Everything You Need To Know To Actually Put On Muscle
Whey protein and biceps curls not required.
So you want to get swole.
Or maybe just a bit more muscly.
Before you start pounding protein shakes, you should know a few things about how to do it right to get the results you're looking for.
BuzzFeed Life consulted two experts for this story: Douglas S. Kalman, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition research at QPS-MRA, sports nutritionist for Florida International University, and co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and strength and conditioning expert Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, co-founder Cressey Sports Performance. Gentilcore and Kalman agree that putting on size is a matter of finessing your lifestyle — eating enough of the right stuff, working out properly, making sure you're fueled for workouts, recovering from exercise, sleeping well, and most importantly, adhering to your training plan. We get into how to do all of it below.
Here's what they say you should keep in mind.
1. First things first: You're going to have to eat more food. Maybe a lot more.
No matter what you call it — bulking up, getting swole, putting on size, gaining muscle mass — getting bigger than you currently are means taking in more calories so you can gain weight.
Kalman explains that how much more you need to eat will vary depending on a bunch of things, like your goals, your metabolism, and your current size. But to get a general sense of how many calories you should eat in order to gain weight, Kalman recommends starting with these equations:
• For women: 12 to 15 calories per pound of bodyweight times 1.3 to 1.5 if you're active*
• For men: 15 to 20 calories per pound of bodyweight times 1.2 to 1.5 if you're active*
These are general guidelines to follow — you can try them for a couple of weeks and tweak accordingly depending on how you feel and what results you're getting. You can also use the calculators here to figure out how many calories you need based on your resting metabolic rate and tweak to fit your goals.
*Active in this case means that you exercise about four times per week, which, if you follow the guidelines in this article, should be about right.
2. But you don't want to eat just anything.
Even though it seems like eating anything and everything might be the most efficient way to gain mass, Kalman explains that you don't want to gain just any weight. You want to gain mostly muscle (not only is having too much fat unhealthy, it's a tissue that doesn't do anything for your goal of muscle growth or workout recovery, says Kalman). In order to do this, you need to be sure you're eating the right kinds of calories at the proper times.
Kalman recommends a diet that's about 50% carbs, 25% fat, and 25% protein, but you might need to adjust based on how you feel (throughout the day and during workouts) and the results you're getting (both in terms of performance and aesthetics).
To play around with macronutrient ratios — how many carbs, fat, and protein you're eating each day — just use an online macronutrient calculator.
3. Prioritize clean protein and complex carbs.
Getting enough protein is essential for muscle growth. Protein is the macronutrient that helps our muscles repair and grow after we lift weights. Kalman recommends eating clean protein — basically any source of lean protein that isn't prepared with stuff you don't want to be taking in. Skip anything that's deep-fried, prepared with all kinds of greases and fats, smothered in cheese, etc.
When it comes to carbohydrates, Kalman recommends eating mostly complex carbs — the kind of carbohydrates your body absorbs and digests slowly — like starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. They keep you fuller longer, are better for body composition, and keep blood sugar levels even.
4. But have simple carbs before and after workouts.
A diet heavy in simple sugars and refined carbs isn't optimal no matter what your health goals are. But, Kalman says, because simple carbs are absorbed and digested quickly, they provide the body with energy right away, making them the perfect thing to eat right before a workout when you need a quick boost or right after you exercise when you need to replenish your carbohydrate stores.
And by the way, even though candy and desserts are simple carbs, they're high in added sugar, which won't help you reach your goals. Also, sugar is just not healthy. Stick with fruit, the healthiest simple carb around.
5. And make sure your post-exercise snack includes protein.
As mentioned above, simple carbs before and after a workout will give you the energy you need and then help replenish the energy you lost. Kalman says you should also have some protein after your workout. If you've just finished a workout of about an hour or an hour and 15 minutes, a snack or drink with a 4-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein is perfect. If you've just finished a short or not very intense workout — say around 30 to 40 minutes long — something with a 1-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein is adequate.
Some examples of snacks with about a 4-to-1 carb to protein ratio:
• A banana and a cup of milk or unsweetened soy milk
• A medium-sized apple and ¼ cup of almonds
• ½ cup of dry oatmeal and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
6. And if you're having trouble getting all those calories in, consider shakes and smoothies.
Depending on your size and goals, gaining mass might just mean having an extra half-sandwich, piece of fruit, and serving of nuts each day. But for other people it might mean an extra several hundred calories. Gentilcore says that increases that big can make you feel pretty full — sometimes to the point of discomfort — until your body adapts. He says that one way around this is drinking your calories instead of trying to eat them all.
A delicious, easy way to consume, say, about 500 calories of protein, carbs, and fat is this smoothie:
• 1 banana (about 100 calories)
• One scoop chocolate protein powder (about 120 calories)
• 1½ cups unsweetened vanilla almond milk (about 45 calories)
• 2 tablespoon almond butter (about 190 calories)
• 2 tablespoons cocoa powder (about 20 calories)
• A handful of kale (about 15 calories)
7. Work up to heavy deadlifts, squats, and presses.
If you want to get bigger, you're going to need to lift and lift heavy. Gentilcore recommends focusing on the "big three" movements of powerlifting: deadlifting, squatting, and pressing. These multijoint movements call on the largest muscle groups in your body so they allow you to move the most amount of weight, which leads to gaining more muscle and size.
Gentilcore says to stay in the three-to-five-rep range, doing three to five sets of each movement. Keeping the reps lower means that you should be working with heavier weights. Aim to spend three to four days lifting per week.
To learn more about how to deadlift, squat, and press, Gentilcore recommends Starting Strength. With a chapter devoted to each lift, Gentilcore says it's the bible of strength training and learning how to do the lifts correctly.
8. And also lift some lighter weights!
Of course in order to lift those heavy weights you need to get stronger all over. To do this, Gentilcore recommends lifts that strengthen the muscles that support the big lifts. This is called accessory, or assistance, — and it includes stuff like goblet squats, kettlebell swings, good mornings, dumbbell rows, and much more. Because these are lighter-weight lifts, you can do more in a row of them: say 8 to 12 per set. They will help you get stronger, which means more weight moved all around, which means more muscle amassed!
Here are Gentilcore's recommendations for accessory work.
9. Moderate-intensity cardio is where it's at.
For some body composition or performance goals, a go-hard-or-go-home strategy for cardio is right on. Not so with putting on size, says Gentilcore. First of all, you're already going fairly hard with your weightlifting, so continuing to place a huge demand on your body with cardio will tire you out and compromise your gains.
What's more is that high-intensity cardio puts a demand on the body that competes with your goal of gaining muscle mass — going super hard on the treadmill or elliptical or rower burns calories very efficiently, and you're trying to keep those calories so you can gain muscle. Gentilcore says that the best kind of cardio for anyone trying to keep and grow muscle is the activity of your choice — running, swimming, elliptical, rowing, etc. — done at a moderate intensity twice a week for about 30 minutes at a time. Measure your exertion level with the "talk test": Work out at an intensity that allows you to carry on a conversation as you go.
Not only will this bring you all the health benefits of cardio exercise without compromising your gains from lifting, but these bouts of steady state cardio also increase what Gentilcore calls "work capacity," which is basically how much "work" you can do doing a workout like weightlifting. With improved work capacity, you will be able to lift more or lift for longer, which again leads to more muscle gained.
10. Take rest days very seriously.
Holy shit, news flash alert: You don't build muscle in the gym. You build it outside the gym when you're resting — sleeping, recovering from workouts, and getting the calories your body needs to repair and build muscle. Gentilcore explains that when you're lifting weights you are breaking down muscle tissue. To repair and grow those muscles you need to give your body a real rest. Schedule at least one day of complete rest per week, though Gentilcore says two days is preferable. Those days are for Netflix or maybe going for a walk or casual bike ride.
11. Get enough sleep.
Getting a solid night of sleep is non-negotiable when it comes to getting results and feeling good during your workouts. Being sleep-deprived wreaks havoc on your body — from your metabolism and appetite to your cognitive function, all of which can make it tough to get the most out of your workouts. Kalman says that athletes who sleep less than five hours of sleep per night, when compared with athletes who get at least eight hours, have worse immune systems and experience poorer athletic performance.
12. Make sure you're hydrating properly.
Your body performs most efficiently when it's well hydrated, and that's especially important when you're working out hard several times per week, both for performance during your workouts as well as recovering afterward. Kalman says that being even just a bit dehydrated also has a negative effect on your mood and thought processes, which can mean not being as mentally sharp during workouts, which could lead to making errors while lifting, which could lead to injury. Being well-hydrated also means less stress on your joints during exercise thanks to the extra cushioning of fluid around your joints. Finally, being properly hydrated, Kalman says, makes you more sensitive to hunger cues.
13. Once you have everything else figured out, you can consider supplements.
Kalman says that once you've optimized your lifestyle for your goals — eating and exercising properly, getting good quality sleep, hydrating, and recovering from workouts — you can think about using a supplement that's been proven to be safe and effective. Kalman says that supplementing with creatine — a protein that's already in your body and helps replenish energy stores during exercise — has been shown in several studies to help people exercise for longer and put on more muscle mass.
Be sure to check with your doctor before starting to use any kind of supplement.
14. Find a good way to measure progress.
You have a few options when it comes to measuring your progress. A body composition scale will tell you how much muscle mass you're putting on. You can also use a tape measure around your things, arms, and so on. But Gentilcore is a fan of progress photos — especially from behind. He says that looking at yourself every day in the mirror makes it tough to see changes even when they're happening. But because we never really look at ourselves from behind, it's often shocking and satisfying to see what your back and shoulders look like and how those change.
Remember that another way to note progress is how strong you feel during workouts, how much weight you're moving when you lift, and even how your clothes fit. Be sure to choose a way to measure progress that will encourage and motivate you.
15. Consider consulting an expert or two.
Because so many variables come into play when it comes to health, fitness, and body composition, it sometimes takes some trial and error to figure out what works. A registered dietitian and/or an expert in strength and conditioning will be able to help with meal plan design, fitness programming, and the other factors that come into play when you want to change your body composition. Consider working with an expert if you want to tweak your lifestyle with more precision relative to your personal needs.
16. Make sure your expectations about results are realistic.
Most people notice that they're getting stronger before they see dramatic changes in how they look, says Gentilcore. Keep in mind that these strength gains are awesome and most likely signal good things for aesthetic changes. Gentilcore says that some people notice increased strength after just a few weeks of training, eating, and matching their lifestyle to their goals, while aesthetic changes might take longer — maybe up to a couple months. Hang in there and try to be patient; Gentilcore says that once you have your lifestyle dialed in, it's just a matter of sticking with it. Changes will come.
Good luck, and happy gaining!
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