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Matt Wilson is an original cast member in the play, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” That’s a great gig for any actor—the musical comedy about a fictional middle school spelling contest won two Tony Awards—but it comes with a downside: “When you’re in that show,” says Wilson. “It’s because you look like you’re 12 years old.”
Indeed, baby-faced, lanky-bodied Wilson, who is 38, has always looked very, very young. “I wanted to look and feel more like a man, like a gladiator,” he says. “So I decided to try to put on as much muscle as I could.”
But Wilson’s lifestyle had always been totally at odds with getting big. Not only does he perform on stage in plays and in circus acts, he’s a trainer at Mark Fisher Fitness, in New York City.
“I’ve always had a hard time putting on weight because I’m so active. My whole life as a performing artist is hustling, running around, doing physical stuff, and I was working out five days a week on top of that,” says Wilson.
Think of adding or losing weight like a credit and debit system: Eating adds funds to your account. Activity removes funds from your account. If the number in your account is usually positive at the end of the day, you’ll put on weight. If you’re also lifting weights, that weight will likely mostly come from muscle.
Wilson had always lived in the red, typically burning more kilojoules than he took in. What’s more, whenever he tried to add muscle he’d end up overcomplicating his workouts and his eating plan and fail, he says.
“I can drive myself crazy with minute workout details and nutrition tracking—I overthink it and overdo it,” says Wilson. “So I decided to do the opposite of what I always do: I made things as simple as possible.”
Simplification soon led to transformation. “After a couple months on my new program, one of my friends came up to me and said, ‘dude, you got f**cking huge!,’” says Wilson. “My tongue-in-cheek nickname at the gym became ‘The God of Gainz.’”
9kgs of muscle and six months later, Wilson achieved the gladiator look he was after.
If you have a hard time putting on muscle, consider boiling down your own plan with the following methods that Wilson used. “Keep it easy and consistent,” says Wilson. “Just show up and put the time in.”
Simplify Your Training
Wilson’s insanely-active lifestyle meant that his metabolism was always at full tilt. Then he’d go into the gym and do weight-based circuits designed to incinerate kilojoules, further cranking his metabolic furnace. All that running on empty eventually led to injuries.
“The first thing I did is I stopped doing metabolic circuits. I took my workouts down from five a week to about three a week,” says Wilson. “And I only did around four strength exercises per workout, with longer rest between sets.”
The moves in those workouts: A pushing exercise like a overhead kettlebell press, a pulling exercise like a pullup, a squatting exercise like a rear foot elevated split squat, and a hip hinge exercise like a deadlift.
Why It Worked
“This is a really smart way to build muscle,” says Marc Halpern, C.S.C.S. and a Registered Dieticians based in Las Vegas.
“Those exercises hit nearly every movement pattern and muscle in your body,” says Halpern. “And doing just a handful of sets of just a few effective moves stimulates your body enough to grow, but doesn’t overdo it and burn up too many kilojoules.”
Cut the fat from your own routine. Try working out three times a week, and include some kind of push, pull, squat, hip-hinge, and a plank for good measure.
Simplify Your Eating
Before Wilson set out to add mass, he was taking in about 8300 to 12500 kilojoules a day in the form of whatever healthy looking thing he could grab on his way around New York City.
He knew to gain mass he’d have to up his kilojoules. But complete diet overhauls had failed him before. So he decided to stick with how he normally ate—and also added a delicious, convenient, and calorie dense daily “snack.”
That snack: “I drank a half gallon of organic whole milk and ate a pound of grass-fed 95% lean ground beef each day,” says Wilson.
The snack packed in an extra 8300 kilojoules and 180 grams of protein each day. Add on Wilson’s normal 8300 to 12500 kilojoules per day intake, and he was nailing a number that put him in prime muscle building territory.
“It was the simplest, easiest way for me to get in enough kilojoules,” says Wilson. “And it was delicious.”
Why It Worked
“If your goal is to gain muscle and stay healthy, there are probably better ways to put on weight,” says Halpern. “But, look, this guy just wanted to add muscle and this method is what worked for his lifestyle, so that’s totally fine.”
Would Halpern use this method with his average client? No, probably not, he says.
If you want to gain muscle, he recommends you slowly ramp up your kilojoules by making your normal meals more substantial. “For example, if your average dinner is a cup of rice and a chicken breast, do two cups of rice and one and a half chicken breasts. See what happens then add more over time if you need to.”
The real magic of Wilson’s meal, says Halpern, is that he could stick to it.
Halpern—and many other trainers—say the hardest part of building muscle is consistently putting down all the kilojoules. “A couple years ago when I put on 9kgs of muscle, I ate about 16700 to 20900 kilojoules a day, too,” says Halpern. “It’s so difficult to eat that much every day, especially if you’re trying to eat all ‘healthy’ food.”
If bulking up your regular meals isn’t tacking mass to your frame—and for some guys it may not—eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat each day. “That’s what I did, and what I have a lot of clients trying to get bigger do,” he says. “The snack is cheap, portable, easy to prepare, relatively healthy, and enjoyable.”
Simplify Your Living
Wilson’s lifestyle was the demon keeping him skinny.
Lifestyles are hard to change. Obviously to continue to make a living, Wilson couldn’t give up performing altogether. But he could cut back on “extra” movement. “Instead of walking 20 blocks I’d take the subway, or instead of taking the stairs I’d take the elevator,” says Wilson.
Why It Worked
Low intensity daily activity—like walks and slow rides and runs—can actually help you recover from hard workouts and bulk up. Those chilled out activities increase blood flow, negating soreness and improving your “readiness” for your next workout.
But you can only do so much of those “extra” activities before their kilojoule-burning cost start to eat into your gains, says Halpern.
For anyone with a sedentary job, it’s hard to reach that level of total activity. Wilson, on the other hand, moved all day at work. So any extra movement was just burning energy that could have gone to muscle. Sure, he could have made up those extra, spent kilojoules by eating more, but it literally would have just added more food to his already massive plate. For Wilson, cutting back on the “extras” helped him get bigger.
Your move: If you have a very active job—like a construction worker—consider cutting back on extra movement. For example, throw the ball for your dog instead of taking him on a daily walk. If you have an office job, add some low intensity activity to your routine on your “rest” days.