One Reader’s Progress, and a Question Answered

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”

William Shakespeare

TTP reader Sterling reports on his progress, and the age old question of how to put on muscle mass is answered — well, kinda.  First, Sterling’s report — followed by his question:

…Here’s the deal:
I’m currently 38, 5’8, 144lbs, 9 or 10% bf.  4.5 years ago I was fat and out of shape…badly out of shape; I was 225 lbs.  2.5 years ago I was 210.  I’ve slowly lost weight through proper nutrition and working my butt off using mostly the program P90X, some interval work, and sprints.

So, now I’d like to slowly add 20 lbs of muscle.  I know that I’ve got to be an anabolic, calorie surplus state to do that.  How would you suggest doing that as smartly as possible without adding too much fat?  At present, I only have access to dumbbells and bodyweight exercises.   What I think I’m going to hear is start lifting heavier weight, progressively overloading the muscle through, barbell squats, bench press, etc and full body exercises.  You are a big, fit, healthy dude so I thought I’d pick your brain.

Thanks again.  By following you on Twitter, I know that you know what you are talking about and believe in a paleo-type lifestyle.  Having a very busy life with 4 kids and 1 on the way makes it challenging sometimes, but I’m willing to put in the work.

And my answer; a bit more in depth than what I initially sent Sterling, as I’ve included some additional thoughts and/or clarification:
First off, congratulations on your successful weight loss, Sterling; and you’re right, living a full-on Paleo lifestyle will call-out your weight management issues and struggles of the past for exactly what they were — acts of utter futility.  No doubt some can lose weight on calorie restriction, energy expenditure and sheer will power (the 2nd law of thermodynamics does apply), but underlying health issues are left unresolved and, unless the person can maintain a proper energy deficit, either by exercise or calorie restriction, the weight (fat) will re-accumulate over time.  The world is replete with diet FAILs.
A note is in order here: setting up the proper hormonal profile in the body is key; thus the essence of — and the misunderstanding, too (and, of course, the heated battles over) — the statement, “a calorie is not a calorie“.  Maintaining low insulin levels is an essential — though an absolutely painless consequence of — following the Paleo lifestyle.  For an in-depth coverage of this subject, see Taubes’s fine work, Good Calories, Bad Calories.  Also of note is a recent video-taped lecture given by Dr. Doug McGuff (author of the excellent book, Body by Science).  Dr. McGuff does a fabulous job here of breaking down the complexities behind the whys and hows of fat accumulation/loss in readily understood, layman’s terms.  If you have a copy of BBS, I’d suggest opening it up to the depictions on pages 23 and 28, and following along with Doug’s verbal explanations.  If you don’t have a copy of Body by Science — or Good Calories, Bad Calories, for that matter — you’re really missing out on some great, foundational information sources.  Do yourself a big favor and pick up copies of both.  You’ll be glad you did.
Ok, moving on now to Sterling’s question…

On to your question.  Once you’ve fully adjusted to Paleo eating habits (I’m not sure by your email if you’re fully adjusted yet), your appetite will take care of itself.  No need to worry about increasing this or that — when you’re hungry, eat to satiation within the Paleo spectrum, and give it no more thought.  Now in some people, those many years of societal conditioning (eat at such-and-such a time, eat this much, eat until stuffed, etc.) take a while to break, so there may be a period where you’ll have to consciously decrease your volume and/or meal frequency to prevent putting on fat while you’re attempting to gain lean mass.  This means no more, though, than constantly questioning yourself as to whether you’re really hungry — or is that “hunger” really an old conditioning response?

And an interjection: no need, either, to get all wrapped-up trying to control/influence/predict anabolic and catabolic periods.  for one thing, the body is amazingly intelligent at balancing this sort of thing within a healthy equilibrium.  The second point is, is that the body continually and efficiently shifts between anabolic and catabolic states no matter what you do (or think you do) to “positively” influence a prolonged anabolic state — assuming, of course, we’re talking about a drug (steroid, growth hormone, etc.) free environment.  The things that are in your control, though are:

  • proper nutritional intake (via a Paleo diet, no more volume than to satiate)
  • proper biological stimulus/cue (see below)
  • proper recovery/stress balance (both daily, and between training sessions)

As far as training to put on mass, you’re correct again — progressive overload is key.  But that’s a cop-out answer in my opinion, because it does not take into account someone’s circumstance.  I’ll assume for the sake of argument that you don’t have access to a gym, heavy free weights, adequate machines and the like.  No problem, though, as you can put on substantial lean mass using nothing but bodyweight exercises — you just have to be creative as to how you perform these exercises so as to make gravity work for (or in this case, I suppose, against) you — elevated foot push-ups, handstand presses and the like.  Do you have access to a playground near where you live?  Pull-up and/or dip bars?  These plus a cheap weight belt (like this), and a few plates equate to a myriad of mass-building exercise options.

These are just some ideas.  Of course, depending upon your situation, you may be able to build/collect an assortment of homemade devises.  Here’s one of my favorite sites for homemade gear ideas.  Remember, the body doesn’t care if it’s being pushed on a 10K-dollar machine or with a 10-dollar sandbag — the body’s only imperative is to adequately respond to a biological stimulus/cue.  And it will do so, quite nicely, in fact — so long as it receives proper nutrition.

I hope this helps you out — let me know if you have any other more specific questions.

Just a quick word about P90X (or any heavily marketed workout program for that matter): there is no magic here, no secret formula, soviet “science”, or any other such ingredient contained in this program.  The program is successful in so far as its practitioners “stick to the protocol”, so to speak, and the 120-ish dollar price tag (i.e., a form of loss aversion) and flashy marketing will better ensure one’s compliance to the system’s dictates and frequency.  Now, I have nothing against P90X, per se, and I think the workout itself is fine so long as it fits one’s end goals.  All that I am saying is that what really matters — what’s more important for the vast majority of folks out there — is not what program is followed, but that any program is followed.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I can build one hell of a power athlete, put on impressive hypertrophy and drop body fat of virtually any trainee into the single digits (men) or low teens (women) simply by placing them on a protocol consisting of no more than (1) adherence to a Paleo diet (and a very lenient, Paleo diet at that) and (2) four ass-busting training sessions a week entailing a rotating combination of deadlifts, farmer’s walks, push-presses, weighted pull-ups and sprints.  My point is that the body does not care about flash, marketing, what celebrity is currently doing “your” new-found regimen — this is the realm of the psyche and ego.  The body’s concern is with overcoming a perceived threat (stimulus/cue), plain and simple.  It performs this task by strengthening whatever system was taxed so as to better defend against that or similar future threats.  This boils down to no more than an on-going arms race (pardon the pun) — a metabolically expensive arms race, however, in both nutrient and in recovery costs.  That, my friends, is the “secret”, stripped of all marketing and hype.  For more on this line of thinking, see my post Simple vs Easy.

To read more about Sterling and his fabulous fat-to-fit transformation, check out the following links:

Also, you can follow Sterling on Twitter, here.
In health,

10 responses to “One Reader’s Progress, and a Question Answered

  1. Keith,

    Great post.
    I particularly like the way you cut through all the nonsense and hype that surrounds “magical” training regimes.

    Keep up the good work.

    Best Regards – Mark

  2. I’ve always heard that “you can put on substantial lean mass using nothing but bodyweight exercises.”

    But truthfully? I’ve never seen or even heard of a single individual who’s gained 20lbs (IMO, that would be substantial) or more of lean muscle mass with just bodyweight exercises.

    I’ve seen PLENTY of examples of guys who are ALREADY big and muscular using bodyweight exercises to maintain. And I’ve seen a few examples where young kids gain muscle with bw exercises as they go through puberty.

    But an actual of a skinny guy over the age of 21 gaining substantial amounts of lean muscle mass with bodyweight-only exercises?

    I’ve never seen it.

    Are there really any real-world examples of somebody pulling off this feat?

    • Truthfully, yes, I think it can be done. Easy? No. Efficient? Not. Ring work, dips and pull-ups in every conceivable manifestation. Handstand push-ups, the myriad of sprints, hops, and lunges. 20 lbs.? Yeah, maybe you’d have to come to the table with a good genetic hand. How about spot me a weight belt and 100lbs worth of assorted plates? 20 lbs guaranteed, then; no problem. 🙂

  3. “No doubt some can lose weight on calorie restriction, energy expenditure and sheer will power (the 2nd law of thermodynamics does apply), but underlying health issues are left unresolved ..”

    Health should be first goal; it’s more sustainable that way.

  4. Keith,

    How would one go about increasing your calories on a paleo diet in order to gain lean mass?

    I understand that increasing your fruit intake with no limits is a no-go.

    My protein intake is already very high, with most of it coming from sources like eggs, meat, fowl and fish.

    So that leaves fat, which is also quite high already.

    It used to be so that gaining muscle on the typical bodybuilding diet was done through increasing your carb intake, but now that’s somewhat out, I have difficulty increasing the necessary calories.

    Furthermore, I wonder if increasing my fat intake even higher will not tax my liver negatively. It hovers between 130 and 150 grams a day at the moment.

    To offer some background:

    I am male, 24, have been training for various sports for 10 years and am currently involved in Crossfit.

    My best powerlifts are a 550lb deadlift, a 517lb squat and a 235lb clean&jerk, done at a bodyweight between 163 and 168lbs. These were all made before I turned fully to Crossfit, btw.

    I’ve lost some fat mass when I went on paleo, but now I’d like to gain some muscle mass again, while not compromising my health or increasing bodyfat very much.

    What’s your advice concerning the calories on paleo and the liver values?

    Kind regards,


    • Your first order of business ought to be getting your diet dialed-in; this does not imply counting calories, grams or blocks — it does mean, however, that your protein, fat and (limited) carbohydrate sources need to be of the highest quality you can find/afford. I realize that at 24, being able to pull-off subsisting entirely on grass-fed/free-range meat and locally grown veggies/fruit is a stretch — but really, it is a vital component, both for hypertrophy and internal health. Now, once the diet is dialed-in, let hunger — real hunger (not a socially-conditioned eating response) drive your volume intake. I would not worry about a high fat load on the liver, so long as the fat sources are optimal and assuming you’re clean. No implications and no judgments here — it’s just a reality of the sporting world. Anyway, in an athlete who is cycling, we would need to be mindful of the fat load on the liver.

      Realize that I’m a big fan of Crossfit — for certain populations and at certain points in a training cycle. It is not, on balance, however, your best hypertrophy cycle option. I’m sure you’re aware of that, but it needs to be said for the benefit of others.

      Realize this as well — much of the “muscle” gains on a high(er) carbohydrate “bulking” diet is actually the result of an increase in intra-muscular fat and water retention. Is that a “bad thing”? Again, I’m not here to judge, but I much prefer my current dense musculature to the bigger, albeit smoother musculature I carried back in the day. From here, then, you just have to decide for yourself if it’s size or quality that you’re after.

      Oh, and make sure you’re loading up on fish oil and vitamin D. Go for good quality varieties — Carlson’s is my go-to brand.

  5. Keith, thank you for your answer!

    First of all, most of my nutrition is like it should be. I’d say that about 60% of my food is organic, and 95% is without any additives or unnatural ingredients. All fruits and veggies are naturally grown. I managed to find a girlfriend whose parents have an organic health store.(strategic move, I know;-)
    I’ve always been a health nut and have done my own cooking for almost 10 years now, which gave me a lot more leeway than other 24-year olds. I also live in Belgium, and I’ve heard from many American friends that there is a world of difference in prices for good, natural food between here and in the USA.
    I am clean, of course. I have enough joint problems as it is.

    You’re right about Crossfit and not being a great program for muscle gain though. I’m not doing the genuine WOD’s, but I’ve made my own program, targetting weaknesses and keeping into account my injuries, while putting a bit more emphasis on strength(something I feel CF lacks, but that’s another discussion).

    If I would go through with a mass-gaining cycle I’d go to 3 days of pure strength training and 1 day of metabolic conditioning.

    Your remark about muscle quality was something I did not think about though … makes me realise that this type of muscle quality is indeed much better.

    It is difficult to wean myself off my conditioned eating responses. I’ve always eaten 6-7 times a day, regardless of the type of diet I was consuming.
    Since paleo I’ve gone down to 5 times.

    Next week I will get the results of a blood tests I’ve done today. If everything is okay, I will increase my breakfast size, since I’m usually hungry after having it.(5 eggs + a piece of fruit).

    As for the rest of the day, I’ll take your advice and just “roll with it” and eat whenever I feel like it, no matter the amount.

    • Kudos on self-designing a workout program to fit your needs, strengths, weaknesses and goals. The key here, of course, is brutal honesty in your self-evaluation. There is always a danger in over-estimating strengths and under-estimating weaknesses, and this is where a good coach is worth the cost. But that’s another story…

      Another thing I forgot to mention was raw dairy. If you can tolerate it (if you’re lactose-tolerant), I’d advise a moderate intake. Make sure, though, that it’s raw (from a trusted source), and full fat. I know this is contrary to the “Paleo hard-line”, but hey — that’s how I roll. Phase it in after you’ve got a good, solid base line from which to judge it’s affects on your system and give it a shot.

      BTW, nice choice in a significant other. I’ll give you an A+ for forethought 🙂

      • The REAL nice thing is she’s also a physical therapist! 😀

        I’ll ask about the raw dairy.

        So far I’m eating cottage cheese from a good source as my only diary(also not very paleo), but I’ll do my best to get the raw stuff.
        There’s a farmer near my house who has sold me raw full-fat fat milk a few times(to make pudding with).

        It’s odd, I sometimes feel like I’m gaining fat rather than losing it. Overall feeling of recovery from work and training(doing tons of both)most likely has something to do with it, as well as simply eating too little. I entered my food intake a week ago on Fitday and found out I was taking in a whopping 2300 calories. I know intake matters little, but still, I’m fairly certain I’m expending a lot more than that daily.

        Good coaching is rare in Belgium.
        I’d say that 90% of the good coaches are connected to the highest paid athletes(see Kim Clijsters – if you’re into tennis). An advantage of living in a country our size is that via-via you can always get in touch with some people.

        I do have to note – twice a week I have a large meal of starch, after my heaviest training. I feel I do better on this. I may increase it to three times a week, as I feel my body simply can’t recover from the training volume and workload I’m doing(again, “is this volume necessary?” – perhaps it is for my competitive goals at the moment, but in the future I may lower the weekly volume and go on a strictly paleologic diet).

        What are your observations on recovery and going on a paleo diet initially? Did adding the dairy improve your recovery?

        Excuse for taking up your posting space by the way.



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