Your Diet Isn't Building Any Muscle
Listen, you know that super popular diet you're following, the one that everyone online can't stop buzzing about?
It's not working for you.
I know it's healthy. It may even be easy to follow, or make you feel intellectually superior to those luddites still eating the way we did back in the dark ages (a.k.a. the '90's).
But it's obviously failing you miserably where it matters most: accomplishing your goal, which was supposedly to get big and strong.
Ah yes, the goal. As T Nation grand scholar Dan John says, the goal should always be to keep the goal the goal. But sometimes it seems, the more we learn, the more elusive the goal becomes.
Because that's the curious thing about information, even good information – too much of it can divert your focus from the really important things you need to do to get things accomplished.
Here are a couple of the problems, as I see 'em:
1. You're trying to get big doing some form of Intermittent Fasting.
Intermittent fasting (IF) diets have their appeal. Some love the reduced time spent shopping and cooking (and eating), and the end of the day pig-out can work well for those who need to tighten up but still love to eat big once a day.
In my opinion, the best thing about IF plans is the effect they've had on bodybuilding ideology. These plans have almost single-handedly slaughtered one of the industries most sacred cows, meal frequency.
You young whippersnappers may not believe this, but there was a time that eating six meals a day was the minimum. In fact, the truly hardcore ate upwards of 8 or more meals a day, each consumed every 2 hours with OCD-inspired precision that would even make Howard Hughes say, "Dude, really, lighten the fuck up."
As you might imagine, this led to some peculiar behavior. Suddenly guys who were 20 weeks out from the Mr. Moosehead bodybuilding show wouldn't leave the house without camping coolers filled with dry chicken breasts and rice and rubbery broccoli.
I even had a friend who used to stuff beef jerky and sandwich meats into his pants before heading out to the club, lest he'd miss a meal while getting his Diet Coke on. Fortunately for him, his game was as lame as his diet, so he never had to explain to any willing female why his boxers smelled like the deli counter at the Piggly Wiggly.
So for that, I applaud fasting diets.
But for a hard-gainer with a goal of packing on mass, these plans are among the worst approaches you can follow.
Use logic, son – you're having trouble gaining mass. Your big issue – provided you're not following Chuck Norris's Total Gym workout or doing shots off a stripper's behind til 4 AM every night – is that your hummingbird metabolism is sucking up more calories than you're taking in.
Some guys require over 5000 calories a day or more to build muscle. So how does shortening your eating window to whatever you can stuff down your pie-hole while watching Game of Thrones before bed make accomplishing this goal easier?
Even if there are some dubious hormonal benefits to not eating for 12 or more waking hours at a stretch, in terms of muscle-building potential, it doesn't compare to simply eating during those hours.
To quote just about anybody on the T Nation staff, eating is a hormonal event. Insulin goes up, cortisol goes down, protein synthesis turns on, and catabolism shuts down. Yeah, it's kind of a big deal.
Still, some skinny guys will dispute this. They'll complain of poor appetite, lousy digestion, a busy work/school/social life, and other challenges that make eating frequently uncomfortable or impractical.
Poor digestion is frustrating, although depending on the severity, there are ways to alleviate it – some simple, like taking probiotics or eating more fermented foods; others a little more involved. In my experience, this is where working with a good natural health practitioner can be very helpful.
Another time honored method of improving digestion, ripped straight from TC's Big Bad Book of Knowledge, is to eat less garbage.
In other words, if you frequently leave your bathroom smelling like Vamonos Pest Control just did a 3-day meth cook in it, the problem likely is your food choices, not your food timing.
As for the other challenges, to this I must respectfully say, grow a set. No one said this getting big shit was easy.
Eating – along with shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning – is a chore. All but the most monk-like bodybuilders will admit that the whole process can be a major pain in the ass.
When you have a high calorie target, eating to grow can almost feel like a full-time job – which is why some bodybuilders eschew typical vocations in favor of bouncing gigs or jumping out of cakes at Zach Efron's birthday party.
But almost every skinny guy who became a muscular guy had to roll up their shirtsleeves and do it until they built an appreciable amount of mass. Then they could slack off a bit.
Fasting, on the other hand, isrelatively easy. Sleep in late – hard to be hungry when you're sleeping – and then replace eating with coffee and stimulants and mental distractions, all the while relishing your rationalized laziness.
So the question becomes, are self-proclaimed hardgainers latching onto fasting diets for the reputed efficacy of the system, or because it validates their lazy bastard lifestyle?
Just because something "works" for your life doesn't mean it's going to work for you. It may be all warm and fuzzy to say, "The best diet/program is the one that suits your lifestyle," but if the end results of said lifestyle aren't fulfilling, perhaps you might consider enduring some temporary discomfort to accomplish what you really want.
Solution: Fortunately, you don't have to choose between some 8 meal-a-day life-plan and eating once a day.
Fact is, when you're not used you to eating big, it's best to try to keep things as easy as possible. Here are some easy tips:
- Have breakfast within an hour of waking up. Make sure it has at least 50 grams of protein. If you're not hungry in the morning, or meat and eggs are too much of a chore, make a shake with 3 scoops of Metabolic Drive® Muscle Growth, blueberries, some yogurt or almond milk, and frozen spinach (you won't taste it). Add a handful of unroasted nuts and a few Flameout™.
- Have a solid lunch of some kind. Try to hit 50 grams of meat-based protein. Eat your protein first if you're the vaginal type that usually taps out half-way through meals.
If you can't cook, buy a deli chicken and eat half of it, skin and all, and make a promise to yourself to eat the other half later. Better yet, eat the whole thing. Some rice would be an ideal accompaniment here, provided it doesn't leave you asleep at your desk in an hour. Make sure at least two vegetables make a Hitchcockian cameo appearance on your plate.
- Add whichever Anaconda™ Muscle Loading Protocol™ suits your goals. Good peri-workout nutrition will do much of the dietary heavy lifting for you, so you don't have to be as anal about your other meals.
Follow the protocol to the letter. Don't try to outsmart it. You won't be able to MacGyver something similar out of skim milk powder, cured bacon, and wood chips, and your time can be spent doing other things, like shopping, cooking, or talking to girls.
- Have a solid meal within an hour of finishing your workout, ideally a few hours before bed. Include some protein and enough starchy carbs to choke the Polish army. Rub your food belly.
The above plan is certainly not complete or "ideal," but it is "doable" and will work decidedly better at adding mass than finding ways to avoid the kitchen.
IF, after reading all this, you still insist on intermittent fasting, at least do it the smart way: slug down a pulse or two of MAG-10® Protein Pulsing Protocol™ every few hours in-between your widely spaced meals.
2. You're trying to get big eating a strict Paleolithic diet.
Paleo is a good diet, arguably the best of the bookstore diets. I'd hasten a guess that if everybody ate this way, type-2 diabetes would go the way of bubonic plague, we'd all be healthier, leaner, pay less in health care costs, and never have to debate whether banning 32-ounce sodas from school lunch programs is a good idea ever again.
So you've embraced Paleo. You've resolved to not put anything in your mouth that Rae Dawn Chong's character in Quest For Fire wouldn't put in hers (prehistoric fellating scene notwithstanding).
By all accounts, it's a "healthy" decision. Avoiding any man-made foods in favor of the natural ones our ancestors supposedly ate eliminates a lot of crap, such as trans fats, refined sugars, and gluten, a protein composite that's supposedly been linked to a growing list of digestive and cognitive disorders.
But in your quest – not for fire, but for mass – is this bringing you closer towards your goal?
The problem with the Paleo movement is that what started as a sensible, easy paradigm to help lay-people differentiate good foods from bad ones has become something that must be followed dogmatically in all situations, no exceptions.
Thing is, dogma and dieting rarely mix well. All too often, an innocent idea gets twisted and turned and perverted like young Anakin Skywalker after too many lunch dates with Senator Palpatine.
Paleo juicer recipes? Paleo exercise? Paleo ice cream?
As a result, it's led to enormous ideological cherry picking. For example: thinking you're "doing Paleo" by eating a mechanically separated chicken salad from Chili's in an airport lounge while watching ESPN highlights on your iPad is almost as ridiculous as my personal favorite – a Paleo meal delivery service app on your smart phone.
Tell me, would a caveman have access to that app?
I hear you scoffing. It's Paleo eating, not Paleo living. It's eating in accordance with our eons-old genotype, not trying to reenact the Flintstones.
You argue that while you may have 99.5% of the same genes as Joe Paleo, he lived in a spartanly decorated cave and spent his days foraging and hunting; you're from the suburbs and the closest you've come to ancestral living was that time you camped out in front of the mall for two days to get first crack at an iPhone.
Trying to live the way Joe Paleo did is impractical, you say, not to mention illogical, and doesn't suit your goals, and that trumps ideology. Cool. You're invoking the Bruce Lee principle of absorbing what's useful and discarding what's not. Gold star.
So if you're prepared to make those concessions on the basis of logic and practicality, then you must be willing to concede that if the goal is something Joe Paleo wasn't the least bit concerned with – getting big – you may have to venture beyond your strict Paleo limitations.
Joe Paleo may have had better health markers than the typical sedentary yokel shuffling across the McDonalds parking lot, but he was hardly cover-boy material. And why should he have been? He was concerned with ensuring his hairy-knuckled kids survived the winter, not benching 315.
In other words, the extent that we can apply Paleo logic to our modern-day physical aspirations is limited. To be successful in attaining your goal, you'll likely have to modify it.
So, you may want to consider adding some very useful things into your Paleo approach, like certain non-Paleo foods.
Although you can get big and strong on a strict Paleo diet, it's a hell of lot easer to hit 4000 calories a day or more when you can eat more foods: starches, commercial meats, oils, and especially peri-workout nutrition – all of which can sourced to be free of most of the stuff you were trying to avoid in the first place before you got consumed by the dogma and started riding that high horse of yours.
Here's another thought. Joe Paleo may not have had access to many of the luxuries that you have, but that doesn't mean if he did he wouldn't have used them.
Imagine if you could hop into Doc Brown's DeLorean and actually meet Joe Paleo. If he found out that you were deliberately making life hard on yourself when you have so many options available to help you, he'd probably club you in the nuts and piss on your fire, or at least unfriend you on Facebook.
After all, it was early man's brain and his ability to develop new skills and technologies that ultimately ensured his survival.
To that end, another movie should be required viewing for every Paleo zealot: Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001.
If you haven't seen it, in the opening scene, titled The Dawn of Man, a tribe of early hominins forages for food in the desert.
They're meek and passive. And after another decidedly more alpha tribe scares them away from their watering hole, they're forced to spend the night in an exposed cave on the wrong side of town.
The next day, they awaken to find a mysterious black monolith at their feet, and when our timid ape-men touch the monolith – which represents knowledge – they grow confident and assertive.
They discover how a bone could be a useful tool, and a weapon. Emboldened, the hominins return to the watering hole, kill the leader of the rival tribe, and take back their real estate.
In other words, their primitive ways allowed them to survive, but once they adopted better ways, they thrived – and proceeded to kick ass across the Serengeti.
To ignore a technological advance when it could help you reach your goal just to conform to an ideology would be, well, uncivilized.
Solution: If you're trying to get big and strong but wish to follow a healthy Paleo approach, a superior option is to follow what T Nation coach Nate Miyaki calls "Paleo plus sports nutrition".
It's simply a whole-food diet emphasizing a variety of unprocessed foods combined with a smart peri-workout nutrition protocol that matches your goal. Healthy, uncomplicated, and above all, effective.
That's It – For Now
In the end, most everything "works," but just because something works well for certain populations doesn't necessarily mean it's ideally suited to reach your goals.
Decide what you want and figure out exactly what you need to do to get there. Then establish your priorities, eliminate distractions, and get to work.
And above all, keep the goal the goal.
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Bryan Krahn, CSCS, is a T Nation associate editor and journalist. He's been a fitness consultant since 1997, specializing in physique transformation. He's also in charge of getting TC his morning Americano.