help me get large
August 19, 2018 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm a trans guy who has been exercising more. I want to be big and strong, but I have some concerns. I want evidence-based food and activity recommendations and fear the Internet is giving me advice from Gaston.

I joined a gym a few weeks ago, and am using weight machines 2-3 times a week! I like them, but I'm exhausted, improving very slowly, and slowly losing weight.

1. I'm on medications that suppress appetite, so I am almost certainly not eating enough. What can I do to put more nutrients into my face? Should I buy protein powder? Should I eat many eggs? I don't have dietary restrictions, but I have seen conflicting advice about macros and whatever.

2. I am skeptical about many claims about gains / lifting / getting ripped, and really don't want to injure myself or wear out my body. I hurt my right knee falling on ice in a few years ago and did PT for it. Are there tips beyond "machines over free weights, increase weight slowly" I should be following? Does stretching actually help?

3. I know I cannot become triangle-shaped like Captain America, my wide pelvis isn't modifiable and I don't think I want top surgery. Nonetheless, I'd like to be more triangle-ish and less of an hourglass. I'm in my twenties and on testosterone. What is realistically accomplishable here? Do strategies for this kind of aesthetic change differ from strategies for functional improvement (i.e. ability to pick up heavier things and put them down)?
posted by bagel to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm speaking as a lady, so this might not really apply to your experience, but just in case it helps. I really loved free weights. They made me use my whole body rather than a specific muscle group. I did the "lift heavy weight for few reps" regimen and I got so much stronger, so quickly. It wasn't "lift more weight than I was able" but "lift as much weight as I was comfortably able, five to ten times." When I could comfortably do ten reps, I added weight and went back to five reps.

Also, I needed SO MUCH PROTEIN when I was regularly lifting heavy weights. Like, I aimed for at minumum 100g of protein per day. If you're hungry and exhausted you most likely need more protein. You can look around for high-protein snacks -- I liked cottage cheese, eggs, yogurt, peanut butter, beef jerky, lean protein like chicken and turkey -- all those things helped me add more protein. Protein powder and protein bars were fine but I kind of didn't like the taste so I didn't eat them much.
posted by woodvine at 9:40 AM on August 19, 2018 [8 favorites]

ALSO, I paid for one session with a personal trainer so they could show me how to lift heavy weights properly, without injuring myself. Youtube videos also helped when I wanted to learn a new exercise.
posted by woodvine at 9:42 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would second woodvine's recommendation for a personal trainer, if it's within your budget. Being accountable to a human being for my workouts have helped me immensely. I would also suggest free weights above weight machines--free weights force you to strengthen all of those little stabilizer muscles in your core which will give you all-over strength that helps you avoid injury and lift heavier things sooner. As far as food goes, I sometimes will use protein supplements, but in general I try to eat a lot of lean protein in the form of eggs and chicken. I don't eat enough. Getting adequate protein while working out is hard, so I would definitely find some supplements that you enjoy drinking. Good luck!
posted by tybstar at 9:49 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

+1 to free weights over machines, I'm 5'6" and machines don't always adjust enough to fit me properly and give me a good range of motion. Plus the benefits of learning good, efficient form for moving heavy stuff around. If you're paying attention to form and not trying to increase weight too rapidly, you are not likely to injure yourself with free weights - I actually lift partly because it helps old shoulder and knee injuries to have strong muscles holding things in place. I still use the lat pulldown and assisted pull-up machines because there aren't good freeweight equivalents.

I used Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training to get really good at form and learn about loading / reps, and to get suggested exercises and workouts. I've used a couple gym personal trainers for a session or two, and frankly I wasn't impressed - one of them I taught proper squat form to him. Your mileage will hopefully vary.

For nutrition, how do you feel about milk? Chocolate milk? Lentils (hard to eat a lot but lots of protein)?
posted by momus_window at 10:06 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Dude, you can totally do this. The simple answer to your question is... Starting Strength. Or any other beginner's weight training routine that's focused on compound lifts with good form. Strong Lifts is popular, though I think is a bit volume heavy for a beginner. Ice Cream 5x5 is another. All of these routines utilize compound lifts, also called Olympic lifts, which are exercises that focus on working multiple muscle groups with one lift. Hence, compound lifts. These are things like squats, deadlifts, rows and bench presses. If you've never lifted weights these lifts might seem intimidating, but they are the best means for a beginner to develop full body strength and size. The key is to learn these motions safely and to begin at a relatively light weight. If you've never attempted a lift like this before then its best to try to find someone near you that can guide you through it. This might mean a personal trainer (although they can be a mixed bag), a friend, or even someone that seems approachable at the gym. You can absolutely watch YouTube to learn good form, but it's hugely helpful to have someone watch you do the lift and to ensure your form remains solid throughout the movement.

As an example, a routine might be as simple as this:
Workout A: Squat 3x8; Leg Press 3x8; Back Extensions 3x8 + other accessory lifts as you see fit
Workout B: Bench Press 3x8; Shoulder Press 3x8 + other accessory lifts as you see fit
Workout C: Deadlift 3x8; Pull-ups or Pull-downs 3x8; Rows 3x8+ other accessory lifts blah blah blah

The key to all of these routines are starting with big lifts and proper form. If you just squatted, deadlifted, bench pressed, and rowed that would still be more than most do in the gym. And as a last point, if you're on testosterone you may gain strength relatively quickly. I've coached a number of friends with similar routines and have seen more than a few injuries occur in people who got too strong too fast. Take it slow. Your muscles will adapt faster than your joints, so it's best to go a little slower than you may initially want to.

To answer your other questions. 1) I'd skip the supplements for now. Eat large healthy meals and watch your weight. Your body will let you know when it needs more food. 2) There's very little quality data on what is optimal in exercise science. Most of these studies will have very small numbers of people and they're almost impossible to control for diet, sleep, previous experience, and other variables. You'll learn what works for you. 3) Triangle shaped may still be possible! I work in the medical field and have met many a ripped trans person. You can do it!

TLDR: Learn compound lifts. Find someone to make sure your form is good. Start with light weights. Go slow. Seriously go slow. And enjoy the process. Hope this helps!
posted by Thesisaurus at 10:15 AM on August 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

A few thoughts from someone who has been working on a hybrid powerlifting/bodybuilding habit for the past few years...

1) Be realistic that this will take a few years. I might be going faster if I was not both a parent and an academic. This means my schedule is not only limited as far as time, but it's not exactly predictable, either.

2) You need to track all of the food you eat. I use a free app called LoseIt. You need to be able to take charge of how many calories are going in, as well as how much protein. What's recently clicked for me is that pros "cut," or lose weight, for about six weeks at a stretch, and then "bulk," or gain muscle mass, for a similar period. You eat a little bit differently depending on which phase you are in and what you hope to accomplish. I am in my mid-40s, so I am being gentle with both my cut and bulk phases. Going along with this, most people would recommend that you eat 1g of protein for pound of body weight. I have seen other reliable sources that indicate that they may be an overestimation of what you need. In my personal experience, you can hit the target some days a week and then fall below (to probably 66-75%) for the other days and still improve your strength and muscle mass.

3) Free weights, focused on the classic four lifts, are the most efficient way to progress. Those lifts are bench press, squat, deadlift and overhead press. I add pullups into the mix. I think pullups and overhead press will give you the most noticeable "triangle" definition. Squats take lots of practice, BUT if you know anyone who is elderly and has a hard time getting up out of their chair, think about them when squats get hard. Or if you know an elderly person who has fallen and broken a hip, let that motivate you to do squats correctly. So, I treat squats as the most important lift, even though from an aesthetic standpoint, my thighs and glutes are the most developed part of my body.

4) Foods that are low calorie and high protein are your friends - cottage cheese, mozzarella string cheese, chicken, turkey, tofu, pork, soymilk, protein powder, etc. I have a chocolate bar on standby at pretty much all times so that I can have something sweet, but with controlled portions. Really, the LoseIt app allows me to eat anything I want, because if I eat something really high calorie, I can adjust my diet at other points in my day (or week) and stay on track. I bought a food scale from Amazon for $15 and that really helps to know exactly what my portions actually are, e.g. 3.5 oz of chicken thigh meat.

Good luck!
posted by Slothrop at 10:15 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't have an answer per se, just wanted to let you know that there is a subreddit dedicated to exactly this called FTM Fitness. This trans health site has a fitness series specific to trans men called "Training for Visual Mass."

My experience on T is that a personal trainer helped with form, and my delts/arms got bigger without having to do much at all, but I could never eat enough to maintain it. Your pelvic bones aren't modifiable, but if you haven't been on T very long then you should definitely notice further fat redistribution away from your hips, which will change the hourglass aesthetic without having to do anything. And the bigger your shoulders and obliques get, the less noticeable your hips will be.

Read up on binders + working out, there are a lot of safety concerns there.
posted by AFABulous at 10:20 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can definitely build muscle.
1) Unless you have significant fat reserves, you need to gain weight to gain muscle. So you will probably have cycles of bulking (gaining up to 2 lbs/month of body weight) where you will gain both muscle and fat, followed by dieting or "cutting" where you try to loose the excess fat while preserving the muscle you have. So the most important thing to manipulate is calories, if you are not eating enough to gain weight focus on calorie dense foods. The second most important nutritional thing is your daily protein intake 1g / lb of body weight appears to be reasonable.

2) While free weights are great, it is certainly possible to make progress using machines. Most machine movements isolate specific muscle groups, so you will need to use more of them to get a general workout. Also the increments in weight tend to be higher, which means you will probably need to do more repetitions using lower weights.

3) To stay safe, maintain proper form. Youtube videos, personal trainers, a workout buddy to watch you while you lift, recording yourself, can all be helpful. Also, end the set when the speed of the weight drops significantly.
posted by colophon at 10:54 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks everyone! There's lots of good advice here.
posted by bagel at 11:11 AM on August 19, 2018

As a woman, I avoid supplements because I do not want to build large muscles. Imho, if you want to have a more masculine muscle mass, you need to be supplementing. I'd try a few high protein drinks and see what works for you. I mean, yeah, eat a bunch of real foods with protein, they're great for you. But every large muscular dude I know is drinking powders and eating bars. I know a lean fellow in particular that keeps a muscular build by doing before and after workout drinks. Try a few, some may not agree with you.
posted by Kalmya at 11:14 AM on August 19, 2018

Eat protein rich food, yeah, and focus on supplements that are at minimum 20% protein.
Work your whole arms, not just your biceps! This will give you a much more masc appearance all the way up to...
Your back and shoulders! Filling out shirts from the shoulder down to the cuff will balance out your chest a lot and give you that nice square top.
The best is really pull ups, look around online for grip modifications to work different muscles.

In the general...You definitely need to eat more than you maybe think. A lot of people I know on T have mentioned how much more they need to force themselves to eat, you aren’t alone!
posted by zinful at 12:32 PM on August 19, 2018

nth'ing free weights over machines. I tore a muscle in my neck on a bench press machine and did some physical therapy for it. My physical therapist advised me to switch to free weights and stay off those machines as they're less prone to injury.

Losing weight while gaining strength is tough. A lot of people use bulk/cut cycles to try and do it faster. Personally, I'm fine with slower gains and slow and steady weight loss (well, fat loss anyways) but my goals are different than yours. I'd also advise you to measure yourself in addition to looking at the scale. I quite often go through periods where I don't lose any weight but my waist will shrink a little bit and other parts of me will get a bit bigger.

I'm a big fan of Starting Strength style programs that use big compound lifts: bench press, overhead press, dead lifts, and squats in sets of five reps (usually 5x5). They're very useful movements generally and work a lot of muscles. I also do pull-ups for vanities sake but it's still more of a useful compound movement than barbell curls but I've found that it also does great things for my back.

I've heard women tell me that they don't want to lift like a man because they're afraid they'll get all bulked up and look like a man. But that doesn't really happen. Scarlett Johansson looks like she does because she works out "like a man". Since you're taking testosterone my guess is that you'd gravitate more towards a male build than a female one especially since those lifts will really build a lot of strength in your core so I "think" it'll do what you want. No matter your gender or biology, you can and should make some adjustments to your program as you make progress and gain experience with your specific body.
posted by VTX at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'll recommend something a little distant, but as you do your free weights that everyone recommended above, aim to measure what you eat: it's amazingly difficult to set and hit a good percentage of protein in your macros. I use MyFitnessPal and it amazes me how much lean meat I end up eating to hit those targets. Don't get me wrong, it sucks measuring and entering all that data, but it's good to calibrate independently of specific Gastonesque diets just what exactly you consume.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:48 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

For most people, even those trying to gain muscle mass, getting enough calories isn't an issue, so there's not a lot of advice on that. But the Reddit gainit forum has generally good advice if that's a problem for you.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 4:05 PM on August 19, 2018

Lots of great advice -- I am a woman, and it basically sounds like you can flout all the advice to people who want to become stronger without "looking manly".

So specifically: to widen your waist, you should feel free to work your internal / external obliques and rectus abdominis. You can do all the 'don'ts' in articles like these.
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:42 PM on August 19, 2018

My husband is trans, on T for 8 years now, and has successfully got WAY MORE JACKED and triangular over the last year via some weights and a lot of indoor rock climbing. Climbing is obviously a weight-bearing exercise, and typically builds a lot of upper-body muscle. He tried lifting heavy a couple of years ago but saw smaller muscle gains with that, and got bored.

He eats a fairly standard American diet, but with meat only maybe four days a week, and protein shakes after workouts (just the cheap Premier Protein ones from Costco). Maybe just getting a little more protein would put you over the edge. Liquid calories are easier for tricking a reluctant stomach.

I wouldn't underestimate how much your shape might change if you stick with exercise. He's had top surgery but has quite a wide pelvis, and it's incredible what testosterone + weight exercise + a little weight loss has done to redistribute both muscle and fat into a more triangular shape. He'd been on T for 7 years when he started climbing, but starting an exercise regimen really seemed to transform his body shape. The fat as well as the muscle redistributed itself from hips to shoulders. Hormones are amazing, let them do their work.

So, don't be downhearted! Muscle gain often happens in big jumps after plateauing for a while. Try to get enough rest, up your calories a bit, and good luck!
posted by pickingupsticks at 6:32 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you use Instagram, you can now follow hashtags. #FTMfitness might be inspiring, or help you find other trans guys' accounts to follow for specific fitness tips.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thesisaurus' advice is good, but for one sentence

All of these routines utilize compound lifts, also called Olympic lifts

Compound lifts are not all olympic lifts. Oly "weightlifting" is its own thing, a class of dynamic compound lifts, and mostly inappropriate for novices to learn. Don't use these term ("oly", "olympic" or "weightlifting") if you don't want to confuse people at the gym.

The compound lifts YOU will be using (in starting strength, 5x5, etc) are derived from Powerlifting and its ancillary exercises, which is different to weightlifting!
posted by lalochezia at 8:58 PM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Weight loss advice commonly includes the edict not to drink your calories, because it's too easy to overdo it that way before your body registers it's had enough.

So, I'd guess the converse would be true: If you want to gain weight, drinking your calories may be the best bet. If you want the weight you gain to be mostly muscle, drink your protein.

Making a post-workout shake might be a good idea (maybe a pre-workout shake too). You can put all sorts of healthful things in there and vary it for interest: milk, soy protein, whey protein, yogurt, flax seed, chia, berries, peaches, mango, cocoa powder, etc.
posted by nirblegee at 10:14 AM on August 9, 2019

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