When bigger is better

There’s beefcake, and then there’s filet mignon. Here’s how to gain size the right way.

In many ways, fitness is like math: Sometimes, you work on subtraction, focusing on burning more calories, or shaving seconds off of your 50-meter swim splits. The subject of addition, though, can be a bit more complex. Though so much of the conversation around exercise and diet is related to losing, plenty of exercisers want to do just the opposite. Which begs the question, what are the best ways to get bigger, the smartest ways to gain?

No offense to Arnold and Sly, but the comically bulging muscles of the bodybuilding heyday fell out of fashion alongside the Walkman. Instead, the new aspirational body is built, yet still lean. And thankfully, for those guys who do want to add muscle, there are smarter ways to add size without sucking down raw eggs by the glassful. Ready to think big? Follow this expert advice.

(1) Schedule Three Sessions (At Least): A total fitness regimen requires that all muscle groups be worked 2 to 3 times a week with at least 3 1-hour visits to the gym, at the least, explains Justin Jacobs, Tier 3-plus personal trainer and fitness manager at Equinox in New York City. “If you can only do three sessions, then it should be total body everyday. If you can do more, then think about splitting up your body parts to allow for recovery from day to day.”

(2) Make Big Moves: “Keep it basic,” says Jacobs. “Pick up heavy things and put them down,” he says, recommending exercises like squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, bench presses, pull-ups, rows, etc. “The weight should be as heavy as you can handle with good form. You are going for volume here (time under load x load) so you want to be in a range somewhere from 8 to 12 reps. You should be incapable of completing another rep somewhere in that range.” Engaging multiple larger muscle groups releases the most growth hormone and testosterone, which in turn changes the size of our muscles, explains Calvin Buhler of Precision Nutrition and the online coaching program Scrawny to Brawny.

(3) Curtail Your Cardio:Breakup with the treadmill, temporarily.Cardio is the devil when you are trying to really gain,” says Jacobs. “Just don't do it.”

(4) Prioritize Sleep: Get at least seven hours of sleep per night. “Sleep is when your body releases the most amount of growth hormone,” says Buhler.

(5) Add Calories Cautiously:Buhler insists that guys looking to add muscle mass—even lean muscle mass—likely need to eat more than they are at the moment. But it’s not permission to put the pizza guy on speed dial. “You want nutritionally-dense foods—tons of vegetables and proteins, moderate carbohydrates, and fairly moderate, quality fats,” he says. “We’re not talking cheeseburgers and fries.”

(6) Focus On Protein And Veggies:Buhler and his Precision Nutrition colleague Nate Green recommend using your hand as a gauge when piling your plate: Eat two palms’ worth of protein with every meal, ideally the best quality possible—grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, omega 3-eggs, supplemented with two fists’ worth of vegetables (spinach, broccoli, bell peppers, onions and so on) for proper vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

(7) Go Nuts:Jacobs is not a fan of guzzling protein shakes with gusto.“Instead, eat whole foods with a balance of macronutrients,” he recommends. “You need to have a caloric surplus at the end of the day, so starchy foods like potatoes and whole grains can be helpful here. Nut butters like almond, cashew, and peanut are calorically dense as well.”