From Geek to Freak - gaining muscle
- 2016 UPDATE
- Occam's Protocol claims
- My results - does Occam's Protocol work?
- Occam's Protocol conclusions
- From Geek to Freak (for advanced trainees)
This trial may be null, due to measurement error.
The body composition measurement method I used, DXA, turns out to be one of the most accurate we have, but DXA is still quite imprecise. In January 2016, I measured myself on two consecutive days at the same time of the day, and saw a loss of lean body mass of 4lbs.
"From Geek to Freak" is rapid muscle gaining program proposed by 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss, in his newer book The 4-Hour Body, pages 181-224. This is my account of following the a simplified version of the program ("Occam's Protocol") for three weeks. I presented a talk on this topic, comparing Occam's Protocol with P90X, at the 2011 Quantified Self Conference. Slides from the talk are available at Slideshare - P90x vs. Occam's Protocol as described by Tim Ferriss in 4-Hour Body. While anecdotal evidence (my girlfriend at the time) suggests the program worked, there were no good measurement supporting that.
Tim Ferriss comes from a family of lightly muscled men. Four DNA tests with 3 different companies (2 with 23andme) confirmed that he's "not genetically pre-programmed to gain a lot of muscular mass". The chapter is an update of his 2005 routine that he posted at Bodybuilding.com.
The information below is from the book, which fills in some details missing from Bodybuilding.com. It's also rearranged in the order that Tim recommends a new trainee should go through, as opposed to the chronological order in the book:
- Occam's Protocol (for beginners)
- From Geek To Freak (what Tim, a conditioned athlete, did in 2005 to gain 34 pounds of muscle)
You can buy The 4-Hour Body on Amazon. Some people have asked whether I may infringe copyright by quoting so much. I believe Tim made available most of the info in his blog already, I give full credit to him, I'm releasing my own contributions under a CC license, and others are reproducing way more without adding their own experience. However, if there is a problem, please contact me.
Bodybuilders on the boybuilding.com forums are generally of the opinion that gaining 34lbs of muscle in a month is nearly impossible, unless one is at an artificially low weight, and has exceptional genetics. The commonly-cited example of Casey Viator had both these traits; plus, Casey was paid for each pound of muscle he gained.
For Occam's Protocol (the "simplified" version of From Geek to Freak), Ferriss claims at page 195 of 4HB:
"In just over four weeks, Neil [Strauss], who'd never been able to gain weight, gained 10 pounds of muscle and grew from 125 to 135 pounds, a near 10% increase in total body mass"-- The 4-Hour Body, p. 195
Note that Neil's grow means no fat gain! If you read the Diet section below, this claim will appear pretty fantastic.
Goal (Occam's Protocol I, p. 196):
to apply the Minimum Effective Dose necessary to trigger muscular growth mechanisms, and then channel food preferentially into muscle tissue during overfeeding, as safely as possible.
- Premiere Scan, San Jose. $79 for the first scan, $59 for the followup. Yelp link. Based on my own experience, they don't provide left-right body muscle breakdown. I was satisfied with them. The machine they use is a GE Lunar Prodigy.
- Body Composition Center, Redwood City. $69. 5-star Yelp reviews as of Nov 2013. Recommended by Tim. Based on my own experience, they do provide left-right body muscle breakdown. Results are nearly identical to PremiereScan. The facility is older and much smaller than Premiere Scan.
- Sunnyvale Imaging Center, Sunnyvale. No information about cost. Yelp reviews complain about MRI scans. No word on DXA.
Immediately after undergoing the DXA scan, measure your body composition on the scale, and note its offsets.
On the other hand, note that such scales use the bioelectrical impedance analysis method, which is sensitive to the amount of water you've been drinking between measurements. Tim mentions being able to "make my bodyfat percentage jump almost 1% in five minutes by drinking two liters of water in between measurements". I've also seen, for a total weight gain of 5lbs morning vs. evening, an increase in body fat of 3% and a drop of muscle mass of 2% at the end of the day, after eating several times and drinking 2 cups of milk and 1.5L of tea.
Tim recommends the following protocol for largely avoiding the hydration issue:
Immediately upon waking, drink 1.5 liters (about 50 fluid ounces) of cold water - ensure that water temperature is the same day to day - and wait 30 minutes.Urinate and then test bodyfat using bio-impedance. Do not eat or drink anything else before testing.
Even though Occam's Protocol "works without any supplementation whatsoever" (p. 208), Tim recommends the following supplements for the daily regimen:
- Cissus quadrangularis - 2,400mg 3 times a day 30 minutes prior to meals, for a maximum of 7,200mg/day for ~72kg (~160lb) of lean body mass), "to minimize fat gain" (covered in the "Damage Control" and "The Four Horsemen" chapters).
- Reviews indicate it's great for joint pain
- Tim talks about CQ in "X-Factor: Cissus Quadrangularis", around page 121.
- GNC has it, manufactured by USPlabs as SupperCissus RX, 150 800mg capsules (GNC has no other manufacturers for it). Vitamin Shoppe has it but in 1000mg capsules. Rite Aid and Walgreens don't have it.
- Alpha-lipoic acid (300mg, 30 minutes before each whole-food meal), "to minimize fat gain". GNC and Trader Joe's have it in stores.
- L-glutamine (ConsumerLab, Wikipedia): 10 grams every 2 hours until reaching 80g for an initial 5-day loading period, for potential intestinal repair rather than risking suboptimal food absorption. After the loading period, you can optionally consume 10-30 grams post-workout to speed repair and help prevent soreness. "Powder is easier to consume, but capsules are easier for travel." Walgreens sells it online only.
WARNING: WebMD recommends not exceeding 40 grams daily. In my experience, in the middle of day 3 of loading, I had an attack of abdominal pain and visited the ER. The diagnosis is not certain at this point (a type of gastritis), but the doctor advised stopping L-glutamine supplementation. My BUN and protein levels were also above normal. You MUST drink way more water than usual when taking proteins. Track it carefully and don't just rely on drinking when thirsty or "often enough".
- creatine monohydrate, 3.5g upon waking and before bed for the entire 28-day duration, to increase maximal force production and protein synthesis. Creatine comes in different forms:
- Micronized creatine monohydrate is the best bang for the buck, according to Examine, which has all you'd want to know about creatine
- Tim says "If you use powder, mix 5-6 grams total, as losing 1 or 2 grams in solution is hard to avoid." (but he's probably not talking about micronized creatine) Micronized creatine is a form of creatine whose particles are smaller (10x-20x), which makes for much better absorption. You can just take it with water.
- pills - some people suggest they may not digest in the stomach, and you'd do well to bite them before swallowing. Just don't bother with any other forms. Get micronized monohydrate.
Creatine is awesome, get it.
"More than four hours per month of gym time is not necessary to reach your target weight in record time. Flip the growth switch and go home." (p. 190) With your newfound time, focus on eating.
Record all settings on your machines (e.g. hole number in the sliding seat adjustment) and standardize the movement. Control all variables that should not change between exercises (form, seat adjustment, rest time etc.)
Use the "locked position" to protect your shoulders in all weight-bearing exercises: pull your shoulder blades back and push them down towards the hips 1-2 inches. If you are lying down on your back and someone pulls your arm up, then your whole body should follow instead of just the arm and a (dislocated) shoulder.
One-Set-To-Failure: Follow Arthur Jones' general recommendations for one-set-to-failure (80-120 seconds of total time under tension per exercise set), for 7 or more reps (the leg press is to be performed at 10 or more repetitions at the same cadence). Do not just drop the weight when you hit failure. Hold it at the limit for 5 seconds. Then slowly lower it for 5-10 seconds. "Do not underestimate the severity of complete failure. [Failure is pushing as if] you had a gun to your head." The last rep is the one that matters. If you feel you could do another set a minute later, you didn't reach failure. "Contrary to widespread belief, this is not the point at which the individual thinks they cannot complete any more repetitions, but rather the first repetition that fails due to inadequate muscular strength." -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strength_training#Progressive_overload
5/5 Cadence: "Perform every repetition with a 5/5 cadence (5 seconds up, 5 seconds down) to eliminate momentum and ensure constant load." The only exceptions to the cadence rule are the abdominal exercises and the kettlebell swing.
Do not pause at the top or bottom of the movements.
Between exercises, "[t]ime 3 minutes exactly with a stopwatch." (p. 203). This means that if you work out with a partner, you must very carefully alternate exercises (so that they do their workout during your rest time of 3 minutes and vice-versa), or you just do both exercises, then they do both their exercises. Don't let the 3 minutes blend into 3 and a half. "This is nonnegotiable."
If you complete the minimal target number of reps for all exercises (except abs and kettlebell swing), increase the weight the next workout 10lbs or 10%, whichever is greater. If that feels too easy after 2-3 reps, stop, wait 5 minutes, then increase 5-10 more lbs.
If you fail before 7 reps (or 10 for the leg presses), do not decrease the weight and do another set. Just leave, take one day off, then com back 48 hours after your failure. (p. 217)
Increase recovery time along with size. "The bigger and stronger you get, the less often you will go to the gym" because your body needs more time to repair a 20lb muscle vs. its 10lb predecessor. (p. 204)
There are two workouts (A and B) that you will alternate. Each workout consists of two primary lifts, which can be done using either machines, or free weights. I chose the machines because they minimize the number of variables I have to control for (posture, grip etc.) and drastically reduce the risk of injury.
Do only one set of each exercise - to failure; then go home. You don't need to spend more than 7 minutes per day in the gym - really.
The temptation to add exercises will be enormous. Don't do it. If anything, if you've never been able to gain mass, you might choose to do less.
- Close-grip supinated (palm facing you) pull-down x 7 reps (5 seconds up / 5 seconds down)
- Machine shoulder press x 7 reps (5/5). Tim has palms face forward
- (optional) abdominal exercises from "Six-minute abs"
- Slight decline (< 20 degrees) bench press x 7 (5/5). Tim shows a Hammer Strength machine like the one in this video. You need to select the one that simulates a decline bench press. Alternatively, you can roll a towel or put a book under your lower back to simulate the decline.
Your knuckles should be one fist-width above your chest at the bottom of the movement. Also pause 1 second at the bottom, without touching the weight stack.
For my first trial of the protocol, I did a Smith decline bench press instead (women's video).
- Leg press x 10 (5/5). Tim shows a PRECOR sled machine.
- Stationary bike x 3 minutes @ 85+ rpm (to minimize subsequent leg soreness)
- Optional: kettlebell or T-bar swings from "Building the Perfect Posterior" x 50
Perform sets of 5 reps in each exercise with 1 minute of rest in between. Cadence: fast and controlled on the rising, 2-3 seconds on the lowering. Do not perform more than 5 reps per set. If you can lift more, wait 1 minute, increase the weight 10lbs or 10% (whichever is less), and retry. Repeat until you complete fewer than 5 steps.
After you fail to finish 5 reps, calculate 70% of your last full 5-rep set (except for the shoulder press - use 60%) and round up or down to match an existing weight. Take 3 minutes rest and perform a 5/5 cadence set-to-failure with that weight.
Take 5 minutes of rest, and repeat for the second workout.
- Start with 7 days without any body resistance or weight training.
- Workout A, then two days off
- Workout B, then two days off
- Workout A, then two days off
- Workout B, then three days off
- Now keep resting for three days between workouts, as you keep alternating among A and B.
- "As soon as you have a workout where more than one exercise has stalled, but not before, increase to four days between workouts."
- Continue adding rest as needed to resolve plateaus until you hit your target weight or end your bulking cycle.
This schedule assumes that you consume enough food to support rapid growth. The vast majority of those who fail to gain, do so because of insufficient eating (as you can also see from the comments that the bottom of this page - in my first trial I ate way too little).
The generally-accepted basic idea for muscle gain, is that you need to eat A LOT. You'll gain both fat and muscle, and you'll have to shed the fat later; gaining just muscle is very hard.
The meal composition is nearly identical to the Slow-Carb Diet, as are the tenets, though we now add a starch such as brown rice or quinoa to the non-shake meals. The choice is yours: eat big or eat often. Fat gain will be slightly more with the former, and inconvenience will be much greater with the latter. Pick one and make it your religion for four weeks. It's easy to lose a little extra fat later.
There are lots of websites and smartphone apps that let you track food intake. The main problem with them is that the nutrition data either lacks for your foods, or is submitted by users, who often get it wrong.
I followed a low-tech approach this time and used an Excel spreadhseet with lots of foods from Trader Joe's.
More information about what tools people use to track their diet is on the Quantified Self Forum.
Ensure that you are eating 20 calories per pound of lean bodyweight for 10 pounds more than your current lean bodyweight. Note that this is not necessarily your ultimate target weight (assuming you want to gain more than 10 pounds). Adjust this target number on a weekly basis.
Example: 120lb lean mass + 10lb = 130lb target lean mass. Times 20 => eat 2600 calories.
Generally, if you just eat a lot, including milk and shakes, "You don't need to count calories" (p. 217).
Healthy high-calorie items:
- Almonds, walnuts, other dry fruit
From Geek to Freak: "Eat enormous quantities of protein (much like my current fat-loss diet) with low-glycemic index carbohydrates like quinoa, but drop calories by 50% one day per week to prevent protein uptake down-regulation."
It's not true that the body can only handle max. 30 grams of protein per meal. Daily total protein is more important than per-meal protein.
For muscular gain, Tim suggests at least 1.25g of protein per pound of current lean bodyweight. Example: for 120lb lean body mass, eat 150g of protein per day. (p. 191)
WARNING: Three weeks into my Occam's Protocol experiment, I had an abdominal pain attack and had to visit the ER (for the second time in my life; I don't just go to the hospital for anything). The diagnosis was not certain (a type of gastritis), but my BUN and protein levels were above normal. You MUST drink way more water than usual when taking proteins. Track it carefully and don't just rely on drinking when thirsty or "often enough".
To avoid kidney problems associated with extra protein intake, and poor performance due to dehydration, drink extra water. Guidelines vary, but Anthony Ricciuto recommends as many ounces as your body weight in kilograms. In less idiotic measurement units, drink 2.8% of your body weight. He also recommends increasing fiber intake: "It's hard to pack on size if you have a severe case of constipation. You may laugh, but this is one of the first things that happen to someone trying to gain weight. Many individuals increase their caloric and protein intake yet; they forget to do the same with their fiber and water."
The Wikipedia page on Strength training confirms the necessity of extra water:
Nonetheless, the deamination process creates urea, which places low, but consistent, strain on the nephrons. Failure to properly hydrate can result in an exaggeration of this effect.  
The book chapter doesn't give any specific guidelines for how much carbs you should eat.
Some sources say 1.5 - 3g per pound of body weight per day; others: 5-6g per kg of body weight (which is about the same).
An adequate supply of carbohydrates (5-7g per kg) is also needed as a source of energy and for the body to restore glycogen levels in muscles.
150lbs x 3g = 450g carbs / day.
This is more than DOUBLE what I ate in my 2011 trial. The minimum would be 225g carbs/day, again above what I ate every single day. No wonder I didn't gain much.
So far (Nov 2013), this is my most challenging diet component. Some easy ways to up your carb intake:
- Bread. My sandwiches usually consist of a slice of bread, one of ham and one of cheese. Double the bread and you double the carbs. Four such sandwiches jump from 60g to 120g. Low in sodium too.
- Rice (more carbs per calorie than potatoes). Especially brown rice.
- Fruit, ice-cream, sorbets (at the expense of lots of sugar)
If you fail to gain mass (at least 2.5lbs per week), add 2% organic milk between meals. Start with one liter a day. You can reach up to one gallon a day. Tim advises that even if you think you are lactose intolerant, start drinking a little organic whole milk, then gradually increase the quantity. You'll find that in a few days you'll be able to drink a cup of milk without problems.
See also this debated study: Drinking milk helps gain muscle and lose fat after exercise. It was done in 2007 on men (AJCN link), and apparently repeated in 2010 on women:
- Consumption of fat-free fluid milk after resistance exercise promotes greater lean mass accretion than does consumption of soy or carbohydrate in young, novice, male weightlifters and 2005 its precursor Dietary Protein to Support Anabolism with Resistance Exercise in Young Men
We conclude that chronic postexercise consumption of milk promotes greater hypertrophy during the early stages of resistance training in novice weightlifters when compared with isoenergetic soy or carbohydrate consumption.
- Milk: Two glasses a day tones muscles, keeps the fat away in women, study shows
Mix macaroni (preferably durum whole wheat) with a can of water-packed tuna and as much fat-free turkey/bean chili as you like, then microwave it for 1 minute on high for breakfast. Substitute quinoa for the macaroni for more protein. Add some whole milk or Irish butter for taste.
Cost varies with your weight and supplement stack. I haven't tallied it up yet, but I'd wager between $300 and $400 per month, given food prices in the San Francisco Bay Area. I shop mostly at Trader Joe's.
You need to eat anyway, and you should do the workout for one month and then apparently take a break or start a cutting cycle (this is a bit unclear in the book). So consider about $200 extra for gaining muscle like you haven't gained before.
More sleep lets the body recover better. 8+ hours per night are recommended.
Informal studies suggest that workouts done in the evening lead to ~10% bigger muscle gains.
I followed the exercise and diet guidelines in Occam's protocol for only 3 weeks, up to the point of getting admitted to ER, when my blood protein level was too high. After that, I continued training, but I drastically dropped the amount of protein intake, basically not following the diet.
The compliance map to the right shows how well I managed to adhere to Occam's Protocol. I was focused on protein intake, and eating so many calories was difficult, so my total caloric intake was 84% of what was recommended (2500 calories a day, with one day per week at 50% calories).
I didn't know about recommended carb intake (because the Occam's Protocol chapter in the book doesn't mention it! I only found out about that later from other sources), so my carbs were whatever came with 150g of protein per day. Overall, I had 70% of the carbs I should have had (avg. 162g/day, out of recommended 230g).
Sleep is said to be a major factor in recovery, and I averaged a clearly low amount, 6.6 hours per night. I'm not sure what the recommended amount is, but let's say 8 hours.
Compliance was, then:
- exercise: 100%
- protein: 84%
- carbs: 70%
- sleep: 82%
- non-weighted average: 84%
|Before||After 3 weeks||+ / -|
|Body fat %||21.8%||22.6%||+0.8% (+2.2 lbs)|
|Lean mass||115.7 lbs||117.7 lbs||+2 lbs|
|Total weight||153.4 lbs||157.6 lbs||+4.2 lbs|
In 19 days of doing Occam's Protocol, I gained 2lbs of muscle and 2 lbs of fat. By comparison, Neil Strauss (see the Claims section) allegedly would have gained 6.8lbs of muscle and no fat.
What would I do differently if I did this again?
- Eat like a pig and score the indicated amount of calories and carbs a day as well, not just protein
- Drink water - 2.8% of body weight
- Sleep more
Still, I would not expect anything near the fantastic gains of Tim Ferriss or Neil Strauss.
So, does Occam's Protocol work? In my experience, with 84% compliance, I got only 29% of the advertised muscle gain, plus 2.2lbs of "bonus" fat.
WORK IN PROGRESS - I haven't done this yet, so information is incomplete
See Tim's log on bodybuilding.com, and/or buy the 4-Hour Body book.
- Each meal:
- ChromeMate (chromium polynicotinate, not picolinate, 200mcg). Food Science Labs is approved by ConsumerLab but available only online from Vitamin Shoppe.
- alpha-lipoic acid (200mg). Solgar at Vitamin Shoppe comes in 200mg capsules and is approved by ConsumerLab. Page 208: 300mg, 30 minutes before each whole-food meal.
- Pre-workout: BodyQUICK (2 capsules 30 minutes prior). Note: this supplement seems heavily advertised by Ferriss. Available primarily from Bodybuilding.com, then from obscure sources.
- Post-workout: Micellean (micellar casein protein) - a meal replacement product, discontinued everywhere, even on Bodybuilding.com (in Jan 2006!), to which Tim links. Replacements seem to include OPTIMUM NUTRITION 100% CASEIN PROTEIN VAN 4LB. Available at GNC for ~$82 vs. $57 on Amazon and ~$25x2 at Vitamin Shoppe. "Casein demands a blender" (Amazon reviewer) and mixing it with a shake bottle or spoon will leave clumps.
- Prior to bed:
- policosanol (23mg) - sugarcane extract supposed to improve cholesterol profile, but only studies done in Cuba by a group with a financial relationship to the product showed that. Wikipedia lists many references that confirm the story. Available from GNC if you insist.
- ChromeMate (200mcg)
- alpha-lipoic acid (200mg)
- Slo-Niacin (500mg)
(updated from Bodybuilding.com) Focus on 2-10 exercises per workout. The sequence Tim used is at http://www.fourhourbody.com/geek-to-freak/. "Take at least least 3 minutes of rest between exercises." (p. 186).
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