Assuming that you are providing the appropriate training stimulus, meaning you are lifting heavy enough and often enough, but still are not gaining any muscle mass, then I’m here to help you figure out what you may be doing wrong so that you can correct it and get building some new muscle. There are numerous possible explanations that may be standing between you, and that well muscled body that you seek, so it will be up to you to read these explanations and honestly assess where you are in their regard. After all, if you’re doing everything right, then you should be gaining new muscle mass with regularity.
Not eating enough is the number one reason for those who are having difficulty gaining muscle. This is true even of individuals who insist they eat a lot, but no matter what they can’t gain weight. It’s been said that hardgainers tend to be overtrainers and under eaters, and there is a lot of truth to that.
When you look closely at these hardgainers, often they really aren’t eating that much. Research has routinely shown that overweight individuals tend to under-estimate food intake-they think they are eating much less than they actually are. The opposite is true of hardgainers – they are vastly overestimating how much they are actually eating in a given day, or over the span of a week. This could be your problem if you aren’t growing.
Although such trainees may get in a lot of food on any given day, they will then often compensate for those high-caloric intakes by lowering calories on the following day, or the remainder of the same day. They might talk about that one huge meal, but they won’t remember how they ate almost nothing later in the day because they were full, or were attempting to compensate.
Unfortunately for some, the lack of appetite to eat sufficient amounts to gain muscle is a big road block to successful mass gaining. While they may be able to force feed calories for a little bit, their appetite regulatory mechanisms kick in and they unconsciously reduce calories. Their bodies also tend to up-regulate metabolic rate better than others, so they burn off more calories, which is a phenomenon called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT.
The simple fact is that if these hardgainers were actually eating as much as they think they are, they would be at least gaining some body fat, even if they were gaining zero muscle. If a trainee swears they are eating a lot, but not even gaining body fat, then they are still not eating enough, or even as much as they think they are.
Since I’m talking about body fat, I might as well address another very common cause of poor muscle gain, and that’s trainees who fear putting on even a pound of body fat (until very recently, I was one of these folks). They’ll deliberately keep their calories low all the time and then wonder why they aren’t synthesizing any muscle mass. This is not including those who want to lose fat, and gain muscle at the same time.
Physiologically, it is as a fact that in order to gain muscle, you have to provide not only the proper training stimulus, but also the building blocks for the new tissue. This means not only sufficient protein, but also sufficient calories and energy. While it would be great if the energy to build new muscle could be pulled out of fat cells, the reality is that this rarely happens. The only exception being those beginning a program, and those returning from a layoff and are rebuilding muscle they once had.
There are extremely complicated dieting systems that allow people to put on muscle while remaining lean, but even with those diets there always are alternating periods of low and high calories. The high calorie part of these diets provides sufficient protein and energy to drive muscle mass gains.
You can’t take the attitude of eating everything you can either, or you’ll gain a disproportionate amount of fat. That is just as much of a mistake as not eating enough in the first place. The more fat you put on while gaining muscle mass, the longer you have to diet if you want to show that muscle off. Which is not only a psychological chore, but often results in performance, and/or muscle mass losses.
There is of course an optimum level of calories. This would be an intake sufficient to provide the calories and protein necessary for muscle growth, without gaining too much body fat.
A natural bodybuilder is usually doing well to gain half a pound of muscle per week, and a female might gain half of that. You’ll occasionally see a faster rate of gain, but much more than that doesn’t usually happen for sustained periods of time. Over the course of a year, that is 26 pounds of lean body mass. Most won’t get that beyond their first year of training.
To get that rate of muscle mass gain will require some accumulation of fat gain, and depending on how much over maintenance you’re eating, this might be an additional half pound of fat per week. A reasonable weekly or monthly weight gain rate might be one pound per week, or four pounds per month. Half of which should be muscle and the other half fat.
This won’t take many calories over maintenance. Assuming you aren’t burning off too many calories through cardio, you don’t need much more than 500 calories over maintenance to support the maximum rate of muscle gain for a natural lifter. I’d suggest putting a majority of those extra calories on training days, with a lesser surplus on non-training days. That should help keep fat gains down somewhat.
This will have to be adjusted based on your own observations. If you’re not gaining any weight, you need to increase calories. If you’re gaining a disproportionate amount of fat, you need to cut calories back.
Another common mass gaining problem is inadequate protein intake when it comes to building new muscle. Even among weight trainers, occasionally you find someone who simply won’t eat sufficient protein to support gains in muscle mass. Considering the rather high protein intake of even the average person, which is usually two or three times the RDA, it is unusual, but still an issue for some.
This usually occurs when individuals overemphasize carbohydrate intake to the point of neglecting protein, and usually fat as well. This was a very big problem in the 80′s and 90′s when sports nutritionists tended to overemphasize carbs, and advocated a low-fat diet. .
Sometimes, in an attempt to eliminate dietary fat from their diet, trainees quit eating meat. Vegetarians can have greater problems, but even eggs, fish and chicken can fulfill protein requirements easily. There is the occasional claim of someone building a lot of muscle with a vegan diet, but I have yet to hear of a case where all of their muscle was built on the vegan diet. I’m not saying it can’t happen, I just hear of bodybuilding vegan’s that turn to veganism after building the majority of their muscle.
Other than during a fairly restrictive diet, there is little need for protein intakes over one or two grams per pound of body weight. As caloric intake increases during a mass gaining phase, the need for protein actually goes down. The idea that massive protein intakes will build huge muscles are an invention of the protein powder industry. Protein powder definitely has its place, but it tends to get a little too much credit at times.
An excess of protein is another common mistake when it comes to mass gaining. In their quest to build muscle as fast as possible, some draw the conclusion that more protein is the best method, and do so while excluding other parts of their diet. The volume of calories necessary for us to gain muscle mass body weight at any decent rate is going to be nearly impossible if only consuming protein. If you need three to four thousand calories per day in order to build new muscle tissue, that’s an insurmountable quantity of protein to consume.
This is on top of that, the fact that protein calories aren’t used as efficiently for energy as calories from carbohydrates or fats. In the case of a fat loss diet, this is a good thing. It is not ideal however, when building big and strong muscles are the plan. The fact that protein and carbohydrates are far more anabolic than just protein or carbohydrates, is also worth noting. Many studies show that once protein requirements are met, more muscle is gained by adding dietary energy from carbs or fat, than from just adding more protein.
There is the issue of protein quality as well. Quality matters a lot when you have someone eating a small amount from an inferior source. Those of us getting our protein from meat, fish, chicken, dairy, whey, and casein have nothing to worry about.
This article was researched and written by Matt Taylor
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