How I Ate More And Gained Muscle Without Gaining Fat

One of the best measures of someone’s health is their body composition, in other words, how much fat, muscle, and bone makes up your weight. In general, if all of those are in a good range for your age, you can correlate that with good health. As muscle mass and bone mass decrease, and fat mass either stays the same or as is very common in today’s society, increases, we tend to see a downward trend in various health markers and greater risk of death from all causes [1]. However it is important to note that more is not better in this case either. Too low of body fat, and/or too much muscle mass will actually decrease your health, so there is a sweet spot (more like a range) but once you go outside of that range you are likely to see a negative impact on your health.

As someone who loves to quantify their health I was curious to know how much fat, muscle, and bone I actually had.

There are a number of ways to do this, but by far the most accurate, and somewhat accessible way is to get what is called a DEXA scan.

In 2017, I decided to get a DEXA scan done to see where I stood from a body composition point of view. After all, you can only manage what can be measured, and if I was interested in optimizing my health and athletic performance I wanted to get a baseline to work from.

Here were the results of my 2017 scan:

Weight: 160 lbs

Body Fat %: 17.6

Lean Mass: 131 lbs

Fat Free Mass Index: 18.96

Visceral Fat: 0.65 lbs

Bone Density: 1.015 g/cm2

I was kind of surprised when I got the results back and it said I had 17.6% body fat. I thought it would have been lower. However, after thinking about it some more I also told myself it was not terrible either, certainly better than the average male my age (33 at the time).

My fat free mass index, which quantifies muscle development based on your height, weight, and body fat percentage showed I was average.

Out of all this information, the bond density measurement was the most cause of concern as it came back low for men my age.

After reflecting on the results I decided I set some goals I wanted to work on moving forward:

  1. I wanted to incorporate a well formulated strength routine into my training to help improve my bone density.
  2. I wanted to reduce my body fat, not because it was in an unhealthy range, but more for aesthetic and running performance.
  3. Knowing I probably couldn’t gain much lean mass while reducing body fat I wanted to at least retain as much lean mass as possible as I lost body fat.
  4. I wanted to do this all while eating a balanced ancestral aligned diet.

After a little over a year I got my second DEXA scan in 2019. Below are the results

Weight: 145 lbs

Body Fat: 8.9%

Visceral Fat: 0 lbs

Lean Mass: 129 lbs

Fat Free Mass Index: 18.99

Bone Density: 1.029 g/cm2

I was extremely satisfied with these results! I was able to do everything I set out to do and more. If you want to read about how I went about this body composition change, I detailed everything in this blog post.

After my 2019 DEXA I was more than happy with my body fat percentage. In fact, as I mentioned in the blog post from above, I was probably too lean given what my thyroid and testosterone levels looked like from my blood work.

So what was next?

Given that I was probably a bit too lean (remember lower body fat percentage does not always correlate to better health), and I managed to maintain my lean mass but did not gain any, and my bone density was still low for my age but trending in the right direction, I decided I wanted to focus on gaining more lean body mass.

I knew I needed to eat more, but I certainly wasn’t going to go into some kind of “dirty bulk”. I wanted to do this right, I wanted to increase calories, but I also wanted to make sure whatever weight I did gain from that was going to be muscle. I knew strength training was going to be key.

While the strength training I was doing between 2018 and 2019 was good enough to maintain most of my lean mass while I cut my calories, I knew it probably wasn’t the best it could be. In addition I still wanted to perform at obstacle course racing and I wanted someone to guide me from a diet point of view.

I had been thinking about hiring a coach for a while and I had a few people in mind I could see myself working with. The obvious answer might be to hire a coach that specialized in obstacle course racing, but I did not think that was what I really needed. I had a lot of experience at this point training and racing for obstacle course races, I was happy with my performance in that part of my life. It was the strength training and nutrition parts that I needed help with. At the same time I wanted someone who understood the demands of obstacle course racing so that the strength training could compliment my obstacle course racing goals.

In September of 2019 a coaching opportunity opened up with Dr. Mike T. Nelson of Extreme Human Performance. I had grown to respect Dr. Mike over the years as he took science and research and applied it to his clients with the best results possible. Dr. Mike had coached obstacle course racing athletes in the past, but also had extensive strength training and nutrition knowledge. I jumped at the opportunity to hire him to help me reach my goals of adding more lean mass.

Shifting My Training

Once Dr. Mike got a hold of me my training shifted drastically. My running was cut down to one day a week. Yup, just one day a week, for a sport that was predicated on running! We will come back to this, but I think this was critical, and I have not seen any decline in running performance due to the cut in running volume.

Dr. Mike’s favorite way to assess and improve aerobic performance is to use the Concept 2 Rower. The reason is it’s consistent, you get a lot of data like power and heart rate, it engages a lot of muscles in the body, and pretty much everyone can row without hurting themselves.

Most weeks I do at least one rowing workout, sometimes it’s high intensity based, other times it might be more aerobic focused, it depends what phase of training I am in, but there is always some kind of rowing.

The other four days of training were strength training. Lots of the training is focused around compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and horizontal and vertical pushing. However, Dr. Mike would always throw in nuances to these movements that would compliment my obstacle course racing as well. Obstacle course racing requires great grip and hand strength, so lots of times I might do a simple exercise like a trap bar deadlift, but I might pause and hold it at the top or I might do a pull up and do it with added weight or pauses at different points throughout the movement. There was always some twist on a traditional exercise that was complimenting my obstacle course training.

Eat All The Food!!!

The next piece of the puzzle to reach my goal of gaining more lean mass was addressing my nutrition. Obviously my food quality was already very high since I was eating an ancestral based whole foods diet.

Protein is also key for adding lean mass, but I was already eating plenty of protein from whole food sources, so there were no changes there either.

The one change I needed to make was to eat more food. For me this is the hardest part, and it’s by my own doing.

I firmly believe eating an ancestral aligned diet consisting of primarily whole foods is going to be best for everyone’s health and wellbeing. Unfortunately whole foods are not terribly calorically dense and also are satiating. This is an advantage for the average person and especially important for those looking to lose weight. However, when you are an athlete looking to eat more it makes your eating enough food quite challenging.

In addition to the challenge of eating more food, Dr. Mike’s bias is to add calories via carbohydrates especially for athletes.

The problem for me was that I came from a low carb background, the model of low carb was better, high carb meant fat gain and metabolic disease.

Despite having data to back up my metabolic health and the ability to handle carbohydrates, I still sometimes battle with the low carb mindset of less carbs is healthier for you, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept that I could eat a large amount of carbs.

Dr. Mike was very understanding when it came to adding in more calories in the form of carbohydrates. He took things slow, allowing me to adjust to the new calories and to figure out how to get in the calories in my diet.

Typically the increase in calories would come in just 20-30 grams of carbohydrates. After the increase Dr. Mike would let me adjust to the new calories and monitor body weight and performance. If everything looked good, we would then add more calories and repeat the process.

For me all signs pointed towards more carbs were fine for me, at least from a metabolic health and performance perspective.

Additional Lifestyle Modifications

In addition I think that in order to gain lean mass and mitigate the chance of fat gain from adding in additional calories it’s probably best to also make sure you are active outside of exercise.

This might go against traditional muscle gain thoughts which advocate lifting and eating and not much else.

I think if you add in plenty of movement, extra calories that are not going toward building lean mass can get used up by the extra activity. Again this is a fine balance because too much extra activity may eat into your energy surplus and prevent you from gaining as much lean mass as possible. The scale can be a good guide, if it’s not going up despite adding calories, you probably need more calories. Here are my average steps between the 2019 DEXA scan and 2021.

Finally, while I talked a lot about calories and exercise in this blog post, I can’t write this post without mentioning the impact of other lifestyle factors that influence lean mass gain. If your sleep, stress, and/or social connection need work you should address those things first before focusing on lean mass gain or fat loss. In my scenario, I had already addressed all of these lifestyle factors long before I started these fat loss and lean mass gain journeys because I knew how important they were for my overall health and goals.

The Results

With the strong foundation of an ancestral lifestyle in place and the nutritional and exercise modifications made now came the hard part…sitting back, putting in the hard work from both a diet and training perspective and waiting to see what happens.

After about another year of implementing these changes, I went and got another DEXA scan in July of 2021.

Body Weight: 154 lbs

Body Fat: 9.6%

Fat Free Mass Index: 19.53

Lean Mass: 135 lbs

Visceral Fat: 0.11 lbs

Bone Density: 1.032 g/cm2

Between 2019 and 2021 I was able to add 6 lbs of lean mass! My fat free mass index went up from 18.9 to 19.53 and my bone density continues to increase. In addition I only added less than 2 lbs of fat! I couldn’t be happier with the results! Here is a complete summary of my three DEXA scans.


Weight (lbs)

Body Fat (%)

Lean Mass (lbs)

Fat Mass (lbs)

Fat Free Mass (lbs)

Visceral Fat (lbs)

Bone Density (g/cm2)





























I hope this post acts as a demonstration of how taking a smart, measured ancestral based approach to your training and nutrition can get you the outcomes you are looking for. In my previous blog post about fat loss and now this one about lean mass gain an important component to being successful was my ancestral approach to my life and also realizing that patience is key and to trust the process. I believe aligning our lifestyles to eliminate ancestral mismatches provides the foundation for whatever goal you have. I provide plenty of information on how you can minimize and eliminate ancestral mismatches that I send out on a weekly basis to my newsletter subscribers. Jump on the newsletter below to start getting weekly actionable information that you can start applying to your life immediately to reach your own goals.

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  1. (2016, April 19). Relationship Among Body Fat Percentage, Body Mass … – PubMed. Retrieved July 26, 2021, from

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