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Build Lean Muscle Mass Faster

Shaun Stafford, Optimum Nutrition ambassador and two-time WBFF World Physique Champion, shares what he has learned about building a bigger, stronger and leaner physique.

Shaun Stafford recently put his mind and his muscles to the ultimate test to run the Everest Marathon, the world’s highest-altitude 26.2-mile race. Here’s what he learnt from his complete change of training, eating and recovery strategies, and how you can use them to build a strong and lean physique.

What was the hardest thing about running the Everest Marathon?

One of the hardest things was seeing my body change and just how much muscle I was losing. In training, I held on to muscle and arrived in Nepal in decent nick - it was only once I was at an altitude that my physique took a hammering and it happened very quickly. One of the guides said that above 4,000m you don’t live, you just try to survive. And my body quickly learnt that it didn’t need 16-inch arms so the muscle just fell off me. I lost 6kg in three weeks and my body fat percentage went from 9% to 20% because of how much muscle I lost. My body was in survival mode.

How hard was it getting back into the gym after the race?

When I came back to the UK I was tired, flat and apathetic for the first month. It’s very common for your mind and body to struggle to adapt back to normality after such a huge physically and mentally demanding adventure. I’d also lost a lot of muscle and wanted to get back into my pre-Everest shape and condition. It was like I was starting again as a beginner and needed to gain lean muscle fast.

What was your approach to regaining your lost muscle mass?

For the first month, I followed a beginner bodybuilding programme - it was four sessions a week, alternating between upper- and lower-body sessions, with a linear progression each week to keep pushing my muscles a little harder. Then I moved to an intermediate plan where I was hitting every major muscle group twice per week to really shock them into growing. I didn’t gain the size back as quickly as I’d have liked - I’m 35 now it does take a bit longer - but by sticking to my programming and executing every session with intent and purpose I soon started seeing positive changes. I’d also write down my session ahead of time, then record exactly what I lifted. This gave me feedback on what I wanted to lift next time for each lift, and the sets and reps target too. Keeping a workout journal gives you real feedback on how you performed so you can tell whether you can push it harder or need to have more recovery time because you’re pushing it too hard.

How did your approach to nutrition change from marathon running to bodybuilding?

I kept my calories high like they had been during marathon training, and was following a high-carb, medium-protein and low-fat diet to give me the energy I needed for weight training and enough to rebuild my muscles. What I noticed was that my size was coming back, but my condition wasn’t, so I moved to a medium-protein, medium-carb and low-fat approach to keep the size gains coming while starting to chip away at my body-fat levels. Going from a calorie surplus of 350 to 400 a day to a deficit of 350 to 400 a day meant that I soon started to look like my old self, more like a bodybuilder than a marathon runner!

What role did supplements play in getting you back to your best?

To grow my muscles as quickly as possible I have an Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey protein shake as soon as my sessions are over. It’s Optimum Nutrition’s best-selling product and it’s not hard to see why. The flavours are delicious and it’s the quickest and easiest way to get the highest-quality protein into my muscle cells after training so I can take advantage of this post-workout window to repair and initiate the recovery process immediately. The faster you can recover, the sooner you can train again.

Should everyone take an extended recovery break from training?

After ten years of bodybuilding, I enjoyed training in a totally different way, but I always knew that I would go back to the weights. About half-way through marathon training, I was already looking forward to being back in the gym smashing a session. I would 100% recommend it to anyone who’s been lifting, or running or cycling or any form of training, for a long time to take a complete break for a while. It’s a mental break as well as a physical break and it will mean you come back to your first love of training mentally and physically stronger, so you will make big improvements quicker. The longer you’ve been doing one thing, the longer the break you should take, and don’t worry about taking time off: having an extended period of recovery from your main form of training will only help you in the long run. Try yoga or swimming or group classes - whatever you’ve always fancied having a go at - and you won’t regret it.
“I suffered injuries in the past, including the one that ended my rugby career, but I’m not one of these people who use getting hurt as an excuse to put my feet up,” says Stafford. “If anything I’m in the gym more, working on getting stronger. Here are my four tips for building an injury-proof body.
1. Massage
“I have a sports massage and physio appointment every week, even when I’m not injured. Prevention is always better than cure.”

2. Stretching
“Five to ten minutes on the mat every day, stretching and foam rolling, will save you hours and hours on the treatment table. A flexible and mobile body is a strong, stable and injury-proof body.”

3. Warm-up
“A proper warm-up will fully prepare your muscles for action and improve movement patterns so you lift safely and effectively. Think of it this way: if you are going to chop down a tree in an hour, you should spend the first 20 minutes sharpening the axe!”

4. Recover
“Repair & refuel after a workout, whether cardio or weights, is essential to kick-start the recovery process.
My go-to is an Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey shake to give my muscles the highest-quality protein to help them repair and rebuild. It’s quick, convenient and pretty tasty, and a great way to begin my recovery immediately after my last set.”