By: Brad Dieter, PhD
Read Time: 5 minutes
TLDR; Eat more, then eat even more and stop training fasted
“I can’t gain muscle, I am eating a lot and training hard. I really don’t know what to do. What do I need to do?!”.
This is one of the most frequent questions we get. You probably think your lean mass gains are only a combination of some complex formula for macros, a secret ratio of carbs to protein, and some spot on meal timing away from your gains.
The truth is your problem is far simpler than that and I am going to cut through all the garbage and give it to you simple and dirty.
YOU NEED TO EAT MORE.
That old idea of calories in and calories out is a key player here!
When it comes to nutrition, the concept of calories is both the most and least well understood concept (in fact, we break it down in our video on body recomp here). There are extremely big debates on the subject but their remains one very clear concept. If you consume more calories than your body expends, you will gain weight. If you consume fewer calories than your body expends, you will lose weight. That seems pretty simple right? Well, truth be told, it is both that simple and incredibly complicated.
Let’s break it down a bit in regards to gaining muscle
THE SIMPLE: When we boil it down, it really is balancing a scale. If you have more energy coming in than going out you gain weight (which is our focus) and if you have more energy going out than coming in you lose weight (opposite of our focus).
THE COMPLEX: The balance of that scale is a quagmire. We know the 1 input to the equation: food. But what controls the output (energy expenditure) is dictate by more processes than you can imagine… exercise, non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), the thermic effect of food (TEF), thyroid hormone, cortisol, sex hormones, neural regulation (i.e. leptin signaling). Let me demonstrate with a figure.
Does that seem super daunting and complicated? Well the body is a complicated machine but fortunately you only really have two options to deal with this mess of a thing we call human physiology.
Option 1: You can freak out about all the stuff controlling calories out and try and scrutinize everything you do to try and optimize them (which is a bad idea because they are complex systems)
Option 2: You can focus on the left hand side, aka the input. This is your food.
Lets go with option 2. Trust me its far easier and more enjoyable. It is simple, dominate your food intake.
If you are hammering it in the gym, increasing volume (by increasing the weight, sets, or reps), not training fasted (more on that in a bit), and aren’t seeing any more progress, you aren’t eating enough.
Now I know you are going to say, “but I am eating enough, trust me, I eat so much”. Well, sorry, but you aren’t eating enough.
If you are a 6-foot, 185 pound male trying to put on mass you are going to need around 3,000 calories just to meet your daily energy expenditure (assuming you move around during the day). Add you in training your face off on top of that you are going to need to be eating upwards of 3,500 – 4,000 calories day to see any real big increases in muscle mass in a short amount of time*.
Let’s take the high end. Trying to eat 4,000 calories in a day is not an easy task, especially if you adopt the chicken breast, broccoli, potato approach to your nutrition. I mean, lets say you go with a 30/40/30 ratio of protein/carbs/fat for you macros, that means you will be eating around 300 grams of protein and 400 grams of carbs.
That is an obscene amount of chicken breast, kale, and potato. . . You probably need to add in some more calorie dense (more calories per volume) foods like beef, eggs, rice, honey, nut butters etc.
*This is an estimate. . . your calorie needs are going to be different so don’t just blindly follow that number and email me saying you didn’t see the changes you want. . . some more direct work is required to figure out your exact level of intake needed. However, it is safe to say if you can’t gain muscle and are training hard just start eating more food.
Bonus Tip: Stop Training Fasted
For years it has been fitness lore that you are going to burn more fat and get shredded training fasted. Sadly, that is not the case. In a study comparing fed versus fasted cardio, training fasted showed no benefit for fat loss, and may have led to greater losses in muscle mass(cite). Conversely, there are studies showing that if you eat before training you might elicit greater muscle growth than if you consume the same meal post workout or train fasted4 (probably due to the ability to train a bit harder and longer).
If you are trying to get more calories in to fix the lack of food problem above getting an extra pre workout snack is an easy way to get more calories on board.
Also, we should just think this through. You want to gain muscle. . . why would you try and get cut during the same workout or training period you are try to add a lot of muscle to your frame? Yes, you want to add as much lean tissue as possible and as little fat tissue as possible but for goodness sake, trying to get cut while adding muscle is just not a super productive strategy.
Given that it is as easy as drinking some whey and eating a banana before you train, you should probably stop training fasted if you are focused on making gains.