10 HABITS THAT WILL HELP YOU BUILD MUSCLE AND STRENGTH

When I was in high school I secretly wished I was in a boy band. I’m convinced my moves and voice rivaled J.T’s but others may beg to differ. Regardless, I never got my big break and instead of selling out stadiums and dropping platinum records. I settled for a life of dropping weights inside a gym and making terrible jokes like that one right there.

But today’s article isn’t about me not marrying Jessica Biel or performing at the Grammy’s. It’s about you -and how you can put on lean muscle and strength without the gym taking over your life.

Some of the tips you’ll read are the same ones I used to go from 120 pound boy band Justin to 155 pound potty mouth fitness blogger Justin.

Right about now I’d usually say something like, “So let’s dive on in.” But instead I’m going to let J.T. take you there…

HABIT #1: DRINK 2-3 MUSCLE BUILDING SHAKES PER DAY

The biggest reason you guys (or ladies) are not putting on muscle is because you’re not eating enough food consistently. I know, I know. You eat TONS! So much so that you often feel stuffed.

“It can’t be my nutrition Justin. It has to be my workout. Or maybe I need to take some supplements.”

I’m sorry, it’s none of those things. It’s really because you’re not eating enough food consistently enough.

When I first started strength training I was 127 pounds soaking wet. I wanted desperately to gain weight. The first year working out I put on  10 pounds and got my skinny butt all the way up to a whopping 137. I then proceeded to stay at this weight for the next 10 years despite me doing “everything” I was supposed to be doing to gain weight.

I thought I was eating a ton. But looking back I just wasn’t consistent enough.

If you really think about it I bet you eat a ton at one meal a day and hardly anything else the rest of the day. Or one day you eat a ton of food and the next day not so much. You get busy and skip a meal or two. Over the course of a week your calorie intake simply balances out.

Eating more food can be tough. There’s only so much grub you can get in that belly without feeling uncomfortable all day long. A super easy way to increase your calories without increasing the volume of food you’re eating is by using liquid nutrition.

MUSCLE SHAKE RECIPE

Step 1: Ice Ice Baby

I really just wrote ice ice baby didn’t I? I am officially lame.

  • Use 1-4 cubes for a thin, chilled shake
  • Use 5-10 cubes for thicker, pudding-like consistency shake

Step 2: Low sugar fruit

Use your real food chart to help you pick a low sugar fruit. I like blueberries and strawberries.

  • Serving size: 1 fist sized serving

Step 3: Veggie tales

Some of you just made a weird face. But yes! I want you to include veggies in your shakes. Spinach and celery work great. You’ll barely be able to taste them. I also recommend picking up a greens powder like this or this one.

  • Serving size: 1-2 scoops of powder or 1-2 fists of veggies

Step 4: Protein for the win

  • Add 1 or 2 scoops of a protein powder of your choice. I like this one.

Step 5: Select a nut, seed, or another healthy fat

I like using coconut oil, almond butter, or MCT oil but there are many options. Choose a healthy fat from your real food chart and run with that. Nuts and seeds work great as well.

  • Serving size: 1-2 tablespoon of oil or 1-2 small handful of nuts and seeds

Step 6: Pour in some liquid

The amount is up to you but usually 8 to 16 ounces works best. It just depends on your preference of consistency for your shake.

  • water
  • herbal teas
  • Almond, hemp, coconut milk

Step 7: Top it off with a lil sum’n sum’n

This is totally optional but it’s a nice way to compliment your shake.

  • dark chocolate
  • ground coffee beans
  • cinnamon, vanilla extract

What you can do next – Practice drinking 2 to 3 super shakes per day for the next 14 days and track your progress using this habit tracker.

HABIT #2: EAT AT LEAST 2 PALMS OF PROTEIN AND 2 FISTS OF VEGETABLES WITH EVERY MEAL

Protein is made up of essential and nonessential amino acids. The essential amino acids are the ones that your body can’t manufacture on its own and the nonessential ones your body usually can. These amino’s are needed in order to produce very important molecules that help with optimal bodily function – like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies.

Protein and amino acids help with immune function, metabolism, performance and recovery.

Protein is used primarily by the body for structure and function. It can also be used as an energy source but your body prefers to use carbohydrates and fat for this. It will only go to protein if the other two sources of calories (carbohydrates and fat) in your diet are being neglected.

I’m sure you’ve heard you’re supposed to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. The truth is there is no real good supporting science around that. What it really comes down to is you, your needs, your goals, and what you’re doing daily.

If you are not very active then you can get away with less protein in your diet because there is less repair, structure, and bodily function that need to be accounted for.

On the flip side, if you’re killing yourself in the gym, have a fairly active life, or are under a lot of personal, professional or lifestyle stress then it may be beneficial for you to take in a little more. Generally speaking most untrained people will need around .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight or .36 grams per pound to prevent a deficit. Hard training people may need closer to 1.4 to 2 grams per kilogram or .64 to .9 grams per pound of bodyweight.

Some examples of good protein sources include:

  • Chicken
  • Ground Beef (grass fed if possible)
  • Lamb
  • Eggs (whole or whites, but emphasize whole eggs)
  • Fish/Seafood (salmon, shrimp, etc.)
  • Turkey
  • Wild Game (buffalo, venison, rabbit, etc.)

For more options refer to your Real Food Chart

If you’re a vegetarian—and my Dad is, so Dad, if you’re reading this—emphasize these protein sources at each meal in this order with eggs being your best option . . . but you can only eat so many eggs :).

  • (Best) Eggs
  • (Better) Organic Tempeh, Natto, Edamame, organic extra-firm tofu
  • (Good) Protein Powders (Hemp or Pea)
  • (OK) Raw and Grass-fed Cheese, Milk, Kefir

Time for veggie talk.

Man, I don’t know about you, but the phrase “eat all your vegetables” was prominent in my household. You were likely to get a whoop’n if you didn’t finish those bad boys.

But you know what? I never once questioned Mom and Pops about why the heck eating those veggies was so important. I just did what I was told and many a Brussels sprouts were sacrificed for the cause.

But I’m going to tap into the WHY right now.

Essentially, vegetables are chalk full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help you recover, repair, and perform.

A good way to increase your veggie servings is by mixing and matching different vegetable sources with each meal.

Example: For breakfast, you may make an omelet and include two fist-sized servings of spinach with some chopped bell pepper.

What you can do next – Practice including 2 palm to hand sized servings of protein and 2 fist sized servings of veggies with each meal for the next 14 days. Use the habit tracker to measure how consistent you are.

HABIT #3: WEIGHT TRAIN AT LEAST 3 DAYS PER WEEK

I’m not going to bullshit you. If you want to put on some muscle you’re going to have to train with weights.

If you’re new to exercise you’ll be able to put on a little bit of muscle and get stronger solely with bodyweight exercises but if you really want to pack on the muscle, weight training is necessary.

Focus on big compound movements. The lifts you will want to learn and improve form are upper body pushing and pulling, as well as lower body pushing and pulling movements. 

The following are some of the best exercises to increase lean muscle and promote strength. Yes, there are many more that you can do but simplifying things is much better than giving you a shit-ton of info and making it confusing.

Lower body pushing:

  • Back squat
  • Dumbbell lunges

Lower body pulling:

  • Dead-lift
  • Romanian dead-lifts

Upper body pushing:

  • Bench press (chest)
  • Overhead press (shoulders)

Upper body pulling:

  • Pull-ups
  • Bent over rows

You can view exercise video demonstrations here.

Yup, that’s it. No machines, no calve raises, and no bicep curls. All of those muscles will be indirectly worked through the exercises above. Those exercises engage many muscles and promote a greater hormonal response than arm curls and tricep extensions. So basically by doing the big boys we are getting the most bang for our buck and not wasting any energy or time.

If you’re curious about reps, sets, rest, and tempo for building muscle you can visit this article in the Limitless archives.

What you can do next – Schedule in 3 to 4 workouts using the exercises above. Use the habit tracker to see how consistently you can do this over the next 2 weeks. If you’re not sure what routine you should do try the one below.

Workout A: Monday

A1: Squat, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
A2: Pull-ups, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes *add weight to pull-ups if needed
B1: DB Walking lunges, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
B2: Bent over rows, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes

Workout B: Wednesday

A1: Dead-lift, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
A2: Bench Press, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
B1: Overhead press, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes
B2: Romanian dead-lift, 5 sets x 6-8 reps; rest 2 minutes

Friday: Repeat workout A 

For gaining lean muscle and strength your sets for each exercise will be r between 3-5 and reps between 4-10. Rest about 1 to 2 minutes after each exercise and up to 3 or 4 minutes if you are lifting extremely heavy that day and your reps are in the low range. You’ll need more time to recover. With that said, the idea is be in and out of the gym in about an hour and that includes warm-up. Those muscles are built during recovery so fight the urge to train longer. It is not necessary.

HABIT #4: RECORD YOUR WORKOUTS AND USE PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

Your body will not change or improve unless you force it too. Your body’s primary function is to keep you alive. It gives two shits if you want to get bigger, stronger, or faster – thus, you have to trick it into thinking those things are necessary for your survival.

“In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.” (1)

Try and increase the weights that you lifted each training session. This is called progressive overload. You’re body and muscles need to be challenged in order to get stronger. A 1% to 5% increase in weight for each lift might be all that you need. Record each workout so that you know exactly what you were able to accomplish. If you hit your repetition number in the workout before than it’s time to bump it up.

Optional – Think about using tempo’s: If you’re a beginner looking to get stronger this will not be as important. For those of your that are intermediate to advanced trainees using tempo’s will dramatically increase your strength. See this article and for how to incorporate tempo’s into your training.

For a detailed article on how to start resistance training, check out this article.

What you can do next – For the next 14 days log all of your workouts and try to increase the amount you lift by 1 to 5% from one training session to the next.

HABIT #5: SLEEP AT LEAST 7 HOURS AND NAP WHEN POSSIBLE

sleep

I’m sure most of you have competed in a sporting event, had to take a test, or had to take part in some other physically or mentally draining activity. If you’ve ever had to do these on a few days deprived of proper rest you probably know how difficult this can make them. Often resulting in a lack of concentration, fatigue (physical and mental), poor mood, and slower reaction times. It may have felt as if something was just “off” that day.

In order to feel “ON” (see what I did there) for days like this, good consistent sleep is necessary.

Quality sleep can will help with:

  • Physical and mental performance
  • Problem solving
  • Concentration
  • Optimism/Positive outlook on life
  • Mood
  • Creativity

Hibernating like a bear also helps to naturally release human growth hormone (HGH) which is a big player in muscle and cellular regeneration. This means that you’ll be recovering and repairing much more efficiently.

Your immune system is working it’s hardest while you’re snoozing so a lack of sleep also contributes to a weakened immune system.This means that you are more prone to a virus, the sniffles, or bronchitis (and ain’t nobody got time for that). Get sick, you can’t train, and you can’t put on muscle.

Sleeping 7 to 8 hours is something you don’t have much control over. If you have to wake up i the middle of the night to pee and can’t get back to sleep – well, there’s not much you can do. So instead, focus on the behaviors that may lead to a solid 7 to 8 hours of sleep. This may include things like:

  • No electronics (tv, phone, laptop, etc…) an hour before you want to get into bed
  • Getting into bed at a consistent time each night
  • Reading fiction as a way to relax an hour before bed
  • Keeping your room completely dark my using a sleeping mask or blackout curtains
  • Setting the temperature in your room to a cool 68 degrees.

What you can do next – For the next 14 days create and implement a bedtime routine as a way to improve your quality of sleep.

HABIT #6: CONSIDER EATING FASTER

One of the healthy habits that I teach to those that want to lose body fat in the Limitless Body Coaching Program is to take 20 minutes to eat a meal or to eat slower than you normally do.

Studies are showing that just by slowing down when you eat you’ll consume fewer calories. Enough to lose 20 pounds a year without making any other changes.

In a University of Rhode Island study researchers took a group of people and served them a giant plate of Pasta with red sauce and cheese. All of the participants were told to eat until they felt comfortably full. However, half of the group was told to eat as quickly as possible while the other half was told to eat slowly and to put utensils down between bites.

What they found was this:

  • Fast eaters consumed 646 calories in 9 minutes
  • Slow eaters consumed 579 calories in 29 minutes

So what does this have to do with you and wanting to put on more muscle? Well, after reading habit #1 you know that eating more calories consistently is important. However, this can be tough given a few things:

  • Individual appetite
  • How much you can “fit” in your gut

It takes roughly 20 minutes for your gut to signal to your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. If every meal you consume lasts 5 minutes that’s 15 extra minutes you can keep eating until you actually know that you’ve had enough.

Basically I want you to beat those natural satiety signals by eating a bit faster. Try and finish a meal before those satiety signals can kick in.

What you can do next – No need to plow through a meal in a minute or 2. Simply try to finish it before 20 minutes.

HABIT #7: EAT SMART CARBS WITH EVERY MEAL

Smart carbs are minimally processed and typically include one ingredient – whatever the heck it is and that’s it. A few examples would include rice, sweet potato, or plantain.

Carbohydrates like these are going to be important for adding nutritionally dense calories as well as energy to burn outside of protein and vegetables.

Start with 1 fist sized serving per meal at most meals.

The recommendation above is just a starting point. Because each of us operates differently you may have to adjust and fine tune the recommendations to fit your lifestyle, goals, and needs.

Your ability to handle carbohydrates is improved the more active you are. This means that the harder, longer, and more frequently you train your need for healthy carbohydrates will increase. With the greatest need being immediately after workouts.

With activity levels like this your body will also be able to process and use them more efficiently. The less active you are the less you will need carbohydrates and your tolerance for them will decrease.

Choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates can be a difficult one. Diane over at balanced bites has a fantastic resource for you that show you some of the most nutrient dense sources of carbohydrates to help fuel performance and drop body fat.

What you can do next – Take a look at the real food chart and pick 3 to 5 of your favorite post workout/muscle building carbohydrates. For the next 14 days try and include 1 fist sized serving with each meal.

HABIT #8: EAT HEALTHY FATS WITH EVERY MEAL

Healthy fats are going to be one of the easiest ways for you to add calories to your diet without adding a lot of extra “bulk” to your meals. Basically, you’ll be able to eat more calories without having to increase the volume of food that you’re eating – so you won’t be feeling stuffed all the time.

Awesome Saturated Fats (you can heat these)

  • Coconut
  • Palm
  • Butter (grass-fed) and ghee
  • Lard and tallow
  • Chicken and duck fat
  • Lamb fat
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Eggs, meats, and seafood

Awesome Unsaturated Fats (cook with low heat or use as dressings)

  • Olive oil
  • Sesame Oil
  • Nut oils (pecan, walnut, macadamia)
  • Flaxseed oil (limit to 1 tablespoon per day)
  • Avocado
  • Nuts and seeds 

How much should I eat per meal?

This is where the body measurements that you’ve been taking for the last few weeks will really begin to help you out. Below are the recommended servings sizes of healthy fats per meal for men and women. You may need to make adjustments to this based on your size, gender, activity levels, or age.

However, the majority of you will find the following recommendations are perfect for maintaining healthy energy levels, improving hormonal balance, and enhancing performance both mentally and physically.

  • Men: 2-3 tablespoons (thumb-sized) per meal
  • Women: 1-2 tablespoons (thumb-sized) per meal

What you can do next – Looking at the real food chart pick 2 to 3 of your favorite healthy fats to include with your meals. For the next 14 days try and include a serving of healthy fat with each meal that you eat.

HABIT #9: EAT AT LEAST 3 MUSCLE MEALS PER DAY

You won’t need to count calories or weigh and measure portions. Instead, lets combine what you’ve already learned in this article to build a perfect muscle building meal.

Beverages: Water, unsweetened tea, black coffee, and muscle building shakes.

Protein: 2 palm-sized servings of protein from the Real Food Chart. You’ll adjust the size based on whether you are male or female, your body size, and the results you are tracking.

Veggies: Enough green leafy veggies to fill your plate. Usually about 2 fist sized servings. Choose mostly green, leafy veggies, but feel free to include any of the vegetables recommended in the Real Food Chart.

Carbohydrates: 1 fist sized serving of a fruit or starchy carbohydrate.

Healthy fats: 2-3 tablespoons or roughly thumb-sized servings of healthy fat per meal. This will be very important for keeping your energy up, increasing testosterone, and calories.

What you can do next – Create 3 muscle building meals that include a serving of protein, veggies, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Keep it simple and try to eat the same meals each day this week. Keep this up for 2 weeks and track your progress using the habit tracker.

HABIT #10: RECORD YOUR FOOD INTAKE

I’m guessing if I asked most of you exactly what you ate yesterday; you’d really have to think about it, not remember, or forget one thing or another. If I asked you what you ate two or three days ago, you can forget about it.

Lets face it, most of us live pretty busy and hectic lives, and our nutrition is often the first to go when things get tough or complicated. Unfortunately, our health gets put on the back burner as other priorities like finances, relationships and work take precedence.

That’s exactly why this habit is so important. We want to create awareness as to what it is you’re eating on a daily basis. You can also use this as a great way to see if you are adhering to the other habits consistently enough to see progress.

Step 1: It’s very important that everything that goes in your mouth is recorded: a sip of OJ, if you break off a 1/4 of a chocolate chip cookie, if you pick your nose and eat that … I think you get me.

You can also take pictures of your meals or use online resources such as:

Step 2: Commit to logging right after you eat your meal. This is one reason I recommend using an app over a notebook, as it makes logging your food super easy to do right after you eat, or even during your meal. However, there is something to be said for actually writing it down by hand; for some reason that hand and eye thing really allows what you just ate to sink in.

This step is very important because it is so easy to forget what you’ve eaten throughout the day as there’s so much going on.

Step 3: Take a look at each meal and see if it is compliant with the other habits we’ve been practicing.

Yup, that’s pretty much it.

What you can do next – For the next 2 weeks record your drink and food intake. See how consistently you’re practicing the other habits that have been outlined in this article.

DON’T BELIEVE YOUR OWN BULLSHIT

What stories are you telling yourself? Do you keep saying that you’re a hardgainer and just not capable of putting on muscle? Have you defined yourself as an ectomorph and think you’re genetically predisposed to being thin?

You may not be able to put on mass like the incredible hulk or Tom Hardy as Bain but you sure as hell can put on some muscle. We all have limits – how about you find out what they really are?

Live Limitless,

Justin

PS: Need help adding size and strength? I’m currently accepting applications for 3 new clients. You can apply to work with me here.

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