Muscular bodies have been desirable from the beginning. Aside from upping the odds that you’ll outrun a bear or put an attacker in a chokehold (did sh*t just get real?), having more lean muscle ramps up your metabolism, increases your sensitivity to insulin, and reduces your susceptibility to… umm, death—which, in cavepeople days, meant that you weren’t as likely to leave your spouse to raise a bunch of cavebabies on their own.
This is what dreams are made of, people. So it’s totally natural to want to put on a little muscle and look good naked—not that you aren’t beautiful just the way you are, hunny.
But the thing is, not everyone puts on muscle easily.
According to certified personal trainer Francheska Martinez, how you eat and sleep really matters when it comes to #gains. “If you’re short on sleep and aren’t getting a calorie and protein surplus, you’ll have a hard time gaining muscle no matter how much you work out,” she says. This describes almost everybody whose name doesn’t rhyme with Shmyan Shmeynolds.
So what’s an ectomorph to do?
This particular ectomorph, yours truly, is 6’3″ with closer to a 7′ wingspan. I’ve weighed between 160 and 170 pounds my entire adult life. You couldn’t call me emaciated (except for the six months I went vegan), but I’ve definitely been gangly. A sexy gangly, if you ask me.
But skinny-me is gone—as of writing this, I’m 195 pounds, which is technically ‘yoked‘, and I actually just broke the “y” key on my Mac because I’m so ripped that my fingers have abs. (Disclaimer: My Mac is five years old, and the ‘y’ key had one foot in the grave since Obama was president.)
Being more consistent with exercise was 50 percent of my new muscle-building equation. But there were three factors that separated my “OK, he’s trying” body from my current one.
1. The first was a humble hunk of organ meat—liver.
I wish I could say that I did a bunch of research into the chemistry of hypertrophy, discovered that Vitamin A was the link to synthesizing muscle fibers from protein (aha!), and started gormandizing buffalo liver as a solution. That would’ve made me pretty cool. But the fact is that my (actually) cool Mom is into this esoteric health publication, which I just happened to be thumbing through on the john during a holiday visit. Turns out, vitamin A is a secret weapon for muscle growth.
Chris Masterjohn, Ph.D. in nutritional sciences, says that supplementing with vitamin A and iron can be comparable to getting testosterone shots—liver being extremely high in both. He also says that vitamin A is key to synthesizing new muscle fibers, so if you’re guzzling protein, you gotta have ample amounts of A to turn that protein into some sexy-ass muscles.
Unfortunately, the plant form of vitamin A isn’t the active form (retinol) that your body uses, and the conversion rate from one to the other in even the healthiest body is between 4:1 to 28:1 (a.k.a. piss poor), with many people unable to make the conversion at all. So you’ll either want to experiment with different types of animal livers—Masterjohn recommends five ounces per week—or start slurping up that cod liver oil (yummm). Try not to go much over 5-10 ounces of liver per week, as hypervitaminosis A is a real thing that leads to blistering skin and jaundice.
If you’re on the verge of upchucking, know that liver, when soaked in kefir for two hours before lightly breading and pan-frying, is actually effing incredible—the kefir cancels out the iron-y flavor and imparts a delectably creamy texture. Chicken-fried Buffalo Liver Tuesdays—do I smell a tradition coming on?
2. I hopped on the meal-prepping bandwagon.
I started meal-prepping mainly because I didn’t like going broke from getting Thai takeout every day, but I kept it up because I straight-up gained eight pounds of muscle within the first month. That’s the weight of a healthy newborn baby (made entirely of brawn).
Let me just take this opportunity to say that the ‘calorie surplus’ is something you’re just going to have to get over. It’s OK to eat, as long as it’s quality nutrition. If you’re working out at least three times a week, your intelligent body is going to store those extra nutrients not as flab, but as slabs of muscle.
It only costs me an hour or two of domestic slavery on the weekends, and I don’t do anything too complicated: lots of meatloaves, lamb-chops, gigantic salads… liver. But I always have enough for that all-important calorie/protein surplus.
This one change has made such a difference in my quality of life—I feel Oprah-rich now that I’m not single-handedly supporting the two Thai restaurants in my neighborhood, and I never get sad-faced about not having food—that I’m pretty sure I could start a batch-cooking religion and save some souls in the name of meatloaf.
3. And lastly—don’t roll your eyes—I started intermittent fasting.
According to Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D. in biomedical science, narrowing your eating window to eight hours or fewer (a.k.a. intermittent fasting) increases HGH and insulin sensitivity—all of which are critical to the development of lean muscle.
“Intermittent fasting has really profound effects on muscle mass without any other factor—without having to exercise, even,” Patrick says. “And it’s very important for overall health and metabolism.”
This is all fine and good, in theory. But there are some people, not to be named, who can’t hang around unfed until 4 p.m. without acting like a total jerkface.
I suffered from the IF blues quite badly at first, but I managed to blunt them by:
a) working out first thing in the morning (works great for me, not so much for others)
b) ladling globs of grassfed butter and coconut oil into my morning coffee (the bulletproof coffee is so effective that sometimes I skip my late lunch)
c) upping my water intake
Because of IF’ing, my early-morning carb cravings disappeared, I have way more energy during my workouts, and just more energy period. I sleep better, plus I have more time because I’m not constantly shoveling food down my gullet. And the combination of fat-burning and muscle-building gave me a six-pack for the first time in my life.
And that’s what did it.
It’s worth some trial and error to get it right, and what works for me might not be a fit for you. But hey—with a little advice from some professionals (please consult some), a few little lifestyle changes (ok, IF was a pretty big adjustment) can have a big impact on your bulking adventures.
Dan Dowling is a writer and coach in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Got some fitness or career goals you’re putting off? Swing by his blog, Millennial Success. The views expressed herein are his. Before changing the way you eat and altering your diet in any significant way, please speak with a health professional to make sure it’s the best decision for you.