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 the optimal approach for muscle mass gains is just as 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 and 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.
I’d note that, to some degree, this idea still exists today among some professional bodybuilders. For example, here’s Lee Priest in the off-season and in competition condition.
There are also a good many stories of big strong powerlifters dieting down to seriously amazing bodybuilding levels of leanness and development. Dave Gulledge is a particularly good example, here’s pictures of him before leaning out and after.
So there’s clearly some merit to the “get big and strong and FAT” approach to gaining muscle mass. When the trainee gets the fat off (which may take a year or more depending on the degree of fatness), assuming they don’t diet too badly and lose all the muscle, they often look absolutely amazing. It’s also a lot of fun to just eat and eat and eat and not care where the calories come from. Pizza, donuts, candy bars, whatever gets the calories down the pie-hole is good to go.
What isn’t usually talked about is the supporting “elements” (read: anabolic steroids) that are involved here. Between increasing the amount of muscle mass gained while the folks in question get big and fat (and increasing the total amount of muscle that can be held) to sparing muscle loss while they diet off 150 pounds of lard, the drugs make a huge difference.
But the GFH approach to mass gain can backfire badly for naturals as there are biological limits to both the rate of muscle gain (per day or per week) as well as the maximum amount of muscle a natural lifter can carry. Simply, I don’t think this is generally ideal for the natural bodybuilder or athlete to gain muscle mass.
Athletes can’t usually afford to get that fat in the first place (performance suffers) and excess fat gain while gaining muscle mass for bodybuilders just means that much longer of a diet to get it back off.
As mentioned above, and discussed below, given a maximum weekly rate of muscle gain, gaining weight at too fast a rate simply means that much more fat is being gained without increasing the rate of muscle mass gain.
Even for non-competitive bodybuilders, assuming the trainee is actually training for appearance reasons, getting excessively big and fat for part of the year really isn’t consistent with that goal.
If you’re training for looks, ruining them by getting super fat just doesn’t make sense. That’s on top of other potential negatives of the GFH approach such as stretch marks and the potential to permanently increase the bodies set point (making it harder to get and stay lean when you diet back down).
I should note that, for very skinny folks or those looking for the most rapid rate of gain to reach their genetic limits, there is something to be said for the GFH philosophy. But, for most, I generally feel that the cons outweigh the pros and outside of a situation like a pro-football player or someone who just needed to get big and strong fast and didn’t care about the excess fat gain (or actually needed it to be competitive), I’d be unlikely to recommend this approach.
If you’ve got drugs to help in the way up and the way back down, you can mostly do what you want.
At the other extreme is the near obsession with lean-gaining, the idea being that folks are going to gain muscle mass without putting on an ounce of body-fat. Some supplements actually catered to this and the big fad in the 90’s were low-calorie mass gainers, products that claimed to magically put muscle on people without providing excess calories.
And they did increase lean weight but only because they all contained creatine which increases lean body mass (via water retention) by several pounds. Thankfully, that fad has gone.
Lean gaining is usually based around insanely meticulous calorie and nutrient counting and timing, an obsession with clean eating, etc. without ever actually providing sufficient nutrients to grow at any meaningful rate.
When you hear someone say that you can’t put on more than three pounds of muscle in a year, this is who you’re usually talking to: the guys who won’t allow even an ounce of fat gain. Or you’re talking to a natural bodybuilder who’s been at it for 3-5 years and is near his genetic limit. But it’s usually the lean-obsessed guys who aren’t gaining jack squat for muscle in a year.
The benefits of the lean-gaining approach, mind you, are that you get to look great year round; of course if your goal is contest bodybuilding (or sports), it also means literally no dieting time.
If you model or make your living based on your physique, being able to do a photo shoot within a few weeks (or days) notice may be financially beneficial as well. This tends not to represent the majority of obsessives who try to use the lean-gaining approach.
The simple fact is that a bodybuilder who refuses to gain any fat and doesn’t put on any muscle between shows won’t be improving year to year. Unless they have perfect symmetry, size, shape, etc. their fear of body fat is preventing them from ever getting any better. Women even moreso than men tend to fear the fluff (as its often called) and limit their muscular gains to an extreme degree.
Athletes often have to add muscle mass (to improve strength, power or move up a weight class) and often don’t have very long to do it. Keeping calories too low year round hurts improvements in both mass and strength gains.
Even weight class athletes such as Olympic Lifters and Powerlifters usually train at a weight slightly higher than their weight class: this lets them eat more food, train more effectively and make faster gains. They can always drop weight and fat when needed. Most just manipulate water weight to make their class in the last week.
The simple fact is that the body needs not only an appropriate training stimulus but also sufficient building blocks (protein, amino acids) AND sufficient dietary energy (calories) for maximal improvements.
I discuss this in some detail when I discussed calorie partitioning. Staying excessively lean (which means either doing tons of cardio, restricting calories, or both) isn’t consistent with the goal of trying to get stronger and more muscular for the most part.
Another drawback to the whole lean-gaining thing is that the meticulous attention to nutrition every day can drive people crazy. Of course, bodybuilders are usually a bit nutso anyhow and orthorexia is a very real eating-disorder.
But worrying about every gram of everything that you eat every day of your life can drive some people insane (more insane); it also triggers some awesome binges when they lose control for even a second.
Before moving on, I would note that some lean gaining approaches, notably the mass variant of my own Ultimate Diet 2.0, as well as some of the intermittent fasting approaches take a more relaxed approach to the idea of gaining muscle mass while limiting fat gain. Rather than being based around keeping calories pretty low/controlled all the time, they are based around the short-term (1-3 days) alternation of low and high-calorie intakes.
The lowered calorie periods limit or reduce fat gains while the high-calorie periods support growth and gains. There’s more flexibility, trainees get some big-eating periods (helping to stave off insanity and binges) and there are other benefits of them for people who are determined to stay lean year round but want to actually gain some muscle mass. But these approaches are typically much different than the ‘typical’ approach to lean-gaining.
As well, for many they are simply not worth the time or energy investment and I want to describe what I feel is perhaps an “ideal” approach to gaining mass (over the long-term) without either getting too fat or limiting gains by staying too lean.
Before getting to that, I need to discuss something that will not make a lot of readers happy.
How Fast Can You Actually Gain Muscle?
We live in an instant gratification society and are constantly bombarded with amazing claims; while this is probably most true in the world of weight loss, it’s not much different when it comes to muscle gain.
Magazines advertise 20 pounds or rock hard muscle in a mere 8-10 weeks, a supplement promises 5 lbs of muscle in 3 days or whatever; all around we see claims of rapid gains in muscle mass. Sadly, this is all basically bullshit. Yeah, with glycogen loading or creatine you can increase lean body mass (not the same as muscle mass) fairly rapidly but beyond that, skeletal muscle actually grows fairly slowly.
On average, a natural male doing everything right will be doing very well to gain 1/2 of pound muscle per week. A female might gain half that or about 1/2 pound muscle every 2 weeks.
2017 UPDATE: Please note that this rate of muscle gain decreases as they become more advanced as shown here. At the intermediate level, it will drop to lower levels and may be no more than 1 lb/month (women 1/2 lb/month) and will approach fairly trivial levels past that point. This has huge consequences for the goal rate of weight gain per month, discussed below.
Let’s put that in perspective: over a full year of training, assuming the trainee is doing everything right, that’s 26 pounds of the good stuff for men (13 pounds for women). Which, if you think about it, actually isn’t that awful. It’s simply awful compared to what people think they are going to get based on the false promises in the magazines (or the claims of drug using bodybuilders).
That assumes that half-pound is gained week-in, week-out for the entire year. Oddly, and somewhat tangentially, it usually doesn’t work that way. Trainees may go a long time with no measurable gains and then wake up several pounds heavier seemingly overnight. I have no idea why, that’s just how it usually works.
I’d note that, under the right conditions (usually underweight high school kids), much faster rates of gain are often seen or reported. But these tend to be exceptions to the rule more than the norm and since I’m usually writing for the average male trainee who’s not 15 years old with raging hormones, I don’t consider those values very illustrative.
And, occasionally, when the stars are right, and everything clicks, a true one pound per week of muscle mass gain may be seen for short periods. But again, that tends to be the exception.
Let me reiterate: the average male trainee is doing well to gain about 1/2 pound muscle per week, 2 pounds per month or about 24-26 pounds per year. I’d note that that will generally only happen in the first year of training and things slow down after that. A female may be gaining about half that much, 1 pound per month of actual muscle tissue or 10-12 pounds per year. I know it sucks but that’s reality.
I bring this up as it has some relevance to the weekly rate of weight gain that is acceptable for what I’m going to describe next.
Bulk a Little, Cut a Little
As many know, and altogether too many don’t know or realize, I’m usually a happy medium kind of guy. I find most extremist stances to be flawed and usually end up somewhere between the two in my recommendations. That’s on top of trying to look at the context of a given trainee’s situation. This is true for training, diet and most everything else you care to name. It’s certainly true for the topic of this article.
As noted above, there’s no doubt that gaining some fat will allow a faster rate of muscle gain. The drawback is that, gain too much fat and dieting time is extended and appearance suffers. And while staying lean is nice from an appearance standpoint, trying to stay too lean all the time tends to hurt mass and strength gains because the trainee simply can’t eat enough.
The solution of course is to simply alternate shorter periods of mass-gaining (let’s not use the term bulking since it seems to cause people so many mental problems) where the goal is maximal muscle gains while accepting small amounts of fat gain before dropping into a short dieting phase to strip off the fat without losing any of the muscle gain.
Please read the bold bits carefully, they are the key to all of this. What’s ideal for most situations in my experience is to try to maximize muscle gain (smart training, slight caloric surplus) by allowing a small amount of fat gain to occur.
While this causes the trainee to get fatter (this should be done without getting outright FAT), this also maximizes the rate of muscle gain. While dieting, of course, the goal should always be to limit muscle mass losses (as outlined in pretty much any of my books). Done properly, alternating mass gain with proper dieting, the end result is more muscle mass.
This idea isn’t new mind you, and has probably been around for 30-40 years or more (McCallum wrote about it in The Keys to Progress and Dan Duchaine was an advocate of this approach). I simply happen to think it’s superior for most applications to either GFH or the ‘Gotta stay ripped year round crew’ for the average natural bodybuilder or athlete (or simply individuals interested in gaining muscle mass).
So let’s put some numbers and guidelines to this.
1. First and foremost, trainees should not be starting out their muscle gaining phase too fat. Males should be ~10-12% body fat before even considering going on any kind of ‘bulk’ (fatter trainees can usually gain some muscle while losing fat with a basic recomposition plan; this is beyond the scope of this article). For a female, this would be roughly equivalent to 19-24% body fat.
Bodybuilders with contest aspirations might even start out a little bit leaner, perhaps 8% for males and 17-20% for females; this is simply to facilitate getting into contest shape in less time. Any leaner than that and hormones and energy tend to suffer. And, yes, this means that many will have to diet first before they even consider putting on muscle. That’s life.
2. It would be ideal, if, after dieting, the trainee took two weeks at maintenance to stabilize at the new body fat level. The reasons for this are numerous but revolve around letting some of the hormonal adaptations to dieting normalize.
I’ve written about this endlessly on the site and my full diet break concept is outlined in detail in both The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and A Guide to Flexible Dieting. Briefly, take two weeks at roughly maintenance calories with at least 150 grams/day of carbohydrate.
3. Now you can start gaining weight. Assuming relative average partitioning (not superior or inferior), a weight gain of approximately one pound per week (of which half should be muscle) and half a pound per week for females (of which half should be muscle), or 4 and 2 pounds/month respectively should roughly maximize muscle gains without excessive fat gain.
There will be some fat gain, of course, but, simply, any faster rate of weight gain (I’ve seen folks suggest 2-3 pounds per week) will only increase fat gain without increasing the rate of muscle mass gain.
2017 UPDATE: The above values ONLY apply to the beginner who has the potential to gain 2 lbs muscle/month (men) or 1 lb muscle/month (women). As trainees advance and rates of potential muscle gain slow, the rate of weekly and monthly weight gain MUST slow down or the only effect will be excessive fat gain which will necessitate extended dieting periods.
So at the intermediate level where the potential muscle gain is 1 lb/month (men) and half of that for women, a total monthly weight gain of 2 lbs (0.5 lbs/week) for men and 1 lb per month (0.25 lbs/week) for women would be appropriate. Beyond that point, the relatively trivial amount of muscle gain potential would necessitate even slower rates of weight gain.
In support of this is a very recent study by Garthe on elite athletes. It showed that a group gaining weight relatively slowly gained mostly muscle with only a small amount of fat while a group gaining weight faster only gained excessive amounts of bodyfat. Simply, you can NOT force feed muscle growth as it will occur at the rate it will occur at. Excessive surpluses or rates of weight gain only lead to excessive fat gain.
4. When the trainee hits a body fat percentage of approximately 15% for men (~24% for women), the mass gaining phase should end. How long this take will depend on the size of the person but realistically, a 170 pound male trainee with 10% body fat could gain 16 pounds (8 pounds fat, 8 pounds muscle) before hitting the 15% mark. At one pound per week, that’s 16 weeks of gaining. Which, I’d note should be broken up into at least two separate training blocks.
A female starting at 130 pounds and 19% body fat could realistically get to 154 pounds (12 pound fat/12 pounds lean) before hitting 24% body fat. For the female trainee, at one half-pound per week is nearly a year of training; again that would be broken up into distinct training phases.
5. After finishing the mass-gaining phase, a consolidation phase of two weeks where calories are brought back down to maintenance levels (and cardio, if not being done, is brought in) should occur before actively dieting.
Of course, the diet itself is a completely separate topic, some prefer to lose as slowly as they’ve gained, others are using the ideas in my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook to strip off the fat as rapidly as possible so that they can get back to gaining again. Both are valid and my article series on Fat Loss for Athletes is worth reading for more information.
Let me summarize the above a little more briefly: trainees should set a bottom and top-end for acceptable body fat levels. For males, 10-15% is a good range, for females 19-24% or so works.
Diet down until you hit the low end, stabilize for two weeks, gain until you hit the high end, stabilize for two weeks, then diet back down while keeping the muscle. Over many months or a year of training, you should end up with more muscle than you started with which is the whole goal.