In many ways, fitness is like math: Sometimes you work on subtraction, focusing on burning more calories or shaving seconds off of your 50-meter swim splits. Addition, however, can be a bit more complex. While so much of the conversation around diet and fitness is related to losing weight, plenty of exercisers want to do just the opposite. Which begs the questions: What are the best ways to get bigger and the smartest ways to gain?
No offense to Arnold and Sly, but the comically bulging 80s-blockbuster muscles fell out of fashion along with the Walkman. The new aspirational body is built yet lean. And thankfully, for those guys who do want to add muscle, there are ways to add size without sucking down a dozen raw eggs for breakfast.
Ready to think big? Follow this expert advice.
1. Schedule Three Sessions (At Least)
A total fitness regimen requires that all muscle groups be worked two to three times a week with three hour-long visits to the gym at the least, explains Justin Jacobs, Tier 3-plus personal trainer and fitness manager at Equinox in New York City. “If you can only do three sessions, then it should be total body everyday. If you can do more, then think about splitting up your body parts to allow for recovery from day to day.”
2. Make Big Moves
“Keep it basic,” says Jacobs. “Pick up heavy things and put them down,” he says, recommending exercises like squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, bench presses, pull-ups, tows, etc. “The weight should be as heavy as you can handle with good form. You are going for volume here (time under load x load) so you want to be in a range somewhere from 8 to 12 reps. You should be incapable of completing another rep somewhere in that range.” Engaging multiple larger muscle groups releases the most growth hormone and testosterone, which in turn changes the size of our muscles, explains Calvin Buhler of Precision Nutrition and the online coaching program Scrawny to Brawny.
3. Curtail Your Cardio
You need to break up with your treadmill temporarily. “Cardio is the devil when you’re trying to really gain,” says Jacobs. “Just don’t do it.”
4. Prioritize Sleep
Get at least seven hours of sleep every night. “Sleep is when your body releases the most amount of growth hormone,” says Buhler.
5. Add Calories Cautiously
Buhler insists that guys looking to add muscle mass—even lean muscle mass—probably need to eat more than they are at the moment, but this isn’t permission to put the pizza guy on speed dial. “You want nutritionally-dense foods—tons of vegetables and proteins, moderate carbohydrates, and fairly moderate, quality fats,” he says. “We’re not talking cheeseburgers and fries.”
6. Focus on Protein and Veggies
Buhler and his Precision Nutrition colleague Nate Green recommend using your hand as a gauge when piling your plate: Eat two palms’ worth of protein with every meal, ideally the best quality possible–grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, omega-3 eggs, supplemented with two fists’ worth of vegetables (spinach, broccoli, bell peppers, etc.) for proper vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
7. Go Nuts
Jacobs is not a fan of guzzling protein shakes. “Instead, eat whole foods with a balance of macronutrients,” he recommends. “You need to have a caloric surplus at the end of the day, so starchy foods like potatoes and whole grains can be helpful here. Nut butters like almond, cashew, peanut, etc. are calorically dense as well.”
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