Somebody's Got to Say It

"A calorie is a calorie! Eat lots of fast food so you can take in enough!"
"You need 8,000 calories a day to really build mass!"
"Just eat!"

When the subject of mass diets or "bulking phases" comes up in most bodybuilding magazines and Internet forums, these are the kinds of recommendations you'll see. For some people, this might not be bad advice, but for most of us, it sucks.


And it's about time someone said it.

You Can't Flex Fat

As I look around the gym, I see dozens of guys trying to build muscle. These aren't competitive strength athletes, but aesthetic-minded lifters who long for bulging biceps and tree-trunk legs. They know they need to eat a lot to add mass, and most of them seem to have adopted the "just eat" mantra.

The only problem is, most of them are carrying around a big gut, a set of flabby love handles, and a couple of sagging breasts. Sorry, but when your chest is that fat, you can't use the word "pecs." The proper scientific term is "ta-ta's."

I'm not talking about gaining a little fat temporarily while in a strategically timed mass phase in order to create an anabolic environment conducive to muscle gain. No, I'm talking about walking around for 300+ days every year looking like a fat guy who doesn't lift.

Yep, I said it.

Think about it. You often see lifters who focus on low body fat and shredded abs get torn apart on forums. The usual attack goes like this:

"Dude, you may have a six-pack, but it doesn't even look like you lift when you're wearing your medium-sized T-shirt! You need to eat something!"

Sometimes that's not an entirely unfair criticism, but it cuts both ways. Most "big men" I see in gyms don't look like they lift either: they just look like chubby guys with manual labor jobs, or (as TC once put it) fat guys with great forearms.

Yeah, there may be lots of muscle under there, but it's hard to spot given the layers of excess fat. And while your shoulders and traps may be covered in muscle, my guess is that the women out there won't see it because their eyes stop at your protruding beer belly.

There are a couple of things going wrong here. First, while you do need extra calories to build muscle, you don't need so many that your gut becomes an enormous storage facility for unused energy. There's a limit to how many extra calories you need. In this regard, some muscle-seeking men adopt the same attitude as many pregnant women who "eat for two" without addressing the fact that the second person they're eating for is the size of a peanut at the time.

Second, there seems to be some psychological rationalization occurring. Hey, it's fun to eat a lot. Unhealthy foods taste really good too, and "just eating" is a whole lot easier than planning a proper, healthy mass diet. But to say that overeating junk foods is necessary to gain muscle mass is a gross simplification bordering on self-deception. Sure, it makes you feel better about your chubby body, but it just isn't true. "I'm bulking" is often just a convenient excuse to be lazy and eat uncontrollably.

And by the way, if you've been a fat bastard for several years, you aren't "in a bulking phase." You're just a fat bastard with no dietary self-control, okay?

Have I pissed off all the fat lifers yet? Good, but before you get Twinkies all over your keyboard typing me a knee-jerk nasty response, read the rest of the article. I might just convince you that there's a better way to build muscle.

Problems With Typical Mass Diets

Let's take a look at why the typical "eat a lot of shit and lift" diet isn't ideal for most people.

1 – Most guys who give this kind of advice are fat and unhealthy.

Even the "experts." (You know who you are.) And they seem to be trying to make sure that everyone else is fat so they'll feel better about their own adiposity.

I like to look good. Sorry. I don't want a fat gut. I don't want love handles. I don't want multiple chins. I don't want tits on my chest unless they belong to some hot young gal with a bellybutton ring. I apologize profusely for my radical beliefs. (Not.)

If you want a pregnant looking gut, a male "muffin top," and a pair of moobs, well, this ain't the article for you. This article is for the aesthetic-minded lifter. If that's not you, click off now. There are Pop Tarts and Little Debbie Snack Cakes calling your name somewhere.

In short, it's time to stop listening to fat people offering nutrition advice.

2 – The typical mass diet advice only works for genetically blessed steroid users.

Yeah, pro-bodybuilder Lee Priest can get away with it. Then again, he's a mutant who does this for a living and uses lots and lots of steroids and other drugs. If you aren't a mutant who's sticking a needle in your ass and popping D-bol all day, then maybe "just eat" isn't the best nutritional advice for you.

It's time for normal, natural trainees to stop listening to drugged-up mutants when it comes to nutrition advice.

3 – It's just not ideal for some populations.

If you're prone to easy fat gain, then God forbid you adopt the usual mass diet recommendations you see in the magazines (and yes, even on this site.) Sure, you'll gain muscle, at the rate of about one pound of muscle per four or five pounds of fat. That, my friends, sucks. Do you want to add 20 pounds of fat just to gain 4-5 pounds of muscle? Well, that's the reality for some people's genetics.

Another group of people that better steer clear of the standard mass diets are Former Fat Boys or FFBs. If you were fat once and lost it, then you'll have the tendency to gain the chub back at a staggering rate. The usual bulking suggestions out there will make you a CFB – a Current Fat Boy – in a heartbeat.

And unlike the naturally skinny guys with lightening fast metabolisms, the FFB has no problem "just eating." In fact, that's what got him into trouble to begin with. As an FFB myself, I can tell you that I could eat the bark off a tree if you spread a little peanut butter on it. I certainly don't need to be told to "just eat." Not a problem!

But we FFBs still want to gain muscle mass; it's just a little trickier for us given our ability to rapidly pack on adipose tissue. So, the FFB must do a "clean bulk." Lucky for him, that's what the rest of this article is all about.

4 – Negative habit formation.

Sure, eating calorically dense fast food and junk food is an easy way to pack in the calories. But if you do it this way, you may never learn to eat right, and these nasty dietary habits could stick.

You think kicking the garbage foods out of your diet is tough now, wait until you've been eating that way for 20+ years. Wait until you've been told by your doctor to change your eating habits or never see your kids graduate... from kindergarten.

Our dietary habits are closely tied to our psychological make-ups and emotional states. A recovering alcoholic can help himself abstain from booze by not going to bars and not having alcohol in the house. A recovering junk food junkie, however, has to eat several times a day! He MUST be around food on a daily basis. Changing his nutrition habits for him is every bit as difficult as quitting smoking or drinking is for others.

If it's not too late, the best solution is to avoid picking up bad eating habits to begin with. From that point of view, I don't think even ectomorphic teenagers need to be told to eat junk food for mass gains.

5 – Stretched, damaged skin.

Sure, get fat in order to gain some muscle. It's perfectly okay... unless your skin stretches out and stays that way, creating a permanently flabby and deflated look, even when you get your body fat percentage into the single digits.

You can't train this "loose skin" off, diet it off, drug it off, or supplement it off. You have to cut it off. This surgical procedure is called abdominoplasty (or a tummy tuck). It'll cost you about $6000. And you may want to estimate in a couple of thousand more because the doc will need to lipo out those "pockets" of fat that often come along with rapid fat gain and, like the damaged skin, can't be trained or dieted off.

Does this happen to everyone? No. Does it happen to many? Yes. So willfully getting fat in order to build muscle can be a tricky proposition. Don't risk it.

Stretched, damaged skin

A very extreme example of "loose skin" caused by fat gain then fat loss. Only expensive plastic surgery can fix most damaged skin issues.

6 – The prototypical mass diet can wreck your health.

Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and hundreds of other killer ailments can be linked to a poor diet. Can your time in the gym offset the health problems associated with carrying around too much fat? A little, but not much, and not in the long run.

One problem you see a lot is central adiposity – visceral fat that accumulates underneath the abdominals and covers the internal organs, thus creating a hard belly and a "pregnant powerlifter" look. Doctors call this heart attack fat and it's a sure sign that you're not going to be around too long.

pregnant powerlifter

And the thing is, subcutaneous body fat measurements (skinfold tests) don't register this deadly type of obesity. That's why some men with large bellies will say they're 12% body fat. That might really be what the skinfold measurements are showing, but the large waist circumference tells a different story – one with an unhappy ending.

The Clean Mass Diet: A Better Way

For those who care about their health, don't want to gain too much fat, and want to avoid the potential problems listed above, there is hope. You can gain muscle without adopting an unhealthy mass diet.

Is it a little tougher? Yes. It'll take some extra preparation, discipline and (gasp!) thinking. This is not a lazy, dumb-guy plan. If you can't handle that, then please, grab a Triple Whopper and a bottle of Test and go to town. We'll all golf-clap for you.

Is a clean mass plan a little slower? Yes. The numbers on the scale won't move up as quickly as the McDonald's mass diet. But then again, the size of your pants won't jump several digits either. Quality gains take a little longer than the crap gains you get eating crap foods.

If all that is okay with you, then let's go over some general guidelines about how to gain muscle mass without gaining a big fat ass.

1 – Eat 90 to 95% clean foods.

Eat mostly clean foods. That means no candy, no fried stuff, no junk food, and very little fast food. You can consume enough calories to build muscle without resorting to filling your body with toxic waste. Really.

It's tougher to do a clean bulk, of course. Most healthy foods aren't very calorically dense. You have to eat a lot of them to get in the required daily calories for mass gains. Clean foods are also more filling than junk foods.

How do you get around these drawbacks? You suck it up. You plan a little better. You cook up a lot of quality foods and keep them handy. And you add some healthy, nutritionally dense liquid meals to your daily intake. (I'll give you a couple of recipes in a minute.)

What about the other 5 to 10% of your meals? If you're training wickedly hard and eating right 90 to 95% of the time, then sure, pizza once every week or two is fine during a clean mass diet... if you can handle it. If you're the type to fall off the wagon the moment pepperoni touches your lips, then you may want to avoid this. The FFB should probably stick to 100% clean foods as well.

2 – Eat above maintenance level, but not much above.

You have a maintenance level of daily calorie intake. Assuming your activity level and diet stay about the same, then there's a number of calories you can consume that will lead to neither weight loss nor weight gain: homeostasis, in other words. Most mass diets want you to add way too many calories. It works, but at the expense of excess fat gain.

The password here is "excess." Yes, some fat gain is acceptable. I'm not suggesting you stay at 8% body fat during your bulk. You may creep up to 12% or so. But you do notneed to hit 20%!

So how many extra calories do you need to eat per day? Oh man, that's the second toughest question in the world. (The first is, "What do women want?") Only you can answer that question.

Are you gaining too much fat too quickly? Then you're eating too many calories. Are you staying the same weight? Then you're not eating enough. Do you already look eight months pregnant? Then why the hell are you bulking? (Mind-numbingly complex, isn't it?)

Keep a food log and figure it out. Yes, this takes more work than just ordering two of everything on the Extra Value Menu. Two words for you: Boo. Hoo. But I realize you need a place to start when beginning your quality mass diet. After comparing a lot of formulas out there, I think the one below is good enough:

  • body weight x 16 + 20%

So a 180 pound weight-training male would need about 3456 calories on lifting days. Again, this is just a number to start with: you may need more or you may need less, depending on dozens of different factors that no formula can accurately calculate.

Just remember, you're eating to reach an anabolic state supportive of muscle growth; you're not eating to hibernate for the winter. There is a difference.

3 – Zig-Zag Your Calories

Eat a little less on non-lifting days. This might be 300 or 400 less calories on days where you don't pound the iron.

You'll still be eating a lot of healthy foods, just taking in a few hundred less calories that you just don't need on lower-activity days. Just one more strategy to minimize fat gain and keep the gains quality.

4 – Do Cardio, But Not Much

It's often written that pure strength athletes should avoid energy systems work. (Which is a less-wimpy way of saying cardio.) You'll also read about how pro-bodybuilders avoid cardio during the off-season when they're bulking. Now, ask yourself this:

Am I a professional strength athlete or an elite level competitive bodybuilder?

Probably not. So why are you training like one, chunky?

Cardio has its place, even during mass diets. Since cardio can increase glucose and amino acid uptake in muscle and liver cells, then it can be anabolic from a nutrient partitioning viewpoint. Cardio also leads to increased muscular uptake of nutrients for hours after exercise.

Try this to minimize fat gain during a bulking phase: perform some type of interval cardio work two to three times per week, for 15 to 20 minutes only, preferably on non-weight-training days. Do not do this in the morning on an empty stomach!

Here are two ideas:

  1. Go to your local high school's track. On every straightaway, sprint for 50 yards. Then, walk the curves and catch your breath. Stop after 15 minutes.
  2. Hop on a stationary bike at your gym. Peddle moderately for three minutes, then sprint for one minute (a 3:1 ratio.) Repeat for 20 minutes. Too easy? Try a 2:1 ratio or even a 1:1 ratio of moderate peddling and sprinting. Too hard? Sprint for only 30 seconds.

Whatever you do, don't lay off the cardio entirely.

5 – Drink Healthy "Weight Gainer" Shakes

The weight gainer shakes you buy at health food stores are usually poor quality protein mixed with a lot of sugar. Not good, but the idea of a weight gainer shake isn't a bad one. Liquid calories are easier to consume and they're ideal for between-meal feedings. But you gotta make your own unless you want to be a diabetic fat boy!

Here are a couple of recipes for quality mass gains:

Quality Mass Shake #1 – Low-Carb Peanut Butter Cup Bliss

  • Two scoops of chocolate Metabolic Drive® Protein
  • Two servings of natural peanut butter
  • 2 Cups of Carb Countdown Milk
  • 1 serving fat free cottage cheese
  • Calories: 770
  • Protein: 85 grams

Quality Mass Shake #2 – Low-Fat Fruit Smoothie

  • 2 Scoops Metabolic Drive® Protein – strawberry or banana flavor
  • 1 big banana
  • 1 packet of instant, non-flavored oatmeal or Weight Control oatmeal
  • 8 ounces of light yogurt
  • 2 cups of skim milk
  • Calories: 800
  • Protein: 70 grams

There are thousands of options here but you see the pattern: it's all healthy food. That second shake has 800 calories and yet it contains no junk sugars and no "bad" fats. So for all those whiners who "can't eat enough calories unless I eat sugar-coated, deep-fried lard" – suck it up. You're a beast in the gym; don't be such a pussy in the kitchen.

Throw a couple of these shakes into your daily meal plan and you'll add plenty of quality calories. No drive-through required!

6 – Graze Healthfully – Dates & Walnuts

Still whining about not being able to eat enough? Geez. Okay, try this: throw two servings of dried fruit (I like dates the best) into a sandwich bag with two servings of omega-3 rich walnuts. That's about 12 dates and a half cup of shelled walnuts.

Place these in your car, your desk at work, or your locker at school. Snack at will. Consume the whole bag in one day and you'll have ingested an easy 640 healthy calories. Have one bag a day and you'll get over 4400 extra calories per week, all from healthy fruits and nuts. No tacos needed!

Guideline 7 – Use the Right Supplement

Several different supplements would be helpful for a quality bulk with minimal fat gain, but if I had to pick only one (not counting protein powder), I'd choose Carbolin 19.

The Cliff's Notes: Carbolin 19...

  • Decreases fat mass while gaining muscle
  • Increases rate of muscle gains
  • Increases rate of strength gains
  • Increases muscular pump
  • Elevates mood

It's not magic, but it'll give you a hell of an edge on a plan like this. You can read the full article if you want the details.

8 – Time Your Macros

Just as with maintaining leanness, macronutrient timing is important, especially when it comes to carbohydrates.

Since your body handles carbs better in the morning and essentially "puts them to work" at that time of day, eat a bunch for breakfast. One hundred grams of healthy carbs (oatmeal and fruit mixed with protein powder for example) for breakfast is no problem at all.

If you're carb-phobic, get over it. Nothing wrong with a lot of good, properly timed carbs while in a mass phase. Generally speaking, breakfast should be your largest solid meal of the day too; 700 to 800 calories should be the norm.

And in case you don't know by now, post-workout is another good time for a carb-bomb. A post-workout drink followed by a carb-protein solid meal is ideal here. Don't fear the carbs at this time either.

Now, when it comes to your last meal of the day, you need to do the opposite. You won't be "using up" those carbs because you're about to hit the sack, so go easy on them in your final feeding of the day. Have lots of protein, some veggies, and some healthy fats instead. A couple of chicken breasts and some veggies drenched in extra virgin olive oil is a good choice here.

These timing strategies will give you the muscle-building nutrients you need, when you need them, while minimizing fat gain.

9 – Train Your Ass Off!

I shouldn't have to say it, but I will anyway: don't go on a mass diet then train like a little ol' lady. If you've always avoided bulking diets because of fear of excess fat gain, then you may be surprised about how you'll feel in the gym when eating for mass.

Your training loads will go up, your recovery will improve, and you'll be able to add some volume to your training. So don't puss out.

Sample Daily Menu

Still think you need garbage foods to get enough calories? Here's a sample plan for someone needing around 5000 calories per day. (Your needs may differ greatly; this is just a sample to prove that you can eat a lot of calories using healthy foods.)

Meal 1:

  • 2 cups of All Whites liquid egg whites
  • 2 serving of old fashioned oatmeal
  • 1 cup blueberries (frozen, added to hot oatmeal)

Meal 2:

  • Low-Fat Fruit Smoothie (recipe listed above)

Meal 3:

  • 12 oz. skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 servings of frozen veggie blend
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Meal 4:

  • Low-Carb Peanut Butter Cup Bliss (recipe listed above)

Meal 5:

  • 12 oz. skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 slice fat free cheese
  • 1 or 2 whole wheat, reduced carb tortillas
  • 1 or 2 servings salsa

Meal 6:

  • 11 oz . salmon
  • 2 servings of veggie blend


Fruit/nut bag snacked on throughout the day. (See Guideline #6 above.)

That's about 5000 calories of nothing but healthy foods and a whopping amount of protein! Again, this may take a little more prep time, but aren't quality mass gains worth it?

Eat Big, But Be Smart

If you're a natural trainee who's been disappointed with the typical mass diet recommendations out there, give this quality mass plan a shot. You'll end up healthier and "prettier" in the long run while avoiding several nasty side effects like negative habit formation, stretched skin and, oh yeah, an early death.

Just eat? You bet, but just be smart about it!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram