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.
I want to start by clarifying something I said in a previous IronLife article on why getting the lean is the first step you should take when wanting to add muscle mass as quickly as possible. To recap, if you are lean then your hormones are more likely to be optimised towards hypertrophy, specifically insulin and the androgens.
It didn’t take long for some to pipe up on social media that being too lean – think super ripped – has a negative effect on some hormones, specifically the androgens, that makes adding muscle hard. I couldn’t agree more. Getting stage lean isn’t the way to go when you want to add muscle, and that’s wasn’t what I meant.
My point was that if you are carrying around too much body fat – and you will know if you are – then losing some of it first will significantly increase your body’s ability to add lean muscle tissue. You want to have a true six-pack first, not just the top set of abs peeking out.
Why you should get ripped
I don’t usually pay any attention to the criticism I get on social media – life’s too short – but these comments got me thinking. While getting uber-ripped is not the best way to add muscle over the medium- to -long term, but it can help dramatically in the short term. And that’s why I recommend that everyone interested in adding muscular mass gets as ripped as they possibly can once a year, even if you have no intention of standing on a stage in your underwear, is a really smart thing to do.
Yes, when your body-fat levels are very low you will not have optimal hormones for hypertrophy, and for the final four to six weeks of your diet you won’t grow, and may even lose muscle tissue. This can be very hard to deal with if muscular growth is your primary goal. But stop worrying about this brief period because in the grand scheme it will help you get bigger, and there’s three good reasons why.
See the real you
Firstly, getting really ripped stops you fooling yourself about what your physique really looks like. I’ve lost count of the times someone has told me they’ve added 10kg of bodyweight and it’s mostly muscle, but I can tell it’s 5kg of fat, 4kg of water and 1kg of muscle. That’s not a positive body-composition change, it’s a negative one. Getting lean also enables you to really identify your muscular strengths, weaknesses and any imbalances. The more body fat you have, the harder it is to accurately appraise your physique.
The hormonal rebound you get – once you the diet is over and you gradually start to up your daily caloric intake, ideally through carb cycling – is huge and can have a very positive effect on improving your physique. That’s because you have to really go balls to the wall and over-reach to get to a very low level of body fat, and when you start to back off you get an important window of super-compensation.
Take insulin. After getting ripped your sensitivity to insulin is ramped up massively. It’s only temporary, of course, but you can use this period of heightened sensitivity to your muscle-building advantage. During this brief period you will get a pump when you brush your teeth. Androgen production will also improve rapidly once you reintroduce more calories, although I don’t know whether this will be sufficient to balance out the androgen depression you suffer when very lean.
If you have ever got really ripped before then you’ll know that it requires almost a Herculean level of focus, dedication and drive. Putting some pressure on yourself – so long as it comes from a positive place – is one of the most important ways to test yourself and see what you are really made of. Let’s be honest, you can train and eat well, but if you don’t have the mental focus that drives you to go above and beyond what the overwhelming majority of people are prepared to do it’s not going to happen. And the best bit is that after however many weeks of diet and training hell, when you come out the other side and up the calories and focus on building as much muscle as possible, you’re going to feel like you’re cruising.