When I first started researching how to build muscle it quickly became apparent eating was important.
‘You gotta eat big to get big’
That along with weight training was the key to gaining muscle according to the muscle mags.
The common trail of thought was that you ‘bulk’ to gain size and then ‘cut’ to lose the fat that you get with the bulking period. — But I was also under the impression you could ‘clean’ bulk; so long as you ate the right foods you’d only pack on muscle.
^ This simply isn’t the case, and it didn’t work out in practice either.
This approach has slowly but surely been squashed, just in the same way we now realise that training muscle groups multiple times through the week is likely superior to training them just the once, as traditionally done by many geared lifters.
Since then the modern day approach to bulking has been to do it leanly, and by that I mean you don’t eat in a massive excess and you can and should keep your abs. If you have read Get Big, Stay Lean this is exactly the approach I lay out in the book.
But how do you really lean gain in practice?
The Ignition to Mass Gains
Before you seek to gain muscle you best be lean, because you’ll not be losing fat whilst gaining mass.*
Essentially muscle gain slows as our body fat gets above a certain point . This is hypothesised to be down to our Partitioning-Ratio (P-Ratio) which for us is essentially the proportion of fat you will gain in relation to the amount of Lean Body Mass (LMB). And the primary predictor of our P-Ratio is our percentage body-fat . So if we want to maximise our chances of building muscle and not fat we want to be lean.
- Males: ~8 to 15% Body Fat
- Females: ~16 to 26% Body Fat
*Exceptions to the rule?
There are a few outliers to this, over-fat newbies and those coming off the back of a lay-off have been found to gain muscle and drop fat, yes at the same time . Over and above these populations it becomes very difficult to gain muscle, whilst still dropping fat.
The Speed of Mass Gains
Yes if you want to maximise your muscle growth you need to gain weight.
Eating for muscle mass means consuming a calorie surplus.
However, how fast you should look to gain depends on your capacity to grow muscle. What I mean by that is as you advance in the weights room your rate of progress slows down, this is because you’re edging closer and closer to your genetic potential.
Hopefully you have heard of Pokemon, you know those cartoon animal like creatures, you train them by fighting other Pokemon and gain experience points for every battle you enter. When you first get them they level up fast, you fight a couple of Rattata and Pidgey (weak Pokemon) and boom your levels go up. So in no time you go from level 1 to level 10, just in the same way early on in your training career progress comes fast.
Once you get enough experience your Pokemon evolves into a superior form. Getting Charmander to evolve into Charmeleon doesn’t take all that long, just like progressing from a novice lifter to an intermediate isn’t all that difficult. However, going from Charmeleon to Charazard (your final evolution) isn’t so easy and it takes much more time, just in the same way going from intermediate to an advanced lifter requires a lot of training. — What I am saying is that you need to collect more and more experience points to advance in the gym, just like you do to get to your Pokemons final evolution.
So think of your final form as your genetic limit, you need to gain more and more experience to eventually get closer to it and level up. Progress gradually gets much slower the longer you train, and therefore the rate of muscle gain slows down too.
The body can only grow muscle at a certain rate, and as we discussed above this rate slows down the longer we train. Therefore, it makes good sense to set our rate of muscle gain in accordance with our training experience. — My good friend Alan Aragon has come up with a fantastic way to do just this:
As you can see Alan separates his into ‘training status’ which is essentially how experienced you are as a lifter.
Furthermore, I want to bring in Eric Helm’s and his Muscle & Strength Pyramid book, and note Eric has a very similar model to Alan but defines training status differently:
Personally I actually prefer Eric’s definitions, because they take into account individual difference and give a more precise measure than Alan’s ‘consistent training’ (as maybe you were consistent but never training intelligently).
What do I mean by individual difference?
SCENARIO 1: Train for 2 years and struggle to progress month to month, so according to Alan I am an intermediate but when we look at Eric Helm’s definitions I would be considered Advanced. Of course this is assuming I was following an intelligent training approach and was consistent with that.
SCENARIO 2: Whereas someone else (arguably with better genetics for bodybuilding) may have been training 4 years, but progressing week on week, again Alan would define them as Advanced but Eric as a Novice. Either way there will be outliers and for the vast majority both models probably match up very well.
So essentially if you are to go much faster than the rates above, the weight you will gain will be proportionately more fat than muscle. In Eric’s book he emphasises that advanced trainees need to focus less on the scale and more on progressive overload (lifting more weight overtime). In that if they are progressively getting better in the gym they can hope this is down to structural changes and not neurological as they are already experts at the lifts.
This was clearly shown in a recent study by Garthe et al  in which they had two groups of resistance trained individuals and had one eating ad libitum (just how they like to eat basically) and the other in a ~500 calorie surplus, both with a suitable macronutrient set up for mass gains. The study was 8 to 12 weeks in length, the participants followed a pretty sound hypertrophy specific training programme:
- 4 x per week hitting training muscle groups 2 x per week
- Each muscle group hit with a compound & isolation movement
- 4 Week blocks focussing on different intensities:
- BLOCK 1] 3×8-12.
- BLOCK 2] 4×6-12.
- BLOCK 3] 5×6-10.
There were no significant differences between groups in total LBM or performance. — However, as you can see in the graph below the group consuming ~500kcal more (NCG group) did see a significant increase in fat mass. So the group in the ~500kcal surplus gained a little bit more LBM but a lot more fat, this therefore reinforces that you cannot force feed gains, especially in trained individuals.you cannot force feed gains Click To Tweet
However, I want to make a few points on this:
- There were only 39 people involved in the study.
- Those in the study were not solely focussing on maximising muscle mass, they were involved in a variety of different sports from rowing to soccer. So arguably could have done more in the weight room, which may have lead to more muscle growth.
- People who dropped out found the weight training to conflict with their sport, further emphasising the point above.
- The participants were ‘Elite’ in their specific sport, and were considered advanced because they had spent ~4hours a week in the weight room for the past year.
I’d just note that this is also just one study, and it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to place all your recommendations from it. Of course it is a really good study, and clearly shows there is a limit to which you can feed muscle growth. However, I would imagine if the people involved were primarily focussed on maximising their muscle mass, and could spend more time and effort in the gym, they could potentially grow more muscle. The fact people dropped out because the weight training took away from their sport specific training is good reason enough to think this.
A case for faster rates of gain?
So once we’re pretty advanced we don’t really see much going on week to week or even month to month on the scale if we aim for the rates of bodyweight increase laid out above. For example, an advanced trainee of 180lbs would aim to gain just under 1 pound a month. Eric does point out that because scale changes are so small we should focus more on gym progression as our indicator of muscle growth. — However, when you’re advanced progress in the gym is also slow to come by.
Measuring such slow increases in weight and gym progression is very difficult, and I personally could see that becoming a problem, in that the advanced trainee actually spins their wheels. Not eating enough to fuel gains in LBM. My friend Mike Israetel prefers to use a more aggressive approach, one that is arguably more measurable.
Obviously this would be a far more aggressive rate of weight gain when compared to the methods explained above. Mike suggests this approach because it is more easily trackable and it is easier to lose fat than build muscle, and gaining faster might build a bit more muscle. Mike also periodises his training along with his nutrition and the cut off point for hypertrophy focussed training is 2-3 months (he also requires the person gaining to be lean) as at this point they would focus on lowering volumes — more on that later.
Personally I can see both sides, as we progress in the gym gains are harder to come by, our rate of muscle growth is going to really slow down. Thus it makes sense to aim to maximise our muscle growth but minimise our fat gain by eating in a smaller surplus, gaining weight more slowly as we advance. Everyone agrees this is the case, but Mike doesn’t like to see the surplus go too small, because it is hard to track.
This I can certainly understand, even when I weigh myself daily, take weekly averages and then across the month look at a monthly average, tracking something like a pound of weight gain is very tricky, and as advanced trainees don’t even progress in the gym on a monthly basis, that is tough to track too. I could see that being a trap for spinning your wheels, not gaining muscle.
What I see is two approaches emerging for the advanced trainee:
- Slower Longer Gaining with infrequent periods of dieting
- Faster Shorter Cycles of Gaining with more frequent mini-cuts
Which one should you choose?
Honestly both have shown to provide results, and will provide results, the key is eating in a calorie surplus and not gaining hugely excessive weight overtime. Personally I have gone with a middle ground, tending to opt for the lower end of Mikes suggestions, if I go a little under or over I don’t sweat it. — However, if you’re a model and need to stay very lean pretty much year round, then it makes sense to edge to the slower side, or if adding fat means you perform poorly in your sport it might not make sense to mass so fast while trying to remain competitive (although I’d argue that maybe trying to add muscle whilst needing to perform for your sport is the wrong time to try, and you’d be better off doing this in your offseason).
At the end of the day the choice is yours and comes down to your needs, wants and preferences.
I’d also like to add that although scale weight and gym progression are two very useful tools to manage your mass gaining, there are some other tools you should use. Something I get all my clients to do is measure the circumference of certain areas each month, along with that they take photos. We use these to compare changes month to month alongside scale weight and gym progress.
In my opinion the more things you measure the fuller picture you really have, and the better you can make adjustments to keep you on path. Almost like one group hiking somewhere and trying to use just a compass vs. another using a compass, a map and has common sense, one party is much more likely to get to their destination than the other, and do it quicker too.
- To maximise your muscle growth you want to combine a calorie surplus with weight training.
- The more trained you become slower muscle growth will occur.
The Fuel for Mass Gains
A surplus of calories is our most powerful tool for muscle gain.
You get a continual supply of nutrients to fuel muscular development. Plus our testosterone is maintained at a higher level, and this hormone is very anabolic, it’s what turns boys into men. Furthermore, insulin is also raised for longer periods of time, which is needed to store nutrients to grow muscle – both of these hormones are highly anabolic. Finally eating in a calorie surplus enhances cellular signalling, that allows for direct stimulation of hypertrophic pathways, just from eating more!
Trying to workout how many calories we need to objectively gain pounds of muscle is an interesting topic. An easy way to think about this is to think of the commonly known 3500 calorie deficit required to lose 1lb of fat a week. However, this has been put to question because of other things being lost along with that fat; muscle, water, glycogen etc. So in reality a 3500 calorie deficit might not be exactly what is required to produce 1lb of fat loss in a week.
In much the same way when it comes to seeking to gain 1lb of muscle, you cannot gain just muscle, there will be some fat, glycogen and water involved. So Eric Helm’s came to the conclusion that although it simplifies what is really happening it is a good idea to think of 3500 calories as a starting point to lose 1lb of fat and gain 1lb of muscle.
So as we are talking about muscle gain, when we work it out if you are aiming to gain 2lbs over the course of 1 month you would work this out as so:
3500 x 2 = 7000 you would then divide this by 4 for each week 7000/4 = 1750 and then divide that by 7 to give the surplus required each day 1750/7 = 250
So a 250 calorie surplus would be a good starting point for someone seeking to gain 2lbs each month. Do you need to perfectly spread this surplus across your week? No, you could eat a little more on training days and less on rest days if you like, equally you could have more on the weekend and less during the week, the key is the weekly average comes to the required surplus over your maintenance needs.
Weigh yourself daily and use a weekly average, compare that average week on week and see if you’re gaining at the rate you want. However, I will note that weight gain doesn’t happen linearly, there seems to be bursts (growth spurts maybe?), so often if things are going well in the gym, you’re pretty stuffed most of the time and have no reason to think your not eating enough it is good to look at bi-weekly or monthly averages too.
You do need to keep assessing too because some people when overfed end up really jacking up their activity. Whether it be because you can handle much more volume in the gym or if you just end up doing more spontaneous physical activity.
So in short:
- You need around a 3500 calorie excess to gain a pound of muscle in a month.
- You workout how many pounds you want to gain a month, multiple this by 3500 and divide that figure by 28 to give you the amount of extra calories you need to eat each day above maintenance.
- Monitor and adjust as necessary.
Have a look here to workout how you should divvy this up between protein, fats and carbs — Your Tailor Made Diet.
The Breaks for Mass Gains
When do you pull back and halt the gain train?
- You hit the upper end of your body fat range
- Your training goal changes
The overriding rule is your body fat %, once you get towards the upper end the handbrake comes on. Now might there be a case for putting the breaks on a bit before this? Maybe.
To quote Mike Israetel:
“Almost every body process has negative feedback loops. The more you push it, the less productive it is unless you take a break from it to let the negative feedback effects die down.”
So you take a break from pure hypertrophy style training to allow the body to re-sensitise itself to higher volumes again, in that it adapts to doing a lot and no longer grows, this is called adaptive resistance. — Furthermore, we know training at high volumes with sufficient intensity is key for building large amounts of muscle, so it makes sense to focus our efforts on doing a lot of work when trying to gain mass.
How long can you mass gain before the diminishing returns of high volume set in? — Mike suggests 3 months as the upper limit. This works in quite well as we don’t want to completely neglect our heavy weight training, as it does complement our higher volume work by allowing us to use heavier weights for more reps, so it makes sense to focus on making our new muscle stronger now and then, this stringing together of complementary phases of training is called phase potentiation.
“Because of the need for low volume training to periodically re-start the growth process, and because gaining during one of those phases would just add fat.”
At this point because your training has switched focus from hypertrophy to strength you change your nutrition too. Your training acts as the bodies messenger and your nutrition should change in relation to the message, and when your message is strength you just want to maintain.
Perma bulks are not a good idea, don’t be foolish like Cartman, don’t get fat.
- You’re 10% at 170lbs (male)
- You train for 3 months and gain 6 pounds (lets say this is 25/75 muscle to fat, so that’s 1.5lbs muscle/4.5lbs fat) so at 176lbs you are now just over 12% body fat.
- You now maintain for a period of time, I’d suggest like Mike that 1 month or so focussing on strength training (lower volumes) is a good idea.
- Now you can look to bring up volume again and continue to mass as you’re 12% body fat (under the 15% cut off)
Lyle McDonald also does make reference to having breaks between gaining phases, for example if someone was 170lbs and 10% body-fat they would need to gain roughly 17lbs (half being muscle and half fat) before hitting 15% bodyfat, at a rate of 4lbs a month that would take approximately 4 months (or 16 weeks) which Lyle would split into 2 phases:
- 2 weeks easy build up to 6 weeks gaining followed by another 2 weeks easy build up to 6 weeks gaining
You could also use an undulating approach, in which you focus on hypertrophy and strength during the same day, week or month and that has also been shown to work well. Plus I’d argue those approaches may well be superior for novices who have a large gaining capacity. — I’ve also used it personally and with clients in the past with great success, however I like the idea of really giving your full focus to one aspect for longer periods of time to get the absolute most out of them.
Again, the focussed blocks is currently my favoured approach for more advanced trainees, but that doesn’t mean I use it for every situation. The key is that you aim not to breach the upper end of the body fat percentage where weigh gain shifts in favour of fat over muscle.
If I was to summarise the above:
- Stop once you reach the upper end of your body fat ~15% males, ~26% females
- Change your nutrition in relation to your training goals
The Definitive Guide: Eating for Muscle Mass
The Ignition: Being lean – 10 to 15% Men, 16 to 26% Women
The Speed: Dependent on training age/personal preference
The Fuel: Calorie surplus
The Breaks: When you hit the upper end of being lean/2-3 months
In short get appropriately lean, find an acceptable rate of weight gain according to your level of advancement and one you’re happy with. — Remember the law of diminishing returns exists in mass gaining as it does with fat loss, you can’t just push harder and expect to see a better result. Find a way to balance your mass gain with periods of maintenance for the body to recover, normalise and then return to your long term goal.
If you gain a little too quick it just means you need to break a little earlier, which isn’t the end of the world. Monitor as much as you can and make adjustments as necessary. As always set your programs and diets up in a way that addresses your goals with enough flexibility to live and enjoy your life.
Do you need any help with the above? Do you have any questions you need answering? Hopefully it gave you the information you need to start gaining mass.
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- Forbes, G.B, Body fat content influences the body composition response to nutrition and exercise. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000 May;904:359-65.
- Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. The control of partitioning between protein and fat during human starvation: its internal determinants and biological significance. Br J Nutr. (1999) 82:339-56.
- Garthe, I., et al., Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. Eur J Sport Sci, 2013. 13(3): p. 295-303.
- Helms, E., The Muscle and Strength Pyramids. 2016