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Building Muscle, Staying Lean

Q: You recently said that older guys should aim to stay leaner. I’m 43 and natural, but I constantly struggle with exactly how lean. I’m more on the endomorph side and about 190 pounds right now. I want to keep making gains, but I’m not competing or anything. When you say that we older guys should keep leaner, is that about what you’re thinking? It’s quite a bit of effort for me to keep it there; the gains are so very slow that it feels impossible to gauge what’s right because I don’t expect to see any feedback for about a year.

A: It is more difficult to add muscle while staying lean because adding muscle requires a certain amount of calories; however, as you have said, your metabolism changes as you get older. If you eat too many calories in order to add more muscle, you’ll most likely add more fat than muscle.

One of the best methods for adding muscle mass for natural bodybuilders is to bulk up. In other words, eat a lot of calories—from bodybuilding foods such as complete proteins and complex carbohydrates—and train very heavy using the basic exercises to add bodyweight and initiate muscle growth.

That’s the method I used to get bigger in my bodybuilding career. When I was only 21 years old, I bulked up to 230 pounds. For the next 15 to 20 years I maintained a bodyweight of 230 to 240 pounds in the off-season in order to increase my muscle mass gradually from year to year. I was 198 pounds when I won the Natural Mr. Universe at 29 years old in 1992. By 1995, I was competing at 204 pounds, and the following year I stepped onstage at 208.

I would never have been able to add that much muscle by staying lean in the off-season. I had to force the growth by eating a lot of calories from protein and complex carbs in the off-season, especially during my 20s and 30s, when I had a fast metabolism.

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Bodybuilders who are older do not have the luxury of eating a lot of calories in the off-season. The metabolism becomes slower as we get older, and our natural production of growth hormone also declines. Growth hormone regulates bodyfat deposition, so less growth hormone output means that it’s much easier to add fat.

If you want to look good as you get older, it’s important to eat less and keep your bodyfat down. If you try eating as much as you did when you were younger, you will add too much bodyfat. Whether you decide to compete in the future, you will still have a difficult time reducing the bodyfat when you want to be ripped.

As an over-40 bodybuilder, although you need to eat less, you still need to eat enough of the right nutrients in order to support muscle growth. Protein is a key to growth. You don’t need to go overboard, but you do need to get enough high-quality complete-protein foods for muscle recuperation and growth. I recommend 1.25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. At 190 pounds, you would need approximately 237 grams of protein a day.

I like to eat a variety of protein foods throughout the day. For breakfast I’ll have one whole egg and eight egg whites. For lunch I’ll have four ounces of either chicken breast or lean ground turkey. Dinner usually includes six ounces of salmon or three to four ounces of sirloin or round steak. I’ll also have a protein drink for one meal and another six to seven egg whites for my last meal of the day.

It’s important to eat enough complex carbohydrates as well—for muscle recuperation and energy for intense workouts. I could never build any muscle on a low-carb diet. My body responds much better to a diet that contains plenty of complex carbohydrates to restore the muscle glycogen and provide the fuel for my training sessions.

When I was getting in shape for my recent IRON MAN cover shoot, I followed a diet that was higher in carbohydrates than the typical fat-loss plan. I started my diet by eating 200 grams of carbs a day, and I was able to increase it to 350 grams before the shoot. Eating more carbs allowed me to maintain high energy, display more vascularity and keep my muscles full.

I stuck with complex carbs that are digested slowly because of their high fiber content—oatmeal, oat bran, sweet potatoes, Ezekiel bread and quinoa became staples. They also helped to keep me full and prevented me from feeling hungry while on my diet.

Your diet will provide you with the nutrition you need to grow muscle while staying lean, but it’s the training that will stimulate the muscles to grow. There are many training methods that you can use to build muscle and add size. One of the most basic is to train heavier. The more weight you can lift for six to eight repetitions, the more muscle you will build. The problem for older lifters, however, is that getting stronger and lifting more weight are not always possible. The natural testosterone declines as we get older, so our strength goes down with it. Even for those who consistently weight train, it’s hard to maintain the level of strength we had in our 20s and 30s.

Another consideration is the wear and tear of the joints. If you have been a bodybuilder for several decades and have been lifting heavy weights during that time, your elbows, knees, shoulders and lower back may not be capable of lifting lots of weight anymore without injury or discomfort. For older trainees, lifting heavier may not be the answer.

There are other high-intensity methods that can build muscle without your having to lift more resistance. I have written about Hell-Raiser Training, or HRT, the method that I used earlier in the year. It consisted of performing eight normal repetitions followed by four forced negatives—my training partner would apply pressure on the negative portion of the rep for a four-second count.

HRT enabled me to train very hard without increasing the resistance. I was pushing the muscles past the point of failure via the forced repetitions performed after normal reps. It allowed me to develop the muscle fibers as well as increase the sacroplasm portion of the muscle cell by forcing more glycogen and blood flow into the muscles.

For the upcoming year, my plan is to use Hell-Raiser Training in conjunction with some power cycles to keep my strength up. The one drawback to HRT is that you have to use much less resistance on each movement in order to complete the forced repetitions on top of the regular reps. By using a six-week power cycle before the HRT cycles, I hope to become stronger from each successive cycle so I make improvements gradually throughout the year.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-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, Listen to John’s radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at  IM


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