Back in the day, when body-builders wanted to gain muscle, it seemed they would just eat as much as they could, drink gallons of milk, and push the heaviest weights possible. This often resulted in putting on mass, but the problem was that in addition to the muscle they put on, they also would gain quite a bit of body-fat too.
So is body-fat gain inevitable when you’re trying to build muscle?
How much muscle can you actually gain in a muscle building phase?
What should you expect when trying to gain muscle?
There are thousands of articles and blogs on weight loss and ‘losing 30 lbs in 30 days’, but there is very little readily available information in terms of muscle gain - so what should expectations be in a massing phase?
Let’s back up and start by going over how a muscle building phase should be fueled. You can gain muscle while in a calorie deficit, but it is typically very minimal, so we need to ensure we are increasing calories in the proper way to support muscle growth and minimal fat gain.
This is where we would recommend most individuals starting with their intake levels when setting up for increasing in calories:
Calculate Calorie Needs - Utilize an online calculator like tdeecalculator.net to determine how many calories you need to maintain your weight (i.e. maintenance calories). Then from there, you can increase anywhere from 5-15% to promote gaining.
For example, if we are 150 lb female, and we need 2500 calories to build muscle, the total breakdown would be something like this:
Now that we have our intake levels, what should you expect during this muscle building process?
1. Muscle Gain Rate
In most circumstances, if you are eating and training properly, you can expect about a 0.5-1% increase in muscle per week. That means for a 200 lb male it would equate to 1-2lbs per week of muscle gain.
2. You Will Likely Be Full
Muscle building is hard work, and increasing calories during this phase can be challenging for many both physically and mentally. We advise utilizing dense foods where you can to help pack calories in (i.e. rice, avocado, quinoa, pasta, fruit, red meat, etc.) without being too full, but most of us are used to eating in calorie deficits, not surpluses. So it is very common to feel somewhat full for at least the first few weeks as your body adapts to the new level of calories.
You can use liquid nutrition to help, like CLEAN protein powder, or a powder carb supplement to help get in extra calories without having to chew more food and without feeling as full.
3. You May Feel Fluffy
When we consume higher amounts of calories, especially carbohydrates, our body will also store higher amounts of water. This is because for each glycogen molecule, it is bound to 3-4g of water, so for every gram of carbohydrate we consume, we also retain about 3-4g of water for that. This can result in us feeling a little more bloated or fluffy than usual. This is temporary, and as soon as the additional calories are removed post-muscle building phase, the bloat and water retention will decline again.
4. Keep it Clean
The biggest fear many have around massing phases is gaining fat, and we get it, we work hard in the gym to look good - we don’t want to purposefully gain any fat! The way we prevent more fat gain than necessary in a massing phase is keeping our food clean. A clean bulk puts emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, leaner protein sources, etc. We want to keep sugar intake, processed foods, and eating out to a minimum to control all that we can to prevent additional body-fat.
This will likely mean you feel a bit more full, and food is a bit more boring, but during this phase that is often necessary to keep body-composition ideal. We recommend consuming food more frequently during this time and doing 5-7 smaller meals throughout the day versus trying to fit all of the calories into three main meals.
5. Weights Will Be Heavy
To build muscle, we have to put our muscles in a situation to grow. This is the concept of hormesis - what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or in other words, you need to be doing things you haven’t done before to get the muscle to respond differently. Most weights should be around 70-80% for higher reps (i.e. 8-12 reps), with some sessions pushing your intensity to a maximal load.
6. Volume Will Be High
Just as with heavy weights, we need to put the muscles in a challenging situation to grow, which means challenging, longer workouts. The more stimulus we can provide, the more likely the muscle will be to develop. Utilizing multi-joint movements and multiple-set protocols have consistently been shown to be superior when it comes to elevating growth hormone and testosterone levels. Your workouts may look a little bit longer, and sets may be a little bit higher rep during this phase.
You also want to keep rest periods to around 60-90 seconds to maximize the hypertrophy response, as resting too long decreases metabolic stress - an important aspect of hypertrophy.
7. Everyone’s Journey Is Different
Do not compare. One person may seem like they put on muscle very easily, while another has likely been struggling for years to build mass. The individuals who seem to have it easy are likely newer to weight training in general, and many of their gains are neurological-based. If you’ve been training for any substantial amount of time, gaining more muscle is no easy task. Everyone’s journey and timing is different when it comes to muscle building, so all that you can do is set yourself up with as optimal of a plan as possible and show up to put in the work!
Although eating more food sounds great at first, it can become laborious for long periods of time. Push in your workouts, try to keep foods as clean as possible, and know that this tough phase is temporary to help get you to your goals! That is why we always recommend working with a coach through this process that can guide you, assure you along the way, and make adjustments as necessary to keep you feeling your best and get the most out of your efforts!
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