Mass Building For The Natural Lifter & Bodybuilder
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Building muscle mass for natural lifters who don’t rely on illegal pharmaceuticals can be difficult and oftentimes quite frustrating. Without the use of steroids and other ergogenic aids, most lifters will be required to be very strategic and precise with every component of their lifting, training, nutrition, and lifestyle. Otherwise building muscle mass will come to a grinding halt leaving the lifter frustrated and stuck in training rut.
Over the years I’ve been able to narrow down numerous factors and variables that are critical for helping natural athletes build mass and hypertrophy. In turn I apply these to my clients and athletes in order to help them maximize their genetic potential when it comes to size, physique appearance, strength, and functionality.
With that said I wanted to give a huge shoutout and congratulations to one of my bodybuilding clients Ben Lai who recently took a top 5 finish in a very stacked and competitive OCB Physique show in Philadelphia.
Ben has worked incredibly hard over the last several years and is one of my most dedicated clients. As a fully natural athlete, Ben has built more muscle mass and size than many athletes who rely on steroids and other illegal substances. It has simply required more dedication and precise execution of various training and nutritional protocols.
In addition when Ben first started with me nearly three years ago, size and physical appearance were not even goals on the radar as he was suffering from severe herniation of the L5 and S1 discs and bulging L4-L5 in his low back leading to foot drop syndrome and paralysis of his calf muscle. The goal was simply to get him healthy and functional by improving his muscle activation and body mechanics. Ironically once we began doing this not only did he regain full functionality but his size and physique began to take off. Here are some of the key factors and training strategies I use with Ben as well as many of my other clients to help maximize functional mass and strength.
1. Gain strength on the large compound movements. If you’re looking to maximize your physique, size, strength, and muscularity particularly without the use of steroids or other illegal drugs, the key is getting stronger on foundational compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, chest presses, pullups, rows, overhead presses, farmers walks, lunges, and hinges. As your strength increases, your size, muscularity, and overall fitness will inevitably improve.
2. Dial down your diet and nutrition. Even with the best strength training routine, few lifters will be able to gain substantial size and muscularity unless their diets are locked in. This requires ample amounts of protein and healthy fats, as well as strategic implementation and timing of various types of carbohydrates.
I typically recommend that most natural lifters consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass while not going beyond 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. This protein should come from as many whole food sources as possible including chicken, lean meats, fish, eggs, and organic dairy products.
In addition, I recommend getting a moderate amount of healthy fats ranging anywhere from .75-1.25 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. These fats should come predominantly from olive oil, nuts (with the exception of peanuts), avocado, coconut oil, fish oil, seeds and fat from eggs, meats, and dairy products.
Finally carbohydrate intake will vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals will require up to 3 grams per pound of bodyweight while others will need to stay closer to 1 or 1.5 grams to minimize fat gain. It comes down to physical activity levels, leanness, insulin sensitivity, and your ability to handle carbohydrates. Besides post workout feedings, most of these carbohydrates should come from natural occurring foods that are unprocessed such as veggies, yams, sweet potatoes, oats, quinoa, rice, fruit, oat bran, wheat germ, and buckwheat.
3. Dial in your peri-workout nutrition especially post workout. When it comes to maximizing strength and size, peri-workout nutrition (before, during, and after workouts) is critical. Try to consume some protein and carbs before workouts, small amounts during workouts (BCAA’s and small amounts of dextrose will suffice during workouts) and hefty amounts of calories in your post workout meal. During post workout feedings particularly the first several hours after your training sessions, focus on taking in a good amount of fast-digesting carbohydrates which produces an anabolic insulin spike (i.e. dextrose, sugars, or simple carbs) while also combining these with high quality proteins.
4. Maximize your body mechanics, technique, and muscle function. Maximizing your form and muscle function is one of the most important yet oftentimes neglected aspects of bodybuilding and lifting. If you truly want to gain the most size and strength possible you’ll want to improve your movement mechanics and form as this will allow you to optimally stimulate all of the available fibers. In addition, it will ensure you stay injury free, which is critical for long-term success when it comes to building mass. As previously mentioned this may be the single most important factor that allowed Ben to maximize his strength, muscularity, and overall physique.
5. Use eccentric isometrics. I regularly incorporate eccentric isometrics for all of my athletes and clients as they’re the single most effective training tool for optimizing muscle function and movement mechanics. However, I’ve also found them to be the single most potent stimulus for triggering functional hypertrophy throughout the entire body. Most of Ben’s compound movement’s are performed under eccentric isometric conditions. This has been critical for maximizing his muscle function, size, and strength.
6. Perform explosive movements. Performing explosive movements is another important yet often overlooked aspect of physique training. While many explosive movements may not directly be responsible for stimulating growth, they indirectly trigger functional mass and hypertrophy as it teaches the individual to wake up and activate high threshold motor units and fast twitch fibers which ultimately have the greatest potential for growth and strength gains.
By activating them on explosive movements we can teach the body to recruit these same fast twitch fibers during our compound movements which also allows us to handle heavier loads and produce greater levels of intramuscular tension and muscle damage. As an added bonus explosive movements also help optimize natural endocrine function and hormone production such as testosterone and growth hormone.
7. Use Olympic lifts
While not entirely essential as other explosive movements would suffice, using Olympic lifts will help natural lifters gain a level of size and strength in their upper back and posterior chain that’s difficult to replicate with other training methods. One of Ben’s strongest body parts is his upper back and traps and much of this can be attributed to heavy cleans, snatches, and explosive overhead movements. Here's an example of the level of size and added muscularity Ben has gained over the last 3 years (left pic is 3 years ago, right pic is current). Notice the added thickness in his back and lats.
Olympic lifts also teach you to produce violent power output and aggression, which can pay dividends for long-term strength and size development in natural lifters.
8. Maximize the 3 mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy. When it comes to optimizing size and strength for the natural lifter the goal should be to maximize all three mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy. This includes mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. For triggering mechanical tension the goal should be to focus on using heavier loads with proper form and technique and creating as much intramuscular tension as possible. Movements such as heavy squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and pullups are effective for inducing this response.
To trigger muscle damage and micro trauma the lifter should focus on emphasizing the negative and eccentric component of training by ensuring they control the negative phase of heavy compound lifts. As previously stated eccentric isometrics are one of the best methods for inducing this. However periodic usage of supramaximal negatives (using loads that are greater than your 1RM and having a spotter assist you) will provide an extra growth stimulus.
Finally to maximize metabolic stress, focus on achieving a strong muscle pump and cellular swelling particularly towards the end of your workouts. Simply take 10 minutes at the end of your training session and perform high rep exercises and isolation drills with constant tension will help maximize this response.
9. Use isolation movements sparingly but strategically. Many natural lifters get carried away with isolation movements and allocate excessive amounts of time and recovery resources to exercises that really don’t produce as much muscle growth as larger compound movements. Isolation movements can be used towards the end of workouts as previously mentioned or to help bring up a lagging body part or as occasional pre-exhaustion. Generally speaking isolation movements should make up no more than 20% of your training routine with the bulk (80% )of your movements coming from large compound exercises.
10. Train full-body frequently. For many of my athletes including my bodybuilding competitors, we use predominantly full body routines or routines that emphasize targeting the entire body at least multiple times per week. In fact, many of my clients including Ben perform full body routines quite frequently throughout the week. This doesn’t mean that we crush the same muscles day after day but instead we strategically alter volume, loading parameters, and intensity to maximize neuromuscular efficiency and functional size.
If you’re looking for a training routine that outlines exactly what you need to optimize your genetic potential for strength and size, check out the training programs I offer HERE on my website. In fact, most of what I use with my clients including Ben involves the various protocols laid out in the Complete Series Templates combined with elements of Monster Mass, the Advanced 6 Day Split, and 4 Day Split. Read more about these programs here.
11. Don’t overtrain. Although I recommend frequently targeting muscle groups and movement patterns I’m also very careful to avoid overtraining with my clients and athletes by monitoring progress, volume, and intensity. However the number one key to avoiding signs of overtraining is to use proper form and body mechanics. If you’re getting overly sore or can’t gain strength and size, chances are you're either using faulty body mechanics or overtraining or most likely a combination of both.
12. Keep it simple but periodically shock your muscles. Focusing on gaining strength on the basic movements is key. Although I like to implement unique and creative exercise variations particularly those that require greater motor control and strict body mechanics, these unique movements only comprise roughly 20% of what I use with my clients. With that in mind I will periodically implement unique movement variations and protocols to provide a foreign stimulus to the body for the sake of maximizing growth. Some of these include the hanging band technique, accommodating resistance (bands and chains), offset training, bottoms up movements, perturbation training, overcoming isometrics, pre-exhaustion, eccentric accentuated training, heavy negatives PREP training, partials, rest pause, forced reps, drop sets, double stimulation, and many others.
13. Don’t overdo it on cardio. If you want to hit a wall with your training and limit your ability to gain mass, then lots of cardio will do the trick. However, if your goal is size and strength cardio should be performed in a more sparing or moderate fashion (depending on body fat levels). Generally speaking I recommend performing 1-2 high intensity cardio sessions per week while also including a good amount of walking into your daily living as this will help maintain a level of leanness without causing the individual to become overly catabolic.
14. Don’t be afraid to gain a little extra fat when bulking but don’t overdo it. Many natural lifters have a fear of gaining any additional fat when bulking. While it’s unnecessary and actually counterproductive to gain large amounts of fat when attempting to build lean muscle tissue, there will be a small amount of fat that will inevitably be stored as a result of staying in an anabolic training state particularly if you’re natural. Generally speaking I like to stick with a 4:1 ratio. Simply put, for every 4 pounds of muscle a lifter gains it’s also acceptable to gain 1 pound of fat. Gaining more fat than this can decrease insulin sensitivity ultimately impacting the lifter’s ability to gain size. Minimizing fat gain any further can make it difficult to stay anabolic and meet your nutritional requirements for triggering protein synthesis.
15. Get your supplements locked in. Although a majority of your results should come through proper training and nutrition every competitor can get an additional 10-20% out of their physique by using natural supplements that help promote recovery, strength, muscularity, and leanness. These include but are not limited to high quality protein powders, creatine, BCAA’s, HMB, beta-alanine, citruline malate, betaine, arginine, CLA, , ZMA, Colostrum, fish oil, and other natural supplements.
16. Improve your posture. Posture is not only pivotal for quality of life, optimal movement mechanics, and joint health, but it plays a key role in maximizing physical appearance. In fact without proper posture it’s nearly impossible to stimulate your muscles properly as you're essentially short-circuiting neural signals due to the fact that your spine represents the signaling highway of your body. If you lack size in your back, chest, glutes, and other larger muscles, chances are your posture and spinal alignment need correcting. In addition, if you want to look the part, proper posture can go a long way in providing the illusion that you’re much more muscular than you really are.
17. Build a muscle-mind connection. The muscle-mind connection is real. Learning how to optimally stimulate and activate the muscles you’re intending to target by mentally focusing on contracting and firing those muscles has been scientifically shown to maximize muscle activation. If you have trouble feeling your muscles firing or working on various movements you need to lighten up the load and focus on squeezing and contracting the muscles you're attempting to emphasize. In addition, learning proper form and mechanics is perhaps the single most important factor there is when it comes to mastering the muscle-mind connection.
18. Improve your foot and ankle mechanics for maximal lower body growth. The single most neglected factor for optimizing strength and size particularly in the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves is foot and ankle activation. If these portions of your lower extremities (feet and ankles) are not in proper alignment or simply aren’t activated properly you’ll be unable to maximally stimulate the other larger muscles up the kinetic chain. In fact, if your quad sweep, calve size or glute development is lacking, try working on your feet and ankles. Not only will your strength and size improve immensely but your joints including your knees, hips, ankles, low back, and neck will feel remarkably better. Once we dialed in Ben’s foot and ankle mechanics, not only did his joints begin to feel better and overall body mechanics improve but his lower body size and strength took off.
For more on this topic check out the Ultimate Foot and Ankle Book
19. Stop following traditional bodybuilding routines. Most bodybuilding routines you read about in the muscle magazines as well as those used by the local meatheads in your gym will only work if you’re taking large amounts of drugs. Between the emphasis on isolation movements, extreme volume, high reps, lighter loads, and low frequency of stimulation, these routines will do very little for most natural lifters. If you're a drug-free athlete or bodybuilder looking for a routine to pack on serious mass while simultaneously improving muscle function, movement efficiency, strength, and physique appearance, check out the various training programs I offer here.
20. Research, read, and investigate. The most successful natural lifters are always those that take the time to investigate the best ways to train as well as the methods that work for natural athletes. If you think you don’t have the time to read and research about the best training methods, chances are you’re body will make little progress in terms of size, physique, and functionality as educating yourself in the ways of the iron game is simply par for the course.
21. Get your lifestyle in order. Making consistent and steady gains particularly if you’re a natural lifter, requires giving up late night partying, drinking, and other promiscuous activities. Yes, occasionally having a few drinks or pulling an all-nighter won’t make or break your progress but if you think you can blow your brains out every weekend on copious amounts of alcohol and illicit drugs, I guarantee you your physique, health, and physical appearance will suffer greatly.
22. Be dedicated, consistent, and patient. When it comes to building strength and mass for most natural lifters, the name of the game is consistency, dedication, and patience. It’s a slow and steady process that takes months and sometimes years to truly transform your physique. If you’re looking for a quick fix then you’ll most likely chose the less rewarding and more dangerous option of steroids. Otherwise if you have the mental fortitude and toughness, be prepared to stick with it for the long haul as anything less will make it difficult to build the herculean physique you desire.