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How ‘muscle building’ can make you weedy

We recently welcomed a new client, Chris, whose muscle-building and fitness programme left him extremely disappointed when he saw his Bodyscan DEXA report.

After two years of religiously observed daily workouts, Chris, 57, wasn’t surprised to see that he had low body fat. With a fat mass index (fat for height ratio) of 4.57, he is in the best quartile of Bodyscan’s male clients. For men above 50 he’s in the top 15%. A great result on the fat front. (Download Bodyscan’s percentile tables for men and women for different age ranges.)

But he was devastated to find he has less muscle for his height than 98% of our 2700+ male clients, regardless of age. As Chris puts it: “I’m shocked that I’m one of the weediest men you’ve ever scanned! But at least the only way from here is up!”

What did he do wrong? And are you making the same mistake?

To get his heart rate up, increase alertness and get him away from his computer, Chris’s daily regime for two years was 12 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), consisting of pull-ups, push-ups and swinging a 16kg kettlebell, all the while keeping calories low.

It’s no surprise at all that Chris lost weight and that some of it (we’ll never know how much) was fat. The calorie deficit by itself would see to that. But for building muscle his programme ignored two fundamental criteria:

1. Sufficient caloric intake

Muscle mass – and fat mass – doesn’t come out of thin air. You need energy (food) to create it. So by being in a continuous energy deficit for such a long period of time, Chris was never going to have a fair crack at putting on muscle.

A calorie deficit (where you consume less energy than you expend) will return a reduction in weight but the size of the deficit and the activity you perform will determine the composition change of fat and muscle.

Also, calorie-controlled diets (or “not eating enough”) should eventually come to an end and be followed by a period of maintenance calories (to maintain your weight and body composition) or perhaps a surplus to assist in building more muscle.

Building muscle only needs “sufficient” or “adequate” energy. You don’t need to eat thousands of calories above maintenance. As a weights workout typically burns about 300 calories, eating thousands more will only get stored as fat. Generally speaking, an excess of 300-500 is plenty to build muscle without gaining much (or any) fat.

Many Bodyscan clients who achieve body re-composition (losing fat and gaining muscle) do it at close to or even slightly below maintenance.

2. Progressive overload

For two years Chris was stuck in a comfort zone, doing the same exercises for the same duration with the same kettlebell every day. In fact, as he lost weight over time this meant his pull-ups and push-ups were being performed against less resistance not more.  His bodyweight exercises were getting easier, not harder, which is why he was able to do more of them (leading him to think he was building muscle).

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed on the muscles over time. Forcing your body to consistently adapt to a new and enhanced stimulus is what results in an increase in strength and size of skeletal muscles. Progressive overload can be achieved by increasing the weight lifted, the number of reps, the time under tension (how slowly you perform the reps) and the frequency with which you train a particular muscle.

The most common reason people find themselves at a muscle plateau is the absence of progressive overload – performing the same exercises with the same weights.

Another reason clients make no progress is their bad form, as observed in this article, Are you wasting your time with weights?

Truth be told, even on the fat-burning front, what Chris described as HIIT was not optimised as he did not rest at any time during the 12-minute workout (ie, no ‘intervals’) and didn’t work as hard as he could have (at up to 90% of maximum effort) as detailed in this popular blog post: If HIIT isn’t working for you, try VHIIT instead.

We advised Chris to adopt progressive overload by taking his training into the gym and moving from bodyweight exercises to lifting actual weights, as home weights and home gyms will only take you so far.

We also recommended he increase his caloric intake to a more sensible level to enable him to achieve fat loss but also provide the energy requirements to protect or even increase his lean mass.

We also emphasised the importance of protein (as he didn’t eat much of the macronutrient) and carbs around his workouts for energy. As a general guide you’ll also find this blog post about nutrition needs for different body types helpful. It’s received more positive comments than any blog we’ve ever posted! And if you’re over 50, this post about building and preserving muscle as we age will be inspiring too.

One particularly interesting point to Chris’s story is that all his friends and colleagues rated his muscles at about 5 or 6 on a 1 (weedy) to 10 (bodybuilder) scale. So, if you think you’ve got the arms of Popeye, have a DEXA scan to be sure!