Working as a physical therapist and sports performance coach, I’ve received many questions about gaining muscle over the years. Just like the athletes and parents asking, I have been a bit overwhelmed by the overload of information out there. I have absolutely failed to realize that I have something to offer in this realm. While never claiming to be an authority in areas like diet, I have witnessed many successes and failure by those who are committed to this process. Also, I have lived sports performance and training for over 25 years -without bias. That is, I’ve been able to follow the evidence over a long haul, with absolutely no need to grow an audience or sell a product other than physical rehabilitation and training.
The main problem with many entries about weight gain and loss is that they lack perspective or are just plain impractical. So many of them focus on the minutia of diet OR exercise. While bringing much truth and some enlightenment in terms of the legitimate science, they often wholly fail to acknowledge other factors. Athletes asking how to gain weight are at a point in life where carrying more size is not natural or easy. Creating real, lasting change, without risking long-term health, requires a practical knowledge and concerted effort in both diet and exercise, plus one more critical component. There is a whole separate level of impracticality as well: All of the diet and recovery methods that necessitate an athlete or family member with a huge bankroll for designer supplements and boutique groceries, and/or a 40-hour per week commitment to planning and cooking. For 90% of even the most committed athletes, it’s just not going to happen -for very long-.
Rock Paper Scissors
As an athlete, the first thing that you can and should understand is that the absolute best weight gaining diet customized for you is of little use if you fail to train specifically toward your goals -or- if you fail to recover well. The absolute best weight gaining, sport-specific and customized training program is of little use if you fail to recover well -or- fail to make it happen with your diet. You can use every bit of know-how and technology to help you manage your busy schedule, sleep well, and monitor your vital signs with precision. But that will be of little use if you fail to manage your nutrition -and- train consistently and specifically.
[They need to be on point AND in balance.]
Recovering well means devoting some degree of time and effort to thinking ahead and planning your schedule. Athletes, certainly seek input from the coach or trainer and mom and dad. But honestly, this matter of how you manage your time and what you put into your body is one hundred percent your responsibility. If you don’t fully own it; if you see it as anyone’s choice but your own, you are going to decide against making the harder, health promoting choice, or going to bed on-time versus goofing off on-line or another round of Fortnight.
You don’t need an app, grandiose plan or fancy algorithm to turn the phone or TV off and get to bed. There is no food, nutritional supplement, bit of technology or recovery aid that does what good “sleep hygiene” and a good nights sleep will achieve.
Recovering well means saying -mostly- goodbye to the pre-workout, Red Bull, and Monster. Seriously people – if you need that much of a brain jolt to wake up, to get through the day, or to do what’s needed in the weight room or practice field, then go home and take a nap. Then, spend that 60-90 minutes of training time in a quiet room, evaluating your schedule and priorities. Because that Hyperberzerk drink is doing nothing for your gain in quality weight.
Your various physiological systems that make up “you” all function as a unit and are not independent of each other. That 3:30 chemically induced Beast of Rage can easily translate to suppressing your appetite and fidgety restless evenings. Beside, for most serious and committed athletes, the ability to generate “mind blowing pumps” and 110% intensity during the workout is not at all the limiting factor for creating sustained and long-term growth. [More on this below]. At best, it’s just not necessary.
Creating a dependence (mild or moderate addiction) should be a major concern. As the weeks go by, you will need more of the stuff to feel the same effect. And above all, please keep in mind, that training is TRAINING.
Do energy drinks and pre-workout increase your ability to train? They do. But only so much can be achieved in a single workout, no matter how epic. For athletes interested in weight gain, you are making real sacrifices, in effect losing the “war” in order to achieve 5% more in a fairly inconsequential “battle.” Unless you’re competing in a weightlifting type event, nobody cares what weight you unofficially completed for how many reps during TRAINING.
There may be an appropriate use for energy drinks: the actual battle! This would apply to military personnel literally going into life and death situations when sleep and recovery are far less than optimal. For sporting competition, can you afford (much less benefit from) the extra level of mental hype and arousal? For a limited time, these may actually help if you’re testing out max effort pulldowns (throwing velocity into a wide open net), sprinting 400 meters, or about to repeatedly bash with a middle linebacker. But if you need to compete with a sound mind, mixing strategies and pitches and shots on goal with calm collection and motor control precision, you may want to reconsider that Beast of Rage preworkout.
Just don’t be surprised when you walk the bases loaded or blow the penalty kick.
Frequency is almost always an issue for serious athletes, and many coaches as well. These days, nobody would claim that more is better. But that’s exactly how they act. More is just…more! You may claim that you’re training different qualities or parts of the anatomy, but the body absolutely recovers as a unit. Even young men full of testosterone and other various zeal hit a point of diminishing returns where Thursdays speed and conditioning day absolutely interferes with adaptations from Tuesday or Wednesdays weight training session. Your lack of progress (in body weight) could actually be due to your dedicated six day per week training plan.
The details are beyond the scope of this entry, and definitely depend on the sport and the athlete. But depending on whether strength/size versus power/efficiency is the athletes focus, the far majority would benefit greatly from 1 to 3 days of speed/power training and 2-3 days in the weight room (per week) AT MOST.
Power/efficiency focus –> Two relatively heavy days of weight training and 2-3 of speed and power training per week. Size focus –>Three relatively heavy days of weight training and 1-2 days of speed/power training per week. That is PLENTY, especially when added to various team and skill practice and team work.
Intensity – Most advertisers and popular media either blatantly state or imply that more training intensity is the primary factor needed to build size and strength. In reality, the key to gaining quality weight is long-term progress in the big lifts. Believe it or not, this does not happen optimally with white hot intensity and training “as many reps as possible,” or as hard as you can possibly go to failure. Sure, you have to train with great effort. It’s not going to feel great in the moment. But keep in mind that simply putting the muscle under tension is what primarily stimulates the body to add muscle. And more weight on the bar, with good form and other factors being equal, absolutely translates to more size.
Only so much can be achieved in a given workout. Five- or even three gut-busting epic workouts per week is not optimal for gaining size. Making intensity of effort the holy grail eventually runs you into the ground, and that’s when you feel the need for the week or month layoff. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Too much intensity is another example of winning the days battle but losing the war. It took me years to realize this and achieve something near an optimal balance of both factors, a practical rhythm of consistent hard work AND optimal recovery.
Gear – Going insane with snappy movements like hang cleans is not best. Most Olympic lifts require explosive, total body effort. While this is worthwhile for some sports/athletes, it is far from ideal from the perspective of weight gain (again putting muscle under high tension through a full range of motion). Battling ropes and the seated shoulder lateral raise machine and dumbbell bicep curl drop sets do practically nothing for athletes who are NOT bodybuilders and who have already built, often chemically assisted (steroids) size and strength.
While upper- and lower body plyometrics, water bag, and various instability training, etc are often worthwhile for creating various neurological adaptations, they do very little for gaining quality pounds. There is absolutely a certain genetic variant that can add muscle by using 30-100 lb kettlebells well. Kettlebells just do not offer enough -loading- for the majority of athletes to stimulate appreciable size gains. It may surprise you that kettlebells are actually a great tool for improving body control, joint mobility, and stability. But for weight gain, barbells and traditional dumbells are really where it’s at!
Unstructured Exercise – A common non-training mistake is simply doing too much physical activity. Pick-up basketball and landscaping and long walks in the moonlight are all great. But too much of them will cost you in terms of weight gain. For the far majority of athletes, running (or other conditioning) is not compatible with gaining quality muscle. Speed work is compatible if you are careful about the what and when. Coaches concerned with their athletes size, strength, and power, should make sure their speed and sprint work is truly that and not just more grinding type conditioning.
Questions? Comments? Certainly let me know.
The next installment will broach the subject of eating for quality weight gain.