Nutrition for Gaining Muscle Mass Fast
A research study which tested the effects of adding 500 calories to the diets of those on a resistance training program found that the extra calories added fat, not muscle.
To gain muscle you need enough protein and enough calories. Excess calories to the point of fat gain will not speed up this process and neither will excess protein.
To maximize rates of muscle growth, you want to find the high end of your metabolic range.
Follow the provided step-by-step process which includes watching your weight and continually adding small amounts of food to your daily intake to find this point.
Those described as “hard-gainers”, commonly those in their early 20’s, teens and those with active jobs, will have a much larger metabolic range than others.
You Gotta Eat BIG for BIG Gains... Right?
You want to build more muscle tone and may have heard that the fastest way to do this is to “bulk” by eating BIG. Do you really need that additional fat from bulking in order to gain muscle quickly? Is it necessary to eat all those extra calories?
Let’s check out this research study by Garthe and colleagues at The Norwegian School of Sports Science in Oslo, Norway (1):
The study divided two exercise groups:
Resistance training and adding 500 extra calories on top of a maintenance diet
Resistance training and no addition to diet
The results: Gains in lean body mass did not vary between groups. However, fat mass increased more in the +500 calories group.
In other words, they concluded all the extra calories added was extra fat.
Mind you, although it was not statistically significant, the 500 calorie group did gain slightly more lean mass.
Here is a table from the study - You can see that there was a slight increase in LBM (Lean Body Mass) in the NCG (+500 calories) group, but a massive gain in fat mass.
Some may think that this gain in fat mass is worth the difficulty of gaining muscle. However, let’s keep in mind that the average person will lose 25% from muscle mass when on a weight loss diet and exercise program!
This means that if you wanted to lose the fat afterwards, those extra muscle mass gains would be lost and possibly even more. Thus, bulking and then cutting is likely to put you at less overall gain in lean mass than a controlled gain in lean mass.
What if there was a way to get that extra bit of increased rate of muscle gain without the added fat?
The 2 Critical Nutrition Components for Gaining Muscle
Protein - Protein synthesis or, in other words, muscle growth is dependent on dietary protein and resistance training.
The key is enough to maximize rates of muscle growth. Remember, your body can only use so much protein and can only add so much muscle at one time (ie. every 3-4 hours). Therefore, more protein after this point does not equal more gains.
For more on this see my blog MAXimizing muscle gains with protein timing, dosage and type.
Calories - Your body’s gas tank. Energy must be provided to fuel workouts, the protein synthesis process and to actually be incorporated into muscle tissue (i.e. protein).
You want to be in the high end of your metabolic range while maintaining body fat levels so energy is easily available for both muscle growth and high performance in the gym.
What is your Metabolic Range? And Where Should You be on this Range?
All of us have a range of calories where we can maintain body fat levels and some people's range is much larger than others (5).
For example, Suzy Q. does not gain weight if she eats over 1743.423 calories per day or lose weight if she eats under it. This is because a person’s calories for weight maintenance are not at a set point. Instead it is more like if she eats within a range of 1600-2000 she will not gain or lose fat.
For muscle gain without fat gain, what we are looking for is the high end of your range.
In Suzy’s case, she should be aiming for closer to 2000 calories to maximize the amount of energy her body has for great workout performance and building muscle without gaining fat. This is where the additional burn between 1600 and 2000 will go: increased muscle generation, increased workout performance, increased subconscious activity away from the gym and, for some, increased resting metabolic rate.
We can use the analogy of your body as an exotic car: If it has the premiums and extra cash it’s going to be less conservative on the gas pedal and will also spend more on the upgrades under the hood. So if your body has the extra energy, it can afford to expend more fuel on movement, performance and on upgrading its muscles!
Therefore, you may need to increase your intake but only to the point where you are not gaining significant amounts of fat. You can figure this out by continually and slowly increasing the number of calories you consume until weight gain ensues.
See below for a step by step process on how to find your metabolic range.
If you want more tangible numbers, Eric Helms, natural bodybuilding coach for 3DMJ (one of the top online bodybuilding coaching companies in the world), and PhD candidate at Auckland University, estimates:
Beginners can expect to gain 1 to 1.5% body weight per month
Intermediates, 0.5 to 1% per month
And advanced, 0.5% or less per month
For a 180 lb male that’s 2-3 lbs/month for the first 4-8 months and less than 1 lbs per month after 3 to 5 years of consistent training.
For a 130 lbs female it would be 1-2 lbs/month as a beginner and less than 0.7 lbs per month as an advanced lifter.
To Maximize Gains, Avoid the Deficit and Avoid Going Overboard
Being in an energy deficit (weight loss) drastically blunts the rates at which muscle growth can occur (2). Knowing there isn’t as many calories available, your body doesn’t want to spend much on the energy expensive process of building muscle.
However, being in a caloric surplus beyond the increase needed to fuel the muscle building process and high performance has no effect on increasing rates. Therefore, more calories after this point does not equal more gains, except in fat.
Can You Lose Fat AND Build Muscle?
While fat can be very easily stored at almost no metabolic cost to the body, this is not true for muscle mass. Muscle mass is much more metabolically costly to synthesize than body fat. In other words, it’s a lot more work for your body to build and maintain muscle than fat.
Overweight individuals can lose more body fat at a rapid pace and keep more muscle because there is more fat to mobilize (3). Also, at a certain body fat percentage point and above, fat is easily mobilized enough that this fat can be used for energy to gain muscle while losing fat at the same time (3).
For those new to resistance training, muscle growth occurs much more quickly so the effect of gaining muscle while losing fat will be more pronounced (4).
Therefore, the more overweight the person is and the less experience they have resistance training, the more capable they will be of gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time. Keep this in mind if this is your situation. The weight on the scale may not move, but look for improvements in the mirror and the way your clothes fit!
I’m a “Hard-Gainer”: Why Am I Not Gaining Muscle?
Individuals, commonly those in their early 20’s and teens, could find themselves adding and adding and adding calories with no gains in weight. If you’re one of these individuals, you may indeed find yourself eating BIG.
The process of building muscle increases caloric expenditure and this along with increases in NEAT (subconscious everyday physical activity away from the gym) is found to increase substantially in the “hard-gainer” population. Essentially, you eat more and your body will find more ways to use up all this energy. This is the main reason why weight gain is much less than expected after a caloric increase (5).
This may also be the case for those who have active jobs. You would be surprised by how many extra calories your body will burn or less conservative it will be in your daily activities if it has them available.
In comparison with Suzy Q.’s metabolic range of 1600-2000, hard-gainer Katy Doe’s range is 1800-2300. Where Suzy should be aiming closer to 2000 calories, Katy should be aiming for closer to 2300 calories to gain muscle most effectively.
For individuals in the “hard-gainer” category, don’t be afraid to learn that your metabolic range may be larger than the average. This energy will be used wisely by your body.
Step-by-Step Process to Finding the Edge of Your Metabolic Range
Just like training and fat loss nutrition, there is no cookie-cutter plan for those looking to gain muscle.
The way we want to do this is carefully and slowly.
Here is your 5 step process:
Protein - Ensure you are eating at least 1.6 g/kg of protein per day and 1.8 if you want to be extra sure.
Add Food - No need to meticulously count calories. Every week or two, slowly start to add a small amount (~50 kcals) of fat or carbohydrate dominant food to your daily intake, such as 1 tsp oil, 1 small fruit, 1 tbsp of nuts or ¼ cup of rice.
Watch Your Weight – You could notice your weight rises 3-5 lbs quickly as you add and start ensuring you are eating enough every day. This is your body’s carbohydrate stores filling up. For every 1g of carbs stored in your muscle and liver there are 3g of water stored. This is not fat! Watch the mirror and have your body composition or circumferences checked regularly for greater accuracy.
Continue Increasing - Keep adding to your intake of carbs and fat. If your weight makes a jump again, stop!
Wait - Allow a few weeks or months and, if your weight stabilizes, continue adding again.
As mentioned above, our bodies do not necessarily have a specific caloric intake where your weight is stable but rather a range.
The slow increase also gives your body time to adapt to burning off the extra calories whereas making a large jump all at once does not and can force your body to store it as fat since it hasn’t developed the means to use or burn off yet (6).
Remember, “hard-gainers” will have a much larger range comparatively to others.
What Else Slows Rates of Muscle Gain?
Very low carbohydrate diets (non-ketogenic) – Carbohydrate is your body’s preferred source of fuel for muscle and brain activity if it is not in a ketogenic state. Therefore, your body will do what it can to maintain your blood carbohydrate levels which it can do so by converting protein into carbohydrate. If it is not receiving enough carbohydrate from food, it will break down your muscle to do this (7).
Very low fat diets – Fat is an essential nutrient for many physiological process including those that produce anabolic hormones like testosterone. Being deficient in fat can result in lower levels of these hormones which mean lower rates of protein synthesis.
Too much cardio exercise – Note the words ‘too much’. To gain muscle it is recommended to do no more than 20-30 minutes of endurance exercise and to do so only 3 or less times per week (8). It is also best to space out your endurance training away from your strength training (at least 3 hours) and have at least one snack or meal in between if possible.
What Else Maximizes Rates Of Muscle Gain?
Protein timing and type – We’ve established that you need to eat enough protein. But what else can protein do for you? When should you have it? The quality?
For answers, see my previous blog: MAXimizing muscle gains with protein timing, dosage and type.
Proper resistance training that regularly increases in volume – Essentially adding more repetitions, sets and/or weight on a regular basis in the gym. With the increase in energy, you will find incorporating progressive overload in your workouts will help with gains.
Stay tuned for upcoming blogs on this!
What You Can Do
Ensure you are consuming adequate protein (≥1.6g/kg) and energy to gain muscle fast. More than this will not result in faster gains.
Slowly increase food intake to find the high end of your metabolic range by following the provided step-by-step process. Ensure you are not in a deficit (losing weight) as this blunts protein synthesis reducing your rates of muscle growth.
Other factors for gaining muscle fast: Avoid very low carbohydrate diets (non-ketogenic), very low fat diets and too much cardio exercise. Include proper protein timing and periodized progressive volume-based resistance training.
Think of it this way: The “Goldilocks” of Nutrition for Gaining Muscle Fast
Forget what you know about “bulking”, as from the argument above, it’s dead. You don’t need to jump from 0 to 100 to make gains. In order to produce fast muscle growth, you just need to understand the concept of what we are calling, ‘the Goldilocks of nutrition for gaining muscle fast’ – not too much protein, not too much energy, but just the right amount of each.
Need help implementing this or want to be extra sure that you’re gaining as fast as you can? Get yourself a coach or dietitian! Preferably one that can incorporate both best nutrition practices and best training practices or who is willing to work closely with your personal trainer or exercise coach.
(1) Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. European Journal of Sport Science EJSS : Official Journal of the European College of Sport Science 2013;13(3):295-303.
(2) Hector AJ, McGlory C, Damas F, Mazara N, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Pronounced energy restriction with elevated protein intake results in no change in proteolysis and reductions in skeletal muscle protein synthesis that are mitigated by resistance exercise. FASEB. 2017 Sept.
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(7) - HK, - PS, - MM, - RD, - MN, - GM. - Effect of glycogen availability on human skeletal muscle protein turnover during exercise and recovery. - J Appl Physiol (1985).2010 Aug;109(2):431-8.doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00108.2009.Epub 2010 May 20. - 2010 Aug.
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