To gain muscle, we’re told to eat everything in sight. We’re told to drink a gallon of milk a day, or to pour olive oil over a pizza before eating the entire thing in one sitting, or even to eat fast food for every meal – all in the indiscriminate pursuit of mass. Okay, eating that way will get you bigger. And it will make you stronger, so at least some of that mass is muscle. But at what cost? You’ll just have to go on a “cut” to eliminate the bulk you don’t want to keep while taking care not to dip into the bulk you do want. It can certainly work, but what if there were a better way?
I say, get it right the first time. Eat a sensible, biologically-appropriate diet that provides the macro and micronutrients your body needs to build muscle without accumulating excessive body fat. I won’t comment on the type of lifting you should be doing. Anyone reading this blog likely already knows the importance of multi-joint, compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, dips, and presses. So keep doing that.
You guys know about protein. Eat lots of it. You’re probably already doing that, so just keep it up. But don’t stick to plain chicken breasts and lean steak. Those are fine sources of essential amino acids, but when you focus solely on lean meat you avoid lesser known nutrients that also promote anabolic signaling, assist recovery, and support the health of your joints.
Don’t avoid fatty cuts. Our bodies require saturated animal fat to produce sex hormones like testosterone, while low-fat diets lower circulating androgen levels. And the cholesterol in foods like egg yolks and animal fat can directly increase muscle strength and size by upregulating testosterone levels – as long as you’re actually exercising and giving your body the stimulus it requires to utilize the cholesterol. Eat whole eggs and fatty steaks. Cook with butter and coconut oil.
Eat gelatinous cuts and save your bones for broth. Often dismissed as a “useless” protein for its lack of essential amino acids, gelatin is actually vital for anyone looking to lift heavy and put on lean mass. For one, gelatin is protein sparing, meaning it provides amino acids that would otherwise be drawn from your regular protein intake. With gelatin in your diet, the other protein you eat “goes longer.” And two, lifting places a lot of stress on the joints while gelatin has been shown to alleviate joint pain. This isn’t surprising, since gelatin comprises the connective tissue – cartilage, tendons, fascia – in and around our joints. One particular amino acid found abundantly in gelatin – glycine – also promotes better sleep, which is probably the most anabolic non-food nutrient a lifter needs. Sleep is where we recover and where we grow. Eat oxtail stew, beef/lamb shanks, ribs, and make bone broth on a regular basis. Don’t throw out your chicken carcasses or rib bones.
Eat liver. Classic bodybuilding diets almost always included liver (or dessicated liver tabs), also known as nature’s multivitamin, because they were the most abundant source of preformed vitamin A/retinol. Retinol is a vastly underrated anabolic nutrient that’s necessary for testosterone production and muscle protein synthesis. Plus, protein metabolism exhausts retinol stores, so the more protein you eat, the more vitamin A you’ll need to keep your stores topped up. Liver once or twice a week will do the trick and keep you from overdosing on retinol. You can eat poultry liver more often than beef, lamb, or pork liver, since the former is lower in vitamin A (but higher in iron).
Feed your gut bacteria, too. You’ve probably heard about the importance of having healthy gut bacteria, who outnumber human host cells by 10 to 1. That means you’re more bacteria than you are you. And although most of the focus has been on how gut health determines digestion, immunity, and various allergies and food intolerances, emerging science is showing that certain species of gut bugs – including ones found in human guts – can convert glucocorticoid (stress) hormones into androgens. The best way to feed gut bacteria is with a diverse, plant-rich diet full of soluble fibers, phytonutrients, and resistant starch (green bananas, cooked and cooled potatoes, raw unmodified potato starch – works well in smoothies).
There are also some non-food related aspects of your life that, if integrated, can promote muscle and fitness gains.
Walk. Seriously, I know it takes a long time and it’s not exciting or intense, but walk as much as you can. Shoot for at least a couple miles a day, preferably spread out. Walking isn’t “cardio,” because it’s so low intensity. It won’t dampen your gains. Hell, it will actually improve them by shifting your autonomic nervous system away from high-cortisol, high-alert sympathetic mode over to high-testosterone, chilled out parasympathetic mode. If we want to recover from our workouts, we need to be in that parasympathetic space. Another good time to walk is immediately after a hard training session. Fatty acids will have been liberated from your fat stores, and a 30 minutes or so brisk walk should utilize at least a few of them. Shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Take frequent, short walking breaks from sitting.
Get sunlight. Sun doesn’t just feel good on your skin. It’s good for you. When UVB rays hit our skin, we begin producing vitamin D, a prohormone that acts as precursor to steroid hormones like testosterone. And if you can swing it, go nude and spread ‘em. An old timey study from back when scientists could research all sorts of wacky premises showed that full spectrum UV light applied directly to a man’s testicles increases testosterone. In the absence of sun, vitamin D supplements are good compromise and have also been shown to increase testosterone levels. However, sun exposure also has other benefits not provided by supplementation, like promoting the release of nitric oxide, which can lower high blood pressure and improve vascular function.Depending on your skin color, ten to thirty minutes of midday sun, shirt off, shorts hiked up (or full nude) will provide the necessary benefits without damaging your skin. Avoid burning.
My recommendations probably don’t conflict with your current regimen, but they may require that you leave your comfort zone and try some new foods and develop some new habits. Good luck. I hope these work for you as well as they’ve worked for me and my readers.
Mark Sisson is the author of a #1 bestselling health book on Amazon.com, The Primal Blueprint, as well as The Primal Blueprint Cookbook and the top-rated health and fitness blog MarksDailyApple.com. He is also the founder of Primal Nutrition, Inc., a company devoted to health education and designing state-of-the-art supplements that address the challenges of living in the modern world.