Bodybuilding 101: Eating to Gain Mass

I was a skinny kid. Very skinny. At 16, I was 5’ 10” tall and weighed 140 lbs. It was 1981 and Schwarzenegger was the action hero of the day. I wanted a body like his, not the sad stringy thing that genetics had handed me. It didn’t help that I seemed to be surrounded by schoolmates who were built like linebackers. I felt like I was the smallest kid in school. So I started bodybuilding.

In a breathtaking display of pig-headedness I trained religiously for nine years and gained….nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Sure, I got stronger. My muscle density increased, but at 25 I still weighed 140 lbs. Then everything changed. In the next 3 years I gained 45 pounds. How?

I had recently changed gyms. The manager at my new gym was himself impressively Schwarzenneggerized. I had been working out there for six weeks when he took me to one side and said, “I’ve been watching you. You train hard but you’re not gaining. What are you eating?”

If I recall correctly my reply was something like “Huh?” It had never once occurred to me that diet had anything to do with it. I figured if only I trained hard enough I would get big.

What’s Left Over to Build Muscle?

So then he explained. “If your body needs 2,000 calories per day just to survive, and you only eat 2,000 calories per day, what’s left over to build muscle with?” Of course, the answer is ‘nothing’, and nothing was exactly what I was getting for my efforts.

I followed his advice, got myself some weight gain formula and increased my caloric intake to 4,000 calories per day. I gained 11 pounds in the next six weeks. I gained so fast that the same guy asked me if I was using steroids. (For the record, I have never used steroids). It was simply that after years of training my body was desperate for the building blocks of the muscle I was trying so hard to put on. When it finally got what it needed, I exploded.

In the next 3 years my weight went from 140 pounds to 185, and 10 years later I had peaked out at 220 and was benching 400. Not bad for a string bean. (Do be aware that at 220 I was almost 18% body fat. To see how I fixed that read The Most Effective Method for Rapid Fat Loss).

The point of all this? If you’re not gaining, it’s because you’re not eating enough.

In the old days, bodybuilders ate anything and everything in their pursuit of mass. I can still remember reading an interview where Ronnie Coleman (Mr. Olympia 8 years in a row) confessed to having once eaten raw cookie dough to get a dose of calories. He was very proud of the fact that “his stomach was never empty”. Despite Ronnie’s undeniable success, today we understand that the way he was eating was unhealthy. Bodybuilders back then would often exceed 20% body fat during mass cycles. This is hard on your heart, kidneys and liver and puts a huge strain on your body when cutting to get rid of all that fat.

There’s a better way

Modern bodybuilding diets still require a huge surplus of calories. Without that, you still won’t grow. But the calories you eat should be quality as well as quantity. You’ll still gain muscle but without the excessive and very unhealthy fat gain. This isn’t to say you won’t gain some fat, but ideally your body fat percentage will not exceed 12%, even during bulking cycles.

What To Eat?

Your diet should be high in proteins from meat and eggs. Contrary to what you may have heard, it is not necessary to eat only lean proteins unless you are cutting. For gaining, any meat is good and in fact red meat with some fat is best for bulking. In addition, you should be eating a healthy dose of vegetables alongside your proteins. While low in calories, vegetables are nutrient dense and the fiber will help with digesting the proteins and fats. Cheese is also good.

Realistically though, in order to hit that 4,000 calorie or more per day target, you’ll probably need to supplement with weight gain formula. While I can’t recommend any particular brand, there is an ideal carbs/proteins/fats ratio. Unfortunately, these days I cannot find one that perfectly matches that ratio, which is four parts carbs to two parts protein to one part fats. Read the labels and get as close as you can.

You can mix your weight gain with milk to add extra calories, but really water is better. Milk isn’t good for adults. It contains lactose, which is almost as bad for you as table sugar. Cheese is ok because the lactose has largely been fermented out of it.

Finally, you’ll need energy food. This is whole oats or other whole, unprocessed grains, potatoes, yams, and bananas. Be sure to keep these in your diet. If you’re training hard you’ll need slow release energy foods to get through those workouts.

What Not To Eat

Remember Ronnie and his cookie dough? Don’t eat sugar. Period. Sugar is always bad for you. Always. No exceptions. Sugar will give you an insulin spike. The insulin spike is the chemical trigger that tells your body to store what you just ate as fat. You don’t want fat. You want muscle, so avoid the insulin spike at all costs.

Watch For ‘Hidden’ Sugars

If you don’t already know, take the time to educate yourself on glycemic index. Foods with a high glycemic index (over 65) are rapidly converted into sugars by your body. This mostly includes refined grains: bread, crackers, cookies, muffins, donuts, pizza crust. They are all bad for you. Don’t eat them.

Meal Portions

Most people are eating the wrong foods in the wrong quantities at the wrong time of day. It’s the reason so many people are obese. An ideal mass building diet is based upon turning the standard North American diet upside down.

Breakfast should be your biggest meal of the day. You should then eat another 6 to 8 meals spaced two hours apart throughout the rest of the day, tapering off portion sizes throughout the day and dramatically in the evening. Don’t go to bed with a full stomach. Your metabolism drops off sharply when you sleep. Extra calories will be stored as fat.

Be sure to have a protein with every meal. Common wisdom is that bodybuilders need 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Recent evidence suggests that this is too low and that 3 to 4 grams is not too much. If you’re training hard, your body will use it. Finally, remember to calculate your protein intake on the weight you want to be, not the weight you are now.

If you want a simple easy-to-follow diet plan read Eating Right Simplified.

muscular man with very low body fat

About the Author

Will is a lifelong fitness fanatic. He started exercising religiously at the age of 16. Now 53, he still works out 5 times per week and maintains a body fat percentage in the single digits. Will is passionate about helping others to achieve their fitness and body image goals and believes that most people fail to achieve these goals, not through a lack of self-discipline, but through a simple lack of knowledge.