Muscle Gain Mistakes

Although it may seem strange to talk about how to gain weight as we approach the holidays (where people typically gain weight without trying very hard), the simple fact is that, for athletes and bodybuilders, the winter (when it’s cold outside and you’re covered up) has always been one of the primary times that trainees focus on muscle gain.You can worry about being lean and having a six pack when it’s warm and you don’t look stupid being mostly nude. The winter is a good time to pack on some muscle mass and justify all that Halloween candy (“I’m bulking, bro”).

But in the same way that many diets fail for a lot of reasons, there are equally common reasons that trainees fail to make the muscular gains that they desire. I want to look at several of them, addressing potential solutions along the way

Not eating enough

Outside of poor training (which can be either too much or too little), not eating enough is the number one mistake I see most trainees making who can’t gain muscle. This is true even of individuals who swear up, down and sideways that they eat a ton but no matter what they can’t gain weight. It’s been said that ‘hardgainers’ tend to be overtrainers and undereaters and there is much truth to that.

Almost invariably, when you track these big eaters, they really aren’t eating that much. Research has routinely shown that overweight individuals tend to under-estimate food intake (e.g. they think they are eating much less than they actually are) but in my experience ‘hardgainers’ are doing the opposite: vastly overestimating how much they are actually eating in a given day, or over the span of a week.

Similarly, although such trainees may get in a lot of food acutely, invariably they often compensate for those high-caloric intakes by lowering calories on the following day (or even in the same day). So while they might remember that one big-assed lunch meal, they won’t remember how they ate almost nothing later in the day because they got full.

Some people simply lack the appetite to eat sufficient amounts to gain muscle (or any weight at all). While they may be able to force feed calories for a little bit, their appetite regulatory mechanisms kick in and they unconsciously reduce calories. Their bodies also tend to upregulate metabolic rate better than others, so they burn off more calories (a phenomenon called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT).

But the simple fact is this: if such ‘big-eaters’ were actually eating as much as they think they are, they would be at least gaining some body fat, even if they were gaining zero muscle. If a trainee swears he’s eating a ton, but he’s not even gaining body fat, I know he’s still not eating enough (or even as much as he thinks he is).

Since I’m talking about body fat, I might as well address another very common cause of poor muscle gain and that’s trainees who fear putting on even an ounce of body fat. They’ll deliberately keep their calories low all the time and then wonder why they aren’t magically synthesizing muscle mass out of thin air. At this point, I’m not even including the folks who want to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.

The simple physiological fact is that, to gain muscle, you have to provide not only the proper training stimulus, but also the building blocks for the new tissue. This means not only sufficient protein (see below) but also sufficient calories and energy. While it’s wonderful to hope that the energy to build new muscle will be pulled out of fat cells, the reality is that this rarely happens (there are some odd exceptions such as folks beginning a program, and those returning from a layoff).

And while there are extremes (such as my Ultimate Diet 2.0 or some of the intermittent fasting schemes) that allow people to put on muscle while remaining lean, they always invariably alternate periods of low and high calories. With the high calorie part of the diet (e.g. the weekend on the UD2) providing sufficient protein and energy to drive muscle mass gains.

Now, although this is a slightly different topic, I entreat trainees not to take the ‘Eat enough to gain’ to the opposite extreme. While GFH (look it up) can work for many people, eating so much food that a trainee gains a disproportionate amount of fat is just as much of a mistake as not eating enough in the first place.

Unless you’re a sumo wrestler or football lineman, eventually the fat has to come off; the more you put on while gaining muscle mass, the longer you have to diet. Which is not only a psychological chore but often results in performance or muscle mass losses (especially if you diet badly).

What I’m getting at is some optimum level, an intake sufficient to provide sufficient calories and protein for muscle growth without becoming a total fat-ass. Which isn’t very helpful without some starting points which I’ll present now.

Muscle magazine claims notwithstanding, a natural trainee is usually doing damn well to gain 0.5 pounds of muscle per week (and a female might gain half of that). Yes, you’ll occasionally see a faster rate of gain but much more than that (especially for sustained periods) tends to be rare.

And while that may not sound like much, realize that a 0.5 lb per week muscle gain over the course of a year comes out to 26 pounds of lean body mass. And most won’t get that past their first year of training.

However, to get that rate of muscle mass gain will usually require some amount of fat gain, depending on how much over maintenance you’re eating, this might be an additional half pound of fat per week. So a reasonable weekly or monthly weight gain rate might be 1 pound per week or 4 pounds per month of which about half should be muscle and the other half fat.

Short dieting cycles can be inserted to take off the fat of course, a number of people on my forum have been using the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook to strip off fat between short bulking cycles so that they can get back to normal training.

I’d note that this shouldn’t take a huge number of calories over maintenance. Assuming a trainee is not burning off excessive calories through either a ton of cardio (or NEAT), you’re not looking at much more than 500 calories over maintenance to support about the maximum rate of muscle gain for a natural lifter. I’d suggest putting a majority of that on training days (and around training) with a lesser surplus on non-training days. That should help keep fat gains down somewhat.

Of course, this will have to be adjusted based on real world changes in body composition. If you’re not gaining any weight, you need to up calories. If you’re gaining a disproportionate amount of fat, you need to cut things back.

Problems with Protein Intake

While less common than simply not eating enough, I have found many individuals to have problems with inadequate protein intake when it comes to the desire to build muscle. Although they don’t usually want or need to gain a lot of muscle, endurance athletes tend to be the worst in terms of not getting enough protein, since they frequently overemphasize carbohydrates to such a ridiculous degree. But even among weight trainers, occasionally you find someone who simply won’t eat sufficient protein to support gains in muscle mass. Considering the rather high protein intake of even the average American, anywhere from 2-3 times the RDA, this is a little odd.

What usually happens is that these individuals have fallen into the trap of the endurance athlete and overemphasized carbohydrates to the point of neglecting protein (and usually fat as well); this was a much bigger problem in the 80’s and 90’s when sports nutritionists overemphasized carbs but isn’t heard of now (now, the opposite extreme, carbs are the devil, is more often seen).

Sometimes, in their quest to eliminate dietary fat from their diet, trainees quit eating meat, this seems to occur a lot among female trainees. Vegetarians can have greater problems but even eggs, fish and chicken can fulfill protein requirements easily. And while there is the occasional claim of someone building a lot of muscle with a true vegan diet, I’d say that most who claim veganism turned to that AFTER building up their muscle mass with a more traditional diet.

Occasionally you find someone who just doesn’t like protein very much. Women, moreso than men, tend to underconsume protein and overconsume carbohydrates. As low as the RDA for women is (44 grams/day), I’ve still run into women who aren’t even getting that much protein a day in their diet. You get the idea.

The point being that some people just don’t get enough protein. As with sufficient calories, adequate protein is critical for gains in muscle mass. The common number that is thrown out is 1 g/lb body mass and this is a good starting place. As I detail in The Protein Book, raising protein to 1.5 g/lb (another common value) may have small, cumulative benefits that current research can’t turn up. It usually can’t hurt unless it prevents sufficient intake of the other nutrients.

I would note that, for natural lifters, I don’t see much point to intakes over 1.5 g/lb. An exception is hardcore diets but I’m talking about muscle gain here. As caloric intake goes up, protein requirements go down and suggestions to eat 2 g/lb for naturals seems more of a ploy to sell protein powder than anything physiological.

As a final comment on protein intake, it’s very common to find wannabe bodybuilders taking protein intake to the other extreme, and making it the entirety of their daily diet. This ultimately sort of ties into the first problem I talked about: inadequate calorie intake. For the kinds of caloric intakes that many people need to gain muscle/weight at any decent rate, it’s nearly impossible to consume enough protein to do it. It’s also inefficient as hell, both metabolically and financially but those are separate issues.

For example, a 170 lb male may have a maintenance caloric requirement of around 2500 calories/day. To gain weight, he may need three thousand or more calories per day. Three thousand plus calories or more from protein alone is nearly impossible to achieve.

This is on top of the fact that protein calories aren’t used as efficiently for energy as calories from carbohydrates or fats (this can be great for weight control but is a real detriment for weight/muscle gain). That’s on top of the fact that protein plus carbohydrates is far more anabolic than protein or carbohydrates by themselves. Studies have shown that, once protein requirements are met, more muscle is gained by adding dietary energy (from carbs or fat) than from just plugging in more protein.

Is sufficient protein crucial for muscle mass gains? Yes.
Is it all a lifter should be eating? Absolutely not.

I suppose, for completeness, I should discuss the issue of protein quality, an issue that trainees (and especially bodybuilders) get themselves endlessly wound up about. In short (and, this is discussed in massive detail in The Protein Book), at an intake of 1.5 g/lb. from varied high quality sources, it just doesn’t matter. Quality matters hugely when you have someone eating a small amount of some single shitty protein. This describes conditions in third world countries, this doesn’t describe conditions for an American athlete eating plenty of protein from meat, fish, dairy, whey, casein, etc.

Which isn’t to say that different proteins don’t have varying pros and cons or aren’t more or less appropriate around training or what have you. I’m simply saying that, given sufficient protein and energy from high quality sources, protein quality isn’t nearly the issue that people (read: supplement companies) make it out to be. It certainly won’t be a deal breaker for muscle gains.

Training Issues: Cardio

Of course, diet isn’t the only place trainees run into problems, there are also issues related to training. To get it out of the way, let me talk about cardio training and mass gains, an area where opinions vary widely. Some say to do no cardio, some suggest it daily; the current fad of ‘intervals are the best for everything’ has people doing intervals multiple times per week while trying to gain muscle. What’s going on?

Frankly, for all but the most extreme hardgainer types (the guys who burn off a ton of calories when they try to gain weight), I think the inclusion of some cardio can be beneficial. It can help with appetite (by increasing it), keep conditioning up a bit, tends to improve recovery and may help alleviate some fat gain. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps the fat burning metabolic pathways running so that, when dieting is resumed, fat loss seems to occur faster.

However, too much will certainly hurt things. Reams of data suggest interference effects of excessive cardio on strength (and muscle mass gains); I won’t even bore you with the molecular mechanisms here (you can read AMPk: Master Metabolic Regulator for the details). But it’s only when it’s done excessively or at too high of an intensity (cough, cough, intervals) that it’s a problem.

I know that everything on the internet is true but this fad of keeping in lots of intervals when you’re trying to get stronger and bigger is frankly pretty stupid so far as I’m concerned. 20-30 minutes of boring old standard low to medium intensity cardio done 2-4 times per week is plenty and, surprise surprise, your legs might actually grow because you aren’t overtraining them with two weight sessions and two interval sessions per week.

Training issues: Weights

Of course, where the real problems usually start in terms of training is the weight room. To say that the training being performed by most individuals in most weight rooms sucks is an understatement. The problem is that much of the advice being followed is coming out of the professional bodybuilding ranks at least as it is disseminated through the bodybuilding magazines.

Yes, the internet has helped out with this and there’s a lot more realistic information out there but a lot of people are still trying to follow programs based on the training of elite drugged out bodybuilders. And, contrary to popular belief, 99% of internet trainees are not elite, or advanced. A lot of them aren’t even intermediates. But they are trying to follow programs aimed at those folks.

In my experience, the typical approach of blasting a muscle group once per week for an insane number of sets and exercises simply doesn’t work for the majority. Yes, fine, there are some who do fine on it. They usually have good genetics and hormones. But the number who failed completely with that type of training is legion. You can’t use the minority who succeed on it and ignore the majority who didn’t.

There’s a lot of reasons that type of training isn’t ideal for most people, this isn’t the place to discuss it. Fine, you get real sore, and you’re real tired coming out of the gym. But who cares if you aren’t making progress? Being sore and exhausted wasn’t the goal of this the last time I looked.

I should note that many fall at the opposite extreme of training, hitting a bodypart for one set once per week or what have you. They’ll go to complete muscular failure, hit the hard isometric hold and be blown out and shaking when they leave the gym. Again, since being tired isn’t the main goal, who cares. This can be just as big of a mistake for another set of reasons that I’m not going to discuss here.

The bottom line is that, in my opinion, in my experience, and in the realm of a lot of good research, something in between those two extremes appears to be best. A weekly training frequency of 3-4 times per week is usually quite doable although, for many (older trainees especially), four days may be pushing it unless the workouts are kept very short. And yes, some people get away training six days per week but they are usually in and out of the gym very quickly.

This will allow each bodypart to be hit roughly twice per week or, at the least, once every 5 days (about the lowest frequency I recommend for naturals). Upper/lower splits are popular but there are other ways to approach it as well.

A moderate number of sets, perhaps 4-8 per bodypart (more for larger, less for smaller) is usually about right as well. Research suggests that 40-60 contractions per bodypart per workout seems to give the optimal response. 4 sets of 10 would be at the low end of that, 8 sets of 8 (perhaps 2 exercises for 4 sets of 8 reps each) would be at the high end. A typical workout might last 60-90 minutes depending on how it’s split up.

One final comment on training before I wrap this up: an insidious (and stupid) idea that is out there (especially in the realm of bodybuilding) is that trainees should focus on irrelevant things: the feel, the squeeze, the pump. This is crap and guys who do this, unless they are on drugs, simply don’t grow. Muscle grows as a function of progressive tension overload, if you’re not adding weight to the bar over time, you’re not growing. This doesn’t mean that you have to add weight at every workout, but if you’re not gradually going heavier over time, you won’t be growing either.

If you would like further reading by Lyle McDonald please check out all of his ebooks on diet and nutrition at:

Body Recomposition

About the Author Lyle McDonald

Lyle McDonald is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and the Guide to Flexible Dieting. He has been interested in all aspects of human performance physiology since becoming involved in competitive sports as a teenager. Pursuing a degree in Physiological Sciences from UCLA, he has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the science, art and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss and body recomposition. Lyle has been involved, at various levels of success in competitive sports since his teens. Starting with triathlon, he spent altogether too many hours on his bike during college. Becoming involved with inline skating at the same time led him to compete for several years until he burned himself out with chronic overtraining. Many years passed until he decided to return to speed skating and move to the ice. He moved to Salt Lake City Utah to train full time at the Olympic oval, he is currently still there training with his coach Rex Albertson attempting to make the US National team or beyond.Lyle has written for the print magazines (Flex and the now defunct Peak Training Journal), too many online sites to mention (including Cyberpump, Mesomorphosis, MindandMuscle, ReadtheCore) and has published 5 books on various aspects of exercise and diet. Over the years, in addition to working with the general public, Lyle has worked primarily with endurance athletes, a few powerlifters, and some bodybuilders. Through his books, articles and his forum, he has helped thousands lose fat, gain muscle and get stronger or perform better.