Bodybuilders usually have one or two immediate goals: They want to lose bodyfat and get ripped, or they want to pack on muscle size. The Holy Grail would be to accomplish both, but that’s hardly realistic, since it involves going in two opposing directions at the same time. The most you can hope for is to maintain your muscle while you’re losing fat. Building muscular bulk is an entirely different process from cutting up.
In years past the diet portion of acquiring muscle could best be described as haphazard. You simply ate anything that wasn’t nailed down. That, of course, resulted in not just lean mass gains but also a hefty increase in body fat. The next step involved reducing calories or carbs or both until you lost the excess fat. Under ideal conditions, you also kept most of the muscle gained during your bulking-up phase.
For a classic example of the comparatively primitive bulk-up/cut-down process take a look at Bruce Randall, who began his bulking phase while he was in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1950s. He consumed prodigious amounts of food (courtesy of Uncle Sam) including dozens of eggs, quarts of whole milk and plenty of bread. That diet led Randall to a body weight of more than 400 pounds, but he wasn’t just another fat, sloppy guy. He lifted actively during his entire hulking period, doing some extraordinary lifts, such as good mornings with 900 pounds.
I recall being told a story about the time Randall visited a New York gym for a workout during those days. He opted to do incline presses but for some reason decided to move the bench, which he did. Only after he moved the bench from one end of the gym to the other did Randall realize that the bench had been bolted to the floor. He was so powerful that he ripped the bench from its moorings without realizing it.
Randall later began training for bodybuilding competitions and, through a stringent diet and training program, dropped his weight from 405 to 187. He then increased it to 227 and won the ’59 NABBA Mr. Universe title in London. His trophy was presented to him at the contest by buxom film star Jayne Mansfield.
A more recent example of a successful hulking program was that of two-time Mr. Universe and star of the “Incredible Hulk” TV series, Lou Ferrigno. When Lou started back in Brooklyn he was skinny, though an enthusiastic young bodybuilder. After a few years of training Ferrigno weighing nearly 300 pounds. What had he done to achieve such phenomenal mass gains?
“Plenty of milk and food,” he said.
And therein lies the key to success in gaining muscular size. You simply have to eat more. These days the object is not to gain just any type of weight, but to ensure that what you gain is mainly muscle. The problem is, you must still increase your calories. There’s simply no way around that, regardless of what you hear or read.
That last statement must be qualified to a certain extent. Using certain anabolic drugs, including anabolic steroids, growth hormone, and insulin, among others, can indeed increase muscle size, but even with their assistance, you still need to eat and train properly to build quality muscle. In fact, emerging research shows that you can manipulate your body’s anabolic hormones by making certain adjustments in your diet and supplement regimen. That way you fine-tune your gains so they’re mostly lean mass rather than a combination of muscle and too much fat.
One common question about gaining muscle is, How much can I realistically expect to gain? The amount of lean mass gains varies among individuals due to such factors as genetics, body structure, and training intensity. Those who are blessed with a combination of naturally high androgen, or testosterone, levels and a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers will make the most rapid initial gains, but even those who have less of a genetic head start will nonetheless make impressive gains by eating properly and training hard. A bodybuilding axiom holds that you make your best ever gains when you first begin training, simply because your body isn’t used to it and responds rapidly to the added stress of exercise. As you progress to the advanced level, adding muscle each year becomes increasingly difficult regardless of genetics.
Mass-With-Class Weight-Gain Diet
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1 cup oatmeal
- 1 cup milk
- 4 scrambled eggs
- 2 slices whole-grain toast with butter (no margarine; avoid transfats)
- 8-ounce hamburger
- 1 large baked potato
- Tossed salad with dressing
- 1 cup milk
- Fresh fruit
- Weight-gain drink or meal replacement with a banana mixed in nonfat milk
- 8 ounces cottage cheese with fruit
- 1 cup yogurt
- 6 ounces tuna
- 1 piece fruit
- 1 slice whole-grain bread
- 8 ounces chicken
- 2 cups brown rice
- 2 slices whole-grain bread
- 1 cup broccoli or other vegetable
- Tossed salad
- Fresh fruit
- 1 cup milk with added protein powder
What to Eat for Mass
Regardless of genetic predispositions, you’ll need a positive energy balance to increase your muscular bulk. That simply means you must
eat more food than you burn. The effect is so potent that eating an unusual amount of food alone can add lean mass even without exercise, although that isn’t a recommended procedure. Studies involving human subjects who overate but didn’t exercise showed some surprising changes in body composition. The subjects all showed significant increases in lean mass.
The gains were the result of the body’s adjustments to the unaccustomed levels of food. The body compensated by increasing the levels of anabolic hormones, including growth hormone, testosterone, insulin and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which led to the subjects’ building more muscle, a.k.a. lean mass.
Eating all those calories also blunted the levels of the primary catabolic hormone in the body, cortisol. High levels of cortisol promote the catabolism, or breakdown, of muscle. Cortisol is secreted mainly under high-stress conditions; hence its designation as a stress hormone. But the stress conditions that promote cortisol release more often involve an energy-deficit condition, such as a lack of sufficient calories or carbs. So overeating itself is an anabolic process.
The point here is not to suggest that you must overeat to gain muscle size but that you do have to up your calories because it promotes the secretion of anabolic hormones that will work in tandem with exercise to produce lean mass gains.
A vital consideration in any hulking plan is protein. While it’s true that providing additional calories in the form of carbohydrates alone has a protein-sparing action in muscle, maintaining a high level of amino acids from food-protein sources promotes a positive nitrogen balance that sets the stage for muscular gains through increased muscle protein synthesis reactions in muscle. Some call the process the ‘anabolic-drive effect.”
When to Eat
The key to optimal protein intake for muscle-size gains involves smaller but more frequent feedings. In practice that means eating some protein at least every 2 1/2 to three hours. One of the most common mistakes made by so-called hardgainers who bemoan their inability to gain lean mass is not eating enough or frequently enough. Champion bodybuilders and other athletes often eat six or more small meals a day. They aren’t necessarily all food meals; frequently they’re protein-and-carb drinks or even energy bars. The point is to eat at regular intervals and not wait too long between meals. As diet guru Barry Sears of Zone fame frequently points out, your body chemistry in terms of hormones reflects when and what you last ate.
Numerous studies show that taking in certain carbs and protein in a certain ratio within two hours (the sooner, the better) after a training session promotes muscle gains. That effect is due to potentiation of the release of insulin and other anabolic hormones thanks to the added protein and carbs, much better than what you get with carbs alone. Studies show an average 37 percent increase in muscle glycogen synthesis after subjects drank a postworkout protein-and-carb formula, and the increased glycogen means faster and more efficient muscle recovery.
Which Supplements To Take
The use of other popular supplements after a workout is more controversial. For example, recent studies show that combining creatine with a fast-acting protein, such as whey, effectively promotes lean-mass gains and works better than either supplement alone. It also makes sense to add glutamine, since it appears to play a role in promoting muscle protein synthesis under intense training conditions. The amino may also enhance immune system reactions that may be blunted under high-intensity-exercise conditions.
Creatine itself may be one of the most effective supplements for promoting lean-mass gains, It not only acts as a backup for the continued production of the immediate energy source for muscular contraction, ATP, but also has an acid-buffering effect in muscle that permits harder and heavier training. While past studies suggested that any gains that occurred with the use of creatine supplements were mostly water, more recent research points to an actual promotion of muscle protein synthesis with creatine use. Creatine may foster lean-mass gains by promoting a cellular hydration effect that acts as an anabolic signal, or switch, in muscle tissue.
If you have a poor appetite or trouble eating enough to get the extra calories required for inducing lean-mass gains, you can use any of the many weight-gain-supplement powders available. In the past products contained nothing more than dried milk and copious amounts of refined sugar, a recipe that led to more fat than muscle. Modern versions, in contrast, contain quality proteins, such as whey and Casein from milk, beneficial fat and complex carbohydrates to provide the extra calories. In drink form they count as a meal and enable you to get the right amounts of calories, protein and other nutrients. Most important, today’s weight-gain supplements are highly digestible.
Another option if you have difficulty eating so frequently is to use a meal-replacement powder. MRPs are usually produced in individual packets, making transport easy and convenient. They also contain high-quality nutrients, though they aren’t high in either calories or carbs. That doesn’t present a significant problem, because you can use them as a base and then add ingredients, such as fruit or even ice cream to increase the calories.
Calories and Nutrients
As for how many calories you should take in each day to promote lean-mass gains, a formula that works for most people is to multiply your current weight by 20, then add 1,000 calories to the resulting figure. That takes into account both resting- and activity-level calorie requirements. So if you weigh 200 pounds, you should eat about 5,000 calories a day.
As for macronutrients, eat one to two grams of protein per pound of desired bodyweight. Your carb intake should be about five to seven grams per kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of bodyweight. In the case of the 200-pounder, that translates to about 450 to 630 grams a day. By the way, if you opt to use weight-gain drinks, make sure you don’t get more than 600 calories at a sitting, regardless of the manufacturer’s suggestions. Taking in more than that many calories may lead to a calorie spillover if you do it several times a day, which may lead to undesirable fat gains.
Many articles on gaining weight warn about eating too much fat. They’re concerned about the health aspects of fat ingestion, such as the relationship between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease; however, cutting out fat completely is a serious mistake for anyone seeking to gain lean mass. For one thing, you need to get at least 20 percent of your daily calories as fat to maintain testosterone levels in the body. A better choice would be to minimize your intake of saturated fat and focus on the good fats, such as the monounsaturated and omega-3 fats found in canola and fish oils, respectively.
You need the calories provided by dietary fat for optimal lean-mass gains. If you have difficulty eating fat, consider concentrated-fat supplements, such as medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. They give you about eight calories per gram compared to nine for most other fats. MCTs are rapidly absorbed, however, and act more like a carb than a fat, which makes them far less likely to produce fat gains. Some preliminary studies show that conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, which is found in meat and dairy products, may also promote lean-mass gains at the expense of fat.
Certain foods have a well-deserved reputation for encouraging great lean-mass gains, including whole eggs and red meat. Many bodybuilders discard the yolks of eggs and eat only the whites, which are pure protein, but all the nutrients and half the protein of eggs are in the yolks. People interested in making efficient lean-mass gains should eat whole eggs.
Meat also is a great source of protein calories, as well as other nutrients, such as zinc and carnitine. In my interviews with countless champion athletes over the years, virtually all said they ate meat whenever they wanted to gain muscular weight. Two top professional bodybuilders, multi-Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates and multi-Masters Mr. Olympia Vince Taylor, said they always lost muscle size whenever they cut out meat before a major contest. The best type of meat for promoting lean-mass gains comes from grass-fed beef, which has a unique nutritional profile.
Follow the suggestions in this article and train on a workout routine that includes heavy; basic exercises and a minimal level of aerobics, and you’ll build lean mass with minimal added bodyfat, regardless of your genetics.