CrossFit Training: How to Add Mass and Build Strength with Primal

crossfit training - man flipping tireGaining 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.

Eat as many carbs as you earn.

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.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

This article was co-written with Laura Rupsis, Level 1 CrossFit CertifiedPrimal Health Coach Certified, and owner of Absolution CrossFit in La Grange, IL.

TAGS:  calories, mobility

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending 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.

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33 thoughts on “CrossFit Training: How to Add Mass and Build Strength with Primal”

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  1. Hooray for mentioning eccentric exercises! I have cured tennis elbow, wrist tendonitis, and patellar tendonitis with eccentrics, as well as teaching other people how to do it. It’s a little known, but almost magical concept. Now I integrate eccentrics into every workout I do and my injury free streak is the longest it has ever been (at age 40).

    1. Agreed – I have also used these exercises exercises with great success, I think one of the main effects is to pump blood around the tendons to provide nutrition to them for repairs, without overloading them.

      Some of the the most damaged and weakest tendons can be found on weight lifters and cross fitters – the weight lifters focus on big muscles, and isolated movements ensure no corresponding tendon strength. For the cross fitters, just the endless repetition of bad form movements plays havoc on the tendons.

      Body weight exercises done in perfect form (thus excluding cross fit) are the best for tendon strength, and it takes months / years to build. Muscle strength can very easily out develop tendon strength, leading to injury.

  2. This article is Chuck full of great tips.

    I do have a question. Wouldn’t that much protein activate our mTOR pathways?
    Also, if you haven’t already (which I doubt) try adding beef tendon to your next batch of bone soup. To those unfamiliar, they look like long white fingers.

    1. If you had to pick strength, performance and fertility (or) health, wellness and longevity which would you choose (I know that we want it all, but what if you had to choose)? There is a well established interplay with mTOR signaling and iron metabolism… likewise, there is also an interplay with iron and IGF-1. I think that there’s something to this.

      Our early ancestors would have consumed plenty of mTOR activating agents… right up until the point that strength, performance and fertility were not center stage. We would have consumed organs, muscles, marrow and even blood. I believe that mTOR is known to modulate iron metabolism for this reason… because we needed mTOR and IGF-1 signaling to promote strength, performance and fertility. After a certain age, when performance and fertility take a back seat, I believe that we should “consider” lowering our animal protein, and consequently, our heme iron intake to shift more into a health, wellness and longevity environment. After all, you have amassed so much primal knowledge… it is your duty to stick around… it’s your duty to impart that wisdom on to your tribe for generations.

      Or… you can be greedy like me! You can try to create the environment to have it all (strength, performance, fertility, wellness and longevity) by fasting, intermittent fasting, cyclical ketosis and making sure that you get plenty of calories and the occasional insulin bath… activating apoptotic pathways and enhanced autophagy will probably mitigate some of the dangers that might come with mTOR and IGF-1.

      1. Thanks for your elaborate reply. I guess if one puts that much effort into his workouts, he needs to fuel it. At 60, my interests lies in maintaining my strength, agility and freedom of motion and staying injury free and GMB is great for that. And even if I wanted, I can only buy that much meat consider it’s cost around my neck of the woods. Never minds that I have to watch my consumption, due to a an enzyme deficiency that on one hand makes me anemic (slightly under and then it edges over the minimum) and on the other leads to high Ferritin levels. So I eat less red meat and its so great that keto came along. Apparently I doing OK, consider my latest testosterone results are comparable to a healthy 30 year old. Something I attribute to the Primal life style, as my levels are higher then before.

        By the way, since you like cod liver oil you should try cod liver. It comes in a sardine size can and packed in its own oil and melts in the mouth like a truffle. But I wouldn’t consume it in one sitting, consider the amount of vitamin A it contains (it’s small size is deceiving).

        1. I forgot to mention…Based on research, those 65 years older are not efficient at absorbing nutrients and thus should actually increase – not limit their animal protein intake. It also helps to preserve muscle mass regardless of exercise, something that vegetable protein does not do.

          Good night!

    2. That’s assuming you buy into the idea that protein actually does activate mTOR pathways, or that such pathways even exist–or that it’s any kind of problem for most people even if they do exist. I don’t know about you but I’ve known a lot of meat eaters who lived long healthy lives despite heavy protein consumption.

      1. Whether meat or something else, when in doubt, one should err on the side of caution. Not to worry, I get enough proteins; just not from red meat only 🙂

  3. Love this article!! Nourishment and varied bio-mechanical loads get the attention they deserve… this is how we express stronger, more muscular versions of ourselves. I would only add that the advanced athlete needs to consider the biological law of accommodation in regard to both nutrition and loading.

    For instance, most people have experienced what happens when we perform the same lifts day in and day out… we hit plateaus (unless you’re that guy)… strength, performance and drive starts to stall. That said, add constantly varied accommodating resistance (think chains, bands, static holds, eccentric work, ect) to your lifts and you get back on the PR track.

    I believe the same things happens with nutrition too. For instance, ketosis over time is great for mitochondrial biogenesis, and many other things, but it down regulates receptors and genes involved in glycolysis. The converse of that is true too which is why cycling can often give you incredible results.

    Favorite line in this article… “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.”

    Don’t go for the cod liver oil that’s been deodorized… this variety is missing the fat soluble vitamins which is why you’re taking it in the first place.

  4. Grams of whatever per kilogram/pound drives me nuts. If you’re using pounds, please provide ounces.

    1. Oh no… some may not like the comparison but to me, the iPhones represent the metric system, while android represents the old imperial system. Calculations and measurements are so much easier; but that’s me

  5. “0.8 g/lb is probably a safe baseline, and you may not need much more than that. ”

    “On the contrary, cholesterol is a precursor to testosterone; extra dietary cholesterol may increase testosterone production.”

    This is all true for men and women?

  6. Can we PLEASE get a moderator (or FIVE) on the forum? PLEASE! The repeated emails of the dedicated few forum members who remain are not being addressed. Mark, please help us help you maintain the integrity of the internet’s best forum!

    1. I second Ontario’s request! To be clear, we want peer moderators – longtime, active forum members who will take out the trash. We already know that MDA staff don’t have time for us.

    2. I agree! I love the blog posts, but I miss the conversations and advice from the forum. It needs moderation to help it grow again. There are some great people left there, but it’s hard to see the good knowledge through the spam and trolls.

    3. Yes please. The forum desperately needs moderation right now.

    4. I agree. The nutrition forum is falling apart due to no moderation. It is, in my opinion, the most valuable part of MDA and needs moderators ASAP.

    5. I thought the forum seemed relatively spam/troll free.People are allowed to give, and disagree with views – should we moderate anybody who disagrees ?

      1. Oh my goodness, NO! The forum is certainly not spam free! Have you actually been over to the forum lately? Lots and lots of advertising being spammed into threads. A few trolls who seek out members and forum ” stalk” them using defamatory language and extremely un-MDA- like conduct. Honestly, any moderator in their right mind would ban these trolls. There are MDA forum rules and these rules are not only being broken but there is zero enforcement. The forum problem have caused many, many, insightful, long time members to leave. It’s such a shame as the solution is ridiculously easy – assign moderators! And they need to be long time members as moderators – people who actually use the forum and have a vested interest in its success.

        1. Ontario, tribal and everyone, we just did some major work on the MDA forum today, and we’ll now be putting in the time to get it cleaned up as quickly as possible. I’m aware of the spam issues, and you’ll find those taken care of again starting this week. Unfortunately, our moderation tools have been inaccessible to us until tonight. Rest assured I fully stand by the forum and have plans to reboot and improve it yet in the coming weeks. Look for more soon!

          1. Thank you, Mark. I genuinely look forward to the forum getting back to its former glory. It really IS a very valuable resource.

          2. Thank you, Ontario. So am I. When other people decided to discontinue their online forums, I was adamant to keep ours. They can be tricky to maintain, especially when they’ve got as much traffic and content over the years as MDA’s. I’m looking forward to getting the clean-up done and restoring it to what it should be for folks.

  7. Really these are great tips for just about anyone that was to see an improvement in body composition and are very active!

  8. Great post! But what about those of us who are not trying to build mass? That sounds a little scary to me. I’m 5’1″ and maybe 102. Not trying to build mass, just want to be in the best possible shape without making myself crazy. I’m doing pretty great with the foods to prioritize…plenty of local pastured eggs, mussels, local beef and chicken liver, salmon and sardines. Oh, and plenty of collagen/gelatin. Eating the way I eat seems to be working, but would love to hear from others that are just trying to stay in shape!

    1. Elizabeth from what I can gather in your blog you look great and feel great so keep doing what you’re doing! Your diet is top notch and I think if you walk daily, do HIIT once or twice a week, and do some strength training (body weight training is fine) two or three times a week you should be good on the exercise front.

  9. Excellent read! One of the bigger issues that I see with Crossfit is that they focus too much on barbell work. The regionals this year slightly changed that but you can only get so strong with a barbell. Adding eccentrics, as mentioned, is a good way to keep tendon and ligament strength at a optimal level but it’s also another avenue to gain strength.

  10. Thank you so much, Mark, for sharing such a great information for building strength, I and I totally agree with your all the points.

  11. Really useful article! Glad you pointed out recovery, I often encounter a misconception that the harder you train, the faster your progress will be. But too little rest sometimes is the one reason why people do not see the results they desire. Thanks!

  12. Thank you so much, Mark, for sharing such a great information for building strength, I and I totally agree with your all the points.