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Bulking up without 'the juice'

How can a skinny guy get buff without steroids? And why is there so much conflicting advice on weight-training? Smart Fitness answers your queries.
F.Birchman /

How can a skinny guy get buff without steroids? And why is there so much conflicting advice on weight-training? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: All the focus is on weight loss, but I have the opposite problem. I’m a skinny guy who wants to bulk up. How can I do this without resorting to steroids? Are there any supplements that can help?

A: With all the news reports lately of steroid use in the sports world, it would seem the only way to get big and strong is by injecting chemicals into your body — and loads of them.

It's true "the juice" can produce results above and beyond what many men could achieve on their own through weight-training. But it's just not worth the risk, experts say.

"There are too many negative side effects," says Janet Walberg Rankin, a professor in the department of human nutrition, foods and exercise at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Among the risks associated with steroids are heart problems, aggressiveness ('roid rage), severe acne, baldness, shrunken testicles and breast enlargement in men, and facial hair growth for women.

But steroids aren't magic. Guys who bulk up on steroids also are clocking many hours at the gym each week pumping iron.

Muscles have to be stimulated and challenged to grow. So weight-training is what you should focus on to help put some meat on your bones.

Just how much muscle a man can put on through training varies. "It really depends on the individual's age, genetic profile, hormone levels, how hard and long a person might train, what kind of diet they consume and if they are taking any performance-enhancing drugs or supplements," says Jeffrey Potteiger, chair of the department of physical education, health and sports studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

A young, healthy man who's not taking steroids could still pack on several pounds of muscle in a couple of months if he's training hard, he says.

Most gains happen in the beginning of a strength program. Over time, Rankin says, the average muscle gain for men is about four or five pounds total.

So if you're hoping that weight-training will turn you into Mr. Universe, it's probably not going to happen.

Technically speaking, you're an ectomorph, with a body that's skinny by nature. Even with similar training programs, you'll have a harder time packing on pounds than an endomorph, who tends to be chubby, or a mesomorph, who has a more athletic body that gains muscle most easily, says Michael Barnes, an exercise physiologist and director of education at the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But you can gain muscle and become stronger and more "cut" if you hit the weights hard enough, Barnes says. He recommends that beginners start out by doing one to two sets of strength exercises that target all major muscle groups, three times a week. As you build strength, you can increase the workload. After several months, for example, you could start training four days a week and gradually increasing your sets to three to five, he says.

And since you're already lean, Barnes notes, it's best to avoid high-calorie-burning activities like endurance running (ever seen a bulky distance runner?). Instead, focus your cardio activity on sprints and interval training that increase your power, he says.

People looking to pack on muscle also will need to consume more calories than they burn. This is the opposite formula than the one for weight loss.

Rankin recommends getting about 250 extra calories a day, making sure to consume good sources of protein, such as lean meat, fish and legumes. You probably don't need protein bars or powders since many people get about twice the recommended amount of protein (two to three servings a day) from foods, and that's more than enough for muscle gain, she says.

As for other dietary supplements, while some evidence suggests potential benefit from products such as creatine, the jury is still out and it's too soon to recommend any of them, says Rankin.

Because supplements aren't carefully regulated by the government, they could contain unsafe or even illegal ingredients. The FDA recently cracked down on the makers of two supplements that contained synthetic steroids.

Q: There is so much weight-lifting information out there that it's difficult to determine what's best. What do you recommend for sets and reps, and is it better to complete circuit training or work on specific muscle groups on weight day?

A: Ask five trainers about the best way to weight train and you'll probably get five different answers. Is it one set or three — or five? Free weights or machines? Two days a week or five? Target all muscles in one day, or split it up?

The best strength-training program for you will depend on your current fitness level and your goal. As Barnes notes above, beginners should start slowly and gradually build up to a tougher program.

Just how tough that program should be is up to you. If you're trying to build as much muscle mass as possible, you'll need to train several days a week with heavy weights. If you're just trying to tone up you may only need to do a quick circuit on the machines a couple times a week.

Keep in mind, though, that it's good to mix things up. Your body likes a challenge. That's why trainers, while they may disagree on the exact number of sets and reps, generally recommend some combination of free weights and machines, and periodically trying new training regimens.

The key is to find some combinations you like so that you stick with the activity.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.