General Philosophies of Muscle Mass Gain

Because of the primary focus of my books and many of my article topics I tend to get tagged as the fat-loss guy more often than not; but nutrition and training for muscle gain is actually a primary interest of mine. Having worked with bodybuilders, powerlifters and other athletes over the years, figuring out how to put muscle mass on them (in terms of both training and nutrition) is obviously important.

In this article (which will actually form an introduction to a series of articles I’ll be doing over the next several weeks and months), I want to talk about some basic concepts related to mass gaining nutrition, primarily looking at some of the different philosophies of mass-gaining that are out there. As usually, I’ll look at each in my normal way, looking at the various pros and cons of each approach.

And, of course, I’ll give my own recommendations for what I think is actually optimal for most trainees under most circumstances. Please note my use of the word ‘most’ in that sentence; there are always exceptions, situations where I might do something different. Here I’m speaking more in generalities.


Old School Bulking/Cutting

In the olden days of bodybuilding, the standard approach to gaining muscle mass was to get big and fat in the off-season and this was called bulking. In modern terms this is generally referred to as GFH which stands for Get Fucking Huge

Both approaches revolve around the same concept: trainees train their balls off and eat as much as they can force down, gaining weight (and body fat) rapidly. In the old days, guys would then diet like maniacs and there are stories of guys bulking up to over 300 pounds before dropping to sub-200 pounds for their contest. Yes, insanity. Dieting is a little bit more sane now and it usually takes a good 6-12 months for the fat boys to get lean again.


Muscle Gain Mistakes

Although it may seem strange to talk about how to gain weight as we approach the holidays (where people typically gain weight without trying very hard), the simple fact is that, for athletes and bodybuilders, the winter (when it’s cold outside and you’re covered up) has always been one of the primary times that trainees focus on muscle gain.

You can worry about being lean and having a six pack when it’s warm and you don’t look stupid being mostly nude. The winter is a good time to pack on some muscle mass and justify all that Halloween candy (“I’m bulking, bro”).

But in the same way that many diets fail for a lot of reasons, there are equally common reasons that trainees fail to make the muscular gains that they desire. I want to look at several of them, addressing potential solutions along the way

Not eating enough

Outside of poor training (which can be either too much or too little), not eating enough is the number one mistake I see most trainees making who can’t gain muscle. This is true even of individuals who swear up, down and sideways that they eat a ton but no matter what they can’t gain weight. It’s been said that ‘hardgainers’ tend to be overtrainers and undereaters and there is much truth to that.

Almost invariably, when you track these big eaters, they really aren’t eating that much. Research has routinely shown that overweight individuals tend to under-estimate food intake (e.g. they think they are eating much less than they actually are) but in my experience ‘hardgainers’ are doing the opposite: vastly overestimating how much they are actually eating in a given day, or over the span of a week.

Similarly, although such trainees may get in a lot of food acutely, invariably they often compensate for those high-caloric intakes by lowering calories on the following day (or even in the same day). So while they might remember that one big-assed lunch meal, they won’t remember how they ate almost nothing later in the day because they got full.

Some people simply lack the appetite to eat sufficient amounts to gain muscle (or any weight at all). While they may be able to force feed calories for a little bit, their appetite regulatory mechanisms kick in and they unconsciously reduce calories. Their bodies also tend to upregulate metabolic rate better than others, so they burn off more calories (a phenomenon called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT).


Protein Requirements for Strength and Power Athletes


Possibly one of the longest standing debates in sports nutrition (not that people don’t argue about stuff constantly) is over protein requirements for athletes. Traditionally, there have been two primary and opposing views to this topic.

In the first camp are mainstream nutrition types, usually registered dieticians who maintain that the RDA for protein is sufficient for all conditions, including individuals involved heavily in sports. Their bible, the RDA Handbook mirrors this stance. So what is the RDA? Currently it’s set at 0.8 g/kg (0.36 g/lb) protein per day. For a 200 lb individual that’s a mere 72 grams of protein per day. I bet most of the people reading this eat that at a meal.

As a sub-argument to what I wrote above, some will point out that, even if protein requirements in athletes are higher, since most strength athletes already eat more protein than the supposed requirements, there is no need to worry about it in the first place. That is, strength athletes already consume enough protein and needn’t focus on trying to get more.

At the other extreme are the athletes themselves who have long felt (and therefore argued) that high proteins are absolutely necessary for optimal results. Bodybuilders have traditionally used 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg) as a baseline recommendation with others taking this level to 2 g/lb (4.4 g/kg) or sometimes even higher. Muscle magazines, usually with a vested interest in moving protein powder tend to promote high protein intakes with claims of athletes eating 800-1000 grams protein per day (a level only achievable with supplementation) being claimed by top bodybuilders.

Who’s Right?

Science nerds like me always want to see the research on the topic. Of course, if you know me at all, you know that I’ve read it all. To say that it’s a bit mixed is an understatement and even researchers can’t make up their damn minds, preferring to hold polite arguments with one another for months in scientific journals.

Some research seems to clearly indicate an increased requirement for protein. But it uses a methodology (nitrogen balance) that is questionable at best, so the low-protein folks will shoot it down.

Other research (done with low intensity aerobic work) suggests that training improves protein retention; that is, as athletes become more trained, their protein requirements may actually go down. But does research with lower intensity aerobic work apply to the kind of training a strength/power athlete is doing? Probably not, so the high protein researchers will shoot that down. Around and around it goes.

Some research (again using a questionable methodology) suggests that athletes need more protein when they start a new or intensified training program but after a couple of weeks, protein requirements go back down. What happens if you’re always pushing your limits day in, day out, week in, week out? Nobody knows.

Of course the impact of anabolic steroids on protein requirements is almost a complete unknown although, empirically, most who would argue that a natural bodybuilder only needs 1 g/lb daily would also argue that someone using anabolics needs about double that to maximize the effects of the drugs.

A final problem is what’s being measured. Athletes want to know what will maximizes their performance, strength, power, speed, throwing, etc. Researchers invariably measure stuff of less relevance to athletes and coaches. Nitrogen balance, amino acid uptake, sometimes actual muscle growth is measured over the length of the study. Is the amount of protein needed to optimize performance different than what’s needed to maximize some aspect of muscular physiology?

An added issue is that solely looking at skeletal muscle may be missing pathways of importance to athletes. Immune system, connective tissue synthesis and a host of other pathways use amino acids; presumably athletes will upregulate those pathways. Meaning that true protein requirements, if you only look at what’s going on in the muscle, may be under-estimating what athletes truly need to maximize every aspect of performance.

The debate rages on and on and I’m not going togo into much more detail here about it. If you want to read about it in seemingly endless detail, I spent an entire chapter addressing both sides of the controversy in The Protein Book.

Sufficed to say that, as is always the case, both sides have their research, both ends of the research can be criticized on some methodological grounds or another and I don’t think researchers are going to stop arguing with one another any time soon.

Reaching a Consensus

And yet, I’m going to tell you how to rationalize all of the above stuff that I imagine most of you skimmed in the first place. Two researchers, named Tipton and Wolfe wrote a cool paper about this argument. In it they first detailed all of the stuff I just bored you with. At the end they gave their recommendations where they basically argued that

  • We don’t know how much protein is required to optimize all of the potential pathways important to athletes.
  • We know that a protein intake of 1.4 g/lb (3.0 g/kg) isn’t harmful and may have benefits that are too small to be measured in research
  • As long as eating lots of protein doesn’t keep an athlete from eating too few of the other nutrients (carbs/fats), there’s no reason to not eat a lot. And there may be benefits.

Essentially, a high protein intake won’t hurt an athlete (basically everything you may have read about the dangers of high protein intakes is nonsense), it may provide small benefits of importance to elite athletes and, at the end of the day athletes and coaches don’t give a shit about pedantic scientific debates over amino acid metabolism that gives researchers and nerds like me a giant hardon. Admittedly, they didn’t put it in exactly those terms but that’s the gist of it.

So here’s my recommendation, strength/power athletes should aim for 1.5 g/lb protein per day (again, this is about 3.3 g/kg for the metrically inclined). So for a 200 lb strength/power athlete, that’s 300 grams of protein per day. For a 300 lber, that’s 450 grams per day. If you’re Jeff Lewis, I imagine your protein requirements are basically ‘All of it’ or perhaps ‘A cow’. Per day.

Since most strength/power athletes have plenty high caloric requirements, this will still leave plenty of room for the other macros and, if nothing else, will ensure that protein intake is not limiting in any way. I’d note that female athletes often restrict calories heavily (for both good and bad reasons) and it is possible for them to get into situations where protein ends up making up damn near all of their daily food intake. There is some evidence that female athletes can get by with less protein but I’m not going to get into that here; perhaps a later article for Elite Fitness can address that.

I’d add that athletes who are using anabolics may wish to take this even higher, 2 g/lb (4.4 g/kg) or possibly higher. Again, very little research here.

I should address one other issue that always seems to come up about now which is whether to set protein requirements relative to lean body mass or total weight. There are some good arguments for both. In theory, using lean body mass probably makes the most sense, fat cells don’t have a huge protein requirement. At the same time, problems in measuring LBM and the fact that a little bit too much protein is arguably superior to too little make total bodyweight more tenable. Or at least easier to use. I’d only note that, for athletes carrying tremendous amounts of body fat (you know who you are), scaling protein intake back to take that into account may no be a bad idea. It may not be necessary but it can still be done.

More Protein Issues

Having looked at the issue of quantity, I want to talk briefly about issues of quality and variety. Frankly, the whole deal with protein quality has been blown way out of proportion by most folks. Unless you’re talking about folks eating small amounts of single shitty quality proteins every day, it’s just not that relevant. So yeah, for someone getting 30 grams of some piss quality grain as their only protein source, quality matters.

When an athlete is eating 1.5 g/lb or more of high quality (read: animal source) proteins per day, it really doesn’t. Now, yes, there are differences between proteins in terms of digestion speed (which is relevant for around workout nutrition) and other micronutrients (e.g. red meat has lots of zinc and iron, fatty fish has fish oils, etc.), amino acid can vary too (e.g. dairy proteins have more leucine than other sources) but unless you live on that one source, it’s just not that critical an issue to worry about most of the time. Rather, I recommend that strength/power athletes try to obtain their daily protein from mixed sources every day. That way, any potential limitation of one protein will be fixed by the consumption of another protein. As well, although there isn’t much research to base this on, I feel that consuming different protein sources at a given meal may be superior to single sources. You’re getting slightly different amino acid patterns, digestion speeds, etc. You’ll see this reflected in the sample menus below.

Of course, protein powders are always an option. I think they tend to have their greatest utility around training but they can be used for athletes on the go, or who are working endlessly during the day and who need to get protein in large amounts quickly. For various reasons (discussed, of course, in my book), I prefer milk protein isolate (a mix of whey and casein) for most applications. Fast digesting proteins such as whey are most appropriate before or during training (I prefer MPI post-workout).

Putting it to Use

So with that as a background, I want to present two sample meal plans, focusing only on protein intake for the two example lifters I used above. One plan is based around 300 grams of protein per day, the other around 450 grams of protein per day. Although I didn’t touch on meal frequency in this article, athletes with large food intakes generally need to split their meals up so I’ll be using a 5-6 meal/day frequency in the examples below. Each meal below contains either 50 grams of protein (left column) or 75 grams of protein (right column).

I want to make it clear that I didn’t present these meals in any order of importance, nor should readers simply do these meal plans without thinking about it. Rather, I wanted to show lifters how they could achieve the kinds of protein intakes I discussed above in a practical manner. Of course, bigger and smaller athletes can scale the numbers up or down (or add additional meals) as needed to hit their targets.

  Meal Plan for 300 g/day Intake Meal Plan for 450 g/day Intake
Meal 1 2 whole eggs, 4 egg white, 1/2 cup shredded 2% cheese, 1 cup 1% milk 3 whole eggs, 4 egg whites, 3 cup shredded 2% cheese, 1.5 cups 1% milk
Meal 2 5 oz. chicken breast, 1/2 cup cheese 7.5 oz. chicken breast, 3/4 cup cheese
Meal 3 8.5 oz. ground beef 12.5 oz. ground beef
Meal 4 5 oz. canned tuna, 1/2 cup 2% cottage cheese 7.5 oz canned tuna, 3/4 cup 2% cottage cheese
Meal 5 5 oz. chicken breast, 2 cups 1% milk 7.5 oz. chicken breast, 1 cup 2% cheese, 1 cup milk
Meal 6 1 cup 2% cottage cheese, 30 grams protein powder 1.5 cups 2% cottage cheese, 45 grams protein powder

Let me make it clear that the above are purely examples of the types and amounts of food that athletes could eat to reach the protein intakes listed above. There obviously other good sources of protein and athletes requiring less protein on a daily basis would scale the amounts downwards.