Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Jul

How to Gain Weight and Build Muscle

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:


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:

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

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

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)

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. A really solid article with a ton of great resources that I have bookmarked.
    You’ve got it right… hardgainers really need to eat more of the right foods (carbs & enough portions of protein p/day) to help sustain or rebuild muscle. Having such a fast burning metabolism allows them to eat more fats and not really put on much weight. One of the perks of having a fast metabolism!

    Shaun wrote on November 5th, 2013
  2. Wow, this is a very detailed post. However I prefer somewhere in the 8 to 10 rep range, instead of 5. In my experience you get better hypertrophy that way. With a lower rep range you get stronger, however the growth of the muscles is not as big as with the 6-12 rep range. Of course everything depends on the individual person and what works for one person, might not always work for another one.

    Peter wrote on November 13th, 2013
  3. HI just adding this to your talk about Degenerative Disk issues, like everything if the diet is right the body will heal itself. Dennis might be interested in it. All comes down to the foods we eat. check it out it is very interesting to read.

    Shelby wrote on November 14th, 2013
  4. Any suggestions to get the Growth Hormones going while not being able to do,

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

    As I’m missing my right leg just above the knee. I do a lot of upper body workouts with dumbbells.

    Maybe some recommendations on how to optimize my upper body workouts?

    I turn 53 in February.


    Mike Phillips wrote on December 29th, 2013
  5. Good article. I was curious about what I should do if I have already bulked up to where I want to be and want to cut. How would this work with the Paleo diet while still maintaining my muscle?

    Kory wrote on January 6th, 2014
  6. Great article. I agree that squats can be done three times per week if you are a beginner. But when you get a bit more advanced it will be difficult to recover from doing them with that sort of frequency. At the intermediate stage a transition from full body workouts to upper/lower splits will probably give better results.

    David wrote on January 13th, 2014
  7. Another great post Mark, Going to lower the rep range to 5/5 and see what difference it makes to me, it seems to be more aimed at a powerlifter then a body builder though wouldn’t you say? But lifting is the easy part , eating clean is the hard part for me. Anyway ill try it for 3 months and give some feedback .. Primal All The Way

    Lee Nicolson wrote on February 3rd, 2014
  8. Stack 1500 mg Test, 800mg Decca and 500mg EQ for some primal gainz

    Eric Miettinen wrote on February 13th, 2014
  9. Great tips there. I bookmarked your site so I can come back and have a look around when I have more time.

    Jake wrote on February 15th, 2014
  10. very good post

    kaka wrote on March 10th, 2014
  11. 1. Antioxidants help to reduce swollen uvula

    Antioxidants search and destroy harmful substances in the blood, helps to increase immunity. These fruits contain antioxidants such as: bilberry, apples, plums. The ingredients of these fruits combine together to form a very rich oxidant fruit juice, very good in the treatment of angina.

    swollen uvula wrote on April 17th, 2014
  12. It is very important to avoid cortisol indeed. It is hard to do with our stressful lifestyle, but it is an absolute must if you want to gain muscle and body weight.

    Aaron wrote on April 27th, 2014
  13. As as a Hargainer (maybe former hardgainer now – gained 10 pounds in last month) compound movement sets are really the best ways to put on mass, you recommended 3 times a week, I work out about 4-5 times.

    Great Post

    Big Dog Rob wrote on May 28th, 2014
  14. Excellent article. I did 5×5 previously and thought it was great at building a base strength. Started stalling so moved onto a 5/3/1 derivative workout for 18m. I’m hitting higher rep ranges just now (newly started, range 8-12) but all compound movements. Will be interesting to compare against SL.

    Once I’m finished the cut I might go back to SL, such a great routine!

    Wayne Alexander wrote on June 13th, 2014
  15. Nice article Mark! Very helpful especially for a hardgainer like me. Thanks!

    Romeo wrote on July 3rd, 2014
  16. This is a great article for building muscle.. If you happen to live in the Stouffville or Toronto area check out for in home personal training and stretch therapy.

    Terry wrote on August 14th, 2014
  17. This is an AWESOME article… I think this is the fourth time I’ve read it! Everything is related, we are a VITALISTIC species. Hormones, the nervous system, the musculo-skeletal system, etc. Eat real food, lift heavy things and BE healthy. Sometimes people make things way too complicated.

    Encinitas Chiropractor wrote on August 22nd, 2014
  18. I can’t stand seeing those hoping to gain muscle, while ignoring their bodies other abilities like speed, agility, strength and all of those things that we’re meant to have!

    There’s always someone with a big upper body but with tiny, weak legs. I never understood why someone would wish for such a physique. It’s unbalanced, unhealthy and can’t be good for the long run. I’d rather be a jacked up guy who can perform all kinds of things than someone who can just stand around to look all pretty!!

    Another great one mark!

    Nader wrote on August 28th, 2014
  19. This issue I have, is that I want to put on muscle mass on my top half (which is definitely getting more muscled slowly, but is still kinda scrawny and bony) but I have fatty deposits on my bum and thighs that I want to get rid of. So while I prefer to work out in a fasted state first thing in the morning, I worry that I’m just burning through what little muscle I do have and it’s a case of 10 steps forward and 9 steps back.
    But then, I worry if I eat lots and especially pre-workout, I’m never going to get rid of those fatty bits. It’s a conundrum!
    I am 40yr old woman who strength trains 3 times a week, and I do a high intensity boxing class once a week. I eat a primal diet with the occasional bit of sweet potato and white rice (no more than around 100g carbs a day, at the most), plus I have raw milk and whey protein shakes post workout and take creatine daily.
    So how can I increase muscle mass and get rid of those problem areas at the same time? Any ideas?

    AnnaD wrote on December 8th, 2014
    • Hi AnnaD,

      I do have the same issues you have. I am 43 and have been eating paleo for almost 4 years now. I lift 3x/week and I have gained considerable amounts of muscle over the last 2 years, but this year I have gained fat in the back of my arms and belly and I have had trouble getting rid of it. I suspect this is a hormonal issue, and in trying to figure this out I have stumbled across the female phase training protcol on Dr. Jade Teta’s website His website has a lot of good information on the importance of hormones and weight management and muscle building/preserving.

      I feel the paleo circles fail to address women’s hormonal issues, especially older women’s and how they relate to body composition. Women’s hormonal make up and how they work is different from men’s, and how and when we store fat depends on our menstrual cycle. Our reproductive hormones are very closely tied to insulin and cortisol, also as we age our bodies store fat in different places. The paleo diet is great but in our case I think the fats and carbs need to be adjusted (possibly more fat and moderate carbs depending on what phase of the cycle). I hope this helps you!

      Lulu wrote on December 10th, 2014
  20. Thanks Mark for your wonderful post. What about bootcamps? Does it helps to gain weight and build muscles?

    Kenneth Thompson wrote on December 30th, 2014
  21. My pumps are stronger at the gym, my mood is better and I have great stamina and energy to get my work done. I am using a herbal formula testosterone booster.

    Maxwell Smith wrote on January 4th, 2015
  22. I started doing Stronglifts 5×5 but by the third week, I was having a lot of back pain. I suffer from bad posture due to APT (Anterior Pelvic Tilt) from long hours working at the computer. So I had to stop that program, can’t do squats or dead lifts. I wouldn’t advise anyone with posture or back problems of any sort to do squats or dead lifts, and definitely not the barbell row, that one is a real killer. I’ve been trying to correct my APT by foam rolling the hip flexors and trying to stretch, but really just no improvement. I’d go to a chiropractor but with my shitty obamacare insurance I have now, literally nothing is covered until I meet my $6,350 deductible! I am having more luck with He preaches the use of machines to build muscle and strength but to use them correctly.

    Mike C wrote on January 10th, 2015
  23. Great article thoroughly enjoyed it ! I just squatted today 225lbs then 275 didn’t go much above that although I can squat 385 maybe 400 and deadlift 425lbs. I am a avid heavy lifter rep out around 4-7reps. And I know the importance of eating enough. I like go primal on eating most days. Eggs 8 whole eggs. Does wonders, I need go get some more eggs! I have some of the greatest orgasms also!!

    Chase Miron wrote on January 24th, 2015
  24. Good tips on building muscle, especially for beginners. After a while though squatting three times per week will become too taxing, so I personally prefer alternating squats with deadlifts. And when one is a bit more advanced an upper/lower split will work better. I agree that size without a corresponding increase in strength is not much use.

    David wrote on March 16th, 2015
  25. I think this is kind of unhealthy.

    Alejandro wrote on June 16th, 2015
  26. There can’t really be a generalization when it comes to how a person can gain weight or build muscle. It is very different and specific for everybody. In my view, the most important thing when you start trying is to take some time to see what works for you, don’t just expect to do it by eating a lot and exercising but actually research it. See what food works for you, read about it more, educate yourself, try a bunch of different exercises to see which is the right fit for you.

    Another thing is not forgetting to do it, because the moment you stop all your progress could be gone (at least at first). You’re in a way teaching your body to do something that it isn’t used to. A common mistake is people who focus on cardio instead of exercise that actually build muscle, so you should make sure you are not doing that.

    It’s very important to eat as much as you feel like you need to but still not junk food. Sure, it’s an easy way to gain weight but focusing on the proper food that your body needs to gain weight is a much better alternative. Don’t leave food like fish and vegetables out of your meal even though they may not be as fattening.

    Johnson wrote on June 23rd, 2015
  27. Great article, Mark! Lots of great links to read through. I have found the same and doing then in a circuit fashion. I get the most benefit from 9-12 reps. I look forward to future posts for sure!

    Sean wrote on June 26th, 2015
  28. Has anyone tried using plant based superfoods like maca or spirulina for protein?

    Ray wrote on July 22nd, 2015
  29. Knees are shot, torn meniscus in 1, & the other “talks to me” when I put it under heavy load. Have assumed that squats & similar exercises are not smart for me. After reading your article & parts of this blog, am wondering if I should attempt with just body weight? I can bike ride 25-30 miles w/o knee pain….am just concerned with adding weight training am I asking for trouble…?

    Turbo wrote on September 23rd, 2015
  30. 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.

    Anthony wrote on September 25th, 2015
  31. Despite all the hoopla about people needing to lose weight, the weight gain crowd was left until I discovered your well-detailed post. My desire is to gain muscles fast the old fashioned way without steroids.

    Wendy wrote on November 1st, 2015
  32. As a beginner, I’m gaining insight into muscle building. Although I prefer to gain muscle naturally rather than swallowing a lot of supplements. Is there a quick way without going through this short cut? What particular food should i eat for quick muscle mass?

    ACLS Class wrote on November 12th, 2015

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