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How to put on muscle and stay lean

In January of 2015, I officially entered my first year without soccer as my main form of competition. It was a really strange situation. For as long as I had memories, I had been a soccer player. It had given me the opportunity to travel, make a ton of new friends, and eventually attend school in a state I never would have considered going to beforehand. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love North Carolina now, and I guess that’s mostly thanks to soccer. Suffice it to say no longer being the member of a team was a weird experience.

However, it did have one plus side. Soccer players, typically, and pretty small people. Not a lot of muscle needed, or wanted, when you’re running as much as soccer players do. Even goalkeepers do roughly a 5k every game. It’s just pretty tough with that kind of cardio to put on any muscle. I’m pretty big on finding the “silver linings” so I thought, “Hey, I can finally do some body building and put on some muscle. This will be great!”

My typical day began to have one long, split body (this means upper or lower, but very rarely both) workout sandwiched by a ton of food. I’m a clean eater naturally because I just tend to feel better that way, but I was still going psycho with the food. I specifically remember eating 4 chicken breasts and 2 large sweet potatoes at one meal. It was absurd.

By the end of a 12 week program, I had definitely put on size. I went from 178 to 189, and I even got some compliments from teammates on looking bigger. The problem was I certainly didn’t feel any more athletic, and I had definitely put on some body fat. I wasn’t “fat” by any stretch, but I also wasn’t lean. It kind of made me question why I would eat and train like that, to not even like how I looked after. This leads us to the Holy Grail: gain muscle without gaining fat.

Disclaimer Numero Uno

Repeat after me: anytime I gain weight I will put on at least some body fat. 

Did you say it? Do you believe it? Good. You need to. I have never heard of anyone putting on weight and having it be 100% pure muscle. This simply does not happen. If it did, “mass phase” and “cut phase” wouldn’t be common vernacular in the body building world. That being said, you can definitely put on size and muscle without LOOKING like you ate donuts all day. Isn’t that what we are all really after, anyway?

Disclaimer Numero Dos

Repeat after me: this is not going to be easy, and it is going to be slower than I want it to be. 

Here’s the thing. It is entirely possible, even probable, that gaining and cutting, gaining and cutting is a faster process to achieve the body you’re after. Most scientists believe this to be the case. However, if you’re anything like me, you hate the feeling of just stuffing yourself constantly in attempt to gain weight. I’ve only done the mass phase thing once. I put on size, but I didn’t like the way I looked or felt. So, every other time I’ve tried, I give up because it’s really uncomfortable, and deep down I know it probably isn’t that healthy, especially when you think about insulin levels and insulin resistance. So, I choose the longer route. I feel that, although I won’t put on size as fast, I will eventually add what I want to add, and my blood sugar levels won’t go completely crazy in the process.

Now that we understand the rules, let’s get into the dirty details. How do we do this?

1. Establish a baseline metabolic rate (BMR)

The easiest way to do this is, unfortunately, also time consuming. Normally it takes about two weeks to have a good understanding. Here’s what you do.

  • Wake up Monday morning, and before you eat or drink, step on the scale. Record the number.
  • Record all the food you eat every single day.
  • Wake up Thursday, weigh again.
  • Continue recording. Repeat Monday and Thursday weigh ins for another week. Analyze.

After you weigh yourself those two weeks, you should have a pretty decent idea about where your BMR is. Were you eating 2,750 calories per day and losing weight? That tells us we need to add 250ish calories per day. Were you eating 2,500 and gaining weight? You’re probably on track, depending upon how much weight you were gaining.

You can also skip all this estimation and go get your BMR taken by a professional. Highly recommended for sanity’s sake.

2. Eat 250-500 calories more, per day, than that BMR

You will need to continue weighing yourself throughout this period. For example, I took a little break from metabolic conditioning in January, and I increased my calories, and I was losing weight. There is an entire discussion on this phenomenon, titled “Sluggish Metabolism” but we won’t get into that here. I’ve added some more food and stabilized. You may need to do the same.

3. Plan out your meals and workouts

Here is a universal truth: eating more without exercise will make you gain fat. You must cause muscular damage to illicit muscle growth. You cannot get out of this fact. Therefore, plan to make it to the gym as often as possible. Please take at least one rest day. Two would be fine, as well.

Once you know when you’re going to be at the gym, and what you’ll be doing, do some meal prep to get ahead. Here is a really basic tenet to follow when gaining weight: your extra calories should be from…wait for it…pure carbohydrates. *Insert shocked emoji face here*

Here’s the deal. We’ve been over that carbohydrates aren’t evil. They aren’t. They help you train harder and more effectively, which is the name of the game here. So, if you need to put on weight, add an extra sweet potato, regular potato, bowl of rice or bowl of extremely low sugar cereal or oatmeal. I like corn chex because it has four ingredients and actually some dietary fiber when I need something besides another bowl of oats. If you need motivation to eat more carbs, look at this.

4. Adjust, adjust, adjust

Keep that scale around so you can verify that you’re eating the correct amount. For the record, thats about enough to let you gain one to one and half pounds per week. I’ve heard the founder of Working Against Gravity (probably the best macro company in the biz) say to shoot for about 1% of body weight per week.

If you find that you’re eating 3,500 calories daily and putting on 3 to 5 pounds weekly, you’re going to fast. Ease up on that intake and add in some steady state cardio. Your abs will thank me come June.

5. Stay consistent

All of this means nothing if you aren’t tracking your food and workouts. You won’t be able to tell if you’re eating the right amount, and you won’t know if you’re getting stronger. Getting stronger is a good sign you’re putting on muscle as opposed to fat. So please, track your food. Even if you are just writing it down and guessing calories, that is way better than going in blind. Say you’re keeping a food log and notice you’re losing weight. Add in that snack of oatmeal or rice we talked about. Conversely, let’s say you’re gaining more than you want to be. Cut out that extra serving of peanut butter. Just be able to see what you changed, measure it, and adjust again.

Finally, speaking of abs, please go see the Lego Batman Movie. You’ll know why I say that relates to abs like 3 minutes in. I think I laughed more than the little kid next to me. Zero shame in my Batman game.

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