In today’s extra-large society, we tend to focus on the admirable guys who train hard and switch up their diet to transform their bodies by losing weight. We highlight their quests to lead healthier lives every chance we get — but there’s another side of the wellness scale that can be just as difficult, depending on your body’s makeup: Gaining mass and muscle.
Some men struggle to make inroads when they want to bulk up, whether their inspiration is sports performance, aesthetics, or simply living healthier. You might blame your lack of gains on your genetics or a particularly fast metabolism, and you could be partly right — but there’s probably more you can do to kickstart muscle growth than you think.
“Most lean men who can’t gain muscle weight are simply eating and exercising the wrong way,” Doug Kalman, R.D., director of nutrition at Miami Research Associates told Men’s Health.
Here’s your fix: Follow these principles to pack on as much as a pound of size, every week.
Maximize Muscle Building
As you’ve probably heard from any muscle-bound behemoth you’ve ever encountered, protein is the key to building muscle. Just because the shake-pounding meathead has become a trope, however, doesn’t mean they’re wrong; protein really is the fuel your muscles need to grow. That’s real capital-S Science, not just bro-science manufactured by supplements companies.
But your body is constantly draining its protein reserves for other uses, like making hormones. The result is less protein available for muscle building. To counteract that, you need to “build and store new proteins faster than your body breaks down old proteins,” said Michael Houston, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Virginia Tech University.
The conventional wisdom says if you’re trying to gain muscle, you need to take in one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, although updated research from McMaster University suggests you may not need that much.
By that logic, a 160-pound man should consume around 160 grams of protein a day—the amount he’d get from an 8-ounce chicken breast, 1 cup of cottage cheese, a roast-beef sandwich, two eggs, a glass of milk, and 2 ounces of peanuts.) If you don’t eat meat for ethical or religious reasons, don’t worry — you can count on other sources, too. Soy, almonds, lentils, spinach, peas, and beans are packed with protein.
Split the rest of your daily calories between the other two types of macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats. You’ll want about 12 to 15 percent of your daily caloric intake from protein, 55 to 60 percent from carbs, and 25 to 30 percent from fats, according to National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) guidelines.
Quit Cutting Calories
In addition to adequate protein, you need more calories (your protein intake contributes to your total caloric intake, so these two go hand in hand). Use the following formula to calculate the number you need to take in daily to gain one pound a week, and break down your diet using the macro guidelines listed above. (Give yourself two weeks for results to show up on the scale. If you haven’t gained by then, increase your calories by 500 a day.)
A. Your weight in pounds.
B. Multiply A by 12 to get your basic calorie needs.
C. Multiply B by 1.6 to estimate your resting metabolic rate (calorie burn without factoring in exercise).
D. Strength training: Multiply the number of minutes you lift weights per week by 5.
E. Aerobic training: Multiply the number of minutes per week that you run, cycle, and play sports by 8.
F. Add D and E, and divide by 7.
G. Add C and F to get your daily calorie needs.
H. Add 500 to G. This is your estimated daily calorie needs to gain 1 pound a week.
Work Your Biggest Muscles
Getty ImagesChristopher Kimmel
If you’re a beginner, just about any workout will be intense enough to increase protein synthesis. But if you’ve been lifting for a while, you’ll build the most muscle quickest if you focus on the large muscle groups, like the chest, back, and legs. Add compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, pullups, bent-over rows, bench presses, dips, and military presses to your workout to work them the most efficiently.
You’re aiming to kick start muscle hypertrophy, the cellular process that spurs growth. Researchers have found that the best way to initiate that process is by performing two or three sets of an exercise for six to 12 repetitions, with about 30 to 60 seconds’ rest between sets. You’re damaging the muscles with the work — then the protein you’ve been consuming will help build them back up even bigger.
Another way to help with muscle gain is to cut back on the cardio. If you run every day, you’re going to have a hard time packing on the pounds — so keep your aerobically stimulating workouts to the days you’re not in the gym.
Make Sure to Pregame Properly
A 2001 study at the University of Texas found that lifters who drank a shake containing amino acids and carbohydrates before working out increased their protein synthesis more than lifters who drank the same shake after exercising. The shake contained 6 grams of essential amino acids — the muscle-building blocks of protein — and 35 grams of carbohydrates.
“Since exercise increases bloodflow to your working tissues, drinking a carbohydrate-protein mixture before your workout may lead to greater uptake of the amino acids in your muscles,” Kevin Tipton, Ph.D., an exercise and nutrition researcher at the University of Texas in Galveston, told Men’s Health.
For your shake, you’ll need about 20 grams of protein — usually about one scoop of a whey-protein powder.
Can’t stomach protein drinks? You can get the same nutrients from a sandwich made with 4 ounces of deli turkey and a slice of American cheese on whole wheat bread. Just make sure to hit your macros — 20 grams of protein, 35 grams of carbs — no matter what.
At the end of the day, though, the drink is better. “Liquid meals are absorbed faster,” Kalman said. So tough it out. Drink one 30 to 60 minutes before your workout.
Rest for Gains
Try a full-body workout, followed by a day of rest. Studies show that a challenging resistance training workout increases protein synthesis for up to 48 hours immediately after your exercise session.
“Your muscles grow when you’re resting, not when you’re working out,” says Michael Mejia, C.S.C.S., former Men’s Health exercise advisor and skinny guy who packed on 40 pounds of muscle using this very program.
Down Carbs After Your Workout
Research shows that you’ll rebuild muscle faster on your rest days if you feed your body carbohydrates. “Post-workout meals with carbs increase your insulin levels,” which, in turn, slows the rate of protein breakdown, said Kalman. Have a banana, a sports drink, and a peanut-butter sandwich.
Eat Every 3 Hours
“If you don’t eat often enough, you can limit the rate at which your body builds new proteins,” said Houston. Take the number of calories you need in a day and divide by six. That’s roughly the number you should eat at each meal. Make sure you consume some protein — around 20 grams — every three hours.
Get Built Before Bed
Eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein 30 minutes before you go to bed. The calories are more likely to stick with you during sleep and reduce protein breakdown in your muscles, Kalman said. Try a cup of raisin bran with a cup of skim milk or a cup of cottage cheese and a small bowl of fruit.
You can also try a pre-bedtime shake made with casein, a type of protein that breaks down more slowly than the better-known whey variety. Casein stays in the body longer and can act as a key component to muscle building while you snooze.
Eat again as soon as you wake up. “The more diligent you are, the better results you’ll get,” said Kalman.
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