This article is geared primarily towards those that consider themselves "hard gainers," and it will be useful primarily to those who have hit a plateau. In reality, the "hard gainer" label is something that the vast majority can apply to themselves: increasing muscle mass almost never comes easily. The difference between the "hard gainer" and the one who achieves steady gains in muscle mass is often a matter of knowledge. While there are certainly genetic predispositions that make it much easier for some, if you want to make a serious change, you cannot afford to be a fatalist. Overcoming the idea that you are doomed to your present state because of forces out of your control is the most important step.
- To gain muscle, you must gain weight, and to gain weight, you must eat more. This is especially true of non-steroid users. Although there are exceptions to every rule, following this one is a fundamental that almost everyone who has hit their first plateau has to learn. While one can gain a fair amount of muscle mass without actively trying to increase their body weight, this can only go on for so long. There is a point at which your body makes it very difficult for you to build muscle without a significant excess of calories in the diet. To put it simply, this is because your body is designed to conserve energy, and it takes a lot of energy to build muscle, so unless you make sure your body knows that there is plenty of extra energy to go around, it will fight your efforts to put on muscle mass every step of the way.
While almost anyone can gain weight by gorging themselves throughout the day, it is best to take a more controlled approach. Many neglect to count their calories, assuming that it is not important to do so if one is trying to gain weight, but this can result in problems on two ends of the spectrum. Some will gain weight in short bursts, much too quickly, and a large amount of it is often fat. Others insist that they are eating enough but are still unable to gain weight. Barring certain medical conditions, anyone should gain weight if they eat enough, although some will find that the amount they are required to eat makes them quite uncomfortable.
Thus, the approach one should take is similar to the approach one uses when trying to lose weight: find a daily caloric intake that causes steady weight gain, usually in the realm of 1-2 lbs. a week depending on goals. Those who are willing to accept more fat gain will generally allow themselves to gain weight at a greater rate. Most men will find that 3000 calories or more daily is necessary to gain weight consistently. This amount will usually have to be adjusted upward with time as body weight increases.
While gaining weight, one should be eating at least four meals a day, and most recommend six. This is important even for those who are not having difficulty consuming enough calories. This ensures a steady amount of nutrients throughout the day and also helps prevent bloating.
One thing to note is that even if weight gain is slow, fat gain is almost inevitable. This is a harsh reality that most do not want to face, and it results in many not achieving their goals because they are trying so hard to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. If one can accept this, they will end up much happier in the long-term, after they have gained a significant quantity of muscle and then dieted off the fat. The willingness to live with some extra fat in order to gain muscle is one of the things that commonly separates those who spend all of their time in frustration and those who see steady progress.
- 2. Consume healthy, calorie-dense foods.
With few exceptions, those who are trying to gain weight should be eating large quantities of all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat). These all have essential roles to play in building muscle. Protein promotes muscle protein synthesis and provides the necessary building blocks. In addition to providing fuel to working muscles, carbohydrates can both increase insulin levels and decrease cortisol levels, thus inhibiting muscle breakdown. Fat provides a concentrated energy source, and if fat intake is not adequate, testosterone levels will decrease.
The importance of protein cannot be underestimated. One gram of protein per pound of body weight should be consumed every day. Although it is not necessary, it also does not hurt to overshoot this mark. Common foods consumed in large quantities by bodybuilders to ensure adequate amounts of complete protein in the diet include eggs, milk, and meat of all kinds. Protein powders also constitute a cornerstone supplement (see the supplements section of this article). Also of importance is ensuring that your first and last meals of the day are high in protein, both to prevent muscle catabolism during the night and to pull your body out of the catabolic state as soon as possible in the morning.
It is important that even though a large amount of food is being consumed, the food is kept as healthy as possible – if all you eat is junk, it makes it much harder to build quality muscle. This includes whole grains for carbohydrate sources and healthy fats such as olive oil and fish oil. The caloric density of foods should also be taken into consideration. While trying to gain weight, one should consume foods that are the least filling for the most amount of calories. Peanut butter can help immensely, as can taking a tablespoon or two of flaxseed and/or olive oil daily.
- 3. Don't neglect pre- and post-workout nutrition.
If you want to maximize the results of a workout, proper pre- and post-workout nutrition is essential. A combination of whey protein and high glycemic carbohydrates (such as dextrose) before, during, and after exercise should be used. Although dextrose or maltodextrin is recommended as a carbohydrate source, research indicates that while they have an advantage over table sugar, the effect is small.
High glycemic carbohydrates are recommended for a number of reasons. First, consumption of simple sugars before and during exercise is one of the most reliable ways to increase exercise performance. High levels of glucose in the bloodstream preserve glycogen stores and provide a quick energy source. High blood glucose levels also delay central nervous system (CNS) fatigue. According to the research, there is a greater improvement of exercise performance when carbohydrates are consumed both before and during exercise than either alone. Secondly, high glycemic carbohydrates also help to restore glycogen levels in the postexercise period, both by providing substrate (glucose) and increasing insulin. For a short period after an exercise bout, there is a "window of opportunity" during which large amounts of carbohydrates are more effective at refilling glycogen stores than during most other periods. The final reason to consume carbohydrates is to improve protein balance. Studies indicate that, when there are high levels of amino acids present, carbohydrates increase protein synthesis after exercise.
Protein is commonly neglected during exercise, but also plays an important role. Not only does it improve protein balance, but many amino acids have beneficial effects during exercise. As is the case with carbohydrates and glycogen repletion, there is a period of a few hours after exercise during which protein has a greater impact on protein synthesis than normal. Also, some research has found that a combination of carbohydrates and protein is superior to carbohydrates alone at replenishing glycogen.
As for the ideal amounts, the results vary from study to study, and will also vary based on how many calories you want to consume. As a maximum, 50 g protein and 50 g carbohydrates should be consumed starting a half an hour before exercise up until the end of exercise, and 40 g of protein and 40 g of carbohydrates within an hour after exercise, with a healthy meal consumed two hours after exercise. These numbers are based on the amounts that maximize glycogen synthesis and protein synthesis in the research (actually, the recommended carbohydrate amount is generally higher, but strength training depletes glycogen much less than most other forms of exercise). This may seem like a lot, but consider that it is less than a quarter of your calories for the day if you are consuming over 3000 calories a day. As a minimum, I would suggest half these amounts while trying to gain muscle. For your post-workout meal, it shouldn't hurt too much to make a portion of it slow-releasing protein and medium glycemic carbohydrates, and may help if you don't get a meal in two hours later.
- 1. Focus on compound movements.
There are some basic exercises that everyone should be doing if possible: deadlifts, squats, and calf raises for lower body, and bench press, chin-ups, and seated dumbbell press for upper body.
- This is the primary mistake most beginners make: doing bicep curls when they should be doing chin-ups, doing leg extensions when they should be squatting, doing crunches while they should be deadlifting, and so on. Compound movements are those that work multiple body parts at the same time. There are some basic exercises that everyone should be doing if possible: deadlifts, squats, and calf raises for lower body, and bench press, chin-ups, and seated dumbbell press for upper body. All of these save for the bench press are commonly neglected, and if you would do these six exercises alone (not that that is what I am recommending) you could put on pounds of muscle easily. Beyond these, other key exercises include good mornings or straight-legged deadlifts, variations on the squat and deadlift, bent over rows, bench press variations, curls, and lateral raises. Note that few of these are isolation movements.
Isolation movements do not have to be abandoned altogether, but should not form the core of your routine. Isolation movements for abs are rarely needed. Heavy compound movements provide the abdominals with more than enough stimulation. Machines that provide a fixed range of motion are generally less desirable than free weights (as always, there can be exceptions depending on circumstances).
- 2. Periodize.
To make consistent gains in strength and muscle mass, periodization is key (at least, for the majority). Periodization refers to altering your routine from time to time. This keeps triggering an adaptive response, and also hits the muscles in multiple ways, which can be quite beneficial. Things that can be altered include number of reps, number of sets, rest between sets, intensity, rep speed, which exercises are done, how sets are organized, and any number of other factors. Perhaps the most important of these is intensity: many feel that every training session must be an all-out effort. In reality, it is better if all-out training sessions are only done periodically.
Of course, knowing that periodization is important is the easy part, determining what training styles you want to use and how you organize your periodization is the hard part. There is no single answer. Some training styles, such as Hypertrophy-Specific Training (HST), have periodization built in. Many people alternate high volume (high number of reps and sets) and short rest periods with high intensity and longer rest periods. Even doing something as simple as exercising at 80-90% of your normal intensity for two weeks every month can make a difference. In any case, the important thing is that you do not stick with the same routine day in and day out.
- 3. Sets, reps, and frequency.
Although there are many routines with which you can gain muscle, some are better than others. There are some mistakes that are made in training that are all too common, especially among people who have only been training for a year or two.
This is a typical routine that you will see a beginner doing:
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Arms
Day 3: Back
Day 4: Shoulders
Day 5: Legs and abs
...Or something along those lines. This is a horrible routine for a beginner. Most obviously, legs are not being hit often enough. As an absolute minimum, one day out of three should be a leg day, and preferably every other workout. Many complain that muscle soreness prevents this frequency. However, muscle soreness lessens if you consistently lift due to the repeated bout effect.
Secondly, each body part should be hit at least twice a week. This is even supported by scientific research, which indicates that for at least the first few years of training, training each body part 2-3 times weekly leads to the greatest strength increases. It is possible that people who are highly trained benefit most from hitting each body part once a week – however, beginners should not model their routines after those of people who are highly trained. If your muscles are too sore to train the same body part twice a week, then you are probably hitting the muscle group too hard. Instead of spacing workouts further apart, lessen the number of sets.
Additionally, there are some other factors that should be taken into consideration. It is best to periodize rep number, but at some point it should definitely be in the 8-12 rep range, and at the higher end of this range for beginners. Also, according to research, a muscle group should be hit with at least four sets in a training session for the best results – this is rarely a problem, since most will do three sets each of multiple exercises. Finally, although this is cliche, one must keep in mind that everyone is going to respond differently. What works for your friend may not work for you. If you are not happy with your results, just try a different routine.
1. Use protein powders.
Protein powders are the most important supplement. Many will initially say "why not just use real food?" Well, there are a few reasons. First, per gram of protein, protein powders are not much more expensive, and in many cases actually cost less. A pound of whey protein concentrate, which costs around $5, has the same amount of protein as 15 cans of tuna and most would agree that it tastes better. Secondly, protein powders are convenient, which is especially important when you are consuming large quantities of protein. Third, protein powders can contain important constituents which you won't find in meat and other common protein sources. This is especially true of whey protein, which contains a number of constituents with beneficial properties.
I recommend getting about half of your protein from protein powders. Also, sources other than casein (or milk protein, which is 80% casein) and whey shouldn't be needed. Whey is ideal for around workouts, while a blend of the two is recommended for other times, especially before bed, as casein provides extended release protein, ensuring positive protein balance for a longer period of time.
2. Other basic supplements.
Other than macronutrient sources such as protein, creatine is the most important supplement for those concerned with increasing muscle mass. Creatine is far and away the most proven supplement to increase muscle mass and strength. There is really no reason not to take creatine - after the loading phase, it only costs 3-6 dollars a month, and most of the side effects are imagined.
Another basic is a multivitamin. While you should already be getting plenty of nutrients while bulking, it won't hurt to get some extra ones, and it is always a good safety net. A B complex is also recommended.
After these, there are a few other basic supplements, which while not necessary are still beneficial. HMB (hydroxy methylbutyrate) is another supplement with some solid scientific backing supporting its use. Citrulline malate is a recently available supplement that holds considerable promise. L-carnitine also has some promising preliminary research supporting its use, both for fat loss and improved recovery. Pre-workout stimulants can also be quite useful. There are a wide variety of supplements with potential benefits – however, for at least the first year of training, proper diet and training should be the focus.
- 1. Avoid recreational drugs, including alcohol.
To maximize muscle gains, avoiding the use of recreational drugs is important. In terms of effects on body composition, alcohol is one of the worst. It is a source of junk calories, decreases testosterone, decreases GH, increases cortisol, increases estrogen, and directly inhibits protein synthesis. It also interferes with sleep quality, immune function, and hydration status,
To maximize muscle gains, avoiding the use of recreational drugs is important.
- all of which will have negative effects on the bodybuilder.
Although usually less poisonous, most other recreational drugs generally have a negative impact on bodybuilding goals (legal issues aside). Many will have a negative impact just by decreasing appetite and interfering with a person's sleep schedule.
- 2. Get a full night's sleep.
Sleep is one of the most important things for maintaining and increasing muscle mass. Not only is it a key recovery period, sleep deprivation negatively affects your hormonal balance. Also, being well rested allows for more workout intensity. Getting 8-9 hours of sleep a night is recommended.
In this article, we have reviewed the basic and most important strategies for increasing strength and muscle mass. What we have found is that the two main keys are knowledge and the willingness to make certain sacrifices. Some basic changes, such as eating more and eating the right foods, and training based on what works for those at your experience level, rather than what works for professional bodybuilders, can make a considerable difference. With this information, you should be able to finally overcome your self-imposed limitations and take the steps towards real change.