Since losing over 70 pounds in college, it took me a while to stop thinking like a “fat kid”.
Now, before you get on me for talking poorly about overweight people, bear with me for a minute, because that’s not what I’m doing. I’m talking about a mentality that some people develop.
For many people, being overweight gives you a “fat” mentality. We hear people talking about “fat” this and “fat” that, and it starts to get burned into your mind that all you are is a “fat guy” or “fat girl”, and suddenly all your other positive attributes start to not matter so much in your own mind. It becomes a reason not to do things. It gets ingrained in nearly everything you do and every thought you have about yourself. It’s damaging and dangerous, and unfortunately so many people don’t understand this, especially those who have never had to struggle with their weight.
It also makes you think twice about everything you eat. This, of course, can be a good thing if used in a healthy way, but it can also become paralyzing, and eventually can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Thankfully, I never went down either of those roads myself, but in the process of losing all that weight I wasn’t always being “healthy”, such as going to the dining hall and eating a small iceberg salad with limited toppings, lacking any substantial nutrients, and thinking I was making good food choices.
In retrospect, looking back on some of the “healthy” eating habits I developed, like eating sodium-bomb Lean Cuisine microwaveable dinners every day for lunch (this is not healthy, fyi), I realized that while I shed a ton of fat, I’m pretty sure I shed a good dose of muscle as well, particularly muscle in my lower body that had been gained carrying all that extra weight around throughout my childhood. This is because I wasn’t necessarily eating healthier, high-nutrient meals, instead I was either eating nutrient-less salads and sodium-chocked microwaveable foods, or eating the same bad stuff I was eating before I lost weight, just a lot less of it.
That, combined with exercise, lost me a lot of weight, both in terms of fat and muscle. My body was burning both of those energy sources as it tried to keep up with my new exercise and eating habits.
Now, this isn’t a new discovery for me by any means, I’ve known it for a while, and since then my eating lifestyle has changed drastically for the better, as I have created a pretty good daily habit of making sure I get enough protein, healthy fats, fiber, and complex carbs (these are your healthier carbs, such as whole grains, green vegetables, starchy vegetables, beans, etc.). Of course, you can get a whole lot more granular and begin balancing how much of each of those macro-nutrients you want to eat each day given your current fitness goals, but for the most part I don’t spend a lot of time calculating those numbers. If I were a professional athlete, that would be a different story.
Today, my goals have changed, and instead of trying to lose weight, I’m actually consciously working to gain weight and gain lean muscle mass. With this I’ve done a lot of research, and recently, I made a discovery about myself that came as quite the surprise.
You may have heard of endomorphs, ectomorphs, and mesomorphs, but if you haven’t or aren’t sure what they all mean, basically these are different general body types (see nearby graphic). Generally, no one fits perfectly into one body type; typically people have traits of multiple body types, and the different body types may mean someone is more prone to move in a certain way, more easily gain or lose muscle mass, more easily gain or lose fat, and many other factors.
Mesomorphs are your stereotypical professional athletes; people who gain muscle quickly as well as shed fat quickly. The Marshawn Lynch’s and Russell Wilson’s of the world. We’re not going to talk much about them, because most of us average people fit into either the endomorph or ectomorph categories.
As an overweight person my whole childhood, as well as the fact that I loathe running (not running in general, just ME having to run…), I had always automatically thrown myself into the endomorph category. The endomorph typically features a slower metabolism and is built for strength rather than endurance, more compact limb movements, and wider in the hips and shoulders. The endomorph also typically can put muscle mass on quite quickly, but it can be much more challenging for the endomorph to cut fat.
However – at the advice of the oft-referenced in my blog and architect of the workout that helped me make my initial weight-loss transformation, Nate Green – I purchased the book Scrawny to Brawny (S2B) by Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition and Michael Mejia of B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning, and learned some surprising things about my body.
The book itself is dedicated to skinny and/or skinny-fat guys who are trying to build muscle mass. I fall more into the “skinny-fat” guy category, where I’m relatively skinny but also feature a nice flat tire around my mid-section. And I want to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that flat tire or my body, I simply want to improve it for my own self-satisfaction, and for the physical, psychological, and emotional growth that come along with the grind.
In this book, they reference the term that hypertrophy-challenged lifters have coined, hardgainers. A hardgainer is someone who is hypertrophy-challenged (basically, someone who has a hard time gaining muscle mass), and in the book they work hard to dispel the myth of the hardgainer’s inability to gain muscle mass, and show that hypertrophy-challenged guys can put on muscle mass too, they just have to use different tactics than their muscle-laden counterparts in the gym who are pumping out curls and other isolation exercises and seeing huge gains.
A hardgainer, or the hypertrophy-challenged, or whatever you want to call them, typically falls into the ectomorph category to some degree. The ectomorph is more or less the polar opposite to the previously discussed endomorph. The ectomorph is typically skinnier with longer arms and legs (that gangly kid you played in middle school basketball who’s arms hung down to his ankles was likely an ectomorph), narrower hips and shoulders, is more inclined to endurance activities (not in all cases, such as myself…), features a high metabolism, can typically cut fat quickly, but also has a hard time putting on muscle mass due to a multitude of factors.
One whole chapter of the book is dedicated to doing an assessment of your own body type, and determining if you’re truly an ectomorph, or have features of the ectomorph that have made it difficult for you to gain muscle mass. It turns out, after taking some body measurements and other physical tests in the book, I feature many traits of the ectomorph. While it is initially counterintuitive that, as an ectomorph, I was as obese as I was throughout my childhood, it makes a lot more sense when you factor in the hormone deficiencies I struggled with as a child, and my “late-bloomer” status in terms of puberty and testosterone production.
Ultimately, the conclusion I’ve reached is that I was a skinny kid in a fat kid’s body.
Since straightening out my hormone deficiencies, and incorporating healthy eating and exercise into my life, I no longer feature the lethargic metabolism I once did, as it’s now ramped up to an average to likely above-average speed.
So, these factors, along with my long arms and legs, and generally narrow frame, I now have different challenges to overcome as I try to fill out my frame a bit, stack on some muscle, and feel and look stronger. I’m not interested in being a bodybuilder by any means, I simply want to fill out and continue to become more and more physically capable.
Using S2B as my guide, I’ve (along with the lovely Amber, who features a body style that leans more toward a cross between mesomorph and endomorph, but she wanted to try the workout anyways and continue to gain lean muscle mass) embarked on a 16-week journey to try and gain some muscle over these late-winter and early-spring months, which will wrap up just in time to begin a summer shred around early May.
We’ve already finished the first phase of the workout, which was a corrective phase. One chapter in the book was dedicated to locating deficiencies in posture, mobility, balance, and other factors, and doing low-impact exercises to correct them, or at least begin correcting them.
Since then, we’ve worked most of the way through the second phase of the program, which features three days of heavy lifting per week, and two days of high-intensity interval training. We’ll wrap up this phase next week.
This phase has been a lot of fun as we finally got into lifting heavy stuff. This is by-and-large the key focus in the program, cultivating mass (as Mac would say…) by building brute strength through high-weight and low-repetition schemes, unlike a lot of low-weight, high-repetition bodybuilding workouts that lead to big swollen muscles without great practical strength.
It was tough to make it through the low-impact exercises in phase one as we stared at the squat racks forlornly, wanting to go load up some weight and bust out some squats or deadlifts.
But, we’ve been rewarded in phase two, as its featured front squats, deadlifts, hang clean and presses, incline press, and other compound, heavy-lifting exercises. These are the type of exercises that give you that feeling of pure accomplishment when you’ve finished your set, and while your legs are a little shaky as you re-rack your weights, you simultaneously feel like you could probably lift the entire building off its foundation if you had to.
This phenomenon is also commonly known as “DA PUMP” *Arnold Schwarzenegger impression*.
This program is not only about the workouts though. In fact, nutrition and other healthy living factors such as sleep and recovery are even more important than the workouts being completed. And when trying to gain muscle mass, like myself, you have to eat…A LOT. This doesn’t mean you’re stuffing your face with any and all food that comes your way, shoving Big Macs and maple bars down your pie-hole (even though I do love maple bars…).
It’s about eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods, and eating a lot of them.
If you shop correctly, it’s not as expensive as you may think. Buying things like oatmeal, rice, and potatoes in bulk are extremely cheap, and vegetables are pretty inexpensive in general. Also, getting your meats in bulk and watching for sales on meat makes things much easier on the wallet in the long run.
Here are just some of the key foods included in my nutrition regimen:
- Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Whole eggs
- Egg whites
- Whole wheat bread
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Lots of vegetables
- Turkey sausage
- Ground beef or other red meats (not as much of this, I typically try to only eat beef once or twice a week or so, even though I love it…)
- Plain Greek or regular yogurt
- Fish oil capsules*
* I included fish oil here just because of the sheer importance of it. It’s something everyone should take, regardless of your goals. If you’re not, I can almost guarantee you’re not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, which are incredibly important to your overall health. For me, taking fish oil supplements is easier than eating fish too, since it has to be cooked just right for me to like it, and its something that’s expensive if you want quality fish. Don’t waste your time with cheap stuff like tilapia; not only does it taste like crap (because that’s what they’re often fed, literally…), but it’s actually not that nutritious, and is often raised on fish farms that pose other serious health risks. Seriously, if you eat tilapia, read this.
Currently, my daily goal is to hit about 3,200+ calories a day. For some this may not seem like a big amount, but for others this may seem completely insurmountable. Most Americans hover around the 2,000+ calorie diet range that the FDA has given us as an extremely subjective baseline diet for human beings.
I use the Under Armour app MyFitnessPal to occasionally check how I’m doing on this caloric goal, but I don’t track it on a daily basis, since it can get very time consuming and becomes something of a distracting obsession, for me at least, to record every single thing I eat. Given that I make most of the things I eat, one meal could have nine different entries to glean the true macronutrient content. Instead, after tracking it a few times I’m able to establish pretty good benchmarks and get a better feel for what I’m eating, how much I’m eating, and more importantly, what’s inside of what I’m eating.
To get all those calories in, I space out when I eat to approximately every two and a half hours, and I eat my largest meal of the day after my workout. Typically on weekdays, that’s breakfast, since we hit the gym around 5:30am so we can be at work by 7:30. On weekends it would typically be lunch as we’ll often hit the gym mid-morning on a Saturday or Sunday.
Just for fun, I’ll show you an example of my post-workout breakfast on a heavy-lifting day:
- 2 scoops of Amplified Gold advanced whey protein mixed with water
- 1 cup (dry) of unflavored oatmeal (if you’re not sure how much oatmeal this is, just consider that in a typical processed sugar-packed packet of flavored oatmeal there is only about 1/3 of one cup of actual oatmeal) with the following mixed in:
- ½ cup of blueberries
- 4 tbsp. of ground flax seed
- 3 tsp. brown sugar (I only add this for the taste, this is an example of a simple carb, and if I wanted to eat cleaner, it’d be best to remove this, although the small amount makes it pretty negligible, and, it tastes better with it!)
- 1 tbsp. cinnamon
- 1 tbsp. coconut oil
- 2 slices of whole wheat toast
And, about two hours after that, I’m eating something else.
If this doesn’t sound like a lot to you, you either already eat this much on a regular basis, or you’ve never actually tried to eat this much in a sitting, and might be surprised at how much food it is, especially when you’re expected to eat again about two hours later. Getting in your calories can truly be a challenge, and after a while of stuffing yourself with these nutrient-dense foods, it can be difficult to keep it up.
There are also many different schools of thought, obviously, as it concerns nutrition. One practice that’s becoming increasingly popular, although its efficacy is still largely debated among health professionals, is intermittent fasting. Going 16-plus hours without eating, and then eating a whole bunch of food in a short amount of time (this is an extremely over-simplified explanation, by the way, but that’s essentially the gist of it). While I’m not quite insane enough to try this out right now, there’s a good chance I’ll be giving it a shot this spring when I go into my summer cutting phase. While it sounds scary, it also sounds like it might be fun to push my limits, try something new, and see how my body responds.
This article will serve as the late starting point of our journey on this new muscle-building program, and I’ll keep you all updated on Amber’s and my progress as we move along.
For a little Wednesday motivation, I’ll leave you with this quote from famous retired bodybuilder, Ronnie Coleman: “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights.”
So, here’s to lifting heavy-ass weights, protein farts, sore muscles, and progress. LET’S GO!