It is a fallacy to say the common line that “getting strong is 75% nutrition”, because you cannot simply fix your eating, lay on the couch, and get 75% stronger. Of course you have to train, and train hard, or even a perfect nutrition plan won’t be effective; but we’ll save the training segment for part two. This will focus on the nutrition steps a skinny athlete must take to start to pack on mass. Eating as an ectomorph, aka the cross country body: skinny, scrawny, high metabolism, is a completely different world than eating as a mesomorph, aka the linebacker body. Unfortunately for ectomorph’s, known as “hardgainers” in the strength world, is that most of the information being put out is either by people who are focused on speaking to the general population of American’s (overweight, want to lose weight), or for the rare athlete focused article, speaking to mesomorph’s or other genetically gifted athlete’s who don’t find gaining size and muscle nearly as difficult as the hardgainer. I spent my high school years following the advice by those “experts”, and graduated 6’0” and a grossly skinny 145 lbs. 4 years later however, I weighed a muscular 205 (with full six pack). My transformation was so shocking that when I ran into one of my old high school coaches, he had no idea who I was. I considered telling him, but I don’t think he would’ve believed me anyways. During my time in the Marine Corps post college I kept my weight to a PFT optimal 215-225lbs, but now I sit at 235-240 in the year depending how “cut” I want my abs to be. I want to make it clear that while steroids sadly seem to be ubiquitous now, I was/am drug free throughout my journey. So how did I go from skinny to strong? 3 key points on the nutritional side:
Focus on frequency, not quantity
My first year of college weighing a whopping 145 lbs I faithfully went to the school cafeteria three times a day, and desperate to gain weight, ate and ate until I felt nauseous. If I had time I would sit there for multiple hours, trying and trying to eat even more at the same sitting. I did manage to gain 10lbs that year, which at the time felt like a lot. But a nutrition article I read the following fall changed everything. It preached that I should be eating 6-8 meals a day not 3, and instead of focusing on eating more at each sitting, to eat small meals every 2-3 hours, being careful not to pig out. It explained that huge gaps between meals leave your muscles going into catabolism: the body unfortunately eats muscle mass for fuel first, not fat. I realized that my current 3 meals a day regimen was leaving my hard fought for muscle mass wasting away. No more long gaps between meals: my progress could be that much better if I started eating frequently. Even better, eating more frequently would keep my metabolism higher, and allow me to ultimately gain lean mass, and not get chubby. I immediately embarked upon faithfully eating every 2-3 hours, whether at practice, in class, or on dates. I never went more than a couple hours without food, and the results were tremendous: I gained a full 20 lbs of hard muscle in six weeks. Despite still being fairly skinny at a year end 185lbs after my jump, my muscular and strength gains were so abrupt my teammates assumed I was using steroids. I had to patiently explain over and over, it wasn’t steroids whatsoever, but that I had discovered something even more anabolic: the power of frequent eating. Instead of my muscles starving for 5-6 hours between feedings (and 8 or more at night), I was now retaining my hard fought for muscle by giving it a steady stream of lean carbs, and lean protein. Don’t listen to the tired dogma of people who haven’t sniffed a weight who say “why do you need to eat all the time?” or “you’re going to get fat eating all the time!” Plan your meals out, organize your day, and start eating every 2-3 hours!
Change Your Mindset
The second point is to change your mindset about food. Most people equate food as pleasure; if something tastes good, they eat it. And while certainly it is fun to eat meals with friends and family, and naturally we all like food that is tasty, the problem is it often goes TOO far where people justify their poor food decisions off whether it tastes good. They eat Oreo’s, milkshakes, and candy because “they taste good!”. However, as an athlete looking to gain lean muscle, you’re not eating for taste. You’re eating for the results that your approach to nutrition is going to get you. High sugar and high fat foods, while being a health risk accumulatively down the road, also pose immediate problems for hardgainers. The reason is that filling up on empty calories like fries, milkshakes, sweets and other strength and power useless foods leave an ectomorph unable to get the quality protein and carbs he needs to keep his muscle mass fueled. The end result of a hardgainer that cannot discipline himself to eliminate empty calories is the skinny fat look. No thanks. Make a decision to cut all the junk out of your diet, and soon you won’t even feel like eating those foods, and you’ll look and feel better for it.
Gaining weight is simple math. Calories Consumed > Calories Burned = weight gain. But if we’ve already said that for hardgainers it’s self defeating to pig out, as it leaves you unable to eat again in a couple hours, doesn’t it get very tough to reach the overall calorie count you need to gain size? The answer is yes, but as I found out, there’s solutions. The solution I found is that the body does not register calories through liquids the same way as solid food. I found that while there were times I simply couldn’t stomach anymore food without throwing up, particularly around lift times and before bed, I could always drink calories. For example, the key window of opportunity of eating before and after training, I wasn’t maximizing well. I’d feel nauseous training when I ate right before hitting the iron, and after my lift, I could barely stomach even one chicken breast. So what I started doing was after my summer job finished for the day, I’d come home and eat a good meal. An hour later, right before walking out the door, I’d drink 3 glasses of milk. I’d then go train, and then during and immediately after, consume calories through Gatorade and protein powder. An hour later, when my stomach was ready, I’d then eat a full meal again. By incorporating liquids I was able to get much more calories in around the time of training, and my strength immediately jumped from it. I also knew eating right before bed was critical, to allow my muscle to get as much fuel as possible before sleep. However, my appetite late at night was nonexistent. So what I did was start blending food to drink before bed. With tweaks and adjustments I came up with a combination that not only tasted great, but digested slowly. Many of our athletes currently drink the exact recipe that I used, and have also gotten great results from it. No appetite? Go with liquids, and keep the progress going!
In part 2 I’ll address the principles an ectomorph should build his training around. And while “75% of strength is nutrition” isn’t true without the training, it’s also true that training without the right nutrition will get you nowhere fast. If you’re the classic hardgainer, apply this article and watch your body be transformed!