How to Pack On Muscle

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When it comes to losing weight, one of the best things one can do is pack on more lean muscle. This is an obvious thing, in my opinion, but given the number of weight loss programs I see advocating what seems like nothing but incessant, mindless cardio I think it needs to be stated. To put it simply, all that additional lean muscle requires energy to stay around, the more energy those muscles take up the less there is hanging around to become adipose tissue (that jiggly stuff hanging off your gut).

Since I’m under the deadline of a challenge I’m interested in pursuing the most efficient method for putting on muscle and losing fat. Since my concern is ultimately utilitarian (i.e., I want to be fit to increase my ability to do things, not just to have big showy muscles) I’m also interested in a method that builds strength with as little overall mass increase as possible. The solution?

Lift very heavy things.

Or, rather, lift very heavy things in compound exercises. Why? Three main reasons – Testosterone, Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1.

Testosterone

Please, ladies, do not be scared of doing things that will increase your body’s production of Testosterone. Testosterone will not turn you into She-Hulk. (Though anabolic steroids might, so please stay away from those.) What Testosterone will do is increase the efficiency of protein synthesis, facilitate the functioning of Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1, which we’ll get to in a second, and keeps the body in an anabolic state (that means putting on muscle, and losing fat).

Human Growth Hormone

Three points to whomever can guess what Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is responsible for. Yep, growth. We don’t mean growth like getting taller mind you, we mean muscle growth. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a good thing for anyone with the goal of putting on some muscle, but what you may not know is elevated levels of HGH in your body also cause to burn fat faster. More HGH means more muscle and less fat.

Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1

Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) completes our trifecta of hormones you should very much care about if you want to put on some muscle. IGF-1 is produced in the liver as a result of HGH stimulation and works together with HGH to promote muscle growth.

All three of these hormones work in concert to make you stronger and leaner. So how do you get more of them? Thankfully, not in any way involving needles or pills. You get them by working with your old friend, your central nervous system.

Where the Heavy Lifting Comes In

The thing about your CNS is, you really can’t lie to it. It knows when you’re really being serious about working out and it’s not interested in compromise. To get your CNS to cough up some of these lovely anabolic hormones, you have to give it something intense to convince it you’re serious. This means one of two things, lift something really heavy in a way that utilizes a whole bunch of muscles, or do something really taxing like sprints or HIIT.

Isolation exercises or low weight high rep stuff just won’t do it. Lift a substantially heavy weight in a compound exercise like a squat though and your CNS gets the message. Once it sees that you’re doing things that are genuinely taxing your whole body, it wakes up your hypothalamus which in turn goes and has a talk with your pituitary gland. The pituitary sets in motion the process for more Testosterone to be produced, and then starts synthesizing HGH on its own. The presence of all that Testosterone and HGH kick your liver into IGF-1 production mode, and the end result is a happy hormonal environment that’s telling your body to pack on the muscle and burn off the fat.

So What Do I Do?

So now you get how it works, but what should you actually do? Personally, I’m fond of a 3 times per week 5×5 system of a few different compound exercises. No clue what that means? I’ll break it down.

The first step is finding some compound exercises. These are exercises that hit a whole bunch of muscles, instead of just one or two. Generally, if an exercise is named after a muscle (bicep curls, lat pulldowns, etc.) it’s probably not a compound exercise. Some good compound exercises are squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, clean and jerks, power cleans, snatches, dips and presses among others. If you’re not sure what any of these are, please either research them and make sure you know how to do them properly or find someone qualified to show you how. Doing these exercises improperly, particularly with heavy loads, can seriously hurt you.

The second step is finding an appropriate weight. The weight you choose should be heavy enough that you should just be able to do five repetitions before your form starts to degrade, but not so heavy that you can’t maintain good form for any of those five reps. This will vary from exercise to exercise, and will obviously increase over time, so you’ll have to experiment a little to find what’s right for you.

Putting these together is as simple as picking one pulling exercise and one pushing exercise, and then doing those two with squats. Most people (myself included) recommend both changing it up a bit, and including deadlifts as one of those exercises at least once a week. More than once a week may not be advisable, as deadlifts are awfully taxing, but you really need them at least once a week.

Since the goal here is intensity, it’s best to stick to about 3 workouts a week with at least a day of rest in between each. I prefer Monday, Wednesday, Friday personally. Any more than that and you risk overstressing your CNS and loading your body up with cortisol. That’s not a good thing.

Here’s a sample workout just to get you started:

Monday:
Squats 5×5
Pull-Ups 5xFailure (unless you can do more than 8 or 9 pull-ups before hitting the point of failure, in which case add weight until it gets down closer to 5)
Bench Press 5×5

Wednesday:
Squats 5×5
Deadlifts 5×5
Overhead Press 5×5

Friday:
Squats 5×5 (do you see a pattern?)
Pull-Ups 5xFailure
Bench Press 5×5

After the first week you can mix the order around a little, as long as you stick to the principle of squats, one pulling exercise and one pushing exercise. Also, as I mentioned, deadlifts can be awfully taxing. If you have to, it’s better to cut down to a really heavy weight for a single set of 5 reps, than do the full 5×5, get exhausted, succumb to poor form and hurt yourself.

Lastly, make sure to get enough sleep and to eat properly (and eat enough). This routine is extremely hard on your CNS, which means you need to pay a lot of attention to your recovery or you might wind up taking one step forward and two steps back. If you start feeling particularly worn down, or find yourself getting sick more often, slow down a little until you recover.

Have any other suggestions to add? Have you or haven’t you tried this method for yourself and what do you think?

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Lukas

    Heard of Cross Fit? Some of your ideas sound like some of their ideals. Some not. No matter, also, if you are looking for some reading material that would probably give you a different perspective on “going heavy”, Bill Starr is a great one to read. The CrossFit Journal is a wealth of fitness knowledge for 25 dollars a year. But I could maybe send you the article I have in mind if you were interested.

    all the best,

    Lukas