Muscle and strength is easy to come by. Really, it is.
We all have a pre-programmed adaptive ability to restructure our tissues when environmental stress increases and it works very similarly in all of us. Just like everyone grows a callous when the skin is repeatedly rubbed, our bodies grow muscle tissue and make dense bones and connective tissue when we are exposed to tension.
Now, the recipe for success gets a bit more complex as you become more developed, but growth is so easy in the beginning that you have plenty of time to wrap your head around that complexity befor it becomes necessary. For most of your journey towards size and strength, there are two important things that need to be present to coax muscle growth: consistent training stress and a minimum amount of raw materials.
Most of the attention gets funneled towards training variables. Lifters get lost trying to evaluate different exercises and e-book programs, usually hopping from one to the next in a bid to find the one magical arrangement of training stressors that will take them to the next level. It’s not unlike a desperate farmer trying different rain dances during a drought.
Too many lifters are doomed to fail because they don’t worry about the other side of the size and strength equation, the raw materials. It doesn’t matter how you train; when it comes to growth, no amount of effort or planning will make up for lack of protein and calories. This goes extra for hard-gainers.
So here’s a quick cheat sheet for eating for size.
1. EAT THE SAME THING EVERY DAY
Compliance is the most important variable for getting your diet straightened out. The what, when and why of nutrition has all been pretty well sorted out; there’s no voodoo or mystery to it. But all of the macro calculations and food prep in the world won’t amount to any real progress if you don’t actually stick to the diet.
It makes shopping, prepping and tracking incredibly easy and takes away your excuses for missing a meal or not hitting your target macros. For many hard-gainers, not being hungry is a big obstacle. Those in this camp don’t have the luxury of eating off of impulse; they will often have to eat past the point of being full and this gets harder if meals are taken in sporadically. By eating the same thing every day, you commit to a ritual.
When I have to begin dropping weight to compete, I immediately default to eggs and cream of rice in the morning, ground turkey and rice for lunch, a protein shake in the afternoon and steak and veggies for dinner. That’s what I eat every day and the only thing that changes over time is how much.
2. TITRATE UP FOOD INTAKE
My example was for cutting weight towards a show. Eating the same thing makes it super easy to adjust how much protein I’m getting in while I peel calories away. For gaining weight, the same principle applies just in reverse.
Titration is a process of making slow, deliberate changes to dose until you find the precise amount. For gaining muscle, we start with a baseline of eating and titrate our calories and protein intake up. This removes the mystery to dieting; our goal is to find exactly how many calories and protein leads to an increase in muscle mass so we continuously add small amounts each week until we see the scale start to move. There is no mystery; if the scale didn’t move, you didn’t eat enough.
Titration also prevents you from gaining unnecessary body fat. If you weight 180 and want to grow into 220, common advice is to ‘eat like you are 220’. While the reasoning is sound, jumping straight into meal sizes appropriate for someone 40lbs heavier is a good way to get soft. Muscle growth is gradual and non-linear, so consistently ticking up your calorie intake gives you time to make better use of it.
3. SCHEDULE FOR CONVENIENCE
Remember: COMPLIANCE IS KING! You have to actually stick to a diet plan for it to work. Don’t make the mistake of getting overly excited in the beginning and writing out an unrealistic plan.
Yes, I know some of your favorite bodybuilders eat 12 times per day. When your entire job is to train, eat and sleep, you can give that a crack too. While you still have a day job and family obligations, you have to structure your meals for convenience.
Eating the same thing every day gets you most of the way there, but you also have to know when these meals are going to be scheduled and how you are going to have them ready. This is why 4 meals per day beats 6 or 8; less moving parts means less chance of screwing up and leaving your tupperware at home.
For me, breakfast and dinner are the easy ones. These are always at home where I have plenty of time scheduled to make them. Lunch and the afternoon shake require planning, so I simply make sure I have them packed and ready to go before I leave the house. I also have a back-up plan in case I forget; I know the places around that have meals that match the calorie profile. In a pinch, I can order Waba Grill with extra meet and pick up a ready-to-drink shake from the Vitamin Shoppe across from my work.
4. TREAT EATING LIKE TRAINING
Setting a baseline of eating is easy; it’s probably not going to be an overwhelming amount of food at the start so most of the growing pains will be with learning to stick to your routine. Once you start increasing portion sizes to get the scale to move, this will become a very different story.
Eventually, eating will be a chore. You will get half-way through your meal and be satiated and it will require a bit of grit and determination to finish it. Whatever psychological tactics you use to get through a hard set of squats or deadlifts, you may need to call upon to get all of your food in. Don’t whiff, here. If eating to grow were easy, everybody would already do it and you wouldn’t be here reading this.
If the meals get too big, you can increase the number of feedings you have throughout the day. Only do this if you are comfortable with your current schedule and are confident you can commit to another meal.
5. SNEAK IN EXTRA CALORIES
This is the closest we are going to get to the ‘1 weird trick’ for gaining weight. If you followed the first 4 guidelines, you are already in a good spot and have likely seen improvements. But to keep titrating up your calories without your body staging a coup, you might have to use some trickery.
I like blending my food. I know it sounds gross, but it’s not that bad and the amount of time and psychological energy it saves me makes it a no brainer. Instead of spending 30 minutes pushing 1lb of dry chicken into my mouth while I ask “why am I doing this?”, I can drink the same amount in 2 minutes and spare myself the psychological turmoil.
1lb Cooked Chicken
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp Cream Cheese
½ Cup Grated Parmesan
½ Cup Broccoli
Blend thoroughly and drink luke-warm. It tastes like broccoli-cheese soup and packs 140 grams of real animal protein. It also digests insanely fast and is easier on the stomach than 140g of whey protein would be.
You can also make use of calorie dense foods like olive oil and heavy cream or whole milk throughout the day. A few tablespoons of olive oil is hardly noticeable in a protein shake but will add a few hundred calories of unsaturated fat.