Eating for muscle mass gain

June 21st, 2008  |  Published in How to eat  |  32 Comments

In this article, I’m going to cover how to eat to gain muscle mass. But let me begin with a distinction. Many beginners start out in the gym hearing that they have to eat lots to gain muscle mass. It’s rare that I see a beginner who doesn’t need to lose some fat first to get into a healthy or athletic range of body fat. It’s just the nature of North American society — most of us new to training are a little squishy. So, folks start working out, they assume they need to eat like giant pro bodybuilders, and guess what: they end up with a miniscule improvement in their muscle mass, and much more fat.

If this is you, lose fat first. Eat and train for general health and slow, gradual fat loss. Get yourself into fighting shape first and then worry about packing on the meat. If you’re a beginner who needs to lose some body fat, the advice below does not apply.

This advice is geared towards folks who are already skinny and lean, people who got called Skeletor in high school, and people who can play the xylophone on their ribs. This is for people who genuinely need some meat on their bones. It’s also for folks who are a bit more advanced, have lost the fat they want to lose, and are now looking to put on some muscle while maintaining their relatively lower body fat levels.

OK, disclaimer duly disclaimed. On to the advice!

building the house: energy balance and mass

If people want to change their body composition, the first place they should look is their diet. There is a notion that skinny people are somehow specially blessed with a metabolism that defies the laws of thermodynamics. What they are actually blessed with in most cases, barring some kind of external factor like an eating disorder or a coke habit, is some combination of skeletal structure and hormonal mechanisms that tightly control their appetite and satiety over the long term. Astounding as this concept is to people like me who are thinking about brunch halfway through breakfast, there are indeed folks out there who aren’t constantly interested in food, and in fact, can even forget to eat on occasion. Additionally, their body carefully regulates food intake over the long term; if they eat more on one day, their body will tell them to eat less the next day so that their overall intake is balanced out. One of the challenges, then, for people who want to get bigger is often overriding their natural appetite and satiety signals.

However, one of the things that people are most often deliberately or unwittingly inaccurate about, besides sexual frequency and age, is their caloric intake. I get email from skinny folks who say, “I can’t gain weight but I eat like a horse.” When I ask them to tell me in detail exactly what they do eat, it’s clear that said horse is more like Eohippus. People’s perceptions of what they are actually eating vary widly in their precision. The first thing to do if you want to change your body composition is get a clear, accurate idea of what your food intake really looks like. No “forgetting” snacks or “eyeballing” portion sizes. Go to Fitday and tell it your life story.

To add mass one has to eat more. To lose mass one has to eat less. It’s a very simple energy balance equation.

Energy balance is the relationship between energy in (calories) and energy out (from activity and general metabolic expenditure). A negative energy balance results in weight loss. A positive energy balance results in weight gain. I tell folks to think of a house being built. You can’t build a house without building materials, which is why it’s very difficult for most people to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. It’s like trying to build a house while someone keeps taking all the bricks away.

calculating calorie intake

People aiming to gain mass need to eat more than their body expends. For most folks, the amount of calories needed to gain mass is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 16 to 20 times their bodyweight in pounds daily. So, for a 100 lb. person trying to gain mass, this would mean that her intake should be between 1600 and 2000 calories daily. The exact amount will depend on the individual and her activity level.

  • Women often need fewer calories than the same-sized male.
  • Younger people need more than older people.
  • More active people need more than less active people.

F’rinstance, let’s take 3 people of the same weight and height: 5’9″, 120 lbs. All of them want to gain mass.

  1. A 17-year old male
  2. A 45-year-old recreationally active woman
  3. A 20-year old female elite athlete

To gain mass without excessive body fat gain, each person might need:

  1. 21 x bodyweight in daily calories = 2520 calories
  2. 15 x bodyweight in daily calories = 1800
  3. 18 x bodyweight in daily calories = 2160

Some fat will be gained along with muscle. The trick is to eat enough to gain muscle without gaining too much body fat. Increase caloric intake slowly over a period of several weeks, and monitor weight gain to ensure that it’s mostly lean body mass without excessive body fat.

when to eat

If appetite is a problem and you’re not hungry, ignore it. Simply plan out your intake, schedule meals, and put some food in your eating orifice at regular intervals. Over time this intake pattern will become habitual. If you’re really not hungry, and the thought of a big meal makes you want to blow chunks, eat whatever you can stomach. There are some ideas below. Even a glass of milk or a handful of almonds is better than nothing.

In particular, make sure to eat plenty in the “training window”. Eat some protein and complex carbohydrate 1-2 hours before working out (whatever you can stomach). If you can tolerate it without upchucking, sip at a protein-carb drink during the workout (some protein in juice, or a bit of milk, is fine). You can try nibbling on a protein bar or a few handfuls of trail mix. Immediately after training, within the first half-hour, have some carbohydrate and protein, such as a banana and a glass of milk. And have another good, substantial meal within a couple of hours after that.

what to eat

How does one eat more and still maintain standards of good nutrition? Forget weight gainers and junk food. You don’t need sugary refined crap, saturated fat, or chemicals. You need real food and lots of it.

Protein, of course, should be the foundation of your nutritional plan. The recommended amount of protein for a weight training person trying to gain mass as well as to lose mass is the same: about 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily. For our hypothetical 120 lb person, that’s about 84 to 96 g daily as a baseline. You can also consume more.

Complex carbohydrates are the second source of quality calories. Read the other articles on this site about whole grains and incorporate them into your diet. If you’re avoiding grains, get your energy from fruit (fresh or dried) and maybe a little honey. Typically people who are naturally skinny tolerate carbohydrates well, so you can eat a bit more carbs than your chunky cousin, who may be more sensitive to the effects of glucose and insulin.

Fruit and veggies are a given. Eat lots, especially the colourful ones. Nuff said.

And now we come to the big kahuna (as it were) for weight gaining, fat. Fat is your best buddy when you are trying to gain mass. I don’t mean that you should go and eat a stick of butter. Saturated fat intake, primarily from animal products, should be kept moderate. What you want are good unsaturated fats from plant sources: nuts, nut butters, seeds, fresh oils, coconut, and avocados. Fats are extremely calorie dense. A couple of handfuls of nuts is a few hundred calories, and they contain valuable omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts and pumpkin seeds in particular have higher amounts of o-3). Here are some examples of ways to get calories from good fats.

  • Use olive oil as a condiment. Drizzle olive oil on bread, grilled vegetables, or salads. Throw it in the food processor with garlic, chopped basil, and pine nuts, and fresh chopped spinach if you like, and you have a pesto sauce. 1 tablespoon of olive oil = about 120 calories.
  • On the subject of olive oil, I know I said to avoid saturated fat, but I do recommend this delicious and basic recipe from the Naked Chef Jamie Oliver. Get a few slices of nice crusty bread, multigrain if you like, and toast it. Slice ripe tomatoes and put it on top. Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and salt to taste, and some fresh basil if you have it, but dried is OK too. Slice brie cheese and put it on top of the tomatoes.
    Drizzle the whole thing with olive oil. Melt it a wee bit in the microwave if you like. Depending on how much you make and eat, about 400-500 calories.
  • Avocados can be served sliced or mashed (try some lime juice with it) and they taste great in omelets, with Mexican food, in salads, or just spread on a sandwich. You can even throw them into a protein shake. 1 avocado = about 275 calories.
  • Peanut and sesame oil add flavour to Asian cuisine, basic stir fries, and salad dressings.
  • Peanut butter is a staple in most North American homes, but go beyond old Mr. Peanut into other nut butters. Almond, hazelnut, and cashew butter are my favourites.
  • Keep a jar of nuts handy and snack on them. Brazil nuts in particular are high in seleniium, an antioxidant nutrient. Half a cup of almonds = about 400 calories.
  • Coconut is a valuable source of medium-chain triglycerides, and wonderful as a snack. Buy a whole one and whack it with a hammer (get a grownup to help you with this) to remove the hard outer shell, then nosh on the pieces. (If you want to have some laffs, fling the coconut off a balcony onto some concrete. Wash the pieces afterwards.) You can buy dried coconut but often it’s sweetened or tossed with trans fats or has had some other indignity perpetrated upon it. Coconut milk goes brilliantly into many recipes that call for cream or milk, as well as into protein shakes.
  • If appetite is a problem it’s often easier to drink your calories than eat them. Fresh oils and nut butters go nicely into protein shakes. Here’s a recipe I fancy. 2 cups of milk, 1 to 2 scoops of whey, 1 banana, 2 tablespoons of peanut, almond, or cashew butter, and some optional chocolate flavouring. Put everything except the nut butter into the blender and blend till smooth. Dump the nut butter in while it’s blending (otherwise the stuff tends to stick to the blades). You can also put EFA oils such as hemp, flax, or even flavoured fish oil into shakes.

Responses

  1. Ryan says:

    May 6th, 2009at 1:34 pm(#)

    This is great info! Glad I stumbled across your sight! I will implement this. Thanks!

  2. Sheng says:

    May 18th, 2009at 9:08 am(#)

    Thanks for the awesome info! I just started training and eating like crazy over the past week and this is exactly what I need right now. I knew I could count on Stumptuous and Mistress Krista!

  3. Jesus says:

    July 2nd, 2009at 2:44 pm(#)

    This is great information thanx i will try it!

  4. Cmonsterkid says:

    July 15th, 2009at 3:24 pm(#)

    Oh my, this looks doable.

  5. Sonya says:

    January 29th, 2010at 10:56 am(#)

    Hey,

    I don’t know whether I qualify for that someone who needs to lose body fat before I try to gain muscle. I’m 5’0 and 97 pounds but I still have some belly fat (which I think is just genetic unless ive managed to burn off muscle…which i doubt). I have gained some muscle from seven months of weight training but my legs still look skinny and I want to get stronger and a little bit bigger (and maybe the added muscle will minimize the belly?)

    Should I be looking to cut calories and train harder with cardio to lose body fat and then try to lift heavier or is it ok to start lifting heavier now and hope the added muscle will burn off the extra body fat or at least allow the fat to be distributed more evenly?

  6. Mistress Krista says:

    January 30th, 2010at 9:28 am(#)

    Sonya: Eat to sustain your activity (high quality whole foods, adequate protein and fat), train hard, and get as strong as you can. The body comp will take care of itself.

  7. Sonya says:

    February 11th, 2010at 7:22 pm(#)

    If you’re not hungry for up to several hours after a workout should you still eat?

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    February 11th, 2010at 8:55 pm(#)

    Yes.

  9. Aisha O'Brien says:

    March 27th, 2010at 9:48 am(#)

    Hi Sonya and Krista! I had the same sort of question over on Jp-Fitness and Lou Schuler answered my questions thusly, I hope it helps!

    Aishazoe, when you talk about “tummy” fat, and describe it as being “on” your abdomen, I assume you’re talking about subcutaneous fat, as opposed to visceral fat, which is the more dangerous type surrounding your internal organs.

    Visceral fat is fairly responsive to training, but subcutaneous fat always seems trickier. The other complication is that, based on the way you described yourself and your family history, it sounds like you’re pretty close to your genetic floor, in terms of body weight and BMI. I want to emphasize that a 25.2 BMI is only considered “overweight” because of an accounting trick. It’s an artificial distinction. I’ve seen research showing that people with BMIs in the high 20s — the overweight range — actually have lower all-cause mortality than people with lower BMIs.

    Before indiscriminately cutting calories, I’d recommend one or more of these steps:

    1. Change macronutrient ratios, with more protein and fewer carbs. I had lunch with a nutritionist a couple weeks ago, and when we got on the subject of stubborn weight loss, he said that cutting carbs while increasing protein is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet.

    2. If you aren’t already doing it, consider calorie cycling — eating more on training days and less on non-training days. That’s what Cass recommends in our book, as I’m sure you know.

    3. If you’ve already gone as far as you can with 1 and 2, consider carb cycling. More carbs and less fat on training days, more fat and fewer carbs on non-training days.

  10. Mo says:

    May 6th, 2010at 2:37 pm(#)

    Hi!

    I have the same problem as Sonya. I have really skinny legs and arms but I also have belly fat. I’ve never worked out before. would it be a bad idea to take a high proetein shake? I want to start weight trainning but I’m afraid of getting skinnier or fatter around my belly.

  11. Mistress Krista says:

    May 7th, 2010at 6:47 am(#)

    Mo: Right now, just start working out with weights, follow a basic decent diet, and don’t worry about the details. A protein shake is fine. Focus on adding a good, solid weight training program to your life and let the chips fall where they may.

  12. Mo says:

    May 7th, 2010at 11:35 am(#)

    Hi Krista,

    Thanks a lot! but one last question.. Would it be better to start off with a normal high protein shake or a muscle mass shake? I’ve just seen so many. That it’s hard to know which one to use.

  13. Mistress Krista says:

    May 9th, 2010at 5:10 am(#)

    Mo: Start with eating real food. Seriously. If you want a protein shake, look for a plain one without a pile of crap in it. Whey, egg white, sprouted brown rice, hemp are all decent options.

  14. Joey says:

    June 22nd, 2010at 7:30 pm(#)

    how would you then keep a six pack and gain muscle? If the excess calories in males tend to go to the abdomen?

  15. Mistress Krista says:

    June 23rd, 2010at 5:46 am(#)

    Joey: You wouldn’t. :) More precisely, it’s difficult. You need to be very careful about the quality and quantity of your nutrition, and accept that fat gain accompanies muscle gain to some degree. Now, many bodybuilders use this as an excuse to pack on 30-50 lb in the offseason. That’s not the best method either. One of the best ways to ensure you stay leanish while gaining muscle is what John Berardi calls “G-Flux”, but you could also call “smart nutrient timing plus high activity”. More info: http://www.johnberardi.com/articles/nutrition/g-flux.htm

  16. gr82bkelly says:

    August 17th, 2010at 12:08 pm(#)

    love your article i have always been thin but due to stress have become even smaller the last year, i am 5’7 38 years old and weigh 108 i want to gain at least 10 pounds over the next month i went to fitday to get some help monitoring my calorie intake but it seems to only calculate losing weight any suggestions or other sites i can try?
    your article really helped me get a healthy idea of what to eat thanks,
    kelly

  17. Mistress Krista says:

    August 18th, 2010at 6:27 am(#)

    Kelly: You can easily use Fitday for weight gain. It won’t let you put in a higher weight as your weight goal, but you can certainly use it to calculate your caloric intake and macronutrient profile. What you’re looking for:

    1. Adequate protein — about 0.8 g per lb of body fat as a baseline — for you about 90-100 g day is a good goal.
    2. Adequate good fats — about 30-40% of total calories
    3. Adequate fibre — about 30-35 g daily
    4. Adequate calories — start with 16 times bodyweight; thus for you let’s say no lower than 1700 cals, but probably more like 2000-2200

    Fitday will give you data on all that. Don’t forget to train hard and heavy to make that mass gain into quality muscle!!

  18. Mish says:

    October 3rd, 2010at 8:23 pm(#)

    Hi Krista,

    I’m 29 years old, 5,4″ and weigh about 108 lbs.
    I’d like to lose some “skinny fat” and build muscle.
    I have no idea which weights or what I should be doing.

    Any ideas please?

  19. Mistress Krista says:

    October 5th, 2010at 5:29 am(#)

    @Mish: Go and start with a beginner workout here or here.

    Read the “eating” section of this site and focus on improving the overall quality of your food intake. Eat REAL food. Eat lots of fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, lean protein (meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, etc.), and good fats. Focus on getting daily, meaningful, challenging activity. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  20. Sonya says:

    October 12th, 2010at 11:01 am(#)

    Hey Aisha, thanks for the input.

    I actually started incorporating refeeds recently but have found that they make my eating habits really chaotic. I don’t think my approach to calorie cycling is healthy because when I decide to refeed I view it as an opportunity to binge on chocolate and refined crap that I don’t normally eat. My muscle is more visible now because I’ve been training harder with weights and am limiting long duration cardio (I was beginning to look like a lanky marathon runner, minus the abs), but my eating habits are chaotic mostly because I am in college and am forced to eat whatever is made in the dining halls and the mass produced vegetable dishes here taste like shit. Sometimes I even find that I’m too disgusted to continue eating halfway through my meal and will eat some nuts or drink milk to fill me up..I’m def not getting enough veggies.

    Have you successfully cycled calorie/carb intake? I could use some words of wisdom on the matter.

    Thanks!

  21. Malin says:

    October 17th, 2010at 5:05 am(#)

    Hey Krista,

    For almost a year now, I’ve been working on improving my health. I’ve lost about 22 pounds over that time period (I started out somewhat overweight and very out of shape). Over the summer and now in the fall I decided to get into weight-training as opposed to cardio-focused workouts, and I really love it!

    Generally speaking, my goals amount pretty much to “don’t stop training” and “get stronger, preferably loads stronger, because it’s kick-ass”. So, this is my problem: Having a history with moderate weight-problems I definitely don’t want to pack on the fat again, but I also recognize that a strength-gain and a muscle gain will mean an increased weight. Apart from being able to lift heavier, how do I distinguish between fat gain, and muscle gain? I have a very hard time eye-balling these things, I don’t really trust my eyes when it comes to how my body looks.

    I’d go get my body fat-% checked, but I don’t seem to have access to any reliable methods in my area that doesn’t cost a fortune.

    Cheers,
    Malin

    PS. I’d just like to say that I’ve been following your site since I was in high school and while it took me a really long time to get to a place in life where I could maintain an exercise routine and eat healthily, this site has always been an inspiration for me. It really rocks.

  22. Mistress Krista says:

    October 18th, 2010at 4:39 am(#)

    @Malin: Congratulations on your progress thus far.

    First, don’t bother reading sites geared to male bodybuilders, especially old-school guys who will tell you to eat like a PMSing walrus. At each meal, eat:

    -a palm-sized serving (3-4 oz) of lean protein
    -1-2 fists (1-2 cups) of veggies, ideally colourful ones
    -1-2 thumbs (1-2 oz) of good fats

    Don’t worry about “eating for mass gain” if you’re someone who started out trying to lose weight. The folks who need to focus on eating more are the folks who are “naturally” more ectomorphic, aka lean/thin. You just focus on eating the best quality food you can, eating when you are physically hungry and stopping when you are physically full/satisfied (not stuffed), and getting as strong and powerful as possible.

    Cheapo body fat tracking: use tape measurements of the circumference of neck, chest, waist, hips, thighs, calves, upper and lower arms. You can also buy skinfold calipers online and track 7 sites.

  23. Malin says:

    October 18th, 2010at 11:10 am(#)

    @Krista:

    Sounds pretty much like what I’m doing now. (Which is good, because I wasn’t terribly keen on the idea of drinking a galleon of milk a day). I’m having some slight issues with getting the carb/protein balance down to pat because I’m a vegetarian. Do you think a protein drink would be appropriate in this instance? A girl can only deal with so much tofu in a week before it starts coming out your ears.

    I’ll definably get started on the tape-measuring thing and see if I can’t get a hold of a pair of skinfold calipers.

    Thanks!

  24. Mistress Krista says:

    October 19th, 2010at 3:41 am(#)

    @Malin: Yes, I’d look into a non-soy protein supplement (hemp protein, pumpkin seed protein, whey protein, egg protein, pea protein, etc.). Vegetarians have to chase protein somewhat harder. Bump up your eggs and lowfat dairy consumption too. Plus don’t neglect fat. Many vegetarians’ fat intake is much too low. Get lots of good fats from avocados and coconut especially, along with flax, hemp, walnut, and pumpkin seed oil. Don’t forget those egg yolks. For a veggie source of omega-3 fats, look for algae oil.

  25. Malin says:

    October 19th, 2010at 10:55 am(#)

    @Krista: I’ve never heard of algae oil before. Definitely have to try that. I’ll get cracking (PUN!) on those egg yolks and the protein supplements. Thank you for all your input, it’s been really helpful!

  26. Hailey says:

    October 29th, 2010at 12:22 pm(#)

    Hi. Great article, but it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I don’t mean that in a negative way of course; the entire artilce is excellent. I wouldn’t be able to argue about anything in it even if I wanted to. I’m impressed. :)

  27. fred says:

    January 9th, 2011at 11:44 am(#)

    my nickname in school was boney lattless any ideas on gaing weight for a runner and cyclist am 5 ft 9 135of chicken chest lol

  28. Fog says:

    June 18th, 2011at 6:16 am(#)

    Hi, I’ve recently started weight raining at home. Mostly free weights and body-weight exercises.

    I’ve noticed that In about a month and a half I’ve loset some fat around my waist and my stomach, and feel healthier, but I’m weighing more than I did before. I was 13 stones before I began and now I’m almost 14 and a half. I look thinner than I did so what’s going on?

    I have been tartgetting an intake of over 180g of protein every day. and I’ve noticed I feel hungry for most all so much more than I did before, even after having a meal I sometimes feel hungry. Do you know what this could be down to (I have a feeling this has something to do with the protein shakes I have been drinking)?

  29. Mistress Krista says:

    June 18th, 2011at 11:30 am(#)

    @Fog: Muscle (and other lean tissue) is denser than fat. 1 lb of lean mass will be smaller than 1 lb of fat.

    If you are drinking whey protein, that may be part of the problem — whey can cause an insulin response that in susceptible people actually increases appetite. Also, liquid calories are much less satiating. Try getting that 180 g of protein from solid food, throw in 1/4 cup of legumes here and there, eat plenty of high-fibre colourful veggies, and that should help.

  30. simma says:

    June 20th, 2011at 12:20 pm(#)

    @Fog: What else is in your protein shakes? And what is the rest of your diet like?

    Of course, I don’t know your history and current diet, and Krista may. In which case, ignore what I say.

    Although whey protein can temporarily spike insulin, I would personally disagree that this is necessarily problematic, particularly right after strenuous activity, when it can actually be highly desirable for good recovery.

    However, “protein shakes” can contain tons of sugars, depending on who is making them. A ton of extra sugar can increase appetite in a big way. If your protein shakes are made at the gym or at home from pre-packaged protein shake mixes, beware the ingredients.

    It also matters when you’re consuming these shakes. After training, a shake with a highly digestible protein like whey and a source of high-GI carbs can help a lot with recovery. I tend to have something like this after a hard training session, even when I am trying to cut fat. But unless I’m trying to put on mass, I don’t consume protein shakes throughout the day.

    Secondly, how is the rest of your diet? Are you trying to stay low-fat? Because this will do terrible things to appetite control. Conversely, did you just go low carb? If so, you may need some time to for your body to adjust before it stops craving massive amounts of glucose.

    Also, you may be experiencing increased hunger because you simply need more food. If you are putting on lean mass while losing fat, and you have recently cut too much food intake, it’s not necessarily a problem that you are hungry. This may be your appetite doing its job and telling you that you’re restricting intake too much.

    As for your weight on the scale, muscles can temporarily retain a significant amount of fluid after being trained hard. This can add to your weight even as you lose fat. I would think that this has a lot to do with your overall weight gain if you are a woman (and even for most men). A stone and a half of muscle gain in a month and a half is unlikely.

  31. Danice says:

    June 24th, 2012at 12:17 pm(#)

    I’m trying to gain muscle mass since I’m almost underweight but ideally I want body recomp (I’m currently at 19% bf)

    This question may kind of be out of place for this article but is it advisable to ignore hunger cues and eat around the workout period? I workout in the morning but I’m usually not hungry in the morning…I try to have some greens, bcaas and fruit anyway but then I’m not hungry post workout either. I pretty don’t have much of an appetite the first half of the day but that is when I have the most time to eat and workout.

    This is kind of outve the scope of this article but I feel overloaded with info but not sure how to put all this fitness/nutrition stuff into practice

  32. Mistress Krista says:

    June 24th, 2012at 4:40 pm(#)

    @Danice: Don’t overthink it. If you want more mass: train hard, rest hard, and eat a little more than normal. This may mean eating when you aren’t hungry. That’s OK. Start with just a little bit more than normal — especially more protein & carbs postworkout — and see how it goes.


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