Answering emails: Adding Skeleton Meat
Well, I've received probably my favorite email ever from Emmy, who wrote, "How I, as cute Asian girl, get stakkd, jakkd, and juiced out of my mind?"
Happily, readers of all colors and ethnicities are equally capable of getting stakkd, jakkd, and juiced out of their minds, although it's true that science has a bias towards cute people. So you're in luck, Emmy!
(PS, don't forget someone actually did this study too. You know, in case this has been a pressing issue.)
How do I get big muscles? is one of the most-asked questions in fitness. Strangely, also in contention for that title is the polar opposite question: How do I avoid getting big muscles?
The latter is easier to answer, and frankly, Ahnold answered it best. He once said that plenty of people would ask him fitness advice yet follow up with, "But I don't want to look like you," and he would reply, "Don't worry, you never will."
Less self-congratulatory and more simple reality, this quip is legendary in the world of lifting. Believe me, tens of millions of people around the world wish that one could gain appreciable amounts of muscle via a casual gym habit. Can you get healthier with a casual gym habit? Absolutely. Can you get stronger from a casual gym habit? Hell yeah! Can you get huge muscles with a casual gym habit? 100% definitely not. It requires serious time in the gym, serious programming, serious changes in the kitchen, and some serious years invested.
So Emmy, get ready, because getting stakkd, jakkd, and juiced is gonna be a commitment. If you want big muscles, here's how it happens. If you don't want big muscles (who wouldn't though??), rest assured that if you're not following the instructions here, you ain't in trouble.
Let's start with...
Serious time in the gym
Choosing a protocol
We're talking six days a week, including lifting, mobility, and recovery workouts. There are as many styles of lifting protocols as there are humans on the planet, but you'll want to pick one and commit to it for two to three months. Which one do you pick? Some people swear by fifteen sets of fifteen reps, others by five sets of thirty reps. Some say that you must alternate muscle groups OR ELSE RISK PERMANENT DAMAGE, others say that you must do the same muscle groups back-to-back because COMPOUND SETS ARE THE LIGHT AND THE GLORY. Still others say that volume is the enemy and you must never lift more than seven reps OR YOU WILL GET PREGNANT. AND DIE.
Human bodies, being endlessly different, respond endlessly differently to training. So there is legitimate (and not-so legitimate) research to support basically every program under the sun. The truth is, when it comes to the body, there isn't a whole lot that everyone agrees upon. So the good news is, you can't go super wrong.
Because of this, the first step is to figure out a training program that sounds like something you want to do. If, like me, you'd rather get an enema than follow a protocol of fifteen sets of fifteen reps, then I'd skip that one. So do some research and take a look at what different protocols require of you, both on individual days (sets and reps) and over the course of two or three months (overall intensity and volume). If six days a week seems impossible for you to schedule, you'll need to find a lifting program that has you in the gym four days a week and programs its volume accordingly.
After you select a program, then you have to stay with it. Dipping your toe doesn't count; you won't know how warm the water is until you actually dive in. Unless you feel like absolute dog shit after every workout (a sure sign that you're not doing the right workout), you have to give programs some time. Training adaptations can take weeks and months to show visible changes (aesthetic or sensory), so in lots of ways, you have to let Jesus take the wheel here for a while.
Finding your 1RM
The first move in setting programming is to figure out your 1 rep max (1RM) on certain lifts. You'll never know how to calibrate 80% of your 1RM (this is how all programming is written) unless you actually have a reliable number for a 1RM. You have two options for calculating your 1RM. You can get a spotter who knows what they're talking about, and have them help you through the process. Fair warning: getting a true 1RM is an exhausting and risky process. You're trying to find the weight that is so heavy, you can barely move it once. If you're intending to compete in olympic lifting, powerlifting, or other lifting styles, you're gonna have to do this, because competitions are rounds of 1RMs. If you're not planning on competing, there's a better way.
Once you have calculated your maximum amount of weight that you can put up on any given lift, follow your program precisely. If it asks for 85% of your 1RM, do the math (preferably in your head so your squash doesn't rot) and get it right. Don't just say, "Oh, it's about 80 pounds." If you're not able to hit the precision (if you need an extra 2.5 pounds, for example, but there's nothing available in the gym to total +2.5), then round up if you're an experienced lifter and round down if you're new.
Lifting for a cycle
Programs are written in cycles. Some are six weeks, some are twelve weeks, but all of them should be written so that you are lifting more at the end than you were at the beginning. This is called progressive overload. If you aren't slowly and steadily adding weight over time, then there's no indication that you're getting stronger. A very standard progressive overload protocol is to do a series of exercises three times a week at (x) weight for 8 reps, then the next week you do the exact same exercises at the same weight for 10 reps, then the third week you do the exact same exercises at the same weight for 12 reps. In week four, you increase your weight and go back to 8 reps, etc.
There is an important caveat to this! If you're only making it to the gym once or twice a week, progressive overload is going to be an extremely slow process. I would not advise the above timeframes, because your body simply hasn't been given enough chance to train and adapt. If you're looking for maintenance and general movement, once or twice a week is just fine. If you're looking for stakkd, jakkd, and juiced outta your mind, you gotta get your ass to the gym.
One of the trickiest things to teach enthusiastic clients is that resting in between exercises is vital. People often get antsy because they're paying for the time, which I understand. But I'm not chatting with my clients just so I can pa$$ the time. I'm chatting because I know they need a couple minutes before we can reasonably expect a good performance in the next set. How much time is an individual measurement. But if I've got someone putting in max efforts on pullups or deadlifts, they're sure as shit not getting back on that bar thirty seconds later. For heavy lifting, I find 3-4 minutes is where my client can get their best next set. For max anaerobic style conditioning, I've given clients anywhere from 6-9 minutes off. For myself, my worst anaerobic workouts usually involve a blissful 10-12 minutes of lying on the floor between sets.
Remember the goal is progressive overload. If you never rest, one of three things will have to change: your weights will have to get lighter, your sets will have to get shorter, or your form will go to shit. None of this is progressive overload, it's progressive backsliding. Lifting ever smaller weights fewer times with worse form is not the goal. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear people being like "Mia, you have to do reverse pyramids, or YOU WILL GET CHLAMYDIA AND DIE." Sure, go ahead. I used to do a lot of those because they seem like a lot of work and a lot of work seems great. But then I read a bunch of shit about how they aren't any better at building muscle than traditional lifting and, well, I hate to do extra work. Work smarter, not harder.
Once you hit the end of a cycle, give your body a break (a few days, to a week, to longer if you're maxing out at competitions) before starting your next cycle. Cellular fatigue is a thing and the whole point of a cycle is to have some ebb and flow. There are supposed to be easy and hard days, easy and hard weeks, easy and hard months. Training is not just Destroy Your Body Every Workout, no matter how much Ryan from Sales likes his exhausted selfies with his sweaty chest hair strategically peeking out.
Recovery is also a great time to evaluate the success of your program. A of all: are you stakkder and jakkder? If not, either you or the program fucked up somewhere. If you did everything right, with good technique and high enough intensity, then it's the program. If you skimped on a few days, miscalculated your 1RM (this is common, that's why I suggest you get a professional to help you do it right), or have ratty technique, then it's you.
B of all: do you feel good? A great program leaves you feeling good after every workout and good at the end of the cycle. How does one define "good"? Well, that's up to you, but here's how I do it.
a) Has my mood improved from when I started the workout?
2) Is my mobility and/or flexibility better than when I started?
trois) Did I put in as much effort as could be reasonably expected?
If I can answer yes to all three, then I can file it under Good. If I get 2 out of 3, I'm ok with that. 1 out of 3, ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. If it's none out of 3, there's no fucking way I'm stopping my workout at that point. Don't allow yourself to end on a feeling of negativity. There's no better way to discourage you from doing the next workout.
All the same rules apply for my self-evals of programs and cycles.
Serious Changes in the Kitchen
The kitchen is self-explanatory. If you want your body to turn into something else, you've got to feed it in a way that supports your goal. If you want big muscles, you gotta eat a lot of protein and a lot of food in general. And I'm sorry to say, you gotta cut the booze. We're quite certain that chronic alcohol consumption destroys muscles, and we're pretty sure that some alcohol inhibits their growth. No one says you have to quit drinking forever (least of all me), but remember we are talking about becoming swoll lil' crackerjacks and that means no booze.
Serious Years Invested
Shit takes time. I have said this before, but changing your body and changing your health tactics takes time. I always suggest two years as a reasonable starting point. Not that you won't see changes long, long before that. But for all the gears to get into place, for all the adaptations to take hold, for all the muscles to hop on pop, you need some time. It will get slower as you go, but also more satisfying as you go. It's awesome to partner with your body, rather than hold a knife to its throat. It feels good to feel powerful. Two years might seem crazy, but the time is gonna pass anyway. Two years from now you could be in the same place you are now, or you could be someplace completely different. The changes you see on the way will only motivate you to keep going towards the promised land: stakkd, jakkd, and juiced out of your mind.
And, as always, GET SOME SLEEP.
Thanks for the email, Emmy! What questions do YOU have? Submit them and I'll write a blog just for you.