Skinny to Lean: How I Gained 30 lbs. of Muscle Working out Once a Week

Little kid lifting weights
Because he does HIT, this little kid could beat you up.

In fall of Junior year of college, at 6′ tall, I was 132 lbs. I was skinny. Really, really skinny. And I knew it. After complaining one day about my bony frame, I had someone tell me that I should lift weights. “Nah,” I replied, “I’m just one of those people who can’t gain weight.” Seemingly helpless, I accepted my fate. For all my life, I was going to look like a malnourished child. However, when I began crawling the web for productivity blogs, I stumbled across a method of weight lifting that helped people gain insane amounts of weight: High intensity training. In fact, Tim Ferriss, the New York Times bestselling author, gained 34 lbs. of muscle in one month. Ecstatic, I had found my holy grail. I was finally going to break free of my skinny frame.

After lifting for 3 months using a hybrid traditional and lesser known (HIT) method, I weighed in at 146 lbs. While still skinny, I was becoming more lean: my strength had dramatically increased and I had a good deal of muscle tone. Continuing a tweaked version of the high intensity method learned from Tim Ferriss and Drew Baye, former apprentice of muscle building legend Mike Mentzer, I topped out at 162 lbs. less than 8 months later. This equates to a 30 lb. gain in 8 months. Additionally, at the peak of my routine, I was going to the gym once every 5 days for 1 hour in total; that’s it.

THE PROBLEM WITH TRADITIONAL WEIGHT LIFTING. Everyone learns differently. Everyone’s body reacts differently to certain environmental changes. Some people can sleep for four hours a day and be fine, others (like me) need much more to be effective. Why do people think body building is any different? Go to a gym for a couple days in a row and you’ll notice something: the same people are there doing multiple sets for hours on end. Often times, these people have no idea what they’re doing. Even more often, they’re posting absolutely no gains (there are exceptions to this rule, but they’re the minority). They remain on the same weight and repetitions for months and don’t gain muscle or lose fat. These same people read Maxim and Men’s Fitness and see the routines in the magazines thinking it will work for them. However, what these people don’t realize is that the ability to gain muscle while working out every day is a genetic trait, nothing more. The people in those magazines are a rare breed and one that should not be emulated. It’s a waste of time, and there’s a much more effective method for gaining muscle and losing fat while going to the gym much less often.

Weight lifting fall
Weight lifting failure.

WHAT IS HIGH INTENSITY TRAINING? High intensity training is a method where effectiveness is key. No more dilly-dallying at the gym: instead your workouts are brief, extremely intense and focused. As mentioned above, during my best gains I was going to the gym once every 5 days for 1 hour and completing only 1 set (usually between 8 to 12 reps) of 7 different (mainly compound) exercises. Each muscle group is worked during HIT workouts, and you lift at a slow cadence. Tim Ferriss says 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down; Drew Baye says around 3 seconds up and 3 seconds down. Find out what works for you by messing around with the variables. Personally, I use 4 seconds up and 4 seconds down with anywhere from a 1 to 3 minute rest in between exercises. Additionally, unlike other routine methods (like the traditional back Monday, Bicep Tuesday, etc.) where you do the same reps and weight, you should be moving up in either weight or reps every single time you work out. Once again, the key to working out using HIT is not enjoyment, it’s to build muscle and lose fat in the quickest, best way possible. More detailed information can be found on Drew Baye’s website (linked below).

HOW TO START A HIT ROUTINE. Using Tim Ferriss’s blog post (linked to above), and Drew Baye’s starting points web page I’ve narrowed down my personal routine to an upper body split one day, and a lower body split four days later (called the “A and B routine”). In routine A I do six exercises, and routine B I do roughly the same amount. However, when starting out with the HIT routine a split is most likely not necessary; it’s only important when you notice yourself plateauing (or staying at the same weight and reps for an extended period of time). For the past four months, I was doing the same routine and for the past 10 months I was doing an extremely similar routine. The basic routine was as follows: Dumbbell pullover, row machine, shoulder-width leg press machine, triceps wire machine extension, leg curl, bicep wire machine and calf raise machine. Simple, yet effective. It hit a large number of muscles and I got leaner in the process. Better details can be found on Drew’s website, but starting out is relatively easy: slow cadence (see above), long rest between workout days to allow the body to recover, sufficient calorie (especially protein) intake, and strong discipline and focus during the workout (don’t stop doing reps until you cannot do any more in good form).

HOW TO TRACK YOUR ROUTINE AND FOOD INTAKE. Ever since I started using HIT as my workout method, I’ve tracked my workouts to make sure I’ve been improving over time. To track my workouts, I use Google Docs Spreadsheet. I place the exercise in one column and the reps and weight in the second column. While in the gym, I use a printed out sheet from Baye’s website to make note of the reps and weight so I don’t forget. Additionally, I use DailyBurn to track my calorie intake. Although I don’t use it every day, it’s a valuable resource to understand approximately how many calories you eat per day. You can set weight goals and the website will automatically give you protein, calorie, fat ranges to meet.

DailyBurn screenshot.

A great book resource for more information is Ellington Darden’s The New High Intensity Training: The Best Muscle-Building System You’ve Never Tried, which is about $15 on Additionally, both Drew Baye and Tim Ferriss have new books coming out pertaining to HIT within the next few months.

Also, as a challenge to myself I’d like to get to 175 lbs. and I’ll be posting updates at the end of each new post I make. Here’s the first one below!

Weight as of May 23
Weight on May 23, 2010.

Have you ever tried HIT? What method works best for you: HIT or traditional methods? Anything I missed, or any suggestions?


  1. Thanks for this post. Found your site through a link from Ramit Sethi’s email. I’ve been more consistent recently with my exercise habits and am looking to take it to the next level. I think this HIT system is work experimenting with!

  2. Hi Jon!

    Thanks for the comment, glad you stumbled across the site.

    In addition, I highly recommend stuff from Robb Wolf (both his website, and his book) for Paleo-based nutrition information and Drew Baye (his website and his upcoming book) for detailed HIT explanations. Tim Ferriss’s new “4-Hour Body” is a solid book, but Drew Baye covers the exercise portion on his website better and Robb Wolf covers the nutrition in his book better than Tim does.

  3. Given the advertising background, the weightlifter collapsing above (“weightlifting fail”) appears to be a competitive weightlifter failing to advance to another weight level. Weightlifting competitions are to see who can lift the most weight. You don’t know you can’t lift more until you try but don’t lift. Reaching one’s limit in a competitive event is hardly a “fail”.

    If it is, then you are a “failure” as a writer for failing to achieve the same sales levels as J. K. Rowling (as are we all). The whole world is full of failure. Let us rather celebrate those who have the courage to put ourselves out publicly to shine and compete. As well as those with the wisdom to realize in which spheres we are fitted to shine, regardless of whether or not we compete. There’s also nothing wrong with being wise enough to not compete, even in something that you are good at.

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