If you want to go from skinny to muscular, the plan sounds simple: Lift strong and heavy. Eat more. But for some guys, like our client John, it’s more complicated.
John was a busy pre-med student, tired of feeling skinny and lean. He wanted to add size. And he wanted to feel strong. The challenge is that John is what we call a “weight gainer.” Long and lean, with less than optimal genes for building muscle quickly.
But being hard-earned isn’t a muscle-building curse. While genetics inevitably make a difference, your genetics are No preventing you from adding pounds of muscle. With our help, John gained over 20 pounds in just over seven months. He throws out the excuses because that’s incredible progress.
How did John ultimately achieve further growth, and how can you achieve similar results? If you want to transform your body, there are two breakthroughs in muscle growth you need to know about.
Muscle Growth Breakthrough #1: Focus on Progression
We kept John’s training simple. But don’t confuse the simple with the effective. If you want to build muscle, it all comes down to getting stronger and progressively doing more work month after month.
And if the goal is to build muscle, then variety is your friend. This doesn’t mean altering your workouts every day, but rather going through cycles where you rotate your reps and the movements you perform.
In John’s training plan, we alternate between strength-focused plans for a month, emphasizing lower reps and increasing the weight each week. Then the following month we would emphasize higher sets and reps, but with a moderate weight (rather than a max).
To help illustrate what these plans would look like, here is a simplified example of how you might set up each month of training:
Month 1: fewer reps, weight gain
- Exercise 1 – Squats: 4 sets x 6 reps (70% of your rep max)
- Exercise 2: Bench Press: 4 sets x 6 reps (70% of your one rep max)
- Exercise 3: Deadlift: 4 sets x 6 reps (70% of your rep max)
Increase the weight by 5 to 10 pounds (depending on your strength level) for each exercise compared to Week 1.
- Exercise 1 – Squats: 3-4 sets x 6 reps (75% of your rep max)
- Exercise 2: Bench Press: 3-4 sets x 6 reps (75% of your one rep max)
- Exercise 3 – Deadlift: 3-4 sets x 6 reps (75% of your one rep max)
Weeks 3 and 4 would continue this progression, eventually ending at 85% of your one rep max.
Month 2: Higher sets and reps, moderate weight
- Exercise 1: Reverse Lunge: 4-5 sets x 10 reps (60% of your one-rep max)
- Exercise 2 – Incline Dumbbell Press: 4-5 sets x 10 reps (60% of your rep max)
- Exercise 3 – Leg face down: 4-5 sets x 10 reps (60% of your rep max)
Increase the weight by 5-10 pounds for each exercise compared to Week 1.
- Exercise 1: Reverse Lunge: 4-5 sets x 10 reps (65% of your one-rep max)
- Exercise 2 – Incline Dumbbell Press: 4-5 sets x 10 reps (65% of your rep max)
- Exercise 3 – Face Down Leg Curl: 4-5 sets x 10 reps (65% of your rep max)
Weeks 3 and 4 would continue this progression, eventually ending at 75% of your one rep max.
It’s a good reminder that multiple rep ranges can lead to growth, but it’s important to focus on a specific goal and make it easy to see progress. Drastically changing your workouts each session may seem like a good idea, but not if it makes it harder to track progress and improve in the ways that you build muscle..
Muscle Growth Breakthrough #2: Pushing Your Calorie Threshold
Like most difficult gainers, John’s biggest challenge was eating enough. If his goal is to build muscle, he needs to eat more calories than he burns (plus adequate protein). These are the raw materials for new growth.
Sounds great right? You can eat more food!
But this isn’t always easy or as fun as it seems when you’re naturally skinny like John. “Hard gainers” like John often feel full before they reach their calorie goal for the day. Eating becomes a chore.
That is why you need to change the rules of eating for muscle building. you may need to eat past your hunger to gain new muscle. (Note: this is much different when you focus on fat loss and body recomposition, which is changing body fat percentage.)
High-quality foods should form the foundation of any good diet—think of your high-fiber proteins, produce, and carbohydrates.) However, we often suggest adding high-calorie foods traditionally labeled “unhealthy” for customers who struggle to eat enough.
Finding ways to sneak in extra calories in ways that are fun and pleasurable can make eating less of a task and help pack in the necessary calories.
Small gains can be healthy behaviors, like adding extra peanut butter to your shakes or eating a second helping of pasta. But it can also mean going to the Shake Shack and enjoying a shake.
We’re not encouraging a free meal for everyone, but these foods do provide a ton of calories and take up less volume in your stomach (meaning you feel less full). And that gets the job done and pushes the right buttons so your workout turns into muscle. And, when done right, it means more muscle without a lot of added fat.
Are you ready to create your own muscle growth breakthrough?
With Born Fitness Online Coaching, you’ll get not one, but two dedicated coaches, one for fitness and one for diet. Say goodbye to generic muscle-building workout plans and pre-made meal plans that don’t work. We’ll help you create a personalized plan that will challenge you and help you build muscle effectively. You can apply here if you are interested.
BJ has a Bachelor’s degree in Human Health and Performance and multiple certifications, including Precision Nutrition Level 1 and BioForce Certified Conditioning Coach. During his 14 year coaching career, he has been fortunate to train a wide range of clients. From online clients looking to get in shape to CEO Nate Checketts (Rhone) and CEO Marcelo Claure (Softbank) and professional skateboarder Sean Malto. Before beginning his coaching career, he was a research assistant in a sports science laboratory.