My step son recently asked me for an exercise routine to “build muscle mass”. Interestingly, when my step son is consistent with his weight lifting program, he is both very strong and muscular, and it surprised me when he asked me the question. He tends to carry a bit more body fat than he needs to, but he still looks good. However, if he would just lose about 10 to 12 pounds of fat while maintaining the muscle, he would have an unbelievable and very enviable body. He would have the body most guys who lift weights would kill for.
But I digress. Getting back to the main point of the article…how does one build muscle mass? More importantly, what exactly does that mean?
I believe that the concept of building muscle mass stems from the bodybuilding community. You don’t hear of a power lifter talking about building mass, nor is it a very common term in sports such as football. When they talk about gaining weight, they simply talk about adding more muscle, or as in the case of power lifters, they just focus on getting stronger.
The phrase is also synonymous with “bulking up” that bodybuilders like to do. They do this during the off-season in an attempt to put on as much muscle as they can, and then come contest time, they try to lose as much fat as possible and try to keep the muscle they built during the off season. If the bodybuilder is successful he will have a well defined body (called ripped, shredded, and so forth) with the muscles still looking thick. The general strategy of gaining mass or bulking up is to lift heavy weights with a lower repetition protocol, very similar to what power lifters would do to get stronger, in combination with an excessive calorie diet…far more than what the bodybuilder needs for weight maintenance. For example, many aspiring bodybuilders will eat in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. I even read an article by a famous bodybuilder where he claimed to eat an average of 10,000 calories a day!
Basically, the theory is this: building muscle takes a lot of energy, how much is unknown, but it is better to overestimate caloric intake so the body can build muscle as fast as possible, and lifting heavier weights will add thickness to the muscles (hence the “mass”). A bodybuilder will gain fat during the “mass building cycle”, but that is no big deal, for when he is ready to get lean, he simply cuts his calories and at the same time he will add more volume (total exercises), lighter weights, and higher reps to his strength training program to lose the fat and get the before mentioned “shredded” look.
Cycling the training program between the mass cycle and cut cycle is the way all bodybuilders prepare for contests, and they have been successful with it. However, it is a protocol I would not recommend for either gaining muscle or losing fat. Allow me to explain.
First of all, gaining muscle is simply a matter of getting stronger. If a trainee is able to lift 100 lbs for 10 reps and 2 months later he is able to lift 130 lbs for 10 reps, he obviously is stronger. Along with that is more muscle mass. This can happen in spite of a higher calorie diet or not. In other words, he really does not need to eat a high calorie diet to gain muscle. What he needs to do is send the signal to his body to build muscle. The body will then prioritize its resources to build the muscle.
Secondly, the body can make only so much muscle at a given time anyway. The claims in the bodybuilding magazines such as “build 10 lbs of muscle in a month”, are unrealistic. At most…most, someone who is drug free and trains hard will gain 1 to 2 pounds of muscle a month. It is usually much less, closer to 1/2 to 1 pound of muscle a month, and maybe even less than that. So when I hear someone claim that he added 10 pounds of muscle in a month, I am skeptical. The scale may show he gained 10 pounds, but my guess is that he gained maybe 1 pound of muscle…and gained 9 pounds of fat. Yes, he will look bigger. He will look bulkier, but that is because he will be carrying more fat. If he is carrying more fat, the definition of his muscles will not show.
Which leads to the third point: he now has to lose the fat that he gained through the bulking process for the definition of the muscles to show. Many bodybuilders have a lot of fat to lose when they go through the cutting phase, sometimes as much as 40 to 50 pounds! It takes severe caloric restriction to lose that fat, and most bodybuilders will go as low as 1,500 calories a day for weeks on end to to it. This is when they will go to a higher repetition/lower weight protocol. They bodybuilders will have to switch to this because to lose the fat that drastically, they will lose some of the muscle built during the mass building phase. They are simply not as strong, so they cannot handle the heavier weights. This, at the very least, is a grueling and torturous process to endure. Moreover, it is impossible to sustain it for a long period of time. As an example, when drug free bodybuilders are in contest shape, they can weigh around 160 to 170 pounds, whereas during the off-season they may be as high as 220 to 230 pounds. Muscle is damn hard to build, so from my viewpoint, it makes no sense to lose the muscle just to get cut. I can’t help but wonder if they would be better off staying lean and building muscle at the same time, and then lean out just a little more come contest time. This seems to be a bit more practical to me.
I can talk about this from experience. I tried to build “mass” for several years by eating upwards to 5,000 calories a day and training with heavy weights. I did get bigger, no doubt, but I also gained a lot of fat. Furthermore, I reached an upper limit on strength, weight, and muscle mass, and adding more calories just did not make one bit of difference in my strength gains. Here is a photo of me after several years of overeating:
As you can see, I do have a fair amount of muscle, but I have a lot of fat. I looked good in clothes, but not so much semi-naked. I am also weighing about 190 lbs in this photo. I was about 155 lbs when I first started lifting weights, so I gained a remarkable amount of weight, but my body-fat was around 17 to 18% at the time of the photo. I also had no real definition. It was at this point that I gave up on the idea of having big muscles and decided to try a low carb diet for a while. I still wanted to train as hard and with as heavy weights as possible…as if I was still “building mass”. I did this just to shake it up a bit and break away from the standard dogma. The results were amazing. Here is the photo I took after 6 months of changing my diet:
I have far more definition in the second photo. According to my measurements, I lost about 14 pounds of fat…and I maintained all of my muscle. How do I know that I maintained my muscle? Because I was still able to lift the same amount of weight as I did on my “bulking” cycle, and I would not be able to if I lost muscle.
I learned from first hand experience that I do not need to eat an excessive amount of calories to put on muscle mass. I also learned that it is still very easy to put on fat, even if I train very hard. Furthermore, I learned that I can both build muscle…and lose fat at the same time. This is good to know. In other words, going through a “mass” or “bulk” building program is not necessary. All I needed to do to gain muscle mass is to train hard, like I would in a “mass building” routine and eat enough for the body to build muscle. How much is enough? That is easy to answer. Eat enough to be full. That’s it. If I am hungry, I eat. If I am not hungry, I don’t eat. Same strength. Same muscle mass….but much less fat.
So back to the question…how to build mass? From my experience, I learned that the main thing you need to do is to train hard enough to get stronger every workout. Many strength training programs can do this, but my preferred method is to use a weight that is heavy enough so I can get to momentary muscular failure within the 8 to 12 rep range. I can make the appropriate inroad into my muscle to induce growth. Moreover, I have found one set per body part for the most part is enough.
Oh, and don’t go crazy on excessive calorie intake. It simply is not necessary for building muscle.
Great article. How about a short follow up article for the female trainee pointing out what will be the same and what will be different.
Good idea. I’ll do that.