Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Eating to Gain, for Skinny Guys: Part II

Yesterday was Part I in this series.

How Many Meals A Day?

It's up to you - as long as you eat more than you are eating now in your skinny state. If that means a few big meals, fine. If it means a lot of little meals to get it done, fine. I don't get hung up on nutrient timing (except for workout nutrition, see below) or number of meals. Just eat, and eat more and better food.

Prioritize Eating over Eating Clean

You have to eat like it's homework. This usually means preparing food and bringing it with you. If you can't do this, don't skip a meal. Find something to eat - plan ahead with backups. Mine was Wendy's chili (I'd get 2 or 3 of them). Skipping a meal when you're trying to gain weight is like having an extra meal when you're trying to lose it. You might get away with it, but it's not an optimal path to success.

So first off, make sure you eat.

Next, eat good, healthy foods whenever you can. Make sure you're getting plenty of vegetables along with your foods. Don't use "bulking" as an excuse to just eat whatever and call it a diet. The "See Food" diet can work, but it's sub-optimal. You end up consuming a lot of junk calories, getting bad habits you'll want to undo when you're getting to your goal. It's better to approach it a little more systematically.

That said, when you're skinny and trying to gain muscular weight, all-you-can-eat places and special occasion splurge foods have a place in your eating. I especially like AYCE after a heavy lifting day. But make sure you don't eat so much that you skip another meal or eat less the next day.

Dan John once said the secret to gaining muscle isn't lifting heavy weights or lifting for many reps. It's lifting heavy weights for many reps. Gaining weight is not eating a lot of food or good food, it's eating a lot of good food.

Still, you don't have to eat cleanly 100% of the time.

One client I trained eats extremely cleanly, but finally started to pack on muscle quickly when he added a pre-bed cheat meal every day. Generally it was something like a calzone, pizza, sub sandwich, etc. It could have been anything, really, but the variety of a less-than-perfectly-healthy addition might have been what made it easy to get and eat.

Take advantage and have some extras you don't normally eat, but make sure you're getting in quality food whenever possible. It's not just the macronutrients and calories that matter; you also need to get in the micronutrients . . . and getting them from food is the ideal way to do it.

Add Quantity

If you are eating clean, then also eat BIG. Basically, eat more of the same things you already eat. Double your meals.

What makes this approach useful is that you're already eating this way, you're just adding more of it. If you have an 8oz chicken breast, a salad, steamed broccoli, and brown rice for lunch, great. Make the 1 cup of rice 2 or 3 cups. Add a second chicken breast - maybe throw it on the salad. Put some extra olive oil on the salad.

Having 2 eggs for breakfast? Have 4. Add a bowl of oatmeal on the side if that's not enough, or add more eggs. I used to eat two different breakfasts when I was maintaining weight - either an omelet, or oatmeal. When I wanted to gain, I ate both every day.

The nice thing about this approach is that it is modular. You can start small, and add more and more food until the scale goes up. You can dial it back just as easily when you reach your goal. You can alternatively start big (which I prefer) and then dial it back if it is too big.

Starting big is useful because you are much more likely to be eating enough. It's better to jump from 2500 kcals a day to 4000 kcals and find out immediately if that's enough, too much, or not enought, than to jump 100-200 kcals at a time and wait a week each time to see what happens. Bump it up a lot, immediately, and dial it up or down from there.

Some good sources of healthy food, especially protein:

- Frozen Chicken Breasts. By the big bags at your local warehouse store or grocery. Add one to each and every meal. This is by far the easiest way to go, in my experience - buy bags of frozen chicken breasts, and have 2-3 extra each day.

- Eggs. Inexpensive source of protein and fat. Some prefer egg whites; I hate the look and mouth feel of them, and I only eat whole eggs.

- Protein Power. I have some milk issues, so I've moved away from whey to vegan proteins. But any protein you can handle, except Soy, is worth trying. Consider mixing them up.

- Olive oil. You can add it to shakes, or just drink it.

- Coconut oil and/or shredded coconut. Great in shakes, and coconut oil is great for cooking.

- Nuts. Have a handful of nuts with each meal.

- Rice. Add some rice to each meal. A rice cooker is extremely handy, here.

- Frozen vegetables. Have some at every meal. I eat through a 1-pound bag of frozen spinach over 3 days with my breakfast. Add it in. You can blend some into shakes, too. Vegetables are very bulky for their calories, but you must eat your vegetables. Gaining muscle doesn't forgive you from basic healthy eating needs.

- Ground meat. Cheaper than un-ground steak or turkey. Mixed with beans for chili will make it even more nutrient and calorie-rich.

For a more complex approach, learn how to cook good stews, such as chankonabe.

Drink Some Calories

Find a brand of protein you can digest easily (in other words, no gas or flatulance) and learn how to make some protein shakes. You can often drink a shake (especially a water-based one) along with a meal.

Consider GOMAD. If you can digest milk, this can work. If you can't, avoid it. There aren't enough lactase tablets in the world to let you completely avoid the problems you'd face. Plus, if you can't fully digest the milk, you aren't getting the full benefits. But if you can, eating what you do now plus a gallon of whole milk a day will do it.

Either way, you can more easily add more liquid calories than non-liquid calories. Find something beneficial (i.e. not soda or juice) and drink up.

Eat During Your Workout

Back when I was lifting heavy and putting on real muscle, I brought the following every workout:

2 protein shakes, each with 25g of whey, 5g of creatine, 50g of dextrose/maltodextrin blend, my homemade electrolyte mix, and a drop or two of honey or another flavoring.
1 protein bar or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I'd drink 1 shake during the workout, the second right after while I ate the solid food I brought. I'd eat again one hour later, either at home or between clients at the gym I work at. This would be a "normal" meal but emphasize more carbohydrates than fats, and lots of protein.

You can follow this excellent advice here, too.

Eat before bed

Right before bed, have something to eat. Cottage cheese is good, as is protein mixed with oatmeal and milk or almond milk.

A shake will do if you're able to sleep through the night without waking to urinate out the liquids.


Get your sleep. You gain muscle while sleeping, not while lifting. So lift, eat, and then get to bed. Take a nap if you can squeeze it in; odds are it'll be more valuable than extra lifting.


I did well with creatine. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother until you're already eat a lot of food and lifting appropriately (heavy, with enough rest.) Supplements are that final 1% or so of your results. Concentrate on the other 99% and you won't even need them. Save your money for chicken breasts.

The long and short of this is:

- Keep eating (or start eating) healthy, BUT EAT MORE.

- It's easier to multiply what you're eating now than to learn a new way to eat. Add more food.

- It's easier to start big and dial back than to start small and dial up.

- Eating and Lifting, not supplements, are the key. Eat more.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eating to Gain, for Skinny Guys - Part I

I've occasionally been asked about gaining weight while skinny. This is because I used to be quite skinny, and while I'm not a big guy even now, I carry noticeable muscle.

In the past, I've lost weight and gained weight. I'm 6' 4". My heaviest, I was 217 and it wasn't comprised of a lot of muscle. My lightest, I was in the 160s and much weaker than at 217. My best size/fat level was around 198-200, which took constant maintenance. These days I float around 183-188 without too much work. This is because of years of playing with my diet, my exercise, and my habits. Making weight for MMA and grappling, where I did 83 kg and 170-179.9, respectively, trying to come up or down weight classes, and adjusting to totally different diets went into getting to where I am now.

I can say this with experience, and certainty: For generally lean, narrow framed guys, gaining weight can be hard.

First, you are skinny for a reason. Relatively low caloric intake, and/or more activity characterize the skinny guy. Doesn't eat too much, moves around a lot, and may tend towards higher-volume workouts (lots of running, lots of reps, lots of martial arts). Even skinny guys who eat "tons" of food tend to do it in shorts bursts - all you can eat sushi today, nothing for the rest of the day and less the day after than usual. If these things weren't true, you probably wouldn't be skinny.

Second, breaking a set point is tough - you have to lift enough, and eat enough, to convince your body it really needs to be 10 or 15 or 20 pounds heavier and stay there. You must do these consistently in order to succeed. The human body loves homeostasis - after all, right now, you're alive and things are generally working. It takes effort to convince your body to try something new. For weights, it's working hard in the gym. For eating, it's consistently eating appropriate - and large! - amounts of food.

Most people trying to lose weight will tell you'd they'd kill for your problem. But I've lost weight and I've gained weight. Dieting sucks, but eating 5000-6000 calories a day, day in, day out, isn't any more fun. Especially if you then get sick for a few days, can't keep food down, and your body drops right back to your starting weight. It's expensive, it's time consuming, and you eat like it is your job. You eat when you aren't hungry, and you eat even when you're sick of the foods on your eating plan. You weigh your foods and log them into a diet website to ensure you're eating enough. You have to know when to put down the weights (because you've done enough to gain, and not too much) and pick up the fork, and resist the temptation to get in some extra cardio to stay lean. You have to fight against what you've been doing in the past because it only got you to lean, not to muscular and lean.

Generally, this means eating like it's homework. You must do it, or you get an F in the gym. When it comes to weight loss, they say you can't out-train a bad diet. You also can't out-train insufficient nutrition when it comes to gaining weight, either.

Important Note: Forget About Your Abs

This needs to be said, because even skinny guys with no real abs are worried about losing them. Forget about them. Worrying about staying ultra-lean while getting more muscular is a trap. You won't succeed at the latter until you make it a priority over the former.

Trust me, if you start with abs you'll be back to them in no time (and you may not even lose them in the process.) Get stronger and bigger first, and then you can come back to leaning out. One thing at a time.

Tomorrow, I'll give some diet specifics that worked for me and clients in the past.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pushup Experiment 3

Here are the results of month 3 of my pushups experiment.

This month, I continued 2 sets of day of squats and roughly 5 sets of pushups a day. However, this month I bumped up the total reps per set to 25.

Date Sets Total Pushups
7/1 5 125
7/2 5 125
7/3 5 125
7/4 6 150
7/5 5 125
7/6 - -
7/7 6 150
7/8 5 125
7/9 6 150
7/10 6 150
7/11 6 150
7/12 5 125
7/13 - -
7/14 5 125
7/15 5 125
7/16 5 125
7/17 5 125
7/18 5 125
7/19 6 150
7/20 - -
7/21 5 125
7/22 5 125
7/23 5 125
7/24 5 125
7/25 5 125
7/26 6 150
7/27 - -
7/28 5 125
7/29 5 125
7/30 5 125
7/31 5 125
Total: 142 3550

This was a 530 rep increase over last month even as sets declined from 151 to 142 sets.

I also got in 27 days of squats, at 2 sets and 50 reps per day, for a total of 1350 squats.

- Adding 5 reps per set was initially pretty hard, surprisingly so. However, while the last 5 reps never felt easy, it was much easier to fit the sets into the day.

- the additional reps made exceeding last month's reps very easy without a need to get in a lot of sets.

- there was almost no variation - I either got 125 (most days) or 150 (on 7 days), no more, no less.

- I didn't take measurements, although I should have. My arms have noticeably more definition in the triceps.

- My shoulders and arms need foam rolling and external rotation exercises to balance this all out, but not nearly as many sets and reps and I get from the pushups.

The squats felt good - I found I needed less work on my hips and less foam rolling with daily bodyweight squats.

The next month, August, I'll continue, with 30 reps per set. I'm aiming for 5 sets a day, with the occasional extra set on days where I have more time to get some in.

Overall, I'm satisfied that this experiment has helped me stay in the shape I want even as my available slots to get in a full workout have dropped.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Get Up! Interview

There is a short-ish (24 minute) interview with Dr. James Levine, the author of Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It

Dr. Levine on Brian Lehrer

I've posted here often about the value of walking as a fitness element, and you can hear Dr. Levine discuss that more.
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