Gaining Serious Muscle, Seriously?

Dear Johnnie,

I am 22 years old, 5'8" and a half, and 168 pounds. I am approximately 14 percent body fat. I am looking to lose fat, while also gaining some serious lean muscle. CF Football seems to be a great way to gain muscle, but I am a little worried I won't lose very much fat. Obviously that is hard for you to answer given that everyone is different, but it would be great to get your input.

Thank you,

Seth L. Layman

ef5a4c4d6a5a1e9bef5afd58f69dddc6Seth,

Thanks for reaching out for advice on the ever-elusive goal of reducing body fat with gaining some “serious” muscle; because trivial muscle is an unwanted hindrance.

Lets start at the beginning on what it takes to make a body composition change. When most people get the grandiose notion  to make a change in body comp they are faced with two choices; lose fat or gain muscle. Conventional wisdom tells us it is impossible to do these concurrently. Because to gain muscle you need a caloric surplus and to lose fat you need to create a caloric deficit.

The caloric surplus to gain muscle results from consuming more calories than you are accustomed to. Usually, this is accomplished by rolling up your sleeves, heading down to the local GNC to get a vat of protein. Everyone knows that a few extra protein shakes will allow you to bulk up and put on muscle, right? While this thinking is popular among hacks on the Internet, it might not be completely accurate. Increasing protein intake, when it is below optimal, will assist in the creation of muscle, as muscle is primarily composed of building blocks called amino acids. When you train, the muscles are damaged; when food is consumed those amino acids and other nutrients in the bloodstream are available to be used as building blocks to repair muscle. That new tissue that results is called new muscle.

Crazy, huh?

But what if you are already eating enough protein? Will the addition of more protein result in more muscle?

Research, and working with countless athletes, has lead to my understand that a lack of protein in the body is more detrimental to gaining muscle than a protein surplus is for gaining muscle. A daily intake of .8-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight is more than enough protein to gain muscle. In my experience, going above 1.5 grams of protein does little to nothing to increase lean muscle or performance in most athletes.

Guardians of the Galaxy love to propagate Internet folklore, and my favorite is the belief that to gain muscle all one needs is to up protein, and while an adequate amount is needed, without a caloric surplus it is next to impossible.

So where does this leave us? With carbohydrates and fats. However, regardless of what the favor of the month says, extremes of either macro-nutrient are never optimal. Ideally, a good balance of carbohydrates and fat that allows an athlete to perform at a high level is ideal.

But what about losing body fat while maintaining muscle?

Another riddle of the sphinx with 289,000 Google searches in .38 seconds.

To lose body fat, and keep that hard fought muscle, you need to create a caloric deficit while keeping protein high (.8-1.5 grams), as protein is known as "muscle sparring." This means, by burning or eating more calories than an athlete uses in a given day while keeping protein elevated, an athlete can lose body fat while keeping lean body mass loss to a minimum.

Personally, I am not a fan of cutting calories for athletes. I rather increase the training frequency and volume and allow the training to create the needed caloric deficit, as just ratcheting back calories can wreak havoc on the metabolism and negate any strength and capacity the athlete has built.

Since you didn’t give me much to go on, I have to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and read between the lines of your question and make some assumptions.

First off, the fact that you told me about your height, down to the half inch lets me believe you are detail oriented and concerned with numbers. Then you confirm this with an admission of 168 pounds as your bodyweight, which is pretty specific, not 170 and not 165.

But then you give me approximately 14%? Usually when people give me body fat it is guess; very few people have access to a bod pod, take the time to do the hydrostatic weighing or search out a competent person do a caliper test.

Nevertheless, here are some pictures of what approximately 14% body fat looks like. Just so we can understand where you are working from.

body-fat-percentage-menWhat is more telling is what you are not telling me. You give me age, height, weight and body fat but tell me nothing about how long you have been training. What lifts you favor, what you presently do for your training, not even a recent PR or two.

What I am going to assume you are a beginner who has never trained. While you might have been going to 24 Hour Fitness and doing something that could pass as training to most 17 year olds without sleeves, it isn’t. You have not doing a style of training based on heavy compound movements with frequency and progression while building aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Because if you had, your first line would have included your best press, bench, squat and/or deadlift and not bore me with arbitrary body fat number. Funny thing is, when people are strong, things like half inches and phantom body fat percentages don’t matter nearly as much.

Your question, will a program like Power Athlete’s CrossFit Football build muscle?

Yes, a well thought out strength and conditioning program like Field StrongJacked Street and CrossFit Football, when used with someone who has never training, is very potent. I have seen beginners put on 20 pounds of muscle in 3-4 months time following my amateur program.

Now I have some questions. Do you know how to lose fat? Because in your submission you stated you were worried this program wouldn’t result in fat loss. What in your vast knowledge of training, diet and recovery leads you to believe a program comprised of heavy compound movements mixed with short metabolic conditioning workouts would not lead to body fat reduction?

Regardless of the answer, here is the deal, next time you stumble onto something like CrossFit Football, instead of hitting the “Contact Us” tab, just write the workout down. Take that piece of paper to your local gym or CrossFit box and perform that workout. Next day do the same thing, same on the following day, and the following…keep this up for 10 weeks without missing a workout. Then I want you to hit that “Contact Us” tab and shoot me an email about how the best thing you ever did was not bore me with bullshit questions more akin to asking if the universe is infinite. And best thing you ever did was start the program and not wait on my usual canned response.

But just in case you are sitting at home waiting on my response, here it is.

“Thank you for emailing CrossFit Football and Power Athlete. Before starting any strength and conditioning program make sure your heart is healthy enough for strenuous exercise. After the doctor checks you out find a mirror and repeat the following – I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake. I am the same decaying organic matter as everyone else; I am part of the same compost pile. Nobody is coming to save me. No one is hiding behind the next corner to pull me into the gym to hammer me into shape. There is no one at the market that will show me what to eat to be strong. I have to take it upon myself to make a change. I will not ask dumb questions on the Internet looking for approval from an innoxious email domain giving me the proverbial hand job. Weakness will no longer suffice; fuck mediocrity.”

John

John

John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and creator of Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year starter in the National Football League and NFL veteran. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early and retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL and other professional and Olympic athletes. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete and the CrossFit Speciality Seminar: Sports Specific Application. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie or at Power Athlete.

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Posted in Talk to Me Johnnie | Tagged , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

19 Responses to Gaining Serious Muscle, Seriously?

  1. Robert Paulson

    Well put. It seems like a no shit reinvigoration of the perfecting the basics is upon us. sometimes, even I forget where I started or how I got to where I’m at. Good read as usual. Thank you.

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  3. Ingo "Joey Swole" B

    I don’t think I ever used the Contact tab. Is that really your auto-reply? Brilliant.

  4. Nono

    When I read things like this I suddenly remember why I love you guys so much!

  5. Hans

    This should be a pop-up that appears before posting anywhere in PA :

    “I will not ask dumb questions on the Internet looking for approval from an innoxious email domain giving me the proverbial hand job. Agree?”

  6. @nono yep, “exactly why I love these guys so much”!

  7. matt

    Almost makes me want to hit the contact us tab and fire off a email.

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  9. Nick

    Brilliant.
    In my experience (looking at friends attitudes towards ‘training’ – they exercise)

  10. Nick

    Brilliant.
    In my experience (observing friends who ‘train’ – they actually just exercise) people prefer saying they want to get Jacked to actually getting Jacked. Consistency builds athletes. Excuses builds losers. Oh and thinking you can do what you want all weekend without undoing the weeks efforts.

  11. greenroom

    ” “serious” muscle; because trivial muscle is an unwanted hindrance.”
    Absolute fucking art.

  12. jeffpower

    Its really refreshing to hear someone tell the truth.
    I say these things to people who ask me questions about getting “strong” or “in shape” first they laugh it off because it’s crossfit or they discount it because there aren’t six excercises for biceps. But every soldier that’s asked and laughed at the response has come back six or seven months later and said”. Hey can you give me that website again”

    The magazine stuff feeds you lies. The supplement ads are lies. The short cuts are lies. A lifetime of squats, waking up early to run sprints in the snow, when you’d much rather be in bed with the wife, deadlifting so heavy you think your purple ass might pass out if you don’t take a knee, that’s where muscle and magic happen.

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  14. DBear

    Just an update on Seth, He was last seen exiting GNC with a MAX GAIN protein vat under his arm and a copy of ‘how to get bigger arms and chest in 3 weeks’ Men’s Health mag tucked under the other. I kid you not,,,, he entered the Coffee House next door and purchased a soy decaf latte.

  15. Ross

    ‘ heavy compound movements with frequency and progression while building aerobic and anaerobic capacity” combined with even the bulking protocol resulted in a pretty awesome body composition for me.

  16. Danny

    Huh? Why are you all kissing his ass? This was a rude and harsh response to a young kid who doesn’t know any better. This is the problem with crossfit, we can be such arrogant a-holes that it turns people off.

  17. Danny,

    Frankly, you are the only asshole. That post was not harsh and if anything, the tone and information are far more beneficial than the hand job you think he deserves.

    Secondly, don’t confuse Power Athlete with any other training methods. Power Athlete is about empowering performance; sugar coating has never been part of the method. Go back and read the 200 plus posts on this site and you will see anything but kind and gentle. Climb out of your ivory tower and realize that a straight answer not wrapped up in your skins and covered in your rock tape is what is needed.

    John

  18. John

    I thought this was fitting.

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