You don’t grow just because you train; growth is actually dependent on proper recovery from training and nutrition. And the way you recuperate best is by providing your body with the nutrients it needs at the appropriate times for optimal recovery and growth. Your goal is to add lean mass — muscle tissue. That’s true whether you’re a hard gainer, a guy with good genetics or a guy who carries excess body fat. Here are the basic nutritional principles you need to support your training to maximize your chances for muscle growth right out of the gate.
1. Make sure you consume adequate calories every day
The bottom line is you can’t add weight if you aren’t taking in more calories than you’re burning. If you’re trying to pack on muscle, you have to consume enough surplus calories to support that growth. If you’re heftier to begin with, this task is a little trickier. You need to get enough calories to add muscle mass, but you also want to avoid an excessive increase in body fat. While you’re adding muscle mass, you should regard maintaining or just slightly increasing your body weight as progress.
2. Split your total calories fairly evenly over 5–6 meals per day
This recommendation is a bodybuilding standard. The more frequently you feed your body, the better the contribution you’re making to build muscle mass while at the same time avoiding the addition of body fat. If you consume 3,000–4,000 calories over six meals versus just three meals, your metabolism will stay elevated and you’ll gain more muscle and much less body fat. Those who consume the same number of total calories, but in fewer, larger meals, however, send their bodies the signal to store body fat.
3. Take in at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day
When you want to build muscle tissue, you have to provide your body with the amino acids it needs. These aminos (there are 22 in total, essential, nonessential and conditionally essential) come from protein foods and protein supplements. Eating a variety of different protein sources is the best way to make sure you get a broad range of aminos. By targeting at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, split fairly evenly over your six meals, you’ll keep a steady flow of aminos in your bloodstream to fuel growth.
4. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
Many beginners focus too much on protein or calories at the expense of other types of foods that are dense in nutrients per calorie. Make sure you get in at least six servings of vegetables and fruit each day. They’re low in calories but rich in vitamins and minerals to support gains and overall health. At larger meals, you should consume more than one serving (and you can do your body an even bigger favor by having a few different fruit or veggie items on your plate).
5. Emphasize workout-window nutrition
Around the time of your workouts — before and after — your body needs protein and fast-digesting carbs (sugar) to drive the recovery process. Consuming sugar before and after your workouts helps reload glycogen burned during exercise, and it delivers amino acids to your muscles so that they recover and grow more quickly. Take in about 25–40 grams of protein before and after your workouts, depending on your body weight. Hard gainers should match their sugar intake to their protein consumption, gram per gram, pre- and post-workout. If you’re a bigger guy starting out, you can cut the sugar before workouts and just take it after.