Three major things that most people do incorrectly when trying to gain muscle mass. Check ‘em out.
Pop Quiz, Hotshot
Pretend you're back in high school and mean ol' Mr. Berardi has just passed out a pop quiz. Luckily, there's only one question:
Which of the following statements is true?
- Most people succeed in training well enough to grow, but they fail in eating well enough to grow.
- Most people eat well enough to grow, but they don't train well enough to grow.
Pencils down. Okay, which is it? If you said "1," give yourself a gold star. But don't feel too badly if you chose "2." To an extent, both answers are correct. Most people probably train and eat incorrectly! But if I had to pick one answer that was more true than the other, I'd say "1" would be the best choice. If you're not growing, it's probably your diet, not your training, that's holding you back.
With this article I'm throwing down the gauntlet. This is your wake up call if you've ever made any of the following statements:
- "I eat a lot of food. In fact, it feels like I'm eating all day! But I just can't get any bigger."
- "I can't gain a pound of muscle. My parents are both skinny, so it must be genetic."
- "I've always had a fast metabolism. That's why I can stay lean but can't get any bigger."
- "I'm scared to go on a bulking diet because I don't want to lose my abs."
- "I've tried mass-building diets before and put on a little muscle, but most of the weight I gained was fat."
Sound familiar? Then this article is for you, toothpick legs.
What You're Doing Wrong
Now you may be asking, "If I'm not eating well enough to grow, Mr. Smartypants, what am I doing wrong?" In my opinion, there are three major things that most people do incorrectly when trying to gain muscle mass:
- They don't understand energy balance (calories in vs. calories out).
- They don't eat the right foods at the right times (poor meal combinations).
- They don't learn their physiological responses to nutrients (insulin sensitivity, carb, and fat tolerance).
Below (and in Part II) I'll describe practical ways to fine tune all three. By the end of this series, you should know how much food you need to grow, what combinations of foods you should eat and when you should eat them, and how to figure out your own personal, individualized macronutrient needs.
Energy Balance: You might be surprised!
So what is energy balance? Here's the simple equation:
- Energy Balance = Energy Intake - Energy Expenditure
Energy intake is made up of what you eat and drink. Energy expenditure is made up of several factors including resting metabolic rate (RMR), calorie cost of activity, thermic effect of food (TEF), and adaptive thermogenesis (the X factor). The balance of intake and expenditure is an important factor in weight gain or loss. If you have a positive energy balance (intake exceeds expenditure), you gain weight. A negative energy balance (intake is less than expenditure) dictates that you'll lose weight. Simple enough.
Remember, however, that energy balance is only one factor in getting massive (or getting lean for that matter). And although it's the most basic and simplest part of understanding your needs for growth, ironically, most people totally screw it up! So let me be your metabolic guide. Below I'll provide some practical ways to navigate through the harsh jungle of energy balance equations so that you'll emerge ready to tackle the challenge of muscle growth. Pick up your pencils again, class. Better yet, grab a calculator!
1 – Resting Metabolic Rate
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the energy it costs the body to basically keep alive. This doesn't include the costs of getting your butt out of bed and moving around; those numbers are calculated in later. Although you might not guess it, about 50 to 70 percent of your entire day's calorie expenditure is a result of the RMR. So, let's figure out your RMR right now.
To start off with, you need to take your body weight in pounds and convert it to kilograms. (International readers, please bear with us silly non-metric Americans for a moment.) This is a simple conversion. Just divide your body weight by 2.2.
Next you take your percent of fat and multiply it by your body weight (which is now in kilograms). This will give you your fat mass (FM) in kilograms. Next simply subtract this number from your total weight in kilograms and you'll have your fat free mass (FFM) in kilograms.
Before we go on, why don't we try this out on me. Since I'm an athlete with a body weight of 200lbs at 5% body fat, I'd take my total body mass and divide it by 2.2:
- Total body mass in kilograms = 200lbs / 2.2 = 91 kg
Next I'd multiply this kilogram number (91 kg) by my percent of body fat. Remember, percents are really decimals so 5% equals 0.05, 12% bodyfat will be .12 etc.
- Fat Mass = 91kg x 0.05 = 4.55kg FM
Next I subtract this fat mass number (4.55 kg) from my total body mass (91kg):
- Fat Free Mass = 91kg - 4.55kg = 86.45kg
Therefore my fat free mass is 86.45 kilograms. From that I can determine my RMR. The formula for RMR is as follows:
- Resting Metabolic Rate for Athletes (in calories per day) = 500 + 22 x fat free mass (in kilograms).
Again, for me, I'd multiply 22 times my fat free mass and add 500 to that number as shown below:
- RMR = 22 x 86.45 + 500 = 2402
Therefore my resting metabolic rate is about 2400 calories per day. Everyone have their RMR figured out? Good, let's move on.
2 – Cost of Activity
The Cost of Activity represents how many calories are required to move your butt around during the day. This includes the cost of walking out to your car, scraping the ice off the damn thing, driving to work, pinching the secretary's ass, going to lunch with the boys, and of course, training after work. These factors make up about 20 to 40% of your daily caloric intake based on your activity level. So let's figure out your costs of activity. I'll use myself as an example again.
Determining Activity Costs:
Cost of Daily Activity is equal to the RMR you calculated above multiplied by an activity factor that fits your daily routine. I've listed some common activity factors below:
- Activity Factors:
- 1.2-1.3 for Very Light (bed rest)
- 1.5-1.6 for Light (office work/watching TV)
- 1.6-1.7 for Moderate (some activity during day)
- 1.9-2.1 for Heavy (labor type work)
Note: Don't consider your daily workout when choosing a number. We'll do that later.
With this information we can get back to determining my calorie needs. Since I work at a university, most of my day is pretty sedentary. Even though I run back and forth between the lab and classes, I've selected 1.6 as my activity factor. Therefore the amount of calories it takes to breathe and move around during the day is about 3800 calories as shown below:
- RMR x Activity Factor = 2400 calories x 1.6 = 3800 calories
Costs of Exercise Activity:
Next, we need to determine how many calories your exercise activity burns so that we can factor this into the totals. Exercise activity can be calculated simply by multiplying your total body mass in kilograms (as calculated above) by the duration of your exercise (in hours). Then you'd multiply that number by the MET value of exercise as listed below. (MET or metabolic equivalent, is simply a way of expressing the rate of energy expenditure from a given physical activity.)
MET values for common activities:
- high impact aerobics: 7
- low impact aerobics: 5
- high intensity cycling: 12
- low intensity cycling: 3
- high intensity walking: 6.5
- low intensity walking: 2.5
- high intensity running: 18
- low intensity running: 7
- circuit-type training: 8
- intense free weight lifting: 6
- moderate machine training: 3
So here's the formula:
- Cost of Exercise Activity = Body Mass (in kg) x Duration (in hours) x MET value
And here's how I calculate it for myself:
- Exercise Expenditure for weights = 6 METS X 91kg x 1.5 hours = 819 calories
- Exercise Expenditure for cardio = 3 METS X 91 kg x .5 hours = 137 calories
Add these two together and I burn 956 total calories during one of my training sessions.
Since my training includes about 90 minutes of intense free weight training and 30 minutes of low intensity bicycling (four times per week), my exercise energy expenditure might be as high as 1000 calories per training day!
The next step is to add this exercise number to the number you generated when multiplying your RMR by your activity factor (3800 calories per day in my case).
So 3800 calories + about 1000 calories = a whopping 4800 calories per day! And we're not done yet! (Note: I rounded 956 up to 1000 for the sake of simplicity. If you're a thin guy trying to gain muscle, it's better to round up anyway than to round down.)
3 – Thermic Effect of Food
TEF is the amount of calories that it takes your body to digest, absorb, and metabolize your ingested food intake. This makes up about 5 to 15% of your total daily calorie expenditure. Since the metabolic rate is elevated via this mechanism 10 to 15% for one to four hours after a meal, the more meals you eat per day, the faster your metabolic rate will be. This is a good thing, though. It's far better to keep the metabolism high and eat above that level, than to allow the metabolism to slow down by eating infrequently. Protein tends to increase TEF to a rate double that of carbs and almost triple that of fats so that's one of the reasons why I'm a big fan of protein meals.
Determining the Thermic Effect of Food:
To determine the TEF, you need to multiply your original RMR value (2400 in my case) by 0.10 for a moderate protein diet or 0.15 for a high protein diet. So this is what the formula looks like:
- TEF = RMR x 0.10 for moderate protein diet (1 gram per pound of bodyweight)
- TEF = RMR x 0.15 for high protein diet (more than 1 gram per pound of bodyweight)
Since I eat a very high protein diet (about 350 to 400 grams per day), I use the 0.15 factor and my TEF is about 360 calories per day as displayed by the calculation below:
- Thermic Effect of Food = 2400 calories x 0.15 = 360 calories per day
Now add that to your calorie total.
4 – Adaptive Thermogenesis
I like to call Adaptive Thermogenesis the "X factor" because we just aren't sure how much it can contribute to daily caloric needs. Some have predicted that it can either increase daily needs by 10% or even decrease daily needs by 10%. Because it's still a mystery, we typically don't factor it into the equation.
Just for interest's sake, one factor included in the "X factor" is unconscious or spontaneous activity. Some people, when overfed, get hyper and increase their spontaneous activity and even have been known to be "fidgety." Others just get sleepy when overfed – obviously the fidgeters will be burning more calories that the sleepy ones.
Other factors include hormone responses to feeding, training, and drugs, hormone sensitivity (insulin, thyroid, etc), stress (dramatically increases metabolic rate) or temperature induced metabolic changes (cold weather induces increased metabolic activity and heat production).
With all that said, you don't need to do any math on this part or fiddle with your calorie total. This is just something to keep in mind.
5 – Putting It All Together
Okay, so how many damn calories do you need to consume each and every day? Well, adding up RMR plus activity factor (3800 calories in my case), cost of weight training (819 calories), cost of cardio (137 calories), and TEF (360 calories), we get a grand total of about 5116 calories! (Remember, that's just my total. You'll get a different number.)
Now that's a lot of food! And I must eat this each and every day when I want to gain weight. Are you surprised at how many calories I need? Most people are. So the next time you complain that you're "eating all day and can't gain a pound" you'd better realistically evaluate how much you're really eating. If you're not gaining a pound, then you're falling short on calories.
The Secret is in the Surplus!
So at this point, the keen T-mag readers that aren't afraid of massive eating might ask the question, "Since this is technically just your maintenance level, how can you get bigger by eating this amount? Wouldn't you need more?" The answer is simple. Since I train only four days per week this diet would meet my needs on those four days. But on my three off days per week I'd be in positive calorie balance by about 1,000 calories per day! (That extra thousand calories isn't being used when training, in other words.) This adds up to a surplus of 3,000 calories per week. And this is where the growth happens!
I especially like this "staggered model" because rather than trying to stagger your calorie intake on a daily basis by eating different amounts of food on different days, I let my training cycle my calories for me. This way I can eat the same thing every day while preventing my body from adapting to that habitual level of intake. Just like we vary our training to prevent adaptation, prevention of dietary adaptation is one of the secrets to changing your body composition.
At this point, I want to stop and give you a week to think about your energy needs. Go do the math if you haven't already, figure out how many calories you need, and take some time to compose yourself. After you've realized that you've been grossly under-eating, start thinking about ways to add calories to your diet. In the next installment we'll discuss how to design an eating program that's individualized for your own needs. We'll also get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about what kinds of foods you should and shouldn't be eating. I'll meet you back here next week!