Building Mass and Strength: Part 1
If there is any one topic that is near and dear to the majority of lifters’ hearts, it’s talking about how to get as big and as strong as possible. This is usually the main reason males get into the weight room. That and to get more attention from the ladies. I could write an article about that, too, but for now we'll talk about getting big and strong and how to eat to get there.
You can’t talk about building mass without talking about diet first. It’s pretty much impossible. I can put you on the greatest mass and strength-building program in the world and watch you get smaller and skinnier by limiting your food intake. This is something that is lost on many young lifters. There isn’t any magic program or magic supplement. You have to have a surplus of calories to build muscle mass. A complete novice in the weight room will gain some mass without any changes in diet, but that phase won’t last that long. So we’re talking about guys who have put in a few years in the weight room and are looking to take their mass and strength to a new level. And a new level can’t be reached without a diet that is dialed in to build mass.
My own experience in talking with skinny guys over the years about adding mass usually goes something like this:
Skinny guy: “I'm trying to gain weight and get big. What should I be doing?”
Me: "How much are you eating?"
Skinny guy: "Man, I eat a lot. You should see how much I can eat."
Me: "Really? What do you eat each day? Start at breakfast and tell me a whole day of eating."
Skinny guy: "Oh well, I don't always eat breakfast. When I do, it's usually like a couple of Pop Tarts or a bowl of cereal. Then I'll eat, like, some Taco Bell for lunch. I eat like six, maybe seven tacos. My friends think that’s crazy, right? Then at dinner I'll have like two big plates of whatever. Like a lot of it, too."
Me: "Awesome. I have no idea why you're still so skinny." (sarcasm)
Skinny guy: "Well, I’ve been taking Gorilla Mass Oxy-Methane Andro-1. What do you think of that?"
Me: Walks away
The rite of passage—eat until you hurt…and then eat some more.
It was the summer when I was 17 years old and 175 lbs. I decided that I was going to get as big as possible over those months and would do whatever it took to accomplish that. It was that summer when I learned how much I had to eat to gain mass. That summer was my “rite of passage.” Almost every heavily-muscled guy I’ve ever known has a story like this.
This was my daily diet, give or take a few things:
- 10 scrambled eggs
- 2 cups of oatmeal or 4 cups of corn flakes
- 2 bananas
- milk and orange juice
Train for two hours. Drink two carb drinks immediately after training (this alone was 200 grams of carbs from simple sugars). Come home and throw four chicken breasts in the oven and start a giant pot of rice if none was left over from the day before. Put on two packs of ramen noodles to eat while the chicken breast and rice was cooking. Eat ramen noodles and have a protein shake while waiting on food to finish. Watch cartoons. When the chicken and rice were done, eat two chicken breasts and as much rice as I could put down.
Two hours later, make blender drink consisting of:
- 2 cups of whole milk
- 2 cups of ice milk
- 1–2 tbsp of peanut butter
- 3 whole eggs (don't believe that crap about how raw eggs are bad for you)
- Malted milk
- Hershey's chocolate syrup
- banana (obviously to add flavor)
I drank this giant concoction in one sitting. I don’t remember where I found the information for this shake and I didn’t know it was supposed to be sipped throughout the day. To say drinking this in one sitting made me uncomfortable would be like saying Michael Phelps would make an "OK" lifeguard. But I was willing to pay the price to get as massive as I could.
I remember sitting on the couch one day downing one of these monster shakes watching Animal Planet. They had a show on about lions. The narrator informed me that lions gorged themselves to the point of discomfort because they didn't know when they would eat again. I thought, “I know when I'll eat again. However, I understand that discomfort phrase very well.”
The narrator then informed me that after a gorging, lions often found a watering hole to lie in because it helped with the discomfort. Minutes later, I was running bath water. But the day wasn't over yet - and neither was my eating.
Two to three hours after that shake, I had a large rib eye steak with a baked potato loaded down and a salad (because vegetables matter). If I didn't have that, I went to Subway and grabbed two footlongs. I usually got meatballs with cheese loaded down with lettuce and tomatoes (because veggies matter). That evening I ate the remaining chicken breasts and rice.
By the end of summer, I had even worked up to drinking another shake a few hours after dinner. I also was in bed every night by 9:30 p.m. and up early to train to get my “eat on” for the day. I also remember times when I was eating that I gagged because eating had become such a chore and so difficult. By the end of the summer, I was 210 lbs.
I love to tell this story to skinny guys because the look of horror on their face is priceless. Their comeback is usually something to the effect of, “…No, I don't eat that much." Now if I had a "do over," would I do it that way again? Hell no. I gained a lot of fat and was miserable the entire time. But I did learn some valuable lessons, namely that bathing to ease fullness discomfort really works! The other thing was that you do have to eat a lot in order to grow.
But how much? Actually around 300–500 calories a day over maintenance levels seems to be just about right in order to gain mass and not gain too much fat with it (some fat gain is inevitable when you’re talking about gaining mass). I was probably several thousand calories over my maintenance level and that isn’t needed or ideal. I got bigger for sure, and I don't think there’s any doubt that I gained some lean mass over that summer. I trained as hard as I ever had for the entire summer, generally five or six days a week for two hours at a time. However, I also gained a lot of fat weight, too.
You can't force feed muscle into growth. I've read all sorts of anecdotal "evidence" about how a ridiculous calorie surplus creates an anabolic environment and those kinds of things. But every time I ever "bulked" up and then dieted back down, I ended up near the same weight from when I started bulking up. I don't buy it. I was told this was the only way to do it though.
This is a lie. You can be smart about mass gain and slowly increase your calories through calorie dense foods until you start to see the scale move every 7–10 days. Or you can stuff your face and become a fat ass, feel miserable and eventually have to diet to get that fat off and lose whatever hard-earned muscle you did build underneath. Or you can stay fat. But I can't see how anyone would justify that even for a bigger total. Eventually it comes off or you die young. And it's hard to kick ass in a grave.
A really simple way to increase mass gain is with good ole' peanut butter sandwiches and/or shakes with a healthy oil. I've used this approach for really skinny guys with success every time. And they don't end up lard asses in the end. It's very simple.
Eat three solid meals a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner. Have two peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and banana sandwiches during the day. That means one in between breakfast and lunch, and one between lunch and dinner. For the last meal of the day, have a protein shake with a tablespoon of flax, safflower or extra virgin olive in it. Check the scale in 7–10 days. If you gained a pound, stay on track until the scale doesn't move and then add in half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the day. Yeah, that means just one half for the whole day. Don’t want to do that? Add in a glass of milk with the two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. No more. Check the scale in 7–10 days.
If you gained more than 1–2 pounds, go to half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich between meals, reduce the oil to a teaspoon and watch the scale again. If you keep gaining, drop the oil and go to a quarter peanut butter and jelly sandwich between meals. It’s that simple. You just have to manage some simple calorie components.
This is what a day of eating could look like:
- 3 whole eggs
- 1 cup of oatmeal with raisins (also calorie dense)
- Orange and banana
- 2 pieces of toast with jelly
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- 8 ounces of lean beef, chicken, turkey, or fish
- 2 cups of rice or two servings of pasta
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- Repeat lunch
- Shake with added good fats (or have another peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you like them like I do)
Just play with your serving size. If you’re one of those really skinny guys who tends to be excited all of the time, you will have to eat more than you are comfortable with to gain weight. Just like dieting sucks, eating big the right way isn't entirely comfortable. You may have to bump both your food portions and peanut butter and jelly sandwich intake to get the scale moving. Maintenance is easy, but change is hard.
"But I don't like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!" Fine. Kill yourself. All kidding aside, no really — kill yourself. It's blasphemous to talk that way. But if you don't kill yourself, you could substitute the peanut butter and jelly sandwich with shakes and oil all day. Drinking calories is easier. However, I highly believe in eating food over shakes, especially for gaining weight.
Another option is to find a nut butter you do like and substitute that instead. Almond butter is pretty good, especially if you like Pringles potato chips (and that's not even a joke). It’s thicker than and not as palatable as peanut butter so I can’t really see it on a sandwich. Cashew butter is also an option but I will admit, I haven't had any yet. So if you try it and like it, let me know. If neither sounds like a good option, try 3–4 hard-boiled eggs between meals. Just don't come near me while you're trying this out.
I generally also advise using a natural peanut butter with a good whole wheat bread and an organic jelly. Why? It tastes better to me and if I'm going to be eating that as my mass-gaining staple food, I want high quality. Some guys don't like natural peanut butter. It's not as sweet as the regular kind. Buy the natural with honey in it. You'll never want any other kind after that. If you don't want to do any of this, that's fine too. It's just a recommendation.
Don't get fat
Let me say that becoming a big lard ass isn’t required or even ideal when it comes to gaining lean mass. Without looking up boring, dry to read scientific medical experiments on lab rats and midgets, I believe the body does a better job of utilizing the nutrition from food when you’re in shape and carrying an athletic level of body fat (somewhere in the 10–12 percent range). You also will recover faster and can do more work in the gym. This is from my own experience and talking to others who have experienced the same. Keep yourself in decent condition while gaining mass. It's not a free "get orca fat" card.
If you have a pack of hot dogs sitting on the back of your neck and breathe heavy walking from your handicapped parking spot into the grocery store, maybe you’re done "bulking.” I actually highly recommend getting your body fat checked before you start a mass gaining diet. If you're above 12 percent, get in shape first and try not to exceed that 12 percent mark. This ensures quality mass gain yet affords you enough room for big eating. Think of it this way — if you gained fat to muscle at a 1/1 ratio and put on 20 lbs through hard training and solid eating, you'd only have 8–10 lbs to take off. You don't have to resort to a long diet and crazy cardio to take off 8–10 lbs. So the chances of you preserving all 10 lbs of mass that you worked hard for is really good. Be smart and patient.
In the second part, I'll talk about some routines I've used that have produced really good gains in strength and mass, and some other facets of training that are highly critical in building quality mass fast.