"No one in this world can you trust: not men, not women, not beasts... this you can trust."
– Conan's father
Two days ago I finally got my arse in the gym and under some reasonable weights. The cold steel in my hands and the muffled sound of clanging plates through my earphones were like a homecoming.
Have you ever gone through a period of two or three months when modern life took you away from your bodybuilding goals? I don't mean a period when you were lazy and missed a few sessions. I'm not talking about two weeks of sub-par efforts or lack of progress. I mean months of atrophy.
I've been spending 70 to 84 hours per week in the office or the classroom or in a modest lab. I've lost 13 pounds since August and I've barely managed to lift twice weekly or eat more than twice per day.
Have you ever had soft, modern society do that to you? It's no one's fault in particular; it's simply what my buddy Fortress would lament as "the waning of medieval values." As I've woken up these past few days, I feel somehow that I've been wronged.
It's time for a change. My deprivation of the world that's been a core part of me since 1982 leaves me hungry. In this way, this article is for me. To hell with you. (18)
I want to look forward to a leg workout two weeks in advance. I want to sit down every two hours to big meaty meals. I want to plop down, exhausted on a bench – before even leaving the gym – and pound back a can of tuna with a pint of orange juice while I scowl at the civilized folk who find that odd.
Do you know what I mean? I bet you have your own stories of defiance and heroic effort.
How ironic it was that my recent lecture at the Staley Training Summit dealt with bulking. But the talk did remind me of a deep-seated primeval drive to be huge and powerful. And it helped me solidify a plan with which to reach for new size.
Dr. Lowery hits the iron.
Nutritional Periodization and Planned Overeating
Aside from the underlying endocrinology, which was one focus of the Summit talk, I spoke about nutritional periodization. It's still a relatively new concept among legitimate nutrition authorities. (Yes, nutritionists are a bit behind the now-established policies of strength coaches with regard to mesocycles, but I did just review an actual textbook that formally addressed the topic.) I think this is one area in which I disagree with T-Nation's Christian Thibaudeau.
I think a purposeful drive to overeat, in a strategic way, is superior to a slow-and-steady approach to muscle mass. Beyond any ludite focus on the nuances of nutritional periodization, my personal experience has repeatedly revealed that guys who try to stay lean while simultaneously gaining muscle end up small.
There are just too many factors in daily life competing with our pursuit of size. But we can look at research as well. (In fact, I'm going to bombard you with quotes today.) A scientist by the name of Venkatraman echoed the well-established understanding that life keeps athletes underfed:
"Athletes are competitive, train at very high levels with inadequate rest, consume too few calories, avoid fats, and may be at increased risk of infections."
Let me say that again: life keeps athletes underfed. We can't rely on hunger, especially when embarking on a new lifting regime. One researcher put it this way: "Increasing energy expenditure did not lead to compensation of energy intake... ". (31) This kind of free-living experiment is hard to control, but you get the point.
When we couple the unreliability of hunger with the fact that even the accepted 3000 kcal per day recommendation for college-age men may be too low, (7, 28) you can see that we have to purposefully and consistently overeat to gain size. Considering that the synthesis of one pound of living muscle tissue costs about 2800 kcal above maintenance needs, a hard fact rings true: it takes heroic effort to break new ground.
Now, I suppose there are a few of you fretting about the necessity of anabolic hormones for partitioning the extra nutrients into muscle tissue. This is a basic and true premise. "Natural" men vary widely in Testosterone concentrations, for example, from 300 ng/dl to 1000 ng/dl. (25) That means some guys will gain lean mass easier than others.
The Bricklayer's Gas
For years I've used the very bricklayer analogy that has resurfaced here on the site recently. But it's worth focusing on the "gas" in the bricklayer's equipment. Ample energy (kcal) is that gas, and it's a long-recognized necessity. Here are several quotes:
• "... studies show that insulin stimulates androgen production in the ovary. Recent data [JCEM 1995;80:654-658] suggests that insulin stimulates Testosterone production and suppresses SHBG production in normal and obese men." (Haffner, Horm Res 1996)
• "N balance increased from 7.2 to 23.8 to 33.3 mg N.kg-1.d-1 in the ascending calorie series (0, 15, 30% above kcal "needs") and decreased from 27.8 to 17.6 to 4.8 mg N.kg-1.d-1 in the descending calorie series." (Chiang & Huang, Am J Clin Nutr 1988)
• "Specific amino acids (e.g., leucine) stimulate protein synthesis and inhibit (autophagic) protein degradation... because they stimulate mTOR, which is one of the components of a signal transduction pathway used by insulin. When the cellular energy state is low, stimulation of mTOR by amino acids is prevented." (Meijer, J Nutr 2003)
• "Protein requirement studies in man generally avoid deficient dietary energy intakes because they decrease the efficiency of nitrogen utilization." (Garza, Am J Clin Nutr 1976)
• "There is net protein catabolism in the fasted state and net protein synthesis in the fed state, when the rate of synthesis increases by 20-25%." (Murray, Harper's Illustrated Biochem 2006)
• "At high intensity activities, energy balance becomes even more critical in the utilization of protein: when energy balance is negative, an intake of protein as high as 2 g [per] kg body weight per day may be inadequate." (Butterfield, Med Sci Sports Exerc 1987)
• "A positive energy balance is required for anabolism." (Phillips, S., Nutr 2004)
Even guys who overeat a thousand kcal per day on a (pretty lousy) average diet and don't bother to exercise gain 13% of the weight gain as muscle. (29) In no way am I suggesting that an 87% fat gain is preferable; I'm merely pointing out that even a worse-case scenario of overfeeding stimulates protein deposition.
The physics and physiology of this fact alone offers some hope to desperate ectomorphs who may otherwise concede that they're just "hardgainers." And with a number of training and macronutrient adjustments we can vastly improve the partitioning toward muscle. How far? Good question.
Studies vary, but all things considered, a 70/30 muscle-to-fat gain seems realistic. I'll certainly take that ratio right now, particularly as I remember several local guys who've remained lean over the years but whom I've long since blown past in strength and muscle size.
In the first quote above you see something that was imprinted on me in endocrinology class as a grad student: hormones don't operate in a vacuum. They interact. In the case of purposeful, strategic overeating, anabolic hormones even work in concert to help us grow. For those of us who aren't self-administering anabolic drugs, fortunately there are ways to leverage hormones like insulin, Testosterone, and perhaps even growth hormone to our advantage.
Of all the hormones we can manipulate, insulin is under our most immediate and substantial control. But as our most anabolic hormone, insulin demands respect. It's an indiscriminate "Jekyll and Hyde" hormone. We want it to build muscle without lending its power to adipose tissue. This is where some dietary discipline comes in.
The hormone insulin
Frequent, moderately-sized meals help keep insulin from running wild on us. (31, 14) Since muscle tissue is roughly ten times less capable of responding to screaming insulin levels, we can attempt to glean insulin's benefits without suffering "overspill" toward adipose storage.
One approach to partitioning is a kind of micro-periodization (same-day periodization) in which we minimize potential fat gain during one hormonal state (e.g. low insulin), then maximize muscle gain while in another (e.g. high insulin). Some guys fuss over the seeming fruitlessness of non-intense cardio, but it works. Here are some more quotes that illustrate what I mean...
Pre-Breakfast Aerobic Exercise
• "An understanding of the factors that increase or decrease fat oxidation is important. Exercise intensity and duration are important determinants of fat oxidation. Fat oxidation rates increase from low to moderate intensities and then decrease when the intensity becomes high. Maximal rates of fat oxidation have been shown to be reached at intensities between 59% and 64% of maximum oxygen consumption in trained individuals and between 47% and 52% of maximum oxygen consumption in a large sample of the general population." (Achten and Jeukendrup, Nutrition 2004)
• "FFA availability can increase two- to four-fold with moderate intensity exercise." (Jensen, Acta Physiol Scand. 2003)
• "In order for this TG to be used as a substrate for oxidative metabolism, it has to be exported from adipose tissue and transported to the tissues where it will be used... Adipose tissue blood flow (ATBF) is also important. ATBF is increased in states of fat mobilization and fat deposition, although there is evidence that during strenuous exercise the increase in ATBF is not sufficient for export of all the NEFA made available from lipolysis." (Frayn, Adv Exp Med Biol. 1998)
• "Tests were performed after an overnight fast. Maximal fat oxidation rates of 0.52 +/- 0.15 g x min(-1) were reached at 62.5 +/- 9.8 % VO(2)max, while Fat(min) was located at 86.1 +/- 6.8 % VO(2)max. (Achten and Jeukendrup, Int J Sports Med. 2003)
• "At basal [lowest] plasma insulin concentrations, epinephrine increased oxygen consumption, heart rate... and the arterial plasma concentrations of glucose, lactate, and free fatty acids." (Muller, Metabolism 1992)
• "A cortisol threshold of 60% VO2 max has been proposed." (Kanaley, Clin Endocrinol Metab 2001)
• "No significant differences in cortisol concentration were noted among resting, low, and moderate-intensity [cycling] exercise. (Jacks, J Strength Cond Res. 2002)
Weight Lifting Exercise
• "Insulin vasodilates skeletal muscle vasculature via an endothelium-derived nitric oxide-dependent mechanism." (Baron, Annu Rev Nutr 1997)
• Recent data suggest that insulin stimulates Testosterone production and suppresses SHBG production in normal and obese men. (Haffner, Horm Res 1996)
• The SHBG levels showed a negative and significant correlation with the plasma insulin concentrations at the end of the clamp study. These findings suggest that, in the hyperinsulinemic state, plasma insulin has a direct effect on the SHBG levels. (Katsuki, J Clin Endo Metab 1996)
• "Physiologic hyperinsulinemia stimulates protein synthesis and enhances transport of selected amino acids in human skeletal muscle." [actual title of article] (Biolo, J Clin Invest 1995)
• Do we really need to supply evidence that peri-workout feedings are helpful?
Unapologetic Physique Training
In this "micro-periodization" sense, I'm an unapologetic bodybuilder. I'm not a cross-trainer. I'm not a field or court athlete. God knows I'm no runner. My "cardio" (I still think this is a misnomer for many of us) is meant to assassinate triacylglycerols stored in adipose tissue. That's pretty much it.
Being huge and muscular is paramount most of the time. Sure, I dig performance and have no intention to become a quivering mass of useless twitching muscle mass. Heck, in the past I've admittedly enjoyed smugly looking over at a previously-cocky "tough guy" in the gym after I squat 495 for reps or push up 120-pound dumbbells a dozen times. But such things are a by-product of my bodybuilding. A welcome one, to be sure (I don't like to "false advertise" with my physique), but a by-product nonetheless.
Dr. Lowery flexes both mind and muscle!
During serious physique training, I thus live each day in a strategic way that takes advantage of hormonal realities. This kind of plan (separating fat-focused exercise from muscle-focused exercise) may be less vogue, but I really couldn't care any less.
Bodybuilding isn't necessarily about HIIT or any intense cardio for that matter. When "bulking" I say leave that stuff for another day (i.e. a different mesocycle). Unlike brisk walks that are hardly exercise at all (and aren't meant to be), intense cardio is exercise that takes its toll on energy that's meant for the weights and taxes recovery resources that are meant for muscle growth and strength.
Again, body building, such as an autumn mass phase, can be done for one mesocycle while other training (team sports, martial arts, etc.) can be the focus during other mesocycles.
The value of periodized training and nutrition like this is evidenced when I compare myself and my lifting partners to those local guys who've stayed super-lean but weigh all of a buck-fifty-five after 15 years of freaking effort!
A Note for 40-Somethings
We are no longer kids biologically. We can't get away with semi-reckless overfeeding the way many 20-year-olds can.
Indeed, it's common knowledge in the scientific and medical communities that our glucose tolerance is reduced. Dietary carbs don't enter muscle tissue (the primary healthy recipient of blood-borne glucose) as well. An article from this large body of evidence comes from a scientist by the name of Preuss (27) who states:
"Among changes associated with aging is a decline in glucose tolerance. Also, perturbations in glucose/insulin metabolism are associated with enhanced lipid peroxidation secondary to greater free radical formation. Free radicals of oxygen are important known causes of tissue damage... Ingestion of sugars, fats, and sodium have been linked to decreased insulin sensitivity."
Further, those who've gained body fat since their twenties also run the risk of aromatizing more of their precious Testosterone (adipose tissue being the primary site for Test-to-estrogen conversion in men). Fortunately, both of these phenomena are largely correctable with training.
But forgetting the science for a second and getting back to old school, obvious things, I'll bet you 40-somethings can identify. You have eyes. You can feel your joints. It's plainly obvious to many middle-aged guys that they don't recover quite as quickly or partition every calorie toward muscle tissue.
Injuries that lead to less physical activity and drinking-down overly frequent "weight gain" shakes can result in the kind of nutrient partitioning nobody wants. (33) Some of us have even grown strong enough to hurt ourselves in the gym. (Do you know what I mean?) We must be more cautious.
Spreading out a purposeful 300 kcal daily surplus (about a half-dozen 500-600 kcal meals, with more surrounding the lifting bout) is reasonable for many. Limiting carbs to perhaps 75g per resting meal or fat to 50g per meal is a good starter idea. (That is, even for the younger set, getting a fairly large 475 g carbs daily produces 150g of new "body fat" when glycogen stores are full  while 50 grams of fat seems to approach the "store it vs. burn it" limit. ) After three to four weeks, upward or downward tweaks can be made.
In the end, I have no desire to start a debate nor to tell anyone that there's only one way to add mass to a cat. But a revival of bodybuilding as a legitimate endeavor – in itself – could help some of us. The principles of specificity and periodization are real. And beyond that, some old school experience can bring new passion and success.
So, Crom, I've never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. But what matters is that the few here at T-Nation stood against many. The softness of the world cannot be tolerated; the need for heroic effort is at hand. So grant us one wish: grant us revenge!
And if you do not listen...