You may be familiar with the adage ‘train like an athlete, eat like a nutritionist, sleep like a baby, win like a champion’, and most of us know the basics to making natural lean gains, but after a while of being in a calorie surplus or deficit whilst bulking or cutting, eating clean and counting macro’s and doing anaerobic or resistance exercise, the body can hit a plateau.
Diet accounts for 80% or thereabouts, though that doesn’t mean other factors are not of significance. Make sure you do literally everything you can, in order to grow. I advocate healthy gains and due to the overlap involved I recommend you read all 3 volumes, regardless of your intended goal.
It is important to remember that while a method works for one person, it may not be so effective for someone with a different body type, gender, age, health, lifestyle, eating habits and so on. Using a bit of trial and error you can quickly find what works well for you. How much do you want it, and what are you prepared to do in order to reach your goal?
Diet & Nutrition
To increase body mass you need to consume more calories than you burn.
Bulking requires 45% protein, 35% complex carbs and 20% healthy fats.
Resistance training involves the breaking down of muscle tissue, so if you do not fuel your muscles, they won’t replenish and grow back stronger – in fact, the body will quickly steal amino acids from skeletal muscle to create new glucose, resulting in muscle loss, unless you up your quality food intake. The key is to have enough of each macro and micro-nutrient, as well as balancing it with another if you have too much causing deficiency or it interferes with absorption rate.
Proteins vary in function and combined are involved with repair and maintenance of organs and cells (not only muscle), energy with excess consumption (with elevated carb intake excess protein may store in fat cells), creation of certain hormones (insulin to regulate blood sugar, and secretin assisting digestive process), enzymes that increase the rate of chemical reactions (including digesting large protein, carb and fat molecules into smaller molecules, and assisting in the creation of DNA), transportation and storage of molecules like hemoglobin (transports oxygen throughout the body) and ferritin that combines with iron for storage in the liver, antibodies preventing infection, illness and disease alongside immune system cells, as well as structural support, bodily movement, and metabolic activity. Muscle is primarily 20% proteins, 75% water and 5% organic and inorganic compounds.
6 - 7 meals per day – Three of those containing complex carbs for glycogen stores, ATP and muscle fuel, and complete BCAA’s necessary for protein synthesis. Eat at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, although 1.5g per pound of bodyweight produces optimal results. Not all proteins are created equally, so you may need two incomplete proteins to make up the 8 essential aminos, in particular leucine, isoleucine and valine, although meat, dairy and nut sources are always complete. HMB is a metabolite of the essential amino acid leucine that is synthesized in the body. So to keep your body in an anabolic state consume between 25 – 50 grams of complete proteins (depending on needs) every three hours. Incorporate some plain natural Greek yoghurt labeled ‘contains live bacteria’ for its protein content and fibre as both are a digestion aid.
The remaining 3 - 4 meals should be made up of protein, healthy fats and green vegetables. Take a multivitamin if you need extra supplementation. Home-cooked food is best, so you’re sure the ingredients you use are quality and free of additives or flavourings.
HDL and LDL
Cholesterol is the building block to testosterone synthesis, as well as vitamin D and estrogen production. It is also an essential fat and provides stability in every cell of your body. There have been several studies that have now debunked the myth high cholesterol leads to clogged arteries and heart disease – 80% of those with heart disease did not have a high cholesterol. Research acknowledges that even high dietary cholesterol only has negligible effects on blood cholesterol. Balanced levels of LDL, HDL and triglycerides are beneficial for human health. Our glands need zinc and magnesium to get testosterone production started and our leydig cells need cholesterol and fats to create it.
While meat and dairy products are a source of external cholesterol, every cell and small intestines can create its own internal cholesterol, and the liver produces 75% using carbs, fats and proteins that break down to release carbon that the liver turns into cholesterol. One fifth of your triglyceride level also contributes to make up total cholesterol. In order to travel through the bloodstream, cholesterol is transported by lipoproteins (lipid and protein carriers); each with it’s own preference for cholesterol and each acts differently with cholesterol it carries.
The negative side is a buildup of LDL makes pumping blood through vessels harder for your heart, so those with kidney problems or low testosterone but high cholesterol, should especially keep cholesterol under control to retain their bodies renal function. Lp (a) is a genetic variation of LDL and a significant risk factor for premature development of fatty deposits in arteries, although not fully researched as yet. Triglycerides are a type of fat used to store excess energy from your diet – Elevated levels are associated with atherosclerosis, due to obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and diets high in carbs (over 60% of total calories).
Genetics play a role in absorption, although studies now show saturated fat raises blood LDL cholesterol levels more than actual dietary cholesterol. Diets low in saturated or trans fatty acids, but high in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, alongside exercise can have favourable effects on LDL blood levels. HDL cholesterol removes LDL from the arteries and back to the liver, to be broken down and passed from the body. HDL also protects you from heart disease and stroke.
Egg whites are mostly water and protein, while the yolk contains essential amino acids, lipids (fats), vitamins, trace metals, and cholesterol – a precursor for T enhancement.
Meat and dairy sources are another dietary essential in raising fats and cholesterol for T.
Omega 3 – Fish oil, Flaxseed oil, seafood, especially salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna and halibut.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – like avocado. Mash in a sandwich or wrap, chop for salad, add to omelet, or whole. Olive oil - On salad, in cooking, or straight.
Nuts – particularly walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts, peanuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts and peanuts (unsalted). You can snack on them or add to cereal, salad, yoghurt, or main meals.
Soluble fibre – Oatmeal, whole-wheat, rice, bran, barley, dried peas and beans, as well as certain fruits like prunes and apples.
Regular exercise signals your body to produce greater HDL levels.
Reduction in bodyweight has a positive effect on cholesterol.
Anthocyanins – purple fruits and vegetables contain this chemical that balances cholesterol.
Niacin (vitamin B3) prescription supplements – Check with doctor first.
Fibrates – The medications fenofibrate (lofibra, tricor) and gemfibrozil (lopid) increase HDL.
Statins – Blocks a substance your liver needs to make cholesterol and removes it from your blood. They do this by destroying cells to prevent them from reproducing, so this is not recommended.
Dark chocolate (mild to moderate) improves antioxidative action of HDL.
Red wine (mild to moderate) is beneficial for HDL.
Alcohol (mild to moderate) is linked to higher HDL, although reduces testosterone.
Plant sterols such as beta-sitosterol and sitostanol – margarine spreads.
Calcium supplementation (in postmenopausal women) increase HDL levels.
Removal of trans fatty acids and simple carb intake.
Quitting smoking will raise HDL and lower LDL levels.
Body Type & Calorie Dense
Someone with a fast metabolism is not going to gain as much mass, as a natural meso or endomorph. Lifting heavy compound movements and calorie dense foods are the key for ectomorphs, since they need to up their calories. Olive oil is a healthy fat and 2 / 3 shots or tablespoons, as well as coconut oil in your protein shakes should be sufficient extra calories, and provide other health benefits. It won’t look appealing but how badly do you want to make gains? How much is it worth? Your body effectively fasts all night, so if you have to get up in the night use that time to snack – Though I must emphasize sleep is essential to the rebuilding process. An ecto can cut back cardio, use a training log, drink at least a gallon of water per day (retention), and eat slightly dirty, adding salad cream and so on, although this does not mean to “cheat meal” or be unhealthy – 10 - 15 minutes of HIIT cardio (sprints or jump rope) a few times a week, following weights is a better alternative for hard gainers.
A 20% caloric increase or decrease is ideal for promoting muscle with minimal fat. However, this figure adjusts dependent on body type and metabolism, so an ectomorph should increase calories by 30% for gaining muscle and decrease by 10% to lose fat. Endomorphs should increase by 10% for gaining size, and lower it by 20% when trying to burn fat.
Calorie-rich foods include granola, bagels, avocados, olives, smoothies, corn, meat, nuts, organic peanut butter, goat or cows milk, yoghurt and cheese. Eat mixed beans, meat or cheese with pasta or side dishes, and snack on crackers with dip. Add calories whilst avoiding simple carbs and keeping saturated fat low – Buy a recipe book or look online and get creative with your recipes to add calories healthily. Instead of water, use milk for protein shakes, soup, sauces and hot cereals. A gallon of whole milk spaced out over a day, contains 120g protein (20% whey and 80% casein), but be consistent since drinking it 30 days will impact results more than five days – While you may grow weary, it is cheap protein, easier to consume liquids and they digest faster.
Lactose intolerant? Non-dairy alternatives include organic soya milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk, coconut milk and cashew milk. You can also try mixing whey isolate protein powder with water or one of these milk substitutes.
Pre & Post-Workout Shake
A banana before exercise is great fuel and contains potassium and B vitamins, so eat or throw into your protein shake. Blend or shake along with healthy calorie dense foods, particularly if you are an ecto and find putting on mass challenging. Olive oil and coconut oil are perfect for this task due to being calorically dense and containing medium-chain triglycerides, which is a fast absorbing healthy fat that gives your body instant energy, so when taken before a workout, it will conserve the glycogen in your muscles and you won’t become fatigued so quickly. Although they don’t mix well so get it down quickly – Nobody said it would be easy, but you do what is necessary in order to have the body you desire. With that said, you may substitute with cold-pressed liquid coconut oil.
Following training it is necessary to restore glycogen reserves using carbs and key electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, phosphate and sulfate) that are lost through sweat and intensive exercise, or vomit and diarrhea induced dehydration - In particular the replacement of sodium and potassium post-workout to keep body fluid concentrations constant. Electrolytes are electrically charged ions, post solvation, that move to either a negative (cathode) or positive (anode) electrode, thus aiding the creation of electrical impulses between cells and in turn control hydration, blood acidity, as well as organ, nerve and muscle function. The kidneys and hormones regulate electrolyte concentration balance between daily consumption and excretion; however, imbalances of surging levels or depletion can result in disorders. Sports drinks do contain electrolytes although they have a high sugar count, very much similar to that found in fruit juice, so you can also replenish electrolytes through nutritional food sources, such as table salt with sugar and water, certain nuts, seeds, beans, as well as particular fruits, vegetables and coconut water.
A quality fast absorbing whey protein powder is convenient since most people do not have the time, nor appetite to consume their entire daily protein intake purely from whole food sources, though most should come from this. Whey protein, a byproduct of cheese production, contains peptides (small proteins) increasing blood flow to muscles; vital post-workout, though you should also have it upon waking. All forms are highly bio-available and quickly absorbed into the body. Whey isolate contains a higher percentage of pure protein at 90% (and is virtually free of lactose, carbs, fat and cholesterol). Whey hydrolysate allows amino acids to be absorbed slightly more rapidly than other intact proteins, maximizing nutrient delivery to muscles. Whey concentrate is the most common and cheapest form of whey protein – It has around 29 – 89% protein, a low but significant level of fat and cholesterol, and higher bioactive compounds, carbs and lactose levels. You can take casein protein powder before bed, as it is a slow absorbing protein – Take both forms even on rest days, so you provide enough Amino Acids. Some people mix them together for a “time release” effect of fast and slow absorbing proteins. The ingestion of BCAA’s prior to exercise will reduce DOMS and muscle fatigue for several days following training.
Creatine Monohydrate, a substance naturally created in the body (2mg per day) and found in red meats that enable ATP energy to be produced quickly and minimizes protein breakdown. While the supplement is not vital, 5mg per day (one teaspoon) increases ability to lift intensely for a short period, so you may complete an extra set than usual, Drink between 9 - 12 cups or even a gallon of water a day to help your kidneys and liver function and cycle the creatine – You may feel you lose slight mass, but it is only water retention. Water is a diuretic, so drinking a lot and giving the body a steady supply, means it won’t have to be stored so you reduce overall water weight.
Glutamine, a hydrophilic amino acid that boosts immune system and prevents protein breakdown. It’s an important amino acid for heavy lifters and consists of 19% nitrogen, so is a primary transporter of nitrogen into muscle cells. After intensive workout, glutamine levels drop with no natural increase another 6 days, thus reducing strength, recovery and endurance. L-glutamine supplements minimize breakdown of muscle, enhance protein metabolism and cellular support, as well as promote secretion of growth hormone. It is ideal for cutting due to the ability to metabolize fat without losing muscle and is vital to enhance performance, as well as reduce illness that could set you back if not training. Additional benefits are its ability to maintain cell volume and hydration, to speed healing of burns and wounds. Growth hormone levels rocket by 400% with only 2grams, though it’s recommended bodybuilders take 5g, two or three times per day and ideally in the morning, after a workout and at night before sleeping. Several protein supplements already contain L-glutamine so check labels first.
A shot or tablespoon of Omega 3 fish oil every day for overall health, anti-inflammatory, muscle recovery and joint / connective tissue repair when lifting heavy and boosting testosterone.
A mass gainer is simply extra calories and protein, but a quick and convenient way to up your total, although not recommended over real sources that don’t contain all that sugar.
It is far better to put your protein powder in a healthy version of a cookie, cupcake or other mixture, where you can monitor the amount of sugar, when compared with shop bought. Heating the powder will not affect the quality and there are dozens of recipes online. Of course nuts and seeds make great snacks and are packed with protein, or can be added to a cookie mix.
Compound Movements - You need to hit all major muscles at least twice a week, since isolation is both time consuming and can lead to muscle imbalance. Free weights are better for compound exercises, with the exception of cables, so leave the machines and alternated grips for correcting imbalances. You may do workouts as full body or as a training split. The post and pre-workout exhaustion technique puts emphasis on your non-dominant side, for imbalance or a more intensive overall session and strength benefits. Periodization or cycle training avoids overtraining and burnout, or use forced reps and cramping depending on goal and training preference.
Progressive Loading - Vary routines to constantly challenge muscles, keep rest between sets to minimum using the timer on your phone (airplane mode) or watch, and progressively add more reps. Use a program or how-to video for correct form, since best-case scenario is working the wrong muscle, potentially causing imbalance and worst-case scenario could be injury. Rep guidelines: strength (1 - 5), muscle mass (6 - 12), muscle endurance (13 and up). Incorporate each of the rep plans to mix it up and push the muscles in other ways. Having said that, the best rep range for building mass is the range that most suits you – our bodies are unique and our muscles respond to stimuli in a differing manner and it may require going to failure or might not. Try various methods and use a training log to allow you to track progress and what works best. Consistency is key in all aspects of fitness.
Constant Tension & Complexes - Leave your ego at the door; lifting heavy is impressive to a beginner, but the real goal is to increase in both strength and mass. So before you up the weight make sure you fully master it by maintaining reps, keeping solid form and retaining full range of motion (no half reps or momentum). You can make muscles under constant tension, since longer tension will equal greater gains. As well as add extra twists to an exercise, hitting muscles at other angles, such as doing an Arnold Press instead of the standard Shoulder Press, a Bradford Press or even a Bent Over Row leading into a Standing Military Press – Brace the core and watch your lower back, but once mastered, you’ll see more gains when you up the weight and repeat this cycle. A barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or bodyweight complex can be used as a routine foundation or a finisher.
Negative & Incline / Decline - Always push up for 1 second on the positive / concentric movement, but slowly lower and control the weight on the negative / eccentric movement for 3 seconds to create greater time under tension and break up the muscle fiber. Decline Diamond or Clap Push Ups and Incline Bench Press are tougher and will hit your lower and upper pectoral respectfully, as well as additional muscle groups. Gravitational force means you have to push harder on the negative, so mass and strength benefit. Utilizing the ‘pause technique’ will eliminate the stretch reflex and bounce effect. You’ll know it’s time to add weight, after utilizing the above techniques and feeling it no longer challenges, burns or breaks down muscle enough for the given reps and sets.
Don’t Forget Legs Or Core - Training them using compound movements stimulates testosterone secretion, which will increase overall strength and mass, as well as utilizing centre of mass, full body stability, isometric power and explosiveness enabling you to lift greater weight incorporating both upper and lower body muscles. It looks more aesthetic overall and allows greater conditioning for sports like boxing or martial arts when sparring. It will also give you functional strength, which you can enhance via basic calisthenics and core exercises. Avoiding the use of gloves for lifting or bodyweight exercises enhances grip strength and functionality for times you are without – moisturizer will smooth out roughness or callus formation. It is entirely possible to retain noticeable abs while in a “bulking” phase, assuming they are stimulated often enough and you limit fat storage.
Sleep & Recovery
Recovery is as important as training since this is when muscles grow. Allow at least a day or two between muscle groups, and take note of any tears or other injury – Overtraining affects the central nervous system and leaves you fatigued, open to infection, developing insomnia and potential appetite loss. Either train a different area or take time out to work on diet and supplementation. In general the more muscle mass you have, the greater fat you burn in recovery anyway. Lactate build-up (lactic acid) is a defense mechanism to force recovery and shares little correlation with delayed-onset muscle soreness that prevents permanent damage due to extreme exertion by slowing the key systems needed to maintain muscle contraction and peaking 24 - 72 hours post intensive exercise. Anti-inflammatory supplements may reduce DOMS, although this also inhibits the ability of the muscle to repair damage and is a negative consequence. Rest guidelines between sets: muscle endurance (15 - 30 seconds), muscle mass (45 - 90 seconds) and strength (120 - 180 seconds).
Sleep - This is a key component to muscle and cell regeneration, bone development and the burning of fat. Deprivation by even a few hours causes a drift in insulin and metabolism that makes the body preserve fat at the expense of muscle, increases production of the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin, affects focus, exercise performance, causes impotence and raises cortisol, which in turn lowers testosterone and growth hormone levels. On the other hand, when you sleep the body starts to burn calories at a slower rate to preserve energy. It also produces testosterone and growth hormone, as well as aids muscle tissue growth, during periods of extended rest, such as sleep. Without this recovery and muscle augmentation will not begin and you won’t be making the most of exercise or diet habits.
Being in bed near 10.30pm, with 7 - 9 hours sleep per day is recommended, and 8.5 absolutely optimal. If it helps, wear a sleep mask or read before bedtime to put you in a relaxing state. On the other hand, for those with less time, total sleep becomes a factor – There has been controlled tests where a work group had just an extra 30 minutes rest / sleep and a group that continued working. The group that slept more, despite a small amount, worked that much more efficiently and concentration levels were highest for longer. This coincides with the Mediterranean siesta. In fact, it was common to have two sleep periods in the Victorian era and this changed during the Industrial Revolution (machines could not be switched on or off quickly), so people had to do one entire shift and thus the sleeping culture changed globally. Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the brain that aids REM sleep and a supplement at night can be used to make sure you have enough quality slow-wave sleep recovery.
Motivation & Strongest Imagery
Strongest Self - One of the most difficult but necessary aspects when striving to become the greatest version of yourself mentally and physically is being in control of or able to give up things that are obstacles in your path. You may not feel you have the ideal situation or genetics, but that should not matter. Don’t worry about what other people have; instead change the situation for yourself and work to your own strengths. What are you going to do about it and how much do you want it? How far are you willing to push to reach your goals? A bit of competition is fine, though fitness is not about being better than others; it’s mostly about being better than you used to be.
Motivation - If you are skipping on consistency, sleep, workouts or eating dirty, you’re cheating yourself. The best way to stay motivated is to ask yourself why you want to accomplish these goals and what results you’re keen to achieve – write these down. How much do those goals mean to you? The moment you don’t feel like working out is the time to retrain your thought process and reject limiting beliefs or habits. Once you begin to quit, it becomes easier and easier to continue quitting out of habit. This can escalate and impact other areas. Positive habits on the other hand are necessary to build up self-confidence, integrity and discipline, leading to fulfilling self-promises and strong personal lessons.
Those around us influence us all to some extent so keep the positive people closest; the ones that truly motivate, encourage and enhance aspects of your life. You may even find that certain music gives you a pump, or inspirational pictures and videos ignite your fire, although at the end of the day you should search within yourself to find your real reasoning behind embarking on this journey. With a little soul searching you should assimilate the information and cause that drives your passions – Remember them!
The temptation to quit will be strongest,
Just before you are about to succeed – Chinese Proverb
Be sure to also check out:
The Bodybuilder Bible: Volume 1 - Strength & Mass For “Hard Gainers” (Pt. 2)
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