Traditionally when it came to gaining weight or "bulking" in an attempt to add muscle, carbohydrates were the focal point in bridging the caloric gap that stood between the bodybuilder and his weight gain goal. This practice usually delivers results for hard gainers or young adults (typically those who are 18 and under).

The reason is that carbohydrates are protein sparing. They cause the body to release insulin which pulls available nutrients in the blood and puts them to use (amino acids for muscle recovery) or storage (excess calories stored as fat).[1] For someone with a fast metabolism, taking in complex carbohydrates 6 times a day will help prevent muscle wasting and will promote storage of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) rather than expenditure.

5 Nutrition Secrets For Gaining Lean Muscle Fast!

Traditionally carbohydrates were used to fill the caloric gap needed to reach a weight goal.

1. How Many Carbs Should You Eat?

The problem with this is that many of us either gain fat easily because of genetics or we're way past our teen years and having a fast metabolism is a thing of the past. What it comes down to is that you can't gain muscle without at least a moderate surplus in calories over what your body burns in a day including exercise. However, excess carbohydrates may not be the right way to go for gaining size and staying lean.

Now before you take all your bread, pasta, and rice and beans and throw them away, listen up: Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our bodies...if you don't consume enough, your body will break down muscle for amino acids it can convert into glucose. Glycogen is the stored form of Carbohydrates in the body, and under normal circumstances, the body can store about 400 grams at a time.

So next time you crack open that Family Size bag of chips and dip and use the excuse that your "bulking", take that into consideration. When it comes to just weight lifting alone, your carbohydrate requirement is going to be based on volume (sets x reps x weight) and intensity (rest between sets, drop sets, free weight exercises like squats, deadlifts etc.).[2]

2. When Should You Eat Carbs?

Now, of the premeditated amounts of carbohydrates you're going to be taking in everyday, there is a timing issue with carbohydrates that must be taken into consideration to maximize its effect. The primary times to consume carbohydrates to take advantage of its protein sparing/anabolic capabilities is in the morning as soon as you wake up (because you haven't eaten for at least 6-8 hours and cortisol levels are elevated) as well as post workout (high glycemic carbohydrates after exercise causes insulin to spike which pulls amino acids from the blood and delivers them to muscle tissue).

Another important time for the consumption of carbohydrates is 1 to 1 1/2 hours pre-exercise. However pre-exercise carbohydrates suppress lypolytic activity (fats being metabolized during exercise).[3] This is okay however, because in caloric surplus becoming leaner is almost impossible unless you're a novice weightlifter or you have good genetics. Just be sure to be wary of the glycemic index (a grading scale of how much different forms of carbohydrates spike insulin).

3. How Do You Make Use Of The Glycemic Index?

In general, lower GI foods are usually things like whole wheat bread, oatmeal, or anything else fibrous. High GI foods are usually those containing high amounts of sugar (regular soda, fruit juices, and fat-free yogurt, anything high in sugar). There is no evidence that sugar will make you fat (the concern is about total carbohydrates for the day and not necessarily glycemic index), but if you are trying to lose fat, the spike in insulin will prevent weight loss and the rush of sugar could cause you to "crash".

Have you ever heard someone say, "Ever since I stopped drinking soda and sugary juices I lost a couple pounds without doing anything?" For sedentary people (those who don't exercise on a regular basis) this can actually happen.

The fact is that the during the "low-fat" diet revolution that has been going on in the U.S. over the last few years, obesity rates have doubled (coinciding with "fast" and processed foods and also sedentary lifestyles). In an attempt to avoid fat, Americans have increased carbohydrate intake which has consequently increased their consumption of processed high glycemic foods (from high GI white bread, to high sugar fat free products).[4]

4. Why Shouldn't We Avoid Fats?

Most notable of the effects of healthy fats is reducing inflammation, increasing heart health, and lowering blood cholesterol. The fats you should be looking for are poly and mono-unsaturated fats, they are never solid at room temperature (ex: butter vs. olive oil). An easy way to up your dietary fats is to buy some peanut butter and eat your chicken breasts/ turkey sandwich with oil and vinegar for flavor.

Supplementing with Omega 3 or eating fish at least twice a week is highly recommended as well. Omega 3 fatty acids help to keep blood pressure in check (bodybuilders put there blood pressure through the roof every time they're in the gym), decrease triglyceride levels (blood fats), which can aid in the decrease of atherosclerotic plaque (reducing plaque that causes blood clots) and reducing your chances of heart disease in general. As well as aiding in reducing inflammation; this is good for your immune system and joints.

The best example of a moderate fat diet that has the most proven long term success is the Mediterranean diet. A Harvard study was done with 101 men and women and what was discovered with the moderate fat Mediterranean diet (35% calories from fat, mostly monounsaturated from peanut butter, peanuts, mixed nuts, olive, canola and peanut oils) is that it increased compliance (it was easier for subjects to stay on the diet).[5]

Despite the advocacy for healthy fats, moderate amounts of saturated fat should not be feared. Don't be scared of the saturated fat in your oils and peanut butter, and keep the saturated fats from your red meat in check (have your white meat chicken and turkey on a regular basis, switch it up with fish twice a week and steak once or twice a week so you don't get bored).

In a study done in the Journal of Applied Physiology they found that serum levels of testosterone were elevated following exercise with subjects who consumed a diet that was relatively high in fat.[6]

It is also well known that moderate amounts of fat while dieting for a contest are all a natural bodybuilder can do (outside of high intensity exercise of course) to make sure cortisol (a catabolic stress hormone) doesn't completely evaporate testosterone. Just be wary of the fact that high amounts of saturated fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.[7]

5. So How Much Should We Eat?

So if you're a hard gainer, and you've tried eating like there's no tomorrow but to no avail; you can easily increase your calorie intake by adding in more fats into your diet (remember, fat is 9 calories per gram as opposed to the 4 calories per gram of protein or carbs).

If you gain weight easily and your goal is muscle mass, think of carbohydrates as your fuel source and take in the healthy fats and protein to get big. Here's an example based on some NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) recommendations.

First off, your goal for weight gain according to them should be 1 pound every one to two weeks for an intermediate lifter and one pound every one to two months for an advanced lifter (a bulking period for a natural bodybuilder should be about 6 months). Through my own experiences with bodybuilding, I definitely agree with this (gaining weight any faster while natural is usually associated with great genetics, fat gain, or water retention/muscle volumization).

Taking in an extra 250 calories a day above what is expended (from metabolism and physical activity) is recommended for weight gain as well. During a good bodybuilding routine, usually a good 300 calories are expended and should be taken into account when trying to increase calorie intake. Protein intake should be 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight or .65-.8 grams per pound. I tend to agree with taking in the upper range of .8-1.0 grams per pound, although adequate water intake is essential when it comes to increasing protein.

Calculate Your Caloric Intake Here

How About An Example?

Here's a generic example: let's say you're a 21 year old, 6 foot tall, 180 pound guy and you lift weights five times a week. Your maintenance level calorie consumption (including your workouts) will be about 2,900 calories (you can use an online calorie calculator to help you). So you will need about 3,150 calories a day for weight gain. Consistency is a big issue, however, many people will eat and sleep like a bodybuilder until the weekend hits and then revert back to their old ways until Monday comes.

For you to actually make lasting gains as an advanced lifter, you have to live it day and night for a lengthy period of time before you can ease off the gas (in regards to the diet I mean, don't go into overtraining). Now the next step is, once you find out the number of calories you should be taking in, what's the macronutrient profile (how many calories in carbs, fats, and protein make up your diet) you should be following?

If you're using the moderate fat method we just discussed, then the ratio for your weight would be 40-25-35 (carbs-protein-fat). They usually have preset rations for things like the zone diet and the low carb diet, but I personally prefer calculating your daily protein requirement and then going from there. The fats should be about 30-35% and the carbs should be 40-45% of you total calories. So for the 3,150 calories for bulking of a 6 foot 180 pound young individual, the macronutrient profile would be about:

315g Total Carbohydrates
  • 80-90g carbs for breakfast
  • 70-80g carbs for lunch
  • 60-70g carbs 1 hour before lifting and
  • 80-90g carbs after lifting
185-195g Total Protein
  • 30g per meal, chicken or turkey mostly with fish two maybe three times a week try to limit red meat to twice a week.
122g Total Fat
  • 20 grams per meal
  • Peanut butter with bagels for breakfast
  • Almonds as a snack
  • Oil and vinegar on sandwiches and salads
  • Supplement with Omega 3's


If you can follow these guidelines for your bodyweight, sleep 7-8 hours a night, and lift at a high intensity with a different workout every 2-3 weeks you should be able to put on muscle over time.

  1. Janice Hermann, PhD, RD/LD. Carbohydrates in the Diet. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.T-3117
  2. Ira Jacobs, Nils Westlin, Jan Karlsson, Margareta Rassmusson, Bob Houghton. Muscle Glycogen and Diet in Elite Soccer Players. Euro Journal of Applied Physiology (1982) 48: 297-302.
  3. Jeffrey F. Horowitz, Ricardo Mora-Rodriguez, Lauri O. Byerley, and Edward F. Coyle. Lipolytic suppression following carbohydrate ingestion limits fat oxidation during exercise. Am J of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism
  4. Maya W. Paul, Suzanne Barston, Jeanne Segal, PhD., Mary Toscano, and, Robert Segal, M.A. Healthy Fats and Nutrition.
  5. K. McManus, L. Antinoro, F. Sacks. A randomized controlled trial of a moderate-fat, low-energy diet compared with a low fat, low-energy diet for weight loss in overweight adults. International Journal of Obesity. (2001) 25, 1503-1511.
  6. Jeff Volek, William J. Kraemer, Jill A. Bush, Thomas Incledon, and Mark Boetes. Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. (1997) 82: 49-54
  8. Joseph A. Chromiak, PhD, CSCS. Strength Training for Muscle Building. NSCA Hot Topic Series.

About the Author

Dustin Elliott

Dustin Elliott

After spending a lot of time with the team strength and conditioning coach Dustin fell in love with exercise physiology. Here's more for fitness!

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