Kefir, HIT and a Touch More Volume

I thought I would post a quick fitness update. I may have stumbled upon the secret sauce for ectomorphs trying to gain muscle. Well at least for me. Last August, I posted Is High-Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? where I revisited the great book Body By Science and how ectomorphs might respond better to increase volume.

Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week

In order to increase the volume, I needed to decrease intensity. This turned out not to be a hard decision to make. My Glitter Gym keeps the temperature too damn high, so I’m unable to generate the intensity I am capable of doing the cool outdoors or in a real HIT gym. So I dropped the intensity and added some volume. Not too much, usually, I’d just spread the intensity across 2 sets instead of one. Those looking for precise numbers, won’t get them from me. See the post Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t that Important for why I no longer track any metrics and just focus on intensity.

Although the volume is greater and intensity is decreased, I am still doing the same exercises. Machines based movements such as the leg press, chest press, row, and pull down performed slowly with static holds. I also do chin-ups and a shoulder press. I don’t do any bench presses, squats, deadlifts, or other compound movements. Machines allow me to really slow down the movement and take out the momentum in a safe manner.

A typical week will have 1 or 2 workouts of about 20 minutes each, with 2-3 minutes of rest between exercises. No rest between 2 set exercises.

The Magic of Kefir

In January I started to believe that dairy kefir was anabolic. Now I am more convinced. On most days I drink a pint. On workout days, I might drink more. Sometimes I blend in frozen blueberries or I might drink it plain. I don’t know what is going on, but I estimate that I’ve gained 10 pounds of muscle in the past year. I started the quest using ice cream but switched over to kefir in December. For an ectomorph that has been lifting since 1994, that is an impressive number.

Fellow experimenter Richard at FreeTheAnimal is using dairy kefir to both lean out and gain muscle. If it possible to both gain muscle and lean out on kefir, then maybe a calorie isn’t a calorie? 😮 Perhaps an anabolic score could be established? Kefir and ice cream at the top. Beer and tofu at the bottom. 🙂

The Secret Sauce So Far

Here are the elements that I think provide the greatest bang for muscle gain for ectomorphs.

  1. HIT with a slight increase in volume and decrease in intensity.
  2. Drink dairy kefir or eat ice cream. You need a caloric surplus to gain muscle. These foods are ideal. Those that don’t like dairy can use coconut milk or cream.
  3. Machine-based movements done slowly with static holds. Those without a gym can do my Outdoor HIT or the HillFit workout.
  4. Slow walks are fine, however excess cardio will make it harder to gain size.
  5. Avoid injury at all costs. This means don’t engage in skill-based fatiguing movements (bench, squat). Especially those performed quickly (CrossFit).
  6. Be patient.


Add yours

  1. Thanks for the link, MAS.

    Yes, I’m very interested in the idea that the specific growth factors in full, integrated dairy (not deconstructed, isolated dairy) can cause “leangains” (fat loss, lean gain, strength gain) even in an overall caloric deficit.

    Martin Berkhan has been doing that forever, with very high protein as a surrogate for whole dairy. but I just could never consistently eat the amount of protein required—it always required whey isolate to get to 230g on workout days and something like 180g on rest days (tailored for me). Milk is just a whole food and it’s a cinch to stay satiated even at a significant caloric deficit.

  2. I was hoping for an update on how the slight increase in workout volume was going for you, and what that volume increase actually entailed. So thank you for posting this piece.
    I see that you still incorporate slow walks. Are they the “urban treks” / hikes that you used to do, or do you put a time limit on them?
    Also I’m interested to know if you still incorporate the other forms of training that you wrote about in the not too distant past, such as the Sprint 8 hill sprints and the rowing sprints. If not, why not? And do you plan to re introduce them at any time if you are not doing them at the moment?
    Once again thanks for the update.

  3. Same experience with the training bit here too.
    Definitely found an increase in volume at less intensity (which is logical physiological consequence) to resonate really with me. Increased total mechanical work = body adapting by building more mass (provided you get food and sleep dialed in)

    This whole freakin’ quest for max intensity appears like a very AMERICAN phenomenon to me. Going all out every time, not leaving anything behind on the table, killing yourself every time you’re in the gym. Crappy diet, poor sleep and still wondering why trainees havent been gaining mass despite training for a couple of years.

    Check at Paul’s “Base Building Series” at lift-run-bang – excellent material!

  4. What is the meaning of “intensity” in this post? Highest possible weight? Trying really hard? Really slow lifts?

  5. @Richard – 2013 was supposed to be Year of the Snake, I think we should rename the Year of the Kefir!

    @StuartG – I haven’t done a long Urban Hike in a while. but I do tend to walk a few miles daily. Once the weather improves (a little) in Seattle, I’ll step up the urban hikes. I stopped doing Rowing sprints. Didn’t like it. I also stopped Sprint 8, mostly due to my shoes. I’ve got better shoes now, so I’ll start doing a few uphill sprints a week soon. My volume will be lower than Sprint 8.

    @Stephan – I am a fan of max intensity ONLY when long periods are rest follow. This is why I only lift once on most weeks. If I did an all negative workout, I might take 10 days off. I created a similar chart to Paul in this post comparing intensity vs workout frequency. (bottom)

    @Sean – Muscle failure. Because my movements are slow, I tend not to use a high weight. It is hard to describe intensity. Check out YouTube videos to see what HIT looks like.

  6. Out of curiousity, how do you know the 10 lbs was all muscle? Did you just go by weight gain? Not that it isn’t possible, but 10 lbs of muscle over several months (3?) is a pretty big achievement for an ectomorph. Don’t want to be pessimistic because I like the info on your site, but just curious if you take other measurements as I see you’re an analytical person like myself and you like to make decisions based on data.
    I’m a 6′ 0″ Ecto at a 145 lbs with a decent muscle base and low body fat. I think the most muscle (lean body mass) I’ve put on in a month is at best ~1 lb (early on in my training). I generally watch my waist measurement (to judge fat gain) and then measure the circumference of multiple muscle groups to judge muscle gain. I do track weight as well, but it can fluctuate easily within a 5 lb range depending on volume of food I eat and liquids consumed.

    I know 145 seems light for my size, and I don’t consider myself narcissitic, but people have asked how much I weigh and I ask them what do you think? They generally guess 15 – 20 lbs higher based on my muscle build/definition.


  7. @Jeremy – I don’t know exactly. I gained 20# and I assuming 1/2 is muscle and 1/2 is fat. I’ve been tracking for a long time, so my guess is my estimate is fairly accurate.

    Several months. Should have said 1 year. I’ll update the post for clarity. The several months was specific to kefir. The first part of the experiment I used ice cream.

  8. Yep. Kefir is simply very good food. I’ve been “on it” for a year now (I think).

    Losing fat and gaining muscle in absolute numbers is unlikely. They are metabolically incompatible. But it is possible to have both in relative terms, that is, your BF% can go down as a result of an increase in LBM. The “get lean first then bulk” protocol has worked best for me and is what I recommend.

    I should add that overeating when you train properly can yield impressive/unusual muscle gains (along with much fat) and you will look better unless you really overdo it. However, your improved appearance can by deceiving in terms of assessing the amount of fat you carry.

    Last, while increasing volume might indeed be better for you, it is even more possible that your body is responding to the change in routines. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Just a sanity check.

    Consistency is the most important factor.

  9. How do you lose fat around your waistline? I have not been able to do so no matter the workout or the diet. Can you post the specific workout you do by day?

  10. @Txomin – Good point. I plan to lean a little once I get my caffeine levels super low. One battle at a time.

    @thomas – Fat loss happens in the kitchen, not the gym. For me it was removing wheat 100% and cooking my own meals that did the most to lean me out. It might be something different for you. There is no way for me to know.

  11. Is the kefir full-fat or reduced fat? Is it cow’s milk, goat’s milk or something else?
    For me anyway, I find the full-fat goat’s milk the easiest to digest. It’s very expensive compared to cow’s milk kefir, but it can be diluted by up to about 70% water and still be palatable.

  12. @Glenn – Full fat ghetto pasteurized cow milk.

    My philosophy is that if I’m going to spend more money special milk, I’m feeding it to myself and not my kefir grains. 🙂 The kefir grains are working for me. They are taking a dead milk and converting into something highly nutritious. Special milk doesn’t need their help.

  13. Thanks for answering my queries about your training. With regard to the Sprint 8 and your planned reduction in volume, will that be the number of reps, the length of each rep ( ie a reduction down from 30 second efforts ), or both? I ask only because I saw this on Lyle McDonald’s site, which you also might find interesting.
    In a series of articles he also seems to regard the benefits of intervals as overrated by many, at least in regards to their long term use and continued benefits, and also their effectiveness with regards to the effort required, which he feels isn’t delivered by many “typical” trainees.
    Finally it may be that if you are doing HIT and plenty of walking, then nothing more needs to be done….

  14. @StuartG – I have 2 hills that I use in my neighborhood. I’ve taken a long hiatus, I used them to minimize the pounding. Run up, walk down, repeat 2-3 times. When I was doing 6-8, I didn’t feel that great. And I would only do that once a week.

    I know very little about sprinting, so this not advice for others. The shoes I had last year were great for walking, but sucked for running, so I got out of the habit. My new shoes are ideal for running, so I should start up soon again.

    I am happy with the muscle gains I made over the past year. Now, I’d like to lean out a little.

    Yeah, I have been dissing cardio for years. Unnecessary indeed.

  15. MAS: Beer at the bottom? No way. Just sayin.

  16. MAS: not that I want to pick a fight or anything, but:

    “I think it’s safe to say that if you are the best in the World at CrossFit, you are one of the World’s greatest athletes. It puts you in elite company.”

    –Seth McKinney

  17. @Scottcharles – No disagreement from me. Throw thousands and thousands of young genetically gifted people at an extreme sport and those that come out of top will absolutely be some of the best athletes on the planet.

    This brings up a few questions.

    1- Is their success the result of CrossFit or something else?
    2- Could they have become top performing athletes following a safer saner protocol?
    3- Should the average person model their fitness plan on outliers?

    It is going to be interesting to see what happens to the CF crowd a generation from now. I suspect all that high volume, heavy weight, ballistic movements won’t be kind to their physique when they age.

  18. Michael,
    It’s funny that you mentioned that you didn’t like rowing sprints. This was reported in the media yesterday. Andrew Marr is a well known political correspondent in this country.

  19. @StuartG – I think I might like rowing more if my gym temp was about 10 degrees F lower. I get over heated too quickly, which for me often leads to a headache.

  20. As I´ve already had the chance to say, being a tall ectomorph like yourself and in the mid thirties, I am increasingly interested in HIT training. And you are one of a few that I know is putting it to test and writing freely about it. Most people seems to dismiss the whole thing (Body by Science included) as a non-scientific waste of time. However, the results reported by authors like Martin Berkhan and even Tim Ferriss contradict this.

    When you say that you decreased intensity, that means you don´t reach failure in your both sets, but only close?

    Also, regarding the chest press machine, did you bench press with barbell before begin HIT training? Had you notice any difference in strenght/size of the chest?
    I ask because the general bias pro-free weights for training is even higher than the anti-HIT bias.

    Congratulations for your work!

  21. @Jonathan – Yes, by decreasing intensity I was stopping just short of failure.

    I could 5,000 words explaining why the pro-free weight guys are anti-HIT, why they are wrong and why using free weight numbers are a false way to measure strength. Maybe I will at some point.

    In the meantime, this post kind of goes into my beliefs.

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