Last Updated on November 11, 2016 by Jeff
“I’m a hard-gainer”.
“I’m naturally skinny”.
“I train hard, but I just can’t put weight on”.
It’s pretty common to hear guys saying things like this. They’re trying to gain muscle and ‘bulk up’, but it’s not working. They are not getting significantly more muscular, despite trying their best in training.
Here I will show you the 2 things you must do to reliably gain muscle. This will work for anyone, regardless of age or training experience. Let’s be honest; in your first year of training, or when you’re young, just thinking about the gym will have you gaining muscle. This post will show you how to do it, regardless of those factors. It works just as well for someone with a decade of training experience as it does for someone totally wet behind the ears.
Muscle Building Basics
The fundamental thing that absolutely must happen for you to gain weight, is for you to be in a calorie surplus. You cannot put weight on without calories.
Now, if you are just in a calorie surplus, and not training properly, you will probably just get fat. Nobody wants that, so you also need the right training stimulus, to ensure you are gaining the right kind of weight.
We want the weight in the right places, not around the gut. To ensure you are doing this, you need to be controlling your calories and training hard.
Eating to Build Muscle
It’s important that you are eating enough calories, and doing so consistently, to gain weight. A lot of people who claim not to be able to gain weight simply do not eat enough.
If you’re someone who is not naturally a big eater, doesn’t have a big appetite or finds that they can’t face food early/late in the day, you are going to have to acknowledge this and work through it. It doesn’t mean you can’t gain weight. It might just mean it’s a little bit uncomfortable. If you want it enough, it is what you have to do.
Start by calculating your maintenance level of calories for your body weight, there is a calculator here (http://www.iifym.com/iifym-calculator/).
Be sure to track your bodyweight, as you need to keep an eye on how you are going. Weight will naturally fluctuate, so measure 1-2 times per week, and plot it on a graph. Don’t get too caught up with any individual data point – it will naturally deviate up and down – instead, focus on seeing a consistent trend upwards on the graph.
The My Fitness Pal app allows you to track your daily calorie intake, and also plot your bodyweight on a graph.
I suggest also keeping track of your body fat. A small gain of body fat is fine, but if you are putting on predominantly fat, you need to alter what you are doing.
Aim for 1-2lbs per week of weight gain. Be aware that the more aggressively you gain weight, the more likely you are to gain body fat. To really put only muscle on, and not gain any fat, you have to do it slowly. However, a lot of people do not have the temperament for slow and steady progress. If you prefer to see quicker results, you will likely gain a little body fat too. You can always lose the fat later, when you switch back to maintenance calories.
A muscle building diet will be high in protein and carbohydrates, and relatively lower in fat. Protein is required to build muscle and recover from training. Carbohydrates are the fuel that will lead to weight gain.
As your body digests carbohydrates it releases insulin, which is one of the most anabolic hormones in the body. It is insulin that will drive weight gain, so focus on eating carbs and protein frequently. Again, it is the average over time that counts. You do not need to hit the exact amount of protein every single day, but on average over the course of a week you want to get it right.
Training to Build Muscle
Eating will put the weight on. Training will ensure it is the right kind of weight. If your intent is to build muscle, you need to focus on muscle building activities – lifting weights – and relatively less cardio or conditioning.
If you are a runner or Crossfitter, of course you will want to continue doing your sport. Just drop the overall volume of cardio and increase the frequency and volume of weight training for a period of time. You will be gaining muscle that will help you perform better in the future. You will be shooting yourself in the foot if you’re trying to build muscle while doing a lot of conditioning work.
The best way to train to build muscle is with high frequency, high volume bodybuilding workouts. Keep reps in the 6-20 range and focus on time under tension. This means controlled tempo, lowering the weight slowly, eliminating momentum and focusing on squeezing the working muscles as hard as possible. The weight used will be lighter, but the training effect will be greater.
The other focus is simply on training hard. Push yourself beyond what you have done previously. When you are eating in a calorie surplus (and sleeping plenty, too) you will recover from training well and should be able to make quick progress.
Leave your ego at the door and push yourself to failure. There is no gain from having more weight on the bar. Benefit comes from exhausting your muscles.
Training each muscle group twice per week is generally the best split to gain muscle. Use an upper/lower split 4 days per week, or a push/pull/legs 5-6 days per week. This ensures every muscle is getting hit twice per week and being forced to adapt quickly. When you’re eating a calorie surplus and focusing on gaining weight, you can train harder and more often without exceeding your ability to recover.
The final part of the equation is maximizing your recovery by ensuring you get plenty of good quality sleep, remain well hydrated and keep your overall stress levels down.
You do not build muscle in the gym, you build it when you recover from training. You recover when you sleep. Have a focus on getting 8-9 hours of sleep per night.
You also need to maintain your hydration levels by drinking 3-5L of pure water per day. Keep your general stress in check, because stress hormones are catabolic – they break the body down – and will inhibit you building muscle.
Building muscle comes down to some simple equations. Eat enough calories and apply the right training stimulus and you will build muscle. There is no short cut, magic system, super-food or training plan. You simply need to adhere to the basic principles of physics and remain consistent.
Most people’s failures come from not being consistent. Keep measuring your progress so you can see exactly where you are on your journey, and the progress you are making.