My Experiments: Adding 30Lbs of Muscle in One Year

I am extremely fascinated by how the human body works. I thoroughly enjoy self-experimentation and breaking misconceptions we have about our own predispositions. When I was growing up, I was always on the small side. I had a very late birthday and typically was one of the smallest people in the entire school. When I finished high school I weighed about 125Lbs at 5’9” or so. I remember specifically choosing my competitive sports based on the biological makeup of my body. I learned early on that tackle football was a no-go, but wrestling and running (Cross Country & Track) were sports that are competitive even for individuals on the lighter side of the high school scale.

gymWhen I began college I quickly embraced the delicious, all-you-can-eat buffets of my college’s dining hall. I had plenty of free time to workout and eat lots of tasty food. I quickly gained fifteen pounds my first semester and finished my first year at about 145. I actually grew a few inches in college so, despite adding several pounds, I still remained on the skinnier side. The next several years I stayed approximately the same weight. It would fluctuate by a few pounds here or there but I can certainly wear the exact same clothes I wore my freshmen year now.

I assumed I would pretty much always be a relatively small guy. My family actually has people of many different sizes, but the average would be approximately the American normal. I’m not sure what my “natural” weight is but over the last ten years I’ve found it difficult to really change my BMI. The lose weight vs gain weight debate is also interesting. The irony of both weight loss and weight gain is that many of the principles and mechanics are quite similar. Although we all have different basel metabolic rates, there are certainly basic equations that guide our consumption to mass ratio. I certainly learned quite a bit about losing weight while wrestling competitively, but I’ve always found it much harder for me to build and maintain muscle mass.

The Challenge
It all began about a year ago when my wife let me know we were going to be having a new baby. She was expected to gain plenty of weight so I thought I would do the husbandly thing by adding on some LBs with her. However, I didn’t want to just gain a bunch of blubber, I wanted to actually pack on some muscle over the coming year. It would be an interesting challenge to simply see how much my body could change over a year. But is there really any point to gaining weight?

So why get stronger? Is it functional? It is rational? Is it simply for looks? Having a “why” is really the first starting point to most challenges. The question I really wanted to know is simply: How much of my body is genetically determined and how much control do I have? Is it possible for me to gain weight? Lose weight? Change the composition of my fat and muscle. I love self-experimentation so this was a perfect long-term challenge.

My ideal was to add muscle and still retain a reasonable 8% body fat. In fact, in high school I typically lingered around a 4% ratio which was really on the extreme side for my height. However, running excessively and wrestling are both sports known for prioritizing leanness in almost every way. In addition to beginning on the lighter side of most of my peers, post high school years of running competitively and biking daily have shifted the heavier muscle mass of my body into my legs. So, not only did I want to gain strength, but I wanted to primarily add muscle to my upper body and limit most of my leg workouts to running/swimming/biking. This was going to be a tough one.

The Methods
For me, 80% of gaining weight is nutrition and about 20% is working out. I have always enjoyed various types of exercise and pretty much any type of sport. I’ve never really considered myself a lifter and I am not competitive in the weight room. But I really enjoy having worked out. It is certainly a good feeling. The hardest part for me was really the caloric consumption. Having a wife that is a dietitian means that it is difficult to bring nasty food into the house. In addition, we primarily eat a plant based diet and mostly whole foods. I try not to eat out very much and when I do, I always feel better when I choose healthy options. So, the method needed to add weight without eating lots of nasty food. I did periods of detailed tracking and food diaries just to get a better look at my eating patterns. I supplemented my existing diet with whey protein, primarily in the form of after-meal or after-workout shakes. In the end, my goal was to try to consume my body weight in protein daily.

The book 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferris was certainly a catalyst for getting the conceptualization going about what is possible. I like the idea of minimum effective dosing when applied to the area of exercise science. My typical workouts were 30-40 minutes 3 days a week. I would run, bike or do sports on my off days. For lifting, I would do six exercises of around 8-10 reps each and adjust as I tire (I can post my specific workouts if requested). For me, if I do not workout in the morning, the chances of me working out consistently drop to almost nil. Having the little kids makes it a little trickier to workout in the afternoon because the only thing I want to do is play with them when I get home. Luckily, they like to sleep until 6:45-7:15am so rising early to workout allows me to workout, get home, and shower before they get up.

The Results
While I’m not all the way to my goal (still have about 20 days left), I’ve learned a lot. The surprising results to me, at the end of the experiment, is actually very little physical change. Not what most people would expect when you think about putting on thirty pounds of muscle. Physically, I look almost the same as I did almost a year ago. My shirts and pants are the slightest bit tighter but overall the physical results are pretty underwhelming. It would be interesting to see what another year and 30 more pounds of muscle would look like.

However, my strength has increased dramatically. In fact, I still prefer to measure by strength in practical terms vs. specific weight objectives. I can certainly lift much more, but I know I am much stronger in relation to my overall bodyweight. In addition, by starting from almost scratch, I had pretty low expectations. Here are the metrics from my yearly experiment:

April 2014 April 2015 Percent Change
Weight 143.2 169.8 18.6%
Biceps 11.5 12.2 6.1%
Waist 32.3 34.1 5.6%
Chest 35.5 38.0 7.0%
Pullups 3 10 233.3%
Dips 8 30 275.0%
Bench Press 120 155 29.2%
Body Fat 8.0% 8.6% 7.5%

Additionally, I’ve noticed simple household chores such as yard work, moving compost bags, or transferring large bags of 50lb+ feed for the animals is surprisingly simpler. I like the idea of being able to lift heavier things but also having stronger core muscles to prevent injury when doing basic activities. I want to continue to increase my flexibility and strength to maintain my overall health.

Future Expectations
I will probably continue to run, lift a little, and enjoy outdoor sports. I’ll probably lean out a little more as I lift less and do more cardio. But the experiment was truly interesting and I’m amazed at how much we can change our bodies over the course of a year or two. I might try a few different experiments in the next year and continue to try to get stronger in practical areas that are helpful for longevity and overall health. I certainly want to be able to be as strong and mobile as possible when I get old enough to play with my grand kids and great grand kids. I might even experiment with adding a little more weight or just seeing if any lasting change would take place if I discontinued a weight lifting regiment. Overall, I’m amazed at how much control we have over our bodies.

2 thoughts on “My Experiments: Adding 30Lbs of Muscle in One Year

  1. Fascinating subject!
    We sound a very similar physique as I’m a runners build and always have been. I’ve recently decided I need to increase the upper body strength so a timely post to for me to read on how someone else has fared. I’ve just been doing body weight exercises so far as not a member of a gym and don’t own any weights. Like you I just think it will be useful in general life to be stronger.

    Are there any healthy foodstuffs you’d recommend for muscle gain? Or did you just eat your completely normal diet plus protein shakes?


  2. Very nice post and I admire your motivation. Like you, I’m also a fitness addict. During the week, you might find me at the gym a couple times a day, though my goals are very different than yours. For me, it’s about improving my overall health and physique, while yours appears to be primarily strength training and packing on a ton of muscle.

    You are absolutely right that diet has AT LEAST as much to do with fitness as working out does. This is generally the case for everyone, especially those who believe that morning treadmill session entitles them to grab some Burger King for lunch instead of a salad. 🙂

    One suggestion – if you truly enjoy cardio, then keep doing it. But, a generally more effective (and in my opinion, more FUN) way of leaning out and burning calories is doing either HIIT or cross fit type training. It keeps you moving and you’ll leave the gym completely exhausted. And best of all, you’ll continue burning calories after you leave the gym, whereas with cardio, your calorie burn tends to stop very soon after you’re done with your routine.