A Sustainable Approach to Gaining Muscle

We’re making the distinction between muscle stamina, neurological control, and gaining muscle mass.

Most people get into the lifting game to look better. Sure, many start training because of sports, but for the vast majority, it is a twinge of vanity that pulls them to the gym after they no longer have to train. Guys go to the gym to hit the mirror muscles and take far too many water breaks by the pretty ladies on the stair stepper. All they learn is a litany of training fallacies and proverbs: “do fasted cardio first thing in the morning and you’ll burn only fat because there is nothing in your belly,” or “in your mass phase, eat anything that isn’t nailed down.”

Whether endomorph, ectomorph, or mesomorph, most come into the fall excited about a season of hoodies, buffets, and football weekends full of wings and pizza. They have been given carte blanche to eat and we Americans do nothing better.

Still, the eat anything fallacy is responsible for a lot of frustration among young lifters anxious for the confidence that comes with larger muscles and more definition. They gorge themselves eating whatever they could possibly want and, consequently, they do get stronger. While it comes at a cost to their health and stamina, this is a very effective method of adding strength and muscle fast.

Unfortunately, around February it occurs to them that they feel terrible and look bloated. Strong muscles are hard to perceive under the extra coating they’ve earned. With spring vacations, warm weather, and pool days around the corner a feeling of panic sets in.

They’d been a little too carefree, a little too indulgent. Now they commit to the most brutal, soul-sucking routine they can find. Fasted cardio every morning and evening in addition to their four weekly lifts.

They live on egg whites, chicken breast, broccoli, and spinach. The world loses color, as they rapidly lose their waste. Of course, despite their expertly timed meals, they are shedding muscle and losing that hard-earned strength just as fast.

Do Not Yo-Yo

It is a yo-yo that keeps your body in constant flux and creates a consistent need to radically alter your body-image. For most, cutting is thrown by the wayside after a few weeks. They realize the terrible neuroticism born from tracking every ounce and can’t wait to simply enjoy life again.

For those who don’t quit, this process will be a clumsy, frustrating one full of second-guessing and the guilt that follows every lapse. When next fall comes around, they’ll be so overjoyed they won’t care that the whole process starts over.

More often than not, extremes should be avoided. This is difficult particularly in the training realm because extremes are what sell. Insanity sells. Variations of the article “how to lose fat without losing muscle” sell and that is why a new version is released every five minutes.

It is important to make the distinction between muscle stamina, neurological control, and gaining muscle mass. Often neurological changes in previously untrained exercisers create the impression that muscle is being gained, while fat is torched.

The reality is, it is virtually impossible to gain muscle while losing fat. Your body cannot be anabolic (building itself up) and catabolic (breaking itself down) at the same time. This is why the best long-term approach to any goal is slow and steady.

There Is a Better Way

Let’s say you gained 40lbs last fall and winter, consisting of 20lbs of fat and 20lbs of muscle. Then in the spring and summer, you lost 40lbs (22lbs of fat and 18lbs of muscle). These numbers are completely arbitrary, yet realistic.

In this scenario, you net a 2lb fat loss and a 2lb muscle gain. In my experience, that’s a best-case scenario that won’t be duplicated because of the metabolic damage incurred. The urge to get where you were going quickly meant you were rarely satisfied with your physique at any point along the way.

Additionally, your strategy kept you in an unhealthy state, whether that meant bombarding your system with processed junk or wrecking your metabolism while becoming nutrient deficient and chronically stressed. Unfortunately, these are the deeply unhealthy norms that drive a large portion of the fitness industry.

What if there was a healthier way to accomplish your end goal: get stronger and look better? What if you never gained all that fat in the first place? What if you could have a couple margaritas any week throughout the year without a huge step backward?

Nutrition researcher Alan Aragon, co-author of the Lean Muscle Diet, estimates that a beginning trainee can gain 2-3 pounds of lean muscle in a month with little fat gain—more experienced lifters can gain 1-2 pounds within the same timeframe.

Likewise, reducing fat while maintaining muscle is highly dependent on training experience and your current physique. Those who are already pretty lean can safely lose a half pound a week, while more overweight clients may be able to lose 2lbs or more per week. That means you could conservatively add 1lb of muscle per month for two months and then cut a half pound a month for two months.

By repeating this pattern three times throughout the year you would end up netting 6lbs of lean muscle gain with a 3lb loss of fat. For more out of shape and detrained individuals, the results would almost certainly be more drastic.

Even better, you’d never have to count calories or endure severe restriction and you could still go enjoy an occasional pizza or ice cream cone. By avoiding extremes you create a balanced approach that allows for dabbling in treats without losing your mind for a season.

First, you need to identify a sustainable approach to eating.. While your nutrition can be improved over time, it is never drastic and never requires you to white-knuckle your way through the week. Once your habits and routines are set, any change in goal, whether gaining lean mass or losing fat, only requires a small change in habits.

For example, when cutting fat you might eliminate your mid-morning mixed nut snack or substitute something lighter like snap peas. Additionally, you might eliminate rice, sweet potatoes, and other starches from the dinner menu and substitute squash, zucchini, asparagus, or Brussel sprouts.

If you had ice cream every week in addition to your Saturday evening cheat meal, this could become a once a month treat. In this way, you preserve your metabolism and create sustainable, healthy change. No meal or workout will make or break you. Relax and play the long game.

To gain weight, make the opposite shift. You might add back in a handful of mixed nuts for lunch every day. Perhaps you begin putting peanut butter on your apple, and adding guacamole to your omelet in the morning (don’t dog, until you try it).

Healthy weight loss and weight gain are simple, really. Try to eat mostly whole foods that existed 10,000 years ago. Eat more and lift at greater volumes to gain. If that doesn’t work, lean on healthy fats while adding starches close to activity. To lose fat you’ll want to slightly restrict calories, increase protein, and keep heavy lifts in the program to signal to your body that it needs to keep muscle.

The Approach Is Simple

Many of you are balking at the simplicity of this approach. To some degree you are right. This plan will not win you first place in a physique contest. That requires meticulous tracking, planning, and restricting everything from sodium to joy.

Still, some of you want me to tell you that you need exactly 500 fewer calories per day. The reality is life is not that exact of a science. How do you know you burned 800 more calories today? Remember, last week you mowed the lawn and did some spring cleaning. Did you factor in those calories? Did you account for the fact that you had to sit through meetings all day?

The scale is often misleading. Much of the weight you lose early on in a cutting effort is water weight and a consequence of emptier stomachs at weigh in. I believe in mindful eating, but mentally tracking every nibble is not sustainable and not a healthy long-term habit. If your plan is too complex or requires constant math it won’t stick. Simplify your life into habits and easy to follow rules.

Play the Long Game

I’ll be honest, this was a difficult message for me to put together because I am wary of contributing to some of the very unhealthy norms common in fitness and popular society. There is nothing wrong with wanting to gain muscle. Most of the young athletes I work with share that goal. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with cutting fat. The issues arise from the extremes common in the fitness community.

Avoid extremes and quick fixes and play the long game. If you aren’t convinced, I encourage you to ask yourself, why do you want to obsess upon arbitrarily defined body fat percentages and weight goals? Why is that six pack such a big deal and at what point will it be defined enough for you? Why do you feel the need to gain 40lbs of muscle by tomorrow? What is the smartest way to get to where you want to be in a year? Often a little perspective and balance can go a long way in preventing extra stress and work.

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