I was a child of the eighties. Pop culture remembers money-hungry Wall Street executive as personification of the era but, for me, the ideal examples were found on TV sets and in movie theatres. He-Man, Hulk Hogan, Schwarzenegger, Stallone – in the eighties, muscle became mainstream. Most kids I knew wanted to be larger-than-life heroes who saved the day and rescued the girl, even if we looked like dorks who got sand kicked in our faces at the beach.
My respect for size and strength has grown over the years – so much so, I make my living lifting weights. And while a significant part of my mission is to set an attainable example of what health and fitness looks like, the chest-thumping alpha that lurks beneath the surface still wants to be huge with a capital H. Here's the thing, though. The "no, duh" fact that fitness magazines and supplement companies do their best to keep under wraps: Unless you are a genetically gifted outlier (or a fan of performance-enhancing drugs), becoming a strapping mass of muscle is really hard.
How hard? Experts tend to agree that, unless you're an absolute beginner who has never touched a weight, the most a natural lifter can gain is a few pounds of lean muscle a year. Of course, this presupposes that said lifter is doing everything right, from following a sound training program to sleeping eight hours a night to eating a balanced diet. Even then, even if all of those factors are dialled in, you're still a slave to genetics. Guys such as me, skinny guys with metabolisms like a blast furnace, need to fight tooth and nail for every ounce of muscle on our frames.
Given both my biological age (37 years) and training age (20 years), it's possible the window of opportunity for me to become super-jacked has slammed shut.
Still, I owed my childhood self to give it one last shot, so last month I hired a team of professionals to assist with the one area I've never really focused on: food.
When it comes to making significant changes to body composition, everything starts in the kitchen. I do my best to follow a healthy, plant-based diet, but I've never made eating a central focus of my training plan. I don't keep a food journal or count calories. I don't measure or weigh my food. I don't force myself to eat every few hours. I simply read labels, eyeball portion sizes and eat when I'm hungry. For general health purposes, this is a fine approach. But if your goal is to become a muscle-bound Goliath, you need to become a regimented eating machine. There are plenty of companies offering detailed daily food planners to help keep you with this: I turned to Renaissance Periodization.
Renaissance Periodization (RP) is a reputable training and diet services company founded by two large weightlifters, one of whom is a PhD in sports physiology. Its approach to training and nutrition is based on proven scientific principles. I ordered its "Vegan Diet Muscle Gain Template" with the intention of adding 10 pounds of (mostly) lean muscle in three months (it also offers plans for non-vegans, as well as those looking to lose weight).
Shortly after placing my order, I received a series of Excel spreadsheets outlining exactly what I was to eat and when I was to eat it. At first, the volume of information was overwhelming, but once I settled into the material, it made sense. Caloric intake, macro-nutrient (protein, carbohydrate and fat) breakdown, meal-timing – all six of my daily meals were to follow a specific and calculated formula to ensure I'd be getting enough of what I needed to gain quality muscle without also gaining too much body fat.
To gain quality muscle mass without getting fat, you need to lift weights three to four times a week while maintaining a slight caloric surplus. For me, that equals roughly 2,500 calories a day (to find your magic number, multiply your weight in pounds by 16). At the base level, body recomposition is a matter of calories-in versus calories-out, although not all calories are created equally. Protein and carbohydrate each contain four calories per gram, whereas fat contains nine calories per gram. The RP plan focuses on eating 25 to 30 g of protein and upwards of 75 g of carbs per meal, depending on what time you hit the gym (your body uses carbs more efficiently around periods of intense exercise). If you're not gaining weight, you move to a different spreadsheet with different nutritional demands.
Healthy food, for the most part, is rich in nutrients while low in calories. The amount of eating required to gain size came as a surprise. An example: 50 g of carbs is a little more than one cup of cooked rice. That's a lot of rice. I nearly choked to death trying to force-feed myself a sticky clump of leftover basmati one lonely Tuesday night. The plan also calls for a carb-heavy protein shake, to be consumed during training sessions. I usually train on an empty stomach, so this took some getting used to.
Another issue: travelling. My wife and I spent Easter weekend visiting family; I tried to prepare my shakes and meals in advance, but it felt crazy to travel with a bag full of Tupperware-sealed tofu steaks. This is one of the most common complaints people have about meal plans – the lack of real-life flexibility.
It's been 40 days since I started this program. My weight on Day 1: 160 pounds. My current weight: 164 pounds. Four pounds in 40 days is fine by me; more importantly, my body fat hasn't increased, meaning those pounds are mostly muscle.
Sticking to a meal plan is a challenge for all but the most disciplined, but the educational experience of the process pays off. I look at food differently, and think about its impact on my body and my performance in a whole new light. I still have much to go to reach my goal, but the starry-eyed kid in me is happy with the results so far.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.