Back To The Basics: Creating an Effective Mass Gain Program
I’d be willing to put money on the fact that at one point or another almost every guy has wanted to be bigger. For those of you who can’t seem to get your head out of the gutter, in this specific instance I’m not referring to penis size, rather I’m speaking about overall muscle and physical development.
From an evolutionary perspective it makes total sense for men to want a bigger frame. In the past, the bigger (and stronger) males were not only more likely to survive as a result of being able to fend for themselves, but they were also more likely to reproduce with the largest number of women as they were the most dominant, physically able, and attractive of the species. Bigger males had less to fear, greater capabilities, and quite frankly much more fun.
However, we now live in a society where a males’ physical stature isn’t as much of an influence on how successful he will be. The smallest, fattest, and weakest man can be extraordinarily smart, wealthy, and powerful, living far more comfortably than some of his bigger and stronger counterparts. In spite of this, mass gain is one of the most common goals among men in our society, as being “big” is largely associated with strength, power, dominance, and being attractive.
Regardless of being an extremely common goal, most people have absolutely no clue how to go about “gettin’ big.” Seeing as I am a sweet, charming, and generous young man (please don’t laugh, my feelings are easily hurt), I have decided to write an article outlining the basic necessities one needs in order to create their own personalized and effective mass gain program.
Similar to how I outlined the meaning of “effective” in Back To The Basics: Creating An Effective Fat Loss Program, I am now going to define what the word “effective” means in the context of this article.
An effective mass gain program:
- Produces “significant” results. Depending on a variety of factors, I generally consider “significant” to be a weight gain of .5lb-2lbs per week.
- Allows for strength and muscle mass gains
- Is flexible enough to facilitate long-term success
It’s important to understand there are many programs which advertise and encourage mass gain. Unfortunately, many of these programs are extremely generalized and inevitably turn out to be ineffective for a large majority of people. As such, the purpose of this article is to provide readers with a basic understanding of what is necessary in order to create an effective mass gain program.
Effective Mass Gain Necessities
In order to create an effective mass gain program, there are several program characteristics which must be adhered to.
1) An appropriate caloric surplus
2) Sufficient protein intake
3) Strength training: Moderate to High Intensity and High Volume
4) Keep it simple, stupid!
1) An Appropriate Caloric Surplus
In order to gain weight (be it fat, or muscle) you must be in a calorie surplus…period. Unless you are a rank beginner or using anabolic steroids, it is physiologically impossible to gain mass without supplying your body an excess of energy (food). Plain and simple, if you want to gain weight…YA GOTTA FREAKIN EAT!
So, how much should you be eating on a daily basis? In order to figure this out, you must first know your maintenance caloric intake. It’s worth noting that maintenance caloric intake simply refers to how many calories one must eat on a daily basis to remain weight stable (i.e. stay the same weight).
Generally speaking, multiplying your current body weight by 13-14 should provide you with a decent estimate of your maintenance calorie intake. Please understand this is by no means a perfect calculation but in the main tends to be a fairly accurate guideline.
As BW (bodyweight) x 13-14 is approximately maintenance caloric intake, multiplying your BW x 16-18 should provide you with an adequate surplus in order to promote muscle growth.
To illustrate, let’s pretend we have a 185lb male:
Maintenance Caloric Intake: 185lbs x 14 = 2590 kcal/day
Caloric Surplus: 185lbs x 17 = 3145 kcal/day
Assuming the equations were perfect, in order to remain weight stable this person must eat 2590 calories per day. Additionally, in order to provide his body with enough energy to promote muscle growth he would need to be in a surplus of about 500 calories per day.
Calorie Cycling for the Abdominally Aware
For those of you concerned about gaining a significant amount of fat, it’s worth noting that it’s not necessary to be in a caloric surplus every single day. In fact, presuming you are following a well designed training program, one could potentially take in a surplus of calories on training days while eating at maintenance levels or even in a slight deficit on rest days and continue to gain mass. By following this method of calorie cycling, you would create a maximal anabolic response on training days by eating in a significant calorie surplus while reducing calorie intake on rest days thereby limiting excess fat gain.
To illustrate, let’s pretend we have two, 185lb trainees. Let’s call them Trainee A and Trainee B (I’m damn clever, I know). Both trainees are following the exact same weight training program which has them working-out 4x/week. However, Trainee A decides to eat in a caloric surplus every single day, while Trainee B only eats in a surplus on training days and a slight deficit on rest days.
Below is a synopsis of Trainee A’s caloric intake:
Training Days (4x/week): 3145 kcal/day
Rest Days (3x/week): 3145 kcal/day
Weekly Calorie Intake: 22,015 kcal
Now here is a summary of Trainee B’s caloric intake:
Training Days (4x/week): 3145 kcal/day
Rest Days (3x/week): 2500 kcal/day
Weekly Calorie Intake: 20,080 kcal
As you can see, Trainee A is eating nearly 2000 calories more per week than Trainee B. As 1 pound of fat equals 3500 calories, in 2 weeks time Trainee A will have unnecessarily gained about 1 pound of fat which Trainee B completely avoided.
While some extremists recommend gaining as much weight as possible (including fat) during a bulk, the fact is that gaining excess fat will not contribute to an increased rate of muscle growth. As I discussed in A Realistic Look at Progress: Fat Loss and Mass Gain, the amount of muscle a person can gain is largely determined by genetics, age, and perhaps most importantly by how many years they have been training “properly.” While getting fatter may be of benefit for certain strength athletes (notably Powerlifters to improve leverages and decrease range of motion), the large majority of people would see little to no advantage and would probably become discouraged through gaining excess fat.
If you’re concerned with adding too much fat during a bulk, I highly recommend calorie cycling by eating in a surplus on training days while remaining at maintenance level or even a slight deficit on rest days as outlined above with Trainee B.
However, for those extremely skinny guys who “just can’t seem to gain weight,” multiply your BW by 18 and eat that number of calories every single day for 8 weeks while following a well-designed training program focused on gaining mass. If your weight doesn’t go up, feel free to send me an angry e-mail with all sorts of curse words and things of the sort. (Hint: if you actually track your calorie intake, eat sufficiently, and train optimally…your weight will go up and I won’t be getting any hate mail).
In summary, if you want to gain weight you must be in some form of a caloric surplus. I don’t care what the big and bolded letters say on your $200 pre-workout supplement; you won’t gain 10lbs of muscle in 2 weeks. Spare yourself the misery, drop the supplement, buy yourself some damn steak and potatoes, and stop complaining about being full. Seriously…there’s actually starving people in the world and you’re complaining about being too full? Shut up.
2) Sufficient Protein Intake
The large majority of people looking to improve body composition (be it fat loss or mass gain) tend to underestimate how much protein is considered optimal. There are numerous reasons for this, but I assume that our governments recommended macronutrient requirements coupled with the popularized macronutrient intake of elite endurance athletes (extremely high carb/moderate protein) has led people to believe that protein is more or less arbitrary.
As I discussed in Fact or Fiction? Nutrition Fallacies, Part 2: Protein, an adequate protein intake is of the utmost importance, especially when the goal is muscle gain. While the exact amount will vary with each and every individual, I tend to recommend a daily protein intake of 1.5g/lb of body mass.
To illustrate using a 175lb male:
175lbs x 1.5 = 262.5g of protein
Assuming this persons surplus caloric intake is about 3000 kcal (multiply BW by 17), then a daily protein intake of 260g would make up nearly 35% of his total calorie intake. Compared to an average Americans diet, that’s a hell of a lot of protein.
Multiply your BW by 1.5 and eat that amount of protein, in grams, every day regardless of whether or not you’re calorie cycling. Be sure not to drastically increase or decrease your protein intake beyond 1.5g per pound of body mass. Some people radically increase protein intake under the impression that “more is better,” but eventually end up hurting their progress as they simply can’t eat a surplus of calories mostly consisting of protein. On the other end of the spectrum, many people overestimate how much protein they’re actually taking in and short-change their results by not supplying their bodies with the adequate building blocks for muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Hit your protein requirements. Hit your calorie requirements. Fill the rest with carbohydrates and fat. GET BIG!
3) Strength Training: Moderate to High Intensity and High Volume
Needless to say, the goal of a mass gain program is to gain mass. As such, it’s necessary to understand that in order to increase muscle size one must progressively overload the muscle with a sufficient amount of weight. Basically, if you’re not gradually handling heavier loads, after a certain point you will cease to make progress.
Taking the above into consideration, there is certainly an optimal level of intensity and volume when the goal is increased muscle growth. As such, allow me to quickly define what the words “intensity” and “volume” mean in the context of this article:
Volume: The total amount of work completed in a single training session
Intensity: The amount of weight being lifted relative to your 1 repetition maximum (1RM)
Let’s discuss volume, first: As I previously discussed, during a mass gain program you must be in a calorie surplus as it is otherwise impossible for any significant muscle growth to occur. Seeing as you will have “extra” energy because of your increased food intake, this is the perfect time to increase volume in the gym as the extra energy will go towards repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. If this continues to happen on a regular basis, say for 8-12 weeks, one could potentially make some serious muscle mass and strength gains, as my clients have shown here and here.
But what does increased volume mean? Basically, increasing total volume generally means increasing training frequency (how often you train per week), increasing the number of exercises performed each day, and increasing the total number of repetitions performed per muscle group.
So what about Intensity? Without going into excruciating detail, I have found that starting each workout with a compound movement (i.e. squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, weighted chin-up, etc…) and using a very high intensity, or maximal load, between 90-100%+ 1RM, to be extremely beneficial. However, once the first exercise has been completed, I recommend using low(er) percentages ranging anywhere between 65-85% 1RM and performing more sets of high(er) repetitions.
Generally speaking, while gaining mass I tend to recommend training 4-5x/week, performing 2-4 exercises per push/pull movement, and roughly 40-80 repetitions per muscle group. I advise starting each day with a compound lift such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, weighted chin and using weights between 90-100%+ of your 1RM. Following your main movement of the day, I suggest lowering the weights to roughly 65-85%1RM and performing 2-4 sets of 6-12 repetitions for each individual exercise.
To illustrate, here is a sample upper body and lower body training day:
Day 1: Upper
1) Bench Press Variation: Work up to a 1-3RM
2) Weighted Chins: 2- 4 x 6-8 @ 85% 1RM
3) Weighted Dips: 2-4 x 6-8 @ 85% 1RM
4) Dumbbell Row: 2-3 x 10-12
5) Incline Dumbbell Press: 2-3 x 10-12
6) Front/Side/Rear Delt Raise: 2 x 10-12
Day 2: Lower
1) Deadlift Variation: Work up to a 1-3RM
2) Squat: 2-4 x 6-8 @ 85%1RM
3) Glute Ham Raise: 2-4 x 6-8
4) Close Stance Leg Press: 2-3 x 10-12
5) Leg Curl Variation: 2-3 x 10-12
6) Back Extension: 2-3 x 12-15
4) Keep It Simple, Stupid!
At one point or another everyone involved in this industry has felt overwhelmed and disoriented because no matter how much they know (or think they know), they quickly find out there is always more to learn. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a chapter, article, or study more than 10 times and still had no clue what it meant. Likewise, I understand that sometimes trying to keep track of your training and nutrition along with everything else in your life can sometimes get to be too much and you just want to say “fuck it, I quit!”
Trust me…I’ve been there.
While it’s easier said than done, I think it is of the utmost importance to keep everything as simple as possible. So many time’s I’ve seen people changing numerous aspects of their diet and training with a million different goals all while juggling a job/school, family and friends, and everything else life throws at them. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of everything and think that we can handle it all at once, but believe me when I tell you, you’d be better off taking a step back and looking at what your doing from afar. Be smart and allow yourself some leeway. Try not be too rigid or force yourself to fully abstain from the things you enjoy.
Don’t stop going out with friends and having fun simply because you’re trying to devote 100% of your being to your training and nutrition. Yes, absolutely work as hard as you can and be diligent with your choices, but there is no reason why you can’t see incredible gains while enjoying everything life has to offer.
As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, success is determined by the ability to adhere to a plan in the long-term. There will always be days and times in our lives when things get to be too damn stressful and overwhelming…it’s inevitable. The key to succeeding is being able to understand the fact that life will always be presenting us with obstacles to overcome, and challenges to beat; you must fully believe that just because you stumble, or maybe even fall, doesn’t mean you can’t stand up even stronger than before.
To end this (fairly long) article I briefly want to recap how to make an effective mass gain program:
1) Create an appropriate caloric surplus
- Multiply your BW x 16-18 to find an approximate daily caloric intake
- Calorie Cycle by eating more on training days and less on rest days
- Eat in a daily caloric surplus
2) Sufficient Protein Intake
- Be sure to get about 1.5g of protein per pound of body mass every single day
3) Strength Training: moderate to high Intensity and high Volume
- Train 4-5x/week
- Start each day with a compound lift using maximal weight
- Perform 2-4 exercises per push/pull movement per day
- Perform 40-80 repetitions per muscle group per day
4) Keep it simple, stupid!
- Don’t let training/nutrition rule your life. Stay devoted and work hard, but always remember to have fun
Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.