When it comes to diet and exercise, I have made a great many mistakes over the years. Perhaps the biggest was spending far too much of my late teens and early twenties carrying around too much fat.
My main goal was to gain as much muscle as humanly possible. And I believed (wrongly as it turns out) that doing so involved nothing more than eating a vast amount of food.
I’d been told that I needed to eat big to get big, so that’s exactly what I did.
Eat Big to Get Big
As a result, I ended up gaining a lot of weight, and did a very thorough job of convincing myself that a) most of this weight consisted of muscle and b) the day would soon come when I would strip away the fat to reveal the Herculean physique I’d been working on all these years.
In truth, I was deluding myself on a grand scale.
If you’re carrying around a decent amount of muscle, adding a layer of fat can create the illusion of size, especially when you’re wearing clothes.
People may say that you’re looking bigger, which is always nice to hear.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.
And you might feel that warm glow of satisfaction when you step on the bathroom scales and see your weight going up every week.
But what’s the point if you’re just getting fat?
Contrary to all this “eat big to get big” nonsense out there, you can’t increase the rate of muscle hypertrophy simply by stuffing yourself with food.
Someone in their first few months of training is going to build muscle relatively quickly, and will need a diet to support that rate of growth. But once you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training, the speed at which you gain muscle will have slowed down.
All of which means you’re not going to need to eat as much food.
Extra energy that isn’t used to fuel your workouts, to help you recover from those workouts, or to support the muscular remodeling process that occurs in the hours and days after training, will just end up stored as fat.
Why You Can’t Eat to Grow
What you do in the gym is only part of the story when it comes to building muscle. Without enough food, much of your efforts in the gym will go to waste. But that doesn’t give you a license to go and eat anything and everything in sight.
There’s an upper limit on the amount of nutrients you can take in and turn into muscle. If you’re currently eating below this upper limit, then you’ll build muscle faster by increasing your nutrient intake.
But once you’ve “maxed out” your rate of muscle gain, simply adding more calories won’t automatically lead to a faster rate of growth. No matter how much food you shovel into your mouth, you can’t force feed muscle growth.
Let’s say that the amount of energy required to keep you alive, fuel activity and maximize the rate at which you gain muscle is 3000 calories per day. But, you’re only eating 2000 calories per day. In this case, taking in an extra 1000 calories will lead to a faster rate of muscle growth.
But just because those extra 1000 calories have helped you gain muscle faster doesn’t mean that doubling up on the calories is going to result in muscle being built twice as fast. That is, bumping up your calorie intake still further to 4000 calories won’t make your muscles grow any faster.
In other words, there is a sweet spot to be found between “not enough” and “too many” calories. Find that sweet spot, and you’ll be able to maximize your rate of muscular growth while minimizing the amount of fat that’s gained.
Think of your diet as permissive in the sense that it allows the muscle-building stimulus delivered in the gym to manifest itself as an increase in muscle mass over time.
“Training is the actual stimulus while nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth,” explains strength and muscle coach Dr Eric Helms.
“What do I mean by permissive? I mean that nutrition can permit the growth of muscle tissue but it is not the root cause. That is the function of training. Eating to grow is a misnomer. All you can do is eat to provide the ideal environment to permit growth. You can train to grow, but you cannot truly eat to grow. The reason I’m harping on this semantic difference is because this misunderstanding has led many down the path of putting on unnecessary body fat way too fast.”
The eat big to get big approach makes sense if you’re skinny and tend to burn through a lot of calories each day.
But for a lot of people, particularly those who have a hard time gaining muscle, it can mean putting on three or four pounds of fat for every pound of muscle that’s gained. This will leave you facing a lengthy diet for just a few pounds of muscle gained.
The last thing you want is to have a large proportion of your weight gain come from fat, and then have to waste time and energy getting rid of it all.
If you're overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting advice out there, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.