You put in the effort in team practice and in the weight room. You feel fitter and stronger and you like to think you're making progress, but when it comes to game time, you're battered like a rag doll. What gives?
You, my friend, are in dire need of a few muscle-building tips.
You might be the most genetically gifted athlete ever or the hardest worker on your team, and perhaps you're the strongest guy you know pound for pound, but when it comes down to it, if you don't have the muscle mass and body weight needed to make those important tackles and hits, you won't ever reach your full potential.
Building and maintaining muscle mass is critical no matter what sport you play. The trouble is, many athletes are afraid of gaining weight too quickly and adding fat. Aside from a base level needed for survival and hormone production, body fat is nonfunctional, and too much can hamper performance. Getting the balance right between building muscle and keeping your fat levels down is vital.
With that in mind, here are five easy muscle-building tips for any hardgainer athlete to help you gain mass while staying lean.
1. Take the long road
It'd be great if you could build lean muscle in minutes with minimal fat gain, but this just doesn't happen.
Your body will only build muscle at a certain rate, and you can't eat a huge surplus of calories to force-feed growth. Any more than one to two pounds of weight gain per month indicates you're most probably getting a little too fluffy.
Rather than suddenly jumping to a 5,000- or 6,000-calorie pro athlete diet, simply add 500 calories per day to your current intake. If you gain much less than half a pound per week from doing this, add another 250 calories. If your weight suddenly jumps up a pound or two in a week, cut back down so you're only 250 over your previous intake.
2. Make carbs your best friend
Protein often steals the limelight when talking muscle building, but carbs are just as important.
You only need around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day to build muscle, and provided you're eating a higher-calorie diet, consuming meat, fish, eggs, dairy or protein supplements at each meal, it's highly likely you're hitting these requirements already. Rather than adding even more protein, get it on with some carbs.
Carbs are your body's main source of energy; they help drive muscle growth and recovery.
If you need extra carbs—and want something quick and easy to eat when you're on the go or post-workout—get acquainted with rice cakes, popcorn, pretzels, fruit, bagels, crackers and cereals.
3. Learn to love liquid
"Hardgainers" are something of an urban legend. Due to genetics, metabolism and body type, certain people do find it harder than others to gain muscle. But most self-proclaimed hardgainers simply don't eat enough.
Often, this isn't for lack of trying, but hardgainers just don't get hungry.
The solution to this is simple: liquid calories.
Instead of trying to eat as much solid food as possible, feeling stuffed constantly and spending your whole time in a sluggish, lethargic state, try drinking your calories.
You can do this a number of ways. Subbing out your solid protein sources like chicken, beef and salmon for protein shakes or even weight gainers is one option. Drinking whole milk over water is an easy way to add calories, protein, fat and carbs.
Try smoothies, too. A smoothie or shake containing protein powder, a high-sugar fruit like bananas or pineapple, a cup of coconut milk, a handful of nuts or a tablespoon of nut oil, a scoop or two of oats, and a topping of heavy cream can give you an easy 1,000 calories, depending on serving sizes.
4. Quit thinking clean
"Clean eating" is the downfall of the wannabe bulker. While eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods is important, it's impossible to clearly define the term "clean," and doing so means you're severely restricting your food choices and curtailing your calorie intake. Introduce slightly more "junky" foods into your diet in moderation, and see how easy it can be to bump up your calories and gain lean weight.
There may have been a few foods on the carb list above that surprised you, such as rice cakes, pretzels and popcorn. Remember that you're training hard several times a week and you need easy, high-calorie foods to help you bulk up. Getting 500 calories from caramel rice cakes smothered with peanut butter and jelly is far easier than getting the same number of calories from boiled chicken, brown rice and broccoli.
The majority of your diet should be based around meat, fish, dairy, whole-grains, fruits, nuts and veggies, but don't sweat it if you include a little more junk food to aid in your muscle-building quest.
5. Eat for optimal performance
As an athlete, nutrient timing is more important than it is for the average Joe or Jill who're looking to lose a bit of blubber. To help put all your calories to use, aim to get 15 to 20 percent of your daily intake an hour or two before a workout or practice session, and the same again afterward.
If you often struggle to get your appetite going, the post-game meal is an ideal opportunity to load up on calories and reward yourself for a job well done. Rather than sipping your protein shake and swigging an energy drink on the ride home, hit a local restaurant with your buddies for a huge steak and mashed potatoes, or even visit a pizza joint to really get your calorie fix.
Gaining muscle while keeping lean and optimizing performance really don't have to be difficult. Get your calorie intake sorted and adjust it depending on progress, then aim to eat predominantly healthy, high-calorie foods—while throwing in the odd bit of what you fancy to keep you on track for more muscle.
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