THE BLOG
05/31/2016 10:32 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Ask JJ: Building Muscle Smartly

Dear JJ: I'm a 29-year-old guy who's felt scrawny and underweight all my life. You look like you know a thing or two about muscle. I don't want to get "jacked up," but I'd like to put on some muscle. How can I get bigger in a healthy way?

Beyond weight loss resistance and fast fat loss, my focus involves helping my clients get healthy, feel great, and look better, period. More often than not, that means losing weight. But occasionally, people want to look more defined and toned without becoming "bulked up" or, as you say, "jacked up."

When someone wants to gain weight, they typically mean as muscle, so I use "gain weight" interchangeably with "build muscle," since I consider them the same thing.

Muscle becomes your metabolic Spanx: It holds everything together to make you look fit and fabulous. Most people want to become stronger and more muscular without getting bulky or putting on weight as fat.

My favorite efficient, effective workout to get built but not bulky combines burst training with weight resistance, which studies show can blast fat and build muscle. You can do both in under an hour, and honestly, you don't even need a gym to get a killer workout.

You probably already know that. For many guys your age, what happens around your workout becomes most neglected, yet an eating and lifestyle plan becomes the solid foundation to get toned and muscular.

I've worked with everyone from regular guys who want to get a little more muscular to Superman Returns star Brandon Routh (who had to get muscular for a role). Here are the 10 rules I employ to get lean and intelligently build muscle.

1. Make the right choices. Gaining weight smartly does not mean overeating, binge eating, having cheat days, or intermittent fasting and subsequently eating whatever you want during your "feed hours." Make high-sugar impact foods and food intolerances like gluten a dietary mainstay and you'll gain weight, but you won't like your results!

2. Do breakfast correctly. A protein shake makes the perfect solution if you don't have time or appetite when you're rushing to the gym or work at 7 a.m. Blend the right protein powder with frozen berries, kale or other leafy greens, and flax or chia seeds with a tablespoon of almond butter, blended with unsweetened coconut or almond milk. Protein shakes also make fab pre- and post-workout fuel.

3. Optimize protein, period. Protein helps build muscle, but optimal amounts benefit other things like hormonal balance and hemoglobin synthesis. Aim for at least 30 or more grams per meal. Optimal choices include about six to eight ounces of free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, or wild-caught fish. Barnyard eggs (if you're not intolerant), legumes, and the right protein powder also make smart choices.

4. Stop fearing fat. The days of egg white omelets and skinless chicken breasts for muscle building are thankfully over. Healthy fats help optimize testosterone and other hormones, reduce inflammation, increase glucose and fatty acid uptake into your muscles, and improve muscle recovery. Avocado, nuts and seeds, nut butters, and coconut become delicious, nutrient-dense fats that yield healthy gains.

5. Keep the 4 x 4 rule. Optimize good fats, protein, and slow-release high-fiber carbs every four hours to steady blood sugar, optimize hormones, and fuel muscle growth. Start with breakfast within an hour of waking up and eat more meals throughout your day. If four meals don't fit your schedule, swap one or two of those meals for another protein shake.

6. Work your butt off, but don't over-train. Recovery and repair become crucial for healthy gains. Soreness, strained or torn muscles, a crashed immune system, and fatigue are a few reasons why over-working out can create more losses than gains.

7. Step up sleep. Besides knocking fat-burning hormones out of whack, too little sleep can reduce your hard-earned gains in the gym and reduce recovery time. Solid slumber optimizes muscle-building hormones like growth hormone (GH), which helps build and repair muscle. One study showed fewer hours of sleep mean your body makes less GH. Prioritize seven to nine hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night.

8. Nourish your muscles. Your muscles demand optimal nutrients for synthesis and repair. Besides a professional-quality multi, studies show fish oil helps increase muscle strength and improve muscle insulin sensitivity. Supplements aside, focus on nutrient-dense foods. Those include magnesium, a mineral abundant in nuts, seeds, and leafy greens, which improves muscle contraction and muscle nerve signaling while reducing post-exercise muscle soreness and cramps.

9. Stay hydrated. Your muscles are about 80 percent water. One study found even being slightly dehydrated reduces strength training performance. Too little water also stalls recovery and leads to soreness, cramping, and other post-exercise misery. Step up your filtered water intake. Easy strategy: Keep a canteen with filtered water nearby when you're lifting or burst training to stay hydrated.

10. Manage stress. Studies show psychological stress, whether real or perceived, decreases muscular recovery. Stress management might mean a massage, a funny movie, or walking your dog around the block. What works for you, do it daily.

What strategy would you add here to intelligently build muscle? Share yours below, and keep those killer questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.