Monday, February 24, 2014

Arnie as a teenager (left). Myself as a teenager (right)

I'm blessed with the ability to gain muscle relatively quickly and easily. Ironically, as a fashion model this has been more of a curse over my 10 year career than a blessing. A few weeks of eating and training how I would like to and I no longer fit the sample size 40 suits!

While I'll admit that part of my growth potential is genetic, I think it can largely be attributed to my passion/obsession with food, sleep and lifting heavy things. Also in my teenage years I went through a token megalomania phase where I wanted to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thankfully I got over that boyish beefcake obsession but it did teach me how to train hard, eat prodigiously and get results fast. 

If you're a "hard-gainer" or simply need to build more lean muscle mass here are my five (no shortcut, no supplement, no bullshit) tips to honest muscle growth in a safe, sustainable and healthy way. 

1. Eat real (Paleo) food - more than you think you need. 

If you are lean, if your current diet sucks, if you're "skinny fat", or if you have been trying to lose weight through calorie restriction (and obviously failing because it doesn't work) the chances are that you are not getting adequate nutrition. 

In all of these scenarios, and even if you are overweight, your goal should be to build lean muscle mass, as this is the only sustainable way to improved body composition and optimal health. 

You need to be eating enough quality food not only to maintain your current state but to build new tissue. That is, you need periods of energy surplus - but only of quality, real (Paleo) foods. Extra calories from crabby carbs like sweetened cereals, protein bars, shakes and juice will screw your metabolism and counter your efforts to grow lean.

So cut the processed, adulterated, modern food out of your diet and eat big, satiating meals of whole foods that are high in quality fats, moderate in protein (you don't need to consume prodigious amounts of protein to gain muscle), and moderate in safe carbohydrates. I have written many articles on nutrition so check them out for more detail. 

But basically you need to focus on nutrient and energy dense foods like pastured eggs, coconut products, oily seafood, sweet potatoes, raw nuts, 85% dark chocolate and (not-too-lean) grass-fed meat and pork. 

If you really want to gain size then incorporate more starch such as white rice, sweet potatoes and whole fruit. And if you tolerate dairy then consider adding in fermented, full-fat, (preferably raw) dairy like aged cheese/sour cream/greek yoghurt/kefir.

2. Sleep more

This is both simple and crucial. You cannot repair and rebuild if you don't rest and reset. I believe sleep is actually more important than training. 

If you smash the gym but only sleep five hours a night, even if your nutrition is impeccable, you will go backwards and put your health at risk in the long term. 

Sleep eight or nine hours a night. The better the quality and quantity of your sleep, the quicker and easier you will gain muscle mass and shed fat. 

3. Train hard, smart, and not too much

Lifting heavy weights is not the only way to gain muscle, but it's the best, fastest, and most efficient way. 

Exercise needs to be an acute stress to your body - enough that it causes positive adaptation and growth but not so much that it becomes a chronic stress from which you cannot recover.

The effective dose of exercise is actually a lot less than you would think. Given that you train at intensity (that is, complex movements at a challenging amount of weight, until failure, without too much rest) I think that two intense weight sessions per week, such as a circuit of 20-30 minutes if you're not stuffing around, is sufficient to build substantial amounts of muscle without risking injury or overtraining. 

I would suggest adding one sprint session to this per week, along with as much low-level movement or activity as possible (e.g. walking, yoga, commuter cycling) and you're good to go!

4. Avoid "chronic cardio"

Q. What do fitness models, sprinters and bodybuilders have in common, besides having massive guns and less than eight percent body fat? 

A. They don't do hours of cardio per week. 

That's right. If you want to get lean then doing long sessions of steady-state cardio is a very bad way to go about it.

When you're trying to build lean muscle mass a high volume of endurance training or "chronic cardio" will counter your efforts. 

Distance running or cycling, for example, is all about efficiency. Do these singular, repetitive movements enough and your body will strip away non-essential muscle to make you more efficient at running or cycling. Just look at pro cyclists or marathoners! Endurance comes at the cost of physique... Unless you're going for that emancipated look (models)?

I'm not saying don't go for a run or ride if you enjoy doing so, I'm just saying that if muscle is your priority then do as little "chronic cardio" as possible and instead focus on high intensity weights and sprints. Feel free to do as much low intensity movement (e.g. walking, yoga, hiking, etc) as you want though. 

Arnie after a few more years of steroid abuse...

5. Rest, recover and don't overtrain

I've already mentioned the importance of sleep and the benefits of short, intense workouts over high volume training but I think this point bears repeating. 

Smashing yourself at the gym, on the pavement or on the road everyday will be counterproductive to your progress (unless you are 18 years old or devouring anabolics like Arnie in the 70s)

While the precipitous overtraining promoted by hardcore fitness communities [cults] like CrossFit or Barry's Bootcamp does lead to great results initially, I believe that this style of training is both unnecessary and unsustainable for the average person. The risk of injury or burn out is simply not worth the results it if your objective is health and a good physique more so than elite performance.

As a type-A personally prednisone who is slightly masochistic I've done my fair share of overtraining in the past. I get it. I loved CrossFit for my brief stint at it. Hard workouts are addictive, especially in a competitive environment or group atmosphere. Yet if your goal is to build muscle in the healthiest, most sustainable way that will enhance longevity rather than hinder it, less is definitely more. 

This is why I suggest spacing out your weight sessions with at least one (and up to four) rest days. 

My ideal weekly schedule will look something like this:

Monday: heavy lifting session
Tuesday: yoga
Wednesday: sprints
Thursday: weights + metabolic conditioning (i.e. circuit training)
Friday: rest
Saturday: Rest/Play (cycle, surf, walk along the beach/river, get some sun, etc)
Sunday: yoga

In NYC (except for winter) I cycle everywhere on my fixed-gear as my mode of transport... Often up to two hours a day. This does not count as 'training' but rather 'movement’. So even though I am highly active almost prednisone every day I only consider myself to be doing around one hour of actual intense 'training' per week, split over three workouts.


If you want to build muscle honestly and healthily you need ample nutrition, sleep and rest. Training is important but intensity trumps volume. To summarize:
  1. Nutrition: Eat as much clean, real Paleo food as you want/need. 
  2. Sleep: Aim for eight hours a night, minimum.
  3. Train: Train hard, smart and not too much.
  4. Avoid chronic cardio: do weights/circuits, sprints and lots of movement.
  5. Avoid overtraining: rest, recover and rebuild.
"Form a habit. Forge a lifestyle." 

The Paleo Model

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  1. Liking your weekly schedule. How would you incorporate 5 a side soccer into that routine: replace sprints, or maybe circuit training? Also what does your heavy lifting session look like?

  2. Hey Simon, thanks for your question. I actually wrote a response on my iPhone but it bugged out and didn't publish! So I'm sorry for the delay.

    I think five-a-side soccer is a great workout and more importantly good fun so you should keep that up. I would treat it as a nice addition to your weekly routine but I wouldn't use it as a replacement to a sprint session.

    Sprints or "burst training" - where you make short (10-20 second) all-out efforts - are so crucial to overall conditioning. You just don't get the same beneficial hormonal effects from regular cardio, so definitely try and get one sprint session in per week whether it be on the track, in the gym, pool, bike, rower, hill, beach etc.

    Regarding the weight training, I think two sessions per week is optimal or even perhaps one session every fourth day if you're struggling for time.

    There are many ways to go about it but if you want to put on size I would suggest doing a fairly intense 30 minute workout (not including warm-up) focusing on a couple of compound, functional pulling/hip-powered movements (deadlift, row, pull ups, kettle bell swings, hyperextensions, cleans) and a couple of pushing movements (bench press, shoulder press, front squat, dips, push ups) each workout. Do 8-12 reps at a very challenging weight (to failure) for 3 sets with only 45-90 seconds rest between sets.

    If strength is your main goal I would suggest doing the same movements but taking a little longer - maybe 40 minutes - and doing 3-5 sets of 3-7 reps with 2-3 minutes rest between sets. HEAVY HEAVY HEAVY!

    If you want a combination of size and strength I would cycle between these two different approaches with 4-8 week cycles. E.g. Do the strength workouts for 8 weeks then the size workouts for 8 weeks.

    Now this advice is directed at someone who is already in fairly good condition and wanting to progress in a sustainable way.

    For those readers trying weight training for the first time you really don't need to be so regimented. Just push yourself with some weight (even only bodyweight) once or twice a week doing functional movements that are difficult for you to complete 8-15 reps.

    Try and mix it up and have fun. It's crucial that you enjoy your training otherwise you'll run out of willpower and quit. I love outdoor gym workouts by the beach. I do circuits of pull ups, push ups, squats, calisthenics and mix it up with some beach sprints and even some yoga. If you need external motivation join a boot-camp style class or workout with some friends.

    As always my advice is this: "Eat Paleo. Train. Live life."

    Thanks for reading!

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  5. David, Thanks for the page! I like your suggestions! I've recently lost about 30 lbs and I want to gain some muscle now. Do you have any tips or warnings for people who are starting out building muscle later in life? (I'm in my late 40's now)

    1. Hi Bob!

      Thanks for the question and congratulations on losing 30 lbs!

      The basic physiology behind hypertrophy (building muscle) is the same for everyone, young and old. The only difference is that it becomes more difficult to build muscle as you age. Additionally, due to the decreases in strength and mobility as we age we become less resilient and more prone to injury so this has to be considered for someone such as yourself starting training at a later age.

      The good news is that there are many studies that show that it is possible to build substantial muscle mass well into our old age, decades beyond our 40s. And actually people often hit peak strength in their 40s so you are still at a good age to begin strength training.

      Here are some things to consider for building muscle later in life:

      1. Optimize your testosterone levels: Our testosterone naturally diminishes as we age. You can increase your testosterone through lifestyle choices. Specifically weight training; better nutrition including adequate (animal) protein, limiting processed foods and getting enough quality fats in your diet; optimizing sleep; managing stress; limiting alcohol consumption and ensuring your vitamin D levels are adequate.

      2. Train hard but do not overtrain. Two to three weight training sessions of 20-40 minutes per week at a decent level of intensity should be more than enough. It is important to do relatively high intensity at least once a week and ensure adequate rest. If you are sore or overly fatigued take a day or two off from the gym.

      3. Be consistent and have very long term goals. You need to enjoy your training and be able to continue it for the rest of your life. There is no point smashing the gym for a few months and then injuring yourself. Take it easy.

      4. Focus on free weights - particularly dumbbells and kettlebells. Dumbbells are safer than barbells and machines, which can restrict range of motion and put excessive strain on tight joints and muscles. Bodyweight exercises are also very useful and safe.

      5. Go for lower-impact cardio options and focus on intervals and sprints rather than too many long cardio sessions. Rowing machines, stationary bike and swimming are all very safe and minimize impact and risk of tendon, ligament and joint injuries. Going for long rides or runs can slow or restrict muscle growth.

      6. If possible I highly recommend paying for a few sessions with an expert personal trainer or coach who can test your movement patterns, identify weaknesses in your physiology and customize a safe workout routine specific to you. Do not just jump into or teach yourself complex weight training exercises such as the back squat or bench press without first learning perfect form. It is far too easy to become injured if you learn the wrong movement patterns or have bad form. You have to limit yourself to your ability. For example, if you have poor shoulder mobility I would certainly not recommend the barbell benchpress. Check out Kelly Starrett’s work at for more information.

      I hope this helps. Good luck and enjoy getting strong!

  6. Thanks David,
    I appreciate your advice. One more question. What should I look for in a personal trainer? I see so many out there I"m not sure who's worth it and who isn't

    1. Ideally you would get someone with some exercise science, bio mechanics, physical therapy or physiotherapy background. Also they should look and be fit and have many years experience training people similar to yourself.

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  7. Hey David,

    Amazing article, just what I was looking for!

    What would you suggest for someone who is a pescatarian? Should I just eat extra fish and eggs?


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  11. Dear David,
    what is your take on bodyweight training as a way of building muscle mass? And how would you go about training in this way (how many days a week, high/or low volume etc.)?
    Thanks in advance

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