BIGGER LEANER STRONGER: No-Nonsense Advice from Michael Matthews

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Michael Matthews’ book, Bigger Leaner Stronger, tells you how to make muscle, and it’s about as straightforward as any book upon the subject of body-building that I’ve read.  He tells us straight out the secret of guys who get big…

“Lift progressively heavier weights.”

It’s that easy…  And that hard.  To “lift progressively heavier weights,” other supporting steps must also be taken.  You’d have to read the book to get the full story, but the top of the list of supporting activities would included:

1. be INTENSE for every set, while always practicing good form

2. be a man– don’t ditch workouts; commit for the long-term

3. do the right workout

4.  eat right

5. get enough rest

“Muscles grow only if they’re forced to,” writes Matthews.  So the basic strategy is to efficiently do the things that force muscle growth, while giving the body everything it needs to facilitate healthy growth.

1. be INTENSE for every set, while always practicing good form

 If you’re doing your work-outs correctly, says Matthews, they will be “intense and uncomfortable.”  I agree.  To me, intensity, will-power –and yes, some pain– are all just part of the weights-workout game.  If you don’t enjoy staying intense for an hour (more or less) most days a week, most weeks of your life… then maybe body-building ain’t how you want to spend your precious few non-job hours.

Matthews recommends weights-workouts of between 45 and 60 minutes.  I whole-heartedly endorse this time-recommendation…. It’s long enough to get the job done, yet is short enough not to start getting into diminishing returns.

Matthews states that after about 45 minutes “of intense weight training”– “testosterone and growth hormone levels begin to drop and your cortisol levels continue to rise.  Pushing far beyond that can actually lead to overtraining.”

And very importantly, as Matthews points out, a guy can maintain his focus for an hour and give it his all for every set.  Whereas, with longer work-outs, it would only be natural to begin to loose intensity.

2. be a man– commit for the long-term and don’t ditch work-outs

 Let me take a moment here to address what I think is the number one reason why guys don’t exercise enough (whatever physical activities they choose to do)… They don’t enjoy it.  They dread it.  Put it off.  Skip it.  But forty-five minutes several times a week is doable.  It’s get-thru-able.  It’s not overly intrusive on the rest of your life.  So it’s not just for physical reasons, but for mental reasons as well, that both Matthews and I recommend weight workouts of moderate lengths– like Matthews says, 45 minutes or an hour is great.

Matthews is getting you into the weight room, and he’s getting you there routinely several times a week, and he’s getting you out in a reasonable amount of time.  Already, your goal’s half-achieved just by showing up and bringing the right spirit.  But once you’re committed to the time and place… whattiya do when you get there?

3. do the right workout 

Matthews, straightforward as ever, puts it plainly… You are there to lift weights… HEAVY weights.  You don’t pick out something small and comfortable– we’re not buying a nightgown for your woman here.  And you won’t be doing a dozen repetitions for each set.  Try half that.  You’ll be doing the heavist weight you can lift four to six times.  Matthews calls lifting heavy weights in “short intense sets” overload.

By lifting this way, says Matthews, you’ll shred your muscles– and this is a GOOD thing.  It’s creative destruction.  When it comes to muscle growth, you have to tear it down so that you can build it up.  Think, Chairman’s Mao Cultural Revolution, but for your bod’ and involving about a billion less people.

“By lifting weights your actually causing tiny tears (known as “micro-tears”) in the muscle fibers,” explains Matthews.  But don’t worry.  The body repairs these micro-tears, “adapting muscles to better handle the stimulus that caused the damage.”  In other words, the body is so cool that, though a challenge may defeat it– push it to fatigue– it will mend itself and improve itself so that it will be ready to successfully meet the challenge next time.  Somewhat perversely, however, when it comes to body-building, we’re always pushing the challenge a little farther out, so the body is always pushing itself farther to catch-up, to become stronger and stronger and stronger.

To get the full benefit of a workout, you need to use HEAVY weights, says Matthews, because “when you lift heavy weights, you push your muscles to their full contraction capacity.”  Also, according to Matthews, heavier weights actually “stimulate the most growth hormone and testosterone production.”   His advice is that, for “maximum testosterone and growth hormone release while training,” do a weight so heavy that you can lift it (in good form) between four and six times.

Matthews takes a basics first approach to weight-lifting…

“The average guy needs to build a strong overall foundation,” he explains, and that’s why his program, “is built around compound exercises— exercises like the Squat, Deadlift, Military Press, and Bench Press.”

Matthews encourages focusing on one muscle group per session, at the most two.   For one thing, it would take over an hour to train two major groups, and he doesn’t want you in the gym that long– for must of us, after an hour or so, intensity and focus wane.

Matthews warns against over-training.  If the body is pushed too far too frequently, it will fail to fully repair the muscles, and muscle growth will actually be stunted.  Work-outs must be balanced with sufficient nutrition and rest or “muscle growth can’t occur.”

Furthermore, Matthews says that too much time working-out “drastically elevates cortisol levels” which can also inhibit growth.”  Additionally, if the amount of lactic acid that builds up in muscles during a session becomes too elevated, muscle growth is impaired and tissues begin to breakdown.  Of course, some lactic acid build-up is a GOOD thing… Matthews explains that the presence of lactic acid in the muscle (that “burn” that you feel) produces a “cocktail of growth-inducing hormones.”

Matthews divides the body into “major muscle groups” and “minor muscle groups.”  You’ll have time to do either one major muscle group per workout (like chest, legs, or back), two minors (like biceps or triceps), or a combo day of one major and one minor muscle.

REPS:  Matthews says you want your lifting be heavy but controlled– always controlled.  “You will be doing four to six repetitions per set on virtually all exercise” (he excepts abs and calves, for which you should do 10 to 12 reps).  To his credit, he admits that there is disagreement between trainers as to what constitutes the perfect workout– the perfect number of sets of the perfect number of lifting repetitions.  But he says that most everyone agrees you should be lifting weights somewhere in the range of 70% to 85% of the maximum amount you can lift in that exercise.

SETS:  Each lifting of a weight is a “repetition” or “rep.”  A set is the number of reps you do before resting a moment or two for the next set.  Not counting warm-ups, Matthews recommends doing six to nine sets for each muscle group.  If I read him right, that number of sets includes ALL the exercises you would be doing for that muscle group that day.  For instance, if you were doing incline press and bench press, the TOTAL number of sets would six to nine.  He says the minor muscles groups of triceps and biceps (which get worked out also by other exercises) need only six sets.

TIME BETWEEN SETS:  This section of Matthews’ book surprised me.  He said you should take two to three minutes rest between sets.  I had always heard something more like thirty to ninety seconds.  Matthews’ reasoning for the longer rest time is that “sufficient recovery time inbetween sets is what allows you to repeat the process enough to achieve the optimum amount of muscle overload to stimulate and force new growth.”   By resting two to three minutes, you allow “your muscles to restore their maximum lifting potentials by replenishing energy stores and flushing out unwanted chemical by-products of the last set.”

He makes a convining argument, but I’ll probably continue to seek out different opinions on this area.  A minute or minute-and-a-half has always felt pretty good to me.  And Matthews does mention taking into account what feels right for your own body.

4.  eat right

Writes Matthews…  “Studies have universally shown that eating carbs and protein after intense weight training leads to greater development of lean mass, decreases in body fat, and over-all improvement in body composition.”  Matthews explains that after a work-out, the body is primed to absorb nutrients at a higher rate than normal.  “However,” he warns, “if you waste this window and don’t feed your body, you can actually halt muscle growth and hinder fat loss.  Therefore, it’s vitally important to eat within an hour of finishing your weight training” […] “and to eat a substantial amount of carbs, and a moderate amount of protein.”

PROTEIN

Matthews believes strongly that weightlifters need to eat meat for optimal muscle growth, calling protein from meat sources “particularly helpful when you’re weightlifting.”  Part of the reason, he says, is that “studies clearly show that meats increase testosterone levels”– though he admits that “scientists aren’t sure why.”

And I’ve never read a weight-training coach so against using soy as a protein source.  Calling it a flat-out “bad protein source,” Matthews orders us to “just stay away from it.”  Explaining why he feels so strongly about soy protein, he writes that “studies have shown that too much of it can increase estrogen levels and inhibit your body’s testosterone production (due to a plant estrogen found in soybeans).”

Matthews is proponent of the fairly standard protein ingestion rule of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.  You can NOT get this all at one meal, of course– Matthews tells us that the body can’t absorb more than thirty to sixty grams of protein per meal.

Taking the protein thing a step farther, Matthews even advises WHEN to eat WHAT TYPE of protein.  “You should be eating protein every 3 – 5 hours.  You never want to go more than 5 hours without eating protein, as studies have shown that the body’s anabolic response to protein consumption lasts about that long.  This means you’ll need to eat protein 4 -6 times per day.”  He suggests quick-digesting proteins like beef and whey after a workout, and slow-digesting proteins (eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, casein) before bed, since your body will be going through an 8-hour-or-so fast overnight.

Besides protein, Matthews’ “BULKING DIET” includes plenty of carbohydrates (two grams per pound of bodyweight) and some healthy fats (about one gram per every three pounds).

He supports the use of protein supplements, and the taking of a multi-vitamin.  Also, he recommends something that I’ve personally never gotten around to trying… Creatine supplements.  He says that Creatine, an amino acid, acts as a strength and size booster, and contends that it has zero negative side-effects.  He spends some time talking about the HOW and HOW MUCH of Creatine, but I’ll let you consult the book or other sources for the details.

Matthew also advises thirty to forty-five minues of cardiovascular exercise, three to five times a week.  Besides the other benefits of cardio work-outs, they will also help you to burn off calories ingested while you’re trying to eat enough to get-in all your protein and other necessary nutrients.  As with weight-lifting, he advises shorter, more intense workouts, arguing that “long, low-intensity cardio sessions tend to negatively impact muscle growth and burn relatively few calories.”

5. get enough rest

“Recovery is what makes or breaks all of the above work,” states Matthews.  He states it takes two to five days to full repair muscles after weight training.  He says that he, himself, takes a minimum of four days off before hitting the same muscle group again.  This came as a shocker to me– I’d always heard that muscles could be worked-out in an every-other-day fashion.  My own routine is to hit the same group about twice a week, which falls into Matthews’ range.  Like his recommended up-to-three-minute rest between sets, I’d like to check into this recommendation more, get some other opinions.

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4 thoughts on “BIGGER LEANER STRONGER: No-Nonsense Advice from Michael Matthews

  1. Does this book comment on the science behind interval training or incorporate that into his recommendations? What about the practice of stretching?

    1. You know, as I recall the author doesn’t get too much into either, but another book I studied ( https://hammeringshield.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/weightlifting-primer-some-science-behind-the-advice/ ) did. I did posts on that one toward the end of April 2014 under the “BioChem” folder. I don’t think I talked about Interval Training in my posts, but I do remember being surprised that they said WARMING UP was good, but stretching didn’t really do much for ya. — H.S.

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