Many muscle magazines will have you believe that gaining 15 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks in just "5 easy steps" is not only possible, but it's also fairly easy. I’m going to tell you the truth: it’s not easy, and probably not possible. It’s probably not possible for most people to gain 15 pounds of pure muscle in 6 months, or even a year.
Sure you can gain 15 pounds of weight in a week, but it's not all muscle, and that’s the harsh reality. And it’s this reality that many hard training athletes discover after months of intense training sessions and barely seeing the scales move. With that being said, I’m going to lay out 5 essential rules to follow if you want to make gaining muscle mass a reality. I'm talking about real results in adding hard, dense muscle to your frame.
1. Stay Focused on MASS
You're going to need to focused on gaining muscle mass and temporarily avoid other goals for the time being. You, like most of us, probably want to gain muscle, lose fat, improve your conditioning, have leaner abs, bigger arms, stronger legs, etc. Stop trying to go in multiple directions at the same time.
Have you ever tried driving your car east and west at the same time? You won't get anywhere. I’m not saying it can’t happen to focus on gaining muscle mass while also incorporating another fitness objective, I’m just saying it’s too difficult for most people. If you want to gain muscle, do yourself a favor and for the next 16 weeks and commit all of your training, eating, and lifestyle choices to that very goal – adding muscle. Stay focused and don’t stray because you’re bored, tired or sick of eating. You work hard in the gym, but so much more happens outside the gym regarding your lifestyle.
"Champions aren't made in the gym. They're made from something they have deep inside- a desire, a dream, a vision."- Muhammed Ali
2. Eat More Food
Yes, the obvious "eat more food" suggestion. However, I do not recommend the “Seefood Diet;" eating anything and everything you see will turn you into a blubbering slob because you’ll inevitably rationalize horrible choices. It's easy to say, “eat more food,” but it's not really easy to do day in and day out consistently for a long time.
It's costly, it's uncomfortable, and it's time consuming shopping, preparing, and eating all of that food. What is easy to do is also easy not to do. Keeping a nutrition journal can hold you accountable to help you reach your goals. There are many apps online you can use to help you discover how many calories you are eating daily. Your first step is to add 250-500 calories a day until you are regularly gaining 1-3 pounds a month. I know that is slow progress, but if you are gaining more than that, it's not muscle, and you’re just going to have to strip that fat off later.
Eat Calories per Pound of Bodyweight
A good rule of thumb for most male athletes is to require about 15 calories per pound of bodyweight daily for maintenance; 20 calories per pound should help you gain weight, but add too much too fast and you’ll get fat. Make small moves and get the most progress out of the least amount of change with your diet. Conversely, if you needed to lose weight and you went from eating 15 calories per pound straight to 10 calories per pound daily, you will lose weight, but eventually you will stall and most likely rebound in the wrong direction from the crash diet. Small moves with nutrition are key.
More Carbs on Training Days, Less Carbs on Off Days
Another great tip is to eat more carbs on your training days and less on your off days or easier training days. It will be almost impossible to gain muscle on a low carb diet so don’t do it. Any food that doesn’t cause gastrointestinal distress is a good food here, and if you’re not gluten intolerant, do not vilify pasta.
A great way to get more carbs on your intense training days is to add some cream of rice to your pre-workout meal and a cup or two of cooked white rice or an extra potato to your post-workout meal. Try consuming the majority of your carbohydrate intake around your workout window, about an hour or two before and after your training session, as that’s when your body needs it most. Keep in mind that muscle gaining and fat loss programs don’t have to be completely different; the biggest difference is made in the kitchen and in getting enough rest.
While it is not 100% necessary to use supplements in order to make progress, they certainly can improve results. Things such as creatine, whey protein & BCAA’s will be like adding a turbo-charger to an already powerful engine. Nutrition is paramount and supplements are a consideration. Keep your priorities straight.
3. Heavy Weights AND High Reps
This question is often asked, “Should I lift heavy weight or do high reps for gaining muscle mass?” The answer is yes. Do both. The most important factor here is progressive overload. You must constantly strive to lift heavier weight over time without changing the technique to make the movement easier. Learn to do it right first, then do it harder, then do it more times.
It’s generally accepted that there are two types of muscle growth, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. You can google it if you don’t believe me, it's real. Lifting really heavy weights like a powerlifter, Olympic weightlifter, or strongman causes myofibrillar hypertrophy which basically means that the muscle fibers increase in number to add strength to the muscle. High rep training like a bodybuilder, think 10 sets of 12 reps, causes sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which means more of a gel like substance gets into the muscle fibers and increases volume.
A Simple Workout for Gaining Muscle Mass
A great suggestion for full body strength and size would be to work up to a 3 rep max on front squats, then proceed to work up to a 3 reps max on back squats. Take your time between sets, about 2-3 minutes rest. Then take 75% of your front squat, 3 rep max and do 10 reps with it, rack it and immediately do 10 back squats with it, maintaining a controlled tempo the entire time. When you’re done with that grueling set, immediately push a heavy ass sled about 25 meters. Knock out a few of those sets and get your ass to the nearest kitchen asap. When you’re done eating, take a nap.
4. Always Control the Weight & Move with Purpose
Don’t just mindlessly move the weight any way you can. If gaining muscle mass is your goal, keep tension on the muscle, move the weight with the intention of growing the muscle, and don’t cheat all your reps just to move the weight. Build your muscle and not your ego. Lift as much weight as you can while maintaining “perfect” form.
Lifting Properly for Gaining Muscle Mass
If you’re daring enough to perform the squat workout mentioned above, realize that you can't dive-bomb all your squats to minimize the eccentric phase and bounce out of the hole like an Oly lifter and expect as much hypertrophy as possible. Control your descent and briefly pause in the hole, rise up aggressively while keeping tension on the quads and gut. Don’t lock the top too long (if at all). Get to the top and don’t stand there resting, get moving back down immediately but always under control. Focus on the muscle doing the work, not trying to bounce the weight to gain momentum or cheat in any way.
Fail Safely When Gaining Muscle Mass
Make sure you leave one or two reps in the tank on exercises that potentially cause injury in a fatigued state, such as heavy deadlifts, bench presses, and back squats. You can go to total failure on safer exercises such as hack squats, body rows, lat pull downs and high resistance bike sprints. If bike sprints and hypertrophy sound oxymoronic, just take a look at the legs of some of the best sprint cyclists out there; google image and YouTube have plenty of info. Don’t confuse what I am saying, I did not say, “riding a bike will make you huge.” But doing high resistance, high intensity bike sprints, like Wingates, will get an enormous amount of blood into your legs and thus cause hypertrophy. It’s miserable and frankly, most people aren’t tough enough to do it more than once with 100% effort.
Just so you know what a real deep squat looks like, check out this video:
5. Minimize Your Exercises, Maximize Your Intensity
You don’t need a ton of variety when training for mass, but you do need a ton of effort. Stick to the big compound movements for the majority of your training, but feel free to add some isolation work for those stubborn body parts. A good program for gaining muscle mass doesn’t require a ton of variety, you just need balance, intensity, and the mental ability to push yourself past your current condition.
Two good ways to consider training are to get your big & heavy lifts in early in your workout, such as presses, rows, squats, deads, cleans, dips and pull ups and follow them up with lighter variations of the same lifts for more reps later in the workout, or to do one day consisting of all heavy strength work and 3-4 days later do all higher rep bodybuilding work.
A sample split for gaining muscle mass would be:
Upper Body Strength
Lower Body Strength
Off weights, Mobility & Health
Shoulder, Chest & Triceps Bodybuilding
Lower Body Bodybuilding
Back, Traps, Biceps Bodybuilding
Mental Health & Physical Recovery
Matt Wichlinski is a strength coach for World Wresting Entertainment (WWE). He teaches athletic, functional movements, sports specific conditioning, general fitness, plyometrics, kettlebell training, Olympic weightlifting, medicine ball and dumbbell training, power-lifting, gymnastics, rowing, running and jumping rope. His students include athletes of all ages in various sports, fitness enthusiasts of all levels, and military from various fields. Learn more about Matt by Clicking HerePhotography by Michael Modecki