Deep down we all know it’s true. Every man wants to be physically bigger. From childhood we idolized impossibly musclebound superheroes and superstar athletes. There’s just something inspiring about guys who look huge and athletic. Everybody remembers Mike Tyson, but how many people could tell you who the world champion bantamweight was at the same time? Exactly. There is just something special about a powerful, muscular physique.
The thing is, nobody sets out trying to become huge in any way or at any cost. It’s easy to get big, just look at the skyrocketing obesity rates. I’m going to make the assumption that not many of you reading this are aspiring sumo wrestlers! So, when I talk about getting bigger, I’m talking about putting on muscle mass. Gaining weight through muscle growth will keep you looking powerful and athletic as you increase in size. Increased muscle mass will also greatly increase your strength and help you perform better in any sport you play. This is what everybody thinks of when they talk about building muscle.
What I’m going to do in this article is give you a roadmap to building muscle. I’m going to cover diet and give you some information on the other important aspects of gaining muscle like training and recovery. Most of all I’m going to emphasize how difficult building muscle is. Trust me, building serious muscle mass is harder than you think. But it’s not impossible, and if you’re up for the challenge, here’s how.
How Your Body Builds Muscle
At the very simplest level, muscle growth is an adaptation your body makes to an environmental stress. You give your body signals that it needs to grow to survive and, if the circumstances are right, your body responds to these signals by becoming more muscular. All you really need to understand is that muscle growth results from stress and adaptation. Let me discuss the stress first, and then the adaptation.
At this stage you’ve hopefully realized that the stress portion of the muscle growth equation is what you do in the gym. By lifting weights and training in the right way you communicate with your body and tell it what you want it to do. There are three ways your body can be stimulated to build muscle mass: Muscle tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Very briefly, muscle tension refers to changing how your muscles work by going beyond what they had previously adapted to. Muscle damage refers to stimulating an inflammatory immune response so that muscle tissue is damaged and heals bigger and stronger. Metabolic stress induces swelling around the muscles causing the muscles to get bigger as they store additional glycogen. For best results, you want a training program that includes all three modes of stimulating muscle growth. More on this later.
On the other hand, the equally essential adaptation element of the muscle growth equation covers everything you do outside of the gym. Adaptation is when your muscles will actually grow. Nutrition is an essential element of adaptation so we’ll discuss how to give your body the raw materials to grow muscles. However, by far the most overlooked element of adaptation is sleep. The reason most people fail to put on extra muscle mass is due to ignoring the importance of sleep.
The Secret Ingredient to Building Muscle
Olympic weightlifters are reputed to sleep 9 and a half hours per night, as well as taking a 2 and a half hour nap in the afternoon. If there wasn’t a good reason to prioritize recovery so much, I doubt these professional athletes would be spending half their time in bed. I know this is an unreasonable amount of sleep for anybody who has a normal life, but it emphasizes my point. If you are not sleeping enough you can forget about putting on serious muscle. When you are trying to gain muscle aim for 9+ hours per night.
The reason recovery and sleep are so important to muscle growth is not just that your body needs an opportunity to actually build bigger muscles, but because of how sleep affects your hormones. The hormone testosterone stimulates protein synthesis, inhibits protein breakdown and influences other anabolic (muscle-building) hormones. Your body produces testosterone while you sleep so unless you are maxing out your time in bed, you’re not getting value from your work in the gym.
Getting blackout blinds, keeping electronics and LED lights out of your bedroom, minimizing afternoon caffeine and alcohol consumption and meditating before bed will all help you sleep better. Take your bedtime as seriously as your training and get as many hours sleep as you can – you will really see the difference in your muscle growth.
Food, Glorious Food
Dieting to gain muscle mass is similar to sleep in that most people vastly underestimate what is required in order to facilitate serious muscle growth. Not only do you need the raw materials for building muscle in the form of amino acids from protein, you require extra energy to fuel the metabolically taxing activities of muscle growth and training.
The basic nutritional relationship for muscle growth is that you need to consume more calories than you use every day. Use a calorie calculator like this one to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight. Then add 1000 calories to that. This is your daily goal. It might sound extreme but if you are serious about gaining appreciable muscle mass, you need to eat like your life depends on it.
Two things are important to note here. Firstly, this isn’t a long term change. Attempts to gain muscle should be concentrated into periods no longer than three months. The intensity you need to gain muscle efficiently (in terms of training, eating and sleep) can’t be sustained for longer. Secondly, you are not going to stay lean while you build muscle. Like the old saying goes “You can’t ride two horses with one ass”. If you avoid gaining a scrap of fat, you won’t build as much muscle as you can. Better to focus on each goal separately: gain muscle first then lose fat.
Exactly what you eat to hit those extra 1000 calories is up to you but there are some basic guidelines that will help maximize your muscle growth and minimize your chances of ending up like Jabba the Hutt.
Focus on protein. You need this to build muscle. And without enough protein, most of those extra calories will just get stored as body fat. There is good evidence that during time of excess eating (just like the type you are aiming for) a high protein diet causes many extra calories to be turned into muscle. However, because protein is a very filling macronutrient it might make it more difficult to eat as many calories as you need to grow. Try to get a serving of protein every time you eat. Protein supplements are great for this. As I’ve mentioned before, a good quality protein shake is a super easy way of getting a serving of good quality protein.
Eat fat and carbs. In order to get the excess nutrition necessary for grow you need to embrace all the macronutrients. At least three times a day have a big serving of fat and carbs along with the obligatory protein. Mashed potatoes with lots of good quality grass-fed butter is one of my favorite muscle gain dishes.
Eat more often. As well as the three meals mentioned above, try to get three large snacks every day. Seriously, I can’t overstate how difficult it is to eat enough to support serious muscle growth. A bowl of oatmeal made with whole milk and a protein shake or three boiled eggs with a banana and peanut butter sandwich are the type of “snack” I’m talking about here.
Finally, don’t treat this as a license go crazy with junk food. If you find that you can’t hit your caloric requirements from good quality whole foods it means that you need to plan better, not that you need to visit McDonalds. Peanut butter, whole milk and oatmeal are all cheap, easy to consume, high in calories and won’t ruin your health. No excuses.
A Final Word on Training
Training, like every other aspect of gaining muscle, could fill a library on its own. There are plenty of great programs available out there that have been proven to work in combination with proper nutrition and rest. If you’re looking for a place to start I recommend Dan John’s Mass Made Simple. Dan John is a great, straightforward coach and the program does exactly what it says. If you want a way of recognizing an appropriate program here is what to look out for:
- Few big movements: Mass gain programs should focus on a few compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, power cleans, pull up and bench press. If you see multiple types of curls you’re in the wrong place.
- Adequate volume: You need enough time under tension to stimulate growth. Some of the exercises in your program should be in the 10-15 rep range, higher is no problem.
- Frequency: remember how important rest is? If you train more than three times per week you will be doing too much to grow muscle effectively. One hard session every third day is ideal in my opinion.
There you have it. Serious muscle gain is within your grasp if you train right, rest enough and eat like you really mean it. While these principles are simple their application is difficult, but so worthwhile.
If you decide to try a muscle mass gain phase let me know how you get on in the comments. Share this article with anyone you know who has struggled to gain weight in the past.