I can understand how people get stuck in their rut of rarely ever gaining any mass, and looking more or less the same year after year.
Vanity and societal constraints often place a great deal of shame around having body fat. Society often directly relates strength and a lean physique to go hand in hand, though the opposite proves true when viewing the worlds greatest strongmen and power lifters. This is perhaps one of the major reasons that CrossFit has become such a big fitness fad, as it values functional strength of brute power, allowing for a strong athlete with a more mainstream, attainable yet chiseled look. You must remember that while bodybuilders look their most muscular dieted down on stage, they are very depleted and are actually at their far weakest point. They are susceptible to injury, their immune systems run down, and their muscular and mental energy alike are at an all time low. This stagnation due to fear of body fat is the key reason that many never get the herculean physique of their dreams. Many fear the temporary loss of their six pack to be as devastating as losing their job, or their spouse.
While it may sound controversial to novice readers, and cliché to those more educated, calorically dense foods are quite literally more anabolic than steroids. Without an abundance of calories, you simply cannot gain muscle mass or strength. Main courses including hefty portions of steaks and salmon alongside plenty of potatoes, oats or rice can quickly help ensure that caloric needs are met. Snacks such as nuts and Greek yogurts and even condiments and additives like avocado and coconut oil can healthily add a dense caloric punch to your daily totals. Even quick “greasy” meals like a cheeseburger are commonplace for the strength athlete, or bulking physique athlete as they provide a good mix of carbs, fats and most importantly protein.
While I personally wouldn’t recommend fast food as your best bet for calorically dense food (due to poor quality ingredients loaded with an abundance of blood pressure spiking sodium and questionable flavoring chemicals and preservatives), many championship level bodybuilders and top athletes in major sporting organizations have been public about their inclusion of it in their off season bulking diet. This just goes to show that for the rapid burning furnace that is the athletes body, quantity is arguably more important than quality when it comes to fuel.
You'll notice that many of these foods recommended above are rather high in fats, even in saturated fats. If this sparks fear in you, it's time to backtrack from common misconceptions and understand the importance of fat for hormone production and protein synthesis. A simplified way of viewing macro
nutrients is as follows: carbs are for energy, protein for essential amino acids - building blocks of muscle, and fats for protein synthesis and hormone production. This abundance of calories in your diet will ensure maximal nitrogen retention. You can eat protein all day and night, but without meeting your caloric needs (ideally coming from a mixture of all three key macro nutrients) your body will be forced to burn those amino acids as fuel, rather than using them as the building blocks to acquire new lean tissue.
An abundance of carbohydrates in the diet, whether simple or complex, will lead to the necessary mental and cellular energy needed to fuel tough workouts. Additionally, and most importantly in regards to new lean tissue acquisition, is the steady consumption of carbohydrates will allow for maximal nitrogen retention as your body won't be forced to burn amino acids or existing bodily tissue (whether it be fat, or hard earned muscle mass) for energy. Lastly, it will ensure full glycogen stores, allowing for maximal roundness of your skeletal muscle, which is often considered to be an aesthetic ideal. It's for these reasons that you'd never see an elite level athlete compete in their sport or event in a fasted state or avoid carbohydrates. There is no need to stick to an overly clean and strict diet if your primary goal is to perform your best, and raise your max lifts.
A high carbohydrate diet is often accompanied with a slight bit of both intra and extracellular water retention. Do not fear this effect, as it aids in muscle pumps, maximal contractions and may even provide a rebound effect out of the bottom of big lifts like the bench press and squat (almost like an exaggerated capability of the golgi tendon reflex). While the overly appearance conscious individual may have it in their head that water retention and any sort of smoothness is the enemy, it provides for the ideal environment for performance enhancement.
To further add to the pump effect and maximal muscle fullness, you may include additional ingredients or compounds which increase water and electrolyte retention. Glycerol monostearate has been popular for quite some time now, and is really making a big push with nearly every company currently selling preworkout or pump supplements due to its ability to increase intracellular hydration. To an even further degree, aromatizing anabolics such as oxymetholone, methandrostenolone and even good old testosterone will also pack a really strong punch in terms of electrolyte retention, leading to blood flooding pumps after just a few warm up sets.
When it comes to supplements, there are three that I very highly recommend for anybody looking to build quality lean muscle mass and increase their power and overall performance. I am quick to spot a scam, one of the primary offenders is the proprietary blended pixy dusted formulas, which use effective ingredients but in ineffective doses. Even worse in my opinion are the plethora of mystery herbal extracts flooding the market today. I quickly dismiss such ingredients packing big claims, but lacking any relevant human studies or even a proposed method of action. Proven ergogens with clinical studies are rare to come by, as all too often supplements get a bad rap for being all hype and no science.
Arachidonic acid (ArA) is an omega 6 fatty acid found in animal products such as meat and dairy. It's part of the muscle building equation, along with protein. ArA is a key nutrient for regulating protein synthesis in the body. Furthermore, it is depleted from skeletal muscle through resistance training. This is actually one of the top theories currently for why veteran lifters plateau and their results stall out. I wouldn’t recommend ArA for somebody just beginning training, as chances are they have an abundance in their body. For long time athletes, especially those of the weight lifting variety, I view this as an essential supplement for maximal performance.
Creatine monohydrate is perhaps the most time tested and clinically validated ergogen to ever hit the market. Additionally, it is highly affordable, nearly tasteless, and mixes quite well in water, protein shakes, fruit juice, etc. With that in mind, this is a no-brainer supplement and a must have for all strength training athletes. Not only is it vital for ATP replenishment (explaining its profound effects on strength) but the muscle volumizing effects will give you fuller, rounder muscles and allow you to hold on to just a bit of extra water that helps assist in reaching maximal muscle pumps. Plain creatine monohydrate powder is the best bet in terms of affordability and avoiding wasting money on hype. If you do choose an “advanced” creatine matrix, ingredients such as betaine anhydrous and taurine complement creatine very well. I recommend using the often studied 5 gram dose daily on workout days. There's no need to follow any loading protocols, or use it with massive doses of sugar for an insulin spike, as was previously recommended by many supplement companies.
Lastly, I highly recommend weight gainers to meet the ever growing caloric needs of the bulking athlete. For years there were weight gainers using horribly unhealthy carbohydrate sources such as fructose and maltodextrin. Some even use inferior sources of protein such as soy. A good rule of thumb is to always check the label for whey, casein and egg as the protein sources. These, whether used in conjunction with one another, or on their own, will be the ideal sources of protein in any protein powder or gainer. Thankfully, there is finally an option on the market that I don’t hesitate to recommend to others, or consume myself. Mass Gainz from iForce Nutrition uses whey protein, oat powder and medium chain triglycerides to make up the vast majority of the ingredient profile. One would be hard pressed to find a healthier alternative, yet alone one that is calorically dense and tastes good. Alternatively, a homemade gainer can be used. My recommendation is to mix the protein powder of your choice with full fat milk, fruits, and complex carbohydrates such as oats.
Contributor: Tim Zakowski