Guest Post – Building Muscle 101: Master the Basics

MusclesMuch like was discussed in Fat Loss 101, building muscle is basically a hormonal event. Hormones such as testosterone, insulin, growth hormone and cortisol are giving the body signals on whether to build muscle, or break it down. While exercise is necessary to create a stimulus for certain hormones to be activated, it is also just a small part of the equation. This is why you will see so many people putting in hard effort at the gym day after day, and never really getting any results. So throw away all those books, stop spending $400/month on supplements, cancel your magazine subscription to Muscle Weekly (or one of the other 75+ fitness magazines out there), and master the basics. This is where you get 90%+ of your results from.

Who needs strength training? Everyone! Any age and yes women too! (Don’t fear ladies, you do not have enough hormones to get all big and buff….just that nice toned look you are looking for). In fact, muscle mass has been directly related to the rate at which we age. I guess once you tell the body that you don’t need muscle to do anything, it thinks it is time to shut down! Once you start losing muscle, you see an increase in fat and that is never a good thing for any long term health factor. The muscle most effected is the Type II (Fast Twitch) and not the Type I (Slow Twitch). So moral of the story is, want to live longer then build and keep your muscle! (Just ask Jack LaLanne who is still running around at 94 years young)

Now let’s look at the Hormones we want to use for building and keeping muscle:

* Testosterone – We have all heard about this one, it builds muscle

* Growth Hormone – Another muscle building (and fat burning) hormone

* Insulin – Using this properly can help to stimulate more muscle building by bringing in more amino acids into the muscles (too much and at the wrong time will only store fat)

* Cortisol – The bad guy who breaks down muscle (some is needed, too much is bad)

* Estrogen – Brings down your Testosterone (hence why women will not build the same size muscle as men). Too much has also been linked to cancer.

Ok so now that we know the players, let’s see what we need to do inorder to get the results and control the hormones for building muscle.

* Eat protein – The more amino acids you can make available to the muscles, the more they will be able to build up. There is a point of diminishing returns, but most active people need at least 0.6-0.8g protein per lean (not total) lb of bodyweight.

* Eat FatHigher fat diets raise Testosterone levels. Also higher fat diets have a nitrogen sparing effect (which means less muscle breakdown and wasting). Usually this means over 30% of your daily calories should come from healthy fats.

* Eat more Sat Fat and Monounsaturated Fats – These are the types of fat shown to increase more Testosterone levels (Steak and Eggs!). Also your body uses Cholesterol to build the hormone Testosterone (another plug for steak and eggs). If you are still weary about fat and cholesterol, you can read this excellent article and make up your own mind about it. Oh and Zinc is also key to T-levels (3rd plug for steak and eggs).

* Do not eat low calorie – Doing this too often will just cause a drop off in T-levels.

* Get your Sleep – As we talked about in the Fat Loss article, most of your GH is produced at night. So get your sleep and build muscle in the process.

* Skip the Alcohol – I know St Patty’s day is right around the corner, but alcohol in excess drops your T-levels. So keep it to a 2 drink maximum when you do go out otherwise you won’t look too good with less muscle and more fat around your belly.

* Lose the Fat – People who are higher in fat, will always be lower in T-levels (and higher in Estrogen). So goal #1 should be to get your bodyfat lower and then worry about adding in the muscle as it will be easier at that point.

* Take Fish Oil – Omega 3s will keep you building muscle and keep cortisol levels at bay. Also improves insulin sensitivity (see below) of muscles.

* Improve Insulin Sensitivity – Insulin is necessary to shuttle in amino acids into the muscle tissues (although too much is not good!). So you need to do things to decrease insulin resistance and increase insulin sensitivity including lower carb diets, carb cycling, resistance training, losing fat, and yes…fasting.

* Eat Your Veggies – Especially broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage that help to keep the Estrogen levels low (High Estrogen=Low Testosterone). This is also a good anti-cancer strategy especially in women.

* Improve your Gut Health – If you improve your health, your digestion improves and you improve the amount of nutrients/vitamins/minerals that your body can digest/absorb/utilize. Taking things such as digestive enzymes with meal may give you more use of the food you are eating. Oh yeah….fasting also helps to improve gut health!

* Detox Your Body – Get rid of all those toxins, take the toxins out of your daily lifestyle (food, drink, water, air, skin) and let your organs like the liver and kidneys work at more optimal levels. A healthy body will always reflect it and look that way as well.

* Train the Right Way – You want muscles? Then learn how to train them quickly and effectively with resistance training. Start with compound movements first to get the hormones up. Lift heavy and with shorter rest periods (reps of 5-10 with 30-60 sec rest between sets). Do enough volume (25-50 total reps per exercise….5×5, 3×10, etc). Keep the intensity high. Get your workout done in 30-45 min. Lift only 2-3x week (most people only need 2x if they are intense enough….as muscles do NOT grow in the gym, you need recovery!)

* Less Cardio – Too much too often will just waste muscle, lower T-levels and hamper any attempt you have at building muscle. If you want to do something, make it short and intense to keep GH levels high and cortisol levels low. This is why you will never see a chronic jogger with alot (if any) muscle…unless they are eating 5000 cal a day or taking some other type of cortisol suppressing hormone “supplement”. Here’s a good read on danger of the cardio obsession so many people have nowadays.

* Eat Post Workout – As you muscles are primed with high insulin sensitivity for a healthy protein+carb meal. Your window goes from 30min to 3 hours. Best is to eat small but frequent meals (not just one big one). Some people may benefit from a quick amino acid + carb drink (but if your main goal for now is weight loss, skip this!)

So if you are spending 5 days a week at the gym and never seeing results, go over the list about and realize you have to look at the whole picture. You can build plenty of muscle only lifting 2x a week and having the right lifestyle around to support it. If you can master these things and learn how to control your eating, lifting and recovery you will build plenty of muscle. Wouldn’t it also be great if you could do this all while improving your health, losing fat, gaining muscle , detoxifying your body, reducing insulin resistance and eating less calories overall to help extend your lifespan? Could that be…..IF?

Mark’s Daily Apple Note: Thanks to Mike O’Donnell of

The IF Life

for the great Guest Post!

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38 thoughts on “Guest Post – Building Muscle 101: Master the Basics”

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  1. Lots of good info. We certainly don’t want to lose that testosterone.

    I have to say that the last thing we want to do is to keep our cortisol levels low. If they’re “low” you won’t be jogging to the mailbox, let alone long distance. We don’t want them low or high, but just right!

  2. Crystal – You are correct, cortisol is what gets us out of the bed in the morning. (as many suffering from chronic fatigue have very low fasting cortisol AM levels, and that’s when they should be their highest to elevate blood glucose levels). However chronic elevated cortisol is not good in terms of keeping muscle and burning fat all day long. More intense anaerobic exercises that stimulate GH (resistance training, intervals, etc) can self-regulate cortisol, while other extended aerobic exercise (aka hours of jogging) will just elevate cortisol over 45min (in a non-muscle saving environment, no GH stimulation) . Vit C in divided doses has also shown to keep cortisol levels in check. Also another good reason to relax and not stress out too much, and get good sleep.

  3. Most of the list agrees with the conclusions I’ve reached from my studies (and I’m still a “student” in these matters), but I do have a couple of quibbles.

    First, eating immediately after workout: I was just reading a couple of weeks ago on one of the kindred blogs (sorry, can’t find it now) that this is the worst thing you can do. Supposedly the best growth hormone (IGF?) is active immediately after exercise and gets pushed down if you eat. Anyone else read that? (And can find the reference?)

    You mention low-carb favorably, then a few paragraphs later are referring to “a healthy protein+carb meal.” I would consider this to be a contradiction in terms. Even if I stopped doing low-carb for some reason, my fall-back would be Food Combining (“Don’t mix foods that fight!”) I don’t believe it’s optimal to ask your stomach to digest dissimilar substances at the same time.

    Intermittent Fasting: I guess I’ll get an argument on this one, but … well, Mike Eades surveyed this comprehensively a while back and seems to have concluded that maybe it didn’t live up to its promise. Not saying it’s worthless (I don’t know, frankly) — just saying let’s see some evidence in human beings (not worms).


  4. Chainey: You’re probably thinking of Devany who comes down rather hard against both post-workout protein replacement, and the practice of eating several small meals a day.

  5. If goal #1 is to lose fat but you don’t recommend much cardio (and no traditional type cardio) then what is your recommendation for losing the fat? Purely by managing nutrition?

    Also, other than the aphorism about women not being able to bulk out from weight lifting (something I disagree with btw – a woman may not get as large as a man but plenty of women can put on sizeable muscle to the point where it is bulk and not just “tone”) you don’t address the gender disparity at all. There has been some interesting new research about the different ways that men & women benefit from exercise (I know you’ve read it! You guys are so comprehensive there’s no way it would have slipped under your radar.) with effects of cardio being one of the main differences. I’d be interested in hearing more on your take on the gender differences.

    Thanks for the great list!

  6. Chainey – Good questions. The PWO window is a widely debated topic about prime muscle glycogen replenishment and amino acid intake into muscles (mostly pushed by the supplement industry). My advice is based more on whole food “carbs” (complex version) after a workout in the following hours where insulin sensitivity should be at it highest. Whole food carb sources are always the top choice hands down and you really don’t need that much. (as some people’s carb intakes can vary from 30g-130g daily depending on their activity level, recovery needs and goals on fat loss and muscle gain). In my own personal opinion, the food combining fear is much overdone and many never find an issue with it. As for IF…I have a whole blog dedicated to the research and practical applications of it…and like any eating plan, some ways work…other ways do not. Many find great benefit from it, but it has to work for you and your lifestyle. (no different than eating plans all day long) I dissected Eades’ story here (and he is a very smart man, much smarter than me), as he is right in one way…but doesn’t really mean he covered all aspects of IF.
    (and if you want to see more mammal based research, you can google SIRT1, the longevity gene from CR/IF studies, and see what pops up on mice studies (not worms) for longevity aspects)

    Charlotte – I didn’t mean to imply all cardio was bad, more along the lines of “excessive” cardio (as I know too many people who think that more is better when it comes to cardio and then wonder why they can’t burn fat with 3 spin classes and jogging 10 miles a day..maybe a slight exageration but you get the idea). Fat loss is more about the hormonal signals from nutrition and exercise, and the calorie deficit state daily (compared to metabolism) that can come from both proper diet and activity level. When in doubt, cardio should not be over 30-45 minutes and intensity is the key. You could always do fasted cardio too. As for men vs women, are you talking more about where fat stores are or exercise responses? Many women build muscle, but still don’t burn enough fat…aka look bigger. (also consider the fact that muscle is mostly water) Fat is much bigger than muscle, so dropping 3lbs of fat…and gaining 3lbs of muscle…should still have you dropping a couple dress sizes.

  7. Charlotte: I think you’re working off a misconception. The recommendation is to avoid the high intensity, long duration cardio that so many people embrace like the hour long spinning classes with HR constantly at 80% of max or more. Mark cites his cardio coming in the form of hiking, playing ultimate frisbee, bicycling, etc. Doing Crossfit-like circuit training also helps.

  8. Dave C. – Thanks for trying to help me! I think I’m quite clear about what cardio Mark advocates. I have read his Case Against Cardio article at least a dozen times and have spent a fair amount of time thinking about it. The problem for me is that when I only do the cardio as he instructs, the weight piles on. When I add in the hour-long spin classes etc. then the weight comes back off. Unfortunately, with the high intensity cardio I also get mad carb/sugar cravings. I am quite unsettled about the issue – I want to believe Mark’s way works and indeed it does seem to work for a lot of… men. That’s why I am wondering about the gender differences in regards to cardio. Any women do Mark’s plan as written and get great results?

    Also, I do do crossfit and have seen great results in regards to building muscle with it. I just have to add cardio to it:)

    1. Charlotte, long endurance cardio sessions use aerobic, slow muscle fibers which will not help increase lean muscle. As for fatloss, these chronic cardio workouts will increase cortisol too high and actually can be counterproductive which the majority of women seem to be unaware of. Resistance training is key to both muscle gain and fat loss. The rules dont really change. I’ve found through my many years of research, Kinesiology, and nutrition study that the same foods and same ways of training work for both goals(muscle increase/fat mass decrease).

  9. Charlotte-
    I don’t think that Mark’s plan only applies to men. There must be something else going on.

    I was a die hard spinner, jogger, boxer, stepper for many years. I even did a 3 hour spin class once just for fun.

    I didn’t stop by choice but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to hour long cardio sessions. I thought I’d gain weight, but I haven’t.

  10. Charlotte – If you do some High intensity stuff, and then follow that with a lower paced “cardio” you can lose weight. Kind of like how DeVany will say he goes for a walk/plays Basketball after lifting. It has to do with depleting muscle/liver glycogen and getting the body to burn fat. If you are having issues burning fat it could be a low thyroid output (or more low T4-T3 conversion). Cardio or what I like to call an active lifestyle is needed for many people (especially getting that stubborn fat off). Oh yeah….I forgot the above article is also about building muscle too (so many need to drop their excess cardio to start putting on muscle…assuming they are already lean enough)

  11. Charlotte: Sorry for the miscommunication. But when you said:

    If goal #1 is to lose fat but you don’t recommend much cardio (and no traditional type cardio)

    that triggered my response. Mark recommends going for walks with a little pace, and cycling without your tongue dragging, and I consider those traditional type cardio…just not at an intense level.

  12. Charlotte – I’m sure someone will disagree with me, but high-intensity cardio does burn more calories. Unfortunately, the high amount of cortisol will also tend to break muscle down. The result is lower weight, of course, but some of the weight can be muscle as well as fat, which isn’t such a great thing.

    With regard to weightlifting, you have to weigh how much type I vs. type II muscle fiber you’re naturally endowed with. If you have more type II, then yes, muscle will tend to “bulk” on faster. If you have more type I, then you can weightlift for months on end without really bulking up. Figuring out which muscle fiber type is more predominate in your body will help you determine what type of weightlifting is best for you to achieve your goals (heavy weight with low reps vs. light weight with high reps). Just ask yourself honestly, “Do I gain muscle fast or slow?”

    As for the cardio, I don’t think LSD (long slow distance) is the way to go, but hanging out at your anaerobic threshold (the typical spin class) isn’t great either. May I suggest something? I don’t know if you’re familiar with these terms, but if you’ve ever heard of your AeT or upper aerobic threshold (right around 80 percent of max), I’d suggest an hour or so of cardio in that range, two or three times per week. It’s high enough to improve your cardiorespiratory endurance but not so high that it kicks out lots of cortisol or breaks down muscle. As a result you feel fresher when you do it, so you won’t dread your workouts.

    If you’re interested, I can tell you how you can figure out your AeT, but it’s complicated enough that it probably doesn’t belong here.

  13. Crystal – Yay, a girl! I’m interested in hearing more about what your specific workout routine is. Also, do you adhere to the paleo diet? And although you didn’t gain weight did your bodyfat % stay the same? Did you lose/gain muscle?

    Mike OD – LOVE your articles on IF. I also enjoyed your fat-loss article. It’s really more scientific than personal for me. I’m already at a very low body fat % (for a woman) and at a low weight so I’m not interested in going lower – I’d just like to maintain. It just seems to me that through observation of myself and other women that we need more cardio than men. As for your 45 min limit – is that weights and cardio combined? Or each?

    Dave C – thanks for the clarification! I guess it all depends on your definition of intensity.

    Caloi – thanks for the detailed response! I’m a numbers girl so I do know my AeT/AT as well as my VO2 max, body fat %, lean muscle mass, RMR etc. If there’s a number, chances are I know it:) What you are saying is pretty much what I’m already doing – going for an hour at about 80% of max – but I thought that was exactly what Mark, Dave C. and Mike OD are saying NOT to do.

    And yeah, got a lot of slow-twitch fibers. I don’t put on muscle easily but I have several friends that do. They really bulked out on CrossFit and were NOT pleased. Worked well for me though.

  14. I’m saying don’t do it if you are trying to follow Mark’s concept of the Primal Blueprint. My take on that is that it is better for you in the long term to avoid a lot of training at that level. But if your goals include kicking ass at the Turkey Trok 10K or some other form of competition, I don’t think a couple hours of Ultimate Frisbee is gonna hack it.

  15. REALLY great article, Mike, thanks so much for the concise and informative overview. I spent months looking for something like this last year.

    I have a question about the “lose weight” part. I recently dropped 40 lbs to ~11% BF, and have since been trying to add muscle back on. I am seeing some small gains (trying to figure out how to optimize further), but it seems impossible (at least I’ve read this) to put on muscle without putting on at least some fat, too, since I’m on a caloric surplus.

    So now I’m more like 12%, and my question is this: at what point do you say, “OK, too much fat now, time to go back to caloric deficit”? Should I try to get under 10% and stay there (ie, cycle between 8 and 10%), or is the threshold at which bodyfat negatively affects T-levels higher?

  16. Girl here. Maybe I’m a bad example because I don’t count anything or follow #’s. I am 38 years old and have been active most of my life. I’ve been a gym rat for the last 15 years.

    For the first few years I followed the typical low-fat, low-calorie diet with lots of aerobic training. I loved it but I couldn’t lose weight either. I kept doing it because that is what I was taught to do. Then, a few years ago, I changed my diet. I eat quality protein/eggs/nuts, a lot of fat by most standards, fruits and vegetables-more or less. I lost 25 lbs. and maintained.

    The last few months I’ve really cut down on cardio but I keep up with the weight training. I don’t know my % body fat right now and haven’t weighed in awhile but my clothes fit the same. I don’t think I’ve lost muscle. I actually have pretty good muscle tone and I wouldn’t consider myself bulky.

    I am hypo-girl and adrenal-girl (secondary adrenal insufficiency-pituitary) as well so this plays a big part for me. There are so many burned out athletes. As mentioned earlier, the body just can’t take the constant stress(cortisol demands). Once the adrenals can’t pump out enough cortisol, the thyroid goes down hill as well-weight gain.

    We probably all know people that work their butts off trying to lose weight and it just doesn’t happen. I agree with Mark, 80% of it is diet. I do understand, it does seem that men have a much easier time when it comes to weight loss.

  17. Daniel – First off congrats on losing 40lbs, that is great. Ideally for men 8-10% is pretty good. You actually can gain muscle on a calorie deficit diet (just look at people who do the Zone and gain muscle and lose fat while eating less…or IF too). The best results for that are more higher fat intake, moderate amounts of protein (but making sure you are getting around 1g/lb of bw to put on muscle) and carbs but usually lower or cycled around workout pwo. Most weight gain is going to come from carb spillover where the muscles are not absorbing and it goes right into fat cells. Because people have individualistic insulin sensitivity, you have to fine tune to find your “spillover” point…as many do well at higher carb levels..and some need lower. Fat is high enough to keep your hormones going strong and also keep calories up to gain the lbs. Gaining real and lasting muscle is a slow process, not like saying that you can gain 20lbs in 2 weeks…knowing that is it mostly water and excess glycogen storage in a muscle…that can be gone in a couple weeks of low carb eating. More lasting muscles take time, but are well worth it. When in doubt…eat a little more protein…or workout less (2-3x a week max of strength/high intensity), as those usually the 2 biggest things people do not do correctly.

  18. Charlotte – 45 min total for more higher intensity stuff (lifting, running, Higher HR cardio based activities). After that cortisol starts taking over. If you are doing lower intensity like walking or hiking, you can probably do longer as it doesn’t spike your cortisol. Also Vit C in divided doses has shown to keep cortisol levels at bay, so take them pre-wo, pwo, before bed or just during very stressful times. Good fat burning program is to do something high intensity for 20-30min (weights/intervals) and then go lower intensity for another 30min to burn the fat that is now released by your body. Of course diet is also a huge factor for weight loss, so make sure that is under control.

  19. You guys are just a wealth of knowledge. I feel a little bad picking your brains all the time while not having a lot to give back but do know that I really appreciate the help & the advice! Thanks everyone for clarifying it for me. And Crystal, thanks for telling me more about your story. I’d never thought of the long-term effects of overtraining on my thyroid.

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  21. Regarding high-intensity cardio: Can’t simply increasing protein intake offset the potential for muscle-wasting? I’m about to start training for the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall.

    Charlotte–I laid off running in ’04 as soon as I noticed amazing, rapid results from increasing protein/skipping simple carbs AND switching to 10-min twice-a-day weight workouts without rests. I can’t believe that’s all it took to finally shed the fat and see muscle definition.

  22. I’ve been eating large amounts of steak, eggs, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage…basically everything that is stated to reduce estrogen and increase testosterone. Is this really something that a menopausal woman should be doing? And if so, why?
    Thanks kindly for any feedback…

  23. “Insulin – Using this properly can help to stimulate more muscle building by bringing in more amino acids into the muscles”

    How can we use insulin properly for muscle building?

    I’d imagine immediately have some carbs post workout with some protein. But I’ve read on another post that carbs aren’t nessesary post-workout…

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  25. The main thing I liked about this post is that you have explained almost all the required thinks about muscle building. Thank you for making and sharing this post.

  26. Excellent article. You seem to have brought together and summarized all the points required for muscle growth. Though I don’t agree your point about it being best to eat small and frequently. If you calorie/macronutrient intake is the same it makes no difference.

    I never had any success with twice per week training but I think I’ll try it again when I start my fat loss program, as you can’t train so often when in calorie deficit anyway.

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  31. Good points. If you want to build muscles try deadlifting, squats, bent over rowing, bench press, dips, pull ups.