Saturday, January 12, 2008

Some Solid Advice for the Hard-gainer

Victor Dean MS, CSCS
Hey Jean,
I'm pretty much a hard-gainer. I've been lifting pretty intensively and (I think) followed a diet that should be fostering some real growth (3000+ calories on lifting days; 40/40/20; whey first thing in the morning and pre/post workout, etc.), but I just seem to have stalled at my current weight (mid 170's). I put on about 5 pounds when I ramped up my diet, but can't seem to push much higher. Any advice?

Very best regards, Mike

If the weight loss stalled, your diet is not giving you enough calories to foster growth, considering the activity you do! The most important part of building lean mass is eating extra calories. The extra calories should come from high quality protein, carbohydrates and fat, primarily before and after workouts. Note that a “bulking” diet is not a license to eat piles of wretched, processed junk-food! There are several points I would like to address. Also, since I am not a hard-gainer, I asked my friend Victor Dean, trainer (CSCS) and owner of Victor Dean Training, for his advice as well. His contribution follows my points and is written all bold.

1. Make sure that you are supplementing your workouts properly and giving your body important nutrition at the proper times.

The carbohydrates and protein surrounding workouts are essential. The supplements are recommended to maximize muscle size. I am only mentioning supplements that have unequivocal research to support their use!

Research supports the notion that meal timing around exercise increases the amount of lean mass gained. In one study, researchers supplemented two groups of men with the same supplement, except one group got the supplement immediately before and after resistance training; the other group received the supplement several hours before and after working out. The group that received the supplement immediately before and after the workout gained significantly more lean mass than the group that did not practice good nutrient timing.

Carbohydrates before after a weight-lifting workout:

I consume about 0.5 grams/kg of carbohydrates (roughly 25g for a small woman; 50g for a man) before a weight-lifting workout, and between 0.5-1.0g/kg after a workout (weight in kg is your weight in pounds divided by 2.2). A slow absorbing carbohydrate is appropriate before a workout; a good example is oats. A fast absorbing carb is good for after a workout, I eat dates. The dried fruits are absorbed even faster than regular table sugar and are a completely natural source of fast-absorbing carbohydrates.

Protein before and after a workout:

Generally, protein supplementation enhances lean mass gain during periods of resistance training-- thousands of studies support this conclusion. A study conducted at Baylor University in young men showed a significant increase in muscle mass with about 40 grams of protein supplementation per day. Before a work-out, whey protein, casein protein or mixed protein sources (like whey and casein/egg and whey).

Supplement with 0.25 to 0.5 grams/kg of protein before your workout.

Creatine before you workout:

Numerous published studies show the benefits of creatine supplementation for increased lean mass and strength. One study, conducted at Baylor University, showed about twice as much lean mass gain for men taking creatine over the placebo group when completing the same resistance training program. In this study the men supplemented with 20 grams/day during a one week loading phase and 5 grams/day for the rest of the twelve week study for maintenance. If you choose to do a loading phase, be sure to split the creatine up into 4 or 5 doses throughout the day to minimize stomach upset.

Creatine monohydrate is the form of creatine that has been studied the most and has been proven effective in research; 500g should not cost more than $15. Furthermore, there is evidence that creatine is absorbed better with carbohydrates and protein. This means that you may take creatine with your pre-workout carbohydrate and protein meal.

BCAA before and after weight-lifting:

Consume about 0.05 g/kg of BCAA before and after workouts; at least half of your BCAA should come from the amino acid leucine. Leucine is special because it signals cells to “turn on” the genes that promote muscle growth. A pure BCAA powder is the most economical way to take this supplement; one rounded teaspoon is about 5 grams. A container containing 500g should cost you about $22-30 and last 1-2 months, depending on your weight. BCAAs have a bitter taste, however, so many people prefer to supplement in pill form.

If you do not own a copy of Dr. John Ivy’s Nutrient Timing, I would suggest buying it reading it, and following it.

2. Beware of cardio-overkill

The muscular adaptations that occur with weight training (increased muscle mass and strength) and the adaptations that occur with endurance training (smaller muscles that are more energy efficient—meaning they burn FEWER calories to do the same work) are directly contradictory. If you are logging several hours a week on the treadmill in an attempt to stay lean while gaining muscle, switch to a few 20-30 minute, high intensity interval workouts 3-4 times a week and skip the marathon training!

3. Include Power Days

High-intensity sessions that emphasize short rest periods and super-setting have a place in any program; however, you will not get maximal size or strength without maximal weight load. Your muscle, nerves, and hormone-secreting glands respond in a special way to the heaviest weight you can lift. A heavy workout approach may require longer rest periods and fewer reps (4-6) a couple of times per week.

4. Include enough overall dietary fat

For getting super-lean, you may need to take your fat down to 20% of total calories; however, if you are trying to gain weight, limiting fat is counter productive. When I asked Victor Dean, trainer and business-owner, about the hard gainer issue, he had this to say.

Victor’s response:

Mike’s situation is common; countless bodybuilders have difficulty gaining size. A number of possible solutions have been thrown at this problem, some with more success than others. One common method is to consume carbohydrates excessively and hope that muscles will swell in response to the extra glucose. This approach has some validity it its base-- carbohydrates are used during heavy weight training and ample carbohydrates are used by the body to recover from workouts. However, loads of high-glycemic, processed carbohydrates immediately after a workout may be in excess of post-workout needs. Consequently, lifters relying simply on extra carbohydrate may gain primarily body fat from the extra carbohydrates.

There are a couple of problems with excessive carbohydrate consumption. First, muscle tissue can only absorb a limited amount of glucose in a given time period. Some experts estimate that the muscles require 50g glucose every 2 hrs for the average 200lb bodybuilder. I think that actual muscle needs vary largely, depending on the individual and his or her current state of nutrient demand, but let’s stick with the 50g glucose/hour number for now. If a bodybuilder throws in an additional 75-100g at a time, the additional carbohydrates overwhelming the muscle will be converted to fat and stored as such. Your body does this to clear the blood of excess sugar.

I am also concerned that your gaining diet is only 20% fat. Bodybuilders consuming diets chronically low in fat are susceptible to aches and pains that don’t go away; furthermore, strength and mass gains are limited and great pumps are MIA.

Once post-workout carbohydrate needs are satisfied, an effective approach is to add more fat. As long as carbohydrate intake is high enough to replace muscle glycogen stores and provide an anabolic insulin spike after a workout, the best way to fully recover and gain quality body mass is to slowly add more fats to your diet, specifically healthy mono and poly-unsaturated fats. The calorie-dense fats will give your body more fuel to run on, conserve carbohydrates consumed and liver glycogen, and they will provide you with the necessary energy to repair damaged tissues and produce key hormones, like testosterone. In fact, research shows that chronically low fat intake is directly associated with lower testosterone levels in men. A higher fat intake will yield better results for you, as well as a long and happy life for your joints and tendons.

To gain weight, you must eat more calories than your body can burn. That said, if you are not ravenous, it’s much easier to eat a handful of almonds than a huge plateful of pasta. So Mike will have an easier time gaining weight if he adds some fat to his meal plan. He should ensure he is getting in 40-50g of carbohydrates every couple hours but also add a serving of fat to each meal and see what happens! Examples of good, healthy fat sources are almonds, olive oil, natural peanut butter, flax oil, and fish oil. Fats with more omega-3’s (fish oil, walnuts, canola oil) have a beneficial impact on cholesterol and reduce inflammation; adding extra saturated or trans fats to a diet will contribute to heart disease and inflammation. Make sure the fat is increased gradually; even healthy fats will cause you to pack on fat pounds if overdone. Play with it a little and I’m sure you will be happy with the results.

Best of Luck!


Jean offers nutrition coaching for weight loss, muscle gain, or any of your personal goals at her office in the Alico building in downtown Waco, TX right in the heart of central Texas. She also offers personal training services at Ironhorse gym on the corner of Franklin and 17th, which is also very convenient to downtown Waco. Contact information can be found on her personal website.

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