Size Wise


4 Common Muscle-Building Nutrition Mistakes

The four most common nutrition mistakes hardgainers make — and how to fix them.

The average person tends to scoff at the idea of someone struggling to gain size. How easy is that, after all, when people unwittingly pack on pounds without even trying? In a country where the obesity rate exceeds a staggering 35 percent of the population, then, the athlete who needs to gain body mass won’t get much sympathy for his plight.

However, we at Inbox Fitness know exactly what you’re going through. To some, a supercharged metabolism would be a dream come true. But for those who’d like to pack on serious muscle, your body burning calories at a faster rate than you can take in is a frustrating battle.

For those trying to gain size and failing, there’s hope. What you need to do is take stock of your approach, and see if you’re making one of these four common errors. Could be, a simple tweak or two might be all you need to pack on the type of mass that — let’s face it — most people could stand to have a little more of in this country: Healthy, metabolism boosting muscle mass.

  1. Underestimating your total calorie intake.

    Studies have shown that people have a hard time estimating how much they eat, usually undershooting the reality by a significant margin. As a hardgainer, the tendency goes the opposite route, as you think you’re eating plenty of food. If you’re not adding size, however, the simple truth is this: your “calories in” are not keeping pace with your “calories out.”

    The only way to solve this dilemma is to track everything you eat, either via the old fashioned pen and notebook method or an app like Calorie Count or Daily Burn, available for Android, iPhone and iPad. To start, keep 3-5 days worth of data, eating exactly as you have been. Calculate the calories, protein, carbohydrates and fat (you can use a calorie book or a source like the USDA nutrient database at With that, you’ll have a specific overview of what’s not working, and what you need to improve.

    Going forward, increase your calorie intake in steps, 300 to 500 per day (no more), continually measuring your weight and bodypart measurements. You’ll know you’ve hit the right target when you start seeing positive changes — and you’ll know you’ve gone too far if you’re getting bigger, but in all the wrong places. (By the way, a good starting point calculation for mass gain is to take your bodyweight and multiply it by 11, which will give you a rough estimate of how many calories you burn per day; start by adding 500 to that total for your daily calorie goal.)

  2. Thinking that “any mass is good mass.”

    “Want to get huge? Just eat Big Macs every day, with a side of ice cream!” Some so-called experts will actually tell hard gainers this, and with a straight face to boot.

    And while there is something to increasing your caloric level and “shocking your body,” settling for junk will compromise your lean muscle gains (and health) in the long run.

    Moderation is key — on a mass gain diet, you can have foods that would otherwise be off limits to someone struggling to stay lean. But the bulk of your calories should come from lean meats, eggs, protein powder, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

  3. Relying too much on carbohydrates and fat, and too little on protein.

    If you’re studiously trying to increase calories, without an eye toward the macronutrients content of your food choices, you’ll more than likely end up skimping on protein. It’s just a lot easier to get your hands on carb-rich (and in some cases, fat-rich) foods.

    Good protein, to be blunt, just isn’t as portable or easy to cook as, say, cereal and pasta, to name but two examples. That’s where your nutrition journal (yes, we’re saying it again, it’s that important) comes into play. You want to strive for 30 percent to 40 percent of your daily total calories from protein.

    Why? Well, protein is the main building block of muscle, and is necessary for tissue repair after workouts. If you’re lagging on protein, your results will suffer.

  4. Not eating enough meals throughout the day.

    Ask a typical hardgainer what he ate today, and he may list a panoply of foods. They may even be good ones, like chicken breast, oatmeal, a veggie omelet, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Not bad.

    Now, ask how many meals he ate. “Well, I missed breakfast, but made up for it with a big lunch and an even bigger dinner.” In other words, the perfect recipe for burning muscle tissue for energy while plumping up your fat stores.

    Meal timing is an often-overlooked element of packing on muscle. You simply have to ensure your body has the fuel it needs at all times, day and night. You can’t “make up” for long stretches of not eating with one massive meal. Your digestive system has limitations on what it can process at any one time, meaning excess is cast aside or stored as fat.

    You want to instead eat 5-7 medium sized meals per day, spaced about two and a half to three hours apart. Pack them up in convenient meal-prep containers and you’re good to go. That ensures a constant flow of nutrients to your growing body.

    And, as your mother told you, breakfast truly is the most important meal, because it actually “breaks the fast” you’ve been on since you went to sleep. Never, ever, skip breakfast.

There you have it. Four nutritional strategies to put you on track to building dense, powerful muscle, even if your progress has been derailed by a fast metabolism. Now get growing!

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