5 Rules for Gaining Muscle Without Gaining (much) Fat

I know that a lot of people aren’t worried about gaining muscle (though you should be, muscle is an important piece of health). For most, the focus is on losing weight, specifically fat. Weight loss gets all the praise, while weight gain, especially the “good” kind, gets pushed to the side and ignored. In spite of that, there are some lonely souls out there looking to gain muscle, preferably without gaining additional or unnecessary fat, and it’s for them that I write today’s article because I was (and at times am) one of those people.

Growing up I was scrawny. Not just skinny, but actually scrawny. The kind of thin where you resemble Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, all head and bony limbs.

See the resemblance? And don’t knock the picture quality, this was taken on an actual camera (not a phone) almost 18 years ago.

Like the child who grows up on the heavier side and always desires to be what they’re not, I grew up skinny always wanting to grow big and get muscular like the action figures that I watched on TV and played with. Barbie may have set impossible expectations for little girls, but superheroes like Batman and Superman and anime stars like Goku from Dragonball Z, gave me a distorted view on what big and muscular really meant.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dragonball Z, this is Goku

When I got into fitness and started getting more consistent with training, my goal was always to get bigger. I hated the skinny reflection that I saw in the mirror and wanted so badly to change it, I tried nearly everything. I knew that eating was an important part of gaining muscle, so I started to eat to excess on a consistent basis. My weight surely went up, as anyone’s would, but it left me feeling less comfortable in my body than before. Rather than gaining pounds of quality muscle like I had hoped and planned for, I had gained pounds of fluff and fat, with a dribble of muscle here and there.

This is common for those, especially men, who are trying to gain weight and build muscle. Instead of taking a consistent and conservative approach, the tendency is to try to gain the weight as quickly as possible. This never ends well, with most people gaining a ton of fat and very little muscle alongside it. Thankfully, I’ve already been down that road and know the path to gaining weight in the form of mainly muscle. If you’re interested in walking that path, building muscle and shaping your body to your liking, continue reading so you don’t make the mistakes I did and wake up 30lbs heavier with little muscle to show for it.

Eat More

If you want to gain weight, you’ve got to eat more. That’s an undeniable fact. A calorie surplus, eating more than you burn for energy, is a necessity for gaining weight. The difference lies in the severity of the calorie surplus and where those calories come from. The more severely you increase your food intake, past a certain point, the more likely you are to gain fat rather than, or in great ratio to, muscle. Keep your calorie intake 250-500 calories above maintenance to ensure that the bulk of the weight you’re gaining comes from muscle and not fat.

*If your weight is going up consistently, 1-2lbs per week, then you’re in a healthy caloric surplus. If your weight is moving up excessively (3lbs or more per week), reduce your food intake slightly to get back into the 1-2lb range. If you’re losing weight, kick up your calories until the scale starts to reflect weight gain.

Focus on Protein

You know that protein is an important part of building muscle, I mean it’s basically been the selling point of every protein based supplement for the better part of 30 years, but it has to be stated here because it’s that important. Most people need to increase their protein for their health, but even more so if they want to build muscle. Protein allows you to recover from strenuous workouts and build muscle as an adaptation to those workouts.

*Aim for .75g-1g of protein per pound of body weight. If you’re already very lean that number should be on the higher end, but if you’ve got a decent bit of body fat, .75g/lb is just fine.

Practice Patience

Building muscle is a slow and taxing process, so if you’re looking to build a decent amount of quality muscle, strap in for the long haul. If you’re new to lifting weights and working out, you’re in luck and will be able to put on muscle much faster, but for the rest of us, muscle gains happy in the 1-2lb per month range on average. There will always be outliers, those who respond very well or very poorly, but most people fall into the 1-2lb range. So, if you’re looking to gain 15lbs of muscle, aim for at least 8 months and be comfortable with stretching it out for over a year, especially if you’re an experienced lifter.

*Spend at least 12 weeks in a calorie surplus, and if you began on the leaner/thinner side 16-24 weeks is a better place to be

Measure and Assess Progress

It’s hard to give yourself an accurate assessment of your progress simply from looking in the mirror or stepping on a scale. You should be taking monthly progress pictures and circumference measurements of various body parts, in addition to watching the scale, to track your progress. Another good tool for measuring if you’re building muscle is an increase in strength. A strength increase doesn’t always mean muscular growth, sometimes it’s the result of improve neuromuscular adaptation, but in a general sense if the weight on the bar is going up, or you can do more weight with the same reps, you’re on the right path.

*Every 4-6 weeks do a strength test. Pick a compound exercise, like squats or bench press, and then a weight that you’ve performed 8-10 reps with in the past. Do as many reps as you can and see if you can increase the number from the previous test. If so, you’re building muscle, if not adjust your calories or training to improve recovery and muscle building.

Focus on Strength

Cardio and endurance-based training are both wonderful things, but they’re not going to lead to increased muscle mass. That’s because the body works by law of specificity, meaning it will adapt to the specific demands that you place it under. If you do a lot of running or endurance-based exercises, your body isn’t being signaled that it needs larger muscles to perform the tasks, larger muscles will just slow you down with the extra weight. Instead, it’s important to focus on resistance and strength training to build the muscle you desire. Strength and resistance training signal to your body that there is an increased demand for larger muscles to carry out the task of moving heavier weights and more difficult resistance.

*Pick weights and resistance that challenges you in the 5-15 rep range (though muscle can and will be built in any rep range taking near or to failure) and work close to failure as much as possible, occasionally going to failure.

Although many people are looking to lose weight, there’s still a group of people who are looking to gain weight and build muscle. Many of these people are just like me, hoping to outgrow their skinny body, and build confidence in the way they look, but struggle to gain weight, or have difficulty gaining anything other than fat. With consistent effort following the guidelines above, you’ll be packing on dense, powerful and beautiful muscle in no time and be on the road to truly building the body of your dreams. If you’re ready to get started on your journey, but need some additional guidance, send me an email at achievefitllc@gmail.com to discuss in-person and online training programs that will transform your body and mind.

Published by Adam Son

I'm a 28 year old fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle intervention coach. I give people the confidence and courage to change their lives and empower them to achieve anything they desire.

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