I’ve never worked with a client who couldn’t put on muscle and take off fat. Every client has emerged from our training looking and feeling better – dramatically better, in many cases. But there’s never a single pattern. Sometimes people achieve more than I expected, and I’m happy to take credit. But sometimes they achieve less, and if I’m willing to take credit for the overachievers I have to accept blame when a client falls below our mutual expectations.
What I can predict is that your success will be directly correlated with the effort you put in. And I’m not just talking about physical effort. You also have to change your attitude toward your own body and your preconceived ideas about its limitations, which is the focus of this excerpt from my new book, Built for Show. The following is by no means a complete list of attitudes that hold guys back, but it’s a pretty good overview of the ones I see most often in friends and clients.
Things skinny guys believe that keep them skinny
“If I eat more calories, I’ll lose my abs.”
The skinny guy with well-defined abs often calls himself a “hardgainer.” But this type of lifter often refuses to try the most logical solution to his problem: eating enough food to build the muscles he wants.
If you’re truly a hardgainer – one of those guys whose metabolism resembles a hummingbird hooked on trailer-park meth – you need a dramatic increase in calories. Trust me, I’ve been there. As a 145-pound 18-year-old, my fork was my version of an American Express card: I couldn’t leave home without it.
Greased lightning: a portrait of the author as a 145-pound 18-year-old.
The good news is that the weight you gain will mostly be in the form of muscle. That’s what happens when you have a fast metabolism. Eating more food will actually make it faster. So the more food you eat, the less likely you are to accumulate fat, assuming you’re also following a solid and challenging workout program. A lot of the excess calories will get burned off in this metabolic frenzy, but enough will get to your muscles to make a noticeable difference.
Thus, if you have abs before you start an aggressive muscle-growth program, you’ll still have them when you finish.
“I need to do high reps to get more definition.”
This type of talk makes me want to at least partially blame the triathletes and marathon runners who use strength training as supplemental exercise, but don’t understand the basics of exercise physiology. Performing hundreds of calf raises and triceps pushdowns while wearing latex shorts and skin-tight shirts will not make them or you “more defined.” It gives your muscles a nice pump, but that’s all.
What’s wrong with that?
The science is pretty clear on this point: A pump doesn’t make your muscles bigger, any more than standing on your head makes you smarter. It’s just a bunch of blood in your muscles – good for your ego, but meaningless to your long-term muscular development. It comes, it temporarily stretches your shirt sleeves, and then it goes.
The science also tells us this about muscle fibers: They can get bigger, they can get smaller, or they can stay the same size. There’s no mechanism that makes a muscle more “toned” or “defined.”
However, there is a simple two-step plan to make muscles appear more “toned” or “defined”:
Step 1: Make the muscles bigger.
Step 2: Burn off the fat covering your muscles, if you have any.
“I’m trying to build size, not strength.”
The human body isn’t stupid. If it’s going to overcome a genetic propensity toward low body weight, it needs a better excuse than “I just want to be bigger.” Strength is the excuse. Give the muscles tasks that push their limits, using heavy weights and smart program design, and they’ll get bigger to meet the increased need for strength.
Same guy, 45 pounds later.
I realize I’m swimming in dark waters here, given that the title of my book uses the words “built,” “for,” and “show,” in that order. The implication, of course, is that I’m advocating anything but a “form-follows-function” approach.
But I see no contradiction in acknowledging that all of us reading this want good-looking, eye-catching muscle, while telling you the best way to build it is to forget what your muscles look like and focus instead on what they can do.
You won’t regret getting more “go” in pursuit of the “show.” There’s no downside to being as strong as you look, whether you demonstrate that strength by helping your friends move their furniture or by lifting an intimate friend onto a particular piece of furniture.
“I do curls because I want big arms.”
All of us fall into the muscle-isolating trap, to some extent. But if you’re a skinny guy, with a body that’s reluctant to put on muscle mass, you may have the most to lose when you waste energy on isolation exercises.
Isolation exercises don’t use a lot of muscle mass – an obvious point when you consider that the goal of an isolation exercise is to not use the muscles you aren’t trying to isolate.
But here’s a not-so-obvious point: When you do a biceps curl or triceps extension, you aren’t even recruiting the most important fibers within the muscles you’re isolating. That’s because you rarely use a lot of weight when you do those exercises. Your body’s biggest, strongest muscle fibers, the ones with the most growth potential, simply don’t come into play unless you’re using heavy weights in low-repetition sets.
I can’t recall ever seeing anyone do low-rep sets for their biceps and triceps, for one simple reason: As soon as you start lifting near-max weights, you can’t even pretend to isolate muscles. You have to “cheat” by using less-strict movement patterns, which brings bigger muscles into the exercise.
So why bother trying to isolate? If you lift the heaviest possible weights during exercises that use the most muscle mass, you’ll employ your body’s biggest muscle fibers while doing the exercises safely and correctly.
Things fat guys believe that keep them fat
“If I eat before and after workouts, my body won’t burn as much fat.”
Skipping meals is the best way I know to prevent your body from using its stored fat for energy. Counterintuitive as it seems, regular meals, including pre- and post-workout nutrition, will promote steady fat loss. It works the same way whether you’re lean or lardy. The more often you eat while you’re doing a serious training program, the more fat you lose.
Your body needs fuel, pure and simple. A pre-workout meal of protein and carbohydrates will actually enhance blood flow and help deliver nutrients to the muscles when they need it most: when you’re breaking them down by working out. Similarly, a post-workout meal will help speed muscle growth and help you recover quicker before your next formal (weight-lifting) or informal (girl-lifting) training session.
That said, I’m not particularly militant about pre-workout meals. I don’t think it’s a good idea to work out on an empty stomach, so I tell my clients who like to work out in the morning that they should eat something first. What they eat, and how much they eat, is more of a personal thing.
Later in the day, do what works best for you. If you can’t train hard without eating something right before your workout, make sure you have something ready to eat. If you can get in a good workout two or three hours after your most recent meal, that’s cool. I’m not going to tell you to ignore your body and follow some arbitrary guideline.
“I need these carbs for energy so I can have good workouts.”
Here’s the flip side of the first belief: Some XXL lifters think they have to eat like skinny runners in order to get through their workouts. This means an abundance of carbohydrates in the form of food (bananas, bagels), drinks (Gatorade, Red Bull), and gels.
My advice: A guy with excess flesh should never ever eat or drink carbohydrates unless they’re accompanied by protein. The combination of carbs and protein gives your muscles what they need to work and grow. Carbs by themselves provide energy that, in the absence of protein, can get stored as fat if it isn’t needed for your workout.
You could say this is a contradiction of the point I made earlier about calories speeding up your metabolism. It’s really not. Some types of calories speed up your metabolism more than others. Protein calories speed it up a lot; calories from carbs speed it up only a little.
I’m not a fan of working out on an empty stomach, as I said. So if you work out first thing in the morning, I think you really should eat something first, even if you aren’t particularly hungry.
But at other times of day, use hunger and personal comfort as a guideline. I don’t see the point in pumping excess pre-workout calories into your body if you aren’t hungry and are only doing it because you think you need the energy. As long as you’ve eaten something in the past couple of hours, and don’t feel especially hungry, you have enough energy to work out.
Just make sure that whatever you eat has a mix of protein and carbs, and that you aren’t adding more calories than you could hope to burn off in your workout.
“I don’t need to do squats. I’m already big.”
Right. And porn stars don’t need to perform Kegel exercises, either.
A lot of guys are naturally big, and some of them put on muscle easily. I’m not one, and you probably aren’t either, but we both know they’re out there. Despite that fundamental difference, though, they still need to focus on the moneymaker movements to get the results they want.
I’ve lost count of the number of wide-bodied guys I’ve come across who skip the big-muscle exercises and instead spend their time in the gym working their biceps, triceps, and deltoids. I understand the temptation; if you build muscle easily, you build it easily everywhere, including your arms and shoulders.
They forget women will notice a big gut sooner than big guns. If you don’t believe me, ask any woman you know if she’s more turned on by 19-inch arms than she’s turned off by a 40-inch waist.
The beauty of the moneymaker exercises – squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, presses, cleans – is that they help anyone, no matter how thick or thin, develop a more athletic-looking physique. The process of building muscle speeds up your metabolism, and in the quest to whittle down your waistline, a faster metabolism is the best friend you can possibly have. Your shoulders get wider while your waist slims down, and you burn off some of the fat covering the muscles you want to show off.
How skinny-fat guys end up with the worst of both worlds
Some guys can have narrow shoulders, a sunken chest, and pipe-cleaner arms … and still carry excess flab around the middle. I wouldn’t wish “skinny-fat” on my worst enemies.
In my experience, a typical skinny-fat guy doesn’t eat a lot of food. But what he does eat is suboptimal – “crap,” in other words – and the way he eats it is even worse. He skips breakfast, then has fast food or Top Ramen for lunch and dinner.
If you ask him how he spends his evenings, you’ll get one of two answers: drinking beer with his friends until the single-digit hours, or posting on his blog until well past midnight.
Or he might go drinking, come home, and spend the next hour or two posting his drunken thoughts. In any case, it’s bad for his physique, bad for his health, and bad for online discourse.
There is some good news, however.
The skinny-fat guy can often make rapid progress when he commits himself to a good program, since his body will respond to just about any change in routine. Unlike the merely skinny guy, who might actually be in pretty good shape, or the big-bodied guy, who might be strong and have a lot of muscle beneath his fat, the skinny-fat guy is almost always severely undertrained.
But let’s not kid ourselves: If you’re skinny-fat, you need more than a good workout plan. Your diet probably sucks, too, and that’s a direct consequence of your biggest problem: your lifestyle.
As Dan John says, your habits must match your goals. And if you’re reading this, changing your body is one of those goals. So let’s look at how you might adjust your daily routine to meet it.
Your old habit: getting four to six hours of sleep per night, leaving you looking and performing like a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Nick Nolte.
Despite what most of us think, the workouts you do in the gym don’t build muscle. They destroy it. The point of a workout is to break down muscle tissue, which is subsequently rebuilt after you finish lifting. The better you manage that post-workout recovery, the better chance you have of emerging from your muscle-destroying experience with a stronger, leaner, and more muscular physique.
Just about everything you do in the hours and days following a muscle-damaging workout will affect your recovery, including sleep. A good night’s sleep not only allows your body to continue the repair-and-rebuild process, it gives your brain a chance to release hormones vital to that effort.
Your new habit: a sleep schedule that allows for at least eight hours of sleep per night.
Count backwards from whenever you have to get up in the morning (or the following afternoon, if you’re a college student). If you have to get up at 7 a.m., that means you have to be asleep by 11 p.m. the previous night. Note my choice of words: You’re not just in bed by 11; you’re in bed and asleep. Or, to get back to a reality-based prescription, you’re in bed with your eyes closed, prepared to fall asleep.
That means that whatever reading or web-surfing or TV-watching you feel compelled to do must be completed before 11. Every single electronic device in your room must be switched off before 11, even if it’s just one minute before. Every light must be off. If the power strips on your TV or computer cast a glow, you might want to switch them off, too.
Your old habit: eating just twice per day, and being asked if “you want fries with that?” at least four times per week.
Two things I know for dead certain about guys: We hate being nagged, and we especially hate being nagged about food. If you’re in college, or living the bachelor life, food seems a lot less important to you than it does to the naggers in your life. Your idea of a gourmet meal might be putting your microwave burrito on a plate instead of eating it right out of the plastic. As a guy who still heads over to Mom’s house on weekends, I understand.
Still, with a little practice, it’s easy to keep a supply of healthy and tasty food on hand, and it’s easy to learn to use that food in some quick and reliable meals. You don’t have to channel your inner Emeril; you just have to follow some basic rules.
Your new habit: eating at least three meals per day, preferably four to six meals and snacks.
The three-meal minimum starts with a solid breakfast no more than an hour after you wake up. Lunch and dinner will follow at sensible intervals. That is, if you eat breakfast at 8 a.m., you’ll have lunch at 1 or 2 p.m., and dinner at 6 or 7.
It’s also time to wean yourself off fast food. If you’re eating out at fast-food joints three or more times per week, I want you to scale it down to one.
When you do hit the drive-through – and, let’s face it, all of us get into tight situations where there’s no other alternative – skip the fries and order another burger instead. (That’s a plain burger–meat and a bun. Leave the bacon, mayonnaise, and secret sauce for the tourists.)
Quench your thirst with diet soda or water. These two changes alone could take an inch or more off your waist in less than a month.
Your old habit: chronic time-wasting activities that sap your time and energy, and don’t contribute to your health, wealth, or sex appeal.
I’m all for doing mindless things like watching a movie for the ninth time, surfing the ‘net for pictures of Jessica Biel, and posting my most superficial thoughts in online forums. I also love microbrews, and chances are good that you’ll find me throwing a couple back with my friends on any given weekend.
But here’s what differentiates my time-wasting habits from those of lots of other guys my age: I know when I’m screwing off – I recognize it for what it is – and I draw a firm line between what I allow myself to do in my leisure time and what I need to do the rest of my waking hours. In other words, I don’t let the fun parts of my life prevent me from getting what I want in the serious parts.
I’m entirely in favor of occasional debauchery – what’s the point of being Built for Show if you don’t take the new wheels out for a test drive every now and then? – and I cherish the mindless activities I allow myself to do. If every minute of every day is devoted to reaching your goals, my guess is that you won’t know what to do with yourself once you reach them.
The key is to identify and define your biggest TWAs, and decide which of them are worth what you invest in them.
Your new habit: create a budget for your time-wasting or physique-impairing activities.
First you need a list of TWAs, and how much time and money (if any) you currently spend on each. Give each one a “relative satisfaction” score – an activity you absolutely enjoy the shit out of gets a 10, while something you could do without (harassing spammers, for example) gets a 1. Finally, take a guess at how much you could cut back on the activity before you started missing it.
|Activity||Hours||Cost ($)||Satisfaction||Cut Back|
Hours and Cost per week
Relative satisfaction (scale of 1-10)
How much you could cut back before you started missing it (0-100%)
Here’s how a typical unmarried male might fill it out. Let’s call him “Tate,” since he’s a completely fictional character and bears no resemblance to anybody I know:
|Activity||Hours||Cost ($)||Satisfaction||Cut Back|
|Beers with friends||6||$25||10||0%|
|Watching X-Men: The Last Stand (or any other movie on DVD or cable) for the 10th time||2||$5||5||50%|
|Updating my blog||10||N/A||6||25%|
|Chatting on the phone with people who dialed the wrong number||0.5||N/A||0||100%|
Negative value indicates “Tate” wouldn’t mind increasing this particular TWA.
From this chart, it appears “Tate” could automatically gain four hours just by cutting back on his least satisfying TWAs. That, conveniently enough, gives him all the time he needs for his workouts.
You’ll notice that a lot of potential TWAs are missing from the list, including universal time-wasters like channel-surfing. I assume everyone reading this (not to mention the person writing it) wastes at least a little time each week flipping from channel to channel with no particular intent to watch any particular show.
Here’s my rule: You’re allowed no more than five hours a week of unfocused TV watching. And if it’s a workout day, you are absolutely forbidden to channel-surf until after you’ve lifted.
My point here, just to be 100 percent clear, is not that you need to turn into some kind of success-droid, spending every waking hour focused on your job or your bod. I just want you to be aware of how many things you waste time on that you don’t enjoy all that much and wouldn’t miss. Once you cut back on the least satisfying TWAs, you’ll find you have a lot more time and energy for your workouts.
The Built for Show Training System
And what workouts will you do with this extra time? I highly recommend those in Built for Show. I’ve designed four 12-week programs, each with a seasonal theme.
The Fall program is a basic hypertrophy system, using an upper-body/lower-body split.
The Winter program focuses on size and strength, the goal being to fill out those sweaters so you look like a lifter even if it’s too cold to pull off your shirt and remove all doubt.
The Spring program shifts to total-body training, with the goal of introducing a metabolic stimulus to workouts focused on strength and power. You’ll continue to add some size while also whittling down any body fat you’ve accumulated over the winter.
Finally, the Summer program completes the year-long training system: You’ll work harder and faster in your total-body workouts, using power exercises like cleans and jump squats to preserve your muscle while attacking whatever fat you have left. You’ll also get some isolated work for your beach muscles – biceps, triceps, delts, abs – to put the finishing touches on your physique.
You can do the programs in any order you want, of course; the Fall program is the most beginner-friendly, while the Winter, Spring, and Summer programs require increasing experience in the weight room.
All of them lead you toward one goal: a body that looks strong, fit, and athletic from any angle. When you’re Built for Show, you look just as good walking out of the room as you did walking into it.