The Essentials of Muscle Building, in Order (Part 2)

A Lot of Calories

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In Part 1 of this series we discussed how many myths are born by trying to change more than one variable of your lifting program and then coming to conclusions about which variable actually contributed to the results you achieved. We also talked about the 80/20 rule and how there is a “hierarchy”, if you will, of the most important aspects or variables to focus on to build muscle. Many people put a lot of their focus on variables that do not matter all that much in the long-run at the expense of aspects that actually make a substantial difference.

Now we will continue with the most important aspects of muscle building after Progressive Overload with High Mechanical Load.

2. Total Daily Calories

If you consider yourself a “hardgainer” or someone who will inevitably stay skinny no matter what you do, please read this section carefully.

As Lyle is fond of saying in his book The Ultimate Diet 2.0, your body hates you. It wants you to stay wimpy and have as much fat as possible, probably exactly opposite of what you are trying to make it look like.

Why does it want this?

Simple: Survival. Adding and carrying around extra muscle is not something that your body enjoys doing AT ALL. Adding new muscle mass through protein synthesis is a very costly procedure energy-wise. Your body needs to use a lot of calories to perform most of the steps involved in adding new muscle mass. Since your body thinks you could starve to death any month (since it has evolved from millions of years ago), it does not like to allocate its calories in this matter. Moreover, after having used all those calories to build muscle, now his has to  continue to keep using calories just to compensate for the extra weight you have gained when you move around. Lastly, whenever your body needs some extra protein for something, it doesn’t mind taking it from your precious muscles if it thinks you don’t need it anymore (read: if you have stopped lifting, lifting less weight, or are in a big calorie deficit).

In order to get our body to actually add the muscle we want it to, we need to give it a  stimulus for growth and an persuasive reason to grow. Progressive overload in Part 1 covered the stimulus, but now we need to give it a persuasive reason.

If the body does not think that it has an abundance of calories incoming, then it will slow down gaining muscle to a crawl.

In order to build muscle at any substantial speed (assuming you are not  just starting to lift, since newbies are one exception), you need to be consuming more calories than you are burning (through metabolism, exercise, and general movement) on average throughout each week. I use “week” instead of “day” since you can under-eat one day but make up for it on the next day, if you are lifting the second day for example.

You might be thinking that you have already tried over-eating and you never gained any weight. I already discussed this problem here, but for a little re-cap, you probably did not eat as much as you thought you did. If you want to get a good idea at how much you are actually eating, you need to track your calories, at least for a little while.

People are surprisingly bad at estimating how much they are actually eating. Even in research settings, the participants can never be trusted to accurately report how much they are eating. It would be a wise idea to track your calories for a few months so that you become very good at guessing about how much you are eating every day. A nice and convenient way to do this is by using FitDay. FitDay is an online calorie and nutrient tracker that allows you to search its massive database for common food items and some brand-name items. It also has mobile apps for the Apple and Android stores.

If you have increased your caloric intake and you still are not gaining weight, then you might be an individual who generally increases his general activity whenever you increase your amount of calories. Lyle covered this problem here, but the essential idea is that as you increase your calories, you increase your NEAT (Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis) along-side your increase in calorie consumption, basically canceling out the extra energy you are consuming.

Anyhow, this does not really matter in the long-run, in my opinion. If you do unconsciously move more when you eat more or you have a higher-than-average metabolism, then you just need to increase your calories even more. At this point, many will say that they have tried eating more and it didn’t work. I would then tell them this:

  1. Track your calories for a couple months. You are probably not estimating how much you are eating accurately.
  2. Increase your calories by at least 500 cals/day. Then track and record your weight for at least another month.
  3. If weight gain is still too slow, add  another 500 cals/day. Record and track your weight gain.
  4. (Consistency in tracking calories is necessary)

To drive home the point on just how important total calories are, consider the following: When I go on a diet to lose fat, I either keep my weight training the same or increase the weight and I increase my protein consumption each day. I train as hard as ever, and I do everything I can do keep my muscle mass. Normally, I am able to keep all or almost all of my muscle while dropping fat (unless it’s a really fast and intense diet), yet even with this intense training and increased protein consumption, I almost never (or very rarely) gain muscle!

The main difference? Total calories each day. It’s that important. It’s #2 on the Muscle Building Hierarchy.


As a last note, since we have not gotten to nutrient timing yet, I will add some comments about that here. Bulking strategies like intermittent fasting have gotten popular recently, and I personally am on some sort of intermittent fasting program more often than not recently. I will eventually dedicate an entire article to cover IF (intermittent fasting) covering all of the benefits of it and who it would be useful for.

What I want to say here is that you do not have to constantly eat if you are bulking. If 6 meals a day helps you get all of your calories in, then go for it. If you will become obese without any monitoring of what you are eating (I kind of fit into this category.. I LOVE to eat), then you may actually have to worry about going too overboard with your calories consumption during a bulk, so that you do not gain too much fat along with the muscle. It might be helpful to crunch up your meals closer together so that you get to eat big, filling meals. However, I do not want to delve into this much here. You will need to wait for the IF article. Until then, feel free to get the jist of IF here and here.

Part 3 here.