How To Add Lean Muscle Mass
Tracing the evolutionary template
One of my favorite bodybuilder photos: young Lee Priest (above) displays physical perfection and an abundance of lean muscle mass far beyond his age. He looks to be holding a 7% body fat percentile: 6-pac abs, definable quadriceps and serratus, veins on delts, only become visible when a male attains 10% (or less) body fat percentile. Priest is the greatest height-challenged bodybuilder of all time.
When a young athlete takes up progressive resistance training, weight training, he does so with one thought in mind: grow huge amounts of lean muscle mass and become freaky strong. Then beat the hell out of all opponents. Motivationally, it really is that simple. The quest, to add slabs of lean muscle mass and reap a concurrent increase in raw power and strength, is historic and eternal. The eternal dilemma that plagues this eternal quest is - how to add quality muscle size without accumulating an unacceptable amount of body fat?
Lean muscle mass building, in the ancient days of yore, was easy, fun, and most definitely effective. More often than not, too much body fat was added by the Old School weight trainers. After pursuing mass for a protracted period, the athlete/bodybuilder would stop the gorging and attempt to melt excess body fat. The ancients were better at building mass than they were at leaning out.
This primal strategy, “bulk-up/trim-down,” more accurately could have been called “stuff and starve.” This nutritional see-saw sought to add muscle mass in the off-season, before switching directions on a dime “in-season.” The bulking up articles, (sanctioned gluttony) were extremely popular – the trimming down articles, not so much.
In the 1960s there were no warning labels on cigarettes, no seat belts in cars, no nutritional breakdown information on foods or drinks. It was a glorious time to be nutritionally ignorant. We knew nothing about fat, sugar, micronutrient breakdowns, or multiple meal eating schedules. Muscle mags pimped protein, so we drank whole milk (cheap protein source, available everywhere) by the gallon. We gained bodyweight like newborn rhinos. We got stronger, way stronger. Because we grew way stronger our muscles grew way bigger.
By continually pushing up our poundage in the squat, bench, power clean, deadlift, etc., and because we underpinned the hard training with copious calories, we grew muscle. Muscle size always followed strength gains. Did we add too much body fat in the process? No doubt - but because we ran, jumped, competed in team sports, and were athletic and active, our metabolisms blazed.
Modern Man is a bit too sophisticated to succeed. Hamstrung by a curse of too many choices, drowning in the firehose of conflicting information available from the modern Delphic Oracle (Google,) seduced by product hucksters and fitness gurus, Modern Man spins his wheels. He adds no muscle and therefore does not have to be concerned about creating muscle laden with too much intercellular fat.
The emergence of the modern “leanness” template
In the 1970s Dr. Kenneth Copper’s book, Aerobics, set off the Jane Fonda/Richard Simons aerobic dance craze. Cardio exercise was viewed with (deserved) distain by strength athletes and bodybuilders. No self-respecting iron man was going to participate in a Richard Simon’s Dancing to the Oldies class. Cardio, muscle experts pontificated, “tore down muscle.” While that was true for a 25-mile per week runner living on 900-calories a day, it was untrue for an overweight athlete sitting on a exercise bike pedaling briskly for 30-minutes eating 900-calories every meal.
The bodybuilders of 60s and 70s, while not performing formal cardiovascular exercise, unbeknownst, created their own version of “iron cardio.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Robbie Robinson, Frank Zane, all the stars of the 70s, would engage in “double-split” workouts, i.e., twice a day six days a week, in the morning and again in the evening they weight trained. Double-split bodybuilders would engage in twelve sessions every six days.
During these continual and extended training sessions, the bodybuilder’s heart would never drop below 120 and could spike to 200-beats-per-minute after a series of drop sets, or after a set of limit leg presses, complete with forced reps. High-volume trainers were performing aerobics.
In the 1980s, the bodybuilders combined high volume weight training with starvation dieting and created smaller, highly defined bodybuilders. Their degree of muscular clarity made them the winner by the judging standards of the day. Chris Dickerson won the Olympia with 16-inch arms and a 250-pound bench press. The seismic shift occurred when a young bodybuilding guru named John Parrillo put it all together and created the modern body template. Parrillo looked at, and revised, three areas…
- Acquiring muscle mass: powerlifters discovered the secret to building maximum muscle mass was to combine power training with a massive influx of calories. Parrillo immersed himself in the sport and had a lightbulb moment: expropriate and modify the powerlifting muscle-building template.
- Clean up the calories: powerlifters were indiscriminate eaters. They ate often and they ate everything. Parrillo “switched out” insulin-spiking refined carbs, sugar foods, fast foods, and booze, with quality nutrients: lean protein, fiber, complex carbs, and MCTs (medium chain triglycerides).
- Multiple meals: if the goal is to consume 5,000 calories a day, elite bodybuilders discovered it was far better to consume those 5,000 calories in five meals of 1,000 each versus three square meals of 1,700 calories. By consuming the day’s calories in smaller meals, the digestive burden lessened.
- High protein: hailed as progressive resistance result-enhancer since the end of the second world war, how much protein intake was optimal was endlessly discussed and debated. Most top bodybuilders seek a minimum of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
- Consistent cardio: John Parrillo offered up irrefutable arguments as to why bodybuilders seeking maximum leanness (while preserving muscle mass) needed to make aerobic exercise a regular part of their training template: fitter athletes could train harder and longer, and cardio “built” the metabolism.
- Fasted cardio: Parrillo pointed out that the ideal time to perform cardio exercise was upon awakening when glycogen was lowest. Once glycogen is exhausted, the body will begin using its second favored form of energy: stored body fat. Fasted cardio is SOP in modern bodybuilding because it works.
- The bodybuilding triumvirate: the modern template for maximizing leanness uses multiple meal, high protein, high calorie/clean calorie eating as the bedrock. Atop this foundation, fasted cardio and high-volume weight training combined to create the modern bodybuilding template: lifting, cardio, nutrition.
Take tips from the Pros
Nutrition before all else: without disciplined nutrition, without eating light and clean, getting maximally lean becomes a physiological impossibility. You have zero chance of getting ripped with anything less than day-in, day-out nutritional perfection. There are no cheat days, mulligans, or day’s off when leaning out. One bad day will set you back two-weeks-worth of progress. Meal frequency can either be the classical 5-6 mini-meals, or a tight and clean intermittent fasting approach. Stay with three square meals if you must; but clean up the content and see if you can supplement between meals, perhaps a protein shake, or sports nutrition bar. Regardless the meal frequency, jettison all the bad foodstuffs and settle in. Once the nutrition is squared away, turn your attention towards the training.
Training: to attain maximum leanness, cardiovascular exercise is not an option. Consistent cardio need be done with intensity sufficient to cause the trainee to sweat. An amazing number of fitness trainees consistently perform cardio exercise – yet never reap the aerobic benefits, this due to insufficient intensity. Sweat-inducing aerobic exercise, done consistently (and coordinated with a tight, clean diet) amps up the metabolism, the body’s caloric burn-rate. Like turning the thermostat up to 90-degrees, a raging metabolism burns clean calories like a raging bonfire burns big logs. Aerobic exercise done coming off the sleep-fast and before the first meal of the day (easy if you are in intermittent faster) burns off body fat at an accelerated rate. Weight training shifts from wintertime power training into a high-volume/moderate poundage approach.
The Synergistic Triumvirate: the goal remains the same – use hardcore weight training and heavy eating to force the body to grow muscle. To minimize the accumulation of body fat during the process, bodybuilder tactics are expropriated and incorporated: the training need be heavy, hardcore and basic, improve strength and lean muscle mass automatically increases – assuming sufficient calories are available. Cardio exercise, preferably fasted-cardio, is done on a nearly daily basis. Sweat is the aerobic intensity barometer. Calories need to be “cleaned up.” Eat big but eat clean. Combine a “clean” caloric surplus with hardcore training. Add daily cardio and weight gain will no longer be marbled with an unacceptable amount of body fat. A one pound per week weight gain nets ten pounds in ten weeks. This is a fantastic occurrence if 8 of that 10-pound weigh gain is pure muscle. This is how the pros do it. Balance is key: better a little bit of all three disciplines than a whole lot of any one or two.
About the Author - Marty Gallagher
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher Biography for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.