Is There A Secret To Building Lean Muscle?

by Kilo on July 28, 2010

Based on my own experience, the short answer is no, there is no secret to building muscles. This is bad news for just about anyone selling supplements, programs, or other muscle-building products. I’m not going to get into the science of muscle-building. There’s plenty of information out there if you want the big words.

I’ll just tell my quick story. The story is good news for anyone who believes that they can’t gain weight no matter what they do. That was me.

But in the last quarter of 2009, I gained nearly 30 lbs of lean muscle mass. This was not for lack of searching for the magic formula. I had always considered myself a “hardgainer,” which is someone who can’t seem to gain weight or muscle no matter how hard they try. Obviously I was able to blow my own theory out of the water. Turns out it wasn’t much of a theory, just wishful thinking from someone who wanted to cut corners (me!).

So how did I do it?

Again, my short answer to building lean muscle is to eat more and lift heavier weights. No stunners there. If you’d like the longer answer, soldier on.

When I made my big push for mass, I had been using kettlebells almost exclusively for a year. I didn’t want to get away from that, but I did want to gain weight. Earlier that year, Pavel had put out a book with some routines for double kettlebell work.

I followed the routines to the letter for about a month. I made decent progress in strength, but didn’t gain any weight. Things really improved when I started introducing some slight variations to the program based on biofeedback testing. I also started lifting with a different mindset.

Rather than focusing on the amount of weight in my hands, I simply focused on the total amount of weight I lifted during a session. I do want to re-emphasize that I was now using two kettlebells instead of one.

In addition to that increase in weight, here were the keys:

  • More food (usually between 4,000 and 6,000 calories per day, of which I drank about half
  • The volume approach to lifting (versus simply following the program with reps and sets as the goals) There were times where I was using lighter weights but lifting three or four times as much total weight as the program dictated
  • Making every rep look easy. Not feel easy–that came later–but look easy. That made it so I never got hurt

30 lbs in just over three months. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could my wife. Neither could the people I work with. Neither could the people who I train with, who were almost exactly at the same place they had been 90 days earlier.

I wanted so badly for there to be a magic pill, or strength training tool, or program. But there isn’t. Anyone who tells you that there is a best way to do it probably has some sort of emotional or financial stake in their advice.

I don’t have any allegiances. I have friends I love and personal preferences in the methods I train with, but ultimately I use what makes me better. I do not care about being superior to anyone but the person I was yesterday. When what I am doing no longer works–I doubt that will happen, but I’m always skeptical–I’ll find something better. Or I’ll invent something better.

The people I am training have experienced similar gains with their efforts to build muscle. It’s fun to see and it isn’t nearly as difficult as anyone thinks it is, including the old me.

If you think you are a hardgainer, here are my recommendations:

  • Eat more
  • Focus on the total weight lifted in a session, but don’t use that as an excuse to get away from heavy weights
  • Test your movements and do what tests best (a la Gym Movement)
  • Make the reps easy

I’ll be very surprised if you don’t have great results. If a twig like me can bulk up, anyone can.

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