Judging from the e-mails I receive, many of you guys are experts at staying lean or losing bodyfat.
But while your enviable bodyfat percentage may make for an arresting cell phone self-portrait on your Facebook page, some of you seem to have forgotten the importance of getting bigger and stronger in the grand scheme of the things we call bodybuilding, strength training, or Life as an Adult Male.
I've said this before, you don't get big and strong from lifting weights – you get big and strong by recovering from lifting weights.
"Bah, that's just petty semantics!" says the anonymous-yet-brilliant internet skeptic. Is that so? If this idea is so painfully obvious, why are so many seemingly well-informed young men so damned underweight?
The fact is, getting bigger and stronger naturally entails more sleep and more food than the vast majority of you people seem to understand. When you, as a novice lifter, put more emphasis on "staying lean" than on getting big and strong, you demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the process that barbell men clearly grasped 50 years ago, that growth is much more important than bodyfat loss.
And growth is what will separate you from the rest of the gym members that don't ever get anything accomplished.
It's easy to lose bodyfat, and the web is overrun with sites that are more than willing to teach you how and to explain why it's so damned important. A guy with a modicum of discipline – which it's assumed you possess – can drop a significant amount of bodyfat in 4 weeks, especially if he starts with a lot of muscle mass to help him. But a lean and muscular 165 lbs. at 5' 10" looks exactly the same in clothes as a guy that size that doesn't train at all.
My buddy John Welbourn, 10-year NFL veteran lineman and enormous human male, has pointed out to me several times that nobody ever refers to Dorian Yates or Ronnie Coleman as lean – they're always huge, or jacked. Even referring to those guys as "freaking big" is really an understatement, but it would be used as a description long before "lean" ever occurred to anybody standing nearby.
Are you content to merely stay "lean?" Or, do you want to actually accomplish your goal, the one you set for yourself when you started, before all the silly websites distracted you? If you do, you have to train very hard – and recover from that training.
Get With The Program
Let's assume you're doing the program correctly, and that for some inexplicable reason you're stuck. No progress in strength, no weight gain for weeks. It's by far the most common topic of discussion for new guys but the answer is always the same. You're not eating enough, and you're not recovering. Recovery is made possible by sleep and food.
Let's get sleep out of the way. You have to sleep. Older guys like me often don't sleep well, and it has a profound detrimental effect on our training. Accumulated injuries produce pain that wakes us up, and then worrying about silly shit (Is the dog comfortable tonight? Is lime scale accumulating in my pipes at the gym?) keeps us awake.
The result is a lack of recovery, which makes the irritating injuries worse, which gives us more things to worry about, etc. You can just imagine the problems we old guys have, and I hope you look forward to joining us.
Right now, you younger guys ought to be sleeping pretty well. If not, there's probably a reason that you can fix relatively easily, if you want to. It will usually involve light, temperature, or noise. Some modifications to the room windows (like blinds, maybe) will correct the light thing, and if you can afford a gym membership we'll assume you have some control over your room temperature. Opinions vary, but it seems that everybody agrees on a range of between 60 and 72 degrees.
The noise may not be within your purview to alter; after all, you can't always make everybody just shut the fuck up, and that's a shame. However, Charles Staley told me a secret once. He uses earplugs. It works, and I recommend them highly. Just be sure that you're sleeping in a place where you won't need to react instantly to an important noise, i.e. home invaders, zombies, etc. And unless you bodybuild for a living, make sure your alarm is of sufficient volume.
It's Your Diet, Stupid!
The bigger problem is your diet, and it's usually due to a misunderstanding of the way things really are. Here's the deal, until you get big and strong, nobody with an opinion of any discernable value cares about your abs, and neither should you. Razor abs on a skinny guy are like really nice clothes on a fat girl. Better for her to spend the money on quality diet and exercise advice, and better for you to get your squat up to 405 before you start timing your macronutrients and really "dialing in" your physique.
Until you get big and strong, the fine points of your subcutaneous detail will be far less important to your appearance than your overall proportionate size and the impression you make as a bigger guy. Be honest, how much time do you intend to spend naked in public anyway? When you finally build a body worth looking at, then you can worry about your abs. (Please, please don't email me pics and ask me to judge.)
From a more practical standpoint, your muscular size and strength increases your value as a man in the more important sense of work capacity. Bigger, stronger men are more valuable on the battlefield, the football field, the soccer field, and in any field of employment in which there is a physical component.
You don't pick up your wounded buddy and load him in the truck with your razor abs. If you want to be a bodybuilder later, that's fine, but all the bodybuilders whose names you actually know are big, and they didn't get that way by trying to stay lean all the time.
If you're a novice lifter, you have the opportunity to grow faster now than you ever will again, and the best way to fuck this up is to worry about your bodyfat instead of focusing on your strength and the diet that will produce it.
What diet is that? For a guy that currently weighs 165 lbs., stands 5' 10" and is 20 years old, that diet will be much more food than he'll think he needs if his information has come from the typical sources of misinformation.
He'll need 300 grams of protein, plenty of good fat, and moderate glycemic carbs for a total of perhaps 5-6000 calories per day. I typically advise that 4 big meals and a gallon of whole milk per day will get the job done better than just about any other approach for a novice.
Supplements are quite important later, but now all you need is this diet and some good vitamins to make sure the bases are covered. A good protein powder and a fish oil supplement likely wouldn't hurt either. This is what's required to ensure recovery for a skinny guy from what's most assuredly a brutally hard training program.
Upon investigation, guys who are stuck in their progress are not doing any of this, and guys who are making progress are doing at least some more-or-less complete version thereof.
I know this is a lot of food, but the simple fact is most of you aren't willing to eat it.
If you perceive that it's easy to eat what you consider to be enough food, it's not enough food and you're not doing the program. (Sounds like a tongue twister, but it's also a fact.)
Just so you know, "But Coach, I eat a ton!" is the catch phrase of the dietary fuck up. When I hear it, it's assured that I'm dealing with a 160-pound. keyboard warrior who considers cereal, orange juice, and Super NO-Xplosion 4000 a healthy bodybuilding breakfast. The ones that listen to me and begin taking their diets seriously start to grow. The ones that don't just post online more.
How Fat Will I Get?
How much fat will you accumulate during this initial growth? A 20-year-old guy that starts out at 165 pounds and 5' 10" at a typical 15% bodyfat will usually end up at about 205 pounds and 20% bodyfat at the end of 4-5 months. This represents a gain of 40 pounds, 24 of which (60%) is lean body mass. Every time we've measured it, this is about what happens.
About 60-65% of the gains experienced on this type of program are lean body mass, and this seems to be about the best you can do to balance rapid growth in strength and size with some fat accumulation.
So the question becomes this, can you tolerate a 5% increase in bodyfat if it means an immediate increase in lean body mass? Most guys can, because a) it can be taken off with a bit of effort, and b) since you know this, you can just calm the fuck down and enjoy the immediate benefits of being bigger and stronger. Avoiding cell phone bathroom pics is never a bad idea, either.
You have to realize that the difference in appearance and strength between you at 165 and you at 205 is far, FAR more significant than an increase of 5% in bodyfat that nobody else worth listening to is going to care about anyway.
The sad thing about this is that the guys who can't seem to tolerate the idea of gaining 5% bodyfat are the very guys that know the most about how to take it off when and if the time comes to do so. They're also the guys that need to gain weight the most, since they're usually skinny little insect-looking dudes who just appear to be starved, not lean like they seem to think. Remember, we can't see your razor abs – all we're likely to notice is your pencil neck and narrow ass.
If you're going to grow, you have to train hard and recover from that training. You have to understand why growing is important, why recovery is important, and how to do it correctly. You have to understand that it may even be the most difficult part of the program for you, perhaps physically, or perhaps even psychologically – maybe harder than the training itself.
If it's sufficiently important, you'll figure out a way to deal with it, and that's how you distinguish yourself from the rest of the gym – the douchebags who can't, or won't achieve the goal they've set for themselves.