This article was written for Veteran David Morrow’s HRD2KILL Blog. You can read it there alongside many other great articles, as well as find training programs and an awesome community. David’s work specializes in addressing mental health via fitness, especially within the Veteran and LEO communities.
Hello HRD2KILL community. It is an honor to be writing this article for my friend and fellow health coach David Morrow. I am a health and fitness writer with a long background in sports and athletics. At age 22 I crashed hard, and spent the next two years recovering from complex chronic disease.
Now I write about the ways I got my health back, from improving energy to gaining muscle. For 2 years I couldn’t tolerate exercise without having heart palpitations or a major energy crash. Now, it’s a bit different.
When I started healing from my condition, the first thing I wanted to do was get my old physique back, but without risking another health crash. Using research and knowledge of recovery that I lacked before, I started a program.
The end result? In about 2 months, I gained 30lbs while becoming visibly leaner. What’s more? I only worked out 3 times a week at most, and usually only trained twice.
What the hell Keenan, how did you put on 30lbs in 2 months? After years of intolerance to exercise?
Here’s the gist: Train hard, train less, recover best.
Recovery, the time between workouts, is when the magic happens. You don’t build muscle during a workout, you destroy it. Then, for the next hours, days, and even weeks, your body makes positive adaptations.
In my other writing for groups like Dr. Kelly Starrett’s The Ready State, or Better Humans on Medium.com, I usually justify building muscle for health reasons. Don’t get me wrong, muscle helps you burn fat and reduces your risk of early death and a huge number of disease.
But the real reason I did this is I wanted my Identity back. I wanted to feel awesome like I did before I got sick. I mention this because I know many of you may feel the same. I never served, but I know many who do got to become the fittest in their lives. I know many who get out also lose that fitness, even if they keep training. Poor diet, trauma, and other stressors can all put veterans at a higher risk of health and fitness problems after service.
So as someone who had it and then lost it, I am just here to show you how I got it back again. This is how to build muscle fast, by training less.
Let’s get started.
Train Less, Train Hard
If you’re anything like me, making athletic gains was always about training more, no matter how full my schedule already was.
At 7 to 10 hours of training a week, hitting a plateau always meant adding something. What if I told you the real answer is to subtract?
Exercise breaks down muscle fibers. We improve our fitness during the interim between workouts. Though genetics and age are a big factor, it generally takes 24–48 hours to completely repair muscle damage and takes 48–72 hours for the nervous system to recover.
Your sleep, stress levels, nutrition, and other factors can all slow or speed-up this process, but either way, the most efficient way to exercise is to train hard, then recover well.
Now, you might think this is just to avoid injury or burnout, but if you trained more often you’d make gains faster.
Not so. Other than a few periods of injury, I trained more than 10 hours a week in martial arts, P90X, swim team, rock climbing, and Crossfit. From the age of 14 to age 22, I didn’t stop, yet I only made significant muscle gains a few times during this period. I weighed between 160lbs and 180lbs from age 14 til age 17 (despite the fact that I’ve been the same height since I was 16.)
Then I jumped up to 205lbs after doing P90X2, and then I got up to 227lbs when I started crossfit at age 21, training 16 hours a week and pursuing the career of a games athlete.
My point is, I trained with the intent to improve my size for nearly a decade, but actual improvements only happened two or three times.
Furthermore, it was always changes in training, rather than increases in volume, that did the most good.
Sure, one of my biggest jumps was when I started pursuing Crossfit, but out of those 16 hours a week, 4 to 6 of them were made up of yoga, stretching, and sauna sessions.
After my health crashed and then I healed again, I decided to pursue my old physique and weight. I created a program that involved 2 to 3 workouts a week, and expected to add 10 lbs in 3 months. I didn’t expect to hit my old weight of 227lbs for nearly half a year.
It took 2 months.
What’s even crazier is I only did 2 workouts a week most of the time. Out of the 8 weeks it took to hit my old weight, I think I did a 3 workout week only twice. I honestly feel like those weeks also offered the least improvements.
By training harder, but less often, I gained 30 pounds and surpassed my old weight despite recently recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Big Movements Workout
The workout I use and recommend involves big movements. Basically, there are 5 moves, 3 sets per move. The layout is:
Upper Body Push 3–5 sets, up to 10 reps per set
Lower Body Push 3–5 sets, up to 10 reps per set
Upper Body Pull 3–5 sets, up to 10 reps per set
Lower Body Pull 3–5 sets, up to 10 reps per set
Total Body Movement 3–5 sets, up to 10 reps per set
For every set, I try to maintain the same rep count and use a weight that causes me to do 10 reps maximum. I will lower the weight each set to maintain my rep count. If I do 8 reps in set one with 135lbs, but I don’t think I can do 8 in the next set at that weight, I’ll lower it slightly.
Normally I only do 3 sets per exercise, but if I still feel good or am trying to focus on a particular muscle group, I’ll add up to 2 more sets for a total of 5 sets.
Also, to recover between sets I do a mobility or light core movement that does not use the same muscles as the exercise I am doing.
For example, I might do 3 sets of weighted push ups for the upper body push. In between each set of push-ups, I might do hip circles, foam roll my calves, or do windmills with a small medicine ball. The point is to be a little active rather than just stop. Christopher Sommer of Gymnastic Bodies makes use of this technique to build strength and mobility in his athletes. I have found it very effective for preventing tightness and maintaining flexibility alonside hard training.
As you can see, the workout is non-specific. Every time I do the workout, I pick different exercises for each move. Upper body push is any upper body movement where the work is done via pushing. Examples are shoulder press, bench press, push-ups, etc. Lower body push moves are the same thing but for your leg. Mainly this means squats but also includes lunges. Upper body pulling exercises are things like rows or pull-ups, and lower body pulling exercises are deadlifts and deadlift variations. Total body is anything that uses upper and lower, such as burpees, turkish get-ups, or power cleans.
With all this in mind, a workout might look like this:
Upper Push: 3 sets Barbell Bench Press. Mobility/Recovery Between Sets: 30 Seconds Hip Stretch Each Side
Lower Push: 3 Sets Goblet Squat Mobility/Recovery Between Sets: 30 Seconds Shoulder Banded Distraction Stretch Each Side
Upper Pull: 5 sets Gymnastic Ring Rows. Mobility/Recovery Between Sets: 10 Superman Pulses
Lower Pull: Trap Bar Deadlift. Mobility/Recovery Between Sets: 30 Seconds Wrist Stretches
Total Body Exercise: Barbell Turkish Get-ups. Recovery/Mobility Between Sets: Light Medicine Ball Windmills 10 Per Side
By changing the exercises, I avoid letting my body adapt and stop improving. By working out only 2 or 3 times a week, my body recovers fully between workouts and week to week. The net result? Continuous gains.
This workout was my base. On its own though, it wouldn’t have given me such powerful results. In between workouts is where the magic really happens, and I put just as much effort and much more into my sleep, nutrition, and stress management during this period. Beyond just training less often, recover better.
I’ll beat this horse long after it’s dead: Recovery is when you improve!
How you eat, sleep, move, and live, all factor into your fitness gains. Some people will roll their eyes and avoid finally getting a stable sleep schedule, but to me this is a no-brainer!
The fact you can improve just by adjusting your lifestyle is incredible to me. I love working out, don’t get me wrong, but is it really harder to go to bed an hour earlier than to do more deadlifts?
Actually, yeah, sometimes it is. Most of the time it is. That’s why I’m gonna show you how to optimize your recovery, and how to make it damn easy.
The Number One’s Number 1: Sleep
In my opinion, sleep is the number one thing you can optimize. It is incredibly tied to your health and well-being, and can be quickly improved for absolutely free. With the insane ROI of good sleep, I have everyone who will listen start here.
Humans need 8 hours of sleep per night. Yes, some genetics allow people to get the same benefit from 6 hours a night, but these genes are excessively rare. Most of us just think we do well sleep deprived.
Not convinced? The richest men in the world don’t even skimp on sleep. Both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates prioritize 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Their reasoning? Quality of work losses due to sleep deprivation outweigh the extra time gained by staying up later. This is well backed by scientific literature as well.
So, if you want to be like Jocko and post a picture of your morning-workout watch reading at 4am every day, you better be nighty-night by 8pm.
Sleep deprivation increases your risk of almost every age-related disease, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. It increases your inflammation, lowers your immunity, and sabotages your metabolism.
When it comes to sleep, the biggest ways to avoid this are to:
Beyond just sleeping 8 hours a night, it is even more important to sleep at consistent times. Research on shift-workers found that firemen and those with erratic sleep schedules fared worse than those who slept consistently.
Basically, even if you sleep during the day from 9am to 8pm before your night shift, you’re better off than someone who sleeps more but is constantly changing their sleep schedule.
For some awesome info about the importance of sleep, I strongly recommend listening to David’s interview of Dr. Kirk Parsley, a former Navy SEAL who is now a medical sleep specialist.
Here are a few ways you can ensure good quality sleep quickly with minimal effort:
- Turn off your phone an hour before bed and leave it in another room: this cuts distractions and improves sleep quality, according to this study
- Write a to-do list of the coming day’s tasks: Gets the thoughts out of your head and lets you fall asleep faster
- Keep your room cool via thermostat or using devices like the chilipad: Lower core temps improve sleep. Ideal room temp is between 16 degrees Celsius (62 degree Fahrenheit) and 20 degrees Celsius (67 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Foam roll or stretch before bed: Improves nervous system function by turning down the fight-or-flight response
- Cold shower 2 hours before bed: Greatly reduces fight-or-flight response, but can be stimulating if too close to bed. Greatly improves sleep quality.
Can’t Sleep? Take A Nap
Before we move on from sleep, I want to talk about napping. When it comes to sleep physiology, the most important part of our night is our REM sleep. REM sleep occurs in the form of 20 minute cycles, every 90 minutes. On average, people have 4 to 6 sleep cycles per night.
One of the ways you can greatly improve your sleep is by napping. Proficient nappers tend to quickly enter REM sleep. In a mere 20 to 40 minutes, you can add a few more REM cycles to your daily sleep allotment. This is great even if you sleep 8 hours a night, but essential if you don’t.
To maximally optimize napping, it is best to nap at roughly the same time every day. I also strongly recommend a sleep mask and the use of binaural beats. Binaural beats are audio tracks that tune your brainwaves. You can use sleep binaural beats to promote the Delta or Theta waves associated with sleep.
My last tip is this: Nap for less than 30 minutes, or more than 90. If you get caught napping between these two time lengths, you’ll experience grogginess. This occurs because you have entered a sleep cycle without completing it.
When you sleep less than 30 minutes, you tend to get REM sleep and then can just go on with your day. If you go longer, your body will start other styles of sleep that involve physical recovery and processes that take longer. Basically, it’s best to just sleep for a full 90 minutes than to sleep for 60 or 45, so you can wake naturally and not be groggy.
The more naps you take during the day, the more efficiently you can enter REM sleep. Over time, you can actually hit a point where you only need naps. Called the Uberman schedule, many hard chargers have been able to sleep 6 20 minute naps per day, and never sleep at night.
However, there is still benefit to the other sleep cycles besides REM, so I personally still sleep at night alongside 1 or 2 naps during the day.
Eat Whole Foods, Ample Protein, And Avoid Inflammatory Food
When it comes to diet, debate is the name of the game. Veganism just had a documentary about the benefits of plant foods for athletes, yet I personally have felt best on a nose-to-tail carnivore diet. What’s the big deal man? Is Paleo the solution? Or is our diet supposed to look like fruit and broccoli like our primate ancestors.
Whatever man. I’m not here to convince you on anything when it comes to diet, except this: Whatever you eat, the cleaner it is, the less processed it is, and the less inflammatory it is, the better.
Since this article is about muscle gain, we also need to promote protein intake.
Assuming that most readers eat meat, I recommend getting 1 gram of protein from meat, per pound of body weight. I also recommend you use red meat as much as you can. Despite all the bad talk about saturated fat, and cholesterol, you need this stuff.
Cholesterol is how your body makes your hormones, not to mention lower inflammatory responses. Furthermore, blood cholesterol levels have never been well linked to heart attack risk. Instead, arterial calcification is the big issue, and this seems more related to diabetes and metabolic function than dietary cholesterol.
Why red meat? Well, we’re about to discuss foods to avoid that cause inflammation. One of these foods is Poly-unsaturated fatty acids found in vegetable oils. PUFAs are easily oxidized, and always cause inflammation when we consume them.
Ruminant animals (cows and other multi-stomach creatures) have an amazing ability to convert the PUFAs in their diet (corn for example) into stearic acid, a saturated fat that is so good for our health that our own bodies make it themselves regardless of our diet.
Chicken and pork, on the other hand, do not convert PUFAs in their diet to stearic acid, meaning that when you eat fat from these animals, you get oxidized and inflammatory fats in your diet.
I know all this goes directly against popular nutrition for the past century, but heart attacks are far more common now than when our great grandparents were cooking with lard. President Eisenhower’s cholesterol tripled and he suffered 6 more cardiac events including the one that killed him, after he STOPPED eating saturated fat and STARTED eating a high-carb, low-fat diet.
All of this is just me saying that I believe red meat is a superfood and is the best source of protein we can use.
After that is other meats, and last is plant protein. Why? Because plant protein is less bio-available. You need a lot more of it for the same benefit.
If you want to go that route, you definitely can, just make sure you are getting truly good protein intake. You should probably use a protein powder if you are vegan or vegetarian. I don’t think such things are necessary if you eat meat though.
Lastly, on top of getting good protein and eating whole foods, avoid common inflammatory foods.
We already mentioned PUFAs, AKA oxidized vegetable oils. These are everywhere, and include soy, corn, canola, grapeseed, and many vegetable oils. When it comes to vegetable oils, stick to olive oil from proven brands like Braggs. Coconut oil is great too. Otherwise, avoid the heck out of it.
The next foods that cause inflammation for many people are:
- Other grains
- Processed sugar
Some people have further sensitivities than these but grains, dairy, and sugar are the few I’ve observed to be consistently better left out.
Chronic inflammation can damage your metabolism, causing slower recovery from muscle tears and by extension, less efficient gains. Not to mention this is a huge cause of poor weight retention and hormone issues.
Support Nervous System Recovery
To recover faster from workouts, we can use tools to track our nervous system recovery. Then we can combine these tools with techniques for boosting recovery speeds.
Ever heard of Heart-rate Variability (HRV?) HRV is a measurement of the variability between your heart beats. On it’s own, that’s whatever. The reason HRV is of interest is that it has been shown to directly reflect the health of your autonomic nervous system, allowing you to monitor your recovery from stress.
When it comes to exercise, tracking HRV is a great way to know if you are recovering from workouts, and improving.
Take this reading every day upon waking, and you’ll begin to see your personal baseline. To know if you are improving from exercise, your scores should be improving over time. If your scores are steadily declining, this could mean you are overtraining.
Furthermore, if you do a hard workout and your scores decline for a day, this is normal. But if scores stay relatively similar, then you can probably work out again even if it’s a scheduled “rest day.” Vice versa, if your HRV is still low a few days after a workout, you might want to take it easy even if you have a workout scheduled.
Cold Showers & Dry Saunas
Two powerful ways to recover faster are daily cold showers, and dry sauna work. Cold showers have been shown to massively increase HRV scores immediately after the shower. For this reason, I use them for everything from getting ready for work to post-workout recovery.
In fact, I met David after writing a piece on Cold Therapy for Dr. Kelly Starrett. You can listen to David’s interview of me here. We deep dive on the topic of cold therapy as well as many other facets of optimal health and resilience.
Saunas, on the other hand, have a delayed boost for HRV. I do not recommend using a sauna after working out. Doing so triggered my own chronic health issues. Instead, I recommend using a sauna as an independent recovery practice. Bring a cold water bottle and spend some time in the dry sauna. If you want, take a cold shower and then go for another round.
This single tactic is what allowed me to train for 6 months without taking a week off while trying to compete in Crossfit. Though I ran into health problems eventually, I stayed injury free throughout this time and truly felt the best in my life up until that point. You should take a week off from training at least every 6 to 8 weeks, but practices like saunas can help you avoid overtraining.
Mobility, Movement, & Active Recovery
Training only 3 days a week doesn’t mean that you should sit on your ass the rest of the time. To the contrary, research implies that how you move during the day is more important than working out for health and longevity.
Sitting is associated with increased risk of many diseases, and once-a-day exercise has no beneficial effect to counteract sitting at a desk all day.
However, simply standing up every 30 minutes, even if you sit right back down, completely negates the harm of sitting for prolonged periods.
So, whatever you do during the day, make sure to change body positions every 30 minutes at least. If you can, go for walks often. Want to up the game? Pick an exercise you want to get stronger at and do 5 reps every 30 minutes. Don’t use a ton of weight, just do 5 reps.
Light activity promotes recovery faster than stagnation.
Lastly, I strongly recommend partaking in a daily 15 minute mobility ritual. David has written a great book on the topic of mobility, and both of us are astute students of Dr. Kelly Starrett, a movement therapist famous for making mobility popular in the Crossfit community.
Dr. Kelly says 15 minutes a day, doing at least 2 minutes per stretch, is enough to totally change your mobility. If you’re looking for guidance, definitely read David’s book: The Nimble Warrior, or listen to David’s interview of Dr. Starrett here.
So there we have it. Lost the fitness of your youth? Have complex health issues that get in the way of exercise, or make recovery harder? No problem. Train less, but train harder and prioritize recovery.
Exercise is just a stimulus, a signal, that gets your body to improve during the recovery periods between workouts.
What is good recovery? Well, really it’s good health. It starts with getting great sleep. Have a hard time with that? No prob, there are tons of ways you can improve your sleep ranging from night journaling to mid-day 20 minute naps.
After that nutrition is paramount. No matter what diet you adhere to, eating whole foods rather than processed foods is key. Going further to eliminate common inflammatory foods like oxidized vegetable oils, dairy and wheat is the next step. Since we’re focusing on muscle building here, I also recommend a good intake of steak. If you don’t eat meat, try a good vegan protein powder. Sun warrior is a good option.
Finally, make sure to stay moving even on your off-days. Stagnation can completely undo the health benefits of exercise. Don’t let it! Make sure to get up every 30 minutes. Want to get strong at the same time? Do 5 pull-ups, squats, push-ups, or whatever.
Include a 15 minute mobility routine using techniques from David’s book: The Nimble Warrior, and you’re set.
Get ready to put on some awesome gains in half the time it took you in high school.
Train Hard, Fight Easy