While some of you are focused on losing weight, there are readers who want to gain muscle mass in addition to improving physical fitness. I’m going to tell you what works for me.
Before I go into ways to add muscle mass, let me add one caveat: It is important to understand that each individual has a unique frame or body type. This, of course, is a product of your genetics, family history and activity level. It’s basically how your body is put together. We are all different, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
For me, I’m 5’10″ and perform best when I am around 192 pounds. If I start approaching 200 pounds, I feel like I’m not adding “good weight” and instead just gaining fat.
Some people, even though they may be my height or taller, can carry a lot less weight — or a lot more — and still be very fit and powerful. In my experience, though, the naturally skinny people who tell me they struggle to gain weight sometimes need to fix issues with their diet first and stop avoiding weight training like the plague.
Another important thing to note is that I never — ever — use any sort of weightlifting machine or do isolation exercises. That’s right, boys and girls: I haven’t done bicep curls, triceps pushdowns, skull crushers, etc., since 2006. We never did them on Army Track, and you don’t see them in CrossFit.
Now that I’ve said my piece, I am going to focus on what has worked for in the past.
The most poignant example I can think of comes from my first three months on the Army Track team. We were working with coach Mike Young, one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the business and who now runs Athletic Lab in Cary, N.C.
Coach Young focused on explosive training (sprints from 20 to 60 meters) for the first hour of practice followed by heavy Olympic lifts with a high number of sets but very few reps. After that, we’d do heavy squats and bench press or incline press and close out with plyometrics (ball throws, jumps, etc.). We’d do this every single Monday, Wednesday and Friday — without exception. The other three days we’d skip the weight training and focus on general conditioning and circuit training.
Before the season, I weighed 160 pounds. By the time I came home for Thanksgiving, I’d packed on so much muscle that I weighed 180 pounds. I still remember family friends asking my parents if they’d had me tested for steroids.
Under Coach Young we did performance testing every three weeks that included power clean, 30-meter and 300-meter sprints, standing long jump, squats and other exercises. In the first three months I was at Army, I saw improvement in every one of the tests, almost every one of the cycles.
So what exactly do you need to do to put on good weight and increase functional strength?
I keep it fairly simple: There is no substitute for consistent, heavy weights if you want to add mass.
There are numerous periodization cycles that work very well. One of the best for beginners is the 5/3/1 program by Jim Wendler. It is simple, only four weeks long and works for almost any lift (squat, bench, deadlift, etc.). It’s not the best for developing strength for Olympic lifts, but I have had a good bit of success with others.
Additionally, you have to feed your body. As an athlete, you have to eat enough to sustain the amount of training you are doing. If you’re suddenly focusing on heavy weights, then you are probably going to have to up your calorie intake. You can’t increase your training without adding more fuel. Also make sure the calories you are consuming are clean — meaning focusing on eating high quality, nutrient-dense foods such as lean meats and vegetables. As Coach Young used to say: “If God didn’t make it, then don’t eat it.”
Adding muscle is simple but not easy. I recommend training with heavy weights in functional movements (deadlift, squat, bench, etc.) frequently and eating enough healthy and natural foods to sustain the level of training.
Army Lt. Derek Wales is serving as an executive officer in Dog Troop, 1-16 Cavalry at Fort Benning, Ga. He is a former Division 1 decathlete at West Point, Modern Army Combatives competitor, and is a CrossFit competitive athlete and rugby player. He is a CrossFit Olympic Lifting and Level 1 Trainer, and former lead trainer at CrossFit Spartan Shield (Operation Enduring Freedom, Kuwait). He’s also the designer of the WOD Programmer app and runs www.wodprogrammer.com.