During the late 1980s, supplement manufacturers promoted the use of mass-gaining powders to assist athletes and bodybuilders in their quest to pack on pounds of mass in a short time frame. These products sold en masse (no pun intended) under the assumption that drastically increasing one's caloric intake, coupled with a heavy weight-training program, would quickly add pounds of muscle mass.
The formulators of these products made one fatal error: They failed to distinguish muscle mass from fat mass. Neglecting to test their products adequately in human performance labs, they paid no attention to macronutrient ratios and rolled out products that were overloaded with low-nutrient, highly processed fillers and simple sugars.
Fast forward to 2005, when mass-building strategies have evolved into a sophisticated science. Knowledge of nutrition and supplementation has progressed, as has data supporting nutrient timing and knowledge of periodizing training programs to maximize gains. Unlike the pudgy weight lifters of 1989, today's elite athletes and bodybuilders know that to gain lean mass in a short period of time, they need to pay special attention to three key variables:
- constructing a two-month periodized training program, using multi-joint exercises, power lifting, and core strengthening techniques;
- timing macronutrient intake to maximize the body's changing daily needs; and
- planning and creating nutrient-dense, mass-building meals and snacks that are easy, delicious, and portable.
When you want to gain the most mass in the shortest time frame possible, you need to focus on a two-month window that coincides with your sport's off-season. An avid downhill skier, for example, should focus on August and September to tackle these goals. (If you're a simple fitness buff, try picking a less-busy period when you can focus a lot of your energy on strength training and food intake). Your emphasis during these months should be directed towards strict lifting technique, power lifting, core strength, flexibility, and of course nutrition strategies. Why the off-season? Because closer to the start of the season, you will need focus less on mass and strength, and more on sports specificity, metabolic conditioning, endurance, injury prevention, and power endurance.
First, choose your weights carefully, since exercise selection is of primary importance to building muscle. To build lean muscle fast, you want to utilize multiple, large muscle groups and recruit large motor units. Excellent strength-training exercises for this eight-week period include squats, dead lifts, bench press, push press, Romanian dead lifts, strict curls, barbell rows, weighted chins, weighted dips, dumbbell work on the physioball, and so on.
Next, break out your workouts into four intense workout days. To avoid overtraining muscle groups, choose muscles by groups that work in tandem rather than by individual muscle. Below is a sample four-day workout plan:
- Day 1: back and biceps
- Day 2: chest and triceps
- Day 3: no weights; cardio and flexibility training
- Day 4: explosive training, legs
- Day 5: shoulders, traps, rotator cuff complex
- Day 6: no weights; cardio and flexibility training
- Day 7: no weights; cardio and flexibility training
- Week 1—Hypertrophy (muscle growth): For the first week of exercise, you should focus on higher reps at lower intensity. Lifting at an average of 65 to 75 percent of your one-rep max (1RM), do three sets of 12 reps of your strength training regimen with a short 60 seconds rest between sets.
- Week 2—Strength: For your second week, increase your intensity to 75 to 85 percent of your 1RM and reduce your regimen to three sets of eight reps. Increase your rest period to 90 seconds rest between sets.
- Week 3—Strength with increased intensity: For week three, increase your intensity to 85 to 90 percent of your 1RM and reduce your strength training regimen to three sets of six reps. Increase your rest period further to two minutes rest between sets.
- Week 4—Power: Feeling the burn yet? Increase your intensity to 95 percent of your 1RM and reduce your strength training regimen to four sets of five, four, three and two reps, respectively. Allow yourself three minutes of rest between sets (you'll need it).
- Week 5—Hypertrophy: Repeat Week 1, with newly established 1RM for each lift
- Week 6—Strength: Repeat Week 2
- Week 7—Strength with increased intensity: Repeat Week 3
- Week 8—Power: Repeat Week 4
During these intense training phases, your system will be taxed as a result of the weekly four intense weight-training days. You will naturally crave more calories as your immune system gets taxed, glycogen stores get depleted, and muscle fiber is stressed. The key is to deliver ample doses of macronutrients to your body at planned intervals throughout the day to ensure the following:
- your body is consistently loaded with slow release, nutrient-laden, low-glycemic carbohydrates in the morning and also prior to working out. Foods that meet these criteria include oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, grains, nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables;
- your body has a steady flow of protein from a variety of sources (salmon, halibut, turkey, lean beef, eggs, soy, lean dairy products, and chicken) to ensure that your system remains in an anabolic state; and
- your body is replenished with high-glycemic carbohydrates (juice, cereals, pastas, sweet potatoes) and rapidly assimilated protein (whey protein isolate, lean animal protein) within the first hour following each training session. This strategy will take advantage of the bodies natural high levels of human growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factor, which tend to peak 45 to 60 minutes after training commences.
You should space your protein consumption evenly throughout the day to ensure a positive nitrogen balance and to allow your body to easily assimilate the amino acids. For example, a 200-pound male will aim for 140 to 160 grams per day, divided evenly among five meals (28 to 32 grams per meal).
Step 3: Plan Your Meals and Snacks
The old adage, "nobody ever plans to fail, they just fail to plan," certainly holds true when it comes to crafting a nutritional program for mass building. People with busy lifestyles need to remember to plan, shop for, cook, and pack portable mass building meals. Failure to prepare is one of the primary reasons that wannabe mass builders never get the gains they want.
When following this program, you should consume a solid meal once every three to four hours, making sure you space your protein consumption evenly throughout the day. Additionally, fluid intake is important, and you should consume 100 ounces of liquid (either water or a half-water, half-sports drink mix); drink the liquid slowly and evenly over a two-hour period that includes before, during, and after each training session.
Examples of healthful fast and portable snacks that can help you meet your protein intake goals include the following:
- Trail Mix: 100 percent oats, raisins, almonds, soy nuts, high protein, and soy cereal
- Carrot Sticks, whole grain crackers, and hummus
- Yogurt with fruit (low sugar)
- Cottage cheese with fruit
- Light string cheeses
- Protein smoothies with soy milk, frozen berries, and flax seed oil
Eric Mink is a former professional football player and the founder of a sports performance clinic specializing in physical training, joint rehab, and nutrition for athletes. Mink has written analytical reports on the pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplement industries, as well as a range of articles in the areas of sports training and rehab, nutrition, and training theory and practice.