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?

Winter Molt Challenge: Week 1

The first week is over and, so far, it’s going particularly well. I stuck to the plan as far as my workouts go and completed all three throughout the week. In addition to that, I was able to mostly stick to a diet of primarily protein and fat and avoid grains all week long. Surprisingly, I was rewarded for my efforts this morning with the scale telling me I am now 198 lbs. That means, in this week alone, I managed to lose 8 pounds. Considering my goal requires roughly 3 pounds lost per week, that’s a really great first step.

That being said, it may have been mostly water weight or some other factor which will either be quickly replaced or not reflected in the rate of the rest of my progress throughout the challenge. Regardless, it also gives me a little bit of leeway. Assuming I don’t put any of that weight back on, my weekly target has now dropped from around 3 lbs lost per week to around 2.5 lbs lost per week.

That will probably come in handy since I have three Thanksgiving dinners to deal with, one on the 12th at our house, one on Thanksgiving day at my parents’ house and then one the day after at Caroline’s.

Summary:
Weight lost: 8 lbs.
Days left: 134
Weight left to lose: 48 lbs.
Current Goal Loss Rate: 2.5 lbs/week
Current Average Loss Rate: 8 lbs/week

This Week’s Lesson:
It may all come right back, it might be all water weight, it might just be an error with the digital scale – regardless, it does seem that it is possible to lose a lot more weight in a short period of time than I would have thought without resorting to unhealthy/unsustainable methods. It’s important not to let large, immediate gains like this get to you though since it can convince you to slack off. It remains to be seen if the remainder of the challenge will be this easy, or if it will get progressively harder to lose weight the closer I get to my goal.

Winter Molt Challenge: The Method

Yesterday I introduced the first challenge I’m going to undertake as a part of our Road to Epic project, losing 56 pounds in 141 days (20 weeks and 1 day). Today I’m going to outline my plan for how to accomplish my goal.

Boiled down to its essentials, losing fat and building muscle is a process determined entirely by two variables – how you use your body and what you put into it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it’s diet and exercise.

The Diet Parameters

For me, since my primary goal for this challenge is weight loss and muscle gain is a related but secondary goal I think the most important variable for me to focus on of the the two is going to be diet.

The obvious scientific option would be to come up with 3 meals that fit a desirable nutrient profile and stay within a set caloric range. For example, three meals that include items which have a full range of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and have the right balance of Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates, which all add up to an amount of calories that would keep me nourished but in a state of overall caloric deficit.

Each of these meals would be carefully weighed when prepared, and I would eat nothing but one of each of those three meals everyday for the duration of my challenge. That way, for the entire 141 days, I would know precisely my daily caloric intake and all the work of eating healthy would be done for me since I would have removed the option of choice.

Unfortunately, I see two problems with this. The first is the issue of willpower, temptation and my current situation. Not only do I think I would lack the willpower to not deviate from the set diet, even if a weekly off day were allowed, I currently work at a Korean restaurant and most of my meals are provided by them. Due to the somewhat unique situation there it would be really difficult for me to take my own meals.

The second issue is the fact that, like a lot of fad diets, this very robotic plan doesn’t really help me build good eating habits for when the challenge ends. There would be a very good chance that, upon reaching my goal and terminating that diet ritual, I would just fall back into old habits and pack the weight back on. I need to find ways to shift my eating habits that instill new good habits, rather than just temporarily removing my freedom of choice to engage in the bad ones.

I need to build eating habits that I can stay with for the rest of my life. That means that those eating habits need to be optimized for at least three things, losing/keeping off weight, promoting optimal health and building muscle.

Based on those three parameters, I think the best option is to follow something akin to the way Jack LaLanne has professed to eating – a rough paleo/primal diet. I don’t strictly mean the Paleo Diet as outlined by Loren Cordain, there are some points he advocates that I find doubtful, but rather an adherence to the more general core principles shared by the majority of primal eating advocates.

Distilled into a list, it goes like this:

  • Lots of meat, particularly including organ meat.
  • Lots of vegetables, with the few restrictions listed below.
  • As few grains as possible, as few legumes as possible and as few carbohydrate heavy vegetables as possible (starches, etc.)
  • No processed or refined foods. To quote LaLanne, ‘If Man made it, don’t eat it.’

That’s it. Lots of protein, lots of fat, very few carbohydrates and no processed garbage. Additionally, I expect this to realistically encompass about 95% of my actual diet. In other words, I expect to deviate from those rules at least 5% of the time, and that’s fine. I intend to research and refine these principles as we go, in order to do this as efficiently and scientifically as possible.

The Exercise Parameters

I don’t yet have nearly as solid of a plan formulated for how to manipulate the exercise variable in my favor as I do for the diet variable. I do know that, like the parameters set for my diet, those set for my new exercise habits need to fit some set criteria.

First, I want it to be something that is sustainable. I imagine, like the robotic diet mentioned above, I could formulate a very rigid, scientific exercise program that would achieve my challenge goal, but fall apart after I was finished. Any fitness plan I come up with needs to help me reach my challenge goal, but also be something that is feasibly able to continue indefinitely.

Second, it needs to be built around principles of increasing all areas of my physical fitness. While just focusing on calories burned would likely be the most efficient for my short term goals, partially in order to satisfy the first parameter, I want something that will improve as many areas of my physical fitness as possible.

Third, it needs to be built around things that I can do with my severely limited amount of equipment and extra funds. Exercise on a serious budget.

It will take some research and testing to figure out what will work best. In the interest of getting started with something immediately, I plan to do as follows:

For the first week I’ll start with only strength workouts to get back into the habit of exercise. The strength workout will be done 3 days out of the week with at least 1 rest day in-between each and will consist of 5 sets of 5 reps of squats with my sandbags, handstand pushups, and pull-ups as well as 5 planks for as long as possible.

In the second week, I will add in daily high intensity interval training. I’m not sure if I’ll go for sprints or some other exercise since the weather is quickly turning very cold, but we’ll see.

Eventually, I would also like to add in some flexibility training, but I’m going to worry about that later since it really doesn’t directly contribute to the goal of the challenge.

Does anyone have any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments.

The Winter Molt Challenge: Losing 56 lbs. in Under 4 Months

For my first challenge, I have decided to tackle something that I’ve struggled with for quite some time now – fitness. After all, being fat bars me from performing as well as I would like in a variety of skills which I’m currently pursuing such as parkour, martial arts and b-boying. Being fat is, in almost every way, a direct obstacle to being epic.

As I mentioned, this is an old fight for me. Back when I was a teenager I was a self-described butter-sucking eat beast topping out at one point at around 300 pounds. I fought hard to fix a whole lot of bad habits and, at 23 years old, am now a slightly more respectable 206 pounds.

Something happened though, after that final transition from monstrous to just plain chubby. I’m not sure if it’s just an issue of complacency, or other things in my life (college, work etc.) getting in the way but I’ve never been able to break that 200 pound line. I fight for a little while, and then I just kind of fall out of it and bounce back to where I was.

That is precisely why I have chosen it as my first Road to Epic challenge.

Starting today, November 1st (both the 1st of the month and a Monday, about as auspicious a date as I could hope for) I will challenge myself to reach my goal of 150 lbs. by the vernal equinox, March 21st. That gives me a little under 4 months to drop 56 lbs., or a little under 3 lbs. lost per week.

Along the way I’ll deconstruct everything I’m doing and examine what works and what doesn’t, providing all of you with progress reports and helpful tips as I go.

Anyone who is interested in taking the challenge with me should feel free to comment with your progress and any tips you may want to add.

Update: Here are some links to the rest of the articles in this challenge.
The Method I’ll be Following.
Results of Week 1.
Results of Week 2.
Results of Weeks 3 & 4.
Final Results.

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