In all the hoopla surrounding get-skinny-quick diets, we often forget that gaining mass takes just as much dedication as stripping it away. It’s vital to have a game plan that lets you meet all your caloric and macronutrient needs during the mass-building phase of your training diet. But how many calories should you wolf down? Should you shun fat? How about protein? Do you have to gnaw on three Flintstone-size steaks a day?
Let us help cut through the confusion. If you’re looking to insulate your body with some extra bulk this winter, here are a dozen of the most crucial mass-building nutrition tips that will help you achieve explosive growth. Because after all, size matters.
Big Rule No. 1: Count Calories
Without question, you must eat big to get big. You have to provide your body with the necessary energy to fuel growth and create a caloric surplus. And because muscle mass is very metabolically active tissue, it needs plenty of calories to keep it alive and growing. When mass gain is the goal, aim to take in about 20 calories per pound of bodyweight each day. For a 180-pound guy, that amounts to roughly 3,600 calories a day.
However, keep an eye on your physique. If you find you’re packing on too much flab with this calorie count, drop down toward 16 to 18 calories. Hardgainers not experiencing enough growth can try bumping up to 25 calories per pound of bodyweight.
Pro Tip: To be more precise about your calorie intake, add a digital food scale to your arsenal of kitchen tools. This is the best way to accurately determine serving sizes of items such as meats and cheese. Also, keep a food journal, logging everything you eat in a day, and use the online tool NutritionData.com to take the guesswork out of counting calories and macronutrients.
Big Rule No. 2: Meet Your Protein Needs
Protein provides the amino-acid building blocks for muscle growth. Shoot for 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight as part of your mass-gaining diet. For a 180-pound person, this would equal 216 to 270 grams of protein daily. As a reference, 3 ounces of chicken breast provides 18 grams of protein, while two large hard-boiled eggs deliver 12 grams. If you’re training very intensely, aim for the upper end of this range to help offset any muscular breakdown. Varying your protein sources throughout the day helps ensure you get a good balance of the necessary amino acids to fuel growth. Smart options include poultry; grass-fed beef; eggs; game meats like venison, bison or elk; fish; beans; pork; dairy; tofu; and protein powders.
Big Rule No. 3: Forget Low-Carb
Carbohydrates provide a valuable source of calories for building a bigger physique. Plus, if you don’t have enough glycogen in your tank, you won’t have the energy to train hard to grow, so quality carbs are necessary to fuel intense workouts. A good starting point is 2 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight, or 360 grams for a 180-pound guy. Adjust this number based on how your physique is responding. Too much flab, scale back. Too little growth, try eating more.
The best options for most meals are slow-digesting carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, unsweetened oatmeal, quinoa, sprouted bread, whole-grain pastas and brown rice. The exception to this rule is your postworkout meal, when you want to focus on fast-digesting carbohydrates like white potatoes, refined pasta and white rice to help hasten muscle recovery.
Big Rule No. 4: Embrace Fat
More calorie dense than protein or carbohydrates, fat is a surefire way to help meet your caloric needs. It’s also necessary to keep testosterone levels elevated, which makes it easier to pack on muscle.
Shoot for 0.5 to 0.7 grams of fat per pound of body weight (90 to 126 grams for a 180-pound person). Roughly 7 to 10 percent of total calories should come from saturated fat — a main testosterone booster — found in beef, coconut and dairy, along with 10 to 15 percent from monounsaturated fats like those in avocadoes, nuts, seeds, olive oil and peanut butter.
Top off your fat intake with 10 percent of calories from polyunsaturated fats, found in abundance in fatty fish like salmon, flaxseed and walnuts. The only off-limits fats are physique-killing trans fats, found in some fried, baked and packaged foods. Treat them as if they were laced with cyanide.
Big Rule No. 5: Spread It Out
It’s easier on your digestive system and better for muscle growth if you divide your food intake into five to seven meals over the course of day. Keeping food intake steady over the course of the day ensures that muscles have a consistent stream of nutrients to keep anabolism going strong. Regardless of how many meals and snacks you eat in a day, the time between nourishment shouldn’t be more than three hours.
Big Rule No. 6: Love Your Blender
There is only so much whole food you can choke down in a day. Liquid calories from protein shakes are especially useful as a way to get clean calories over the course of the day. One or two extra shakes (in addition to the all-important morning, preworkout and postworkout shakes) can add a total of 500 to 600 calories to your daily diet and go a long way in helping you Hulk up. You can beef up shakes with nut butters, protein-plush Greek yogurt, flaxseed oil or whole nuts.
Big Rule No. 7: Keep It Healthy
Just because your goal is to get big doesn’t mean you can shovel in copious calories from junk food or the grease peddler across from the gym. Too many poor dietary choices will blow up your physique. Make whole foods the backbone of your mass-gaining diet and allow yourself one or two cheat meals per week to help keep your motivation up. Try to avoid a whole cheat day because this can tax your body, replace mass gains with fat gains and require a few days to recover from.
Big Rule No. 8: Shop for Bargains
With rising food costs, a mass-building diet can put a serious dent in your wallet. The burgeoning number of farmers markets are great places to score the freshest meats, fruits and vegetables at prices that are often lower than supermarkets. Also, shop for bulk discounts on items like poultry and beef or determine when your local supermarket is most likely to mark down its meat prices. Signing up for your grocery store’s savings card, scooping up items like nuts and rice from bulk bins and embracing store brands also can reduce the pain at checkout.
Big Rule No. 9: Nosh at Night
Common diet advice is to avoid eating after dinner, but when putting on mass, a late-night nibble is a good idea. Your best bet for a snack before hitting the sack is the slow-digesting protein casein, found in cottage cheese or casein protein powder, and some healthy fats like in seeds or nuts. This combination will provide a steady supply of amino acids to your muscles to slow catabolism and accelerate anabolism as you snooze.
Big Rule No. 10: Feast Postworkout
After working out, your body is primed to take up nutrients to stimulate recovery and therefore muscle growth. Neglect your post-training nutrition and you can expect to see your physique deflate. Make sure to take in a faster-digesting high-quality protein such as whey as well as fast-digesting carbohydrates like dextrose or white bread, white rice or sorbet as soon as possible after working out.
Big Rule No. 11: Drink Up
Water is a critical component of your mass-gaining diet because it helps maintain muscle fullness and helps the body properly use all the calories you’re supplying it. Sage advice would be to follow the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendation to guzzle at least 16 cups (for men; women should aim to get 11 cups) of water per day. It sounds like a lot, but keep in mind this also includes the water present in fruits, vegetables, milk and fat-burning green tea.
Big Rule No. 12: Plan Ahead
A high-calorie mass-focused diet can require a lot of daily kitchen time that you might have trouble fitting into your hectic work and training schedule. Try using weekend downtime to rustle up big batches of items like pasta, sandwiches, chili, oatmeal and scrambled eggs for use during the time-crunched week ahead. Having healthy meals and snacks prepared ahead of time makes it less likely you’ll call for Chinese when you come home ravenous after a hard workout.
Fast and Furious Meal Plan
Use this meal plan as a guide to your mass-gaining nutrition plan. It’s designed for a 180-pound individual using the calorie, protein, fat and carbohydrate guidelines discussed here. Adjust serving portions as needed based on bodyweight, but try to keep your macronutrient ratio around 30:40:30 (protein:carbs:fat). On rest days, you can nix the preworkout and postworkout snacks and just have one afternoon snack.
- 3 hard-boiled eggs1 cup 2% milk
- 1½ cups oatmeal mixed with:
- 1 chopped apple
- 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
- 1 cup 2% plain Greek yogurt mixed with:
- ½ cup blueberries
- 2 teaspoons pumpkin seeds
- Sandwich wraps made with:
- 2 whole-wheat tortillas
- 6 ounces sliced cooked chicken breast
- 2 cups baby spinach
- 1 cup sliced red pepper
- ½ sliced avocado
- 4 whole-grain crackers
- 1 low-fat string cheese
Shake made with:
- 1 cup 2% milk
- 2 scoops whey protein powder
- 1 large banana
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon natural peanut butter
- 6 ounces salmon
- 1 cup cooked quinoa
- 2 cups steamed broccoli
- 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup 1% cottage cheese
- 1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
Daily Totals: 3,573 calories, 265 grams protein, 352 grams carbs, 130 grams fat
This trio of supplements can help you maximize physique gains.
Creatine remains one of the best get-big supplements available. It works to increase energy production in muscle cells, thus increasing strength and reducing muscular fatigue during lifting, both very important effects for pushing more iron to help you pack on the size.
Dose: 3 to 5 grams preworkout and postworkout
Whey Protein Isolate
The powder contains a full arsenal of essential amino acids that are vital to muscular growth.
1 to 2 scoops daily, particularly after a workout
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis determined that the long-chain polyunsaturated fats present in fish oil can stimulate muscle protein synthesis. A raft of studies also suggests fish fat is beneficial to your ticker.
Dose: 1 teaspoon daily, or at least 500 milligrams of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids