“To get big, you gotta eat big!” We’ve all heard this before in one form or another. It’s definitely true. Building muscle requires a lot of calories. It takes a lot of food to fuel the intense training sessions that signal muscle growth, and it requires even more calories to rebuild and recover optimally. How do you know if you are eating enough? Maybe you are eating way too much? Will more protein make your muscles grow faster? Will carbs make you fat? It can be overwhelming for someone just starting out in bodybuilding looking to gain a considerable amount of size. Fear not, I know a thing or two about adding huge amounts of muscle in the off-season. I’m here to provide some helpful strategies and tips to add slabs of beef to your frame.
An Alternative for Calculators and Equations
I loathe calorie/energy requirement calculators and equations. These calculators typically ask for age, body weight, height, body fat percentage (which people tend to grossly underestimate), and something called an “activity factor.” As someone who has coached and trained athletes, bodybuilders, and average people just looking to lose weight or look better, these are terribly inaccurate ways of predicting how many calories and macronutrients an individual needs. First and foremost, start a regimented diet, follow it exactly for a week, then reevaluate and add/take away calories as necessary.
I like to start by keeping protein at around 1.25 grams per pound of lean body weight. Next, distribute protein across 5-7 meals per day, whichever works best for your digestion and schedule. Carbohydrates are almost always the biggest component of your diet in the off-season since they provide energy for training and are also protein sparing.
Some people grow best with carbs really high and fats relatively low, while some grow better with carbs a little lower and fats higher. In my experience, those with fast metabolisms tend to grow better with fats a little bit higher. A good place to start would be carbohydrates at 1.5g per pound bodyweight and fats around .25-.3g per pound body weight. Distribute carbs fairly evenly throughout your meals with an emphasis around your training window, and place fats further away from your training window.
Once you have your diet configured, follow it exactly for a week and evaluate. If you feel like you are gaining fat, try dialing back on carbs/fat for a bit. If you lost weight, you might consider adding more carbs or fat. Keep in mind, adding muscle is a relatively slow process, so take progress pictures and evaluate your progress on a much longer time scale.
Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods
Emphasize nutrient-dense foods when selecting what kinds of carbs, proteins, and fats go into your diet. Remember, micronutrients are essential. If you want to build muscle optimally, meeting your macro quotas with pop tarts, bacon, and ice cream isn’t going to cut it. Stick to whole foods.
For protein that means whole eggs, beef, chicken, and fish. You need various kinds of amino acids to build muscle, so it’s a good idea to get in several different sources of protein.
Good sources of carbohydrates include potatoes, oats, and brown rice or white rice with assorted vegetables. These slower digesting carbohydrates don’t spike your insulin too much (chronic high insulin levels can lead to diabetes and insulin resistance) and provide fiber for a healthy digestive system. After a training session, you can use faster digesting carbs like cream of rice or rice cakes since glucose uptake in the muscle is enhanced and beneficial for recovery at that time.
Lastly, you should include healthy fats like nuts and seeds, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon for overall good health. Good fats improve heart health, control blood sugar, and are essential for hormone production and proper cell function.
Minimize Processed and Junk Foods
The fewer processed foods you have in your diet, the better. I’m not saying an occasional cheat meal will sabotage your muscle building goals, but as a bodybuilder, your primary concern should be eating for building muscle, not for pleasure. Bulking should not be an excuse to eat like a fat ass and crash your metabolism while gaining a bunch of body fat. It’s unhealthy and will lead to high blood pressure, inflammation, and insulin resistance, which is a terrible recipe when combined with other bodybuilding “supplements.” Not to mention your body will not build muscle as efficiently if you are chronically ill. Too much junk food will also slow down digestion because of the high fat content, making your following meals more difficult to consume. Use cheat meals sparingly and care for your health.
Overeating Can Lead to Digestion Issues
Overeating in general will cause digestion issues. There is nothing worse than staring down at a massive plate of food and still being stuffed from your previous meal. Remember, your body has a limited capacity for the amount of nutrients it can absorb and the rate at which it can build muscle. Eating over this limit will not speed up muscle growth; it will only lead to more fat gain and digestive issues.
Malabsorption is one of these digestive issues. If you find yourself going to the bathroom every hour with the runs, you aren’t properly digesting your food, essentially wasting it. You are going to have to do some experimentation with what foods agree with your digestive system and which foods do not. For example, some people do not tolerate eggs very well (eggs are a common food allergy). Some people do not digest certain foods very efficiently (brown rice sits in my stomach like a brick). If you eat the same thing every day, it’s easier to isolate which foods are giving you digestive problems. Simply substitute them out for something similar and see if that helps. Listen to your body and don’t force it to digest foods it doesn’t like.
Tips to Remember for the Next "Bulk" Season
Build and monitor a diet over the course of weeks and months. Quality muscle takes time to build. Consistency is key just like any other aspect of bodybuilding, so stick to your diet and make adjustments as necessary. Emphasize nutrient-dense whole foods and limit the amount of junk food that you consume. Quality food equals quality muscle gains. Better health markers due to healthy eating will also increase training performance and efficient muscle building. Keep these tips in mind next “bulk” season and see how much better you are able to add slabs of beef to your frame.