How do I switch from losing weight to building muscle?
April 19, 2007 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Switching from losing weight to gaining muscle. What do I do?

I'm a 5'10 guy in my early 20s. After about 2 months of doing daily cardio and limiting my calories to ~1,500 a day, I got down from 185 to 165 pounds, which is about what I had aimed for when I started. At this point, I'd like to switch from losing weight to building muscle mass, and I have a slew of questions.

I am assuming that since I'm aiming to increase muscle mass, I'll need to up my caloric intake. What should I aim for, and what is the right fat / protein / carb ratio for weight training? How can I avoid simply putting the weight I had lost back on and instead build up my muscle mass? How many times a week should I try to work out, and about how long should each session be? Should I go for fewer reps with more weight? Do I need to bother with protein shakes, etc., or should I just concentrate on maintaining at least a semi-healthy diet? Should I still keep doing cardio on a regular basis? Any other general tips / suggestions for beginning weight training?

Oh, and since I'm a total noob about this, any good web sites or good books you could suggest would be much appreciated as well. Thanks!
posted by Pontius Pilate to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
This site made the rounds recently when his photo diary was circulated on Digg and other sites.

He went too far, IMO, but his training regimen from the early days would be a good resource for you.
posted by OpinioNate at 4:03 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

T-Nation is a great site for lifting information. JSF is a bit better for nutritional stuff, although many of them are incredibly anal about things that I, personally, don't think are that important at the beginning.

To put on muscle, you will need to eat -slightly- more calories than your body consumes. For example, when I want to put on muscle I eat around 3700 kcal a day, where as to lose a small amount of weight each week, I'd eat around 3200-3500. My body consumes about 3500-3600 a day, including my BMR and daily activities (I'm very active, which is why my intake is so high.) Eating only a slight bit above what you actually need will allow your body to build muscle with only a minimal gain in fat.

You should still be eating healthy foods. There is no need to up your calories with just junk, although you can add the healthy, calorie-dense foods that you cut out when you were losing weight (nuts, peanut butter, etc.) back into your diet. I find protein shakes useful, personally. It lets me get good, healthy calories into my body quickly, and when you are lifting regularly it is recommended that you consume anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.

As for lifting, for strength gains (and a little hypertrophy, which is what you are looking for) I like to stick with about 24-48 reps per muscle group, three times a week. What this means is that for my legs I'd do front squats for 3 sets of 8 reps and then straight-leg deadlifts for 4 sets of 6 reps. I vary my actual lifts and reps each workout, to keep things interesting and so I don't hit each group the exact same way every workout.

I break up my lifts into three full-body days, with cardio/rugby on the off days. Sunday is my day of rest. You shouldn't need to spend a lot of time in the gym to get strong. I lift for about an hour when I'm there, sometimes a little longer depending how much stretching I feel I need. As an example, here is what my Monday lifts look like:
Bench Press 3x8
Shoulder Press 3x8
Pull-up 3x8
Low Row 3x8
Front Squat 3x8
Straight-leg Deadlift 3x8
Weighted crunches 3x8

I don't usually do direct back work since those muscles get hit with the deadlifts. I also use only compound lifts, for a variety of reasons which you can read at the link site (as well as JSF.) My lifting is based heavily off of Chad Waterbury's work, as well as what I've learned about how my body adapts to certain stimuli.

Also, you should determine what sort of metrics you will use to decide to up the weight on each lift. There are many different, and equally valid, ways to do this but I prefer to only add weight to a lift once I can perform one full extra set. For example, if I squat on Monday and am able to do 4 sets of 8 reps instead of the normal 3x8, I'll toss another ten to twenty pounds on the bar. Any exercises using arms, I'll usually limit myself to 5-10 pounds more. If I can only do 3 sets of 8, and then another set of 4, I won't move up.

I hoped this helped, and if you have any questions my email is in my profile. Good luck!
posted by Loto at 4:38 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is the BEST site I've every found on personal fitness. It should answer your questions.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:28 PM on April 19, 2007

Interesting thing about that photo essay: apparently it only takes three months to start shaving your chest.

I like this one, and as a bonus you don't necessarily need anything more than discipline:

I have another link to a good site like this, I'll check when I get home. Strength is different than muscle mass, though, so apologies if this isn't what you're looking for.
posted by rhizome at 6:09 PM on April 19, 2007

Blue Beetle's site has a page on the Body For Life program. Not wanting to be a shill, or anything, but I went through it for 12 weeks and the results were pretty impressive. It can't hurt to check out the book (most large bookshops will probably have a copy, possibly even libraries. The author is Bill Phillips). In a nutshell, to answer the questions you asked:

Calorie counting is a black art and (in my opinion) more trouble than it's worth and can lead to worry lines. Do it if you must, but it's not absolutely necessary.

40% / 40% / 20% - carbohydrates / protein / fats - where a 40% portion is roughly the size of your fist.

6 small meals a day of that size means your body isn't peaking and troughing on nutrients but can burn constantly for better results.

If you're lifting and cardio-ing you just won't put on bad weight unless you seriously overdo it on the eating front (assuming you're not the type to gain weight by smelling a cake) so don't sweat it. Remember though, muscle mass is heavier than fat, so ignore the weight scales and focus on bodyfat levels instead using those tanita scale thingies)

Work out three days a week. Do cardio on the other three, alternating: upper - cardio - lower - cardio - upper - cardio - relax, then again only starting with lower. If you do a full body workout every two days, your muscles may not have enough time to recover. Also, on your relax day, eat what the hell you want. You'll find you just don't want to go overboard, and the healthy things seem more appealing - weird but true.

Protein shakes are a convenient way to have the protein chunk of one (or more) of your 6 meals. I used fairly cheap powder and kept in in a milk jug for easy access (BFL has it's own super-expensive powder, but it's not necessary)

Yes - you must keep doing cardio. There's a few other tricks in the book with regard to 'pushing the cardio envelope', but I found if I just took it gently my fitness levels would just gradually increase by itself and I'd want to up the speed/level or continue for longer.

Finally, many gyms run their own BFL programs - which can be great if you want some company (6 days a week is a bit of a committment). In any event - checking out the book can give you some ideas for programs and even recipes.

Good luck.
posted by Sparx at 6:25 PM on April 19, 2007

(I should also point out that BFL has an interesting take on the reps thing. Basically you do multiple steps - 12 light weights , then 10 and heavier, then 8 then 6 - decreasing reps/increasing weight until by 6 reps you're exhausted. Then you go back and do 12 at the weight you did 10 on previously - and then 1 set more set on a different but similar exercise. This lets you calibrate your muscle exhaustion point precisely, which is hugely useful, while allowing you to make incremental increases as your strength improves - but read the book anyway)
posted by Sparx at 6:46 PM on April 19, 2007

What sparx said about the 'pyramid' training.

I'll typically do 3 sets: 12/10/8 reps, where the 10 is heavier than the 12 & the 8 is heavier yet. The aim is to reach exhaustion sometime during the 8. As soon as I can do 8 reps on the heaviest weight I'll bump up the starting weight for the next session. That's a pretty standard approach that you'll probably find described on the sites linked above.

Note also that your metabolism increases the more muscle you have. In other words, putting on muscle helps burn fat, if your calorie intake is stable.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:57 PM on April 19, 2007

This thread from last week might be useful.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:05 PM on April 19, 2007

Reps, and more reps. 10 lbs 10x, 20lbs 20 times. Sounds puny until you are curling/pressing/ 50 lbs 50x. By then you will look like a very lean wicky dude. Meanwhile; the people that thought it was a funny idea will still be blasting their biceps (easiest muscle to pump out in the body) into idiotic softballs with toothpick forearms attached. Striation builds the best muscles, it will take time in the months catagory at least.

The ever-so-generic and cheap Slim Fast brand of weight loss shake mix costs about a third of the Beefmaster 1200 XXLZ Protein Power Boost Max Special stuff; and as per the back panels is just about the same damn thing. Use the money you saved and go buy some sirloin. FWIW I don't think Special Amino Acid Booster 12B79+ is worth the extra $20 a bottle either. YMMV.

And of course, the standard military workout will also allow you to become balanced in form and shape.
posted by buzzman at 8:20 PM on April 19, 2007

FYI: Buzzman is wrong about the shake stuff. EAS has a good protein powder (chocolate and vanilla flavors) at about 13 bucks a tub, where one tub will last you a month assuming you have a shake every day. The Slimfast shakes will run you about 18 bucks for 32 days. I agree with him, though, that you don't need to be buying the 50 buck tubs of "special" protein powder. It isn't going to make a difference at this point, if ever.
posted by Loto at 10:10 PM on April 19, 2007

FYI: buzzman is wrong about the Reps, and more reps. 10 lbs 10x, 20lbs 20 times.

Or rather, it depends on what exactly you are wanting to achieve. Read elsewhere on the recommended websites for the detailed story, but in general with weight training:

low reps + high weight = strength / bulk.

high reps + lower weight = muscular endurance

I would suggest that if you're doing 50 reps, you're totally in the endurance zone, almost crossing over into some form of cardio cross-training. The 12/10/8 pyramid model that I suggested before isn't even particularly in the bulk zone - I do it mainly for strength to support my main exercise / sporting activity (capoeira) so it's more of a 'toning' model. I think a more bulking-up approach might be as low as 8/6/4, remembering that you reach failure during the 4 & you are really lifting at your capacity.

But better you read about it somewhere more serious & professional.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:17 PM on April 19, 2007

Also here, a previous MeFi...
posted by wonderwisdom at 7:48 AM on April 20, 2007

"low reps + high weight = strength / bulk.

high reps + lower weight = muscular endurance

T-Nation has several contributors who have largely debunked the above, however, for someone just starting out it doesn't matter that much. You won't have the auxillary strength or form to do really heavy weight, nor the endurance to do really high reps, so you'll end up in the middle until your supporting muscles catch-up. I particularly recommend Ian King's 12 weeks series to prepare you to lift heavy.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:45 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great responses, all!
posted by Pontius Pilate at 8:46 AM on April 20, 2007

I would be careful about starting too heavy. If you've never done any weight lifting before, your muscles, and more importantly your tendons, aren't used to really heavy lifting, and you might get hurt if you start piling on the weight.

When I started doing weight training my trainer recommended that I started with 3 sets of 20 reps on a reasonable light weight (enough to feel my muscles working, but not so much that my muscles were exhausted after the 20 reps) and told me to stick to the same weight for the first 10 weeks, before increasing.

Of course that might be a bit too careful for you, as I was 16 when I started, and your body can probably handle more, but I would still stick with the 3x20 for the first few weeks, so that your body can get used to weight lifting. If it's possible I would ask a trainer (does your gym have any available?) for some help on getting started.

With regards to the length of each sessions, work-outs per week; that's pretty much up to you and the type of training program you'll be using. If you're disciplined enough, I would initially go three times a week, and see how it goes. If you go more often you might grow bored with it fast, and the key to really building muscle is sticking with it for the long run.

The length of your sessions depends on your workout program. A good workout program to start with is a full-body workout 3x a week, with each session working all the core muscles (chest, arms, legs, shoulders, etc). But this is something I would discuss with a trainer, who can probably give you a good program to start with.

Finally, I wouldn't yet bother with protein shakes or anything like it, as you might find it a bit too much at once (i.e. you get sick off it, and completely stop weight lifting). If you keep a good diet, you're already very far! Later, as you get more experienced with weight lifting, and start doing heavy weights you might want to consider it. This does depend on your goals of course, and your standard protein shakes (i.e. whey protein) don't do any harm, so it's really your own personal choice.

Oh, and definitely keep up the cardio! It'll keep you lean, looking good and all-round healthy.
posted by jayden at 1:05 PM on April 20, 2007

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