Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
When you want to add as much muscle mass as possible, in the quickest time frame, the first thing you should do is get lean. Don’t get me wrong, fat people can build muscle but it’s a hell of a lot harder.
How lean? Very. I know you want me to give you a number that classifies ‘very lean’ so I’ll say sub-10%, but I don’t like giving a certain body-fat percentage as a benchmark, because percentages are massively overhyped and an accurate reading depends on many factors, not least the method used or the practitioner doing it.
A better indication of whether you are very lean is whether or not you have visible obliques, visible serratus and visible intercostals. Or put it this way: if you can pinch your lower pecs and feel fat, then you’re not lean enough.
If you tick all those boxes then your body-fat percentage is genuinely low and it would suggest to me that your hormones are in a pretty good state for your body to be primed to build muscle. If you don’t tick those boxes then you need to prioritise getting lean because your hormones won’t be optimised to build muscle mass as efficiently as they could be. You want your hormones to work in your favour and not against you when muscle mass growth is the goal. It will make your life so much easier.
The leaner you are the more insulin-sensitive you are. And you need to see insulin as the master hormone because if it is out of whack then every other hormone will be too, including the androgens. There’s no getting away from this. You know that if you want to build muscle fast you need optimal levels of free testosterone, yet the more body fat you carry the more of the enzyme aromatase your body makes. What does this enzyme do? Converts testosterone into estrogen.
And for effective nutrient partitioning – the driving of aminos and glucose into muscle cells and not fat cells – you need to be insulin sensitive, which means you need to be lean. Let’s take an example of two guys – twins even – both of which only care about building as much muscle mass as possible. They want to crack pavements when they walk down the street. They train together, doing exactly the same workout. The only difference is that one is 8% body fat, with the visible abs I mentioned above, and the other guy is 18% body fat and doesn’t give a monkeys about a having six-pack or ever standing on stage.
Stacking the odds
Who’s going to add more muscle mass faster? The 8% guy – of course – because his hormones are working for him and not against him. He will be able to train harder and more effectively because he can recover faster, get a bigger pump, and a host of other factors that will give him an advantage. He’ll even be able to get away with a more relaxed approach to his diet. The 18% guy has effectively got one hand tied behind his back because he won’t have optimal insulin sensitivity, or optimal testosterone levels, and will need to be super careful about what he eats.
Even performance-enhancing anabolic steroids work better on the leaner man. Why? Because when you put extraneous testosterone into your body but you have high body-fat levels then, as discussed above, more of it will be converted into estrogen. And that’s the last thing you want. The trouble is that every one is impatient and not prepared to wait to try and pack on as much muscular size as possible. But taking some time to reduce body-fat levels first to get your entire endocrine system working with you, rather than against, is worth the investment.