If you’re looking to add muscle mass to your frame, hitting the weights hard is a given. Quality time in the gym begins a cascade of changes that will stimulate your muscles to grow bigger in response to the challenges you throw their way. It’s tempting to think that’s all it takes to add muscle to your body. After all, you can actually feel your biceps growing after an intense set of curls.
That pump is tangible, real-time biofeedback to let you know that blood is flowing to your muscle cells, beginning a chain of events that stimulates protein synthesis. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to overlook how important good nutrition is in the mass-building equation. When you choose to eat, say, chicken instead of ice cream, there’s no immediate muscle gratification — no pump to keep you motivated.
Make no mistake: Eating for muscle is just as important as lifting for muscle. The foods you grab in the morning on the way to work, the meals you pack for lunch and mid-afternoon, what you put into your body immediately following your workout, and your final meal of the day impact your results as much as, if not more than, the number of reps you squeeze out at the end of a set. But in reality, it can be tough to stick to a “clean” diet when you’re busy. We know that adding another layer of complexity to life in the form of reading food labels and studying ingredient lists just isn’t an option for most of us. Not to mention actually preparing all those healthy meals.
Rule #1: Calories are Key, But They’re Not Everything
While it’s okay to chow down on the occasional fast-food choice for convenience, a mass-gain program isn’t an excuse to gorge on pizza and chocolate sundaes. ”Rebuilding muscle tissue broken down by training requires energy - in other words, calories,” Aceto says. “But many people, including many nutritionists, overestimate the energy needs for gaining mass, encouraging extreme high-calorie intakes. This often leads to an increase in bodyfat, making you bigger, for sure, but also leaving you fat.” In general, aim for 300-500 more calories every day than your body burns through exercise and normal functioning (multiply bodyweight by 17). And that’s divided among six meals a day
Rule #2: Concentrate on Protein
Protein is important for mass gains because it’s the only nutrient that’s capable of stimulating muscle growth. You should consume up to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily. Eating every three hours will help ensure you’re absorbing and assimilating enough protein to support muscle growth.
Rule #3: Eat After Training
“It’s especially important to eat a carb- and protein-rich meal immediately after a workout,” Aceto says. “Right after training, it turns out that your body is really lousy at taking carbohydrates and sending them down fat-storing pathways,” he says. “So post-training, carbs will be sent down growth-promoting pathways instead.” And when these carbs are combined with a protein source, you’ve got a strong muscle-feeding combination because carbohydrates help deliver the amino acids into muscles by boosting insulin levels. This anabolic hormone drives nutrients into the muscle cells and kick-starts the muscle-growth process.
Rule #4: Stay Hydrated
Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially in the hours leading up to your workout. This can help you feel full and reduce hunger pangs. During training, drink about 8 ounces every 15-20 minutes, more when it’s hot and humid. The reason is simple: Your performance quickly begins to suffer when the body is dehydrated just 1%-2%. And if you wait till you feel thirsty, you’ve waited too long. A flavorful, low-calorie sports drink is a great way to hydrate. Try drinking fluids stored at cooler temperatures; studies show that people consume more when the liquid is colder.
Rule #5: Mass Gains Vary by Individual
Gains will differ from one individual to another depending on body size and level of experience in the gym. To make sure you’re gaining muscle, not fat, don’t just consider your scale weight. Instead, rely on what you see in the mirror and use a tape measure twice a month to keep track of your waist and hips (you don’t want to gain there) as well as your biceps, chest and quads. Also, don’t think that you have to gain a set amount of weight each and every week. “Your mass gain doesn’t have to be uniform,” Aceto explains. That means you can gain 1/2 pound one week and 1 1/2 the next, perhaps none the third week and still remain on course. “Expecting uniform gains ignores the intricate makeup of the body and the way it gains mass - or loses fat – which is by no means in linear fashion,” adds Aceto.