Your body doesn’t want to gain muscle.

It’s expensive.

Forget the cost of the food you have to buy, it costs your body a lot to build and maintain muscle. Plus, in a time of low energy availability, that muscle is a survival risk!

Maybe that’s why gaining muscle is at least four times as difficult as losing fat (and infinity times harder than gaining fat ;).

You’d think all it takes is lifting a few weights and eating a bunch of food. And that’s a start, but unfortunately the way most people approach muscle gain is really just a recipe for MASS gain.

What’s the difference?

Mass gain includes fat gain, and most approaches to mass gain that involve eating all the food usually lead to no less than 400% more fat gain than muscle gain.

You know that bro who always talks about how he put on 15lbs of pure muscle doing some bigger bro’s 6-week program? Yea, mostly fat and water.

That’s why I want to teach you what’s going on, and how we approach helping clients who want to gain muscle, not fat.

First, a short explanation of the most important nutritional consideration at play

Energy Balance

It’s important to understand the energy balance equation:

Energy Balance = Energy In – Energy Out

To gain mass, we must create a surplus. This means energy in is more than energy out; you eat more than you burn.

Energy in is simple. It’s the energy you get from the foods and supplements you consume.

Energy out is more complex, and includes

  • Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)- the energy burned when you’re doing nothing.
  • Exercise- the energy burned when you train.
  • Non-exercise Energy Thermogenesis (NEAT)- the energy burned from daily activities. For example, standing or walking.
  • Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF)- the energy used to digest and absorb the food you eat. Yes, food costs energy!

So, to create a surplus you have a few options:

  1. Eat more, move less
  2. Eat more, move the same
  3. Eat the same, move less

In our opinion, the correct option is:

  • Eat more, move right.

More on that shortly. Let’s take a look at the issues with mass gain and CrossFit or weightlifting (I can almost guarantee no endurance athletes are looking at this article).

The Vicious Mass Gain Cycle

Here’s the biggest issue with mass gain: everybody approaches it like they’re a bodybuilder with a massive calorie surplus.

Of course, this approach can be great if you ARE a bulking bodybuilder. This massive surplus is going to maximize your mass gain, including fat. The fat is no big deal for you because you’re about to starve, dehydrate, and paint yourself so that you look cut up on stage.

For a crossfitter or even lower weight class lifters, this is a poor approach to mass gain. All that extra fat you’re going to add during your bulking season is going to cause some real issues.

  • You’re going to be heavier and perform worse on body weight movements.
  • The additional bodyweight will be brutal on the joints which take significantly longer to adapt than muscle tissue.
  • Excess fat tissue can drop testosterone, and convert the test you have to estrogen, and cause the remaining testosterone to be bound up by SHBG and unavailable to build muscle. It’s a terrible feedback loop. Bye-bye gains.

It will also suck because after you put on all that fat, you’ll likely want to go on a significant calorie deficit to cut. If you do the cut like a bodybuilder, you’ll lose muscle mass during the cut… like a bodybuilder.

Neither of these phases is conducive to improving performance across the board as a CrossFitter.

So how about we stop taking our body composition manipulation methods wholesale from bodybuilding and forge our own path by taking their best practices and molding them to our sports?

That’s what we’ve started exploring at Beyond Macros.

The Recipe For MUSCLE Gain

I think the best way to highlight the recipe for muscle gain is to talk about an unlikely situation. Beyond Macros coach, Jackie, put on 1.3lbs of muscle while losing 8lbs of fat. She added muscle without a surplus. But how?!

Well proper macronutrient balance and following the progressive 3-month Beyond Macros hypertrophy program that she wrote were major factors.

Another client, Kyle Forrest added 3.8lbs of muscle while losing 7lbs of fat. For Kyle, the recipe was 4-pronged.

  • He was eating the right balance of macros
  • He followed new training programs that added volume and challenged his muscles like he was a newbie all over again
  • He was on paternity leave
    • with lower stress levels
    • …and better sleep than normal.

So, from these fringe cases of muscle gain on a deficit, we can tease out the baseline principles necessary to add pure muscle as a CrossFitter or weightlifter, and how to maximize from there.

Nutrition for CrossFit Mass Gain

The number one factor here is protein intake. Studies seem to show that above about 0.82g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (1.82g per kilo) for resistance trained athletes is the average intake where additional protein is used for energy vs. muscle building.

Other studies show at a calorie deficit, eating more protein spares muscle from being broken down during weight loss.

For Jackie and Kyle, protein intakes were set at about 1g per pound of bodyweight per day(2.2g per kilo) , and they would frequently.

For more detail on calculating your calories and macros for mass gain, you can check out our Complete Guide to Calorie & Macro Counting for CrossFitters.

With that said, bodybuilders will generally eat a 20%+ calorie surplus for mass gain. From experience I’ve seen a lot of fat gain at that level. I now believe 10-15% above maintenance is plenty for CrossFitters or weightlifters. For performance athletes this is a lean mass marathon, not sprint intervals depending on when the next bodybuilding show is.

Now onto the other 4 key ingredients of the recipe.

Hypertrophy Work for CrossFit Mass Gain

Hypertrophy is hard. Especially in a weightlifting or CrossFit context.

CrossFit tends to be biased more towards metabolic conditioning than the weightlifting volume and progressive load necessary for muscle hypertrophy. Although you will definitely make some newbie gains when starting CrossFit. But to get yoked like Dan Bailey, you need to be doing some hypertrophy assistance work in ADDITION to Crossfit. And these top men and women do are doing the same process.

As for weightlifting, you’d think that doing all that barbell work in weightlifting would translate to muscle gain. I mean look at Klokov, right? Delts for days!

How about looking at Bulgarian lifters from the 80’s in the lighter weight classes. They look like vascular twigs with 200kg above their heads. Olympic lifts don’t necessarily translate to mass! And, hypertrophy work rarely fits into the program because it is often at the expense of opportunities to develop maximal power output or maximal strength.

So, you can’t just eat calorie surplus, extra protein, and gain mass. You should really be adding in some assistance work like coach Jackie’s 3-Month DB Hypertrophy program that was designed to be done with the equipment you can find at any CrossFit gym so you don’t have to deal with multiple memberships.

Wow! That’s NEAT!

NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis plays a massive role in making sure you don’t get fat on a calorie surplus.

  • This is all the things you do while you’re not wearing your favorite Lulu’s and planning to get your sweat on. Think about what an activity tracker would be tracking, outside of the gym.
    • It’s the steps you take on the way to the bathroom.
    • It’s the fidgeting you do at your desk.
    • It’s the energy you use to transport your now massive basket of groceries around the store and back to your house.

Old school strength coaches will say when you’re not at the gym, you should be on the couch. They’re not wrong for their purposes, but for a CrossFitter or weightlifter looking to gain mass without getting unnecessarily fat in the process, a healthy dose of NEAT is your friend.

A recent study showed that intermittent standing every 15-minutes can reduce post-meal glucose levels more than walking. But both do the trick. You can start by just setting an interval timer after a meal and alternating between sitting and standing. Or you can take a walk after every meal.


Sleep & Stress

For an in-depth look at the importance of sleep, download and listen to our podcast episode with Dr. Kirk Parsley. As far as some actionable habits you can form right now, it depends on what needs improvement- sleep quantity or quality.

If you get less than 7 hours of sleep, your best bet is to start planning to go to sleep 15-minutes earlier each night. The best way I’ve found to break the bad habits is start with a night-time routine first. Lights low, no more tech, write in a journal, and pick up a book within an hour to 30-minutes of bedtime.

After you get the nightly routine in place, just start it 15-minutes earlier each night!

Another really easy way to get to sleep earlier, as Jocko Willinck outlines in Discipline Equals freedom is to wake up early, and make yourself tired during the day…by moving. The adequate exercise and additional NEAT will help with this!

If you sleep 7 or more hours per night, then you can address poor sleep quality by tracking your sleep or keeping a journal and identifying what leads to a poor night’s sleep. I use the sleep cycle app, I have clients who use a Whoop band, Doc Parsley recommends either the Oura Ring or a physical notebook. You might learn:

That coffee after 2pm hurts your sleep, start forming the coffee curfew habit cutting it off at 2pm!
That working out late hurts your sleep, get in the habit of morning workouts, or go to work earlier so you can get out earlier and work out on time.
That screens before bed hurt your sleep quality, and create a technology curfew.

Your Lean Mass Journey Made Easy

So as you see, it is going to take a multi-pronged approach to gain mass in a way that won’t make you fat and injured. Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to have your exercise, nutrition, NEAT, sleep, and stress 100% in order right away to see progress.

In my opinion, you should start with the right training program. Next, you can start to make progress in the areas of nutrition, NEAT, sleep, and stress

You can start off with a challenge, and then focus on changing one habit at a time this is part of the process for making lasting changes.

At Beyond Macros, our goal is to help clients create a ‘new normal’ set of habits that provides a foundation for success in the long run. Think about it this way- you’ve chosen a life of fitness. This means you will probably have a long life ahead of you. With a long life ahead of you, that’s a lot of time to see changes. And with mass gain, patience is key.

How patient must you be?

  • Newbies will see rapid muscle gain with little effort.
  • Experienced athletes below their genetic potential might see up to 1lb (450g) muscle gain per month.
  • Athletes at about their genetic potential might gain as slow as 0.25lbs (100g) of muscle per month doing everything right!

We work along with you during the process so you can fall in love with the process. Schedule your 30-minute call and let’s talk about how to put some meat on your bones!