Building Muscle

by Max Wettstein, Copyright 2007

(*Not medical advice - Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program or taking any supplement*)

So you want to build some muscle, or at least tone up and trade some fat for muscle to increase over all lean-body mass?  This may be easier than just trying to lose fat alone and more fun too, because you will be able to eat more, and carbohydrates will once again be a welcome food group!  That’s right: building muscle requires quite a bit of extra calories and maintaining muscle mass burns a lot of calories too – far more than what is required to sustain an equivalent amount of fat tissue.  And for all those women who are about to tune out because you don’t want to get big arms, you too can benefit from building some muscle by increasing your resting metabolic rate so you will burn more calories even while sleeping, and you will preserve your precious bone density through strength training.  Offsetting bone density decrease is something all middle-aged women need to be concerned with.  And come on now - let’s not forget about the aesthetic appeal of having a lean and muscular body.  While not many folks think a pro body-builder appearance is attractive, buff and tone beats skinny and frail any day, by any standard, especially during the summer months when the layers of clothes start coming off.  Some of you may wonder, especially you women, why you can’t simply just clean up your diet and eat less to achieve the slender ‘look’ you desire.  Well perhaps you can, but if you’re overweight and ‘soft’ and all you do is diet, eventually you might become thin, but still soft…and saggy!  And please note that aerobic/cardio training alone will not build muscle.  It can tone and activate the slow-twitch, type-1 muscle fibers, but to achieve a truly buff, Adonis-like, beach-God look, you need to build muscle through strength training.  Not necessarily weight lifting but thru some method of anaerobic, resistance exercise that works your fast-twitch muscle fibers.  This could be sprints, certain yoga postures, Pilates, biking hills, or shoveling snow, though realistically and practically speaking weight lifting works best.  But whatever activity you like to do, usually just upping the intensity can push you into the anaerobic, strength training zone.

If all this isn’t enough to convince you to start a strength-training program, consider that as we age past 30 on average we will lose 10% of our muscle mass per decade – UNLESS we strength exercise to offset this atrophy.  The result as we age if we do nothing to counter act it, is we experience a continued decrease in lean body mass, meaning we get more skinny and frail, and/or we trade muscle tissue for fat tissue, primarily due to a decrease in hormone levels across the board such as testosterone and human growth hormone.  Not only does strength training exercise prevent loss of muscle mass, but it also increases both testosterone and growth hormone levels naturally.

    If you’ve read enough of my articles by now, then you may have noticed a lot of common themes, and that generally speaking a healthy diet is also an anti-aging diet, and a lean-body mass, muscle-sustaining, and fat burning diet as well, with only a few tweaks depending on your specific fitness goal.  Extreme and fad diets won’t work long term and usually aren’t concerned with over all health.  Moderation and consistency is key and it has to become a lifestyle.  So hopefully you’re already up on the basics of a healthy nutrition plan, because they all apply here as well, except that you get to eat more calories, more protein, and even more sugar when building muscle is the focus.  Carbohydrates will once again become a welcome food group.  This is because strength exercise requires carbs in the form of stored muscle glycogen and ATP for fuel – not fat.  So here are several strategies and tips for those of you who want to start building muscle, (Some of them will sound very familiar!):


  1. Divide up your daily calories into 5 to 6 smaller meals/snacks per day.  Eat regularly throughout the day.  You should never feel too hungry of too full.  You will not store fat eating this way, and you will keep your metabolism stoked, and deliver a constant supply of nutrients to your muscle cells for repair and growth.  Your muscles will need protein and amino acids especially, all day long as raw materials to keep you anabolic.  If you’re not trying to lose a whole lot of fat, than you will need to ensure a slight, daily, calorie surplus to build new muscle.  If you ever feel “starving”, you are catabolizing your own muscle tissue – this is bad.
  2. Always eat breakfast to include protein and complex carbs.
  3. Eat protein at every meal, and strive for .7 grams per pound of body weight each day.  Whey protein, (Isolate), supplement is best for pre and post workout meals for quickest absorption and assimilation.  Start with 20 grams per serving.  Whey protein sets the anabolic environment in motion.  Athletes in training, especially those trying to build muscle have much higher protein requirements.  Muscle IS made up of protein after all.
  4. 1.5 to 2 hours prior to your strength training workout, eat a small meal containing about 60 grams of mostly complex carbs, and about 20 grams of whey protein.  Oatmeal would be a good choice.  Remember, unlike aerobic exercise which mostly burns fat for fuel, anaerobic/strength exercise, especially weight lifting uses carbs/glycogen and muscle ATP for fuel.  You should top off your glycogen stores so you can lift adequate weight – so you can engage and stress the maximum amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers during stimulate the maximum growth.
  5. Your post workout meal is the most important you eat.  Within 30 minutes after your workout there is a critical, nutrient and sugar uptake window, where your muscle cells are extremely insulin-sensitive and ready to restore glycogen for muscle repair.  This meal should ideally consist of 20 grams of whey protein, along with about 60 grams of simple carbohydrate or sugar.  At this time you are actually trying to maximize insulin release to shuttle glycogen and amino acids into your muscle cells.  Plan ahead for this meal and don’t miss it.  Here you could also add 2 to 5 grams of Creatine supplement to take advantage of this muscle cell insulin-sensitive window.  The Creatine will be driven into the muscle cells to provide ATP replenishment, cell-hydration, and further anabolic effect.
  6. 1 to 2 hours prior to going to bed, have a small protein-based meal, to keep your muscles supplied with amino acids throughout the night, when your body is under repair and growing most.  Cottage cheese is the best protein choice for this meal, as it is very slow-digesting and ‘time-release’.  It congeals in the stomach.  If you don’t like dairy or lactose, then choose some other form of time-release protein that won’t give you heartburn, such as egg-whites.  You can include some complex carbs in this meal, for more taste, and to increase serotonin levels to help you fall asleep easier.  Carbohydrates allow the amino acid tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier where it can be readily converted into serotonin, the ‘pleasant’ neurotransmitter, which then converts into melatonin.
  7. Ensure you get a good night’s sleep, (again, sound familiar!).  A good night’s sleep is important for everything, along with muscle and tissue growth and repair, and, a big boost of growth hormone release.  Another benefit of intense exercise is that you will sleep sounder, deeper…longer.  You will be surprised how much difference an intense exercise program can make in your quality of sleep.
  8. Drink as much water as you can.  Anytime you have a chance during your day to down some water, do so.  As soon as you become dehydrated to any degree, you are no longer anabolic and muscle growth shuts down.  Plus as you already know by now, drinking abundant amounts of water is good for over all health.  Likewise, limit the amount of diuretic-type drinks – caffeinated and alcoholic beverages – as this can interfere with adequate hydration.
  9. Weight lifting/Resistance Training: You will need to strength train each muscle group 1 to 2 times each week, depending on intensity.  As a general guideline, start with 2 to 3 exercises per muscle group, completing 2 to 3 sets per each exercise – the first set a warm-up and the last 2, working sets.  Start with a repetition range of 8 to 12 for upper body muscle groups and 12 to 15 for lower body muscle groups, using a weight/resistance amount that causes you to be at or near muscle failure around the last rep.  These rep ranges are ideal for strength increase and muscle growth, (hypertrophy).  If you are worried about injury, then decrease the weight amount and increase reps.  Each muscle group or body part will need adequate rest to repair itself, and depending on your intensity, this is usually about a 4 day recovery period before hitting that same muscle group again.  If you feel any sign of delayed-onset-muscle-soreness, which peaks 36 hours after training from microscopic tears in the muscle fiber, (lactic acid clears within 30 minutes post-exercise), then you need more rest, but could still train a different muscle group or cross-train with a different sport or activity altogether.  Limit weight training sessions to 1 hour or less, to keep testosterone levels peaked, and Cortisol levels low.
  10. Other Anaerobic exercise/activities:  If you absolutely can’t stand gyms or weight lifting, (which happens to be the best and most practical way to build muscle), then you do have other options.  Remember though, in order to build muscle mass you need to target your fast-twitch, type 2 muscle fibers, which only engage during anaerobic, (‘without oxygen’), strenuous activity, at heart rate levels above 85% of your maximum.  Purely anaerobic activity, such as weight lifting requires no oxygen and muscle failure occurs within 30 seconds or less due to muscle ATP depletion and/or excessive lactic acid build up.  This type of exercise would be activities such as max-effort sprints, hill running, climbing hills on your bike, interval training, etc.  With these types of activity you will cross into aerobic training zones to some degree.  You can see why proper warm-up is necessary before beginning intense anaerobic exercise – if not you will be prone to injury.
  11. Limit Intense, anaerobic, strength training exercise sessions to 45 minutes to 1 hour at most.  Sessions longer than this can raise Cortisol levels, (the catabolic antithesis of testosterone and growth hormone), - yet another reason why long-distance endurance athletes are so thin.
  12. Consider supplementing with a high-quality Whey protein-isolate powder throughout the day to help you meet your protein requirements.  Whey protein isolate has the highest biological value of any other protein source – even eggs.  High quality Whey is lactose-free.  Again this is especially beneficial pre and post workout, when immediate assimilation into the blood stream is crucial.
  13. Creatine by far, is the best non-steroid, safe, and legal muscle-building supplement to hit the market since Whey protein.  It works by increasing levels of muscle cell ATP allowing you to complete a higher number of reps with more weight.  It also volumizes the muscle cells with water and glycogen to make them fuller and more anabolic.  Lastly, Creatine increases insulin sensitivity causing your muscle cells to uptake sugar/glucose from the blood stream more readily and store it as glycogen for energy.
  14. On days when you can not make it to the gym, or other strength training environment, never under estimate the benefits of static, isometric flexion.  Yes, simply by flexing and holding your muscles as hard as you can at peak contraction for about 10 seconds, and then repeating, you can create a substantial pump, filling your muscles with blood and nutrients, and this will stress adequately for toning and maintenance until you can get back to the gym.

    Again, one of the best perks about a muscle-building diet is that food, (calories), and carbs, are your friends again.  When you’re breaking down muscle and training intensely, excess calories tend to be used for muscle repair and growth, rather than stored as fat.  Additionally, intense exercise sets your metabolism on fire.  A low-carb diet will hurt your training performance…you will be too weak in the gym because you will lack glycogen.  A low-fat diet will kill your testosterone levels, since testosterone is made from cholesterol.  Red meat is also welcome in a testosterone promoting diet, as it is rich in quality protein, zinc, and Creatine, along with other anabolic-inducing micronutrients.  Make sure you choose from healthy fat sources for the most part though, such as nuts, avocados, olive oil, cold-water fish, and eggs – yes eggs.  These sources of fats are rich in the good, HDL cholesterol and Omegas.

Protein foods: Here are few quality, protein-rich foods to get you started:  Eggs; Flank-steak;  Filet Mignon; Skinless chicken breast; Turkey breast; Tuna; Low-fat Cottage Cheese; Raw, unsalted nuts; Low-fat milk; Soy beans; Black beans.

Supplements:  Here are a few supplements that directly support muscle building:  Whey protein Isolate; Creatine           Monohydrate, (micronized); L-Arginine, (an amino acid that causes nitrogen oxide, (NO2), release in the blood stream, causing blood vessels to dilate and protein synthesis to occur. The scientist who discovered this won a Nobel Prize for its counter effects against heart disease. L-Arginine also stimulates Growth Hormone release.  Now bodybuilders love it.); Zinc, (a critical mineral for adequate testosterone production and prostate health.); DHEA, (A prohormone that is a precursor to testosterone and other adrenal hormones, which also is touted for anti-aging benefits in animal studies.  DHEA will also support over-stressed adrenal glands.); ‘6-OXO’, (The only brand name I will mention, as this supplement is actually safe, legal, and legitimate.  Basically it increases free-testosterone levels in your blood stream, by blocking all the estrogen your body is making, or that you get unintentionally in your diet, and unlocking bound up testosterone.  Yes, even though you are a man, you do make estrogen – in your adrenal glands, and your fat cells produce an aromatase enzyme which converts your precious testosterone into estrogen.).

    Supplements can be quite helpful, but by far the most important factor in building muscle is your training.  You need to push yourself and train with intensity.  You need to experience some discomfort as you squeeze out that last rep, and the next day, when you feel sore.  You have to pay your dues.  Likewise, muscles only grow when you’re resting.  While over-training is the most common issue for athletes, for most of us pilots, this is usually not the case.  But remember if a certain muscle group is still sore don’t train it until it is fully recovered.  No matter what, cross-training with many different exercise choices is always the best way to avoid chronic, overuse injuries.  So don’t just think you can do bench press every day.  Even if you didn’t injure your rotator cuffs, the build that you would create would look asymmetrical and ridiculous.  In fact if you were only going to perform one weight lifting exercise, the barbell-Squat should be it, as it hits almost every muscle group in the body and stimulates functional, core development and overall growth.

    I could not begin to give you all the information in the necessary detail that could help you build muscle in this article.  That is why legends like Arnold wrote body building encyclopedias.  There is a tremendous amount of information out there, and I’m just touching on some of the very basics that I feel our important.  For further in depth information feel free to email me with questions.  I also have a fitness website with a lot good information on it if you’re interested.  I am part of a large network with most of the west coast’s top fitness models and know most of their training and nutrition habits, and a lot of the tricks of the trade.  I’ve also been my own fitness guinea pig for 25 years, with extensive work for clients such as Men’s Health magazine, and Hoist Fitness systems, and others.  Books are useful, but nothing beats experience.  Good luck!

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