic steroid hormones that are based on testosterone for nothing. Among other roles, testosterone is an important muscle-building growth factor that favorably affects protein synthesis in addition to working with other hormones (like GH and IGF-1) to improve their function (more on this later). If you want to increase strength and build muscle, testosterone is absolutely required (don’t worry, though: no injections necessary!).

Growth Hormone

It’s right there in the name, isn’t it? Growth hormone. It helps muscle grow and, perhaps more importantly, it burns body fat. After all, leaning out is a big part of building muscle (or else you’ll just look puffy) and GH will help you do it.

Insulin-like Growth Factor 1

IGF-1 is extremely similar in effect to GH, as it should be – GH stimulates IGF-1 production in the liver. In fact, it’s suspected that IGF-1 is actually responsible for most of the “growth-promoting effects of circulating GH.”

Anabolic hormones all work together. In fact, to maximize their muscle-building potential, you must have all three present. Testosterone increases IGF-1, but only in the presence of GH. GH promotes skeletal muscle cell fusion independent of IGF-1, but the two are most effective in concert. Luckily for you, the types of exercises that stimulate the secretion of one will generally stimulate the secretion of the others. Funny how that works out, huh?

Enter The Central Nervous System

In order for your body to start pumping out these delicious anabolic hormones, you must first give it a reason to do so. I might even say you should give your genes a reason to express themselves. The most effective way to do this is by notifying the central nervous system. Now, the CNS can be a stubborn bastard, but he’s all you got when it comes to interpreting stimuli and relaying messages to the rest of the body. He’s not easily perturbed, and he won’t bother if you aren’t serious. If you insist on doing nothing but light aerobics or tiny isolation exercises, your CNS will barely notice. If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS realizes that some serious exercising is going down and notifies the hypothalamus, which in turn talks to your pituitary gland. This tiny – but vital – member of the endocrine system is the gland that dispatches luteinizing hormones to tell the testicles to secrete testosterone. It’s also the gland that synthesizes and secretes GH. IGF-1 is mostly produced by the liver, but its production is facilitated by the presence of GH, so we can see that it all comes down to CNS stimulation. Chronic cardio doesn’t affect your CNS in any meaningful way, so that’s why we tend to avoid it; vigorous sprints, hard and heavy lifting, and anaerobic output will get its attention, so do plenty of these to maximize muscle growth.

Cortisol: A Hormone to Avoid

Promoting muscle and strength growth also requires avoiding excess amounts of catabolic (muscle wasting) hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is the major stress hormone, and it exists for a very legitimate reason (dealing with “flight or fight” incidents, inadequate sleep, anxiety), but in large amounts cortisol increases serum amino acids by breaking down muscle, inhibiting protein synthesis and reducing amino acid uptake by the muscles – all awful things for muscle growth. Compounding the problem even further, the broken-down muscle is converted into blood glucose, which then raises insulin secretion and increases insulin resistance while promoting fat storage. And we all know how great those muscles look with a nice layer of adipose tissue covering them up! On a serious note, most people following the PB already minimize cortisol by getting plenty of sleep and reducing stress, but if you’re preoccupied with building muscle mass and engaging in extended workout sessions to achieve it, avoiding excess cortisol can get tricky: excessive exercise without enough recovery time actually increases cortisol. It makes sense (think of it like your body’s telling you it needs a day or two off), but the desire for more muscle mass drives many to work out to the point of counter-productivity. Just be careful, and give yourself at least a day of rest after a particularly grueling session.

Lift Really Heavy Things

If you haven’t figured it out already, you’re going to be doing some heavy lifting in order to put on lean mass. The foundation of your routine should be the big compound lifts: squats, deadlifts, presses (bench and overhead), pull-ups, rows, dips, snatches, power cleans, clean and jerks. These engage multiple muscles while triggering your hormonal response systems. Bodyweight stuff, while valuable, simply isn’t going to get you the strength and mass increases you’re looking for. Testosterone, while useful, only gets really anabolic when you start lifting. You need to get under some decent weight, enough so that your CNS and endocrine system are blasted, but not so much that you can’t maintain proper form.

A popular routine is the 5×5 method. Popularized by programs like StrongLifts and Starting Strength, doing compound lifts for five sets of five reps allows you to strike a balance between strength building and superficial muscle hypertrophy. Done this way, your hypertrophy won’t be purely sarcoplasmic, which results in fluid-filled muscles that look big but don’t see a corresponding increase in actual strength. Instead, the 5×5 method promotes myofibrillar hypertrophy: hard, dense muscle fibers that increase strength and size (with no puffiness). That’s real muscle that would make Grok proud.

If you’re lifting heavy and lifting hard, keep your workouts spaced at least a day apart and don’t lift more than 3x/week. Three exercises per session should be perfect. That may not sound like much, but it’ll be plenty if you do it right. Remember, you’re doing big compound movements that will really shock your system, with an emphasis on intensity and power. You don’t want to overwork yourself, release a bunch of cortisol, and set yourself back a few weeks.

Squats and deadlifts are absolutely required. No excuses. They engage the most muscles and produce the biggest hormonal response. They will be the bedrock of your mass building campaign. Most programs recommend doing squats every session, and I tend to agree. You can handle it. Deadlifts are a bit more taxing and so should be relegated to every other workout. So, one week you’ll deadlift once, the next week twice. You can also sub in power cleans for the occasional deadlifts (or do them in addition) if you’re comfortable with such a complex movement. Presses are paramount, both overhead and bench. I’d alternate both types of presses every session. Pull-ups are great, but weighted pull-ups are even better. Same goes for dips. Just try to get one pulling, one pushing, and one squatting exercise in each session.

An example for beginners, with sets coming first in the sequence:

A
Squat 5×5
Pull-ups 5xFailure (add weight if “Failure” is becoming more than 12 reps)
Overhead Press 5×5

B
Squat 5×5
Deadlift 1/2/3×5 (your choice; deadlifts can be incredibly taxing, and with exhaustion comes poor form, so be careful; sometimes it’s better to do a really heavy load for a single set)
Bench Press 5×5

C
Squat 5×5
Pull-ups 5xFailure
Overhead Press 5×5

Do this sequence every week (maybe Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and steadily increase the weight each session. Once you’re making progress, feel free to add in other exercises like dips or more Olympic lifts. For more mass, more lactic “burn” (and more GH secretion), reduce your rest periods between sets or even superset them. If you feel like doing some cardio, stick to sprints once weekly, or even a Crossfit-style metcon (metabolic conditioning) workout, maybe some Tabata burpees. The key is conserving strength and giving your body time to rest and recover for the next round of squats, deadlifts, and presses.

This “program” can be tweaked and altered. Just make sure you’re doing big movements while maintaining extreme intensity and great form. Oh, and always make sure to squat and deadlift. Always. They produce the most testosterone, GH, and IGF-1.

Eat Lots (I Mean Lots) of Plants and Animals

No one would ever call the Primal Blueprint a protein-sparing plan, but you’re going to have to eat even more than before. Stuff yourself. I always say that body composition is 80% diet, and that goes for putting on mass as well as losing fat. You need to provide plenty of protein for all those hormones to synthesize, after all.

  • Never let your protein intake go lower than 1g/lb of body weight when you are aiming to add long-term muscle. It’s the building block of muscle, and your body is going to be starving for it.
  • Eat plenty of saturated and monounsaturated fat. Fat blunts insulin secretion while increasing testosterone production. Insulin may be useful for stuffing your muscles full of glycogen, but that’s not what you’re going for… right?
  • Dietary fat, in conjunction with all the GH you’ll be producing, also spares muscle wasting.
  • You may have heard of the popular GOMAD method – Gallon of Milk a Day for easy mass-building. It undoubtedly works, but a gallon of milk isn’t exactly Primal and I can’t recommend it. Instead of milk, why not a dozen eggs a day? ADEAD? If you can manage it, eating them on top of your regularly scheduled meals is a great source of affordable protein, fat, and vitamins (Vitamin A in particular may have pro-anabolic effects).
  • Eat often. If you’re going for pure size and strength, fasted workouts and skipped PWO meals may not be the ticket. You’ll burn more fat with the extra GH secretion and existing muscle will be spared, but you may be missing the chance at prime protein synthesis when you fast. A PWO meal of protein and fat will still blunt the insulin secretion and provide fuel for your muscles.
  • Increase caloric intake. You’re going to be expending so much energy on the lifts (and you’ll continue to burn through it even on rest days) while eating clean, Primal foods (and keeping insulin low as ever) that fat accumulation shouldn’t be an issue at all. Eat!
  • On those days when you do expend a ton of energy – maybe on your metcon or sprint day – having a Primal-friendly starch, like squash or sweet potato, is a decent way to replenish depleted glycogen stores.
  • Eat a big piece of fatty meat every single day. Steak, whole chicken, lamb leg, organs, whatever. Just eat a solid piece of animal flesh for a powerful protein infusion on a daily basis.
  • A hardgainer is often someone who doesn’t eat enough. Sure, genes play a role, but you can ultimately have a significant say in how those genes rebuild you. To a point. Eat more and lift harder to grab the reins.

I’m a firm believer in the body’s natural ability to achieve proper homeostasis, provided we supply the right environment and the right foods. For some of you, that might mean lower body mass, lower than you’d like. In my opinion, that amount of muscle is probably “right” for you and I wouldn’t recommend going above and beyond to achieve more of it… but I also wouldn’t condemn it, especially if it’s pursued in accordance with the Primal Laws. As for me, I am comfortable where I’m at and tend not to seek added mass (I’m also at a point where lifting heavy increases my risk of injury, and I HATE downtime). But if you are a hard-gainer looking to add a few, as long as it’s not just show muscle and you can actually lift some decent weight and at the very least manipulate your own body weight comfortably, eat those dozen eggs and gain that weight.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

Gio JL Flickr Photo (CC)

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653 Comments on "How to Gain Weight and Build Muscle"

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Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 2 months ago

Great article, Mark! Lots of great links to read through later. I’ve spent many years trying to get strong with heavy lifting and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve realized the value of focusing on just a few lifts.

What’s your opinion on circuiting sets in combination with heavy lifting? For example, a set of squats, a slight rest, then a set of pull-ups, a slight rest, then a set of presses, then repeat for the desired number of sets for each exercise.

Alexander
3 years 6 months ago
Hey Vin — I spent a lot of years trying to get “big” with heavy lifting too. I noticed that 5×5 is awesome (I did stronglifts), but my physical size started to plateau after about a year. From there I had to increase reps to 6-12 range, (rather than 5 max), which has been shown to result in larger muscle cross-sectional area. If you ask me… doing circuits & strength workouts together is an easy way to get injured. I hate to say it, but look at crossfitters – huge rates of injury. I know several PT’s who say “Thank… Read more »
Peter
2 years 10 months ago

Yeah, I have the same experience. For me, the 6-12 rep range (actually 8 – 10 to be more precise) worked much better than the lower rep range. However the secret to gaining weight is eating though 🙂 Eating is the most important part of trying to gain weight and many people forget it.

Byron
2 years 6 months ago

Yea, the 8-10 reps seems to work best for me as well to build mass.

Curtis
Curtis
2 years 5 months ago

Hey Vin I’d love to see a real reference on the percentage of injury rates in CrossFit against driving down the road or even any other sport

Graeme
Graeme
1 year 8 months ago

J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Nov 22. [Epub ahead of print]
The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training.
Hak PT1, Hodzovic E, Hickey B.

Nader
2 years 22 days ago

You got a few good points there, but I can see how you went through the plateau as you’ve changed up the style from strength to hyper trophy. Mixing up every once in a while will keep the body responding with muscle growth and strength gains! So thanks for sharing that with us 🙂

Gary Deagle
2 years 7 months ago

I have found the same and doing then in a circuit fashion with 45 sec rest or so between exercises is great for a growth hormone boost.

William
1 year 3 months ago

I am glad to hear this

Rob Vangely
2 years 5 months ago

I get the most benefit from 8-12 reps but mostly for the high endurance muscles like tri’s and bi’s. chest and back I rotate from 5-6 to 8-12 on alternate weeks..not sure but I always felt it balance endurance to enable more power and mass. I also like to keep a custom nutrition program in check which can vary depending on my current fitness status.

Micheal
16 days 11 hours ago

I agree with you – Links are useful! I have also practiced crossfit in several recent years. So good!

dragonmamma
dragonmamma
7 years 2 months ago

It’s a constant balancing act; I’m always bouncing up and down within a five pound range, aiming for maximum speed and strength with minimum bulk.

127 seems to be my sweet spot. Any less and I start losing strength; any more and I start slowing down, not to mention that I don’t want to look like a fireplug. (Which, as a 5’4″ inch female, is a definite possibility.)

Kurt Hessenbruch
Kurt Hessenbruch
7 years 2 months ago

As an avid follower of your blog and an amateur strongman competitor, I’m thrilled to read your opinions on weight training.

“Squats and deadlifts are absolutely required. No excuses.”

That pretty much sums it up!

Eric
Eric
6 years 5 months ago

I can’t do squats and deadlifts because I have a totally screwed up back. I’m also the kind of guy who gets skinnier and skinnier as I get older. Is there any hope for me? What can I do?

Roland
6 years 5 months ago
Eric, you don’t have to do squats and deads to build muscle. Those are just two lifts that do a lot with one big exercise. The key for you is to find lifts that work those muscles, but protect your back. Single leg and unweighted (or lightly weighted) exercises will likely be the key for you. Lunge variations, step ups, pistols, body weight squats, goblet squats, single leg RDLs, reaching lunges, will work the legs, glutes, and lower back without the stress on the spine. Rows, pullups, chinups, etc will still work a lot of muscle in the upper back.… Read more »
Bryan - Workouts Without Weights

In addition to what Roland has outlined here it’s also important to be aware of what you muscles are doing during your exercise routine.
I usually start my patients out on workouts without weights in an effort to teach body awareness. Especially when someone has had an injury, knowing the limits of your mobility is essential.
I encourage people to learn how to move before they start a resistance exercise program. After you know what your body will allow you to do, you can then go about doing it.

dennis
dennis
4 years 9 months ago

Thanks for that, Roland. I have degenerative disc disease, and I’ve been unable to do squats and dead lifts–anything that compresses the spine–for 12 years. Sure do miss it.

Toolman
Toolman
6 years 5 months ago

I use dip belt squats and sled dragging a great deal in my training. You get the benefit of a big compound, heavy lift but not the compression on the spine.

I also do trap bar deadlifts in place of traditional oly. bar deadlifts. This bar makes all the difference in the world to my back and the shearing compression of DLs. I can go heavy and yet not wreck my back like traditional deadlifts do.

Dave
Dave
5 years 11 months ago

I would say if your back is bad you should do squats and deadlifts. Do them light and get a qualified trainer to check you for technique. You should be able to squat below parallel comfortably without any weight.

Doing these exercises properly protects and strengthens your back.

Just my opinion on the matter.

goldhoarder
goldhoarder
4 years 10 months ago

I’m with Dave 100 percent. I don’t know if you had a significant injury or just get a sore back. I used to get the typical lower back pain all the time. I started Oly lifting and I do not get back pain anymore. You have no idea how thrilled I was to find out I just had a weak back. Too much time spent behind a desk had weakened my back and I am back to good health now.

Bob Clayson
5 years 5 months ago

My suggestion would be to do leg press. It’s till working those muscles well, but takes the strain off your back.

pete
pete
5 years 1 month ago

it’s not working the same muscles at all, and he’ll be able to do it because his core gets minimal activation, which means his back will never get stronger. If he thinks he can’t squat then ask him how he manages to sit on the toilet or tie his shoes.

bert
bert
4 years 4 months ago
a leg press – sit down and pretend you’re exercising like the rest of the machines !!! Coach Glassman has a story of being called by a doctor that was concerned after an elderly potential crossfitter informed him she was going to start training to which coach replied that when the woman carries her shopping home, puts her bags down to open the door then reaches down to pick up the shopping she’s doing a deadlift – he’s just teaching her how to do it properly. Doctor was convinced and the elderly lady trained for years with no problems. Eric..Two… Read more »
david
david
4 years 4 months ago

may i make a suggestion? instead of doing heavy barbell workouts, try using a TRX for your squats and maybe a modified plank with your knees on the floor to help build your strength slowly.

Gabriel Wigington
Gabriel Wigington
4 years 3 months ago

Love Trx! I’m getting certified to teach it soon!! I hear group classes are a blast and great income! Training movement is important before lifting heavy weight.

bert
bert
4 years 4 months ago

Eric and anyone in this position should talk to westside barbell or rogue about the reverse hyper.
Helped Louie Simmonds recover from a broken back and has been fully tested by spinal specialists. Also it’s now in the 3rd or 4th generation so has been well tested and developed further each time.

S Scott
S Scott
4 years 28 days ago

Somebody mentioned the hip belt squat, which is what I did after a back injury. In case you aren’t familiar with that, Ironmind.com sells a good one, check it out.
Many people find they can deadlift dumbbells with much less back strain than a long bar.

Marshall
Marshall
3 years 10 months ago

i’d ask a chiropractor about deadlifts and back squats and maybe a physio because trying to mobilise more noints and stuff for these exercises may indeed help your spine i screwed up my back at a young age and ive found that in the last year of doing back squats and deadlifts has actually improved my back and i’ve stopped going to a chiropractor, although at the same time your spine may be in a much worse condition to mine when i started and doing these lifts may make the situation worse

Personal Training Melbourne
6 years 3 months ago

I second that!

Leo
5 years 11 months ago

3rd

Kat
Kat
4 years 11 months ago

4th.
unless you’re on crutches or in wheelchair or never pick up anything off the ground (like grocery bags), there is absolutely no reason to not deadlift. You can do it. and if the back is screwed up or weak, well then stretch surrounding muscles (tightness and weakness is often the issue, not actual injury) and strengthen and get it well again with all the abovementioned free weight or bodyweight exercises plus light deadlifts.

Apurva
7 years 2 months ago
Nice article Mark! From personal experience, I think this is great advice only for people who really are hard gainers. I know you mentioned this in the article several times, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. One really needs to be careful about this, otherwise the results can be disappointing. The thing is that I have been following a similar plan for about a year: eating hearty primal meals (still nowhere near a dozen eggs a day. More like a dozen a week!), with my only departure from strict primal fare being the sensible vices (more or… Read more »
Robert C. Morreale
Robert C. Morreale
6 years 8 months ago

Amen Brother!

Pdoerner3
Pdoerner3
5 years 3 months ago
This is wrong. High levels of glycogen in the muscles do not increase insulin. Glucose entering the blood stream elicits insulin secretion from the pancreas causing GLUT4 to translocate to the muscle plasma membrane. Glucose enters the muscle via facilitated diffusion down it’s concentration gradient. The enzyme hexokinase adds a phosphorous to the glucose in order for it to be stored as glycogen and to remove it from glucose’s concentration equation. Glucose can not be put back into the blood once phosphorylated as muscles do not have that enzyme. Therefore, high glucose levels means lowered blood glucose which means lower… Read more »
Alex
Alex
5 years 24 days ago

Mark,
DO LESS! Research Drew Baye High intensity training it’ll work wonders for you!

Max
11 months 13 days ago

I’m glad to hear this

Russell
Russell
7 years 2 months ago
Mark, This is absolutely what I’ve been needing – spot-on! I’m 6’0 and went from 165-170 down to 145-150 by eliminating the grains, starches, etc. I’ve been going to the gym for a while and can see some definite body composition gains and strength gains, but muscle mass development has been sorely lacking. Based on your advice, I can tell I simply have not been eating enough, and I really need to increase my squat/deadlift days from just 1 of each per week. One follow-up question – I play softball and basketball approx. 1/week, and between 3 days w/ weights,… Read more »
Websipe
Websipe
4 years 7 months ago
Be careful about doing deadlifts heavy more than once weekly–as mentioned they are incredibly taxing. As a matter of fact, the program in Mark’s post is almost straight out of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, and for anyone who is even remotely serious about getting strong it is absolutely a classic text on how to do the major barbell lifts correctly. The timing of eating also makes a big difference, with about a 2 hour window for after working out to get you blood level of amino acids up (particularly the branched chain amino acids). In this regard, whey protein… Read more »
vj
vj
7 years 2 months ago

OK Mark, a question for you. Would you change the advice in this post at all if you were talking specifically to a female? I’m still in the fat burning stage but more muscle is an ultimate goal of mine (and why can’t I do both at teh same time :-). Should I be doing anything different than the above? How about for a woman over 40?
Thanks much.

Jill P
Jill P
7 years 2 months ago

Me too…Avid crossfitter over 40..anyway to avid excess cortisol production on top of rest??
Thanks Mark Great site!

Charlie
5 years 3 months ago

wow look at you.

ray
ray
5 years 1 month ago

Alpha Lipoic Acid. 250 mg 3 times a day seems to have some benefits. Tim Ferris talks about it in his book The 4-hour body. I sleep like shit so cortisol is def an issue with me.

JM
JM
3 years 3 months ago

Nope. I’m a female & primal. I deadlift, squat, & press 3 days a week. I lose about 3 lbs of fat a week & have lost about 35 lbs so far.

Craig Brown
7 years 2 months ago

Mark-

Great post! What you mention across the board is what people usually avoid and/or do wrong. And the suggestion of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength is spot on. Mark has a DVD to go along with (read that again: go along with!) the book which I recently received and is a great help for folks not sure about their form on the lifts.

http://www.aasgaardco.com/store/store.php?crn=210&rn=323&action=show_detail

Best-

Craig

casey curtis
casey curtis
7 years 2 months ago

phenomenal article, mark!

i was wondering, though, what would be your advice to someone (like myself) interested solely in strength to weight ratio, concerned primarily with continually increasing strength in the major bodyweight movements and holds (the planche, the L-sit, the handstand, pull-up, etc.) as far as diet, workout frequency, etc? maybe you could address the flip side of this coin in a future post?

great work as always!

Corey
Corey
7 years 2 months ago

Great article, this really lays down the law on this subject. One of which I’ve been trying to get across to a co-worker for a long time. Once he reads this it will affirm my speeches and get him gaining!

Brian Fitness
Brian Fitness
7 years 2 months ago
Mark, You hit the nail on the head for me.. The key is eating & hitting those compound movements.. I do like the fact that you don’t recommend introducing the starch (maybe a squash or sweet potato occassionally), but the bottom line is increase protein & fat.. Good fat is so undervalued in our Western Diet, & often misunderstood.. Fat carries the calories needed for growth, without the inflammation that would come from heavy starches & carbs.. How about going heavy on the fruits to gain some weight as well? Thanks for the article.. I do appreciation your time &… Read more »
Ryan Robitaille
7 years 2 months ago

Nice one, Mark.

I’ll have to change things up this month in regards to the eating then – I’ve been doing fasts on the days that I do strength training (Tuesday, Friday). I don’t eat until about 2 hours AFTER the workout in the evening (after not eating at all that day).

Maybe I’m stifling some of my gains by doing so…

rfranke
rfranke
7 years 2 months ago

Thank you, vj – how would this how-to change for a female audience? Especially one of varying ages?

Andy
Andy
7 years 2 months ago

Excellent article Mark. Very detailed and correct. Highlighting the need for Vit A was good too, this is overlooked. Thanks, Andy.

vj
vj
7 years 2 months ago

Thanks Mark for all of your great information and research. I’ll be looking forward to more about this in the coming weeks. Thanks for your feedback and dedication.
vj

mseibel
mseibel
7 years 2 months ago

Mark: I am a true hardgainer. I am currently doing kettlebell/functional training twice a week and lifting once a week. Should I be switching this around to lifting twice and kettlebells once, or even lifting three times and treat kettlebells as cardio as you suggested for Crossfit?

Grok
7 years 2 months ago

Perfect timing Mark! This was broken down well. I’ve read a lot about most of this, but really was looking for some simple answers to a few of these questions.

BigBeck89
BigBeck89
7 years 2 months ago

can’t wait to see something for the more endo/mesomophic types…I can put on wait and plenty of muscle almost overnight, but that almost always comes with fat gain

SullynNH
7 years 2 months ago

Mark, appreciate you putting this article together…I’m the typical hardgainer. I’ve gotten a lot more strength, but no size to go with it. I have no desire to be the body builder type, all about functional fitness, 10-15 lbs would be good (up from 155lb currently. Just need to up the intake as you said! I have noticed more strength throughout the workouts in the 3 weeks of eating primal, even after a year of intense workouts (but was based on higher carb intake). Thanks Again!

Patrick
Patrick
7 years 2 months ago
These are great tips that I used; and they worked. A little caution if you are a little advanced like me (42 years): your joints will ache! I gained about five pounds in about 3 weeks, but I finally reverted back to Mark’s advice: eat Primal, do your workouts and your genes will do the rest. I’m 6′ and 162lb, can deadlift over twice my bodyweight and do the 20 pullups; and it is fun to see the big guys watching the boney guy! If it’s looks you want, go for it; but if it is function and strength you… Read more »
SullynNH
7 years 2 months ago

I know what you mean…I as shocked when I would go to the gym in the past and was doing what some bodybuilders were doing!

Berto at Discount Supplements
7 years 2 months ago

I’ve put on a lot of weight and muscle with the PB, and this post is DEAD ON. I would have written something exactly like it (but not as good).

But note that you can lose it just as quick as you got it. I’m in that rut right now, as 4th of July festivities slowed things down, work has dominated me, I had an injury, and I dropped weight for a triathlon — of which I never got much back.

This weekend I begin the journey of starting over, and this post is exactly how to do it.

Mike OD - Fitness Spotlight
7 years 2 months ago
Nail on Head. **BAMM** Now if only people would stop looking for some overly complicated solution and just stick with the basics for a minimum of 12 weeks…..and then see real results! As I like to say….calling oneself a “hardgainer” is just an excuse for not doing things the right way. We don’t all have to be 250lbs and ripped…but we can all have a good lean mass build. If you haven’t seen this yet…here’s an out-take from possibly the best “bodybuilding” article on the internet: “Sansone understood the importance of flesh foods, including animal fats and organ meats. He… Read more »
Dream
7 years 2 months ago

I’m not super on board with the training specifics but I love the nutrition portion of this post. Speaking of eggs, just gobbled down a dozen myself fried in coconut oil =).

-Anthony

jupiter
jupiter
7 years 2 months ago

when you say “Never let your protein intake go lower than 1g/lb of body weight” are you talking about total body weight or your lean body mass, as an overweight guy that can be alot of protein

The Fit News
7 years 2 months ago

Nice and logical.

robert
robert
7 years 2 months ago
Great article. A lot to digest. I have been doing hot yoga for about one year. This has been a great help but I also would like to work with weights more. Biggest problem (or fear) is that I have had back surgery four times. This is why I started with yoga. Do you have any specific ideas for people with such injuries? I do have (in FDA study) two artificial disc’s. This has eliminated 16 years of chronic pain and allowed me to start exercise. Over the course of two years (just after last surgery) I have been able… Read more »
alex
alex
7 years 2 months ago
I eat 4 eggs per day and around 2500 kcals just to maintain 71kgs at 6ft1. I have never gone above 73kg even on 4000kcal per day. I think I need more food and more intensity. But, due to a herniated disc I cannot do squats or deadlifts 🙁 Instead I do 1 legged squats which are very intense and hopefully stimulate the CNS sufficiently. 1 leg squat form: hands out in front, 1 leg raised. Lower yourself under control ALL the way down until your calf touches your hamstring. Push up ENSURING your heel doesn’t lift off the ground.… Read more »
Roland
7 years 2 months ago

Great exercise for those who can’t do regular squats, but please drop the boso ball and pickup a weight to add resistance.

All the bosu is doing is limiting the amount of weight you can use because you’re constantly shifting around to keep your balance. It’s a cool trick, but it’s not building muscle.

alex
alex
7 years 2 months ago
I beg to differ. Holding a small weight in front actually makes the exercise easier as it counter balances you. Holding a heavy weight out in front off-balances you, and for me personally, places too much strain on my back injury. The only safe way would be to wear a weighted backpack and hold a small weight out in front. As I dont have a backpack in the gym, I do them on the Bosu as this really works the core and ankle stabilisers. Even with no weight added, 10 reps is extremely challenging to the body. (have you actually… Read more »
Tim R
Tim R
3 years 5 months ago
Have you guys read a book called Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe? His premise is that there are just 4 exercises that you need to do, and if done correctly (which he spends scores of pages on in the book), that is all you need to build real total body strength. I’ve been lifting for a long time, and I have to say that this book has changed my thinking trememdously. He examines the squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press. I got a copy from the kindle store for like 8 bucks, so it’s worth checking out!
Roland
7 years 2 months ago
I can’t reply to your reply, so it’s up here… You’re missing the point of the squat. You’re doing good stuff, but 10 reps on something unstable is a huge difference from 5 reps on solid ground. It’s possible that something that you can only lift 5 times is too risky for your disks, but then I’d question if it’s a good idea to do something so precarious as a pistol on a wobbly surface. Sudden jolts and torque can be as dangerous as a weight ON the spine. If it’s the heavy weight on your back that’s the concern,… Read more »
alex
alex
7 years 2 months ago

its hard to get to 5×5 as heavy weights compromise my herniated disc. I usually do lubges whilst holding 16kg dumbells and can still do 8-12 reps easily.

Point taken about sudden jerks with instability on the ball.

I want to emphasise the point that a 1 legged squat with no weight puts the same intensity on each leg muscle as a normal squat with my own body weight on the bar.

I have nevertried Bulgarian split squats so will do, maybe holding dumbells overhead?

boogie
boogie
4 years 11 months ago

OMG i just tried the 1 legged squats and it was for real intense!am 6’2/86kg but can’t do shit,the post is the best ever.it inspired me that i got up and start doing all what i learnt here,thx yall.
1LOve

Jay Cohen
7 years 2 months ago

Solid post, plan to cross post to my blog.
Thanks.
Jay

gnosis
gnosis
7 years 2 months ago

I’ve got 3 words for fellow”hardgainers”

dinner for breakfast

Avashnea
Avashnea
7 years 2 months ago

What if you can’t do squats? It hurts my shoulders to hold the bar behind my head (old rotator cuff injuries) and my knees already grind when I squat down. 🙁

Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 2 months ago

Aveshnea, front squats should relieve the shoulder pain and are arguably safer for your back anyway.

For the knee grinding, doing some self massage on your legs with a foam roller (or any other tool) and deep bodyweight squats beforehand may help.

Avashnea
Avashnea
7 years 2 months ago

Can I do leg presses instead of the squats? They don’t seem to bother me knees as much.

Freeman
Freeman
7 years 2 months ago

You won’t get remotely the same benefit. Squats move the body through a longer range of motion, utilize the body’s natural mechanics for full muscle engagement and demand tremendous core stability because the weight is supported on the rigid torso. Squats are basis for mass-gain for a reason: Very few exercises can put so much beneficial stress on the body. If you can’t squat, consider heavy deadlifts as a substitute, but you’ll need to find another way to get some quad work in. Avoid machines as much as possible until much later in your lifting career.

Adam
Adam
7 years 2 months ago

Leg presses are OK, but they don’t tax your body as much as full-on squats. a squat works your upper body, abdominals, and legs, while the leg press works from the leg down. So while leg presses can be good initially, once you feel comfortable you should switch.

Also, squats are tricky. It may be that your form is incorrect. Start with a lighter weight and focus on form, or have a trainer/experienced lifter at the gym help you.

Avashnea
Avashnea
7 years 2 months ago

I have quite a bit of weight to lose (140+ lbs). So I think I’ll stick with the presses and dead lifts until I lose a good chunk of it. Probably safer on my knees.

Avashnea
Avashnea
7 years 2 months ago

Also, there’s NO way I’m doing pull ups..I weigh 315 lbs!

Avashnea
Avashnea
7 years 2 months ago

Maybe lat pull downs instead of the pull ups? or what do you all recommend?

Leo
5 years 11 months ago

just did 2 legit chins today @ 308 lbs. 218 body weight + 90 pound dumbell. you CAN do it! and it’s a great motivatir to lose body weight! 🙂

Xenocles
Xenocles
5 years 1 month ago

If you are that overweight start with bodyweight squats and then use dumbbells to work your way up to the empty bar weight (45 lbs). Starting light on weightlifting is the way to go, it lets you learn the proper form and build the muscular foundation to do the exercise properly.

If you do the leg press you’ll be fooling yourself. You don’t build nearly the same sort of strength on a machine – it’s simple mechanics.

Justin
Justin
5 years 6 months ago

How about jumping pull ups? Get under a bar that is just about head level to where you can jump and pull up at the same time. Keep increasing the height of the bar (finding a higher bar or using a shorter box under the bar) and you’ll do a legit pull up in no time.

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Rob
Rob
7 years 2 months ago
Mark, I received your book about two weeks ago( greatest investment ever made ). When I finished reading it I thought about my goals, more towards the bodybuilding end. Nothing crazy just a little more muscle while maintaining the same level of body fat. So having the book ( the philosophy) ,I was able to determine what changes to make to the PB (albeit minor).Well, your article confirms all the things I thought needed to be tweaked. POINT OF STORY: Primal Blueprint provides all of the philosophy needed to achieve your goals no matter what they are. One final note,… Read more »
SuperMike
SuperMike
7 years 2 months ago

Mark,

A couple of things I have learned through the years:

Add at least two warm-up sets of 10-15 reps (light and not to exhaustion) before 5X5’s. (Avoiding injury is #1 on my priority list.)

And no matter how much you eat, you have to have enough rest days between workouts. Error on too much rest when in doubt.

Toolman
Toolman
7 years 2 months ago

I know Bill Starr and others suggest squatting 3 times a week… I could never do more than 2.

I lift in the over 300 when doing 5×5 and 250 – 275 when doing 20 rep squats. Going at that 3 times per week never gave my body, CNS and mental faculties the time to recuperate.

Squatting twice or even once per week, if done heavy and intense, will result in great gains.

Fixed Gear
6 years 11 months ago

I gotta’ agree with this. I could NEVER squat 3X a week. Ok, I don’t mean I physically couldn’t, but my reps would go down each subsequent session. I’d never make progress that way. No way. Even eating 6000 calories a day, my body wouldn’t keep up with it. I make gains on once/week. “If it ain’t broke!”

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Phillip
Phillip
7 years 2 months ago

Mark – great article. Glad you advocate low reps and big lifts to build real muscle!

David
David
7 years 2 months ago
Have any of you gained muscle mass without a gain in BF? I’m 55 years young and am at 11.6% BF. about 6′ and 154 lbs. Trying to lose newly gained BF which was found/tested in the stomach area only. Have increased muscle mass in chest and thighs. Am a “hard gainer”. So, I’m trying increase muscle mass lost in the last 8 years (been PB for 11 months) or so (cardio and mass carbs)and decrease BF in stomach area. I keep carbs to approx. 100 to 120 g a day but have increased fat intake. Anybody going through similar… Read more »
erik.cisler
erik.cisler
7 years 2 months ago

Avashnea,

I’d recommend bodyweight squats. At the very least, you’ll still be pushing some decent weight (not for long, though!). If bodyweight squats feel okay, you can move on to just the bar. I’d second the other guy and stress that leg presses simply aren’t the same, and that the actual squatting motion is too crucial to avoid.

If you can’t do pullups, lat pulldowns are fine – just make sure to keep trying each week to get an actual pullup.

Avashnea
Avashnea
7 years 2 months ago

Thanks for the info. The stupid trainer at the gym told me in her ignorance that beginners should NEVER do squats or deadlifts and you NEED cardio to lose weight. Of course, her head almost exploded when I told her I eat 60-70% fat lol

Fixed Gear
6 years 11 months ago

The amount of ignorance and misinformation in your spouted out by “professional” trainers is astounding.

Shaz
Shaz
7 years 2 months ago

If I’m doing Starting Strength 3 days a week, how would you recommend filling the rest of my days exercise wise?

Bret
Bret
7 years 2 months ago

Shaz, I always use “off days” to do sprints. Just go outside for 15 minutes and sprint as long as you can, walk until your body says it’s ok to go again.

Shaz
Shaz
7 years 2 months ago

Seems reasonable. Will try that.

Toolman
Toolman
7 years 2 months ago
One suggestion I have regarding deadlifts is a great tool called the “trap bar”. Its a hexagon shaped bar, that you step inside of, plates are loaded on the outside and deadlifts are performed via this great bar. With traditional barbell the load is in front of the body, whereas with the trap bar the load travels “through” the body. Much, much better on the lower back and shearing forces there. For anyone who suffers some lower back problems and desires to deadlift HEAVY this bar can be the answer! I picked one up on craigslist for $75 and it… Read more »
adam chase
adam chase
7 years 2 months ago

Mark, your nutrition advice is 100% correct, but I would limit exercise with heavy weights 5×5 to 3 days a week, where one day would be upper body push movements, then 2 days later upper body pull movements, then 2 days later legs. Your tendons/ligaments will have a hard time recovering from 3 days a week of the same movements, especially natural.
This would follow the workouts of bodybuilder legend Frank Zane, who still looks good after the age of 65 following a low carb diet.

Rahsaan
Rahsaan
7 years 2 months ago

This is right on. I accumulated a good deal of lean mass and lost a lot of fat when I started doing pretty much only compound movements while eating primally and left behind my obsessive daily routine of over an hour of cardio per day. One acquaintance at the gym complimented me recently by saying, “You do really well at walking that tight rope that is being both big and lean.” That felt good, because I was not a strapping guy in my teens or early 20s. I was a McDeath glutton with my value meals.

Stephan
Stephan
7 years 2 months ago
As always, nice post. Putting on muscle has always been a struggle for me. The only way I could do this was to eat 6x a day, but as soon as I stopped, every pound gained would disappear. Now that I’m more “mature”, I’m trying to focus on functional abilities rather than simple weight gain. My question is whether the hard earned muscle will stick around once I go back to a “maintenance” level? After all, I can’t keep eating all this food the rest of my life. Just trying to find a nice, long-term way to say healthy and… Read more »
Toolman
Toolman
7 years 2 months ago
Stephan, How tall are you, what is your age and weight? How long have you been lifting? What is your highest 1RM that you have achieved in squat, deadlift and bench? What type of workout are you using to gain your muscle? As Mark points out in the article heavy lifting in the 5×5 style of strength training, as opposed to a more hypertrophy only style (4×10, etc), builds a different type of muscle and I believe a longer lasting type (quoted below for convenience). You don’t see many powerlifters who lose their muscle size even when dropping to a… Read more »
Stephan
Stephan
7 years 2 months ago
Toolman: Thanks for the reply. I’m 42 now, 6’1″ and 154 lbs. I’ve been trying to use the PB diet and was able to reduce by BF levels to a point where the abs are visible now. It’s been a while since I’ve done max reps due to some injuries and a focus on more “cardio” and bodyweight exercises. I did shoot up to about 190 lbs once, but that required 6 large meals a day (lots of carbs, mind you). I just didn’t see myself eating like this until I’m 80!! Maybe this training (or Body by Science) would… Read more »
Toolman
Toolman
7 years 2 months ago
Stephan, Yeah, I can understand not doing max rep singles. I do them VERY rarely myself, but there are several calculators on the WWW that will allow you to calculate, pretty closely, your 1RM. Here is 1 example: http://www.nsca-lift.org/fly%20solo%20program/onearm.asp You can build muscle mass without eating 6 meals per day though you will have to eat “large”, can’t build muscle tissue without fuel. Sounds to me that a change to training style, more like what Mark describes in this article, is part of what you are missing. If you aren’t lifting heavy, on a consistent basis and eating appropriately then,… Read more »
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Jack
Jack
7 years 2 months ago
The low rep scheme seems to be the most “Primal” way of exercise. If you look at how ‘Grok’ would have exercised, it would seem to be with short duration, intense to moderate exercise – whether during the kill phase of hunting or possibly more commonly in play or general life. Fatigue would have been avoided; it would place the individual at great risk from predators. There’s a reason you only see fatigued animals in the wild right before they are eaten. Plus fatigue is unpleasant; it’s not something our bodies encourage us to do. And in the end, what… Read more »
Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 2 months ago

Nicely put. I seem to do pretty well fitting things into my everyday life rather than “doing exercise”.

It’s most noticeable when I stop though, I’ve spent far too much of the last week sat at my computers and sat in my car. Time to do some Extreme Housework, move some boxes around in the attic and turn over one of my compost piles. Er well, when I’ve finished this coffee and reading MDA of course . . .

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[…] I knew I’d get at least one or two comments from our female readers asking if last week’s muscle building post applied to them, too. You see, Conventional Wisdom has somehow drilled into our heads the […]

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[…] I knew I’d get at least one or two comments from our female readers asking if last week’s muscle building post applied to them, too. You see, Conventional Wisdom has somehow drilled into our heads the […]

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[…] I knew I’d get at least one or two comments from our female readers asking if last week’s muscle building post applied to them, too. You see, Conventional Wisdom has somehow drilled into our heads the […]

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7 years 2 months ago

[…] I knew I’d get at least one or two comments from our female readers asking if last week’s muscle building post applied to them, too.  You see, conventional wisdom…(continue […]

LittleMissGrok
LittleMissGrok
7 years 2 months ago

I went to the gym today and wanted one of the trainers to show me proper form for squats and dead lifts. What I got was a near argument with the owner who THINKS he knows all about fitness. Idiot trainer quotes of the day- 1)squats and deadlifts are advanced exercise and are unsafe. Machines strengthen and stabilize you.
2)low carb/primal (I had to explain what primal was) is unsustainable and unhealthy..it’s all about moderation for a healthy diet

I’m seeing a different trainer tomorrow. He LIKES heavy lifting like lunges, deadlifts and squats and is pro- low carb.

Chase Miron
Chase Miron
1 year 8 months ago

what a jackass. That is the problem with most commercial gyms.

anonymous
anonymous
7 years 2 months ago
“Crazy bodybuilders don’t inject themselves with anabolic steroid hormones that are based on testosterone for nothing.” Why do you need to put them down if you know that this is the only way for them to compete at the level at which they do? What if they get the best possible medication and support from one or more doctors; is it really *that* crazy in such a case, especially if you take into account that testosterone-based medication is being used throughout “normal” health care for various purposes as well (for those that are inclined to answer this rhetorical question: “No,… Read more »
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