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3 Key Questions on Building Muscle Mass

7208-nathuge1Q: All my respect to you, John. You have an awesome physique. I have three questions: 1) Did you take digestive enzymes or betain HCL (for big protein meals ) to help with big daily diets? 2) Some schools of thought say that natural bodybuilders have to train each bodypart more often per week than drug assisted guys. What is the bottom line for you on workout frequency, including the difference between those two types of bodybuilders? 3)What’s your take on protein per pound of bodyweight—one gram per pound or higher doses? In the ’70s, guys like Arnold, Serge Nubret and Robby Robinson ate a ton of protein—meat, chicken, protein shakes, liver tabs—and very few carbs, restricting them mostly to once-per-week junk-carbs days. 

A: I never took a lot of digestive enzymes, but I think they are a good idea. The enzymes that help to digest protein are valuable for their help in assimilating a greater amount of protein to build muscle. Of course, it’s always helpful to divide your total protein intake over five to six meals or more so you get a smaller amount of protein at each meal. That enables the body to digest it more easily.

Whenever I eat a meal, I always have the protein first. I know it sounds a little ridiculous, but I’ve been doing that for years, since I read about it in a magazine when I was a kid. If you eat the chicken, eggs, steak or other protein food first in your meal, the enzymes that digest protein will help to absorb those amino acids more efficiently than if you eat the other foods first or eat them in combination with the protein.

Optimum workout frequency depends on the intensity of the workout and on the recuperation ability of the individual. If you are able to recuperate fast enough to train the same muscle group twice a week with only two or three days of rest, then it would probably be to your benefit to do that. If, however, you feel that you can’t recuperate fast enough and your muscles or joints and tendons are sore when you try to do your second workout of the week, you may need to take more rest before hitting that muscle group again.

The intensity of the workout also has to be considered. A very hard workout—using more resistance or taking the sets to total failure—will cause more muscle damage and require more days to recuperate before you can hit that bodypart again. Most of us have experienced leg workouts that caused us to feel sore for a full week. If you’re doing those types of workouts consistently, it would be very difficult to train each muscle twice a week.

Actually, you have it backward in your question. Someone using performance-enhancing drugs, like steroids and growth hormone, will be able to recuperate much faster and so train more often instead of less. Steroids and other drugs enhance the recuperation process by increasing protein assimilation, decreasing cortisol and increasing testosterone and growth hormone production.

Someone who is not using performance-enhancing drugs will not have all those benefits and will need more recuperation after workouts, not less. Natural athletes will be more likely to overtrain if they train too hard, too often or too long.

A younger bodybuilder, who has more testosterone and growth hormone, will be able to recuperate much faster than an older individual, who has lower natural-hormone levels. When I was in my teens and 20s, I could train each muscle group twice a week, and I was training very heavy and very hard at each workout.

For maximum muscle growth you should adjust your training according to how well you are recuperating. If you are training very hard, be sure to schedule in enough rest days to restore the nervous system to normal as well as give the muscles, tendons and joints the time they need to recuperate.

I don’t like to train more than two days in a row before taking a day off. I find that when I train three or four days in a row or more, my energy starts to lag, and I can’t give 100 percent to each workout. Even if you’re training each muscle group more often than once a week, make sure you take a full day off after two or three consecutive days of working out.

Your question on protein centers on how much the body can assimilate and use. Eating a lot of protein may not be necessary because the body can only digest and use so much at one time. Too much protein taken will be stored as fat or eliminated.

Similar to what happens with training, bodybuilders who use performance-enhancing drugs are able to eat and digest more protein because the drugs help with nitrogen (protein, that is) retention. That’s the reason some bodybuilders eat two to three grams of protein for each pound of bodyweight. Their bodies can use that much protein because the drugs help to digest and assimilate the amino acids into the muscles.

Drug-free bodybuilders do not need as much protein because they cannot digest as much. I would recommend that natural bodybuilders eat between 1.25 to 1.5 grams of protein for each pound of bodyweight. A 200-pound bodybuilder would need 250 to 300 grams of protein per day.

Many of the bodybuilders in the ’70s typically ate a very high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diet. In the ’80s the trend switched around, and most bodybuilders were eating very high carbs but moderate amounts of protein and very low (20 grams per day) fats.

I think the best macronutrient profile to follow is a moderately high protein diet  of 1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight along with the right amounts of carbs and fats. Some bodybuilders get better results eating a lower-fat diet with more complex carbs. Others respond better to fewer carbs and a higher-fat diet. It all depends on your individual metabolism and your current condition. Those who have more bodyfat when they start their diet might be better off eating fewer carbs until they begin to get leaner.


Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a three-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to [email protected]. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse,  IM


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