In this article I’ll share a harsh lesson I learned in my practices of strength training and muscle gain.
Back in 2009, I joined a gym in order to build some muscle. I did so without looking into nutrition and what I was eating on a daily basis.
From 2009 to half 2010, I just floundered around the gym, learned different exercises from the gym instructors and upped the weights very gradually. I wasn’t making a whole lot of progress, so half-way 2010, I decided to turn things up a notch.
From August 2010 up to February 2011, I was hitting the gym HARD. I’d go 2-3 times a week and do 10-16 exercises per session for 90-120 minutes. I’d thought I just wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
One February morning I woke up with excruciating pain in the lower left side of my body. As it turned out, I had injured my ab muscles.
I had overtrained. I decided to back down a bit in training and focus on something else, that is, trying out a new eating style: PALEO/PRIMAL.
Eating like a Native Human
This eating style means eating those foods that were the native diet for a human being in the wild, the hunter-gatherer (who lived in the paleolithic era, hence the term: paleo). Primal is a more flexible eating style which includes ‘new era’ (Neolithic) foods that are compatible with human digestion and metabolism. This eating style ups the fat and protein intake and lowers the carbohydrate intake. This is achieved mainly by cutting out ALL processed foods (which usually consist of the ingredients: ground up birdseed aka grain, added ‘natural’ sugars like dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, modified corn/potato flower, rapeseed (which they erroneously present as ‘vegetable’) oils and preservatives) and substituting those foods with whole foods a hunter-gatherer would eat:
meat, fish, fowl, eggs, vegetables, fruits and nuts (and a tad of dairy, alcohol and a couple exceptions in the case of the primal eating style).
In the following 1,5 month I trained maybe twice, yet I gained more muscle than in the previous 6 months (in which I was training hard for 2-3 times a week). You can see the results in the pictures below. The first one was taken the day I joined the gym in 2009, the second was taken after I had injured myself and was overtrained and the last two were taken very recently, the third one was 6 weeks ago and fourth picture was taken today. (before and after a 6-week challenge I did). [update: added some more recent pictures highlighting the fact that it only get’s better over time.]
Why did this happen?
The answer is: COMPLETE PROTEIN. It is actually pretty well-known that you need to eat more protein in order to gain muscle and it was pretty stupid of me not to be eating more protein. That aside, quite some folks drink a shit-ton of milk or use protein shakes and bars to achieve this.
I want to focus on the importance of making complete protein a central part of the diet, not just something you eat more of when you’ve just done a heavy work-out.
The thing is, PROTEINS are core building blocks for the body and especially, muscles.
I was the skinny dude you see in the 2009 picture, purely because I was eating too little complete protein (and not even so much that I didn’t lift weights, although that does help).
Healthy muscular development (growing into a strong guy or gal) can only happen when the body receives the building blocks to achieve this. I used to eat a ‘low-fat’ diet with 300-400 grams of carbohydrates a day, with maybe 50-70 grams of protein and 50-70 grams fats. I thought I was eating healthy with my brown breads and two pieces of fruit a day. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s talk proteolysis:
“the process by which our bodies break down our own tissues (primarily our skeletal muscles) for protein”
The body has a daily requirement for protein and if it doesn’t get it, it may break down muscle (or other body) tissues in order to meet those daily needs.
According to Flakkol, Hill and Abumrad (1993), proteolysis is lowered when more amino acids (another term for proteins) are present in the blood stream. This makes sense, as when more proteins are available in the blood stream, there is no need to break down muscle tissue in order to get it. Also, higher levels of blood glucose raise the rate of proteolysis. A diet high in carbohydrates spikes blood glucose levels like crazy, plus a diet low in protein makes it so that there are little amino acids available in the blood stream. Hence, the necessity for the body to get the proteins it needs by breaking down muscle tissue.
(credits to J. Stanton at www.gnolls.org for putting this forward in an understandable way in his article ‘Why snacking makes you weak, not just fat’)
It really is very simple, the body needs protein, and if I don’t provide it with quality (meaning COMPLETE) protein, it will have to withdraw some from the muscle. And that’s why I was the scrawny dude in the first picture, I simply put to little protein in my bloodstream as I ate very little of it. And what happens when I try to push those muscles harder, without providing any quality (meaning COMPLETE) protein to rebuild? One of them breaks down and I get a muscle injury. Simple, really.
Lower volume (higher intensity) training
Oh, and did I mention that for the past 6 months I have actually been training LESS.
I adopted the primal way of training along with the eating style. It means lowering the amount of exercises and repetitions (and hence, the length of the work-out), while focusing on heavy, compound lifts (like squats, dead-lifts, bench presses, pull-ups, dips, reverse rows and presses). Between the second and third picture I have not been training more than 40-60 minutes a week, while 6 months before the second picture I was training 180-300 minutes a week. For the most part of February to August I had been doing nothing, recovering from the damage the high-carbohydrate diet had wrecked upon my body (in fact, this high-carb eating style had done more than just impair my muscular development, but those are topics for another article). Right now, I’m almost fully recovered from that damage, so I can increase the volume slightly again, but will still stick to two training sessions a week of around 50 minutes each. It’s simply more than enough to stimulate muscle gain. (perhaps more training is needed when one is into body-building type stuff, but that’s not what I aim for, I just want to simply be a strong fucking dude).
Quality Complete Protein
Providing the body with complete proteins is done by eating meat, chicken (and other types of fowl), fish and eggs. THAT’S IT.
No whey shakes, no milk, no proteins coming from artificially raping seeds or rice.
Just normal foods that contain COMPLETE PROTEIN.
Don’t ask why, and instead, try it.
I figured out how much protein I should eat, according to Mark Sisson (author of the Primal Blueprint), one should eat 0.7 to 1.0 gram of protein per pound (lbs) of lean body mass a day. Lean body mass is my weight minus the percentage of it that is fat stores. Now, I didn’t do a measurement of my fat percentage, but I do know that in the second picture I weighed about 158 lbs and that my fat percentage probably was not that high (probably somewhere between 10 and 20%).
I guess 50-70 grams of protein a day is not going to cut it, now is it? Make that at least a 100 to150 grams a day. I did this by just adding complete protein to every meal (eggs for breakfast and fish, fowl or meat for both lunch and dinner) and don’t snack so much (as it makes you weak). This has been working great for me (I’m currently at about168 lbs) and I plan to put on some more muscle until I’m satisfied (somewhere between 170-180 lbs).
Ps: Another thing about quality: I made sure to get organically farmed eggs, meat and fowl, as well as good sources for fish. (but that [getting food from quality organic farmers] is also another topic for discussion).