September 2013 Interview with Mike Israetel MS, PhD

by on September 23, 2013

JOHN: For this month’s expert interview we have Mike Israetel with us! Mike tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you are passionate about!

MIKE: Hey John. First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve been following your career and writing for quite a while now, and it’s great to finally chat with you.

I’m originally from Moscow, Russia, but I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S. I started lifting weights in high school to get stronger for wrestling (I was in the 103lb class my freshman year!), but pretty soon I was more into lifting than I was into wrestling. By early undergrad I weighed 200lbs, and I was quite the bench presser, so a martial arts mentor of mine talked me into competing in powerlifting. I loved powerlifting, and was competitive until around 2007, when I started reading bodybuilding magazines. It was then that I knew I was destined to step onstage at some point. I’ve spent the last 6 years training to put on muscle, and recently did my first show at 5’6 and 234lbs onstage. My conditioning was “meh,” so that will take priority next time.

All the while through my training, my education reflected my passion for bodybuilding and powerlifting. I got my master’s in exercise science from Appalachian State, and just finished my PhD in Sport Physiology at ETSU, where I was also the head sports nutrition consultant to the Olympic Training Site in Johnson City, TN. I’m now an assistant professor of exercise science at UCMO, and help run Renaissance Periodization with Nick Shaw. Practically, my passion is bodybuilding, through and through. Academically, it’s the science side of the sport, particularly the optimal training process for hypertrophy, as well as the optimal diet strategies for size and fatloss.

JOHN: A science guy that appreciates in the field experience – I love it! Ok so let’s kick off with a discussion on hypertrophy. You said the word “optimal”. There are obviously many ways to grow a muscle. Talk to us about what you feel is optimal.

MIKE: There are absolutely multiple ways to grow muscle, and all of them play a role when combined into a training program that seeks to optimally build mass in the medium and long term. If you take all of the literature together, it seems that there are some constraints on what works to build muscle, especially optimally. For example, very light, super high rep training sessions have been shown to grow muscle in the short term, but are inappropriate in the long term, as they tend to hypertrophy the more slow-twitch fibers (and those have more limited potential for long-term growth), as well as producing a lot of fatigue. So far, we know that 3 training approaches are likely needed to grow a maximum amount of muscle:

  1. High training volumes (with a likely minimum of around 60% 1RM for resistance, otherwise endurance runners would be JACKED!)
  2. Metabolite summation (the presence of metabolites, usually from high rep, close to failure training, potentially with occlusion)
  3. Proper fatigue management (healing microtears on time, replenishing glycogen stores, recovering the neuroendocrine system, and keeping mTOR sensitive while keeping AMPk at bay)

When you take into consideration all 3 of those constraints, many sorts of programs are ruled out, and a structure develops. Based on the literature, an ok starting point of a program would be 4-6 weeks of heavy resistance training with moderate-high volumes. This would provide a good growth stimulus without generating a crazy amount of fatigue and without AMPk getting too out of hand and hampering growth. At the end of this phase, you would of course deload to bring down residual fatigue, and then start the next phase.

The second phase would likely be shorter, maybe 3-4 weeks, and would constitute of a base of heavy, high volume training, but would also include metabolite-generating techniques such as drop sets, super-high rep sets, supersets, and possibly occluded training. Because this type of super high volume training generates a lot of metabolites and fatigue, it quickly shifts the balance in favor of AMPk and away from MTOR, and becomes counterproductive more rapidly than conventional training. Thus, it should be employed for shorter periods, within which it is likely to generate quite an impressive hypertrophic stimulus.

Once the second phase is completed, you deload (of course), and go back to phase 1, and so on. This is just a very basic delineation, and there is good reason to believe it can get a bit more complicated than this, especially with the addition of dedicated strength phases. However, it’s a good start. Notice, if you only employ phase 1-style training (as many bodybuilders do), you miss out on the powerful stimulus of metabolite training. As well, if you only do phase 2-style training (as many bodybuilders do), you’re likely to activate AMPk disproportionately, which will lead to hampered muscle loss in the medium term. It takes an alternation of both phases to get closer to the optimal long-term stimulus for muscle gain.

Now, the above is all from the mesocycle-level of periodization. The literature has lots to say about how to structure a microcycle, an exercise session, and even exercise selection. In effect, the scientific literature points the educated bodybuilder into a certain direction of training, and away from recommendations (such as HIT) that tend to work more poorly. There’s lots of diversity within what science has so far found, but many training programs are just out the window from the get-go. Science says that 8 sets of 8 reps in the deep barbell squat is gonna get you bigger legs than one all-out set to “beyond failure” on the leg extension… and I think both of us can see from our experience alone that this is definitely the way things work!

You’ll probably notice that there are lots of similarities between what I have outlined and the recommendations Brad Schoenfeld has written. That’s no accident. We independently arrived at many of the same conclusions because… wait for it… we both read a large amount of the literature on the subject! Science is mysterious, but not contradictory… if you study for long enough (and train long enough), you’ll start to arrive at very similar conclusions as others who have done the same, as I’m sure you’re aware.

JOHN: Funny that you mention Brad. I just sent him and Bret Contreras a basic outline of how I layer training in workouts, and through my field experience I have also came to many of the same conclusions as you all.

So tell us more about AMPk as many avoid longer duration cardio post workout due to it possibly blunting the effects of m-TOR. What’s your take in relation to how you weight train?

MIKE: AMPk is an intracellular messenger that regulates metabolism. It’s actually not the only, but simply the best known of a host of regulators of catabolic/endurance adaptations in the muscle cell. Activation of AMPk does several, well-established things:

  1. Alter fiber type from faster twitch variants to variants that behave more slow-twitch.
  2. Cause mitochondrial biogenesis.
  3. Catabolize contractile tissue to free up extra energy for use in other areas of metabolism.
  4. Downregulate the activity of mTOR, preventing anabolic triggers from being activated or curbing anabolism that’s already begun.

As we can see, these are effects bodybuilders and powerlifters generally want to avoid. So how can we avoid them? well, we know that AMPk activation is caused by several factors, including:

  1. Acutely by repetitive, submaximal contractions of muscle fibers (jogging, cycling, swimming, walking, etc…)
  2. Chronically by calorie restiction, low glycogen stores, sustained high volume training, and cumulative fatigue.

Thus, a training program that seeks optimal growth of muscle (and optimal retention on a diet) will have to make sure that AMPk is kept in check. In check, because not activating it at all would require bed rest and a few low rep sets of heavy weight per day, not exactly the ticket to maximum muscle or fatloss. Keeping AMPk (and the general array of catabolic signalling mechanisms of which it’s best known) in check means that certain courses of action should generally be avoided by the bodybuilder, including:

  1. Cardio RIGHT AFTER training the same muscle. A trained muscle has a predominance of mTOR activation, and the several hours after training are very important, as mTOR and its anabolic co-conspirators are accelerating the gears of muscle growth, a process that is activated after training, but takes days to run its course (as measured through fractional synthetic rate curves in the laboratory). If AMPk is activated during this time (through walking cardio after leg training, for example), it will likely mute the hypertrophy signals emitted by mTOR, and lessen the total amount of muscle growth that is activated to occur over the next several days. Kind of a bad deal! There are other, very good reasons that cardio should almost never be done after lifting (even if it’s upper body lifting and lower body cardio), but instead be done at another time of the day, far away from the weight training workout. I’d be happy to enumerate those if you’re interested.
  2. Endurance cardio. There’s a reason runners are twiggy… part is nutrition/energy expenditure, and part is genetics, but another part is that lots of endurance work leads to AMPk activation. Great for endurance athletes, because it enhances their endurance adaptations, but VERY bad for bodybuilders and powerlifters trying to add/keep leg size.
  3. Chronic, unchecked high volume training. If you don’t take deloads and low-volume phases for mTOR to re-sensitize and AMPk to downregulate in function, your activation of AMPk and mTOR may be similar in magnitude after a weight training session (or worse, AMPk may predominate), which leads to no new muscle AT BEST, and losses at worst. I think we’ve all been there before… 🙁
  4. Chronic carb/calorie restriction. Any diet for cutting should have planned re-feeds, even if only on occasion, so as to prevent AMPk from unpregulating in its activity due to a constant state of caloric and glycogen depeletion.

I could go on for a while longer, haha, but that’s what I consider some of the most important info about AMPk… and the take-home message is; keep it in check, or spin your wheels.

JOHN: Ok and now to the other side of the coin. Tell us more about m-TOR and its effects on muscular hypertrophy. How do we stimulate it?

MIKE: Absolutely. mTOR is a part of a larger cellular signalling pathway (mTOR p70s6k/akt), and is the most well-studied of the anabolic cellular signaling pathways. mTOR and its close relatives are essentially master regulators of anabolism, particularly for contractile (muscle) tissue. I use the term “master regulator” because it has been shown that differential responses of mTOR to the same training in different individuals (people all do the same program, some get a ton of mTOR activity, some get very little, and so forth) can explain more than 80% of the variance in resultant hypertrophy between those individuals. Put simply, if something triggers muscle growth, be it training or food or whatever, it’s very likely it triggers this growth by upregulating mTOR, which makes this pathway VERY interesting to researchers and ESPECIALLY strength athletes. So far, mTOR has been shown to be upregulated (causing muscle growth) by:

  1. Mechanical damage to the muscle fiber
  2. High load weight training for high volumes
  3. Metabolite accumulation due to training/occlusion
  4. The presence of certain amino acids, most notably leucine
  5. Insulin, and other anabolic hormones, including testosterone

mTOR is downregulated (causing a blunting of muscle growth) primarily by AMPk, and thus all of the factors that upregulate AMPk tend to downregulate mTOR.

Interestingly, the balance between mTOR and AMPk is of critical importance to those seeking long-term muscle growth. As high volume training proceeds, mTOR becomes less responsive to the same stimuli, but AMPk becomes more responsive. Pretty soon, AMPk activity predominates, shutting down the mTOR pathway even further and precluding the potential for maximum growth. This is one of the reasons that fatigue management is SO important… a deload allows the re-sensitization of mTOR and a relaxation of AMPk activity to take place, priming the musculature for further growth ahead. There are also good reasons to believe that week-long deloads may not be enough fully re-sensitize mTOR every time, and that occasional training phases of the usual length (one to two months) of low volume, high weight training may be needed to keep mTOR plugging along and keep it predominant over AMPk.

But to finish the mTOR question on a practical note, what can bodybuilders and powerlifters do to make sure mTOR is being fully stimulated, other than proper fatigue management and low-volume phases?

  1. Training must be hard and should likely get you somewhat sore at least on a regular basis. Not death-sore where you can’t recover enough to grow, but something that at least illustrates that some muscle damage occurred.
  2. The training most stimulative of mTOR is likely training that is the heaviest possible to recover from, given a certain volume load. So if you had to do 10,000lbs of squat training, getting there by doing 5 sets of 10 with 200lbs is likely going to grow a bit more muscle than doing more sets of 10 with say, 175lbs. On the flip side, going too heavy can impair recovery and risk injury, so a balance must be taken. Sets of between 5 and 10 repetitions (I LOVE sets of 8) are likely the best tradeoff for most people looking to add size.
  3. Volume. In the above example, the difference between the heavy and low load is not going to be crazy. As long as 60% or higher of a 1RM is used, high volumes cause the most mTOR upregulation and growth. This means that 1 set to failure is an outdated canard that needs to be discarded for serious athletes.
  4. Metabolite accumulation is an mTOR activator, especially in the short term, and should be used in an occasional mesocycle, with techniques such as drop sets, forced reps, and occlusion. Not for too long, though, as that will tend to cause AMPk to get out of hand.
  5. Protein should be consumed regularly, and sources higher in leucine should predominate, which eliminates many plant sources as good contenders and leaves egg, meat, milk, and powder sources. The jury is still out on adding extra leucine to meals and whether or not that can enhance long-term muscle growth.
  6. Insulin is an important hormone, especially post-workout! In order to maxmize mTOR activity, nutrient timing and glycemic index manipulations are likely beneficial.

JOHN: I would even go so far as to say insulin is even more important intra-workout. I only say that because certain carbs (not all carbs) combined with certain kinds of protein (not all types of protein) can cause a huge reduction in soreness. In my simple mind I am thinking this might some effect on AMPk as well, and sort of managing it. The fresher you feel, and less beat up you are…well that would seem good. I know it’s a stretch…haha.
Any thoughts?

MIKE: The body of literature on intra-and post workout nutrition is steadily growing. Thus far, it’s pretty apparent that an easily and quickly digested protein (probably whey hydrolysate) and an easily digested, high GI carb (dextrose or some version of it, possibly in combination with other sugars to enhance uptake) enhance recovery and the magnitude of adaptation as well. It also seems as if such a mixture is best consumed during the workout as well as afterwards.

However, the relationship of such intake to DOMS is much less clear. In fact, the relationship of DOMS to the hypertrophic response is still quite mysterious. I know of at least one VERY good paper in which histological analysis seemed to show that the damage typical of DOMS illustrates the patterns of sarcomere assembly (Z-line streaming, for example), and thus hypertrophy, and not the maladaptive damage typically assumed to be occurring with DOMS.

I’m actually not sure about the relationship of DOMS to growth. On the one hand, it’s absolutely possible to go overboard all the time, get crazy sore, and not grow much. Also, hypertrophy has been shown to occur in the absence of DOMS. On the other hand, think about what sort of training gets you sore: high volumes, full ranges of motion with stretches under weight, metabolic summation techniques like burnouts, and trying a new movement or sequence of movements. Is the 1:1 correlation of the BEST strategies for growing and the ones that cause the most DOMS a coincidence? That wouldn’t be my first guess. For the record, I think that when John Keifer claimed that if you’re sore on a consistent basis that you’re undereating protein, he was absolutely wrong. I think if you’re not consistently sore (not CRAZY sore, but sore), either your variation is not high enough, your intensity or metabolic summation is not high enough, or your volume is not high enough, plain and simple.

So do strategies that minimize DOMS necessarily enhance growth? Some might, but I don’t think it’s a good rule to run on, otherwise we’d be doing easy workouts all day to avoid getting sore and wonder why we’re not growing. I tend to have the opposite experience on the carbs/protein and soreness front, and so do many of my clients. During a mass phase, I’m very sore from workouts. When cutting starts and the food intake drops, my soreness decreases substantially. A similar effect has been observed for NSAIDs after training: less soreness, and less growth.

I think for the time being, DOMS is still a bit mysterious, and a bit risky to use as a proxy for either growth or extreme damage. Luckily, the literature on carbs and protein in the training window has shown that more muscle is grown and more fat is lost with such an intervention, which is definitely a good reason to do it, DOMS aside!

JOHN: Yea I went for years in a really sore state…say about 25+, and I did grow. In my mind you absolutely HAD to be sore to be growing, because if you did no damage, you wouldn’t need to remodel the muscle. This is why the last 2 years has been such a shock to me, growing without being sore much at all. Anyways, I love your points, and this stuff is just murky at best.

Here is another thought I have around breaks. Every year I take a 2-4 week total break. I think I hang onto most muscle doing this, and gains seems to be great when I start back up doing less work.

Some people say I am taking too long off, what do you think of this strategy in general for someone (many of my pre-contest clients) that have trained balls out for 12-16 weeks straight?

MIKE: I think your strategy is VERY good, and I think the people telling you that you’re taking too long off are often psychologically addicted to training and can’t take a calculated, long-term decision to enhance their performance in the sport, not to mention their longevity. That being said, I think your strategy can be enhanced just a little bit with a slight modification.

In sport science, there are 3 main types of training-based fatigue-management tools, ordered by time-frame. The first is the use of variation within a microcycle, usually with a light day or exercise deletion and replacement. For example, if you do a lot of upper pec work for your chest day earlier in the week, it might be a good idea to make your triceps work later in the week involve your lower chest more than your upper. This gives your upper pecs time to really recover, and also involves them just a bit in the movement, which has actually been shown to enhance both recovery and adaptation vs. not training the recovering muscle at all. Essentially, it’s better to train very light and for very low volume sometime towards the end of recovery instead of taking the time completely off. The other form of this in the microcycle level would be to take a light day for chest and only do a couple of sets of 5 reps with maybe 75% of the usual weight you’d use for 10’s.

On the mesocycle level, fatigue is managed through training via deloading. Same concept as a light day, but extended over a week or so to really heal damage, replete substrates (glycogen), and re-set pathways (mTOR/AMPk). Many more people in BBing and PL are starting to do this now, and for good reason. It works!

The third level of fatigue management through training is called an “active rest,” and it usually follows a whole macrocycle of training, which can last from several months to a year in length. Active rest is the process of making your training MUCH lighter and less voluminous than normal, for 2-4 weeks in length. This process has been tested against COMPLETE rest numerous times and always comes back superior. Not only do athletes that take active rests retain more performance (muscle in our case), they actually recover better and show less fatigue later in their training. My recommendation in your case would be to take your total break and maybe only take a week off in there somewhere, and make the rest about 50% of the volume AND intensity of your normal training. All of the literature indicates you’ll likely recover BETTER and make even more long-term progress than with the complete break.

Now, the principle of individual differences must be taken into account here in a big way. Some bodybuilders and powerlifters need light days EVERY WEEK to recover, and some don’t need light days at all. Simple exercise variation does them just fine. Some need to deload every 3-4 weeks, and some can go 8 weeks hard without deloading. Some need an active rest of 2 months after several years of hard competing, and some can do 2 weeks be be 100% again. The individual MUST be in always aware and make sure they’re not a.) wasting time deloading for no reason or b.) trying to be superman and overreaching constantly at their expense. In fact, at different points, the same individual will have different fatigue management needs, especially with alterations in food and supplement intake.

JOHN: I thought you might say these things, as I have talked to some other really brilliant people who have told me exactly that!

Here is the issue I run into. Some don’t even want to set foot in the gym after going balls out for a contest. I do train a little after the show usually (4 weeks of lighter training) but MENTALLY I just need to refresh as well. I want to go in the gym with fire and passion. The only way I can turn this back on is by taking that break once a year.

For someone who is in this mental state, would you adjust your recommendations at all, or just have them still do it and sort of suck it up?

MIKE: I’ve seen some literature that anti-inflammatory interventions in the training window actually improved the gains seen by older adults, but not younger adults. There may be a relationship between age and DOMS, such that younger lifters benefit from DOMS much more, but older lifters need to bias the equation more toward recovery and a bit away from stimulus. Hypothetically, this could explain why getting sore got you so many gains in the past, but may no longer be an optimal strategy at your level of development and age.

On the issue of active rest, the psychological component of the training process is CERTAINLY not one we’d like to overlook. “Balls to the wall 100% of the time” is a canard exchanged mostly by people who’ve never really trained to the limit. I absolutely see your point with training motivation after a show. I think that 1-2 weeks OFF completely is a good idea in your case, and in the case of many others as well. However, I think 4 weeks totally off is a bit much, so I think a return to the gym would be a much more effective strategy. Mind you, when you come back to doing sets of 5 reps with a weight you can be doing for 10 reps no problem, and the total set number for the workout is HALF of what you are used to, it’s not the same psychological game as regular training. As a matter of fact, being back in the gym, seeing others train hard, and doing “bitch” workouts yourself is a GREAT motivational tool in my experience. 2 weeks of that, and you’ll be ready to EAT the power rack.

While we’re on the subject of training breaks, I think it’s worth mentioning that I don’t think a break RIGHT AFTER a show is the optimal time in the macrocycle to take a break. Because of the paucity of nutrients presented during the contest prep, the post-show environment offers the opportunity to make some substantial gains in muscle. Especially if low/moredate training volume is employed with heavy weights, the higher-intake environment of the post-diet period can produce some very good gains. This lower volume allows gains to occur while AMPk and general fatigue come down somewhat, and can pave the way for a longer, productive massing phase. Now, after massing, most people just go right into the contest diet, and I think this is a mistake that costs some people muscle later in their diets. When the set-point has yet to catch up to your new mass phase weight (or new level of muscle mass at the same weight), I think there is good reason to believe that the body is more prone to letting go of muscle on a diet. Thus, a period of weight stabilization (what I term the “mid” phase) that lasts between several weeks and months can be employed to allow that new muscle to be more readily “accepted” for lack of a better term. Now, it’s during THIS phase that a training break can really produce some excellent results. So long as you keep your weight up, muscle loss is not a huge concern, and training for several weeks after the active rest can bring ALL of the lost muscle back. Taking an active rest on the “mid” phase allows you to drop all of the fatigue from hardcore mass phase training, and prepares you to give the cutting phase a full run, without an heightened risk of muscle loss during the process.

JOHN: Talk a little bit more about this post contest opportunity for muscle gain? Is it also true that fat cells will be more insulin sensitive so you can’t just assume everything you eat is going to get glut-4’d (yea I made that term up) into a muscle?

MIKE: It’s absolutely true that fat cells will also be much more sensitive to nutrient uptake (and potential proliferation) after a state of what is essentially almost starvation for months on end. That’s why it’s absolutely important to get a couple of cheat meals in, and then get back to EATING CLEAN ASAP. Eating clean (and with the proper timing, etc..) biases intake to be more readily taken in by muscle tissue than fat tissue. If you eat clean post-contest, but eat enough to gain weight, new muscle growth should result. Now, will fat gain result? ABSOLUTELY. I think if you’ve been training for more than a couple of years, trying to grow muscle without some fat accumulation is a giant waste of time. IF ONLY it were that easy!

But the really important details of muscle gain are the relative proclivities to gain and lose various forms of tissue. Muscle is hard to gain, and fat is easy to gain. In a similar fashion, if a diet, training, and supplement program is done properly, fat is relatively easy to lose (the last bit, not so much) and muscle is relatively well preserved. This puts our decision making process as to WHEN to gain or lose muscle and fat under some interesting constraints and allows for the development of optimalities within that context.

Because muscle is hard to gain, we need to stack the deck in favor of muscle growth by really making sure to try and gain it when it’s MOST sensitive to growth. In our case, that’s going to be in part after a dieting phase. It’s ok to gain a bit of fat with that muscle, because the fat can come off later (so long as it’s not overboard), because fatloss without muscle loss isn’t super difficult within the normal limits of variation. On the other hand, if we wait to grow most of our muscle when muscle growth is difficult, we face the problem of not putting on much muscle OR fat, which is really going to leave us no better off. Actually, muscle cells tend to lose their insulin sensitivity earlier in a hypercaloric phase than fat cells, so trying to put on muscle when you’re further out of a contest diet and have already put on some fat is an even WORSE idea than it appears.

Put the muscle and the fat on when muscle growth AND fat growth comes easily, and then get the fat off, because there is no time when muscle growth is hard AND fat growth is hard… fat growth is ALWAYS easy, so long as you can gain weight. Of course, if you put on too much fat, the duration or extremity of the diet required to take the fat off will cause an elevated risk of muscle loss. However, the other end of the spectrum is sub-optimal as well, “staying lean” is a big mistake bodybuilders make quite often. If you “stay lean,” you don’t gain the weight needed to gain muscle, and you end up looking pretty much the same year to year. Essentially, it comes down to this… train hard and eat clean in your mass phase, and look to gain a reasonable amount of bodyweight, with a baseline of 10% of your contest weight being a pretty good starting goal. Once the cutting phase comes, you won’t have so much fat as to make the diet absurdly hard and risky to muscle, but you also have a higher chance of ending up with more muscle than at the last show, as opposed to the same size you’ve been for years. I guess you could say the middle road wins this time!

JOHN: You just said something that really caught my attention. Can you talk a little more about this and timing involved generally. “Actually, muscle cells tend to lose their insulin sensitivity earlier in a hypercaloric phase than fat cells, so trying to put on muscle when you’re further out of a contest diet and have already put on some fat is an even WORSE idea than it appears.”

MIKE: I’m actually not sure on the timing involved, as unfortunately causing insulin resistance in humans for the purpose of study is something IRB committees tend to frown upon. However, to quote a peer-reviewed publication: “A growing body of studies has pointed to the presence of heterogeneity regarding insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity among different tissues (4). Thus, there are indications that, within a person, the lipolytic response of adipose tissue may maintain insulin responsiveness even as skeletal muscle insulin resistance is detectable.” Essentially, the research is indicating that as a person gains fat, their muscle tissue may become insulin resistant faster than their fat tissue. There is not a point in time where some switch is flipped and all of a sudden muscle is resistant and fat is not, but rather fat accumulates resistance slower than muscle, and is thus more sensitive to insulin and more apt to grow long after muscle has become resistant and mostly stopped growing. Now, I don’t think almost any bodybuilders go so far as to make even their fat insulin resistant (as that’s usually very close to full blown type II diabetes), except for maybe Lee Priest in those muscletech ads from back in the day, lol.

This data may be of importance to planning with regard to massing and cutting phases, such that muscle gain is prioritized when whole body insulin sensitivity is still highest. As well, perhaps it’s a bad idea to keep trying to gain weight when muscle gains slow and fat gains become more prominent, as now fat is disproportionately more insulin sensitive and more anabolic than muscle, which means further weight gains will tend to be a poor tradeoff of fat and muscle gain.

I think many bodybuilders have known this intuitively for some time, and made the observation that at some point in the mass-gaining process, muscle gains slow down but fat and weight gains do not. SOME of these bodybuilders have had the good sense to stop or slow the massing process at that point, but not all, and certainly I have made the mistake to keep going in my early days.

The short version is this: mass when you’re lean, but when you get fatter and your strength doesn’t seem to be going up much more, and the last couple of weeks seemed to result more in the spare tire than in whole-body fullness and roundness, it’s time to give it up, maintain the weight, then diet back to a leaner physique and repeat the process.

The quoted study:

JOHN: Mike this is very profound. This is something that you are right, we all should notice. We grow and grow and then all of a sudden pumps lessen, and those love handles start building. Most people push more calories and try to outrun it, but you can’t. What you are saying makes so much sense. So can what kind of time range would you guess this sensitivity lasts post contest? Are we talking 4 weeks, 4 months, etc?

MIKE: The question of time range is a very good one! I think the answer is actually one of bodyfat as opposed to time. As your bodyfat increases, the propensity to grow muscle shrinks. Now, there are several key variables in what determines the rate of fat accumulation that can determine how much time your really have for a productive offseason.

  1. Genetics.
    If you’re one of the luckier ones, you can get a massive boost post-diet and can add slabs of muscle without adding a ton of fat. I think Kai Greene went from a stage weight of 210 to 230 in about 2 years, and then from 230 to 260 in about 2 more years. Most of us can’t really pull that off, of course.
  2. Diet/Training
    If you’re following the principles of proper dieting and training, you can gain more muscle and less fat than if you just eat everything and barely train, which of course buys you more time to gain even more muscle!
  3. Supplements.
    If you take certain supplements, you can gain more muscle and less fat than if you don’t take them. This allows you to gain more muscle in any one stretch just like diet/training and genetics do.
  4. Pace
    If you blow up quickly, you gain fat quickly and shut down muscle growth quickly. If you gain too slowly, you’re wasting time you could be using to already stabilize your weight and diet off the extra fat off to start gaining again. There is an optimal rate of weight gain, and that’s what you should employ to give yourself the best long-term tradeoff of muscle gain and fat mitigation.

Thus, taking in all of these variables together, a person with bad genetics, crappy diet and under-training can try to bum-rush weight gain and essentially have to cut it off a month later for fear of outrageous fat gains in relation to muscle gains. On the other hand, a person with good genetics, a good diet and hard training can gain 1-2lbs of weight per week for 4 months and be just fine! A rough answer to your question of timing would probably be about 2 months, given the average circumstances.

2 months doesn’t seem like long, so how do we extend the growth duration? Well, the answer is creepily, not coincidentally and interestingly linked to the concept of fatigue management we talked about earlier.

If we view insulin (and nutrient) sensitivity like fatigue, in the sense that it’s a cumulative process that needs to be re-set, an interesting pattern emerges. Just like the light days of fatigue management, we have periods during carb days far away from the training window when few carbs are eaten. Just like light days reduce fatigue a little, low-carb meals outside the training window slightly enhance insulin sensitivity. Just like deload weeks reduce fatigue a bit more than light days, whole low-carb days enhance insulin sensitivity a bit more than isolated low-carb meals. And just like long, active rest periods reduce fatigue to a great extent and prepare the body for long phases of hard training, longer fatloss phases highly enhance insulin sensitivity to prepare for longer massing phases.

If we diet properly, even mass phases make use of low carb meals and low carb days, but those don’t buy us an infinite amount of time. At some point, we have to come back to dedicated dieting and really aim to enhance insulin resistance through lower carbs and lower bodyfats. For this reason, I’ll do a month of “mini-cutting” between every 2 months or so of massing. But because a month of cutting isn’t quite the same as a whole 12 or 16 week diet, this only lasts for so long. A typical progression would be:

  1. Show diet (16 weeks)
  2. Mass diet (10 weeks)
  3. Mini-cut diet (4 weeks)
  4. Mass diet (6 weeks)
  5. Mini-cut diet (4 weeks)
  6. Mass diet (4 weeks)
  7. Mid, stablization (6 weeks)
  8. Show diet #2 ….

Each time, the mini-cut buys us a bit less productive massing time, but that’s ok, cause this massing phase takes up enough time to where it’s time to diet for the next show anyway!

JOHN: Mike thank you for sharing your knowledge with us this month. We look forward to speaking with you again in the future! Mike Israetel, MS, PhD, is a professor of exercise science and a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder. He’s also the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization. If you’re interested, feel free to email [email protected]