Often, the young lifter reaches for ‘special’ methods and ‘supplements’ instead of correcting his own mistakes that lead him to disappointment and not gaining muscle mass. Here are some of them:
1. Not eating enough
Outside of poor training (which can be either too much or too little), not eating enough is the number one mistake I see most trainees making who can’t gain muscle. This is true even of individuals who swear up, down and sideways that they eat a ton but no matter what they can’t gain weight. It’s been said that ‘hardgainers’ tend to be overtrainers and undereaters and there is much truth to that.
Almost invariably, when you track these big eaters, they really aren’t eating that much. Research has routinely shown that overweight individuals tend to under-estimate food intake (e.g. they think they are eating much less than they actually are) but in my experience ‘hardgainers’ are doing the opposite: vastly overestimating how much they are actually eating in a given day, or over the span of a week.
Similarly, although such trainees may get in a lot of food acutely, invariably they often compensate for those high-caloric intakes by lowering calories on the following day (or even in the same day). So while they might remember that one big-assed lunch meal, they won’t remember how they ate almost nothing later in the day because they got full.
Some people simply lack the appetite to eat sufficient amounts to gain muscle (or any weight at all). While they may be able to force feed calories for a little bit, their appetite regulatory mechanisms kick in and they unconsciously reduce calories. Their bodies also tend to upregulate metabolic rate better than others, so they burn off more calories (a phenomenon called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT).
But the simple fact is this: if such ‘big-eaters’ were actually eating as much as they think they are, they would be at least gaining some body fat, even if they were gaining zero muscle. If a trainee swears he’s eating a ton, but he’s not even gaining body fat, I know he’s still not eating enough (or even as much as he thinks he is).
Since I’m talking about body fat, I might as well address another very common cause of poor muscle gain and that’s trainees who fear putting on even an ounce of body fat. They’ll deliberately keep their calories low all the time and then wonder why they aren’t magically synthesizing muscle mass out of thin air. At this point, I’m not even including the folks who want to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
The simple physiological fact is that, to gain muscle, you have to provide not only the proper training stimulus, but also the building blocks for the new tissue. This means not only sufficient protein (see below) but also sufficient calories and energy. While it’s wonderful to hope that the energy to build new muscle will be pulled out of fat cells, the reality is that this rarely happens (there are some odd exceptions such as folks beginning a program, and those returning from a layoff).
And while there are extremes (such as my Ultimate Diet 2.0 or some of the intermittent fasting schemes) that allow people to put on muscle while remaining lean, they always invariably alternate periods of low and high calories. With the high calorie part of the diet (e.g. the weekend on the UD2) providing sufficient protein and energy to drive muscle mass gains.
Now, although this is a slightly different topic, I entreat trainees not to take the ‘Eat enough to gain’ to the opposite extreme. While GFH (look it up) can work for many people, eating so much food that a trainee gains a disproportionate amount of fat is just as much of a mistake as not eating enough in the first place.
Unless you’re a sumo wrestler or football lineman, eventually the fat has to come off; the more you put on while gaining muscle mass, the longer you have to diet. Which is not only a psychological chore but often results in performance or muscle mass losses (especially if you diet badly).
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What I’m getting at is some optimum level, an intake sufficient to provide sufficient calories and protein for muscle growth without becoming a total fat-ass. Which isn’t very helpful without some starting points which I’ll present now.