You want to be in a permanent state of Hulking out, but chances are, if you’re reading this article, building bulk doesn’t come naturally. “There is a lot of variability in what works from person to person,” says Jacob Wilson, Ph.D, CSCS*D, CEO of the Applied Science and Performance Institute. Some guys barely have to put effort forth and they’re suddenly swole, whereas others have to try every combination of macros before they start to see even a centimeter of growth.
But there is a strategy to building bulk—more than just stuffing your mouth with every seemingly-healthy food in sight. Nosh on the wrong kind of calories and you’re going to balloon out instead of Hulk up.
The other factor? How you spend your time in the gym and the exercises you’re doing. “One of the biggest things that I see is that people don’t change up their training program as much as they should,” says Wilson. “More is not always better; however being more strategic with your approach—aside from just going into the gym and destroying yourself every time—may help elicit better gains.”
We’ve got you covered on the best ways to train to get totally ripped [see the Men’s Fitness workout page]. But as for how to load your plate like the big guy you want to be, here’s how to eat right to support and maximize the hours you slay in the gym.
1. Stop using someone else’s diet plan
If you’ve ever asked your totally cut lifting partner for a detailed breakdown of every calorie that goes into his mouth, we get it. But what works for him isn’t necessarily what’s going to work for you. “Some people have very fast metabolisms requiring them to consume more calories than others in order to gain muscle, and genetics definitely make a difference,” says Layne Norton, Ph.D, professional powerlifter, bodybuilding coach, and founder of Avatar Nutrition. Unfortunately, you can’t control your genetics. “All you can do is be consistent and work hard and maximize your own genetic potential.” Focus on how your body is reacting to your new diet compared to before—not compared to how your buddy is progressing on the same plan.
2. Eat more
“Total calories are definitely the most important nutritional factor when trying to bulk up,” says Norton. But don’t just start shoveling food into your face. Start by tracking all your meals for two weeks to see how many calories and macros (refresher: that’s protein, fat, and carbs) you’re actually consuming, Wilson suggests. “If you’re not putting on muscle with what you’re currently eating, then slowly increase calories until you do,” he says.
Feeling impatient? Calculate your maintenance calories with the research-backed Mifflin-St. Jeor formula:
10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5.
Next, start upping your daily intake by 200 to 300 calories above your maintenance number, Wilson advises. That may not seem like much of a bump, but consider this: Wilson’s lab conducted a study, presented at the National Strength and Conditioning Conference in 2014, that found eating super high excess calories (>2000 above maintenance) was actually no more beneficial at increasing muscle than eating moderately more calories (about 800 more). In fact, the two groups gained the same amount of muscle—but the high-cal group also gained more fat.
3. Pile on the protein
After total calories, the second most important factor in gaining bulk is your daily protein intake, Norton says. And a 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that total protein intake was far more important than protein timing when it came to gaining muscle.
The problem: Research is showing more and more that protein recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all anymore. Studies have shown that while 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein is enough to activate muscle growth after strength training, new research from the University of Stirling found that muscle protein synthesis was actually stimulated better after guys ingested 40 grams of protein compared to 20 grams. So which is right—loading with 25 grams or upping it to 40? Well, researchers are still working on that one (although the likelihood is that what’s right for one guy isn’t necessarily right for all).
The good news: You can go higher with much repercussion. Studies have also shown that you can kick your protein intake up to 5.5 times the recommended daily allowance without gaining fat (although the surplus also showed no benefit on gaining muscle, just for the record).
Both Wilson and Norton recommend starting at 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. When you reevaluate your calorie intake (more on that later), consider bumping that number up as well if you feel the need.
No matter the number, your protein should be spread over multiple high quality protein meals, over 4 to 5 meals per day, Norton adds.
4. Fuel up before your strength session
The old idea that you only have a two-hour window post-workout to get protein into your system has definitely been debunked, as proven by a study analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In reality, your body builds muscle from a pool of amino acids which lasts three to four hours after you’ve piled on the protein. In fact, the analysis found that you’re better off consuming a pre-exercise protein-and-carb shake, one to two hours before strength training, since the rate of digestion allows this meal to act as both pre-workout fuel and post-workout muscle recovery. Then, you can relax and aim to have your next protein-rich meal one to two hours after your sweat sesh and still make maximal muscle gains.
5. Pile on the protein after an A.M. workout
That said, if you work out first thing in the morning, drink your protein shake ASAP after hitting the shower. Same goes for if you hit the gym without having eaten all day. The one time that two-hour post-workout window does apply is if you’re working out in a fasted state, according to the same study analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Why? Your body doesn’t have a meal’s worth of amino acids to rebuild muscle from, so it is more advantageous for your muscles to receive protein as soon as possible.
5. Focus on all the macros
Protein is indeed important. But it’s a skinny-guy mistake to put all your energy into this one macro. “Unless you’re keto, protein, carbohydrates, and fats are all essential for muscle growth,” Wilson says. (If you’re unsure if you’re Keto, then you’re not, so don’t worry about that for now.) What that macro breakdown looks like, though, is highly individualized based on your metabolic rate and insulin sensitivity, he adds.
In general, Wilson recommends that, if your body handles carbs well, aim for total calories to be around 30% from fat, 30 to 40% from protein, and 30 to 40% from carbs (the latter depending on your protein intake). “If you start to gain a significant amount of body fat, cut down the carbs for a few days, then bump them back up—a cyclic approach,” he adds. When you cut back on carbs, you’ll want to bump up your fat.
Keep in mind this breakdown is a super generic guideline, and what works for your genetics and metabolism is highly individualized—so listen to your body and adjust accordingly.
6. Don’t be afraid of fat
Wilson points out that research shows lower fat diets may cause a decrease in testosterone for men, but this hormone is crucial for muscle growth—so go for full fat to put on size. “You want a mix of omega-3 fatty acids, from salmon and tuna, as well as mono and polyunsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, and various oils to optimize hormones,” he says. And don’t shy away from saturated fats and animal fats such as butter, cream, and coconut oil, he adds.
7. Switch between the same meals
We hear the same advice from all trainers, bodybuilders, and ridiculously cut guys: Routine is your friend. Have three to five go-to sources of lean protein, simple and complex carbs, and healthy fats, and make every meal a combination of these, plus whatever vegetables you have on hand to land those micronutrients. Here’s what Wilson recommends: Score your protein from chicken breast, leaner ground beef, leaner cuts of red meat, salmon, tuna, and, of course, eggs. For complex carbs, switch between fruit, whole-grain pasta, quinoa, amaranth, barley, and farro. As for fats, some will come from your protein source, but up your intake by cooking the meats, grains, and vegetables in butter, cream, or coconut oil.
8. Reevaluate calories once a week
You start at chowing down on 200 to 300 more calories than usual. After a few weeks, reassess in the mirror and on the scale. “From here, increase your calorie intake if you’re not putting on muscle or decrease if you’re putting on too much fat,” Wilson advises. You can repeat the assessment once a week, but more than measuring by numbers, Wilson recommends making adjustments mostly on the way you look and feel.
One thing to note: Size is hard to put on. “I’ve seen guys destroy themselves in the gym day in and day out, their diet is the best, and they’re consistent, but it’s still hard for them to put on muscle,” he says. “You have to be patient.” So don’t throw in the sweat-drenched towel just because you don’t see a difference immediately. If you don’t bulk up ASAP, your diet is probably going to take some finessing.
9. Don’t forget about your ‘micros’
There is little research on vitamins and minerals in regards to muscle growth, but we all know those micronutrients are essential to our overall health and functioning. “Without proper micronutrients, you are not going to perform adequately—you may be sluggish or lethargic—not utilize nutrients properly, and generally been in poor overall health,” Wilson explains. One factor to consider: The oxidative stress that is caused by training may be one of the triggers that signals growth factors, so loading up on antioxidant-rich foods which tamper this response around a workout may actually inhibit muscle growth, Wilson says. Definitely load your plate with nutrient-packed fruits and vegetables, but keep your pre- or post-workout shake more focused on the macros than micros.
10. If all else fails…
Still not seeing gains? Try these three tricks:
1. Make sure you’re working out hard enough, both our experts agree. “Changing up your training program and variables such as volume, frequency, exercise selection, and exercise variability may all help you make more gains,” Wilson says.
2. Eat even more. “If you’re having trouble adding weight and muscle, you may simply be needing to add more calories to gain muscle mass,” Norton says. Worried about those extra cals becoming fat? If you’re monitoring your progress on a weekly basis, you’re going to catch the pudge the second it starts creeping in and be able to adjust.
3. Look at supplements, Wilson suggests. “Creatine is a tried-and-true supplement for helping put on muscle.”