I asked ChatGPT to list the requirements for people to gain as much muscle as possible; and it churned out the following ten-point list:
And actually, this list isn’t bad. In my personal experience going from around 160lbs as a full-grown adult in 2000 to as much as 290lbs in 2007, without even knowing it, I had followed this list more or less. Zero performance enhancing drugs.
There are a few things I’d refine or add, however.
With regard to progressive overload and nutrition, there is an extra layer of precision a person hellbent on gaining muscle would want to employ. It has three parts:
1.) Every single workout, every single week, you MUST lift more than the prior while gaining size.
This is critical. It doesn’t have to be much. But it has to be. You have to FORCE the body to change. Think about it this way: if you are a bigger and stronger animal with more muscle, the stimulus to get to the next level must be greater than the stimulus which got you to the prior musculature. AND, when you’re eating more than you used to, there is no reason why you couldn’t lift more than you previously did when you had less fuel than you now have.
Now, this could mean that you pay extra special attention to 2.5lb plates, extra attention to adding one single extra rep, buying a set of magnetic fractional weights even. Whatever it is, you MUST do more in a real, measurable, meaningful way. It does not have to be a lot more. But it has to be more. And a very small amount more each week run over the course of a year or years adds up to quite a lot actually.
2.) Every single week, you MUST eat more than the prior while gaining size.
This dovetails with the prior point. If you’re lifting more, you need more food to repair. If you eat more, you’ll lift more. If you are a bigger animal, it takes more energy just to maintain. And you are hellbent on gaining size. So it better keep increasing.
The ChatGPT list says 250-500 extra calories. That’s middling. Some people jump up 1,000 or more. You could add as little as 100. But the following week you will need ANOTHER 100. And so on. The degree of jump will contain risks and rewards. The smaller the degree of change, the smaller risk and smaller reward. But the week that passes with NO change confers NO reward. Remember that.
3.) You MUST be committed to gaining some body fat.
There are a lot of influencers nowadays who look exactly the same as they did 5 or 10 years ago who talk about lean bulking. Can it be done? Sure. But the reality is that if you are truly going to take your body to your actual limit and push it to grow, you will need a progressive eating strategy to ensure recovery and growth. Inevitably, on the upswing, you’re going to overshoot your caloric need by some. This will result in body fat. If you’re super worried, what you could do is make the weekly jumps less dramatic, which will also reduce how dramatic the size and strength gains are. But it will also prevent too much spillover from happening.
And that’s probably best anyway. Universally, we find that when body fat percentage rises too much, feed efficiency drops (a greater percent of the calories eaten do NOT go to muscle). Also, if you have too much excess fat to lose, you risk shedding too much lean tissue on the cut down. And this does happen a lot, even with the most devoted of dieters who train hard. And it’s a serious bummer, because people put in so much effort to end up not too far from where they started.
Sadly, too many natural lifters chalk up this “going in circles” to the fact that they’re natural, when really it’s that they weren’t forcing the body to change enough, they didn’t stay big enough long enough (generating a new normal), and generally they’re overzealous on the cutdown (losing precious lean mass). AND they don’t sleep or recover enough. If someone isn’t getting surplus sleep, he simply isn’t serious about gaining muscle.
If you demand from your body to lift more than it did the week prior for two years straight (100 weeks of 1-2% increases), and you’re not under-rested, when you cut down, you will have more muscle mass on the body than you did three years ago. A LOT MORE. That’s just a logical fact. The biggest mistake I see a lot of natural lifters make is that they so worry about gaining any amount of body fat that they’re eating too light from beginning to end, training at too low an intensity from beginning to end, and diet hard as hell on the cutdown, sometimes ending up even smaller than when they started years ago. When they add crap sleep to the equation, they may be smaller AND fatter than when they started.
Possibly more pernicious than that, I’ve now seen a lot of influencers arguing that natural lifters can and ought to do outrageously lengthy and volume-filled workouts. There is no way any natural lifter is going to make progress with that on a cutdown. They’re just going to burn up lean tissue and possibly end smaller than before the bulking period.
Go hard. Go slow. Be smart. Make everything persistently progressive. Gain a modest amount of body fat on purpose for a time. Get to a very low body fat percentage for a time. Get sleep. Repeat.
One day in the early 2000s, at Naperville school district, students heaved and panted, crossing the finish line of their fastest mile runs in PE class. The gym teacher looked on with worry as the slowest girl in class rounded her next-to-last lap, dead last, with still the final length to go. To their credit, the other classmates cheered her on as she pushed the last leg of a clearly toilsome journey. The gym teacher’s moment of pride turned to a sinking heart as he watched the girl visibly slow down right at the final stretch where he’d hoped she would push herself.
All students wore heart rate monitors. The teacher reviewed the data. The slowest girl actually logged the highest average heart rate in the whole class. And that last stretch where he thought she’d given up? Her rate kept going highER. She had actually pushed harder than any other student. She had actually pushed hardER at the end.
True story. Read “Spark” some time.
This real-life study illustrates that a lot of “out-of-shape” people work harder and more intensely than a lot of “in-shape” people. But we let out external comparisons mislead us. All of us.
The reality is that as important as intensity can be, consistency is king. None of the most ridiculously in-shape people I know work out maximally hard every set, every workout, every day. Their defining characteristic is simply that they don’t quit. Most of the people I’ve known who struggled immensely with fitness over the years have logged many punitive and outrageously hard workouts. But they aren’t consistent.
In your fitness journey, be careful comparing outward performance to others or seeking painful intensity as a virtue.
Just don’t quit.