Most of the really big guys I know all have the same opinion about gaining size and muscular bodyweight. ‘Getting big is easy,’ they say. ‘You just train heavy and hard and eat a lot, and you get big.’
Although I may agree with the concept that it’s easy to get big, the actual process is anything but easy. Unless you’re a genetically gifted individual’someone who can gain muscular size and strength by just looking at the weights’you’ll find that the above statement is a little simplistic. Most IRONMAN readers understand the best way to train in order to get big fast. Train with the basic exercises’mostly barbell and dumbbell movements’use heavy poundages for six to 10 reps and keep the sets moderate to avoid overtraining.
That’s all well and good, but what about diet? Is it really as simple as eating everything that isn’t nailed down? Being something of a hardgainer myself, I can assure you that just eating a lot of food is not the answer to either building quality muscle or adding as much muscular bodyweight as possible.
You Are What You Eat
Whether you’re trying to lose bodyfat or gain muscular bodyweight, nutrition is of paramount importance. Normally, diet is at least 50 percent of the battle when you’re on a bodybuilding program. When you’re trying to lose or gain weight, however, your nutrition will account for as much as 75 percent or more of the changes you’ll make to your physique.
Look around the gym. If you’ve been training at the same gym for more than a couple years, take note of the members whose physiques haven’t changed since you started training there. Year after year, they look exactly the same, not getting any bigger or any leaner. They just maintain their physiques, seemingly unaware that they’re not making any progress.
Training intensity could be to blame. If you’re using the same resistance month after month and year after year, then you’re not giving your muscles any incentive to change. Using heavier poundages or pushing each set harder would stimulate the muscles to grow larger and get stronger; however, pumping up the intensity without making changes to a subpar nutrition plan will keep your gains to a minimum.
I know that’s true because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve watched fellow gym members train with the same amount of weight and intensity for years on end, and their physiques remain the same. Then, out of the blue, they make a change to their diet because they want to lose bodyfat, and almost miraculously, the stagnant physique begins to show remarkable progress. When that happens, the other members can’t help but notice. What’s even more amazing is that such a dramatic change can take place in a physique without any significant changes to the person’s training program. The fact that a physique can go through such a dynamic change in such a short time is dramatic proof of how important diet is to your progress.
When the goal is to bulk up, or gain muscular bodyweight, diet is equally important. If you don’t eat the right foods and eat them consistently, you could be stuck at the same bodyweight for years. Losing bodyfat and getting ripped involves eating a certain number of calories along with the correct percentages of proteins, carbs and fats. That goes for the goal of putting on size as well. You also need to eat a certain number of calories (obviously, more than you’d eat for fat loss), getting the correct percentages of proteins, carbs and fats. Failing to do so will result in a lack of progress.
What Type of Hardgainer Are You?
There are two types of bodybuilders who want to put on muscular bodyweight. The first are typical hardgainers. Hardgainers are usually’but not always’in their teens or early 20s. They’re often very skinny and cannot seem to gain weight no matter how much food they eat. Their metabolisms are so fast, they seem to burn up every calorie they eat.
The second group of bodybuilders who are trying to put on muscular bodyweight aren’t so ectomorphic. They may be a little bit older and have slower metabolisms, or they may be more endomorphic in body type. They want to add muscle mass but are afraid of eating too many calories for fear of adding unwanted bodyfat.
The keys to designing a nutritional plan for either type of bodybuilder are the three macronutrients. The number of calories you consume is also an important factor. The basic idea is that if you eat more calories than you expend, you’ll gain weight. So, when attempting to add bodyweight, it’s important to eat foods that are calorie dense, meaning that they contain a lot of calories for the amount of food you’re eating.
A gram of protein and a gram carbohydrates contain four calories each, while a gram of fat contains nine calories. Just as people who are trying to lose bodyfat consider the calories in each item of food they put into their mouths, bodybuilders trying to gain weight should also look at how many calories they’re about to eat. By choosing foods that are more calorie dense, you’ll put on bodyweight quicker than you would if you were eating lowfat, low-calorie items. Keep in mind that there are only so many hours in each day, and you need to fill those hours by eating high-calorie foods that are going to help you reach your goal of adding size and bodyweight.
Of the three macronutrients, protein is the only one that rebuilds tissue, including, of course, muscle. If you don’t get enough high-quality protein, it will be impossible to build more size and strength.
There are two kinds of protein foods, those that contain complete proteins and those that contain incomplete proteins. Complete-protein foods contain the eight essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own and that must be obtained through the diet. The only foods that can be considered complete-protein foods come from the meat and dairy groups. Include such foods as eggs, milk, cheese, chicken, turkey, fish and red meat in each meal to ensure that you eat enough complete protein throughout the day.
Bodybuilders who are attempting to gain muscular bodyweight and/or are training very heavy to add more size should be eating 1.25 to 1.5 grams of protein for each pound of bodyweight. In other words, a 200-pound bodybuilder should strive to eat 250 to 300 grams of protein a day. Many carbohydrate foods also contain ample amounts of protein, so you should be aware of how many grams of protein you eat each day that come from complete-protein foods and how many that come from incomplete-protein foods. Oatmeal, beans, bread and rice, although considered carbohydrate foods, also contain protein.
Given that additional factor, bodybuilders trying to gain muscular bodyweight should aim for one gram of complete protein for each pound of bodyweight. A 200-pound bodybuilder, then, should be eating 200 grams of protein from complete-protein food sources such as eggs, poultry, red meat and protein powder. After adding all the other foods he eats throughout the day, a 200-pound bodybuilder should be taking in a total of 250 to 300 grams.
If you’re eating to put on size, your diet should include foods that aren’t necessarily lowfat sources of protein. Egg whites, chicken, turkey and fish are great food choices because they’re complete-protein foods that contain all the essential amino acids needed for growth; however, because they’re so low in fat, they are also limited in calories. Foods that are high in protein but also contain extra fat and calories are essential ingredients in a mass-building nutrition program. Whole eggs, red meats and whole milk and cheese (if you aren’t lactose intolerant) are great for packing on mass while providing substantial calories and adding to your protein intake.
Red meat is a great protein food for bodybuilders who hope to get bigger. In addition to protein and some fat, meat contains iron, B-vitamins and creatine, which can really make a difference in your efforts to bulk up and add strength. Several years ago I followed a diet that contained no red meat, only chicken, fish, turkey and egg whites for my protein. I decided to add some lean flank steak for dinner instead of the standard chicken breasts, and I noticed an immediate change in my physique. When everyone else at the gym started to comment on my added size, I realized what a little red meat can do for adding more muscle and strength.
Whole eggs are another great protein food for adding mass. Many bodybuilders have been brainwashed into believing that the yolks are so evil, they should be eliminated without question; however, the yolk of an egg contains important vitamins and fats that are thrown away when you only eat the white. Lee Haney is one of the few modern-day bodybuilders who believe in adding a couple egg yolks to his breakfast of egg whites. Hard-gaining bodybuilders who are trying to add size should not waste time separating the egg white from the egg yolk. If you’re looking for a high-calorie, high-protein breakfast choice, try eating a six- or seven-whole-egg omelette with cheddar or mozzarella cheese.
On the subject of protein, of course you can’t leave out protein powders. Once thought of as a supplement to the diet, protein powders have advanced to the point where they’re considered an essential part of a bodybuilder’s eating plan. Thanks to modern technology, most of the high-quality protein powders now available also taste very good.
Whey protein has replaced casein-based milk-and-egg proteins as the superior source for protein supplements. Although whey has a higher biological value than milk and egg’or just egg protein by itself’whey is absorbed quickly in the system. As a result, your blood sugar level could drop below normal after the protein is rapidly digested. To counteract that problem, some manufacturers have combined fast-acting whey protein with the slower-absorbed casein. With the two proteins working together, the body gets the benefit of the fast-acting whey along with the trickle-down anabolic effect of the slower-acting milk protein.
I favor Muscle-Link’s Pro-Fusion protein powder, which combines the superior effects of whey protein and micellar casein, a milk protein, for the ultimate fast-and-slow absorption rate. When it comes to gaining weight, however, you can’t do better than to supplement your diet with meal-replacement powders. MRPs offer more calories along with additional carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and numerous vitamins and minerals. MRPs are a better substitute for a meal than protein powder alone.
I normally drink at least two Muscle Meals MRPs a day. If I’m trying to gain weight and have increased the number of meals I take in per day, I may even up the MRPs to three. Each packet contains 324 calories and 40 grams of protein. Plus, they taste awesome, so they’re not hard to swallow. So the first rule to remember when designing a nutrition program is to include a complete form of protein in each and every meal. Aim for one gram of complete protein for each pound of bodyweight and a total protein count of 1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Make protein the primary ingredient in every meal. Your muscles crave it after you train heavy and hard in the gym.
Carbohydrates are an essential ingredient when it comes to building muscle and gaining weight. They’re the primary energy source used by the body, and they’re very important in any weight-gaining program. You can eat protein until it’s coming out of your ears (although excess protein would probably exit from some other area of the body), but you won’t have the energy to power through your workouts or the glycogen to replenish your depleted muscles unless you take in the carbs.
Carbohydrates are also important because they raise the body’s insulin level each time you eat them. Insulin is considered an anabolic hormone because it transports the carbs into the muscle cells to be stored as muscle glycogen and also drives the amino acids from the protein foods you eat into the muscle cells to promote new growth.
Carbohydrates are often said to be protein-sparing because if enough carbs are available, your body uses them as an energy source, thus sparing the protein for its primary function of rebuilding muscle tissue. When a diet is low in carbohydrates, the body actually has to use amino acids as an energy source. That’s a disastrous situation for a bodybuilder who’s trying to get bigger.
Just as there are complete and incomplete proteins, carbohydrates are classified as complex and simple carbs. Although the majority of carbohydrates in a bodybuilder’s weight-gain diet should be complex, you can also include simple carbs.
Complex carbs are, as their name implies, more complex in their makeup and are broken down more slowly in the body than the simple variety. They’re more likely to be stored as glycogen in the muscle cells. Simple sugars, especially when eaten by themselves, make the insulin level rise too high, which could cause those calories to be stored as fat as opposed to being driven into the muscle cells.
For that reason, bodybuilders trying to gain muscular bodyweight should concentrate on eating a lot of complex carbohydrates. Foods such as oatmeal, brown rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, oat bran and vegetables give the body the essential ingredients it needs for energy to fuel workouts and also to build muscle tissue.
So, in designing a muscle-building diet, you should focus on eating protein first in any meal and then follow that up with some carbohydrate foods. You can eat greater quantities of complex carbs than protein because the body can only absorb so much protein at one time. Carbs, however, are stored in the muscle cells as muscle glycogen. When the muscle cells are filled, they start spilling over and the calories consumed are stored as fat. If you’re trying to get big, you may want some spillover in order to put on additional bodyweight. The degree to which you’ll want to eat excessive carbs and calories will depend on your goals and the type of hardgainer you are.
In addition to starchy complex carbs like oatmeal, bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, you should eat fibrous complex carbohydrates such as broccoli, corn, asparagus, cauliflower and other vegetables. They not only provide the body with important vitamins and minerals, but they also supply the necessary fiber required to digest all the food you’re eating. Even so, you shouldn’t eat them in place of the important starchy carbs but in addition to them.
In order to avoid excess fat storage while attempting to gain muscular bodyweight, it’s important to control your insulin levels. Too much insulin released at one time causes the calories you eat to be stored as fat. One way to avoid that is to eat several meals per day. More frequent meals’or feedings, as we bodybuilders like to call them’allow you to eat more moderate doses of carbohydrates at one time, thus avoiding the big insulin rush.
Including fiber in each meal also slows down the digestive rate and inhibits any excessive insulin reaction. Carbohydrate foods such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, beans and oat bran contain large amounts of fiber to slow the meal’s absorption rate. Vegetables also contain insoluble fiber, and you should include them in several meals per day to help control insulin levels.
Including protein in each meal also helps you avoid high insulin levels. Protein foods, especially those that contain some fat, slow down the insulin reaction by increasing the digestion time of the meal. Fat and protein take longer to digest than carbohydrate foods. Combining food groups is one of the best ways to control insulin levels.
Unless you’re extremely endomorphic and get fat by just looking at cookies, you can probably eat nearly twice as many grams of carbohydrates as protein when you’re eating to put on size. A 200-pound bodybuilder should be eating anywhere from two to four grams of carbs for each pound of bodyweight. That translates into 400 to 600 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Speaking of cookies, many bodybuilders are often unsure about eating junk food when trying to gain weight. Again, it all depends on your metabolism and your physique goals. If you’re attempting to get big but are very wary of adding extra bodyfat, obviously, you should keep junk food to a minimum and eat good complex carbs instead. If you’re extremely ectomorphic and your metabolism operates in hyperspeed, then junk food and other goodies are definitely allowed and encouraged.
The last macronutrient is fat. Fats are important in any diet, but that’s especially true when you’re trying to gain weight. As mentioned above, fats supply nine calories per gram, while proteins and carbohydrates only provide four calories per gram. Including enough fats in your diet is one way to increase your calorie intake.
Eating an extremely lowfat diet’less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake’is a bad idea if you’re attempting to gain weight. You should strive to get about 15 percent of your total calorie intake from dietary fats. More than that will take away from the important protein and carbohydrate foods you should be taking in.
Getting 15 percent of your calories from fat shouldn’t be too hard if you eat protein foods such as eggs, meat, chicken and turkey. Even lowfat meats have some fat in them. Most bodybuilders won’t need to concentrate on eating enough fat unless they only eat very lowfat sources of protein such as fish, extralean turkey and egg whites. As discussed above, however, bodybuilders attempting to gain weight should eat protein foods that have higher fat contents, such as whole eggs and red meat.
There are some fats that every bodybuilder should get each and every day. They’re the omega-3 fatty acids that perform essential functions in the body. Unfortunately, the body cannot make those fatty acids on its own and must get them from the diet. Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are very high in omega-3 fatty acids and should be a staple in every bodybuilder’s diet.
Another way to get omega-3 fatty acids from your diet is by using flaxseed oil, a vegetable source. You can just include a tablespoon in each of your protein drinks. Two to three tablespoons of flaxseed oil a day will supply your body with all the omega-3 fatty acids it needs.
In addition to performing important health functions in the body, omega-3 fatty acids increase the insulin sensitivity of muscle cells. There are receptors for insulin on both muscle cells and fat cells, and it’s obviously beneficial if the insulin receptors on the muscle cells are more sensitive than the insulin receptors on the fat cells. The muscle cells’ increased sensitivity will help to drive more amino acids and glycogen into the muscle cells and away from the fat cells. That’s important whether you’re trying to increase muscle size or lose bodyfat.
How Much Food Should You Eat?
The amount of food you should eat while on a size-building program depends on what type of hardgainer you consider yourself to be. Let’s look at more mature bodybuilders first. These are the people who don’t want to add excess bodyfat while eating more to put on size. Before beginning a size-building diet, add up the number of calories you’re eating per day. Building size without adding fat is going to require an increase in calories, but you have to establish where your calorie intake is now before adding more. Eating everything in sight will no doubt add unwanted bodyfat.
Start by recording every calorie you eat for one week. You’ll need to buy a food scale to weigh your foods and a reference book such as the Nutrition Almanac in order to accurately tally up how many calories you eat. That’s the only way you get an accurate view of where your diet stands now. Many people eat a different number of calories each day. They may eat 2,500 calories on Monday, 3,300 on Tuesday, 3,700 on Wednesday and 2,800 on Thursday. Adding the different calorie totals each day for a week and dividing them by seven will give you your average daily calorie intake. If you’re maintaining your bodyweight with that number of calories, that’s your maintenance calorie intake.
You also need to determine how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats you’re consuming each day. You may be surprised to find that you’re not eating enough protein or that you’re eating too much fat. Remember to shoot for 1.25 to 1.5 grams of protein and two to three grams of carbohydrates for each pound of bodyweight. Your fat grams should add up to 15 percent of your total calories.
In order to determine the percentage of calories that come from each macronutrient, multiply the grams of each macronutrient eaten per day by the number of calories per gram it contains. Remember, it’s four calories for a gram of protein, four for a gram of carb and nine for a gram of fat. So, if you eat 200 grams of protein in a day in which you consume a total of 3,400 calories, 23.5 percent of your calories are coming from protein (4 calories x 200 grams of protein = 800 calories from protein ‘ 3,400 total calories = 23.5 percent protein). You total and average your daily protein percentages for a week and then tally and average the totals for fat and carbs the same way.
If you’re eating 3,200 calories per day and want to increase your bodyweight and muscle size, you should begin by adding 20 percent more calories to your total intake. That addition of 640 calories would bring your total calories to 3,840 per day.
You could bring your calorie intake up by adding more food to each meal or by adding meals. Increasing your daily meals from six to seven would be an easy way to add the calories. If your schedule doesn’t allow for another meal, you could add more food to each meal. Instead of having two whole eggs, six egg whites and one cup of oatmeal for breakfast, bump it up to three eggs, six egg whites and 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal. Slightly increasing the amount of food you eat per meal will slowly begin to add bodyweight.
A good macronutrient guideline to shoot for is 35 percent protein, 50 percent carbohydrate and 15 percent fat. Using the previous example of 3,840 calories, you would need to eat 336 grams of protein, 480 grams of carb and 64 grams of fat in order to get those percentages. After following that diet for one month’and assuming that your training intensity and/or poundages are increasing’you should notice gains in size and bodyweight. If you still feel that you’re not gaining the size you’d hoped for, you could increase your calories another 10 percent to 4,224. If you’re concerned about adding bodyfat, you need to monitor your physique at this point to make sure that the calorie increase doesn’t add too much unwanted adipose tissue. If it does, you’ll need to make adjustments by decreasing your calorie intake slightly. Just make sure you’re still eating enough grams of protein for each pound of bodyweight and keep your fat at 15 percent. Increase or decrease your carbs to adjust your total calories. This method of precise record keeping is one of the most accurate and surefire ways to slowly increase your bodyweight while keeping your bodyfat levels under control.
There is, however, another type of bodybuilder who wants to gain weight: the hardgainer who has a very fast metabolism and finds it nearly impossible to gain any type of bodyweight, either fat or muscle.
Such bodybuilders don’t need to count up their calories and weigh their food each day. They should concentrate on eating complete forms of protein with each meal, along with plenty of complex carbs and the essential fatty acids. After all the essentials are taken care of, anything goes! I was at that stage at one point in my career, and I remember that I had to eat an enormous number of calories before my body started to gain weight. I was following a good bodybuilding diet at the time, eating six meals per day with plenty of protein, carbs and fats, but it still wasn’t enough. My bodyweight was stuck at 205 pounds for more than eight months, no matter what I did. I certainly wasn’t overtraining because I was only training four days per week, concentrating on the basic exercises and using heavy poundages. My metabolism was so fast, however, that my body resisted my attempts to add more bodyweight and muscle mass.
It was only after I dramatically increased the number of calories I was eating that I began to gain additional size and bodyweight. To give you an example of the type of diet that I used, check out the following typical meals.
Seven-egg omelette with Muenster cheese
3 slices whole-wheat toast with butter and fruit preserves
2 large glasses orange juice
Protein drinks (2 to 3 per day)
2 cups whole milk
2 scoops protein powder
2 scoops ice cream
1 pound lean ground beef
1 large baked potato with butter
Wild rice and vegetables
2 large glasses whole milk
Dessert (never missed a dessert!)
Late-night snack (eaten at a restaurant after a night out)
2 slices whole-wheat toast with butter and preserves
1 large Belgian waffle with butter and syrup
1 chocolate shake with a banana
While following that bulk-up phase, I consistently ate foods that were high in calories. I ate six big meals per day, every day, even when I didn’t feel like eating. That was the only way I could turn my metabolism around and start gaining some serious size and bodyweight. I began the diet at 205 pounds, and I was 230 pounds six months later. True, I looked more like a bulked-up lineman than an aspiring physique artist, but I finally crossed the hardgainer barrier and gained the muscular size I’d always craved.
It’s not usually recommended that anyone seek out foods that are high in fat or calories, but bodybuilders who have a hyperfast metabolism need to go to the extreme when attempting to add bodyweight. If that’s your situation, seek out cheeseburgers, milk shakes and ice cream on a regular basis in order to put on the weight and muscle size you desire. You should also concentrate on eating high-quality forms of protein, complex carbs and essential fatty acids, but after the basics are taken care of, you’ll need to eat lots and lots of calories to slow down your metabolism so you can add some solid bodyweight.
So, were those big guys from the gym right? It’s possible to get really big as long as you eat the right way and train heavy and hard. But easy? If it were easy, there wouldn’t be so many skinny guys walking around. Don’t be one of those wandering ectomorphs looking for the answers to getting massive. Now that you know what to do, it’s time to start getting big!
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the title of Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com or send questions or comments to [email protected]. You can also write to him at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call 1-800-900-UNIV. IM