This article is about how to gain as much muscle as possible.
Gaining muscle at the most basic level is about doing three things:
- Training hard
- Eating a hypercaloric diet
- Eating enough protein.
After mastering those basics in part 1, we’ll look at how to distribute macronutrients to achieve a caloric surplus in part 2. Finally, in part 3, we’ll explore three popular diet options that take differing approaches to that distribution to maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain.
Part 1: The Basics of Muscle Gain
Training hard is the single most important thing for muscle growth.
But what exactly does “hard” mean in this context? There’s a big difference between doing 100 burpees for time and taking five sets of hack squats to one rep in reserve during your last week of volume accumulation.
Training “hard” is training within three reps of reserve with a sufficient amount of weekly volume through evidence-based guidelines and anecdotal experience when using proper technique. In other words, there’s a difference between twitching your knees in the squat rack and squatting so deeply your quads feel like they’re going to pop like two overinflated water balloons.
Training quality and technique quality matter immensely in the context of training “hard.”
The second most important thing is to eat a hypercaloric diet. You need to be in a caloric surplus—your caloric consumption must outperform your caloric expenditure when tracked daily and weekly. If you are, you’ll gain weight and muscle. If you aren’t, then you won’t.
Thirdly, you need to consume enough protein. In combination with training hard, eating enough protein allows the excess calories you’re consuming to be allocated toward building muscle instead of simply adding pure body fat.
You will gain muscle if you apply those three basics to your massing efforts. The issue then isn’t if you will gain muscle by mastering the basics, but how much muscle you will gain vs. fat you’ll gain by manipulating the finer details of mass phase dieting.
Part 2: Does Macronutrient Distribution Matter for Optimal Muscle Massing?
First, your protein needs must be met. Consume approximately one gram of protein per pound of your body weight per day.
Can you eat even more protein and use that extra protein to contribute to the increase in your daily caloric intake? Yes, but excess protein has at least two major downsides:
- Protein is by far the most expensive macronutrient.
- Protein has a profound effect on suppressing hunger.
Gaining weight by adding loads of extra protein can turn into an uphill battle in the fight to consume enough calories to mass successfully
What is the best ratio of carbohydrates to fats for gaining the most muscle and the least fat in the long term?
Before we answer that question, remember, as long as you meet the three basics of training hard, and eating in a caloric surplus with an appropriate amount of protein, you’ll gain muscle in almost every case.
Over time, minor adjustments in your diet plan can make a significant impact on your long-term muscle vs. fat gains. And, if you want the best results, you can get, being aware of the details becomes increasingly essential.
In Part 3, we’ll explore three popular types of mass-gaining diets, charting the benefits and downsides of each approach to find the best one maximizing muscle gain and minimizing fat gain.
Part 3: Three Popular Kinds of Mass-Gaining Diets
The “Surplus Fats Diet” meets daily carbohydrate needs to be based on training volume and activity levels.
It relies on filling the gap between the sum of your protein and carbohydrate needs to be based on your activity level and your hypercaloric calorie goal exclusively with fats. You set your protein and carbohydrates at fixed levels and fill the rest of your required daily calories with fats.
Benefits of the “Surplus Fats Diet”:
- It’s easy to eat in a surplus. By allowing the consumption of a combination of carbohydrates and fats, nearly every delicious food can be included in your diet, making consuming lots of calories very easy.
- Your food choices are much less restricted. As long as you can get plenty of protein, you don’t have to look for super low-carb or low-fat food options when you’re out with friends, on the go, traveling, or even at home cooking your own meals.
This diet is a great option for anyone eager to gain more muscle mass but not yet ready to commit to a more rigid diet that disallows many common food
Downsides of the “Surplus Fats Diet”:
- You lose the effects of a high-carbohydrate diet which can limit muscle growth (more on that later!)
- You’re consuming excess fats. Excess fats that don’t get a chance to be used as fuel for muscle growth are easily converted into stored fat, which means the “Surplus Fats Diet” is likely to cause more fat gain than other lower-fat approaches.
The Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet (LCHF) keeps carbs to their lowest reasonable levels, defined here as less than or equal to 0.3 g of carbs per pound of body weight per day (usually just in ancillary sources) while smashing tons of fat to create a caloric surplus.
That’s a lot of peanut butter and olive oil, folks.
Benefits of the Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet:
- Fats make it easy to eat in a surplus. Reaching super high-calorie targets isn’t impossible when eating a high-fat diet—an important consideration for diet adherence over the long term.
- You can eat in a surplus with lower food volumes. Fats are calorically dense, so the amount of food needed is much less than higher-carb foods.
- Consuming excess fats is likely the best for your health of all the macronutrients. Healthy fats such as Omega-3’s and fat sources especially high in monounsaturated fats such as nuts, nut butters, avocados, olive oils, and canola oils likely have the lowest negative health impacts of all macronutrients when considered in excess.
Downsides of the Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet:
- Eating low-carb is difficult to eat in a surplus. While in theory, those that want to gain weight on a lower carbohydrate and higher fat intake can, they don’t seem as likely to do so. Studies on satiety show that people on a low-carb diet that don’t restrict their calories actually end up eating less than their maintenance calorie intake on average.
- Healthy fats can inhibit weight gain. In more than a few studies, certain kinds of healthy fats seem to be so satiating that they reduce the chances of weight gain. Almonds, for example, have been shown not to promote weight gain even when eaten freely.
- Eating fats makes fat storage simple. If your caloric surplus is made entirely from fat, you will likely gain fat at the highest possible rates per calorie ingested.
- Eating more fats in favor of carbohydrates reduces insulin. With a high-fat, low-carb approach, we can grow less muscle via insulin but the most fat possible via higher fat intakes, which is not an ideal combination.
- Eating more fats can reduce energy for training. With a very low-carb intake, energy for training will inevitably be reduced, which almost certainly reduces the potential for muscle growth.
- Eating more fats reduces glycogen stores. When muscles contain a high amount of glycogen, muscle-growth pathways in the cell are activated and facilitated more readily.
The High-Carb, Low-Fat Diet provides the minimal amount of fat defined here as about 0.3 g per pound of body weight to support hormonal and other basic bodily functions, and then uses carbohydrates to generate all other non-protein calories.
Benefits of the High-Carb, Low-Fat Diet:
- Increased Insulin. Insulin is a major player in anabolism, the building of muscle. Simply put: carbohydrates secrete insulin, and insulin makes you more jacked.
Excess carbohydrates are less likely to be stored in the body and more likely to be used as energy.
- High-carb dieting provides more training energy. By eating more carbohydrates than you need for training minimums, you nearly guarantee that fuel source will not be a limiting factor for hard training in the gym.
Higher carbohydrate consumption might allow for quicker rebound hunger for consistent eating. The entire timeline of digesting a high-protein and super high-carb meal shrinks to lower than that of a mixed meal with fats, even when calorie-equated. This allows you to eat more often, which allows you to eat more carbohydrates and grow even more!
Increased anabolism via glycogen. Stored glycogen directly promotes muscle gain. The more carbohydrates you eat daily, the higher your average glycogen stores will be, and the higher your muscle-growth rates will be.
Carbohydrates are powerful anti-catabolic regulators and are the preferred fuel source for most energy-consuming bodily processes. The more carbohydrates you take in, especially around your workouts (which tend to risk catabolism more than other conditions in your day), the more likely you are to prevent muscle loss and let muscle accumulate to higher amounts over time.
- Carbohydrates reduce cortisol production. Cortisol is a stress hormone catabolic to muscle tissue, promotes fatigue, interferes with sleep, and negatively impacts most recovery and adaptive processes. High-carb eating means lower cortisol levels and all-around better recovery and adaptations to training.
Downsides of the High-Carb, Low-Fat Diet:
- HCLF dieting requires eating “oppressive” amounts of food. For better or worse, there’s only one way to eat enough food to grow with this approach, and that is to eat frequently.
- You have to eat frequently. High-frequency eating is challenging (and expensive!), especially when eating on the go.
- Finding the right foods. How many types of foods purchased on the go are high-protein, high-carb, and very low in fats? Not many! Low-fat dieting with excessively high levels of carbohydrates is very restrictive. This is especially true outside the home, where you have complete control over preparing your macro-friendly foods.
Remember, muscle gain is primarily about the three basics we covered in part 1: training hard, eating a hypercaloric diet, and consuming enough protein to support your growth. Never lose sight of that.
But beyond those considerations, which diet approach is ultimately best for maximum mass gains?
For the dedicated elite, the high-carb, low-fat approach wins out, with the surplus fats approach coming in second place and the low-carb, high-fat approach coming in dead last.
What’s the best massing approach for you? Consistency is king for any diet, so individuals should choose the method that allows for the greatest level of dietary adherence within the context of their training program for them.
If you are interested in learning more about the principles behind nutrition for muscle growth, check our 2.0 Diet book. If you want to take your diet and training to the next level; then you might want to sign up for our RP Coaching.