Gaining mass and building strength while CrossFitting should be a breeze. You’re lifting heavy things using compound full-body movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses, providing a potent growth stimulus to your muscles. Yet, many people fall short of their goals, perhaps losing weight and improving performance but failing to really gain any real muscle or strength.
Today, I’m going to explain how going Primal can help you achieve both goals.
First, you must understand the very Primal reality of your body’s hormonal systems and their relation to the environment: Acknowledge that you are an organism whose endocrine system is acutely attuned to the inputs it receives. It’s actively engaged in the world around you, making predictions and taking actions based on your perceptions. If your body thinks it’s living through a famine, it will conserve energy and eliminate wasteful extravagances like big muscles and 2x body weight back squat. If your body thinks it’s living through plentiful times, it will be more liberal with energy and allow the growth of extracurricular tissues, like big muscles. Create an environment of abundance—or even the impression of one—and you will be more likely to gain muscle and strength.
First and Foremost, Eat More Calories
Providing a caloric surplus doesn’t just provide the raw materials necessary to build more tissue, though that’s a big part of it. It also sends the message to your endocrine system that you’re living in a resource-rich environment and that it’s okay to splurge a bit. Your body, first and foremost, just wants to survive. CrossFitters have a higher baseline because of the stressful training they engage in, so the calorie excess is really important here. Start by adding about 10% to your calorie intake.
Get Your Precursors!
People forget that hormones—the anabolic foremen directing the operation that constructs new muscle tissue—are material things with physical precursors, triggers, and building blocks. Most of the necessary precursors, triggers, and building blocks come from the food we eat.
Protein Is a Major One
The muscles are made of protein. That’s why eating the skeletal muscle of animals is the best way to get a dense whack of protein. It also means we need to eat protein to build more muscle. But protein helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis by another route, too: spiking insulin, which shuttles amino acids into muscle tissue.
A 2011 paper on optimal protein intakes for athletes concluded that 1.8 g protein/kg bodyweight (or 0.8 g protein/lb bodyweight) maximizes muscle protein synthesis, whereas another suggested “a diet with 12-15% of its energy as protein.” 0.8 g/lb is probably a safe baseline, and you may not need much more than that.
Carbs Are Important As Well
While they aren’t necessary for muscle gain, they can certainly help when used in the right context. For one, they spike insulin, which helps shuttle amino acids into muscle for muscle protein synthesis. They replenish lost glycogen, which you need to support future strength training endeavors. When you do eat carbs in a post-workout context, keep fat low. Fat is a huge factor in muscle gain (as you’re read below), but not in an acute, immediate sense. In the post workout carb-loading window, dietary fat is more likely to be stored.
Favor Saturated and Monounsaturated Fats over Polyunsaturated Fats
The more saturated and monounsaturated fat you eat, the higher your testosterone. But as you increase the amount of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat you eat in relation to saturated and monounsaturated fat, you lower your testosterone, increasing your cortisol:testosterone ratio and impeding your ability to gain muscle and strength.
Eat Seafood on a Regular Basis
The omega-3 fats, found in fatty fish, fish oil, shellfish, and cod liver oil, have been shown to improve muscle protein synthesis in healthy young and middle-aged adults. Seafood tends to be rich in micronutrients that are important for building muscle, like zinc (oysters). An added bonus that seafood itself provides a bevy of pro-anabolic nutrients. Even codfish protein may have particularly potent muscle-building powers.
Increase Your Cholesterol Intake
Yes, increase. The current scientific consensus is that dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease. On the contrary, cholesterol is a precursor to testosterone; extra dietary cholesterol may increase testosterone production.
Increase Your Zinc Intake
Zinc is another important precursor to testosterone production. In young adults subjected to daily training, supplementing with zinc prevented the normal reduction in thyroid and testosterone production. Oysters and red meat are the best sources of zinc.
Eat Plenty of Vitamin A and D
Preferably vitamin A pre-formed in animals, and vitamin D from the sun.
Both vitamin A and vitamin D interact to increase muscle protein synthesis. Liver is the best source of vitamin A. Cod liver oil is also good and comes with vitamin D.
Foods to Prioritize for These Nutrients and Precursors
Whole eggs, not just the whites. Pastured eggs will contain far more micronutrients than conventional eggs.
Oysters and mussels.
Cod liver oil.
Beef and chicken liver.
Sardines, wild salmon, cod.
Other Variables To Improve Your Gains
Prioritize Strength Training
I said at the start of this series that I wouldn’t make recommendations that interfered with your workouts. After all, your whole purpose is to support your CrossFit training. Most CF boxes I’ve known include straight strength work alongside, or sometimes as a replacement for, classic metabolic conditioning workouts (the WODs).
If gaining mass and muscle and strength is your primary goal, consider switching out a metcon or two for some of these straight-up strength training sessions, or maybe modifying your approach to the metcon. Instead of going for time, go for intensity. Focus on hitting the lifts, even increasing the weight if need be, and allow yourself more rest. You won’t place first, but you’ll provide a different stimulus that should increase strength gains.
Don’t Forget Your Tendons
Muscle is great. Everyone can appreciate a bulging bicep, a striated calf, a wide back, prominent traps. They exude strength. They produce strength. But there’s another aspect to strength that goes unacknowledged: the tendons.
Tendons are rather mysterious. What do they do, exactly, and how do they figure into strength?
They attach muscles to bones. Muscles transmit force through the tendon and make movement possible. Contracting your muscles pulls on the tendons, which yanks on the bone, producing movement.
Tendons also provide an elastic response, a stretch-shortening recoil effect that helps you jump, run, lift heavy things, and absorb impacts. Think of it like a rubber band. A healthy, strong tendon can provide a lot of recoil strength.
CrossFit, in particular, places a lot of demands on the tendons. All those Olympic lifts, those kipping pullups, those muscle-ups, those box jumps? The tendon shoulders the load and makes the movements possible. You need to support them, make them stronger, to get stronger yourself.
Eccentrics (lowering the weight) are the best and simplest treatment we have right now for treating and even healing tendon injuries. Since heel dips can heal Achilles’ tendinopathy and single-leg decline eccentric squats can heal patellar tendinopathy, doing them before injuries occur should make them stronger and more resistant.
CrossFit is about moving as quickly and safely and cleanly as you can, but consider weaving in some light-ish, slow eccentric movements. Downhill walking, slowly lowering oneself to the bottom pushup position, eccentric bicep or wrist curls, and anything that places a load on the muscle-tendon complex while lengthening should improve the involved tendons.
Don’t Shortchange Recovery
Cortisol production is a normal part of the post workout hormone response in addition to a healthy circadian rhythm and stress response. However, when those levels are chronically too high, the effect can be catabolic rather than anabolic. This nterferes with the degree of muscle growth that’s possible compared to the potential with proper rest.
Get Your Collagen
Our tendons contain a ton of collagen, and few people eat or make enough of its constituent amino acids to cover all our tissue-building needs. Eat collagen, drink bone broth, or eat plenty of gelatin-rich meats like skin, oxtail, shank, and neck to provide adequate glycine. Taking 15 grams of gelatin with vitamin C an hour before your workout enhances collagen synthesis in connective tissues (which include the tendons).
There’s a lot of advice out there for gaining weight and building muscle and getting stronger. Much of it is effective—you do what they recommend and you’ll get stronger—but most of it is incomplete. After today’s post, I hope you feel equipped with more information, and I hope that information helps you unlock new and greater gains.
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 three decades researching and 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 Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.