Muscle Building 101

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print, by antonio berni

People still believe they must eat more calories or more protein in order to build more muscle. Then 12 months later they look down at a waist that has grown in proportion to their pecs.

They’re bigger in their clothes, but they don’t look better in their swimming trunk.

You know I love simplicity, but we tend to oversimplify a complex process. We think linear rather than biology — biology with its genes that turn on or off, enzymes created or destroyed, pathways open or close.

Muscle mass is no more a result of dietary protein intake than bone calcium a result of dietary calcium intake. It is not so much intake but retention that matters.

Our ancestors did not enjoy supplemental calcium from a plastic bottle. Instead they loaded their bodies with daily activities and general movement; they didn’t overeat and become inflamed and they didn’t load up mostly on refined food void of vital minerals.

They maintained lifestyle habits that stimulated a bone-mineral balance that favored retention rather than loss (resorption).

So long as they receive the minimum calcium from their natural diet, the stimuli of life do the rest.

Muscle mass works essentially the same way. As long as you get the minimum protein requirement from your food, the mechanical stimulus of lifting something does the rest.

Think of muscle-building like this:

  • Muscle volume is a result of either muscle protein retention, or muscle protein loss.
  • Mechanical stimulus “turns on” muscle protein retention — it knocks the protein recycling balance to favor retention rather than loss.
  • The stimulus that “turns on” retention is proper weight training.
  • Genetics determine the rest.

Simplifying, without oversimplification.

This entry was posted in Dietary Habit, Exercise and Physical Activities and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Muscle Building 101

  1. David Hoskins says:

    Hi Johnny,

    A great post as always.

    I have personally gotten stronger/bigger since the new year while on an overall calorie defecit. I attribute this to eating at maintenance on training days but shifting most of my food post workout as this is when I feel I really need it. On off days I eat less, this has allowed me to loose nearly 1.5inches off my waist while and add 1/8th inch to my arms.

    What are your thoughts on this, I think it is an excellent way to approach IF for someone like myself who is keen on gaining lean muscle (naturally of course!).


  2. Al says:


    Since I workout in the mornings due to my schedule, do I need to shift my eating window to the morning to compliment my workouts or can I leave that window in the afternoon? Basically, is it okay if I separate my workouts and my eating window? I tend to stick with my diet if I keep my eating window in the afternoon but I am just not sure if that will hinder my workouts or not. Thanks!

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Al,

      Studies show that post-workout meals increase protein synthesis, but “protein synthesis” simply means uptake of consumed protein by muscle and whole-body tissue. No study has proven that this uptake leads to an increase in myofibrial content or contractile protein. That is… muscle.

      Supplement companies have used “protein synthesis” to mislead people into thinking that it means muscle mass. Therein lies the discrepancy.

      And we know it’s impossible to build muscle in 30 minutes, 1 hour, or one day after a workout or a post-workout meal. (Yet we continue to see all over the internet this tired cognitive dissonance — that you must eat right after your workout, or that you must eat above maintenance. Protein synthesis again DOES NOT mean myofibral elements.)

      A study shows that, 9 hours post workout, protein synthesis is the same between groups that ate immediately post-workout or several hours post-workout.

      Still two studies show that test subjects who weight train can grow (statistically significant) muscle mass even on a severely restricted dietary intake of 800 calories for 8 weeks!

      We’ll continue to read — in magazines, on blogs, on forums, on boards — misguided bro-speaks regurgitating and perpetuating the myths that one must exceed caloric maintenance to build muscle. They’ll even claim that “hardgainers” fail to eat enough to support muscle mass, without giving consideration to poor workout design or genetics.

      Countless people perpetuate the myth that one must eat immediately after the workout to gain muscle, while giving no thoughts to evidence that many athletes don’t do this (or need to)… like Herschel Walker.

      There are many examples throughout history that follow the likes of Mr. Walker.

      People, who cite studies they don’t understand or have been misinterpreted on a large scale, will continue to dispense myths in diet and exercise. The studies they cite may be interesting, if their conclusions were NOT fundamentally flawed — that “protein uptake” means end-point muscle mass, or that “positive nitrogen” means muscle preservation.

      Ironically, these same people “demand” scientific research when they hear something that counters the bro-speak they believe as fact.

      In much of the topic I write on The Lean Saloon, I have provided plenty of studies in the past. You are welcome to do a search.

      I hope this helps.


      • Kyle says:

        Hi Johnny,

        Do you have a search feature to find key words in previous posts? I can’t seem to find one.


  3. Sondra Rose says:

    This is exactly my experience. Thank you for explaining it so clearly.

    I am really loving your blog and it has helped me to relax around my food after eating “Primally” for the last 4 months.

  4. Pingback: Must we eat more calories or more protein in order to build more muscle? | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page

  5. Joe says:

    Hi Johnny,

    I’ve been IFing for 10 weeks now and love it. My whole attitude about life is changing. I had the same dilemma as Al . My next dilemma is learning to accept that I’m a small guy. I’m 5′-8″. I’ve gone down to 145lbs and still have to lose more (maybe 10-15lbs) if I want to see my abs. I’ve lost 1-2 lbs a week since I started, and I don’t know if I should start trying to eat more in my window… to stop the weight loss. I would like to stay at this weight and slowly lose the remaining fat while gaining muscle.

    I wanted to say that your site is very well done, your posts are brilliant yet simple!


  6. Toto says:


    I’m trying to eat according to my hunger and this resulted in a spontaneous reduction of calories. People say I’m thinnier but for some reason the thinnier I become the bigger my waist becomes. Why?

    • Toto says:

      also Johnny,

      you said you gained too much muscle and wanted to lose some to become more streamlined and lean. Since you didn’t bulk or overconsumed proteins or anything, how do I avoid becoming too big like what happened to you? At what point I stop lifting heavier and heavier to focus or metabolic training and lighter weights instead?

  7. Stephon says:


    This is a another good post as expected, when I am asked about how I remain soo lean and yet still enjoy foods outside of ” Paleo”, people never seem to believe me, I say that I simply eat less combined with IFing and it has been the best thing I could have discovered.

    For a while I tried the LeanGains approach with the counting my macronutrients but it took the enjoyment of me enjoying my meals, but with the things I have learned here at the Lean Saloon I have noticed that my body stays lean/retains mass as long as I give my muscle some stimulus. I was wondering what are your thoughts on calories in vs calories out and the whole macronutrient combination ( don’t mix this, or that approach)?, or do you believe it is simply a matter of food intake?. I just wanted to know what your thoughts were on this. Keep up the good writting Johnny.

  8. Audley says:

    When I started weight training weight training 25 years ago, I fell into the muscle mags “gotta have protein supplements”mind set. I gained a bit of muscle, but got fat. 10 years ago when I did a Highland games, I consumed a lot of food and protein drinks and got t0 208 pounds, much of it fat. Didn’t do real well at the games and my best deadlift was 380 lbs. Did start to lose some of that weight when diabetes set in, although genetic, the extra weight certainly didn’t help. As I posted here a few months ago, last fall did my best deadlift ever of 402 at a body weight of 162. IF and once a week heavy weight training helped me achieve that goal. The diabetes is still under control without meds. Am I huge? No, but I am OK with that, health and strength are much more important.

  9. Sondra Rose says:

    Hey Johnny~
    Would you please add a search widget to your blog? Would be really handy now that you have so many posts.

  10. Emi says:

    Hi Johnny!

    Thanks for answering my question a few posts back! I’ve stopped focusing on protein intake so much and probably eat a lot less in general calorie wise now, yet I’m still making great gains during my workouts!

    Thanks for making my life a whole lot less complicated!


  11. Nice post,

    the problem that I notice a lot with people I talk to is that they start building muscle when they still have lots of fat. This results in them having some strong muscles but layers of fat over them which is not the desired effect. Like a lot of people I actually know could have 6 pack abs if they just dropped some weight, they don’t need to perform crunches and planks because they already have some strong muscles, problem is there is just a layer of fat over them!


  12. RezH says:

    Great blog. Question – do you think it would be effective to IF only twice a week? I have about 3% or so to lose in order to get bottom abs. I train barbells twice a week, and kettlebells twice a week, with daily walks.

    I am going to bite the bullet and try to cut back on the whey protein. Feel like a slave, drinking two shakes a day for a couple years now. Hard to drop habits.

  13. Yannick Messaoud says:

    Best advise given to me yet was by the creator of the adonis effect program. Use diet to lose weight, and use weight training to hold on to the muscles.

    Using this philosophy i now understand that exercises alone will never make me lose weight and that diet is 90% or more of the equation.

    Intermittent fasting is awesome but i disagree with most that say you can eat anything on it. Food allergies are never touched on this topic and they are real. Some foods might not make you gain fat or weight but they will sure be unpleasant to eat with the side effects.

    • Rahsaan says:

      Yannick, I couldn’t agree more! Case in point: I had three croissant sandwiches yesterday in the late afternoon. All had melted cheese. One had asparagus and the other two had ham. By later that evening, my stomach bloated to the point of looking like second trimester pregnancy and I was doubled over in pain. Not to mention, that I’m slightly congested today.

      I actually have a diagnosed allergy to milk. (Cheese can be hit and miss with me), and I’m starting to think that all these years, I may’ve had a wheat allergy as well. That’s simply a self-diagnosis based on the joint, inflammation, abdominal distension and sinus issues I get when eating it.

      Same thing occurred last week when I ate some potatoes . another diagnosed allergen from my childhood. Most of these things I usually abstain from, but sometimes I’ll reintroduce them to see how they affect me. I won’t be revisiting any again for the foreseeable future.

      • Yannick says:

        I was allergic to milk, i still am allergic to skim milk but do fine when i drink whole milk. I was anemic for 10 years, i found a wonderful sport doctor that showed me the way. He treated my anemia. Also very important there are lots of mis-information out there, toward fat, saturated fats come to mind, and cholesterol. The main problem with that is in men saturated fats and cholesterol are needed to produce testosterone.
        Its not a one size fit all but a lot of people do better on a low carb high fat, high protein diet since the human body is made from fat and protein (amino acids). Intermitent fasting is not a one size fit all either, i can do it no problem, it will take me a few days to get into the groove but after that i can fast for long periods of time without food. My girlfriend must eat, she cannot skip breakfast or she feels terrible. She would never last on a 24h fast.

  14. Pingback: Simultaneous Fat Loss & Muscle Gain? | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page

  15. Patrik says:

    I Have read a LOT of health/diet blogs and sites. Your blog is totally freeing, liberating, wonderful. I feel good here, I feel hope. Because I realize how easy weight loss/health is.

    Most of the ideas presented elsewhere on the internet stems from corporations trying to get your money. And like you say, micro managing, obscure

  16. Patrik says:

    Wow, I am really happy I found your blog. I REALLY like the way you simplify it all. I’ve read so many other blogs. Most, if not all, makes it all so complex you think “this seems impossible. I can’t do it.”

    So; thank you for the inspiration, and for showing the way.

  17. Haley says:

    I came across your site a while back and have enjoyed reading it. I am also a daily IF’er, but I sometimes incorporate an ESE day or two depending on how good/bad my eating has been over holidays, special events, etc. Keep up the good work! The info you post makes for an interesting read. 🙂

  18. Jamie says:

    Great post.

    I agree, diet is 90% of the equation. I have been lifting weights on and off for 16 years, and I to got caught up in the eat 5-6 meals a day and get at least 1gram of protein for your body weight. I may have gained muscle, but a lot more fat (now that I look back at it).

    I now do a lean gains approach and eat 2 calorie restricted meals a day. Body fat is coming off and strength continues to go up.

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