10 Common Mass-Gain Mistakes

Eat Big, get big, but don't overdo it. Your body can only process so much at one time.


Illustrations by Chris Rommel

From a nutrition perspective, getting big is often boiled down to “eating big,” a philosophy iron hoisters have lived by for years. In reality, for many bodybuilders, big eating, which implies packing away plenty of food, can be an equally effective fat-gaining plan. Therein lies one of the biggest dilemmas facing a bodybuilder: how to gain mass without getting downright sloppy looking. Avoid the following 10 missteps and you, too, can bulk without the bulge.


This error is all about portions. When you eat a lot in hopes of gaining mass, your body can make use of only a certain amount of nutrition — including calories — at one sitting. What happens to the excess? It’s converted to bodyfat. That’s why I’m in favor of eating five to eight “meals” a day. A meal could be as small as a protein shake, a small turkey burger on a whole-grain bun or a chicken breast with a heaping cup of cooked pasta. Eating frequent meals of smaller portions of food promotes protein synthesis and prevents an upgrade in fat-storing enzymes and hormones.


Do you really need 6,000 calories each day in order to build mass? Is 5,000 appropriate? What about 4,000? No, no and maybe. For many bodybuilders, building mass requires 17-20 calories per pound of bodyweight, depending on metabolic rate and daily activity level. For a 200-pounder, that comes out to 3,400-4,000 calories a day. For those with a mediocre metabolism, the total should be a little less. Start with 16 or 17 calories per pound of bodyweight and check a mirror after a week or two. If you’re gaining in your midsection, your calories may be too high. If you’re adding bodyweight and still looking decent around the middle, bump up your calorie intake a bit and experiment with incremental increases until you come across a level that works best for you. 


To support muscle growth — without adding bodyfat — exaggerate the size of the two important meals: breakfast and the postworkout meal. Take in more carbs and more protein; a little fat is OK, too. These are the two most important meals of the day, and they determine whether you will gain mass for the day or simply move sideways.

When you eat a lot for breakfast, the first meal of the day, you boost anabolic (muscle-building) hormones, which in turn suppress catabolic hormones that try to break down muscle tissue. After training, muscles act like a vacuum, sucking up nearly all incoming nutrition that causes muscle growth while impeding the body’s ability to store bodyfat. The opposite — not eating enough at breakfast and after training — can compromise recovery, which can downgrade your metabolic rate. Do you know what happens when your metabolic rate is downgraded? It’s easier to get fat.


Protein is the most important nutrient for muscle growth, but carbs also play a critical role, especially after training. You won’t be able to get enough calories when attempting to put on mass if your carb intake is low; when mass is your aim, take in 2-3 grams (g) of carbs per pound of bodyweight daily. Carbs help blunt cortisol levels — cortisol can interfere with testosterone’s anabolic actions in muscle and lead to muscle breakdown, especially immediately following a workout. A mass seeker’s post-workout meal should include 40 g of fast-digesting protein, such as whey, and 80-100 g of fast-digesting carbs, such as white bread, Gatorade, baked potatoes, sugar, honey and fruit. Carbs at this time spike the anabolic hormone insulin, which helps to drive glucose, amino acids and supplements such as creatine into muscle cells, spurring muscle protein synthesis.


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