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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Banning

How To Build Muscle and Stay Lean

When I get asked about health coaching, the questions usually revolve around two main ideas. Either the person wants to lose weight and highlight the muscle they have or want to get. Or the person doesn’t really mention weight but they talk about wanting to get bigger. Not surprisingly, the divide in this questioning usually falls along the gender lines.

It’s not discussed much but a lot of males have body goals and pressures to look a certain way.

I can remember throughout my childhood we had Men’s Health magazines around, people like The Terminator (Arnold) and Rambo (Sylvester) on the TV.

Now, the blockbusters on the big screen are Marvel Superheroes and our social media is filled with people just so happen to have that perfect shredded physique and perfect lighting.

It makes a person feel as if that’s the ideal.

I guess in some ways it is…I mean health is the ideal and they in many ways embody “health”. However, some may go about it in some unnatural ways which may not be healthy. In the end though if I assume positive intent, the underlying goal is health.

In saying that, as I’ve grown older I’ve come to terms with what my version of health can be.

Will I look like some of the people I used to idolize when I was younger?

Probably not and that’s ok. It’s ok because I see and realize the value of the balance I want in my life. The balance of friendships and community over hours in the gym. The beauty of relaxing with a beer and a conversation with my wife over constantly weighing and measuring every ounce of food. I am appreciated because of the value I bring from my character…my outer appearance is just a bonus for my wife I guess haha.

In saying that, I still do have goals to progress in my health. These past few years progression has looked like trying to gain mass while maintaining a healthy appearance. This is how I did it.

You Have to Eat Enough Food

In nearly every situation when someone asked me about gaining size we eventually came across their food consumption (I do run a nutrition coaching business so it’s not too surprising). Almost every single person wasn’t even close to eating enough.

If gaining size is your goal, I’ll challenge you to go to MyFitnessPal and input everything you eat for two or three days. Try to get as close as possible to actual portion sizes and brands. In other words, don’t just choose chicken because it says chicken. Some of the portion sizes are 4oz and others are 8. I’d like for you to see how much you actually eat. How much protein are you getting? Fats? Carbs? Vegetables? Even water. Everything.

I know it’s annoying and why we never initially recommend this way of analyzing your food…but it’s really good to get an accurate picture of your average intake.

After you’ve done this, go to the Precision Nutrition Macro Calculator and put in all of your info. There’s an option for “Building Muscle”. Choose that and your overall activity levels, etc.

How close are you to their recommendations?

For most people, they are way off.

We need food to build muscle. There’s something to the idea of calories in vs calories out and you need more calories in to fuel the workouts you’re probably already doing.

The PN calculator gives great recommendations for macro splits and most of the time they are what we’d recommend as well. So use that as a guide to get your food aligned with your goals.

Lifting Should Feel Difficult…Often

The next thing which is essential is to lift weights. I’m assuming this is a given for most people who are asking how to get bigger, but how it feels does matter. There’s this thing called RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion. It’s a scale someone would rate how difficult an exercise was. RPE has been used in many studies and obviously everyone’s perception of exertion was perceived slightly differently, but what they found to very little surprise was that muscle growth tended to fall when perceived exertion was high. It didn’t matter if the athlete was doing high reps at a light to moderate weight or low reps at a heavy weight. Muscle development occurred when RPE was high.

I’m sure this isn’t a surprise to most people. When we look at our training, how often are we actually pushing our exertion levels?

I’ll just use myself as an example. If I’m being honest, the answer is probably not a lot. There’s usually quite a few reps in the tank, especially when I’m doing high-volume work for strength. Let’s say I’m doing something like a bicep curl. Did I REALLY only have one or two reps left in me on that set? Or did I only feel that way for one set out of the four I did?

Based on the studies, the more sets you get to anywhere between zero to three reps until failure the more strength and size you’ll obtain.

So the next time you’re completing an exercise in an attempt to gain size and strength see if you could push each set to that high RPE range.

Exercise Selection Matters

Compound lifts are gold in the strength and size world. Deadlifts, squats, press, rows, etc.

These lifts should be at the core of your strength workouts.

They are compound lifts which means they utilize multiple muscle groups with each lift…which means you do these lifts first in your workout.

You do this because these lifts will tax your energy systems the most and you get the biggest return on your time/energy.

After you’ve given your focus to a compound lift, you can then direct your attention to an isolation exercise for added benefit. Your body will be able to recover faster after the isolation exercise and you’ll be able to hit that high RPE we just talked about.

Whether you’re doing a full-body workout every day or you’re on an upper/lower split, focus on the compound lifts first and you’ll start to see the development you’re looking for.

Give Yourself Some Rest

Not only will you need the recommended seven to nine hours of rest as a minimum when trying to gain muscle, but you also need some rest in between sets when you workout.

CrossFit and bootcamps are known for their rounds for time or as many reps as possible strategies. They work great for building an awesome metabolic engine and when that engine is purring correctly it is a calorie-burning machine.

…but that’s not our goal.

Our goal is to get bigger and stronger.

Having a great engine is a helpful tool and will come in handy if you decide you also want to get super lean after you gain all this superhero muscle. However, there is a way to gain muscle and still maintain good cardiovascular endurance.

It’s to incorporate rest in between your sets.

If you’re doing five rounds for time, maybe you go a little heavier on some of the exercises and then incorporate a ninety-second rest in between each round.

Or we could come back to a simple deadlift example. You could do a set of three deadlifts, wait two minutes, do a set of shoulder presses, wait two minutes and do another set of deadlifts. This is called a superset and is an awesome way to keep the heart rate slightly elevated (burning calories) while allowing your muscles to rest long enough to push your RPE very high for each set.

The goal within each workout is to reach the high RPE as often as possible which can only occur if you give your muscles time to rest. Incorporating contrasting supersets will give you the rest you’re looking for while making the overall workout more efficient.

So if you’re looking at your week, there’s no problem with doing a couple of AMRAPs in your CrossFit or bootcamp class. Just make sure to balance this out with the muscle development work you desire. We only have a certain amount of energy within the day and we have to allow our muscles time to recover. So choose the right balance to get you to your goals.

Lastly on the subject of rest. Look at your strength in cycles. Don’t try to PR your back squat every month. Rest can also mean doing an eight-week back squat strength cycle and then going into a single leg split squat cycle. Give the movements a rest. The variance in movements over time will give you the overall strength you’re looking for anyway.

Keys to Success to "Get Bigger"

These are the keys to success in my eyes if you’re looking to just “get bigger”.

  • Make sure you fuel yourself properly.

  • Push the limits of your strength more often.

  • Focus on the compound movements first.

  • Give yourself adequate amounts of rest to perform the movements perfectly and to the appropriate exertion levels every single time.

Once you start to see the development occur it can be exciting and slightly addicting. I know I’m always looking for just a little more size here or there. As I stated before though, in the end, the people who really appreciate me do it because of my great dad jokes and not because I look a certain way. At least I tell myself that, but it’s probably true for you.



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