As someone who tries to stay lean (sub 12% body-fat year-round) whilst still wanting to put on muscle there are a few ways I design my nutrition, training and my lifestyle to best reach these goals. I set these up as automatically as possible so that I don’t have to think about them and put in the daily conscious effort and willpower. Rather I set up a routine and lifestyle that make the habits second nature and the results inevitable.
I prefer to put my conscious thinking on other things in life. I believe we humans have limited willpower, and the more positive actions become habitual and consistent, the more energy we have left to focus on the other important things in life that matter to us.
Put in the right habits, and the results will be inevitable. They’ll come as a natural side-effect!
This does not mean I do not put in effort during training, on the contrary – during my training I put in extreme conscious focused effort. I make the knowing what I need to do part easy, so that the energy can be concentrated on the DOING.
My muscle-building and keeping lean habits revolve around maintaining a low body-fat percentage at all times and taking a cyclical approach to training and nutrition. Before I start off with the more obvious habits that you’ve likely heard before I’m going to explain some of the reasoning behind what I do.
The Importance of Insulin and Testosterone
Get lean and stay lean. The main reason I stick to maintaining sub-12% body-fat levels is due to hormones. Primarily 2 of the most anabolic hormones, insulin and testosterone. Generally speaking, the lower one’s body-fat, the higher ones insulin sensitivity. For optimal muscle-building we want our insulin to be working as optimally as possible.
Why? Insulin is a storage hormone and highly anabolic. It shuttles incoming nutrients either into muscle cells or fat cells. If one is insulin resistant (where there insulin is not working optimally) we store a higher percentage of incoming nutrients in the form of fat cells, and less so in muscle cells.
This is why people who are overweight have a more difficult time building muscle than people who are lean.
Imagine 2 men who want to build muscle who are similar in genetics, etc. with a similar training history and similar training style. The first guy has a body-fat percentage of 8%, the second of 30%. If both consume the same amount of calories, and are both about +/- 500 calories above normal ‘maintenance’, of those 500 calories a much higher percentage will go to muscle whereas for the second guy, more will be stored as fat.
The above also explains why – again, generally speaking – people that are overweight with a lot of body-fat are usually better off on a lower-carb plan to start off with. Simple sugars and high GI foods cause your insulin to spike and crash more than most proteins and fats. If this happens continuously one’s people will remain highly insulin resistant meaning and they’ll store fat more easily than those whose insulin IS working well.
Now onto the other big hormone, testosterone – what does keeping lean have to do with your testosterone? One reason is that the leaner and healthier you are (with lesser body-fat) the higher your testosterone production. Higher testosterone means better muscle-building.
But more than this is the utilization of your testosterone. Some people have a quite high testosterone which can be great IF it is put to good use. However, if it cannot be fully utilized, it may be converted to estrogen (a female hormone). When the balance between testosterone and estrogen shifts towards higher-estrogen and less testosterone one can experience a lot of unwanted side-effects – think man boobs, water retention and less optimal muscle-building.
The more body-fat one carries around the more testosterone may be converted into estrogen by an enzyme called aromatase. Aromatase is more abundant in fat tissue. So the more fat, the more aromatase, the worse your testosterone:estrogen balance, the less effective your muscle-building efforts become.
I hope this gives a good understanding as to the important of staying lean, especially as a man. So if you want to build the maximum amount of muscle with the minimal amount of fat, get lean!
Now once you are lean enough and you want to build muscle, these are my guidelines.
Muscle Building Rules
When it comes to calorie intake, eat anywhere from 10-20% above your maintenance.
This can be anywhere from 300 to 1000+ calories above your maintenance intake on average. The amount depends on your size, the amount of muscle mass you already have and as mentioned previously your hormonal levels and how lean you are. I want to emphasise that these guidelines are FOR lean individuals. As previously explained, you can’t go aggressive if you are overweight and your hormones are working sub-optimally. You will put on more fat if you go for an aggressive bulk.
We also don’t want to be overly cautious in our muscle-building efforts. Max out your hormones whilst you are primed and adapted to handle nutrient intake the most efficient way. If you’ve been dieting down for a while and are at a super-low level of body-fat when your body is primed for carbs and your insulin is working as optimally as it can be you can put on a lot of muscle extremely fast.
Cycle your carbs and calories.
For the hormonal reasons mentioned earlier it is imperative that we introduce several shred and hormonal reset phases throughout your growth journey. It is this cycling that will make sure we do not gain fat on top of muscle. When you find yourself putting on fat, introduce a short (2-3 week) cut phase to get leaner again first. This is most easily done by consuming a higher proportion of fats and less carbs.
As for protein intake, get in at least 1,8 grams of protein per pound of body-weight. More is definitely not a bad thing, especially if your insulin sensitivity is not quite what it should be yet (more on that below). So don’t be afraid of getting in 2-2.5 grams of protein per pound of body-weight, or even more. For fat intake, get in at least 0.6-0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Make sure you don’t skip a meal.
Have something on hand. A shack, snack, protein bar. Backup calories – if you’re on the road a lot, Myprotein snacks are ideal. Also, eat as many vegetables as you like!
As for weight-training make sure you change up your training.
Don’t neglect it. But instead of a lot of low or moderate intensity steady state cardio, do higher-intensity workouts that still involve a lot of resistance. Metabolic conditioning weights-circuits, modified strongman training, Crossfit type of circuits, max-speed sprints, etc. These types of workouts stimulate a large part of your muscles and they are better at muscle-mass preservation than focusing solely on traditional cardio which activates a smaller number of muscles and doesn’t do so at a very high intensity.
Aside from improving your cardiovascular system these are also great fat burning workouts. I wouldn’t recommend going over 2-3 sessions of these per week – on top of your regular weight-training. Keep them short, but intense.
Get your LISS cardio from walks, bike rides out in nature! Don’t spend precious gym time on the treadmill… unless of course you have no other option!
Rest, recovery and anti-stress.
It speaks for itself you will do better if you are fully recovered. Make sure you get in enough high-quality sleep. Keep things like electronics/screens off well before sleeping time, sleep in darkness, maintain a consistent daily sleeping pattern, etc.
Ensure training recovery is optimal. Stay hydrated and get in enough water. Replenish your electrolytes, especially during hot weather, during/after intense physical activity and generally when you sweat a lot. Electrolytes are the minerals lost during sweat. Get them through a proper recovery drink, through coconut water, through a high-veg intake with meals.
Get some quality parasympathetic activity time, aka ‘rest time’. This could be treating yourself to a spa, massage, yoga, tai chi, laughing, meditating, meaningful relationships and discussions, reflecting upon life…you get the idea! Also consider things like walks, hikes and bike rides out in nature. These are my personal favorites and help me to recharge the most whilst often giving me the most inspiration for new ideas and projects.
Remember that doing fun and de-stressing activities has a positive effect on your neurotransmitters (endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, etc.) and on your hormones like cortisol (stress hormone).
As you can see, a lot of these things are all interlinked. A healthy mind in a healthy body. Make sure you treat both as best you can, and then whatever other goals you have you will reach them more easily – whether physique goals like building more muscle, losing fat or life goals.