When your car isn't running smoothly or performing as well as it should, it's time to check under the hood or pull into the shop. Likewise, when your body is resistant to putting on weight or muscle mass despite your best get-big efforts, it's time to assess why you're not in the fast lane of muscle growth. In other words, it's time for your own training and nutrition tune-up.
If you've been stalling on speed bumps in your pursuit of size gains, these 10 tips are right up your alley. Try any one of them—or, even better, a combination of them—to kick your mass-building goals into high gear!
1. Add One Meal To Your Day
Without a time-consuming examination of what you're eating daily, it's probably safe to say that you eat fairly clean, already eat a high-protein diet, and eat every few hours for optimal protein distribution and to squeeze in a lot of calories per day. (If not and you want a primer on the basic bodybuilding diet, read "24 Laws of Eating for Muscle".) Even so, given that your weight is at some kind of equilibrium, start by adding one more 500-calorie meal to your day. That should be enough to tip the scales!
While you could throw some dirty foods into your diet, it's better to target the right kinds of macros—namely protein and complex carbohydrates—and plenty of extra micronutrients. Downing a midsized snack between meals takes a little preparation, but you can always opt for a weight-gainer shake in a pinch.
2. Put Protein First
When you're hungry, you typically ask yourself what you're in the mood for. But successful athletes don't think about their taste buds first. Instead, they consider their primary source of protein. Whether it's chicken, steak, fish, or eggs, ensuring your meals include 30-40 grams of protein should be your top priority. Then you can consider how you'd like it cooked and flavored.
Your good intentions can be undone, however, if you don't know what 30 grams of protein looks like. Is it two slices of deli meat, or four? A whole chicken breast, or half? Three whole eggs, or three egg whites? Those are the kinds of portions you want to memorize so that, over time, eyeballing the right amount of protein becomes second nature. To help you get started, check out "Measuring Your Macros: What 30 Grams of Protein Looks Like."
3. Drink Your Calories
You may fear that eating more calories will leave you feeling stuffed all the time, which is a common complaint. To that I say, with some irreverence, that you should start drinking more—nutrient-dense liquids, that is.
Liquids simply digest faster than whole foods, especially foods with high amounts of fats or fiber. A protein shake with a fast-digesting whey isolate will clear your stomach much faster than a meal of fried chicken. Hence, a liquid meal is an easy way to take in more calories.
Just be forewarned: Adding more calorie-dense liquids to your diet exposes you to a boatload of bad choices, especially sodas and sugar-laden fruit juices. It's no coincidence that the obesity epidemic in America has spiked with the consumption of liquid calories. On any given day, half the people in the U.S. consume sugary drinks; one in four consumes at least 200 calories from sugary drink, and five percent drink over 560 calories.1 Clearly, you have to make the right choices regarding fluids.
Sodas and other sugar-laden beverages obviously aren't the right choice, but protein shakes and relatively clean weight-gainer supplements—those with complex carbs and healthful fats, not fillers—are the way to go.
4. Follow Your Density
If you've ever been fooled by the question, "What weighs more: a pound of feathers or a pound of diamonds?" you know that density is an important property. As it relates to the foods you eat, especially if you tend to feel full all day long, perhaps you're getting too many feathers and not enough diamonds.
In other words, if you're always full, you're probably eating too many high-volume foods and too few calorically dense foods. There's no doubt that foods like soups and salads can add a number of important micronutrients to your diet, but if you need to gain weight, don't fill up on them, since they can crowd out nutrient-dense foods that pack a heftier caloric punch.
Skip the popcorn and salads if they leave you feeling too full for important, muscle-building foods like steak and eggs.
5. Select Supps That Support Muscle Growith
Yes, the supplement market is full of advanced products, but here are six that are going to make a difference if your goal is to add size.
Creatine monohydrate has a muscle-building and power-enhancing effect by increasing the availability of creatine and phosphocreatine (PCr) within the muscle, which helps to maintain energy during high-intensity exercise such as weightlifting. Long-term studies suggest it can lead to gains of 5-15 percent in strength and performance.
Caffeine is often thought of as a fat burner, but as an ergogenic aid for strength, it's been shown to decrease rates of fatigue and lower perception of effort, which may be helpful during high-intensity training. It also increases alertness and focus, so you'll be less inclined to skip a workout.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) especially leucine, help regulate protein metabolism by promoting protein synthesis and suppressing protein degradation, which may improve recovery of muscles damaged during resistance training.
Citrulline malate helps increase rates of ATP during exercise, which means you can do more work, followed by increased rates of PCr recovery post-exercise.
Nitric-oxide boosters, like those found in pre-workout supplements, increase skeletal-muscle blood flow, which may lead to improved strength and performance, a better pump, and reduced exercise-induced soreness.
Whey is a fast-digesting protein that helps improve your muscles' ability to recover and adapt after strenuous exercise. It also stimulates muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than other proteins.
6. Compound Your Results
If your workout hasn't transformed you from scrawny to brawny, the most important factor to examine is the choice of exercises in your routine. If you're not familiar with the concept of multijoint and single-joint movements, it's especially critical here.
Multijoint exercises are the ones in which movement is taking place in more than a single set of joints—the elbows and shoulders when bench pressing, for example. When more than one set of joints are working in unison, you can push significantly more weight. With single-joint or isolation movements like cable cross-overs or dumbbell flyes, you can't move nearly as much weight.
Multijoint exercises not only mean you'll get a better strength stimulus, but they'll positively enhance your muscle-building hormonal output, as well. Become familiar with multijoint exercises for each body part and make them the backbone of your routine. The best place to start? The squat, bench press, and deadlift.
7. Dial In Your Volume
Choosing the right exercises is half the battle; the other half is to do them with the correct amount of weight for a certain number of reps. Make no mistake: This isn't some random amount. Exercise scientists will tell you that training in the 8-12-rep range—approaching muscle failure and using good form—is best for putting on size. Doing sets for 6 or fewer reps, on the other hand, better optimizes strength gains.
For the hard gainer, finding that sweet spot that incurs strength and size gains means choosing fairly heavy weights early in your workout for sets of 6-8 reps and progressing to sets of 8-10 later in the session.
Intensity, or how heavy you train relative to your maximal strength, is linked to natural testosterone release and muscle growth. Repeat this for 3-4 sets of 3-4 exercises per muscle group and you'll have a muscle-building recipe even Martha Stewart will envy.
8. Challenge Yourself
If your idea of a workout is to put everything on cruise control while you alternate doing a few exercises with posting selfies, it's no wonder you're not making progress. But even if you do all the little things right, you still might not be seeing gains. That's because pushing hard isn't enough; you also have to push smart.
As your body adapts to the stimulus of exercise, it gets bigger and stronger over time. But ultimately it hits another plateau until you once again increase the stress. The white coats in exercise labs call this concept "progressive overload," and it simply means that you have to continually increase the demands you make on your muscles as they become stronger.
Getting comfortable with a routine or a weight you know you can lift, and taking every set to just 10 reps—those are all your enemies in the gym. Preplanned cycles of heavy weights or high volume will enable you to push past previous bests, and your bodyweight will soar as well. Just don't expect it to happen randomly.
9. Limit Excess Activity
Gaining mass requires than you take in more calories than you burn. One way to skew the calories-burned side of the equation in the wrong direction is to engage in frequent cardio activity, do marathon workouts, or otherwise be hyperactive.
Don't get us wrong: Movement is good for the heart and the mind, so we're just asking that you limit the amount. If your goal is to put on mass, put a lot of cardio activity on the back seat for the time being and focus your energies on getting bigger.
10. Get Better Zzzz
Fact: Great sleep equals more growth hormones released, and you'll be less tired in the gym. And probably less grumpy. But instead of telling you what you've been hearing your entire life—that you should make more time for sleep—I'll focus on what you can do to improve the quality of your sleep.
At my house, there's no TV, iPhone, iPad, or i-anything on during the last hour before bedtime because it causes too much mental arousal. I purposely make the last hour of my day as boring as possible. I've installed blackout curtains to reduce early morning sunlight, and I keep the temperature in the room cooler than the rest of the house. I even take ZMA, a supplement that supports a better night's sleep. (If you know that the first ingredient in ZMA is zinc, and that it's essential for testosterone production, you get extra credit.)
If you're looking to grow, consider one—or all—the above variables first before labeling yourself a hard-gainer. More often than not, you just need to dial in these critical growth factors!
- Ogden, C. L. (2011). Consumption of sugar drinks in the United States, 2005-2008 (p. 71). US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.