Conduct a simple google search about how to build muscle, and you will quickly run into articles ranging from vastly over-complicated to over-simplified. I am finally understanding al of the factors that come into play after being in the health space for years. Much of this has come out of my own experimentation, as well as working with clients and seeing evidence in peers.
The reality is that building muscle isn’t as simple as overeating and busting your ass in the gym. While there is some truth to those two things there are many other things that need considered and dialed in the optimize the growth of muscle. These include getting a handle on other aspects of life like stress reduction, circadian rhythm, nutrition, and happiness. Lets take a look at the physiological factors that influence muscle growth.
This is an anabolic hormone, or building hormone. The presence of testosterone is key in protein synthesis. This is well documented. Testosterone increases muscle mass by directly increasing protein synthesis.
This doesn’t mean we should be injecting exogenous testosterone, although some have taken this route. It simply means we should we living in a way that encourages healthy testosterone production. These include optimizing Vitamin D levels though sun exposure or supplementation. Eat plenty of healthy fats, as they are vital precursors to our sex hormones. Don’t restrict calories, your body sees this as starvation and limits resources spent on “unnecessary” things like some hormones.
Growth hormone (GH) is key in, you guessed it, growth. This hormone works to increase protein anabolism, regulate blood sugar, and is vital in the release of stored triglycerides (fat) into the blood stream for energy. This hormone both burns fat and builds muscle.
IGF-1 and (GH) work intimately together to build muscle and lean out the body. It is actually a blurred line as to if IGF-1 is a GH or the GH. We know that IGF-1 is key for determining the release of GH out of the pituitary gland and is responsible for the growth promoting effects of GH.
What is key is that all three of these hormones are neccesary for muscle growth. They are all anabolic (building) hormones, and work together to increase protein synthesis and burn fat for optimal body composition. They all need to be optimized.
How To Activate Anabolic Hormones
To distill a complex concept in a simple idea, we simply have to lift heavy in full body movement. Full body movements are key, because they cause your Central Nervous System (CNS) to notice that an effort requiring the firing of the whole body is taking place. Picture the barbell deadlift. Most muscles are being used to complete this. Your back, hips, arms, legs, and core are all firing to pick up a heavy weight. When this happens your CNS notifies the hypothalamus to signal the release of anabolic hormones from your pituitary gland. Chronic cardio and isolation exercises barely signal the CNS, making growth a non option. Activation of the CNS is key in making the body adapt to stimuli. Lift heavy and run some sprints and you will be activating it plenty.
Avoid Stress (Catabolic Hormones)
A key part in building mass onto the body is actually giving it the time to rest and rebuild. When we put our body through the ringer by putting a heavy lifting day in, anabolic hormones are not the only thing released. Catabolic hormones are also released, with the main offender being cortisol. These hormones are mass-diminishing by nature and work to break down muscle fibers for conversion to glucose in the bloodstream and storage of fat. This may sound counter-intuitive, but the system is tightly regulated and these hormones all balance each other out.
A problem arises when we overstimulate cortisol. This happens when we done’t allow our body the rest it needs, don’t drink enough water, and eat food that causes inflammation and stress. If your are lifting 3 times a week, put a day of rest in between each session. Get enough sleep. This means at least 8 hours every night. Drink at least half of your body weight in ounces of water. Avoid sugar and processed carbohydrates and vegetable seed oils (we’ll get into nutrition) Overstimulation of cortisol by overtraining and not resting can actually work against all of the hard work you put in to put on mass.
You Have To Eat (More)
When I first started trying to put on muscle, I made the mistake of following my regular protocol and training harder at the same time. I followed my usual ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting protocol, both of which make it hard to eat enough food to maintain body weight let alone put weight on. Both of those things increase satiety and fat burning. While those things are desirable they make it very hard to eat a surplus of food.
Typically if you are strength training 3 times a week, sprinting once or twice, and getting in 30 plus minutes of aerobic exercise a day, you are going to need to increase your calorie intake by 500-1000 calories. Sounds easy, but it is a different ball game trying to eat a surplus of calories in whole, unrefined foods.
- Aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight when you are trying to put on muscle mass. You are having increasing amounts of anabolic hormones, and your body will be craving to extra protein to synthesize. Under eating protein is a common misstep people take. I know I didn’t get enough in when I first started lifting.
- Increase your intake of saturated and monounsaturated fats. These provide key precursors to hormones. Fat works to blunt insulin (to limit fat storage), and increase testosterone. Thats what we are looking for!
- Avoid bulking calories with processed carbohydrates and sugar. Constantly raising blood glucose and insulin will trigger inflammation throughout the body. Your gut will suffer. Cortisol will be raised, triggering catabolic reactions.
- Steer clear of things like the GOMAD diet. While a gallon of milk a day will certainly increase your calories, I cannot make that recommendation on the basis of health. Increase calories through things like eating more eggs, which have a good ration of fat to protein. Eat more steak and fatty cuts of meat. Add good fats like butter, ghee, olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil to your diet.
- If you are following a high-fat, low-carb diet, consider incorporating some whole foods carbohydrates into your diet once or twice a week. Signaling insulin periodically will trigger more protein synthesis, trigger it too often and fat storage will result. I recommend incorporating a primal food like sweet potatoes, honey, or dates once or twice a week.
How Lift For Muscle Growth
As I mentioned before, big, full body movements are key to stimulating the CNS to tell the pituitary gland to release the anabolic hormones necessary to stimulate growth. Too much cardio, not enough rest, and isolation exercises do not stimulate the CNS and sometimes work against the process by raising cortisol too much. So what movements trigger anabolic hormones and growth?
- The classic lifts included in a 5 by 5 lifting protocol will get you all of the muscle gain you want. Squat, bench, military press, deadlift, and row. These movements all rely on the activation of your whole body. This means that the CNS will be activated, and anabolic hormones will be released.
- Train 3 days a week, with a day of rest in between. Do three of these movements a day, lifting for 5 reps for 5 sets. Make sure that you are progressing in weight.
- Some advocate to squat every workout, and I tend to agree. The squat activates the CNS most reliably and incorporates the entire body the most. I like this format- workout A Squat 5×5, Bench Press 5×5, Barbell Row 5×5, workout B Squat 5×5, Overhead Press 5×5, Deadlift 1×5.
- Along with lifting heavy three times a week, I like to incorporate a sprint session once a week to increase fat burning and further activate the CNS. This could be an actual sprint, or on something like a row machine or air bike. Go for maximum effort for 10 seconds, then a 20 second rest. 8 times is enough for an insane workout.
That about sums it up. Obviously we could quickly get into the weeds on any of these topics. I wouldn’t mind doing that, so let me know in the comments what part of this I should dive into deeper! Thanks for reading everyone.
Elliot Steele is a Primal Health Coach based in Chelan WA. He strives to empower those looking to regain their health after a lifetime of misinformed practices. This is the essence of Steele Back Your Health, to truly learn how to be healthy with sustainable habits. Check out the coaching and blog page for more info!