Admittedly, I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last several months writing on topics related to fat loss. Fat loss tends to be a popular topic, but I realize that for some, the goal is to increase lean mass and build your physique, and that takes a slightly different approach. So if you find yourself wondering how you can dial in your nutrition to optimize the gains (or how to “gaintain"), then this article is for you.
If your goal is to put on a significant amount of weight, say 10-30 pounds, then you’ve probably tried or considered “bulking.” Bulking typically combines eating in a surplus above your calorie expenditure with weight training in an effort to gain muscle. Sounds simple enough, but there are plenty of factors to consider to ensure you’re actually gaining muscle and minimizing fat gain along the way.
First, you need to consider your training age and your genetic potential and align your expectations appropriately. Someone who is brand new to lifting weights is going to gain lean mass much more rapidly than someone who has been training and gaining for years. Furthermore, someone with an ectomorphic build (naturally lean, long muscles—typical “skinny” guy or girl) should not expect to ever look like a competitive bodybuilder in their off season.
With the above variables considered, one should aim to gain about 0.5-1.5% body weight per month. The more you realistically have to gain, the more you should expect of your monthly gains. The bigger and bigger you get, the harder it is to gain, as you’re much closer to your genetic ceiling and thus the closer you should be to about 0.5% BW per month.
Nutrition for gains, the basics
If you’re looking to maximize muscle gain, it’s important to start with a calorie surplus. Since we’re after lean gains, it’s important to dial things in appropriately and avoid the “eat anything and everything” mentality. A bit of fat gain is to be expected, but there’s certainly a way to avoid getting fat.
Start by tracking your food intake for a minimum of 10-15 days then calculate your average daily calories consumed. This is your maintenance level of calories. From there, aim to consistently eat above your maintenance calories. Since we’re going for about 0.5-1.5% BW per month, we’re looking at a 100-200 calorie/day surplus—maybe closer to 400-500 calories if you’ve got a lot to gain or if you’ve been chronically under-eating.
There are numerous factors to dial in beyond the calories, but generally speaking, here are a few important dietary guidelines.
- Daily protein intake: minimum of 0.8g/lb body weight
- 3-5 servings or fruits & vegetables per day (minimum of 1 serving per 1000 calories)
- 80/20 rule - consume roughly 80% of your calories from single-ingredient, whole foods (remaining can be whatever you want)
If you’ve been struggling with gaining weight, but you feel like you eat a lot, it’s likely that you’re really not eating as much as you think. For some, eating may feel like work, and tracking your intake will hold you accountable to getting enough nutrition when you don’t feel like eating any more.
So what’s the best approach for measuring your gain-per-month progress? To get the big picture of what’s going on over several weeks or months, a reliable body composition assessment is the way to go. I’m a big fan of the DXA scan method, detailed here. In order to determine what’s happening over a shorter time period, though, I suggest using body weight averages. Using a reliable bathroom scale, measure and record your body weight daily, then calculate weekly or 14-day averages to determine trends. Looking too closely at day-to-day fluctuations will likely drive you crazy. If you find that you’re gaining too quickly or not gaining enough, adjust your calories accordingly. Progress pictures (yes, mirror selfies) and girth measurements are also cheap, easy, and reliable ways to track body composition changes over time.
So what if you don’t necessarily want to bulk but you want to continue to see the gains? That’s a great question! And it’s a question that many advanced trainees will ask at some point in their fitness journeys. Most fitness-minded people may not want to settle for “maintenance” because that implies a lack of forward progress. We like the idea that you can continue to improve and continue to work for something. Well, the answer for this stage is “gaintaining.” I’m not going to take credit for the idea—or all of this information for that matter—Eric Helms is to credit for that. But here’s my take. If you’ve found yourself in this phase of maintaining the slow and steady gains, it means you likely:
- have tracked your food intake before and determined an appropriate macronutrient/calorie breakdown for slow and steady progress
- have established healthy dietary habits and portion-size awareness, and continue to improve habits
- have a healthy relationship with food and body image
- continue to see performance improvements
- continue to see physique improvements (less noticeable over months, but evident over years)
- generally feel awesome and healthy
- enjoy and focus on the process
We like the idea that you can continue to improve and continue to work for something. Well, the answer for this stage is “gaintaining.”
If you’re looking for more guidance on how to achieve the most optimal gains, I’d love to work with you! Simply reach out to me for more details about the Praxis Nutrition Coaching program, and we’ll get started right away.