Its difficult enough sorting fact from fiction, let alone fact from half-truth. Half truths are especially rife in the fitness world. Often, we’ll read claims related to the results of a given workout program or supplement but when we try it for ourselves our results vary for the worse. What gives?
The fact is, the bodybuilding magazines advertise with photos of drug-assisted bodybuilders and their level of muscularity is frankly not realistic for natural athletes. I don’t mean to explain away all of their hard work and chalk it all up to a magic drug. Steroids give you the ability to work harder than you’d normally be able to and still recover. Professional bodybuilders work hard at their sport and taking steroids while sitting on your butt will not result in a world class physique. But if you doubt that their results are not realistic for the natural athlete, take a quick glance at the “natural” tested bodybuilding contest weight classes versus the profession non-tested weight classes. You’ll note a markedly lower bodyweight. Add to that the fact that these drug assisted bodybuilders also have elite level genetics, and they are practically a different species from the scrawny guy with average genetics and poor nutrition habits who joins his local gym to “tone up.”
Those six day per week, two hour a day thrashfests you see recommended in the bodybuilding mags? Those work fantastic for elite level, drug-assisted athletes, but not so great for the average guy holding down a full time job. They can handle that workload and recover from it both because of the drug-assisted advantage and because working out is there job. Those super high calorie, super high carb diets? Also excellent for steroid using bodybuilders because of the nutrient partitioning effects of anabolic steroids. The body is more geared towards muscle mass gain and less towards fat storage. Its the opposite for normal humans. We are always set towards fat gain and stingy with the metabolicly expensive muscle tissue. Its one of the reasons we survived and Neanderthal didn’t, so its great for survival but crummy for our dreams of beach and bathing suit glory.
All of the above just goes to to set up my proposition that the preconceptions we hold about exercise and dietary practices may be skewed by info gathered from steroid users. My reasons for recommending the Paleo approach to diet are outlined in the Nutrition tab at the top of the page, but where muscle mass is a priority I simply don’t think massive amounts of carbs is as beneficial for most people as the magazines say it is. The constant presence of insulin and blood glucose is tough on the body and persistantly high levels of carbs can just lead to getting fat.
I increase my carb intake in the period immediately before and after my workout, using non-grain or legume starchy carbs such as yams or potatoes. I also on occasion utilize white rice immediately post exercise. I accompany these high carb foods with some form of low fat protein. In essence, the time surrounding my workout, roughly an hour before to an hour afterwards, I’m temporarily low fat, high carb. The sudden insulin spike does help drive nutrients into the muscle and helps in promoting an anabolic environment for muscle growth. Also, the meal immediately after my workout is the largest of the day. Huge. This is for someone concerned with muscle gain of course, I wouldn’t recommend purposely overeating to those who are overweight or have conditions such as Type II Diabetes.
On my non workout days I eat a more conventional Paleo diet. High fat, adequate protein, low carb. My meals consist of meat and veggies for the most part, with some fruit, nuts, and seeds.
Overall Caloric Intake?
This is an individual issue and it will take quite a bit of self-experimentation to nail just the right amount of calories. But keep in mind that huge 5,000+ calorie diets you read about in the magazines may not be right for you. It takes adequate calories to grow, this is a fact, but the delicate give and take between ample muscle growth and fat gain is paper-thin. Beginning bodybuilders can put on massive amounts of muscle mass while losing substantial bodyfat because they’re in those beginner golden years where you can do no wrong. But the closer you get to your genetic potential, the more and more conservative your body will get. Soon enough you will be lucky to put on 5-7 lbs of honest to goodness lean mass a year. Eventually it can become less than that. Take a look at Martin Berkhan’s article on the Maximum Muscular Potential of Drug Free Athletes and it paints a fairly sobering portrait. Some people are more genetically gifted than others, but almost no one is going to be 250 lbs ripped. I read the magazines and websites that said if I gained any more than 0.5 to 1 lbs of bodyweight a week then I was likely putting on fat. I kept upping my calories while working out hard to keep the scale moving upwards week after week and at the end of the growth phase, most of what I put on was fat. I had gained perhaps 5-6 lbs of lean mass and 15 lbs of fat. I’m not a giant by any means but I gather that I’m close enough to my genetic ceiling that my growth rate has retarded dramatically and tossing more and more calories at the problem was not going to force the issue.
Excess food intake can even be detrimental to muscle mass increases. Nevermind the anti-testosterone effect of excess bodyfat, new research by Brad Pilon proposes that muscle mass increases are caused by accute inflammation of the muscle caused by the exercise itself. He proposes this effect is blunted by chronic levels of systemic inflammation caused by constant overeating. I’d also argue that chronic systemic inflammation from a grain and legume laden diet would also be a problem. You can check out more on Brad’s Inflammation Theory of Muscle Gain here.
At the end of the day, be honest with yourself and what your goals are. If you’re happy with the guy/gal in the mirror and you’re meeting your goals in the gym, keep plugging away. But never stop questioning the established knowledge surrounding what and how we eat to support muscle gain.