It can be incredibly frustrating to put yourself through grueling training sessions, to eat all of the right foods, and still not see the gains in muscle mass you’re after. You may have have been able to pack on some size in the past but lately, you've been stuck at a plateau. Or maybe, you’ve never been able to get bigger in the first place! We’ve all gone through phases where progress is hard to come by, and while everyone's situation is different, one thing I know for sure is that you have to change things up when when what you are currently doing isn't working. Although smart training, sufficient recovery time, and good overall health are essential for building muscle mass, I’ll be focusing on the most effective nutritional strategies for mass gain in this article. All of these strategies assume that you are already have good dietary habits and are training hard a minimum of 4 days per week. You can implement one at a time to see what works best for you, or you could just go all in if you are really in a hurry to get big fast. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you stay consistent for at least two weeks before you assess their effectiveness.
1. Take BCAA’s during Training
Branched Chain Amino Acids (Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine) are utilized as fuel by muscles during intense training and they just might be the best during-workout supplement you can take to promote muscle growth. BCAA’s will also help to increase work capacity by allowing you to maintain a high level of training intensity from start to finish. If you are the type that doesn’t like to eat too close to your training session, or you workout in the early morning and don’t have time to get in a solid meal, BCAA’s will be particularly useful for you, as they help to blunt that low blood sugar feeling, and will help to prevent muscle breakdown. They are most useful during high volume type workouts that create a lot of muscular damage. I usually take around 15-20g for an average 45-60 min workout, but I might increase the dose up to 30-40g if the training session is going to have a lot of volume or is going to be longer than average. To calculate how many grams of BCAA’s you should take, multiply your lean body weight in pounds by 0.1 to 0.2 to get your lower and upper ranges. By the way, plain BCAA powder tastes very bitter, so what I like to do is mix the BCAA powder with lime and/or lemon juice which makes it much more palatable. This allows me to avoid all of the artificial sweeteners and food coloring that is found in most retail brands and is more cost effective as well.
2. Drink a Protein Shake after each Training Session
Even though it has been common knowledge for decades that getting in a quickly digestible protein and carbohydrate shake after exercise greatly speeds workout recovery time and stimulates protein synthesis, I still see many gym rats neglecting this highly effective step. It really does make a big difference as compared to only having a solid meal after your training session. Not only is the shake digested much more quickly, but it helps to increase your overall calorie intake for the day, since your appetite for solid food will return within about an hour after finishing the shake. The amount of protein and carbs you have in the shake depends on the duration, volume, and intensity of the training session. A longer workout, or a workout with a higher training density (more work per unit of time) is going to require more carbs. A workout that causes a lot of muscle fiber damage and tends to induce more soreness (although not always the case) will require more protein. For example, I weigh a lean 215lbs nowadays, so for a 60min lower body workout like this one which combines strength and hypertrophy work, I’ll get around 50g of protein and 120g of carbs. After a higher volume session (more sets x reps), I might have closer to 65g of protein and 200g of carbs, while a short 30 min workout, where i’m emphasizing mobility work with only 1-3 strength exercises, I might only have 30g of protein and 30g or less of carbs. As a rule of thumb, if you feel like you are starving or have low blood sugar right after finishing your shake, you probably needed to take more. On the other hand, if it takes you more than 10 minutes to finish drinking your shake, it was probably more than you needed. After a while, you will develop an intuitive feel for the portion of carbs and protein to use in your shake for a given workout. As far as which protein and carbs to use, my personal choices are Goat whey protein and Quadricarb. If I’m at home and can use my blender, I might add some frozen berries and banana for flavor.
3. Make sure you Carb Up, but Don’t Eat Carbs Non-stop!
Planning a carbohydrate loading day 1-2 times per week is a very effective way to stimulate muscle growth when used properly. The insulin response you get from a high carb meal is highly anabolic, but you will only get the maximum benefit if you precede that carb up day with a period of relative carb restriction. Notice I said relative carb restriction, not low carb. While one individual's low carb day may only include 50g of carbs, another person may be having 300g per day. Optimal carb intake will vary from person to person depending on their size, genetics, activity level, body composition, and health status. Finding your optimal carbohydrate intake is a whole other discussion, but my preferred approach is to start low and gradually work your way up until you find the number that gives you the best results. Although you’ll gain overall body weight quicker by eating a ton of carbs every day, you will start to become insulin resistant and you’ll begin putting on more fat than muscle mass. On the other hand, using my approach where you will alternate periods of low and high carbs will allow you to maintain your insulin sensitivity while still reaping the anabolic benefits of the large insulin spike after a high carb meal. You should experience a nice bump in lean body weight the day after a high carb day. Some of the increased weight will be from replenished glycogen stores and water gain, but a significant amount will be muscle mass as well. When I carb up, I tend to stick to healthier, easily digestible options like rice pasta, sweet potatoes, oats, and gluten free pancakes as opposed to just eating junk full of refined sugar, but if you want to indulge, now is the time to do it. I don’t think that counting carbs on your carb-up days is necessary if you are lean to begin with and have been struggling to put on weight. Simply eat to your appetite. On the other hand if you carrying a bit of extra body fat, limiting your carb-ups to one meal instead of an entire day, and keeping an eye on your body composition, is a smarter approach.
4. Have a High Calorie Shake in Between each Solid Meal
I would only recommend this method for those who really need to gain weight quickly, and usually for not more than a week at a time, unless you maintain a very high training volume or you have a particularly low appetite and struggle to eat enough solid food. Otherwise, it may be a bit overkill. These “meal replacement” shakes should have a lower percentage of carbs and a higher percentage of fat as compared to your post workout shake so that you’re not constantly jacking up your insulin levels.
Below are two of my favorite shake recipes, but feel free to get creative on your own! The measurements are approximately how much I would use for myself, but make sure you adapt the portions according to your daily macronutrient needs. FYI, I use goat whey because the standard cow whey leaves me feeling bloated. If that's not an issue for you, cow whey is fine. A plant protein blend is a good choice as well if dairy-based proteins don't agree with you.
Mass Building Meal Replacement Shakes
Sweet Potato Swole:
- 4 scoops (~60g) Goat Whey Protein concentrate
- 2 cups Baked, boiled, or canned sweet potato
- 1/3 cup Soaked raw pecans or pecan butter
- 1/2 tsp Cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp Nutmeg
- 1 T maple syrup
- 1 1/2 cups water or unsweetened coconut milk
Coffee Banana Builder:
- 4 scoops (~60g) Goat Whey Protein concentrate
- 2 frozen bananas
- 2 T almond butter
- 2 T macadamia butter
- 1 tsp Himalayan salt
- 1 cup iced coffee
- 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
5. Increase your protein portions by at least 33%
This strategy is simple enough, but the key to it being successful is consistency. Keep your meals the same, just increase your portion of protein by at least a third in each meal, and you should start to see the scale creep up after a week or so. If you normally have 8oz of meat in a meal, bump that up to 11oz. Your fat intake will also be increasing because of the additional meats, eggs, and fish you’ll be consuming, which brings me to my final point...
6. Incorporate Fatty cuts of Meat and Fish
I know that animal fat is vilified by many prominent health authorities, but most of the research supporting their claims are complete B.S.. Feel free to do your own research on the matter, because I ain’t gonna do it for you! I’m not interested in winning an argument, I just want to share what has produced results for me and my clients. For what it’s worth, I’ve had a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol for over a decade and my blood lipid numbers (cholesterol, triglycerides) have remained ideal throughout. Limiting yourself to only boneless, skinless chicken breast and egg whites has got to be one of the most ridiculous, pseudo-healthy, and unnecessarily restrictive dietary practices within fitness and bodybuilding circles. My super simple rule for choosing animal based foods in your diet, is that if that the animal you are eating lived a healthy life, then it is healthy for you to eat. Fatty cuts of grass-fed meats provide lots of CLA (conjugate linoleic acid) and omega-3 fatty acids which have a host of health benefits. Fatty fish like salmon, herring, and mackerel are some of the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids and I consider them to be some of healthiest foods you can include in the diet. Also don’t forget about organ meats and bone marrow which is one of my favorites!
All of these strategies are effective, but only if implemented alongside an already solid diet, an intelligent training program, and good sleep and recovery habits. Whichever of these strategies that you choose to use, make sure you are consistent with them for at least a sold 14 days before expecting to see much change. Now get to work!