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Basic Muscle Building for Hardgainers

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As we wrap up this bout of muscle building content on the blog, we’re going to touch on some new stuff.

I strive to make this site a resource for all types of fitness information.  To that end, I believe that nearly every topic should be covered in an in depth way, with expertise.

Of course, I am not an expert on every facet of fitness—which means that there are things I might not be able to cover; however, I am an expert networker, and so if there is something that I can’t write about myself, I know someone who can.

It’s for that reason that I occasionally feature guest posts on my site—like today’s post.

You see, while I can’t talk about gaining muscle, I can’t talk about it in one specific way: from the perspective of a “skinny guy” or hard gainer.  I’ve never been skinny. In fact, I’ve never even been of “average” weight for my height. And most importantly, I’ve never had any trouble putting on mass.

Which means that although I can teach you how to build muscle, I can’t necessarily speak to the specific concerns of the hardgainer from a personal perspective.  So today, we’ve got someone who can.

I’d like to introduce you to Chris Smith—former hardgainer turned record-holding powerlifter and great trainer.

Chris is one of my business coaching clients who has recently been killing it: in the time since we’ve been working together, he’s started training at PEAK Performance (best gym in NYC bar none) and had his first article published on T-Nation.

All of which is to say, simply, that Chris knows his shit—and he will provide and “insiders” look into how hardgainers can put on some mass.

So, without further adieu, enter Chris.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

For some, building muscle and gaining weight is easy. We all know that guy who can just look at a weight, drink some milk and somehow build muscle **cough cough ROMAN cough cough**

Most people are not so lucky—the rest of us who have to bust our asses day in and day out just so we don’t lose weight. I should know – I was that guy.

Hell, I still am.

In fact, I have such a hard time gaining muscle that there is a specific term for me and people like me: hardgainer.  (Clever, right?)

Now, despite the prominence of this word and the millions of people claiming to be one, there is still a lot of debate over whether or not there is such a thing as a hardgainer.

For people who gain muscle easily, it can be hard to believe that someone just “can’t” gain muscle. It’s easy to swear that this is a creature befitting classification next to big foot if you are one of those guys who develop huge quads by just standing up.

Those of us who struggle to build muscle, however, feel differently; when you’ve been dealing with the unenviable situation of eating and training but never getting anywhere, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a Sisyphean prison with your own body as acting the Warden.

I fall somewhere in the middle of this argument.

Truthfully, I used to swear that I was a hardgainer. If you asked me, I would tell you that I ate a ton of food, but I never could gain weight because my metabolism was so ridiculously high. These days, I know better: it’s not that I wasn’t trying; it’s simply that I wasn’t focusing.

You see, I’m not claiming that there are no hardgainers like some people do. I just have a different definition: in my eyes, hardgainers are skinny guys who aren’t committed to building muscle.

They are the guys who swear they are eating exorbitant amounts of food and doing all the right things in the weight room…but really aren’t. And maybe that’s not all their fault.

There are plenty of knowledgeable guys out there giving advice on how to build muscle and gain weight – and most of them really know their stuff. But how many of them have ever truly spent most of their lives as the smallest guy in the room? I have, and now I want to share with you the benefit of my experience.

The following are tips that I figured out the hard way.

Eat. More.

I can hear it already: “But I eat so much already, I can’t eat anymore!” My response is simple: no, you don’t.

Every hardgainer I’ve ever spoken to—myself included—swears he’s eating in abundance; the truth, however, is that you are usually eating frequently, but not with enough volume. The simplest example is leaving food on your plate. If you suffer from “eyes bigger than your stomach” syndrome and always have some food left over this is probably one of your problems.

Even if you aren’t leaving food on your plate chances are you weren’t putting enough there to begin with.

So your first step is simply to start eating a little more than you are already. That doesn’t mean you have to go and gorge every time you eat – just start increasing the amount you eat at every meal a little at a time.

Write Down What You Eat

For those of you who are still convinced that you are eating plenty and it’s just that evil rapid metabolism sabotaging your muscle gains this is for you. Start writing down everything you eat. With smart everything and the apps that come along these days this is the easiest thing in the world to do. I use a simple calorie counting app on my phone. It’s a good way to get an idea of the amount of calories and macronutrients you are taking in daily.

But beware! Chances are you are going to be in for a rude awakening if you do this. This simple task was what made me realize that I was chronically under-eating for weight gain. I was routinely falling hundreds of calories short of my daily goal but thought I was eating enough. If you have trouble adding pounds this is a vital step, as it will help you realize just how much you need to start eating.

There are two ways you can apply this. The first is simply to set a calorie goal and shoot for it every day. There are different formulas out there and a quick Google search will yield many. The one that I used to set a goal range was:

Bodyweight (Pounds) x 19 = Goal Calories

Simple and straightforward. Unfortunately this doesn’t take into account things like body composition and individual differences. The other method you can use requires a little more work.

You’re going to keep track of your calorie intake for 2 weeks while monitoring your weight every morning (this is where calorie counting apps come in very handy). This will give you an idea of the amount you’re eating and how it’s affecting your weight. If you are trying to gain weight but failing, you know you need to increase your calories.

If that happens you can start by adding about 250 calories a day and see how it affects your weight.

 

But Seriously – Eat More

This is so important it merits being mentioned twice. You could be doing the greatest mass building workouts in the world, but if you aren’t putting the nutrients into your body to recover you’ll never gain weight. You body needs calories to build muscle and if it’s not getting them all you’re doing is breaking yourself down without rebuilding. Nutrition is easily as important as training for building muscle. You can’t build a house without materials – and you can’t build muscle without food.

 

Squat, Press, Pull, Repeat

Now the other side of the coin: if your diet is in order and your training program sucks, you’re still not going to build muscle. Focus on the right exercises and you’re going to see a tremendous difference in your results.

As a general rule the following movements should make up the heart of your program: squats, deadlifts, standing and bench presses, pull-ups and rows.

Learn to do those correctly; they will give you the most bang for your buck and are practically guaranteed to add some mass to your frame. I will even go so far as to say that the majority of your training should be done with the barbell.

This allows you to use the most weight in the safest manner, which is essential to stimulating muscle growth. Get strong on these before you start trying to throw in lots of isolation movements and fancy exercises. I have a rule: if you can’t do 10 strict chin-ups, you shouldn’t be training “arms”.

If this is news to you then you are in for a pleasant surprise if you start to implement this. The brutal simplicity of these movements is also what makes them so effective. They train huge amount of muscle mass simultaneously and create a growth stimulus throughout the entire body.

And for the love of all that is holy: please at least break parallel when squatting.

 

Eat the Right Things – Prioritize Protein

This obviously ties in to the above points about eating more. If you increase your calories but aren’t getting the right macros you’re not going to get anywhere. In other words if you have been falling 500 calories short of your goal, but add those calories in as Cherry Coke, you’re doing it wrong.

You must know that you should be prioritizing protein in your diet and should have a significant protein source at every feeding and that’s a good start.

General protein intake recommendations vary, but it’s a good idea to shoot for 1.5g per pound of bodyweight at a minimum if trying to gain weight or even go as high as 2g per pound. Remember that your body builds muscle from protein. If the protein isn’t there the Arnold fairy isn’t going to magically make them appear.

 

Supplement Protein Before Bed

In my experience, with both clients and myself, this tip alone can help you build muscle. Why? First of all you need protein to build muscle (as mentioned above). Secondly, this is basically a meal that you wouldn’t otherwise be getting and thus is a source of a few hundred calories that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. An average protein shake has around 300 calories depending on what’s in it.

Boom! That’s 300 calories that didn’t exist in your diet before if you never did this. It’s also another 30-50g of protein. The other great thing that you might notice from drinking shakes before bed is increased recovery.

Since your body is getting loaded with nutrients right before sleeping it has plenty of stuff to repair all that damage that you do in the weight room during a crucial recovery period (sleep). So not only are you building more muscle this way, you are also better recovered for when you hit the weights again.

 

Commit

This may be last, but it’s actually the most important.

If you’ve always been the skinny guy with no body fat and you start trying to gain weight this is what will most likely happen: you’ll start off dedicated and probably put on a few pounds. Then the first time you step on a scale and see a weight you’ve never weighed before you will promptly shit yourself, turn into a 16 year old girl and think you’re going to get fat. You will then lose that dedication and focus on a diet that is going to get you “cut.” Do you see the problem there?

This seems to be something that people who weren’t always the smallest guy in the room don’t understand. I’m here telling you to stay the course. If you do it right, yes, you might gain a little bit of body fat but you shouldn’t end up looking like Jabba the Hut. But deep down, psychologically, when you see that scale climbing it’s going to bother you a little bit. That comes with the territory. Just remember the goal and stick with the plan. If you do notice that you’re gaining significant amounts of body fat, look back at your food log and make some changes – but keep focusing on protein for muscle. Like any goal, this requires serious mental commitment if you want to achieve it.

If you count yourself as a hardgainer, these tips should resound with you. They are things that I have used with great success over the years and learned the hard way. If you put in the work and commit yourself to a realistic goal then there is no reason you shouldn’t reach it. Good luck, now go squat. Just eat something first. And then again after.
++++++++++++++++

Chris makes some great points in the above article; while it’s just scratches the surface, I think the fact that he gives very basic information makes a point in itself: gaining muscle isn’t as complicated as you think it is.

Of course, my heart goes out to you skinny guys…which is why I am going to cover gaining muscle in my new book, being published by HarperCollins next year!

In the meantime, it’s still worth looking into some of the resources available to you, such as the Super Hero Workout or MI40.

Now, let’s hear it from YOU – what are your TOP SOURCES for muscle gaining information?

If we get just 50 Comments, tomorrow I’m going to post a brand new article on everyone’s favorite subject: ABS!

 

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

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  • Skinny Guy

    The most important thing is tracking calories. I like Myfitnesspal.com in order to track the calories. If you aren’t tracking, odds are you aren’t meeting your daily caloric intake goal/requirement. Skinny
    Guys Anonymous

  • Abbie B. Thomas

    I think this is a great exercise routine for people who want to bulk up some muscles! Great pointers you included in this article! Thanks for sharing!

    http://bodyrevolutionreviews.org

  • https://www.mind-supplements.

    Love this. Great advice for beginners or even experience guys who want to pack on some extra muscle. I do think that one of the biggest areas that is overlooked at the moment is training the mind. Whether its through hypnosis or merely visualisation (which Arnie swore by) we are missing huge potential if we ignore what our minds can offer

    https://www.mind-supplements.com

  • Tim

    Right nutrition plays crucial role. When you are hard gaining, your body needs lots of energy in order not to be exhausted. I was recommended to take dietary supplements developed for the U.S. Army – Military Grade Nutritionals. I must say, the result was awesome! I felt still energized even after highly intensive workouts, my reps went sharply up, and now I am in the best shape of my life. Will definitely go on like this.

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  • Mp

    Great writing. The commit part is really important. I do think you need to get enough sleep to, and be serious about this. Thank you.
    Michael
    http://www.imahardgainer.com 

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  • Openmindherman

    Nowadays I have the impression training in the chain and more functional strength training is getting more populair. Like kettlebell training. Is this a good thing?
    Herman, fit4less.nl

  • power clean

    squats,bench,row and squats shoulder press deadlift? is this good?

  • Thank you  for documenting your experience with your situation.  At my job I hear many guys repeat what you said exactly!  It will be nice to be able to help them now and get them to read your blog!  Sometimes it is just the little push they need to put things into perspective!

  • Chris I could not agree more with what you have written in this article.  I am a fitness enthusiast who also has been on the small scale for many years.  It wasn’t until I became dedicated that I started gaining weight and putting up the pounds.  Since then I have went on to take many nutritional courses and fitness courses alike to learn everything that I can.  I used to say “I can’t eat anymore”, but when I started writing down what I ate I was only eating like 2100 calories a day.  This was an eye opener to the fact that I was not as dedicated as I thought.  All of that has changed now.  I am currently in the Marine Corps and trying to develop my own high intensity fitness program.  Anyone and everyone is invited to check it out at hitfitjville.blogspot.com and leave comments.  Any advice is good advice!
    “Strive for progress, not perfection”

  • Millerrtime99

    So true. I can eat all day. But you got to eat hardy and lift big. Eat big, lift big, live big… good stuff.

  • Bspiel

    Thanks for the great article Chris and Roman. I definitely consider myself a member of the “hardgainer” family. I’m 6’9″ and currently weigh 220lbs. At the peak of my training for basketball I weighed 240lbs, which was a daily battle. Committing to counting (I used myfitnesspal) helped me get there. Chris is absolutely right, it’s very easy to think you’re eating more than you are. Very important to see it written down. I also love your KISS mentality for the exercises required to gain mass. I’m halfway through the book “Beyond Brawn” which highlights the keeping it basic to grow the most. I think that book was a recommendation from you Roman? Anyway, thank you both. Keep it coming!

    • Bspiel

      Correction: “Beyond Brawn” book rec was from Martin Berkhan of Leangains. Apologies, I was lost in the fitness blogosphere!

  • Fred Nuñez

    Interesante, y verdadero, en mi caso que soy ectomorfo siempre he tenido dificultad para ganar peso, y cuando probé la creatina, o suplementos de proteinas subí de 136 a 142 libras, esto era fantástico para mi, ya que soy ovolacteovegetariano, y notar que mis músculos crecen es alentador, ademas que mi madre y amigos se han dado cuenta que estoy con mas músculos. Volveré a levantar pesas otra vez, y espero recuperarme del tiempo que he estado alejado de las pesas por cuestiones de trabajo. Mido 1.72 cms. y tengo 44 años de edad, y actualmente peso 139 libras, gracias por informarnos en tu blog.

  • scaprisecca

    I really liked this post as it describes me perfectly.  For so many years I thought I was eating enough until I sat down to plan out my meals to make sure I really did eat enough and was I surprised.  It really worked though and I started putting on some size finally, but than I felt fat so I would try to lean up.  I did this for years and I just wasted so much time, but now I am just sticking it out and slowly putting on the lean mass!

  • Shelley Turk

    Great post, Chris!  I’m a 40+ female, currently sitting at about 14% BF, without much effort (2-3 full body workouts/week, no cardio). I would like to put on some muscle over the next year in order to compete in Figure.  How soon should I start my building phase?  Is now too soon?  I competed at 110lbs (5’6″) two years ago and would love to be 120lbs on stage next time.
    Another question, for Roman:  Are you looking for hardgainer types for your book? 

  • David Pavkovich

    I am a hardgainer (ectomorph) Your article hit the nail on the head. I burn more calories choppin my longbird than Michael Phelps at a meet. When I decided to go from skinny to healthy, I ate, and ate and ate, I didn’t care what I was eating and frankly, it didnt matter. I would and still can easily burn off  a fat roll in a Saturday afternoon pickup basketball game. That’s just the way my body works. (I wont get into the “food for fuel” principles here) I was eating every 2 hours on the nose and it worked.I wrote down my cal and protein intake and lifted 4 days a week. in 6 months I went from 137 to 160. I felt like hell though. I was eating myself sick with alot of unhealthy food. I got tired of feeling pressure from myself to gain weight. So I stopped. I stopped writing down everything, I stopped shoveling shit into my mouth. I cleaned up my diet and I still train 4 days a week. Although I was still eating alot, I wasn’t nearly as obsessive with it , my food became much healthier and I dont feel like I wanted to vomit all the time. I feel like a million dollar bill. Needless to say I lost some weight but have setttled into a nice size of 155lbs of solid steel and sex appeal.

    My top advice for the hardgainer would be this- Train for life. Practice patience. Enjoy and curse every rep. Train hard consistently and smart. Rom(an)e wasn’t built in a day. You will feel much better at focusing on this particular goal for longterm as opposed to a quick fix. 

  • Billmc65

    Write down what you eat!!! Most of us Hardgainers(?) pretty much know this stuff and think we’re doing all we can but when we actually do sit down and calculate what we’ve eaten for the day, well, like Chris said, we’re in for a rude awakening. That was where I was falling short. Write it down!

  • rmg

    My problem is that when I try to gain – it is mostly fat, not muscle – workouts are good.  but the muscle will not come.

  • Dazzasupreme05

    Excellent post Chris. I read your first article earlier this week, and you have a great way of explaining complicated things. Appreciate your role in the Roman Empire!

  • If No Bch

    simple and to the point. nice

  • Matty C

    Great article and something that resounds with me quite a bit. I’m 36 and struggle to put muscle on (have for years) – probably doesn’t help that I really only got into strength training in my 30’s (the natural downhill slide so need to work harder/smarter). I think the most important of all those things is making a diary of your eating and your training. You can’t argue with facts! If you aren’t eating enough or the right macros or even pure enough food (not so much calorie dense foods), and you can monitor your training HONESTLY, then you’ll never succeed. Success = Action – Words. Do what you need to do and quit jabbering about it why it’s not working for you (because deep down, you really do know why it’s not!).

  • dominicbianco

    Yes your spot on Chris, the way to achieve this is the simplistic method, reaching your outcomes by starting out with goal setting a range of techniques. 

  • Mark

    If you are a hard gainer, try taking hydrochloric acid tablets with each meal.  They are sold at most health food stores.   Hydrochloric acid is produced naturally in the stomach and helps initially break down the food you eat.  If you are a hard gainer, however, there is a chance that your body does not naturally produce enough, and therefore you are not getting the full caloric benefit of the food you eat.  E.g., if you eat 400 calories in one meal, your body only absorbs 100.  That could be the reason why you can’t put on weight.  But beware, if this is your hard gainer issue, then once you start taking the hydrochloric acid tablets, you could put on too much weight in the form of fat, so you need to eat cleanly and not overeat.

  • Rick

    Is it possible to be a hard gainer for muscle, but put fat on really easily? I find that to be my experience. I also have a very tough time losing fat.

  • Martin Smith

    Is age a factor? At age 59 I squat (with good form) 120kg and Deadlift 130kg, and am lean and strong but can I put on any weight, no no no…. maybe I should be happy to be middle-aged and fit and strong, but a few extra pounds of muscle would still be good..what do you think are the chances?

  • Dzimm

    Thanks for the info. basic idea seems to be the kiss principle. Keep it simple s…

  • Aleks

    “Without further ado…”

  • Sarettagd

    As a woman do I need to eat and then eat more, too? I lift as heavy as I can and incredibly clean, but have a hard time gaining muscle…probably because I am female, fine. So do the same rules apply?

    • Sarettagd

      I mean I EAT clean…

  • Stephanie

    I have fibromyalgia and have lost a lot of muscle mass over the past few years despite exercise.
    One of my problems is post exercise pain and trigger points so I can only do moderate exercise without
    suffering.  Any suggestions for building muscle with my limitations? Thank you

    •  Stephanie I think your best option is to find a qualified trainer or strength coach to work with.

  • Bryan

    Very interesting article and thanks for taking the time to write it. 

    Bryan

  • C_laniel

    As a former 125 lb hardgainer, I can add something. I didn’t put much mass on until I stopped training to failure and started adding more training volume, especially for legs. The other thing I’ve noticed is that it wasn’t until I started alternating pure strength work with hypertrophy that I made my best gains. I am 210 nowadays.

    •  Great point about training to failure. You need to find what works best for you.

    • Marko Amore Perätalo

      Hi! As an advanced hardgainer :D I’m interested in what u meant by adding volume? Do u mean as in per session or weekly volume? I’ve also been alternating strength and hypertrophy work for years in several different schemes (both on same day, bi-weekly, and in couple of month cycles), but what did u find as the best way to alternate?

  • Chris and Roman – awesome post.  It is another reminder that often there’s a simple answer.

    I love your answer: EAT, no EAT-MORE, then squat, press, pull, repeat.   Nice and to the point.

  • Jimfos07

    I especially appreciate the comment if you can’t do 10 strict chin-ups, you shouldn’t be training “arms”.

  • Brian M.

    Thanks for the great post, Chris! I spent most of my life as the “skinny guy” until my metabolism began to slow a little with age… I’ve been working very hard over the past 2 years to get bigger and I love the repetition in your post about eating more. So far, it seems to be working! And I’ll be focusing more on the movements you recommended to assist me with my goals.

    Thanks again, 
    Brian

  • Cole

    Good Article, I used to be a major twig person (6’3″ 165lbs) but have good genetics for gaining weight, so I look alot more like a man today, (6’6″ 240, Oak tree baby!) and it only took me 7 years!

    in your professional opinion (Chris/roman) what percentage of a hardgainers calories need to be clean? does their intake need to be mostly meat/fruit/vegetable, or
    are ice cream and candy also part of the hard gainer food pyramid?

    •  Cole,

      Generally speaking, the more of your calories you can make “clean” the better off you’ll be. Roman has covered the benefits of cheating in the past and I defer to his expertise in that area.

      • Dukeye9

         As a ‘hardgainer’, that’s always been a tough balance to find – eating clean for health vs. getting enough calories to grow.  I have to limit things like salads and other large vegetable portions during a hypertrophy phase, even fats and  animal protein at times to make room for adequate carbs. 

  • Paul0165

    Thanks for the info, but in terms of training you say do all the big compound moves. How would you break your training down? What kinda split and how many days a week? Thanks

    • Hey Paul,

      I’m a big fan of full body training although I will occasionally for a month or two use a 4 day upper/lower split. Different people respond to different training methods but I have found that the increased frequency you get with full body training yields great results for most.

  • Amanda Smith

    Fantastic read for hard gaining ladies, too!  Trying to put on muscle as a female can be incredibly difficult.  Not only are we afraid of fat gain, we’re conditioned to eat rabbit food.  More protein = more booty!  And with that said, I am off to Chipotle for some double meat&guac glory.  Can’t wait for your book to hit shelves, man – best of luck!

  • Brad Hearne

    For keeping track, MyFitnessPal.com is great.  It has all the macro/calorie goal stuff and weight logging.  It also has apps for Android and iOS.

    •  Brad I’ve heard good things about that app. Personally I like Calorie Counter by Fat Secret.

  • E Fiorito

    Thank you for showing a simple formula to follow!

  • Robert

    Eating of protein isn’t the only pathway to gain lots of muscle, but you also do need lots of testosterone and growth hormone and the way to boost those levels is to eat more cruciferous vegetables like brocolli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, celery, and bok choy

  • Larry

    I am a thin-framed guy–always have been.  I am 6′ tall and weifht about 175.  I had been working out hard and consistently with resistance training for the past two months.  Last week I had a body fat measurement.  Had lost 2 lbs fat but also lost 2 lbs muscle.  I had been sick with a sinus infection the previous week.  I am starting to believe that I have been underfeeding, especially in the protein department.   This blog may have been what I needed to see.  Thanks.

    Larry F

  • Naomi S

    I’m doing all as outlined; calories: check! Heavy squats: check! Protein: check! I’d guess in a year, my LBM has gone up maybe a pound, two tops, and allof it on my lower body; my shoulder measurement has not budged, stubborn thing. I won’t give up, but it is sometimes disappointing.

  • Melissa

    Thanks for the information! Do you have any tips to work towards improving upper body strength for females? I’m pretty weak at doing push-ups and chin-ups, and would really love to improve on my upper body strength. Thanks!

    •  Melissa,

      Honestly, the best way for you to improve on those exercises are to do them, or movements that have a very strong carryover to them, often. Based on what your current strength level is, the right progression (or regression) can make a huge difference in your results.

  • 2busyTom

    Great article. And I lol at the “For the love of all that is holy” line. 

    I see very few at my gym getting even close to parallel on squats.

    Sources for muscle building info?

    Roman Fitness Systems 
    T-Nation
    Dave Draper’s website.

  • Datonneman

    Thanks for the info! As a female, I sort of consider myself a “hardgainer” but of course for a different genetic reason than skinny guys (sorry fellas). I enjoy reading this kind of info because it gives me new things to try nutritionally as well as with my training (thank goodness for heavy weightd) and I lived the statement about breaking parallel on squats! Now, I’m off to the gym to, so hoping everyone has an awesome workout today…get to it and stay focuses!!

  • Chris Hunt

    Solid post, glad the eating more was repeated as that really was my problem!
    I’m still fairly skinny but I’m getting there.
    My number one tip – Olive Oil shots in a little juice right after a training session.

  • Awesome post Chris, as was the periodisation one on t-nation

  • Great stuff Chris – I really appreciate the simplistic setup of the system. No need to get really fancy to start seeing some great results. Pleasure to make your acquaintance! 

    • Thanks Fredrik. Glad you liked it!