The Hardgainer’s Nutrition Plan
Not everyone is lucky enough to have the genetics of someone like IFBB pro Jay Cutler, who piled on an astounding 40 pounds of muscle in his first two years of training. Truth is, many of the rest of us are hardgainers — gym regulars who, although fairly grounded in our approach to training and nutrition, fail to achieve meaningful changes in our physiques.
Perhaps you’re like the very lean individual who carries less than 10% bodyfat and endlessly cries, “I just can’t get big!” Or maybe you resemble the heavyset individual who carries more than 15% bodyfat and out of frustration complains, “I always get fat when I try to build mass!” Either way, the solution lies in creating the ideal eating plan to allow you to pack on mass or skillfully add muscle while preventing the accumulation of bodyfat.
Eat Big to Get Big
The hardgainer’s core tools for adding mass begin with establishing proper caloric intake. According to Jackie Berning, PhD, RD, of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, very lean individuals who struggle to pack on mass must concentrate on increasing calories. “Obviously, to put on lean body mass, you have to stimulate the body to do so through high-intensity weight training. But training is a waste of time unless you support the addition of lean body mass with lots of fuel. A high calorie intake is the fertilizer that supports muscle growth. With this in mind, she recommends that men add 500-1,000 calories a day to their daily intake; women can suffice with 250-500 extra calories a day.
Carbs & When to Eat Them
One bit of conflicting advice floating around the locker room is the best time of day to curtail your carbohydrate intake. Some suggest that eating carbs late at night may lead to increases in bodyfat, while others believe that timing your carb intake isn’t necessary. What’s best for you may depend on your goals. Hardgainers with low body-fat should eat within a couple of hours of going to bed, since their fast-moving metabolism may put them at risk of slipping into a negative calorie balance while sleeping. Those hoping to sidestep increases in bodyfat may want to phase their caloric intake by eating more carbs earlier in the day and around their workouts, when energy demands are greatest.
Types of carbohydrates may also be a consideration. Fast-acting carbs called high-glycemic or simple carbs, such as honey, sugar, white bread, fat-free cakes and snacks, digest into blood sugar at a faster rate than slow-acting carbohydrates called low-glycemic carbs. Berning explains that the latter – – like yams, peaches, oatmeal, chick-peas and yogurt — work well for those trying to control calories. “You tend to stay fuller longer and may have less of a tendency to eat.”
A preworkout meal comprised of low-glycemic carbs may be best for the heavier hardgainer who wants to build muscle while losing bodyfat. Oatmeal mixed with protein powder such as Muscle Milk , for example, digests slowly, providing a steady source of immediate fuel and sparing muscle glycogen reserves. Saturated glycogen reserves are associated with muscle growth, and depleting them may stimulate a metabolic shift in which body protein becomes a fuel source. Choose whey protein as your preworkout protein source because it’s abundant in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — the three amino acids used directly for fuel by working muscles when glycogen levels fall, thereby sparing body protein (muscle). Plus, BCAAs can positively affect growth hormone and testosterone levels, two important hormones that influence bodyfat deposition.’
The opposite holds true for super-lean hardgainers. Besides requiring more calories and a heck of a lot more total carbs, they can get by on almost any carbohydrate choice. Why? Really lean individuals tend to react somewhat differently than their heavyset counterparts in regard to carbohydrate metabolism; they may produce less of the sugar-clearing storage hormone called insulin or their muscles may have a superior ability to “uptake” glucose out of the blood. In effect, simple carbs reach the blood quickly, but insulin is likely released in a steady, controlled fashion, leaving them with plenty of blood sugar to train. Furthermore, hardgainers who pack away another 1,000 calories a day are more likely to have greater reserves of muscle glycogen, allowing them to train hard and long.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, and the type of carbs you consume after training should always include simple carbs, because they’re superior at restoring muscle glycogen.- This may be the time when hardgainers struggling to control their bodyfat can splurge on fat-free cakes or cookies or simply eat other high-glycemic carbs like mashed potatoes, rice cakes or cold breakfast cereal. Generally, the carbs consumed in the post-training meal must be stored as glycogen before influencing the accumulation of bodyfat.
Protein by the Pound
Protein is another important component in muscle growth — dietary amino acids from complete sources of protein such as meat, fowl, fish and dairy products become part of new muscle tissue to support growth and repair. But don’t focus on protein to the exclusion of calories, Berning warns. “Sure, the body needs protein to grow, but much of that protein is often wasted if total caloric intake falls too low.” Indeed, one of the repeated blunders lean hardgainers commit is to gulp down 3-4 protein shakes daily without eating an additional 500-1,000 calories a day; in this case, some of the protein may be simply burned as fuel rather than used to support muscle growth. And if you not only fail to eat a large surplus of calories each day but eat too few total calories altogether, muscle can be broken down to be used as energy — just the opposite of what you want.
The more carbs you eat, the less likely your body will rely on protein as fuel, so the lean hardgainer who eats an assortment of energy-yielding carbs will certainly need more muscle-building protein than the sedentary person, yet less than the hardgainer with a more lethargic metabolism. Berning suggests about 0.7 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, but when calories aren’t excessive (for hardgainers fighting bodyfat), protein requirements go up to 0.9 gram per pound of bodyweight. Therefore, a 165-pound super-lean trainer can get by on as few as 115 grams of protein a day as long as he or she is eating another 1,000 calories; the 165-pounder who’s eating closer to maintenance will surely need 149 grams of protein daily.
Packets & Powders
Increasing your calorie intake is the foundation upon which mass-building diet plans are based. That’s why many hardgainers opt for the convenience of MRPs — high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal-replacement products. MRPs may be good for the larger dieting competitive bodybuilder who needs a 50-gram wallop of protein when severely restricting caloric intake; very strict diets cause an added demand for protein as fuel, and a great-tasting MRP may be a preferred choice over dry chicken breasts or baked fish.
Weight-gain powders that pack at least 50 grams of carbohydrates along with 20 grams of protein per serving are more suited for the person requiring extra calories to build. As you can see by the sample meal plans above, whether you’re lean or carry more bodyfat, you must always eat more carbs than protein to support muscle growth. Thus, shakes that yield twice as many carbs as protein are ideal for mass-seeking individuals.
If your metabolism is so fast that you need 500 or so grams of carbs a day, stick with weight-gain powders or create your own using a low-carb protein powder like whey protein and blending it with high-carbohydrate mixers such as fruit juice or fruit, or try blending low-fat milk, whey protein and low-fat ice cream for a high-carb, calorically dense shake
Heavyset hardgainers can also use whey protein, and will benefit by mixing it with low-glycemic mixers like skim milk, orange juice, yogurt, apples and strawberries.
The Cardio Component
The heavier hardgainer who’s constantly keeping an eye on his or her waist, hips or thighs and carries a bodyfat of 15% or higher must keep a tighter check on total caloric intake. Berning suggests: “More work, less calories. Match your daily caloric intake to your expenditure and include some aerobic work along with your weight training to get your body to use fat as fuel.” Two to three 30-40-minute sessions a week should do the trick.
Be careful, however, of overdoing cardio in your zeal to burn fat. Too much aerobic work could backfire, and undercut muscle growth by expending too many calories. If you continue to see strength increases in the gym, your cardio isn’t interfering with your muscle-building. Yet if you begin losing strength, you may be doing too much aerobic activity. Finally, if you’re neither losing nor gaining strength, you’re probably shedding fat while gaining lean body mass — and Berning advises ditching the bathroom scale in exchange for bodyfat testing via a simple set of skin calipers. “It’s possible to rearrange and be losing fat while adding lean body mass, which would result in no net change on the scale,” she notes. “Bodyfat measurements can pinpoint what’s going on.” This will help you determine how much fat you’re losing and how much lean mass you’re adding.