I first started lifting weights in the early Fall of 2005 to get stronger for high school wrestling. Like most gym rats, I ended up having a much higher affinity for the gym and lifting weights than I did for wrestling. I started reading everything I could get my hands on: bodybuilding magazines, Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, any books that Borders or Barnes and Noble carried, old deepsquatter.com articles, and eventually eliteFTS.com articles. I was hooked; bitten by the iron bug at the age of fifteen.
I started to fall in love with lifting and couldn’t wait for our wrestling season to get over. I learned through my reading and research that once I wasn’t wasting a ton of calories at wrestling practice five days a week, I was going to finally start putting on some decent size! By late December, I was already counting down the days left in our wrestling season. I needed to get bigger, as my 165lbs didn’t exactly sit on my 5’9” frame well enough to let people know that I regularly lifted weights.
Wrestling season concluded around the end of February. I was happier than a kid on Christmas morning. Finally, I was going to start getting bigger. I was able to get rides to the gym from my older friends or from my mom to train at the same time as the other serious lifters. I was fresh for all my workouts since I wasn’t training after rolling around on the wrestling mat for two to three hours before lifting. I trained for roughly two hours a day, five days a week. I was eating four square meals of lean meat, some sort of slow digesting carbohydrate like brown rice or oatmeal, with little to no added fat, and drank two protein shakes a day. Everything was perfect…. until May came around and I was only 170lbs. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t progressing faster. I was doing everything right. I was eating clean. I was training as hard as I could. I was sleeping seven or more hours each night. I couldn’t figure out where I was going wrong.
I competed in a WABDL bench and deadlift meet in April of 2006, benching 297 and deadlifting 451 at a body weight of around 170lbs. While competing at this meet, I met a few people who were doing strongman and powerlifting in St. Louis, Missouri. I eventually started catching a ride to train with them on Saturdays from one of their training partners, Jeromy Moore, who would pick me up on his way to St. Louis. These guys were all massive and insanely strong compared to me. I would ask them hundreds of questions during downtime between sets or after training. Everything from nutrition and supplements to training and how to set up a weekly schedule. One of the bigger, meaner-looking lifters, named Rob Kolberer, eventually entertained some of my questions. As a true mentor would, Rob started asking me some questions instead of just giving me the answers I was seeking. He asked me what I was eating and how often, how I was training during the week when I wasn’t training with the St. Louis crew etc. I was happy to divulge everything! I knew if anyone could help me get bigger and stronger, it was this 290lb behemoth.
Rob knew what I was doing wrong just from training with me and taking one look at my 170lb body. He was trying to get me to come to the realization on my own without giving me the answer. Rob alluded to how he was eating to sustain his 290lbs and the differences between his diet and my own. He then educated me on how some of the other members of the St. Louis lifting crew ate. They all similarly ate massive amounts of calories, most of them coming from white rice, pasta, milk, fattier meats etc. Another big difference was that they only ate three or four times a day and didn’t drink any protein shakes. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought Rob was messing with me. After all, I was a fifteen-year-old kid hanging out with a bunch of grown men, pestering them for advice every opportunity that I had. I thought that I would get fat and not build any muscle from eating the foods that Rob suggested. I was skeptical to say the least.
It took some convincing, but I eventually succumbed to Rob’s advice by the end of July and started eating a little “dirtier.” I started eating more pasta and white rice, swapped chicken breasts for thighs, and started eating 80% lean beef. By mid-September, I was already up to 188lbs. I was finally gaining weight and getting stronger. Another training partner, Mike Wortham, suggested to add some calories at the end of the day before going to bed by drinking a cup of half and half with a cup of whole milk and eating a peanut butter sandwich. I added this strategy to the changes I had already made and was up to 200lbs by the beginning of November, 2006. I had added some body fat, but I couldn’t have been happier. My entire wardrobe was either too small or barely fitting. My lifts were going up weekly. I was finally 200lbs and it was just past my first anniversary with the iron. All was right in the world.
Looking back on my diet while I was wrestling, I was eating everything I could get my hands on and I was stagnant at 165lbs because my activity level was so high from wrestling practice and lifting for an hour or more after practice. I knew I had to start eating a little cleaner as soon as wrestling stopped, or I would get fat. My big mistake was that I went from eating everything I could get my hands on while wrestling, with a balanced caloric intake and expenditure, to eating much less calorically dense foods but also expending much less calories. Essentially, my net caloric intake and expenditure didn’t change much once wrestling season was over and I switched to eating a typical 1990’s bodybuilding diet of chicken and brown rice. I only started making some headway in the gym and with my physique when I pushed my caloric intake up by eating more carbs and fattier meats and kept my expenditure the same. Overall, my food volume didn’t change that much. The caloric content of the foods however became much more dense.
Implement the following strategies to gradually push your caloric intake higher. I have listed these in order of return on investment while limiting fat gain. I recommend starting with the first three strategies right off the bat. Give yourself two or three weeks before adding the fourth strategy. Add the fourth strategy, then wait another two or three weeks before adding the fifth and so on. Think of these tips as “cards” that you can play when your weight stops increasing. With that in mind, we are wanting to get as much out of each of these “cards” as possible before adding the next one. This slow and steady approach will help limit fat accumulation while allowing you to steadily increase calories over a 12-16 week period.
1 A. Use dextrose, or some other fast digesting carb, around your training session to help increase caloric intake. The easiest way to add 200-400kcal to your diet and not have to worry about gaining fat is to ingest between 50 and 100g of dextrose during your training session via an intra-workout drink. I use Gatorade for an intra-workout drink at the prescribed serving and water mixture (55g of sugar and dextrose per 32 fluid oz). I prefer Gatorade over other intra-workout drinks due to price alone. If you can afford branched cyclic dextrin or some other $50 intra-workout supplement every two to three weeks, go for it. I’ll stick to the $7.36 large tub of orange Gatorade that Costco sells at pretty much every location.
1 B. Eat faster digesting carbs such as white rice, grits, and quick oats. These don’t sit in your stomach as long as brown rice or rolled oats, so you will be hungry sooner after eating than if you had consumed one of the higher fiber options.
1 C. Eat lower gas fibrous foods, such as carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes, to improve digestion while not limiting caloric intake with a bloated belly and full stomach. These foods help to add necessary fiber to your diet without obstructing your appetite for hours after eating.
2. Eat fattier meats, such as 80/20 ground beef, chicken thighs, and pork chops instead of leaner options like 93/7 beef, chicken breast, or pork loin.
3. Use monosodium glutamate (MSG) to help stimulate appetite. This one isn’t a very popular option yet, because of a few old studies out there that have scared health conscious folks off of MSG, but it is extremely effective at stimulating appetite. Using a little MSG to season your meat will greatly enhance its flavor, making the chore of eating four to six meals a day with 6-8oz of meat in each meal a lot more enjoyable. Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant or buffet? Chinese cuisine has a distinct flavor due to added MSG. Think about the last time you went and pigged out at a Chinese buffet. You probably ate until you were uncomfortable, but you were still ready to eat again in four hours. Some of that phenomenon is due to white rice and lower gas vegetables being staples in Chinese food, but the added MSG also helps stimulate appetite by lowering leptin, the hormone that helps regulate energy balance by letting your brain know you are satiated from eating. Adding a little MSG to your meat during food preparation will allow you to eat a few more ounces of meat each meal without the uncomfortable feeling of overeating.
4 A (implement both 4s together). Eat a higher fat meal before going to bed. A 16 oz glass of whole milk (or a mixture of whole milk and half and half, if you are feeling frisky) and a peanut butter sandwich before bed is a great way to add a few hundred calories to your daily intake. Eating a higher fat meal before bed will especially help if you have an exceptionally fast metabolism.
4 B (implement both 4s together). Do cardio twice a week after training. “But Max, if I am trying to gain weight and get bigger, shouldn’t I just be lifting and avoiding cardio like the plague?” Absolutely not. The cardio I am recommending isn’t going to set you up to PR your next half marathon, so don’t shy away from me on this one until you hear me out. I recommend doing just 10 minutes of HIIT training (15-20 seconds of work, 45-40 seconds of rest) after your leg or back training twice a week. If you are already training balls-to-the-wall and 10 minutes of HIIT is going to push you over the edge, two 20-minute LISS sessions on the stair stepper or elliptical after upper body training will suffice. The goal of this off-season cardio is to keep you healthy, lean, and hungry. You read that right, hungry! One of the best things about HIIT training, besides the fat loss and cardiovascular benefits, is that it will stimulate hunger.
5. Finally, experiment with Ibutamoren. Ibutamoren is a research chemical that is an orally active growth hormone secretagogue. It is currently being researched as a treatment option for growth hormone deficiency, with some statistically significant increases in muscle mass and bone mineral density being reported in human studies. Ibutamoren has been shown to produce sustained increases in plasma levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1). Though the main effects of Ibutamoren are enough to make any gym goer interested in it, the side effects are where I think this supplement really shines. My experience with this compound was fairly common from the anecdotal accounts I have gathered from other lifters that have used it. I started taking 25mg of Ibutamoren in the morning about 20 minutes before my first meal. I noticed with the first four or five hours that my hunger was getting worse and worse between meals. I would eat a normal sized meal and within 90 minutes I would start feeling hungry again. I ended up eating an additional meal to try to get the hunger to subside before going to bed that night. I repeated this same cycle of hunger pains and adding an extra meal to deal with the ravenous hunger for six days before I couldn’t take the it anymore. I hadn’t noticed that my sleep was any better or worse during these first six days, but that was probably due to the insane hunger my mind was occupied with. I switched to taking the Ibutamoren an hour before bed to see if that would help the hunger pains between meals subside. It worked perfectly. Not only did taking the Ibutamoren before bed relieve the ravenous hunger between meals, I also noticed my sleep dramatically improved. I realize that sleep quality is extremely subjective, but I can without a shadow of a doubt say that every time I have used Ibutamoren before bed my energy levels the following day, general mood, and recovery time from training all improve. I don’t know if I was getting the same effect while taking the ibutamoren in the morning, but I am sure I was as the half life of this compound is nearly 24 hours. However, I would not have been able to report any subjective increases in mood or recovery time as my hunger pains were so uncomfortable that all I could think about was food!
Ok, enough back story, this is how I would recommend starting Ibutamoren. Start with 10mg in the morning before breakfast and assess how this dose impacts your hunger. Give it four or five days before increasing the dose to 15mg, if needed. Again, if you aren’t feeling an increase in hunger between meals, wait another four or five days before increasing to 20mg. I would not recommend going above 25mg. I couldn’t stand the huger pains from 25mg. If I were to do this over, I wish I would have started with a lower dose and assessed how much it impacted my hunger. You are never wrong for starting out conservative and building up from there.
Give these strategies a shot the next time you want to dedicate four or five months to putting on some size and gaining weight. Remember to not start with all of them right out of the gate. Please do not make the same mistake that most people make when it comes time to gain weight: throw caution to the wind with food choices and portions, gain 20lbs of fat, and not give any thought to maintaining some semblance of a healthy lifestyle. If you slowly ramp your kcals up and incrementally add these strategies to your plan you will limit fat gain. Keep the old style of gaining 20-30lbs just to diet 28lbs of fat off to get back to your starting body fat level in the past where it belongs.