7 Eating Strategies for Mass
To put on muscle, you have to eat big. Here are our 7 key nutrition tips for adding quality mass, even if you’re a hardgainer.
By Steven Stiefel
You know the deal. You either add both muscle and fat easily, or you have trouble adding either. If you’re one of those lucky guys who adds muscle mass without fat, well, give thanks to your mom and dad. Interestingly, if you’re trying to add quality mass — whether you have trouble adding muscle or you also add too much fat — the rules are pretty much the same. The biggest difference is how much you should rely on one strategy or another. This piece gives you the top seven tips you should adhere to, no matter which category you fall into. I’ve adapted them to each situation, so you’ll get the best results by following these guidelines:
- If you’re a hardgainer, follow the “Bigger Is Better” tips.
- If you tend to add bodyfat while you beef up, then follow our “Balance Is Better” tips.
- If you’re not willing to count calories, follow the “Make it Easy” tip.
1) Consume More Quality Carbs Every Day
Heresy? Our top tip suggests you should consume more carbs? Well, yes. When you’re in a growth phase, you need tons of slow-burning energy supplied by carbohydrates. But there’s a world of difference between complex carbs and the simple sugars you see loaded into a number of foods. Good sources of slow-digesting carbs include foods such as brown rice, yams and oatmeal. You can also increase consumption of starchy carbs such as whole-wheat bread, pancakes and pasta. Regardless of which category you fall into, increase your carbohydrate intake earlier in the day but scale back to almost no carbs during your last two meals. In the evening carbs are more likely to be stored as bodyfat rather than burned for energy.
Bigger Is Better: You should strive to consume 2.5–3.0 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight each day. If you weigh 180 pounds, you should take in 450–540 grams of carbs each day.
Balance Is Better: For guys who add size easily but tend to put on bodyfat, you should reduce carbs to 2.0–2.5 grams per pound of bodyweight each day. This means a 180-pounder should consume 360–450 grams of carbs per day. If you notice that you’re adding more bodyfat than you’d like, scale back a bit. If you still aren’t gaining weight, go with the “Bigger Is Better” recommendation above.
Make It Easy: Consume moderately large carb portions from the foods listed above at breakfast, your morning snack and lunch. Take in fast-digesting carbs with your pre- and post-workout shakes. Eat fewer carbs with your dinner (a small yam or just vegetables), and avoid carbs at your bedtime meal.
2) Increase Your Calories
I know this one’s obvious, but it’s absolutely crucial. You have to take in more calories than you burn if you want to grow. Simply put, you can’t add quality weight if you’re not in a caloric surplus. The good news is that following the other tips in this article will also help you achieve this goal.
Bigger Is Better: If you’ve been having trouble putting on weight, increase your calorie consumption by about 25% over your baseline. This can be as simple as increasing the portion size of most foods — consuming a 10-oz. steak instead of an 8-oz. one. A rule of thumb is to get in about 20 calories for every pound of bodyweight each day. This means that a 180-pound bodybuilder should consume about 3,600 calories a day for growth, but you may need adjustments depending on your metabolic rate.
Balance Is Better: To avoid adding too much bodyfat, start by increasing calorie consumption by only about 10–15% over your maintenance. Instead of eating an 8-oz. steak, go with one just slightly larger, say 9-oz. As a rule of thumb, you should be consuming about 18 calories per pound of bodyweight, so a 180-pounder should be taking in about 3,240 calories. Make adjustments to this amount, shifting up or down, depending on how your body responds after you’ve been following it for about a week.
Make It Easy: If you’re a hardgainer, eat just past the point of fullness at each whole-food meal of the day and then consume a large whole-food late-night snack that includes no carbs. For those who add fat easily, eat just to the point of fullness – excess gorging is more likely to lead to adding bodyfat.
3) Take in More Meals Per Day
Consuming more meals per day is recommended for those trying to shed bodyfat, but it’s also important for anyone trying to add size. That may seem contradictory, but regardless of your goal, eating more meals per day helps your body preferentially add muscle mass over bodyfat. During mass-building phases, consume 6-7 meals per day.
Bigger Is Better: Try to consume a meal every 2-3 hours, and keep meals and snacks somewhat close in their total calories. Whole-food meals may have as much as twice as many calories, but snacks should have a significant number of calories, too. A 180-pound bodybuilder consuming 3,600 calories a day should strive to get in at least 400 calories at each of six meals, with the rest of calories coming from snacks.
Balance Is Better: The rules are similar for guys who add bodyfat more readily. You want to strive for even distribution of calories to keep from overeating at individual meals, particularly later in the day, when calories are more likely to be stored as fat. See the “Calories per Meal” to see how you should break down calorie consumption throughout the day.
Make It Easy: Eat at least six meals a day, and make sure that each of your snacks contains significant calories.
4) Consume More Dietary Fat
When you’re trying to add quality mass, you not only need to add more calories, but you need to consume more dietary fat. It may get a bad rap, but consuming fat is crucial to quality bodybuilding gains. Also, split your dietary fat evenly between “healthy” fats — emphasizing omega 3s — and saturated fats. Omega 3s promote health and growth, and they’re under-represented in the American diet (including that of most bodybuilders). Good sources of omega 3s include herring, sardines, salmon and fish oils. Saturated fats in particular have an undeserved bad reputation. As long as you’re getting plenty of omega 3s, you can also consume saturated fats without compromising your health. Saturated fats help your body make hormones such as testosterone, which is essential for building muscle tissue. Good sources include dark-meat poultry, dairy products and less lean sources of red meat.
Bigger Is Better: Consume up to 30% of your calories from dietary fats, getting in 15% of your daily calories from saturated fats. Increasing your fat consumption will also help to more easily increase your overall calories, as fat contains more than double the calories per gram than an equal amount of carbs or protein. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories, while each gram of carbs and protein contains only 4 calories. This makes dietary fat a great choice for hardgainers seeking to add bodyweight.
Balance Is Better: If you already tend toward weight – and fat – gain, you should consume slightly less overall fat than a hardgainer to avoid going too high on your overall calorie count. Instead, go for 20% of total calories from fat, with 10% of your total calories coming from saturated fat and the other 10% coming from healthy fat sources like omega-3 polyunsaturates.
Make it Easy: If you’ve been emphasizing very low-fat cuts of meat such as chicken and turkey breast or tuna, go with fattier alternatives. If you’re a hardgainer, don’t worry about the fat content of quality meats. If you tend to add more bodyfat, then choose moderately fatty foods such as salmon and leaner cuts of red meat.
5) Make the Most of Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
One of the most crucial times for mass gains is around the time of your workouts. What you consume immediately before you train and in the 2–3-hour window after training impacts not only how much weight you add but also how much of that weight will be muscle tissue.
Bigger Is Better: A 180-pounder should consume about 270 calories both before and after training (540 total calories or about 3 total calories per pound of bodyweight). You can shift the calories a bit, depending on how well you handle a shake before you train, going with fewer before and more afterward. Get in about half of these calories from protein and half from fast-digesting carbs. This means consuming a little more than 30 grams of carbs and 30 grams of protein before and after you work out.
Balance Is Better: Around the time of your workouts, the rules are essentially the same for guys who add weight easily. The only difference is that bodybuilders in this category tend to weigh more than hardgainers, so you’ll be taking in more total calories in the same 1:1 ratio before and after your workout. If you weigh 200 pounds, you need a total of about 600 calories (or 3 calories per pound of bodyweight), split evenly before and after training sessions (300 calories at each meal). This means taking in a little more than 35 grams of protein and 35 grams of simple carbs both before and after you train.
Make It Easy: Drink a shake that’s about half protein and half carbs before and after your workouts.
6) Go Liquid
When you’re trying to choke down quality calories for muscle growth, one of the biggest battles is how much food you actually have to eat. Experienced bodybuilders know that consuming liquid calories is one of the easiest and fastest ways to power down calories to put you into a surplus so you can grow.
Bigger Is Better: If you can’t get down all the whole-food calories for any particular meal, eat as much as you can and drink a shake in addition to the meal. Compared to force-feeding whole foods, you’ll feel a little less bloated and your digestion will be quicker, allowing you to be hungrier when it comes time to consume your next meal.
Balance Is Better: If you add bodyfat easily, consider using this tip to get in the calories you need. But also be aware that your hunger is a pretty good guideline for the amount you can consume to add quality muscle. If you’re drinking too many calories beyond your hunger threshold, then you may be adding more bodyfat than muscle mass.
Make It Easy: If you’re a hardgainer, drink calories after whole-food meals to take in more than you would from whole foods alone. If you add bodyfat easily, add only liquid calories if you’re not full from your whole-food meals.
7) Increase the Quantity of Your Bedtime Snack
You burn energy when you sleep from both fat stores and muscle tissue. When you’re in a growth phase, it’s crucial to slow your muscle loss while you sleep because it’s during this time that you’re fasting. But don’t consume carbs before bedtime because they’re more likely to lead to bodyfat storage. So avoid all forms of carbs and emphasize protein in your bedtime snack.
Bigger Is Better: While you should avoid carbs, consume reasonable quantities of dietary fats. They’ll provide satiety and keep amino acids in your bloodstream longer. Consider whole foods such as deli meats, lean red meat and whole eggs, all of which derive their calories almost exclusively from protein and fat (but check your deli meats, as some are infused with carbs in the form of sugars and may be spiked with sodium). A180-pounder should take in about 450 calories (2.5 calories per pound of bodyweight) at this meal. Strive to get in 30-50 grams of protein at this meal.
Balance Is Better: To avoid adding bodyfat, scale back your bedtime snack a bit from the hardgainer, going for 2 grams per pound of bodyweight. This means consuming up to 400 calories for a 200-pounder. While you don’t need to consume 100% of this from protein, you should get the balance of these calories from protein foods or shakes. Emphasize slow-digesting forms of protein such as casein at this time of day, and scale back on the calories a bit if you notice that you’re putting on more bodyfat than you’d like.
Make It Easy: Consume a large bedtime snack every night that contains no carbs. Hardgainers can take in a balance of protein and fat. Those who add bodyfat more readily should emphasize slow-digesting proteins over dietary fat.
Bonus Strategy: Make Protein a Priority
The seven tips listed above might be tops, but I couldn’t discuss eating for mass without mentioning protein.
While adjusting your intake of carbs and dietary fat makes all the difference in packing on mass, your protein intake remains an essential part of the equation. Be warned, however, that protein has a pronounced satiating effect, meaning that increasing your intake above what’s typically recommended for bodybuilders will make it tough to increase your consumption of the other two macros. To make sure your body has the nutrients it needs to build muscle, never dip below 1.5–2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day, and always remember that increasing your protein beyond that range can actually erase your hunger and hinder your gains.
Bigger Is Better: Whole-food protein sources are usually ideal, but hardgainers will benefit more than any other group from liquid protein sources like whey and casein. The speed of digestion for liquid sources leads to a greater insulin spike, meaning you’ll be more likely to store those nutrients where they’re needed.
Balance Is Better: The extra surge of insulin caused by liquid protein sources may be a blessing for lanky bodybuilders, but insulin also plays a role in fat storage. So if your body has a knack for packing on fat, stick to whole-food proteins, which digest more slowly, and consume them with a source of fat to minimize your insulin response.
Make It Easy: Hardgainers should drink whey protein shakes pre- and post-workout. And for an even greater insulin response, include a dose of carbs with your shake. If you gain fat easily, however, combine whole-food protein and fat sources for minimal insulin production by eating a fattier cut of meat.