As I fought to hit the last rep on my less than perfect bench press, I sat up to see a guy had been watching my struggle from across the gym. I’d only been training a few weeks and my form was pretty shaky. My lack of technical skill led me to just heave the bar up and hope for the best. This, coupled with less than ideal benching genetics (I literally have the bone structure of an 11-year-old girl and arms as long as your average orangutan), meant my early pressing attempts were a bit lacking. The guy watching me, however, was jacked. He had a physique like a Greek statue, and I’d often watched him in the gym, slinging around monster weights like they were peanuts. In an uncharacteristically daring move, I plucked up the courage to ask for advice on my less than impressive bench. “Just eat more” was his reply.
As time went by, my lifting improved. My muscles grew and so did my knowledge. As I learned more about what makes people jacked, however, the advice I received in the gym remained the same. From “buy a bigger dinner plate” to “drink a gallon of milk with your meals,” it seemed like muscle gain was all about consuming a huge amount calories. While the advice “eat big to get big” is not without merit, it misses the larger picture. Excess calories alone are not the be all and end all for muscle gain.
Muscle Gain Is Not Just About Calories
Let’s try a little thought experiment. Do you know the major difference between carbs, fat, and protein? All three contain oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, but only protein contains nitrogen. It might have been a while since you sat through a chemistry class, so allow me to make it simple. No nitrogen means no protein, which means no muscle. Have you ever tried getting jacked on a diet of 100% olive oil? It’s not going to work because you’re not growing any muscle no matter how many bottles of the stuff you pour down your throat.
If you don’t get enough protein, you’re not even in line to build muscle, as was shown in a recent study. The study participants were divided into low and high protein groups and it was determined that even when getting 40% less than their maintenance calories, the high protein group still gained an impressive amount of muscle. In contrast, the lower protein group only maintained their prior amount of muscle mass.
Gaining Muscle In a Calorie Deficit Is Not Optimal
While fat loss or weight gain are both energy-dependent processes, muscle gain is the result of the integration of training and nutritional stimuli—namely, lifting weights and consuming protein. To maximize muscle gains a calorie surplus is important, just not for the reasons you might think. What’s referred to as “protein turnover” is happening constantly in your body. To actually end up with a net gain of muscle mass, you need muscle protein synthesis to be greater than muscle protein breakdown. This is what makes a calorie surplus more efficient than a calorie deficit for packing on slabs of muscle.
Your body is pretty busy. It doesn’t just sit around idly looking at Instagram, waiting for something to happen before jumping into action. There are a millions of internal processes going on at any one time, and none more so than right after you’ve eaten. This is the time when food is digested, absorbed, and used. It’s also a time when muscle protein breakdown is minimized. The more food you eat, the less time you spend in a caloric deficit. The less muscle you break down, in theory, the more muscle you build.
It’s Not Just About Eating More
Now, before you decide to construct a diet of a million protein shakes supplemented by unlimited pastries to minimize protein synthesis and put on as much size as possible, consider how quickly you can actually build muscle.
People equate fat loss with muscle gain, but they are not the same. If you are trying to build muscle, you’re going to be playing the long game. Getting as fat as possible isn’t going to help get you bigger muscles, and this is where a lot of people go wrong. In reality, you’re looking at a 0.5% of your body weight to be gained as muscle per month, and much less than that when you’ve been training for a long time. Gaining one or two kilograms of muscle a year is winning when you’re advanced, so it makes sense to not try to gain weight too quickly. If you don’t mind getting fatter at the same time, that’s cool, but there’s also a way to gain muscle without getting chubby.
Aim for a 200 to 300 kcal surplus, to begin with. This often works out to 35 to 40 kcal per kilogram of body weight. This is a great starting point, but you will have to adjust based on real-world results.
Decide On Your Protein Intake
The amount of protein you should eat in a day is usually measured by your day end total. I’m here to tell you there’s a better way. Despite the mantra of “make sure you hit your total protein intake by the end of the day” being extremely common, the number of protein feedings per day for muscle gain is more complex than that. In fact, your total protein intake is less a recommendation, and more a by-product of your protein frequency.
To build muscle, you have to send a signal to your body, and for this to work as well as possible, you need to eat enough protein at every feeding. Eating one huge meal a day will send a signal for sure, but it will only send it once. Eating lots of tiny amounts of protein won’t really send a signal at all.
In a study that specifically looked at rate of protein frequency, the subjects either consumed a whey shake of 25g in one serving or 25g split into 10 servings over three hours containing 2.5g of protein in each serving. Despite the fact that the same amount of protein was taken overall, the 25g of protein taken in one serving spiked amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in the blood more than when the 25g was split. Where muscle growth is concerned, a larger spike of amino acids in the blood is a very good sign that muscle gains are on the way.
Our goal needs to be that we send the right signals to tell the body to build as much muscle as possible and to send that signal as many times as we can. To do this, make sure to eat 0.4g/kg/body weight to 0.5g/kg/body weight of quality protein at each meal—or 0.3g/kg/kg/body weight of protein from whey if you are having a shake. In the evening, to make sure you take advantage of the longer fasting period, a slightly greater pre-bed protein feeding of 0.5g/kg/body weight to 0.6g/kg/body weight is a good idea.
My recommendation is to get somewhere between 4-6 protein feedings of the amounts listed above per day. The number should be based on personal preference, time of training, and how long you’re actually awake for. Based on the evidence, fewer meals than this are not really going to get it done. Simply mainlining protein shakes all day also doesn’t give the best results because protein needs to drop to a certain level in the blood before more protein can have the largest effect on muscle building. Spreading your feedings out is important. If you’ve been at two or three meals per day before this, that’s the first thing I’d look at before changing before adjusting anything else.
Alternatively, if you’ve spent years guzzling down 12 protein shakes a day, dropping back to 4-6 protein meals will give you better results.
With 4-6 protein feedings a day, specific timing of protein intake around your training is of little importance. By eating within two hours before your training session and again within two hours after, you’re covering all your bases.
Set the Rest Of Your Macros
Setting macros can be daunting, but it needn’t be as long as your total fat stays above 20%. While carbohydrates are often thought of as being particularly helpful for muscle building, once a sufficient amount of protein has been ingested, carbs don’t do anything to help muscle protein synthesis. Smashing a load of dextrose after your training session isn’t going to achieve much in terms of muscle growth except leave you feeling a bit hungry while costing you a ton of calories. Calories could be better spent elsewhere—brownie and a cup of tea anyone?
Despite what you might think, there isn’t much solid evidence that carbs before training will do much to help your workout. Anecdotally, and despite the lack of research, I have found that some people simply hate training without eating carbs first. If you go into your session feeling like you’re going to kill it because you’ve had some carbs, then that’s reason enough to keep them in. If you don’t care, don’t feel the need to eat them around your workout because you think it’s the right thing to do.
Keeping overall fat intake too low has been shown to negatively affect testosterone production. Going too low in fat is not going to help with muscle building in the long term.
Where fat and carbohydrates are concerned, I feel that personal preference plays the biggest role. I would not recommend letting fat intake dip below 20% of total calories due to the potential for a less than ideal anabolic hormonal profile, with carbs making up the rest.
In summary, here are my dietary recommendations for muscle gain:
- Consume 4-6 meals containing 0.4 to 0.5g/kg/BW per day or use whey shakes containing 0.3g/kg/BW.
- The last meal of the day should be slightly higher in protein at around 0.5 to 0.6g/kg/BW.
- Consume protein within two hours before training.
- Consume protein within two hours after training.
- Set total energy at 200 to 300 kcal above maintenance, or 35 to 40 kcal/kg/BW.
- Don’t consume less than 20% of total energy intake of fat for a long period of time.
- After protein and fat intakes are set, make up the rest with carbohydrates.
- Base your fat and carb intake on personal preference.
The advice to “just eat more” isn’t enough. To maximize muscle gain, make sure you get the right amount and frequency of protein throughout the day as your number one priority.
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