The 5 Biggest Mass-Gaining Nutrition Mistakes
Quality muscle gains can be undercut by an off-course meal plan. Here are the five worst nutrition blunders you can make — and how to correct them.
By Steven Stiefel
When you’re trying to add quality muscle mass, you have to make sure your entire muscle-building regimen is catered to achieve that goal. The main areas to consider include your nutrition plan, training program, supplement plan and recovery protocol. As you’ve already learned from the training element of this superfeature, “5 Biggest Offseason Mass-Building Training Mistakes,” you need to emphasize heavy, compound movements when you’re trying to maximize muscle gains. [Melissa – We may need to tweak the wording here once we have the title for the complementary article. JH] Even if your training is impeccable, however, you may not be supporting your hard work in the gym with the smartest nutrition strategies for your body. In fact, many committed bodybuilders set themselves up for failure by making nutritional blunders.
A common explanation is that some guys are so gym-focused that they forget to take care of business when they aren’t lifting. Keep in mind, however, that you can’t grow if you’re going off-track during the other 23-or-so hours of the day. To help you get back on track, we’ve identified the five biggest nutrition mistakes bodybuilders make when trying to add quality mass — and we’ll show you what you can do to correct each error.
MISTAKE #1: Inadequate Workout Meals
The meals you consume in the window beginning approximately an hour before your workouts and then within the range of 30 minutes to two hours after your training sessions are the most critical meals each day for maximizing growth. It’s crucial that you understand the appropriate food choices to make during these pre- and post-workout time frames to take full advantage of your hard work in the gym.
Negative Effects: When you don’t give your body the specific nutrients that are necessary before your workouts, you might have less energy when you train, particularly near the end of your sessions. If you aren’t taking in appropriate foods after workouts, then you won’t be providing your muscles with all the raw materials needed for maximal growth. In addition, you won’t recover as quickly or efficiently, and you won’t be able to train as effectively in subsequent workouts because you haven’t reloaded your muscle glycogen stores.
Solution: About an hour before you work out, eat a whole-food meal that consists of equal parts protein and moderately fast-digesting carbs, such as white bread or bagels that contain little to no fat or fiber (as both slow digestion). Or, if you prefer, take in a protein shake with fast-digesting carbs (sugar) shortly before you train. Either way, the glucose from the carbs will provide you with an energy boost during your training session, and the protein will get aminos circulating in your system to help facilitate muscle building after you finish training.
No later than 30 minutes after you finish your workout, you should consume a similar meal — whey protein and dextrose are ideal. At this time, you can take in more sugar than protein. Strive for about ¼ gram per pound of bodyweight from protein and somewhere between ¼–½ gram of sugar per pound. For example, a 200-pound bodybuilder should get in about 50 grams of protein and 50–100 grams of sugar. The specific amount of sugar will depend on your individual daily caloric needs. A whey shake with 50 grams of sugar will contain about 400 calories, and one with 100 grams of sugar will contain about 600 calories. Keep in mind that hardgainers typically need more total calories than guys who tend to add bodyfat easily.
Shortly after you consume your post-workout shake (about an hour or so later), eat a whole-food meal that consists of protein, slow-digesting or starchy carbohydrates (brown rice/yams or pasta/rice, respectively) and fats (from meat or healthy forms such as oils and avocado).
MISTAKE #2: Inconsistency in Your Nutrition Program
If you do a great job of following your nutrition program some days but fall off the wagon on weekends or on days when you aren’t training, you’re significantly undercutting the benefits of all the hard nutrition (and gym) work you’re doing on your best days. We’re not saying you need to consume the same foods every day, but you do need to have a nutrition strategy for each day that falls in line to help you achieve your overall goals.
Negative Effects: At best, you won’t make progress with your physique as quickly or as effectively when your nutrition program is erratic. At worst, if your meal plan is very inconsistent, you may actually take a few steps back, as your body may not maintain what you already have. In other words, you could be losing muscle mass, adding excess bodyfat or both.
Solution: Make sure you hit your target zones for calories and macronutrients every day of the week. You won’t get any results if you undereat on some days and overeat on others, simply trying to “balance” out your program by going to the opposite extreme to make up for what you did the day before. To help keep your intake consistent, drink protein or weight-gainer shakes at other times of the day such as between meals to keep your caloric intake in the appropriate zone. You can also take in somewhat higher caloric “junk” meals once a week or so — just make certain they don’t catapult you way above the amount of calories you need for ideal growth per day or per meal (keep in mind that no single meal of your 6–7 meals per day should contain more than one-third of your daily caloric intake).
MISTAKE #3: Overeating
Think about it — what type of mass are you trying to add? Obesity is one of the biggest health problems in America, and even those in MuscleMag world aren’t immune to it. If you want to add quality muscle mass, you have to consume more calories than you need for bodyweight maintenance, but at the same time, if you eat beyond a certain threshold, you’ll just be adding excess bodyfat. It also matters — tremendously — what types of calories you choose to consume. Another factor that’s crucial is how many meals you take in each day, and how many calories you eat at each of those meals.
Negative Effects: Don’t just eat lots of food for the sake of getting bigger. The logic behind mass-gaining nutrition isn’t that simple. If you eat too much food each day, or you stuff yourself with too much at individual meals, ultimately you’re going to gain unwanted bodyfat. Your body can use only so many calories at a time, so any excess may end up getting converted and stored as fat.
Solution: Establish your caloric-intake baseline for maintenance — generally this number is somewhere around 3,000–4,000 calories a day for a 200-pound bodybuilder. Now, add about 25% more calories to that when you’re in a mass-building phase, taking in 3,750–5,000 calories a day in this example (or the amount that’s right for you, depending on your weight and whether you consume fewer/more calories for maintenance). In addition, split these calories fairly evenly over 6–7 meals per day. Again, no single meal should have more than one-third of your daily intake because when you take in huge amounts of calories in one sitting, they’re much more likely to find their way into bodyfat storage than they are to be used as energy or to fuel the muscle-building process.
MISTAKE #4: Not Eating Enough
While it may seem contradictory, this mistake and Mistake #3 are indeed two separate problems for different bodybuilders. Some guys eat too much while others eat too little overall. Most people don’t commit both (if you do, however, you’re also an offender of Mistake #2), and, of course, human nature dictates that hardgainers tend toward undereating. If this sounds familiar, you’re actually making a nutritional mistake in the area of your greatest challenge.
Negative Effects: This dietary mistake compounds the genetic predisposition that you’re fighting against. Many hardgainers try to make up for their nutritional shortcomings by training harder at the gym. But, guess what? Doing so only burns more calories, tearing down muscle tissue without the nutritional support necessary to recover and build muscle mass. The end result is an increased difficulty to add and sustain quality mass.
Solution: Regardless of your body type, you should schedule enough recovery time and rest days in your weekly training split to encourage mass gaining. Then, you need to put a big emphasis on taking in the appropriate amount of calories and macronutrients your body needs to grow. If you tend to undereat, try concentrating on liquid calories when your appetite isn’t large enough to comfortably consume all the whole-food calories you need to add mass. Take advantage of pre-bedtime to get in a quality meal that’s high in protein and dietary fats (avoid carbs at this time of day, as they’re more likely to be stored as bodyfat — even if you’re a hardgainer). Also be conscious of the other mistakes noted in this article, such as taking in too many calories at one meal.
MISTAKE #5: Overemphasizing Protein at the Expense of Other Beneficial Calories
What? Is MuscleMag seriously telling you to eat less protein? Of course not. What we’re saying is you need quality calories that come from a broad spectrum of different foods and macronutrients. By no means do you need to cut your protein; instead, what we’re saying is there’s a limit to how much protein your body can use to fuel your muscles for optimal growth during a mass-building phase. While protein is the key macronutrient for muscular development, many bodybuilders focus too heavily on this fact and end up neglecting the other crucial macronutrients needed for growth.
Negative Effects: When you overemphasize protein at the expense of other nutrients, you’re providing a skewed ratio of materials that your body can’t use maximally to carry out all the processes associated with mass gaining and growth. Your body needs not only protein, but also the drivers of growth (carbs and dietary fats) that are necessary to put these aminos to use. Essentially, when you prioritize protein too much over carbs and fats, what you’re doing is akin to buying twice as many materials as you need to build a house, and then forgetting to hire someone to construct it. There are different schools of thought on how much protein is too much, but the general recommendation is to consume no more than 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. Taking in more than that amount may undercut your appetite for other necessary macros. The excess protein will eventually be converted to fuel, but that’s an inefficient and expensive way to provide your body with the energy it needs.
Solution: Consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight daily during the offseason when you’re trying to add serious muscle mass. Understand that consuming protein beyond 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight becomes an inefficient way of supplying your body with fuel. When you’re in a mass-building phase, strive to get in only up to about 30% of your daily calories from protein. This means a 200-pound bodybuilder who consumes 4,000 calories a day for growth should consume up to 300 grams of protein (300 grams x 4 calories per gram = 1,200 calories, and 1,200/4,000 = 30%). Of course, that same bodybuilder who needs 5,000 calories a day for growth can still consume 300 calories per day from protein (1,200/5,000 = 24%).
Steven Stiefel is a health, nutrition and exercise writer who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in numerous national magazines. He’s the author of Weights on the Ball Workbook and Fit in 15.