The Hypertrophy Response — Stimulus or Fuel Dependent?

“We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
– Archilochus

A spot-on observation of human nature, I think.  Even so, within those of us who think more highly of ourselves, that it should be otherwise.  So much so a true observation, in fact, that I use this quote as my email signature, so that I see it daily.

The following is related to a question I fielded recently from a client, and it’s not unlike the multitude of diet-vs-hypertrophy-related questions I field on a regular basis.  The answer to this particular question, of course — like just about every every question related to Physical Culture — is analigous to attempting to tame the ol’ State Fair favorite, the Zipper.

There are just so many moving variables to this question that it’s impossible to give a pat answer here without really taking the time to stop and dismantle each of these whirly-gig cars.  I think this “problem of complexity” is a big reason why the majority of folks fall for fads and easy-outs (in diet and in training) — getting to the right answers takes due diligence and, in most cases, it means letting go of previously-taken-to-be-iron-clad-correct “knowledge” — not exactly a feel-good position for many.

And, too (and as always), we need to know the goals of the individual asking the question.  And, in this case, we need to define what we even mean by “hypertrophy” — because one person’s “lean mass gain” is another’s “bulk”.  Just as an example, look at the difference in Brad Pitt’s physique between his appearance in Fight Club…

and then in Troy…

No doubt Brad is bulkier in Troy — but what of the difference in lean mass between the two appearances?   Hard to say.  And truth be told, few care.  Even if that bulk were 95% intramuscular fat, most (guys, at least) would be more than happy with that.

Now I’m certainly not here to say that intra-muscular fat deposition (bulk) is necessarily a bad thing — I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to defining lean mass hypertrophy vs. all-encompassing bulk.

But back to my client’s actual question; what he wants to know is this:

what, if any, body recomposition changes occur over time if one engages in sound hypertrophy-focused training BUT were to limit the diet to maintenance-level calories? Let’s also assume we are talking about someone who is more toward the ectomorph side of the body-type continuum.

Oy vey!  Where to begin with this one, huh?  Well, first off let’s assume “maintenance calories” to mean “eating to satiation”, because, in  reality, anything else would simply give credence to the now debunked (at least within normal parameters, i.e., between starvation and wanton gluttony) calories-in/calories-out theory.  So, what we’re talking about here is simply eating a decent, Paleo-ish diet, to satiation, and absolutely not obsessing about such things as, oh… maintaining a positive nitrogen balance, or some other such lunacy — i.e., living a real, non-OCD life outside of the gym.  Now, that said, what I’ve observed during my 30+ years in the iron game is this: given proper stimulus (and favorable genetic/hormonal underpinning), hypertrophy “happens” even in an environment of less-than-adequate nutritional support.

The kicker, of course, being proper stimulus.  To put it another way, busting ass in the gym trumps anything that one does, or does not, shove down the ol’ pie-hole.  I would even go further to say that busting ass trumps the use of fine pharmaceuticals, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Taubes gives a great example in Why We Get Fat (though geared toward fat gain — the same applies here) of a teen going through a growth spurt.  Assuming decent nutritional support (i.e., no starvation), growth is a function of the hormonal environment within the body, not a function of forced intake of excess calories.  In other words, a growing teen eats like he has a friggin’ hollow leg, and/or is (by his parent’s definition), a “lazy”, never-gonna-get-a-job-and-get-out-of-the-frackin’-house bum, *because* he is growing, not so as to *induce* said growth.  Hypertrophy is much the same, though on a lesser (caloric requirement wise) scale.  Think of it this way: stimulus drives the hypertrophy train, nutrition simply supports, to a very limited degree, the effort.  And hey, I’m all for adequate support, but let’s just not forget what the real driver is here.

Now, I do concede a certain credence, if you will, to the other side of the argument (of which, this Dr. Lonnie Lowery/Rob “Fortress” Fortney-penned T-Nation article is the best I’ve come across in a long while) — that is to say, that properly administered overeating will establish a more favorable anabolic environment within the body, and therefore promote (better?  Faster?) hypertrophy gains.  What we’re talking about here, though, is a matter of degree — and, again, the difference between bulk and lean-mass hypertrophy must be vetted.  And, too, we’re speaking again of multiple variables.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across and individual who’s gone headlong into a “mass gain” phase, who didn’t also jack his/her gym intensity into the stratusphere concurrent with devouring everything they could get their hands on.  Did they put on mass/bulk?  You bet they did.  But what really drove the train here, the newly-heightened input stimulus or surplus calories?  I’ll put my money on the stimulus side of things, every time.

Another “eat your way big” argument that has some merit (in my observation, at least), is the “improved lever” argument.  That is to say, increased bulk provides for better about-the-joint lever advantages, which allows one to push heavier weights, which promotes additional hypertrophy.  I also believe there’s some merit to the point-of-origin energy supply argument.  All fine and well.  Until, that is, Johnny Bulk-Up decides that he’s now ready to diet-down to reach his original goal of being lean and muscular.  Rut-Ro…

As the Dalia Lama says, many paths lead to the same destination  🙂

And I won’t even begin to delve into the fool’s errand of even attempting to second-guess the body’s caloric requirements with any measure of accuracy.  Weigh and measure? Meh.  Let us, instead, focus on the things that are, at least somewhat, within our control.  Things like consuming a proper Paleo diet, a diet of a favorable macro-nutrient disposition dependent upon our own (smartly conducted) n=1 determination.  Things like busting ass in the gym in an intelligently programmed way (which includes being mindful of spinning into the overtraining pit).  Things like eating when you’re truly hungry, getting adequate ZZzzzzz’s, ditching chronic stress where possible — and not stressing about the chronic stresses that you can’t avoid.


So does proper diet matter in the hunt for hypertrophy?  Sure it does.  It just pales in comparison, though, to those gut-wrenching gym sessions.  Look at it this way: if eating one’s way big had merit, Arnold’s physique would be the norm.  My take is that time spent obsessing over caloric intake would be much better spent learning meditative/awareness practices that allow one to push past the mind’s “shutdown” threshold.  Become a student of focus, intensity and self awareness, and let the body mind it’s own caloric needs.  It does so brilliantly, thank you very much — and much better than you (your mind, ego) could ever hope to, so long as you provide it access to the proper raw staples.

So there you have it.  Is your goal to attain (in accordance with your genetic limitations) 70s Big status, or the raw, lean and muscular look?  The truth of the matter is, my friend, that you can’t have it both ways.


A muse for Physical Culture?

My good friend, and uber-talented artist, Jeanne Hospod, has an interesting project going on here:

Let’s just say she’s doin’ the best she can with the block-head muse she has to work with 🙂  Seriously, though, Jeanne is an exceptional Austin-area artist — and a kind, kind soul to boot.  Check out her work; you’ll be glad you did.  Very cool stuff indeed.  And the process is simply amazing.  I had no idea of the complexity…


Want to begin your PhD in Physical Culture?  Start with this lecture from my good friend Ken O’Neill.  Brilliant insights from an erudite champion of Physical Culture.  Pull up a chair, put on a pot of Joe, and dive deep into the very essence of the “new” Physical Culture movement.  Well done, Ken.


Workouts for the last couple of weeks.  Now you may have noticed that my blogging has been a bit sporadic since my move here to Austin.  And it’s for good reason — I’m busy as all hell!  Seriously, though, many of the “quick hit” topics I generally now cover over at the Efficient Exercise Facebook page.  Topics I choose to flesh-out a bit more will find their way here.  And so it goes.  Anyway, so friend us up over at our Facebook page, where Skyler, Mark Alexander and I go “around the horn” with many current health, fitness, and all-encompassing topics related to our favorite subject — Physical Culture.

Sunday, 4/3/11

OK, so a couple of short clips are worth a thousand words 🙂  A little 21st century technology paired with a smattering of old school favorites add up to a total upper-body thrashing.  Sweet!

Tuesday, 4/5/11

(A1) CZT/ARX Leg press: 3, 3, 3, 3

(A2) trap bar DL: (black bands, speed emphasis) – 155/5, 245/5, 5; 295/3

Wednesday, 4/6/11

(A1) Nautilus pec dec: 110/12, 12 (working the later reps…partials, rest-pause, etc.)

(A2) XC incline press: (-90, mid 25)/7, 6 rest-pause

(A3) Nautilus pull-over: stack/13, 12+(3, 2 rest pause)

Thursday, 4/7/11

(A1) power snatch (close grip): 115/5, 5, 5, 135/4

(A2) hanging L-raise: 15, 15, 15, 15

(B1) hip press: (setting @ H2), 200lbs+ 1 grey and 1 black band, 8 sets of 3

Saturday, 4/9/11

(A1) trap bar DL (low grip): 265/7, 355/7, 405/5, 5

(A2) chins: 45/7, 55/5, 5, 4+

(A3) dips: 45/7, 70/5, 6, 7

Here’s a look at how the final round went down…

…dude!  What happened to your hair??  Yeah, so I went all Duke Nukem.  Summers are friggin’ hot here in the ATX, gimme a break.  And I’m down with the minimalist upkeep.  Metro-sexual man I am not 🙂  Gimme chalk on my hands, a fixed-speed bike, and a doo I don’t have to f&%# with, thank you very much!

Sunday, 4/10/11

Sprints!  And climbing ropes, parallel bars, a 40-rung, super-wide set of monkey bars, a scaling wall and a waist to chest-high retaining wall for jumps.  Big, big fun!

Tuesday, 4/12/11

2 rounds of the following:
(A1) hip press (H2 setting): 400/12, 500/6, 600/3 (hierarchical sets)
(A2) standing roll-outs: 15

Wednesday, 4/13/11

2 rounds of the following:
 (A1) Naut pec dec: 95/12, 105/6, 115/3 (hierarchical sets)
(A2) XC flat press: (+50) 4, 3+ ( 80X0 tempo; X=fast as possible)

Thursday, 4/14/11

(A1) front squats: 135/7, 185/5, 205/5, 225/3, 245/2, 2, 2, 2

(A2) Power cleans (high catch): 135/8, 155/6, 175/3, 3, 3

Friday, 4/15/11

(A1) BTN push-press: 135/7, 155/7, 175/5, 195/3, 3, 2, 2, 2

And by the way, a big shout-out to Kris, who sent me the most killer “Manimal” T’s — hit me with an email, brother — I’ve lost your addy!

In health,


18 responses to “The Hypertrophy Response — Stimulus or Fuel Dependent?

  1. There is a saying in the greater physical culture world that “there’s no such thing as overtraining, only under eating.” While this is obviously largely exaggerated, I think that the point is an important one. Namely, calories are king when it comes to mass gain.

    In an article on Doggcrapp I read, Dante mentions a study in which scientists compared the lean mass of body builders, power lifters, and sumo wrestlers of the same heights. Their findings were that the sumo wrestlers, who didn’t really lift as far as I know, had the most lean mass by a significant margin, followed by the power lifters and then the body builders. Dante cites this as evidence that eating is the most important aspect of bodybuilding. There’s a sample of a day of Dante’s food intake at the bottom of this page: (7700 kcal!).

    To my mind, this idea that overeating is the most important thing you can do in terms of hypertrophy has a lot of support. When you take a look at something like the Colorado Experiment, in which Casey Viator did a ridiculous amount of HIT work 3x a week (should cause overtraining), or Tim Ferriss’ discussion of ‘Jumbo’ Palumbo vomiting all over his windshield trying to get an extra dozen eggs down in the form of a microwaved shake, it becomes clear that at least for them, the focus was hit the gym, get your workout in, then focus the rest of your time and energy eating as much as physically possible.

    I imagine that this “calories are king” mentality is more important for novice to intermediate trainees, who still have a lot of ground to cover in order to approach their genetic potential. Particularly for an ectomorph, all the training in the world is not going to substantially move the dial unless you’re consciously pushing the threshold of your calorie intake capacity on a daily basis.

    • The question that should be asked, I think, is whether the sumo wrestler (for example) could attain the same lean mass on (and again, I hate this term) maintenance calories. My contention is that he could. Another thing to consider as well is the use of anabolics which tilt the hormonal profile substantially, allowing for the conversion of much more caloric content to tissue formation. But even if anabolics are used (and I’m agnostic on their use; to each his own), my belief is that we’re still talking about the same end game. I would love to see a twin study undertaken on this question, as I believe that this would be as close as we could get to a definitive answer — still a boat load of variables to have to control for though, with “intensity” being just one of many. Would be interesting though, none the less.

      • That would be a really interesting study, but I’d be willing to bet a handsome sum that in that study the twin who ate beyond the point of satiety; that is, force-fed himself an extra couple hundred calories; would see greater strength and lean mass gains than his counterpart eating to satiety. Gains that could then be maintained through a subsequent cutting period.

        I know for myself, I cannot substantially budge my weight eating to satiety, and my strength gains are relatively minimal as well. This certainly varies from person to person, but for myself, as an ectomorph, I need to fight my gag reflex at the end of every meal if I want to have a chance of beating the book my next time in the gym.

        • And, ultimately, n=1 is what really matters — no matter the prevailing theory or conjecture 🙂 If it works for you, who’s to argue?

        • The problem with studies like the sumo one (I’ve reviewed it and linked it on my blog) is that there is no way to differentiate between actually muscle and “fat-free mass.” Water is fat-free mass, glycogen is fat-free mass, bone is fat-free mass, and muscle is fat-free mass. If you’re carrying a lot of fat and you’re stuffing yourself, you’ll artificially carry more “fat-free mass” or FFM.

          The authors only used a two compartmental method of body composition. Fat and FFM, so it is not surprising sumo wrestlers have greater FFM as explained above. They did, however, measure the cross sectional area (CSA) of the muscles,and bodybuilders had BIGGER CSA in the areas measured (Biceps and Thighs) compared to the sumo. So the claims being made are wrong. To be fair the authors never made these claims but was noted by Dante/etc.

          Straight from (one of the studies; the authors had multiple):
          “The Sumo wrestlers showed significantly higher %FM and smaller elbow and knee extensor cross-sectional areas (CSA) than the weight-classified athletes who weighed from 90.4 kg to 133.2 kg. Moreover, isokinetic forces in the flexion and extension of elbow and knee joints, respectively, at three constant velocities of 1.05, 3.14 and 5.24 rad x s(-1) were significantly lower in the Sumo wrestlers than in the weight-classified athletes and untrained subjects when expressed per unit of body mass.”

          Smaller CSA, less force per unit of body mass because so much of that mass is inert weight being classified as FFM but misinterpreted as lbm.

          Thus going back to IMTG, levers, goals, etc. etc. etc.

          • Great analysis. I was remiss in not mentioning bone, H20, glycogen, etc., as being lumped within the FFM definition.

          • Hey Skyler,

            I actually looked for the study before referring to it, couldn’t find it. Looking at your blog though, you mention that “If you wanna gain muscle, you’ve gotta eat more than your maintenance level of calories.” That’s from this post here:, not sure if you have anything more up to date on that subject, but that point is the one I was trying to make.

            Still, I think that the extreme examples of muscle building are the outliers that demonstrate the phenomenon. The examples like Casey Viator or Tim Ferriss adding 30-60+ lbs of lean mass in 28 days while at the same time losing body fat illustrate to me that given appropriate training, our muscle building potential is limited by our fueling, and eating to satiety is not sufficient to attain maximum gains from each lifting session.

            • Hey Geoff,

              While I don’t disagree about my old post, I think that I should edit the sumo wrestler stuff out, or at least add the context of FFM != muscle tissue.

              Of note with Tim Ferriss and Viator, they were both recovering muscle tissue to levels they had previously achieved. Muscle memory is a fact, though exercise scientists still seem stumped as to exactly why.

              The eating more than maintenance comment, while still true, is tricky. Muscle is being produced de novo, which takes time. While scale rates moving up can be a good sign, as Keith noted, it’s hard to tell exactly what is moving up. Little of it is likely dry muscle tissue.

              If you’re only concerned with size, eat up. However, the bloat/fat fluctuations, mood swings, and energy fluctuations aren’t for me anymore. N=1, but I think that you’ll find nobody gains like they do as a newbie forever, so an intermediate/advanced guy going for gains in size could reasonably expect 8-12lbs/year if they’re cranking along well, with that number dropping almost in half year by year:


              And if you look at natty bodybuilders, only the tallest guys crack 200lbs on stage. If they had been gaining at 12lbs/year for 10 years, they started under 100 lbs. So either they started pubescent (possible) or were recovering from a muscle wasting disease at the start. Nobody gains in a linear fashion like that, so the demand for calories to build new tissue as you edge closer to your potential would, mathematically, reduce. So the per session fuel requirements are astronomically small…unless you’re regaining for publicity purposes, which qualifies for both Ferriss and Viator (by way of Nautilus). The rest of the bodybuilding population is not in this boat, thus it doesn’t apply.

              I think that clarifies my position better. You need to eat more than maintenance, but not by as much as most think and definitely by less (think 400 to 800 calories more on workout days) than some bulking gurus would have you believe.

              • While both Ferriss and Viator had some muscle memory in play, both also built new muscle that they’d never had before as well. Tim did it to the tune of ~5lbs, and Viator added about 20lbs above his previous LBM max if I remember correctly (Tim talks about it in The 4 Hour Body).

                I also wonder how variable our appetites are when it comes to the point of satiety. It’s definitely the case that some people can just eat and eat, while others really struggle to eat past their normal amount. Maybe it’s more about training one’s ability to eat large quantities over the years than it is about appetite regulation in the brain. Then by the time you start strength training, the guy who has a head start on the overeating capacity training will barrel ahead faster eating to “satiety.”

                • I’m going to sound temporarily nitpicky, because I’ve learned certain things from 4 hour body that I was unaware of but there’s a whole lot of crap in there.

                  1. I’m holding a copy of “The New HIT” in my hand by Dr. Darden. He was at the Colorado Experiment and he was also buddies with Viator way back. According to him, Viator weighed 218lbs when he won the Mr. America, 2 years prior to the Colorado Experiment, which left him 6 pounds lighter

                  2. Tim Ferriss states that he weighed 187lbs in 1999 before he won his martial arts championship on this link:

                  This is 6 years before the “Geek to Freak” regain, leaving him 11lbs lighter than before.

                  So it’s an impressive rate of gain but it wasn’t back to their previous “peaks.” This is sort of stated off-hand but I feel it should be in bold and underlined!

                  As far as eating to satiety, there was a documentary performed by the BBC called “Why Are Thin People Not Fat?”and it explains some of the mechanisms would alter one person’s “satiety” vs. another:

                  Finally, Casey Butt has a calculator for maximum rate of mass gain on his website:

                  • And other thing to consider here: it’s much much easier to overeat than it is to consistently bust-ass in the gym. If it were otherwise, in my opinion, the question of necessary surplus calories would never even appear on the RADAR.

  2. Keith – Thanks for posting. This was exactly the type of clarification on the subject that I was hoping to see. I realize that the medical industry drives research, but it seems to me that for as much money that goes into the fitness industry, we would see more definitive research on the subject. I’m probably being naive on that one…

  3. Great read Keith. In my opinion, ‘intensity’ is the variable that makes this discussion so consistently difficult. Many believe they are applying the proper stimulus but may actually be falling short of the mark. That leads perfectly into your last insight (my favorite) – that you may be better served re-applying wasted energy to the mental game and pushing past the “shutdown” threshold.

    • I’ve seen this play out *so* many times, Roger — the whole “holy f#&%! *That’s* what you mean by intensity” realization. I’m certainly not saying that there are real genetic limitations to putting on muscle mass, but what I am saying is that for most trainees, there is a good amount of potential lean mass being “left on the table”, so to speak, that could otherwise be claimed (regardless of diet), if intensity and/or busting through the “shutdown” barrier were mastered.

  4. Keith,
    THANK you!

    N=1…..I’ve noticed that after several quality true max effort work outs, I without trying, eat more. My body “asks” for more fuel. But it’s not like stuffing my face in the old days, I really like what Skyler says….”But the bloat/fat fluctuations, mood swings, and energy fluctuations aren’t for me anymore. N=1, but I think that you’ll find nobody gains like they do as a newbie forever”

    Patience… seems to be a life long lesson for me 🙂

    Great post, thanks again.


  5. Keith,

    Great post. Have you read this post?

    Kind of interesting, and it’s right in line with your post. I think another interesting point is that a lot of what we think of as muscle-gain knowledge comes from the world of steroid assisted athletes. This skews what we know to be possible, since the max ceiling for lean mass is raised and I’ll bet the overeating for muscle gain thing works better at least for those on steroids.

    I did my own mass gain experiment where I stuffed my face and trained hard and I ended up gaining 20 lbs. Then I switched gears to eating to satiety on a purely Paleo diet and I’ve come to realize the majority of those pounds were fat :(. I gathered that the body adds muscle at its own pace and you can’t force the issue by throwing more calories at the problem. At this point I’m just keeping my nose to the grindstone and concentrating on getting stronger every week.

  6. Keith,

    This post is right on. I’ve been incorporating the “training to the max” style lately and noticed that naturally I just have a larger appetite.

    I also agree with Jerry. People really exaggerate how much protein they need when gaining muscle, and it’s possible that this is influenced by the guys taking steroids. Hard to say.

    Anyway, been a long time (possibly years?) since I’ve commented here. This is one intense blog Keith!



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