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  • FF Team

Top Tips on Building Muscle - From a hard-gainer!

A diver illustrating their athletic muscular physique

For the majority of my rugby career I have been one of those players that has struggled to put on weight with lean muscle. I am what the industry classes as a "hard-gainer", someone who finds it harder than many people to put on weight due to a number of factors that include; genetics, body shape type, hormone balance, metabolism etc.

Does this resonate with you? If so, read below to check out my top tips for building lean muscle mass.


Reduce your NEAT activity throughout the day

NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Time, which is simply the time you spend being active outside of training sessions and workouts. It's this type of activity that most people (other than hard-gainers) need to do more of i.e gardening, walking, cleaning the house etc. This is because NEAT activity makes up the majority of the kcal's we burn throughout a day, and therefore reducing this helps gain a positive energy balance and increase muscle building potential. If you fidget - stop, if you love gardening - do less of it, If your a walker - reduce your daily step target. These small changes to your absolute NEAT activity will over-time make a big difference without even having to eat more.


Get more sleep

The research into sleep and its effect on our bodies and lives is unquestionable. We now know that sleep has major health benefits that are much bigger and more complex than this topic. But in terms of muscle building, sleep has a vitally important role to play.

When we are in a deep sleep our bodies go into a state of restoration and recovery, increasing anabolic hormone levels to help repair muscle tissue, build new muscle fibres and remove inflammatory inducing free radicals (damaging molecules our bodies produce from stress). It's these increased levels of anabolic hormones that help our bodies grow and adapt to the training stimulus we give it - lack of sleep does the opposite.

Cortisol is a very important hormone that effects many vital functions in the body, but it is also a catabolic hormone that breaks down molecules for certain uses. Lack of good quality sleep increases cortisol levels in the blood, which over a long period of time will hamper your muscle building efforts.


Use deep breathing and mindfulness techniques

This may seem a strange comment when talking about building muscle, but bear with me! We know that high stress levels in the body are not good for putting your body in a growth mindset. As discussed above, cortisol is a catabolic hormone that breaks down molecules for various reactions, which is not ideal for producing an anabolic state in the body. Unfortunately cortisol is one of the primary hormones that increase when the body feels threatened under a chronic high stress load. This chronic increase in cortisol inevitably reduces your ability to physically build muscle, let alone feel motivated enough to build muscle.

Deep breathing is one of the easiest ways to help reduce stress levels and increase your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) response to stress. The PNS is innately involved with homeostasis and putting the body back into a state of balance and restoration, reducing stress hormones.

Mindfulness can also be vary useful for some (I'm not talking about meditation here) to help improve clarity and reduce anxiety-inducing thoughts. This could be as simple as taking yourself away for a few mins either first thing in the morning or before bed, to help calm your thoughts down, practice some deep breathing and put into perspective the stresses of life and how you can best control them.


Stop doing cardio

When in the pursuit of muscle gains, cardio is not your friend. Although cardio training has amazing benefits it is not suited for this muscle growth goal. Extended bouts of cardio training can increase cortisol levels in the bloodstream, which as we know will slow down your attempts.

Cardio will also burn away the extra kcal's that you need to feed your muscle growth (just look at long-distance runners) and also take up valuable training time that could be put to more effective use. Use shorter, intense bouts of exercise if you wish to maintain a good level of conditioning, for example, 30sec on / 30sec off for 6mins would work well.


Don't track kcal's, use portion and timings instead

Many people when trying to add muscle get obsessed with wanting to count kcal's. The reason is they have read many articles about the need to create a positive energy balance to consume more kcal's than you burn off throughout a day. This is of course very true, but this does not need to happen through counting kcal's. Instead focus on adopting the 4 other muscle building strategies above and you won't feel the need to count every kcal that hits your mouth.

A more sustained, practical approach would be to use personal portion control to ensure a good amount of quality kcal's are being consumed. The most personal and bespoke tool you can use to do this is by using your own hand as the measuring tool. Yes i know it's so obvious right! We coach our clients to use their palm size for protein portion, fist size for carb portion, 2 cupped hands for veggie portion and thumb to index finger for fat portion.

When you are looking to increase your kcal intake for muscle mass though it's a good idea to tweak this slightly. The tweak would be 2 fists of carbs instead of 1 and a full hand size of protein not just the palm. This extra portion size of carbs and proteins should be enough to sustain your muscle growth without putting on too much unwanted body fat. You should obviously measure this on a regular basis though to ensure your body fat isn't creeping up too high. If it is reduce your carb portions of each meal.

As well as the portion size the timings of your meals are also very important. Always ensure you have a good quality post-workout shake immediately after working out, then eat a full meal within a 2 hour window post training. This will ensure you start the recovery muscle building process as quickly as possible. Also eating a slower-releasing protein source before bed can be a good strategy, e.g. cottage cheese on oatcakes etc. This will help to give your muscles a sustained source of nutrients whilst you sleep, which in itself is muscle building.


I hope these 5 muscle building tips are food for thought (excuse the pun) and help you a little more in your quest for muscle growth and a more athletic physique. If you want more personal help and advice send us a quick message and one of the team will get back to you asap.

Happy building,


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