Muscle Building Diet for the Asian Male

As a strength trainer with an Asian American background, I often get questions and comments from Asian dudes all over the world. A common theme that pops up among Asian lifters is the belief that their Asian genes are limiting their progress in their quest for a muscular physique.

I always tell them this: don't let race or ethnicity be a limiting factor in your training goals or any goal. It does not matter if you are Asian or a skinny bastard or a woman. If your goal is to be bigger, faster, stronger, then you still travel the same road that everyone else travels to size and strength.

I mean look at Tommy Kono. Here was a Japanese American who grew up in an internment camp, and he became arguably the greatest Olympic weightlifter the US offered to the world.  He was also a successful bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1955 and 1957.  He built a phenomenal physique in an era before steroids. He didn't let race or ethnicity be a limiting factor in his mind or on his body.

Although every lifter is different and has unique physique and training goals, the one physique goal that pops up most often among Asian lifters is increased muscle mass.  Let’s face it: Asian guys are stereotyped as small, skinny and weak.

A lot of it has to do with diet.  Traditional Asian diets are very healthy and will keep you trim.  The problem is that it’s very hard to gain muscle on traditional Asian diets, which are typically low in protein and fat. Protein provides the building blocks for muscle, while fats (as long as it is not trans-fats) provides the building blocks for hormones, such as testosterone.  Testosterone is the singular reason why men typically have more muscle than women.

The one exception to the low protein Asian diet is Korean barbecue.  Korean restaurant cuisine most closely resembles a Paleolithic Diet: lots of meat and vegetables, minimal sweets and starchy carbs. This is the ideal diet for those wanting a lean muscular body that is also healthy on the inside.  The only caveat would be to avoid tofu, as it is estrogenic and will convert your circulating testosterone into estrogen.

The other reason why a lot of Asian men aren't that muscular is that we don't grow up in a culture that values physical strength and size.  Asian cultures tend to value moral character in men as opposed to physical strength.  Bodybuilding is seen as vain and narcissistic, and let's be honest, it is.  Vanity and narcissism are traits that are discouraged in Asian cultures.  You're not supposed to toot your own horn.  Plus manual labor is seen as low class, and weightlifting builds a working class physique.

In American society, people tend to respect strong muscular men and inversely they tend to disrespect weak skinny men.  We inculcate our boys that they must be strong and fit and that physical weakness is an indicator of character weakness.

I get a lot of questions from Asian guys on how to gain muscle, so I thought I'd point out some common dietary mistakes many skinny men (not just Asian men) make in building up their physique:

Not eating enough protein.  This is such a basic thing, but most skinny guys fail to get enough protein in their diet to build muscle.  Eat a wide variety of meats, poultry, eggs and fish.  Supplement with protein powders.  Every meal should have a big chunk of protein occupying at least a third of your plate.

Eating too clean.  Weight training is very demanding on the body, so you need to eat more calories.  For you skinny guys with high metabolisms, you can eat quite a bit of junk food to get those extra calories.  Skinny guys have bodies that are better at "nutrient partitioning."  In other words, nutrients go where they're supposed to go (building muscle) instead of being deposited as fat.  So for young skinny guys, you can bulk up by eating pizza, burgers and burritos.

Not eating breakfast.  It is the most important meal of day.  If your idea of breakfast is a coffee and pastry or a bowl of oatmeal with some OJ, then you're not going to gain body weight.  Like I said before, every meal should have a big chunk of protein occupying at least a third of your plate.  For breakfast, I like a large omelette with coffee and toast.

Skipping meals.  Going hungry for long periods of time puts your body in a catabolic state.  In other words, your body cannibalizes its own muscle in order to feed vital organs.  It's OK to feel a little hunger so you know it's time to eat.  But don't skip meals.  You should be eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with one or two snacks in between.

Stressing out too much.  The young skinny guy always frets about how he's doing everything and eating a lot and not gaining any weight.  I get a lot of emails from frustrated skinny people who sound frantic.  And there in lies the problem.  Stressing out over everything does not set up a good hormonal response to gain weight.  A lot of skinny guys are Nervous Nellies.  They can't sit still.  They're constantly tapping their fingers or feet.  They overreact to everything.  They can't seem to calm down.  You tell them to take a deep breathe, and they hyperventilate.

Stressing out over everything releases cortisol in your body, and cortisol hampers muscle growth as well as deposit fat in your midsection.  So if you're a Nervous Nelly or Frantic Frank, then lay off the stimulants.  No  Red Bulls or Monster drinks.  No coffee or soft drinks.  If you need something to wake you up in the morning, then drink some green tea, since it has a moderate dose of caffeine but also has theanine.  Theanine promotes alertness and focus, but also keeps you calm and relaxed.

Diet is only half the story of course.  Eating a lot will only make you fat if you don't train a lot and train correctly.  Strength training stimulates your appetite so that you can eat all of the extra protein and calories.  Strength training sensitizes your body's ability to nutrient partition.  So when you ingest protein and carbs, they're being deposited into muscle.

But not every strength training program facilitates nutrient partitioning and builds muscle.   The primary  training factor in muscle building is HIGH MUSCULAR TENSION.  In other words, we choose exercises and weights that put tension on certain muscles to build them.  Muscle fibers placed under mechanical tension grow bigger by thickening up, absorbing amino acids and storing carbohydrates in the form of glycogen.

All exercises work muscle, but not all exercise BUILD muscle.  Some exercises are better than others at creating high muscular tension.  When I do my YouTube videos, I always try to showcase little known high tension bodybuilding exercises.  These are exercises that very few people know about, and yet they're extremely effective at targeting specific muscle groups or building overall mass.  My viewers always wanted more videos on these hidden gems.

I've now compiled these forgotten bodybuilding exercises into a book:

Strength and Physique: High Tension Exercises for Muscular Growth showcases exercises that build muscle and build muscle in all the right places. Many of these esoteric exercises create high muscular tension and can be performed in a home gym with barbells, dumbbells and body weight.  You'll learn things such as:

  • Exercises to hit your musculature at different angles and with different resistance curves.
  • How to build MASSIVE MUSCLE over your entire frame.
  • How to refine your musculature and give it the classical V-taper.
  • What rep ranges are best for each muscle group.
  • How to manipulate the speed of your reps to ignite muscle growth.
  • How to increase your pull-ups for a powerful, wide back.
  • How to forge an armor plated chest.
  • How to develop thick toned triceps.


The SVB said…
Congratulations on the new book, James! I remember seeing an Asian guy comment on someone's "muscular" picture, saying something along the lines of "I wish I could look like that, but it's not in the genes. I'm Asian." The comment kind of annoyed me, because it's quite obvious there are many Asians with muscular physiques. The fact that he had this defeatist attitude about it all while "speaking for" all Asians is a mindset that needs to be... defeated. Way to spread the word!
James said…
Thanks dude! Yeah there seem to be a lot of guys who have that defeatist attitude and always use the "Asian crutch."

"I can't get big cuz I'm Asian."

Just get in the gym and hit the weights, damnit!
Ben Efsaneyim said…
That is just what I was looking for! I've tried for years to build mass and definition but have never really been truly happy with the results. I think that I've never done a good job of getting my food requirements down - I couldn't discipline myself to eat so much protein. Strangely, it is only in the past two years that I have finally seen some positive results.

But I'm going to order your book right now.

Oh, and congrats on the book!
MojoRider said…
Nice going on cranking out a new book....and yeah, I hate that defeatist attitude as well. I have no idea where that comes from. And I agree: just stop whining and throw some iron around, fer krissakes. Just try to reach your potential rather than fall back on excuses. Again, it may be due to lack of knowledge, so nice going for getting this stuff out there, James. Also how many reps are people doing? I think if you're doing just 8-12 reps, you should probably increase the weight and shoot for 5-8 reps.

Funny, as I'm older and am more prone to gaining weight easily, I'm not necessarily looking for mass or bulk. Instead, my goals now are cutting. I've lost about 10 pounds but have hit a plateau. I'd like to lose another 5 pounds but it's been hard. I don't always have the time to put in lots of cardio so instead, have gone to doing some HIIT and circuits in an attempt to drop weight.

For example, I just started doing about a 1:00-1:30 on the treadmill at about 60 to 70% of my maximum sprint. Then I stop, take about 15-20 seconds to kind of catch my breath, and then go right into Romanian deadlifts, squats, sit ups, etc. Rest for about a minute or so and then start the cycle all over again.
James said…
yeah when I was in my 20's I just focused on being massively muscled. I literally ate every 2-3 hours and worked out 6 days a week. I was pretty big then, and I had more of a bodybuilder's bulk.

but when I hit my 30's I realized that I just did not like the lifestyle. It was too constricting for me, cuz I literally had no time to do other things. I was always eating and working out. So I trained a little less (3-4 days a week) and ate normally. Lost some muscle but kept up the strength. Just got lean and wiry, closer to a gymnast's physique, which I think looks better anyway.
James said…
Mojo wrote: Also how many reps are people doing? I think if you're doing just 8-12 reps, you should probably increase the weight and shoot for 5-8 reps.

Initially people start off doing 8-12 reps, because that's what they've been told is the best rep range to gain size. You'll gain size at that rep range, but eventually your body habituates. So you're correct in that if you started moving the rep range to 5-8 reps, then you'll start to gain some weight.

Eventually you will adapt to that rep range as well, and you will no longer gain any more weight. So what you have to do constantly alternate between high reps and low reps in order to sustain gains in size and strength.

These alternating cycles of high and low reps are what I go over in the book and it is referred to as back cycling.
MojoRider said…
Well, I never had the bodybuilder's bulk but I had some heft....a lot of that was just excess weight and flab on top of the muscle I had (and still have). As I said, once I got older and into my late 30's and early 40's, the pounds starting staying on even more if I let my diet and exercise go downhill. Which I did for awhile, and then big cases at work meant longer hours and not always eating right.

Everybody's goal is different, though, depending on what stage of life they're in. And yeah, I think for my age, the leaner look is much better too now that I've got excess pounds creeping up on me so easily!

I am also thinking about the functionality of the lifting too, it's not just about getting massive overall. it's about the strength gain, the application of power to something for every day use. about strengthening and increasing size in the weakest muscle groups. Bruce Lee wasn't a massive guy and he proved that you could only generate strength and power from mass.

But if you like the aesthetic of being massive, go for it. And don't use the excuse of genetics and all for not getting big. You can get there if you want to, and above all, don't compare your body shape to others who are big. Just worry about your own body.
MojoRider said…
ooops, didn't finish sentence. meant to write that Bruce proved a smaller guy could still have strength and power even if not having the mass. For what he did, mass wasn't necessarily needed.
James said…
Thanks Ben!

Feel free to post an Amazon review when you're done with the book.
Anonymous said…
This is very interesting. My first cousin (An American who's Chinese by the way) was a body builder when he was in his 20s (he's a decade older than me). He was the only Asian to win the Las Vegas Body Building contest that year he competed. I think he still is the only Asian on that platform.
Ben Efsaneyim said…
Will do and will probably give it a mention on my blog too. I expect to receive it sooner than I normal because Amazon US is now delivering direct to Istanbul - although I'm still waiting for the "Anthology" book to arrive!
James said…
Awesome dude! Thanks so much.

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