At The ABS Gym we have a lot of guys training who want to know how to gain weight. Firstly, most guys want/need to gain weight. Even our weight loss clients usually decide somewhere along the line that they want to stop getting skinny and pack on some muscle. Some of our former skinny -jeans-wearing clients are now the proud owners of normal ‘comfort-fit’ jeans and they are happy about it.
I know some guys say they don’t want to gain muscle. Some want to get ‘toned’. Some just want to gain a little muscle, not too much though. You have to be careful you don’t end up being a monster at the end of a 6-week training program.
That is a joke by the way in case you missed it.
Guys who want to know how to gain weight always say that they ‘don’t want to get too big and look like one of those bodybuilders’ but one day, about two years ago, I had a consultation with a guy who was almost 6ft(180cm) tall and weighed a maximum of 60kg (132lbs). His first question was ‘what supplements do I need to take?’ and before I could answer he followed up with the best one I’ve heard to date:
“I’m going on holidays in 8 weeks, I want to get shredded by then but I don’t want to get too big… maybe just your size”
He was never seen or heard from again. Police are still searching for the body but they will never, ever find it.
Let’s break down why I killed this guy and stashed his body on the roof of the gym.
People have absolutely no respect for how difficult it is to gain muscle. That’s why I laugh when girls are sceptical about lifting weights and think they are going to gain loads of muscle. It’s not that easy. It’s a LOT harder to gain weight than it is to lose fat.
If you follow a simple set of rules, eat right and nail down the psychology of it, losing weight isn’t that difficult.
Gaining muscle isn’t as black and white as that
This is what you are led to believe about gaining weight:
Most experts suggest consuming a daily surplus of between 250 and 500 calories.
They say that anything more than a daily 500 calorie surplus and you will most likely end up gaining too much fat.
This, of course, is absolute horse shit for most people. What they’re saying is if your calorie maintenance level is 2000 calories, you should look to consume somewhere between 2250 and 2500 calories per day. If your calorie maintenance level is 2800 calories, you’d look to consume between 3050 and 3300 calories per day to gain muscle weight and not fat.
You will also read this in textbooks that if you increase your calorie intake by 500kcals/ day on top of what you are already eating them you will gain 0.5lb of muscle per week.
Even if you had your nutrition nailed down and training was perfect, this is absolute bollocks.
Let me explain.
When gaining muscle nutrition is key but so is your predisposition to gaining muscle. ‘Hardgainers’ will, as the name implies, have a harder time putting on muscle than your average joe. That being said the majority of people who begin lifting weights are hardgainers. It makes sense when you think about it. People who aren’t skinny to begin with don’t feel as compelled to gain muscle because the majority of them are naturally somewhat muscular looking in the first place, these people are the lucky mesomorph variety of people.
Ectomorphs, aka skinny people, have issues with gaining weight. The fact that they are skinny is not because they habitually eat less than their mesomorph counterparts, it is a genetic predisposition to being thin.
The ‘500 calorie’ thing above may apply to the mesomorph who has an easier time gaining muscle but it definitely doesn’t apply to the ectomorph. Like I said above, this person’s body is not very economical with calories. It will burn them more flippantly and almost refuse to build muscle with them unless it has no other choice and there is literally nothing else to do with the excess energy.
Here’s a little analogy I just made up right now. I haven’t really thought it through so if there are holes in it, I don’t really care, I’m merely illustrating a point.
If you build a house with bricks, you build a body with calories.
Protein is the mortar and the workers.
Most structures in the body are composed of protein and fat. Some carbohydrates are on cell surfaces and used for cell signalling but that’s about it. Proteins are also the backbone of hormones along with cholesterol and fat.
Fat and carbohydrates are diesel/electricity. These are fuels used to power the machines/ organs and cell organelles.
Foremen/ Builders are the hormones. These follow the architect’s instructions and build things according to what your genetics say.
The architect and drawings are your genetics. These have overall control of the design of the body.
If you have a crap architect then the building takes longer to get built. Mistakes, wasted time, wasted resources, bad worker selection and contractors screw up because of drawings that are inaccurate.
As a result, building takes longer. This can be likened to why hardgainers take longer to gain weight.
If you have a great architect and mediocre workers, the building is still going to be pretty decent because all the workers have to do is follow the plan. They don’t have to improvise. In context this would be someone who is genetically gifted can do almost everything arseways and still end up in decent physical condition. That probably doesn’t apply to you… Unlucky… get over it.
So now you see, if you are not predisposed to gaining weight or genetically gifted you are clearly not going to put on muscle by just eating more. This is utterly insane, especially if you are naturally thin. You have to tell your body to grow. I.e. Lift stuff. I’ve had people come to me saying:
Guy: ‘I bought that weight gainer stuff, like 10 lbs of it… how come I didn’t put on 10lbs of muscle?’
Me: ‘What sort of training were you doing?’
Guy: ‘ehhhhh…. none but I work on a building site, would I not get bigger from doing that?’
Me: Long sigh followed by a long awkward silence.
So what other factors contribute to an increase in muscle mass?
There are a number of ‘types’ of training that when accompanied by sound nutrition, they help increase muscle mass. They all sound different but at the end of the day they are all the same. Pick heavy things up.
Okay, it gets a little more technical than that. Who would have known there are lots of ways to pick stuff up? Muscles are complicated and resilient to being damaged. Therefore picking heavy things up doesn’t work forever. You have to pick the heavy things up in different ways too.
Muscles are comprised of motor units i.e. A motor neuron and all of the muscle fibres it innervates or ‘powers’. These fibres will be recruited in an order from smallest to largest depending on the load or weight being placed on them. This order of recruitment is called Heinemann Size Principle. The thing is the larger fibres that require you to place high loads on them are also the ones that have the most potential for growth.
It makes sense, if you were picking up a pencil you don’t want all of the motor units to fire or you will either snap it in half or throw it across the room. This is the same in the weights room. If you are lifting a weight that’s too light, you will not recruit all of the motor units and therefore growth will be less than optimal. If you are lifting too much weight you will not do enough repetitions or you will injure yourself and growth will be less than optimal. There has to be a sweet spot. There are a number of ways to get the muscle to recruit more fibres.
Absolute tension i.e. max weight lifted
The absolute tension placed on a muscle has been linked to being the most potent type of ‘overload’ stimulus. I.e. The stronger you get the more muscle you will have. This is true to a certain extent but there are holes in this theory. Strength is linked to cross-sectional area of a muscle but getting bigger isn’t the only thing that makes you stronger. Inter and intramuscular coordination of the muscle, neural drive, stimulants and a wide range of things affect strength so increases in strength do not necessarily equate to increases in muscle mass in every case.
Time under tension
So as well as the absolute amount of tension placed on the muscle you have the time the muscle is under tension to blame for the stimulus for growth. This puts constant tension on the muscle fibres and damages them forcing them to grow. The weight used for this type of training is usually relatively light (~60-65% max) and performed for long duration sets. The long duration of the sets not only cause damage to the muscle but the constant tension and slow tempo results in a lack of oxygen in the working muscles and causes the HTMU/ Fast twitch muscle fibres to become recruited because they are better designed to function in the anaerobic environment. This is a cheeky way to recruit the HTMU’s without having to lift near maximal weights as we discussed above when talking about ‘Hennesmans size principle’. This style of training can also help increase GH (growth hormone) and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) production which is always good. If you want to know more about hormones and muscle building give us your email and we will send you our ‘Incredible Bulk’ report which is SWOLE with info on muscle building workouts, hormones, meal, plans and much more.
Some schools of thought say that time under tension is nonsense and you just need a certain amount of volume to cause muscle growth. This means doing lots and lots of reps. Think about volume as wearing down a boxer in a fight. One mediocre punch will not knock a boxer out but if he’s hit with 1000 of them he’s in trouble.
Muscle fibre recruitment/motor unit recruitment
Other experts suggest that its the speed or ‘speed intention’ that causes maximum muscle fibre activation and motor unit recruitment and as a result causes greatest muscle growth. This involves selecting a weight that is not necessarily maximal but then moving it fast or intending to move it fast on the concentric phase of the movement and then controlling the eccentric part of the movement. For example: When performing a bench press you would unpack the bar and lower it to your chest in a controlled manner and then push the weight fast off your chest in an explosive manner.
Well that’s confusing, right? There are so many different schools of thought, and everyone seems to pick one method and stick to it. Nonsense.
We need to get to those large muscle fibres by lifting heavy enough loads that we can stimulate them and also do enough volume so that they are stimulated enough to grow. A training program can address most, if not all of these areas if structured correctly by keeping the primary exercise(s) in the heavy 4-6 rep range, the secondary exercise(s) in the 10-12 rep range and the tertiary exercise(s) in the 12-15 rep range keeping the tempo nice and slow.
I am not saying this is the perfect way to train but it would meet all of the above criteria. Strength, volume and time under tension. Easy.
Muscle hypertrophy means ‘grow’ or ‘build’ and atrophy means to ‘break down’. In our quest to gain muscle we need to minimise atrophy and optimise hypertrophy. Let’s have a look at the different types of hypertrophy and how we can optimise each one.
Muscle can grow in a couple of different ways. The fibres can grow or the volume of the muscle cell increases. To summarise, training volume, creatine supplementation, carb loading, hydration and a lot of other factors can affect the sarcoplasm of the muscle cell and can cause the cell volume to increase acutely, while overall tension, weight lifted and strength increases tend to cause the most myofibrillar growth.
What causes muscle growth?
Putting tension on the muscle is one thing. The mechanism for growth is another.
When we ingest protein we get an increase in insulin and amino acid synthesis. If there is no muscle to repair then this is pretty much wasted. When there are muscles to repair then this amino acid synthesis results in protein synthesis and muscle building. There are factors that cause muscle ATROPHY and these are our enemy. I dont have time to go through them here but download the report and I’ll fill you in.
Getting practical – real-world training
You’ve almost definitely read the magazines that recommend the following:
Friday: Abs and Calves
This will work if you are on steroids or ridiculously genetically gifted.
If you are a hard gainer, weight training more than 2 days in a row is probably a bad idea, never mind training 6 days in a row. You just don’t possess the recovery capabilities that your more genetically gifted counterparts.
It doesn’t matter what’s being trained on those days. There should not be more than two intense training sessions in a row. It is too stressful on your body and your hormones will end up all over the place.
Two days on, one day off is a decent recommendation but one day on one day off is usually better for hardgainers and on your off days you should be sleeping extra and eating rings around yourself.
Try to keep the workouts short. Two-hour training marathons will not work for you. Keep sessions to about 1 hour in length, give or take 10 minutes or so.
Make sure you have a minimum of 3 days off per week. Another way of saying this is to have a maximum of 4 weight training workouts per week.