If you’re an athlete who struggles with packing on muscle without gaining a tonne of body fat in the process, this article is exactly for you.
In this article, I cover the exact guidelines I use when planning muscle gain programmes for my own Athlete’s
who want to pack on muscle without gaining the unwanted body fat.
Before we delve into the recommendations, we need to appreciate that muscle building is dependent on a variety of factors, such as:
- Training age – How long have you been lifting?
- Genetics – Did you pick the correct parents?
- Training programme – Is your training programme designed to build muscle?
- Nutrition – In short, everything below.
First and foremost, it’s very clear that muscle growth occurs at a higher rate when adequate calories are consumed, introducing the #BulkingNotsulking meme’s. We can therefore say that your calorie intake is rate limiting for muscle growth and identifying your calorie needs should be the primary area of focus when building muscle. As mentioned previously, it is possible to build muscle whilst in a calorie deficit (not consuming enough calories), but perhaps not optimal. Generally speaking, catabolic processes are dominant during periods of calorie restriction and favour muscle breakdown. So, not ideal for the under-muscled athlete in the room.
This is why overfeeding type ‘bulk’ diets are more preferable than calorie restricted ‘fat loss’ diets when attempting to maximise gains in muscle mass. Typically speaking, when you move from a calorie restricted diet to a calorie maintenance or surplus diet, muscle building signalling molecules change and the mTOR/anabolic pathway (favours muscle growth) is no longer blunted. Therefore calorie restriction favours catabolism/muscle breakdown, and calorie surplus favours anabolism/muscle growth. Perfect!
The second major player in muscle growth is your protein intake. You would have heard many bro’s at the dumbell rack talking about protein shakes and the importance of having a high protein diet. In all fairness, some of the information they provide is useful and is somewhat along the correct lines of thinking. However, much of it is bullshit. To save you the time and effort, I’ve summarised the last 20 years of protein research into 7 key points.
- Once protein is consumed in the correct dose, it stimulates the processes responsible for muscle growth. This process is referred to as muscle protein synthesis, or MPS for short.
- Once MPS has been stimulated, it remains ‘switched on’ for approx. 3 hours in smaller meals, and 5-6 hours in larger calorie containing meals.
- Consuming another protein meal within this window will not further increase MPS despite the provision of amino acids – This is known as the ‘muscle full’ effect or refractory period.
- MPS resembles a light switch – once you’ve turned a light switch on, you can’t press the button harder to make the light shine brighter. You have to wait until it is ‘turned off’ before turning it back on again. Similar to consuming protein, once the mechanisms are switched on, they’re on.
- You need a sufficient dose of high quality protein in order to maximally stimulate MPS . The exact dose and type of protein required can be found in the download link below.
- Since MPS is ‘turned on’ for approx. 3-5 hours after protein is consumed – The aim will be to have 3-4 protein rich meals per day to maximise the daily ability to build muscle.
- In addition to your 3-4 protein meals per day, aim to consume a larger protein snack before bed to keep rates of muscle protein synthesis elevated throughout the night.
For an in depth review on how to optimise your protein intake to pack on serious amounts of muscle and become strong AF – check out my free downloadable guide below.
Before we get into this, we need to address the MOST IMPORTANT question; What’s more important for packing on size, TRAINING or NUTRITION? Watch the super short video below to find out what science would suggest is more important.
When it comes to packing on muscle in pro sport, you have to be realistic with what’s actually achievable. Let’s do a deep dive into rugby for example. If you’re playing every weekend and feel beat up during the training week, all you’re doing is recovery, prehab and rehab. In this case, are you actually stimulating the muscle to grow? Some old school coaches would definitely give you a tonne of volume during the training week, but it’ll compromise your playing performance on the weekend as you’re adding more fatigue to your pre-existing beat up state. Further down the line, this can cause poor performances, burn out, illness and injury. So, we need to acknowledge when the best time to push forth with this goal. I.e, is In-season muscle building actually that realistic, or do you have to wait until the off-season/preseason?
Once that issue has been resolved between yourself and the strength and conditioning staff, we can use this straight forward, no B.S. approach to gaining:
WEIGHT TRAINING + PROTEIN + CALORIES = MUSCLE GROWTH
In short, weight training is going to be the main driver for muscle protein synthesis where your protein intake amplifies this response. As mentioned, the third piece to this puzzle is your calorie intake as it can dictate the speed of which you gain muscle. However, it’s not a one size fits all approach. In true Dedication to Education style, I’m going to touch on five studies looking at how many calories you need to pack on mass. Without further ado, back to calories.
STUDY ONE: THE NEWBIE
Rozeneck et al (2002) placed untrained guy’s on a 2,000 calorie surplus diet for 8 weeks. When this calorie surplus was combined with a training programme and adequate protein, it was reported that almost all the weight added (3kg) was through increasing muscle mass (not fat mass), where the control group who consumed a maintenance intake didn’t significantly increase muscle mass. Two thousand calories in addition may sound excessive, but this is theoretically maintenance calories for them…Remember, any calories consumed in excess is stored as body fat.
This has been suggested to be a result of newbie lifters having a greater ability to build muscle when compared to their trained/elite athlete counterparts. Building muscle is a very energy expensive process, therefore newbies need more energy to drive muscle growth at a higher rate to meet the bodies demands.
When we look at formulas to calculate calorie requirements, this 2,000kcal surplus would in fact be seen as a surplus. However, formulas are highly unlikely to account for the high calorie demands for different rates of muscle growth. To refute the point, these newbies were not in a surplus as they didn’t store any body fat, they were in fact eating a maintenance intake (favours no change in body fat) as they were meeting the bodies demands.
STUDY TWO: THE PRO
Garthe et al (2013), placed elite athletes either on a 500kcal ‘surplus’ diet, or an ‘ad libitum’ maintenance diet in conjunction with a four day per week hypertrophy focused training programme for 8-12 weeks. As expected, the athletes who consumed a higher calorie intake, gained the most weight, although differences in muscle mass was not considered significant (1.7kg Vs 1.2kg). More interestingly, the 500kcal surplus diet gained the most body fat (1.1kg Vs 0.2kg).
Therefore, this does highlight the importance of calorie intake dependant on your training status. I.e. the more trained you are, the less calories you need to build muscle as rates of muscle growth are far slower. Therefore the additional calorie intake does not favour increased muscle mass and will most likely be stored as body fat instead. In other words, you can’t force-feed muscle growth, you’ll end up gaining fat very quickly as calories in EXCESS are stored. I.e. once you’ve met the bodies demands by fuelling exercise performance, daily activity, keeping you alive and remodelling muscle tissue, additional energy consumed via food has no real use and is stored as body fat.
STUDY THREE: THE PED ENTHUSIAST
Bhasin et al (1996) carried out a landmark study looking at rates of muscle gain where they recruited 40 participants to complete three supervised weight training sessions (4 sets of 6 repetitions) per week for a total of 10 weeks. From a nutrition perspective, calories (36kcal per kilogram of bodyweight and protein (1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight) were matched in the different groups; however there’s one small difference in this study….two groups were treated with supraphysiological doses of testosterone (PED: Performance Enhancing Drugs) where the other groups had a placebo (no physiological effect).
The groups were broken down as follows:
- Group 1: PLA + No Exercise
- Group 2: 600mg Test. Enanthate + No Exercise
- Group 3: PLA + Exercise
- Group 4: 600mg Test. Enanthate + Exercise
- Group 1: +0.8kg
- Group 2: +3.5kg
- Group 3: +2kg
- Group 4: +6.1k
After the 10 weeks of resistance training, muscle mass in the placebo group had an increase of 2kg – where the group treated with high dosages of testosterone gained 6.1kg with no real change in fat mass between groups. Here’s the most staggering thing; the group who took gear and didn’t train gained more muscle than those who trained the natural way. Mind blowing! The lolz you get when people say that steroids don’t work…Funnily enough, this is why they’re banned in pro sport, because they work extremely fucking well.
STUDY FOUR: THE LAZY GAINER
Bouchard et al (1997) saw that there’s an inter-individual responses in gaining muscle mass and fat mass during periods of overfeeding (calorie surplus). Over a 100 day period, 24 young and lean lads followed a diet where they were overfed by 840kcal per day to drive weight gain. During this period, the fella’s were instructed not to perform ANY exercise at all. As expected, they gained weight, averaging 8.1kg of total mass, of which 5.4kg was fat mass and 2.7kg being muscle mass. This provides a nice round figure of a 2:1 ratio in favour of fat gain during periods of overfeeding in lean people without any form of training. Interestingly, the authors noted that the additional calories consumed over the 100 day period was 84,000kcal (840kcal x 100 days), where only 50,220kcal were stored as either fat mass or muscle mass. This leads to only 60% of the energy consumed being stored within the body as either fat mass or muscle mass. So, where the did the additional ‘excess’ calories go?
STUDY FIVE: THE NEAT IS TOO DAMN HIGH
NEAT; Non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is the term given for energy expenditure that is not related to exercise. This became apparent in a study by Levine et al (1999) where researchers overfed non-obese individuals by 1,000kcal per day above their maintenance intake for eight weeks. The findings were very interesting. The participants didn’t gain anywhere near as much bodyweight as predicted. This is because two thirds of the energy consume was lost through NEAT. Craziness! NEAT can be increased through subconscious activities such as; fidgeting and maintaining posture. Therefore, your body can counteract higher calories by increasing movement in order to preserve leanness. Now, some people are better than others at activating NEAT, the ‘hard gainers’ so to speak – the guy’s who can eat everything in sight and never gain any weight. The body loves homeostasis and does a pretty good job at adapting it’s metabolism to stay roughly the same weight. By all means, this is only until a certain point, you simply can’t eat 10,000kcal per day and expect to stay lean.
BACK TO STUDY FOUR
Bouchard et al (2014) re-examined the data from the previous 1997 study and found characteristics that favoured a higher muscle gain to fat gain ratio. Although 5.4kg and 2.7kg of fat and muscle mass was gained respectively on average, some people gained more fat and less muscle, where others gained more muscle and less fat.
The strongest starting characteristics that favoured high rates of fat gain compared to muscle gain were;
- Low levels of muscle mass
- Low muscle oxidative potential
- Low VO2 max
- Low androgenicity
- High levels of leptin
The weakest and less consistent predictors were;
- Large abdominal fat cells,.
- Low postprandial energy expenditure
- High estrogenicity
- Low DHEA
- Low cortisol
- Low thyroid stimulating hormone.
Therefore, it could be suggested that if these were reversed at baseline, then you’ll more likely gain muscle mass as opposed to body fat when you start a mass gaining phase. By all means, this is pretty speculative, but it could be a missing part to the puzzle. For example, these folks didn’t even lift, who would ever start a muscle building phase without considering a visit or two to the gym? We know that lifting weights massively changes our physiology in the period after a session, so how does this impact the results? Could this mean that lifting weights alone abolishes the ‘poor’ characteristics of high fat gain during a building phase? Needless to say there’s plenty of unanswered questions, however I would say that many athletes who are typically ‘hyper responders’ do have the opposing characteristics noted above. Food for thought. For example, one of my Rugby coaching clients Ryan:
Calorie intake, genetic predisposition, training status and training programme are all major factors when it comes to answering the questions of how fast muscle can be built. It is evident that muscle can be built at a higher rate when calories are adequate. However, trying to force-feed muscle growth is futile as you’ll end up on the chunkier side of life pretty quick. From a performance perspective, this is a nightmare as you’re power to weight ratio will rapidly decline. This means that your;
- Work capacity
- Top end speed
- Repeated efforts
Will all get shafted, meaning that you’ll end up being a worse athlete as a result. On the other hand, we definitely want to avoid being in a calorie deficit as your calorie intake is a limiting factor. Therefore, I would actually suggest that you are in a small calorie surplus on a daily basis. Yes, I want you to get slightly fat. This would suggest that you have comfortably covered your daily energy demands (and building muscle) as any energy in excess is stored as body fat. In this instance, I’d rather have complete certainty that your calorie intake is sufficient as playing the final line of ‘exact’ calorie maintenance is going to be mega difficult.
Based on the available data in the naturally trained athlete, realistic rates of muscle growth will be a maximum of ~1% increase in body weight per month. That’s approx. 150-200g of lean mass per week for most athletes. Again, this figure may be mind numbingly slow, but you need to think long term – how does 10 months down the line look for you? Huge difference. By all means, you’re always going to have outliers who gain faster and slower than this, however this is a nice starting point to work from.
Many athletes fail with a successful muscle building phase as they try and rush the process, slam down thousands upon thousands of calories in excess, get very fat and have to cut calories prematurely to shred the unwanted body fat
. Realistically, you should be in a gaining phase for a very long time, not jumping in and out based on body fat levels creeping up too quickly.
From a practical perspective, I’d start eating at calorie maintenance, then start to increase calories incrementally (drip feed) until you achieve the desired average increase of 1% bodyweight per month. This should account for both your training status and the extra calorie burn from NEAT. In this case, we need to look at trends over time and not be so erratic in our decision making every time we step on the scales as numerous factors influence the scale weight.
THE 7 COMMANDMENTS OF MUSCLE GAIN NUTRITION
- Thou shalt not eat in a calorie deficit.
- Thou shalt not eat in a large calorie surplus.
- Thou shalt download my Protein for Athletes Guide to maximise gains.
- Thou shalt not take gear.
- Thou shalt train heavy and progressively.
- Thou shalt be patient and consistent AF.
- Thou shalt set realistic goals.
Aim to do these on a daily basis whilst getting excellent at the basics, and you’ll be gaining for a very long time!
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