We’ve riffed briefly about gaining lean tissue in previous posts, but we’re about to take a deeper, more personal dive into the subject. More specifically, we’ll tackle adding muscle safely, effectively and naturally.
Many of you will be able to punt on this post. Those of you looking to lose, not gain, weight can pass this by. Now is also a good time for a reminder that the scale is an unreliable determiner of this information. Redistribution of said weight, for individuals in general and baseball players in particular, may make more sense.
But for many athletes, the focus is on adding muscle mass and changing overall body composition. If you’re looking to increase your power, explosiveness and general overall strength, read on.
Failure can and should be a great motivator. We aim to win because losing feels shitty. Sometimes, wanting to avoid that feeling can be enough to spark change in ourselves. From a 2014 TED Talk on failing (or “near wins”):
The reason the near win has a propulsion is because it changes our view of the landscape and puts our goals, which we tend to put at a distance, into more proximate vicinity to where we stand. If I ask you to envision what a great day looks like next week, you might describe it in more general terms. But if I ask you to describe a great day at TED tomorrow, you might describe it with granular, practical clarity. And this is what a near win does. It gets us to focus on what, right now, we plan to do to address that mountain in our sights. It’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who in 1984 missed taking the gold in the heptathlon by one third of a second, and her husband predicted that would give her the tenacity she needed in follow-up competition. In 1988, she won the gold in the heptathlon and set a record of 7,291 points, a score that no athlete has come very close to since.
My 16 year old son, Chase, is the quarterback for his high school team. Recently, he was demoralized from an embarrassing loss (not a near win) on the field. Rather than let it crush and subsequently derail him, however, he was seeking options for toughening up and becoming more athletic. At this point, his struggles aren’t about skill or talent – they’re about size. In his particular case, he came to me with a goal of gaining 30 lbs of muscle over the next year.
We went out and grabbed sushi to discuss. First, I suggested that 20 lbs, or around 1.5 lbs/month, might be a more realistic goal to hit. It is important to set goals that challenge us without setting them so high that we’re doomed to failure.
Then we began to dive into the process of how he could do this.
Often, athletes and lifters (teenagers in particular) looking to build muscle immediately go to mass gainers. The flashy packaging and bold claims make this a natural leap. By now, you know my lean on supplements, but this temptation even occurs in my own house. Chase wanted to know whether it was a viable option for him.
I get it. In order to lay down lean tissue, you have to be operating at a calorie surplus. You can alter your body composition and lose fat while gaining muscle, but you can’t be as effective while dieting. Mass gainers purport to offer protein and calories in a convenient package. At the same time, most of them are stuffed with sugars, preservatives and low quality ingredients that fail to offer our bodies the most efficient fuel we can provide.
I suggested to Chase that instead that we put some systems and processes into place. I started by sharing that a major key to recovery (necessary for muscle growth) is sleep. We agreed that he would aim to be in bed by 11 pm on most nights (not all, he is a 16 year old). From Nick Ebner, N.A.S.M.-C.P.T., P.I.C.P.:
As we sleep, energy consumption is lowered, allowing us to use the high-quality food we eat during the day to more efficiently build muscle. Growth hormone is naturally released, improving muscular recovery and regeneration. Also, as we sleep the brain recharges. This is important for building muscle because a rested brain is a motivated and focused brain. In simple terms, when you sleep, you recover, and when you recover you replace, repair, and rebuild—all of which are needed for optimal progress.
Additionally, we bagged up around 300 calorie portion sizes of a variety of snacks with healthy fat and protein like almonds, cashews and avocados. We agreed he would take a couple of these to school with him and eat throughout the day in addition to his regular meals to supplement his overall caloric intake.
Finally, we conceived of a weight gain shake that he could consume instead of a mass gainer. Adding a couple scoops of high quality, organic peanut butter to whole milk from grass fed cows and a strong, organic ice cream made with minimal ingredients provides a better tasting, just as portable shake without the downsides of a commercial mass gainer.
Most importantly to this process, we will be logging and tracking the results together. He’s working on recording his sleep, his exercise, his nutrient consumption and the results it’s having on his weight and strength. He sent me the following email:
- Day 1 2 shakes no exercise bed [spp-timestamp time="11:10"]
- Day 2 2 shakes light lifting football [spp-timestamp time="11:30"]
- Day 3 2 shakes lifting football [spp-timestamp time="11:45"]
- Day 4 2 shakes lifting football [spp-timestamp time="11:15"]
We’ll continue to monitor over the course of the next year to see if he can reach his target. We’ll be flexible and responsive to his body’s needs, and we’ll continue to share the results over the next months.
Gaining weight in the manner we want it (that is, lean tissue, not fat) is not always a straightforward path. By being mindful of the entire process, not just time put in the gym, we don’t need to resort to processed supplements.
Most critically, we’re taking the first step without needing to see the whole staircase. You know how strongly we feel about trial and error around here. A new friend recently suggested that the successful people he knows operate with the mindset of, “ready, fire, aim.” I dig that.