Getting bigger is hard to do. No, I’m not talking about the time you tried to eat an entire box of donuts and woke up five pounds heavier. I’m talking about putting on real quality muscle tissue, which is one the most challenging, time consuming things you could ever attempt.
But given the right guidance, it can be done. There’s just a few things you should know first.
1) Food is everything.
So you’ve been lifting weights for six months and you look exactly the same? Haven’t gained a pound? Safe bet it’s because of your nutrition.
If you want to get bigger, you need to eat bigger. You could have the most killer workout routine in the world, but you won’t get those 18 inch guns eating like a 13-year-old girl.
Figure out how many calories you need to maintain your body weight, and then eat at least 500 calories more than that. In your first year of training you will gain lean muscle mass at a ridiculously fast rate, so don’t stress about eating too much right now.
2) Don’t be too strict with your diet.
I’ve touched on this before, but people make this mistake so often that it’s worth repeating. Chicken breast and rice five or six times a day is probably not going to give you the calories you need to grow. Unless you’re able to eat pounds of meat every day and eat more than a cup of rice with every meal, you’re going to need some more calorie dense food. Having the occasional burger or burrito could actually be beneficial to you. Adding things like olive or coconut oil, avocado, and peanut butter to your meals can also help you keep your calories high.
3) Don’t be too loose with your diet.
That said, trying to put on weight is not a license to stuff your face with donuts and ice cream all day. You need a solid foundation of protein, fat, and carbohydrates from nutrient-dense whole foods before you start reaching for filler calories.
If you take in an excess of calories with no regard to the actual nutrients, guess what? You’re going to get fat. If your training program is on point, you’ll probably put on a little lean mass as well, but most of that weight is going straight to your midsection.
Count your calories, count your macronutrients. Don’t be lazy. If you take shortcuts you’ll only end up cheating yourself.
3) Don’t imitate the pros.
We’ve all seen the magazine articles. “Kai Greene Diet Plan.” “Flex Lewis Shoulder Routine.” The truth is, whether it’s in relation to training or nutrition, what pro bodybuilders are doing is usually not a reflection of what you should be doing. And honestly, how accurate those articles really are is anybody’s guess. Think about t, if you were one of the top bodybuilders in the world, would you want your competition to know what you were eating or how you were training?
Everyone that has stepped on the Olympia stage has gone through years–maybe even decades–of trial and error to find out what works best for their bodies. Everyone is different, and someone at that elite level is going to have vastly different training and nutritional needs than someone just starting out.
And that’s not even taking into account the high amounts of hormones that these competitors are taking in that you (most likely) are not.
4) Bigger weights don’t always mean bigger muscles.
Almost everyone wants to be able to lift the whole gym when first starting out. While it’s great to want to get stronger, lifting maximum amount of weight (often with less than perfect form) can often be counterproductive and seriously hurt your results.
You need to pick a weight that allows you to focus on the muscle you’re working and execute the exercise properly. You’ll grow a lot faster training like this, and strength will come with time.
5) It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
As a beginner, you’re going to see much faster progress than someone who has already been training for years. That doesn’t mean you’re going to wake up tomorrow, or even a week from now, and look any different. Building muscle takes time. You need to be patient and learn to love the process because you might be busting your ass for a long time before you’re where you want to be.
You shouldn’t take that as discouraging in any way, you just need to have realistic goals and expectations so you don’t burn out and get bored before you really start making progress.
6) Don’t obsess over your abs.
Trying to get an eight pack and build muscle at the same time is damn near impossible to do, and you’ll likely spend most of your time running in circles and being aftaid to eat enough to actually grow. At the end of the day, you’re not getting any leaner because you’re trying to eat enough to get bigger. And you’re not getting any bigger because you’re terrified of eating too much and gaining fat. So you end up eating at maintenance and looking exactly the same.
One goal at a time is definitely a more efficient approach. That doesn’t mean you have to get super sloppy fat while you’re building muscle, but your goal should be to maintain your current conditioning while adding more lean body mass. You’ll likely gain a little bit of body fat along the way, but your muscle gains should outweigh your fat gains pretty significantly. You’ll probably even look a little bit leaner for your first few months just from all the added muscle.
7) Keep cardio to a minimum.
Cardio is good for two things. Heart health and burning lots of calories. A lot of people seem to have this notion that doing cardio flips a magic switch inside your body that makes you stay leaner, even while in a caloric surplus. This makes zero sense scientifically. Yes, burning excess calories might help you stay leaner if you’re in too high a surplus to begin with, but simply eating less food would have an identical effect.
Do cardio to keep your heart healthy and your endurance up, but don’t kid yourself by thinking it’s doing anything special for your physique.
8) Protein doesn’t equal muscle.
Don’t get me wrong here, protein is essential to the muscle building process, but simply eating more protein is not going to make you any bigger. Your overall caloric intake needs to be high enough that you’re gaining weight, which means you need to eat something other than chicken and steak.
Anything over 1-1.5g of protein per pound of lean bodyweight isn’t going to make much of a difference and will probably end up being comverted to glucose in the body anyway. Which brings me to my next point: don’t be afraid of carbs. When it comes to building muscle and putting on weight, carbs are really going to help you out. Not only will they serve as fuel for your workouts and help you lift more weight in the gym, they will help keep your glycogen levels full during the day and accelerate recovery for your next training session.
And let’s not forget about fat, either. There is no nutrient that can add easy-to-eat calories like dietary fat. At a whopping 9 calories per gram, keeping your fat intake moderate will both make your calorie needs much easier to hit and also keep your hormone levels where they need to be. Ever heard of testosterone? Yeah, you need fat to produce it.
9) Don’t Put Too Much Stock In Supplements
Sure, that jacked guy in the GNC polo made that $80 weight gainer powder sound like the holy grail of getting big. But what you’re getting in each 8-scoop serving of this heavily processed bro treat can be easily recreated with actual food–and for a hell of a lot less money.
There’s nothing wrong with using liquid calories to help you reach your calorie goal, but there’s nothing magical about these overpriced supplements that will give you any better results than some whole milk, bananas, and peanut butter. A simple whey protein isolate can be helpful if you have trouble reaching your protein requirements, but otherwise, you’re wasting your money.
The same goes for test boosters, preworkouts, and amino acids. Spending the money on an extra meal will give you better results than any of the aforementioned products.
All you need to worry about is lifting and eating, plain and simple.
10) Keep it simple, stupid.
There’s a member at my gym who does literally the most complicated version of every exercise he chooses. I see him doing his alternating kettlebell step-ups and all I want to do is tell him to go squat.
To be fair this is a very common mistake; it’s easy to get caught up in whatever fitness fad is sweeping your gym at the time. But you need to take a step back and look at what works.
The best thing for you to do as a beginner is keep your routine as simple as possible. Stick with the basics, or what I like to call the Big Five:
1. Bench Press
2. Chin-ups (or assisted variation)
3. Overhead Press
Using these five movements, you are stimulating literally every muscle in your body and maximizing potential for growth. Every single workout you do should be based around these five basic lifts. Can you still do curls and tricep extensions? Sure, but save them for after your compound lifts. These are the exercises that are going to give you the best results the fastest.
In summary, work hard, train smart, and eat big. Don’t overcomplicate it. You’re about to start one of the most exciting and rewarding processes anyone can put themselves through. Stick with it, don’t get discouraged, and you will learn to love even the most grueling moments along the way. Good luck!
Coming soon: The Do’s And Don’t’s Of Cutting!