Wednesday, January 6, 2016

How much do you really need to eat to grow?

Last week my friend Charles Poliquin put out a really funny and informative article from several people (including myself and Thibs) in regards to all the stupid shit we did in order to gain weight.  From a high level overview standpoint, basically all of us had stories of gorging until we could barely stand life anymore and could only do these things for short periods at a time.

The timing of it was funny because that very week I ended up in this fairly ridiculous discussion with this young kid about nutritional requirements to gain mass.

His premise in the discussion was that "4,800 calories wasn't enough for someone to get up to 275 pounds."  

This struck me as very odd as, I've been around for quite some time and am very aware of the kind of eating most very large individuals have done in order to grow, and obtain that kind of mass.  

I am not sure how he arrived at such a conclusion because eating and training to grow is a very individualistic thing based on a myriad of factors, including where someone is in regards to experience level, to genetics, to drugs, to even the type of job they have.  However, even with that said, there are some pretty standard baselines in regards to optimal calorie consumption and optimal growth rate.  Meaning, you're eating enough to grow at a steady pace without turning into White Goodman at the end of Dodgeball.  

Different people - different needs

"Calories in vs calories out" has become such a staple in the science world today in regards to what is needed, or not needed to either grow muscle or lose fat from a nutritional standpoint.   And let's be clear, it's perfectly valid at face value.  Where things become tricky, is that the amount of calories needed to be taken in, or out, in order to meet certain strength or physique goals, can be significantly different from individual to individual depending on a myriad of factors.

For example, the guy working at a desk all day who is well above 20% bodyfat, and has been sedentary for a long time, who naturally has a natural slow metabolism is going to have very different caloric needs in order to lose weight, than the very active and fit dude who sits across from him, but is in the gym 5-6 times a week, even if they weight the same.  Yes, BMR and lean body mass ratio changes all of that, I promise, I understand.  But believe it or not, not everyone does.

The lean and jacked guy has to eat an enormous amount of food just to maintain his high degree of lean muscle mass.  Of course he does.  This only makes sense.  He has a ton of muscle.  And muscle is metabolically active, and requires tons of calories just to be maintained.


Well, not so fast.

Despite what you may think, most people who have been lifting for a very long time, and have developed a great foundation of muscle mass, often don't eat as much as you would think they do.  They probably went through phases where their caloric intake was indeed fairly high, but once they reached a "set point", maintaining that degree of muscle mass doesn't require the same amount of calories or effort in regards to eating as it did in actually building it.

In fact, John Meadows and I had this conversation the other day in regards to eating and guys who have been training for a long time, and have established a foundation of muscle mass.

Most of the guys you see that are exceptionally jacked, and have been for quite some time, don't often eat as much as you think they do.  When I was over 280 pounds, I actually did not eat a lot of food.  My foundation of muscle mass was already in place.  Maintaining it was not very difficult.  If someone were to look at my caloric intake for the day, they would probably be surprised at how little I ate.

To give you a real life example of this.....

When John and I were in Aussie together, neither of us ate a whole lot.  At the time, I was around 265-270 pounds.  And John was in the upper 230's, but very lean, at only about 4 feet tall.  Breakfast was usually 3-4 eggs and a few slices of toast.  We would teach for a few hours, then have a pretty normal looking lunch.  In fact, our meals were already prepared and the serving sizes were very moderate.  We'd have a shake somewhere in there, train for two to three hours, have another normal sized prepared meal, and that was really about it.  Maybe a shake before bed.  Nothing outrageous. 

We did go out for pancakes once, of course.  

When Dorian Yates was well over 300 pounds very lean, he said his daily caloric intake was somewhere in the 5,500 calorie range (his own words from "Blood and Guts") and that this allowed him to "gain weight at a slow and steady pace."  He reduced his calories down over weeks into the 3,500-4,000 calorie range in order to get shredded for his shows.

Strangely enough, Ronnie Coleman's diet looked similar in regards to caloric intake as well.  About 5,500 calories a day.  I understand I am violating my own theory of "Coleman's law", which states that when you use Ronnie Coleman as an example of why something works you automatically lose the argument.  I'm also aware that both Dorian and Ronnie are genetic outliers, and of course are not natural.  However John and I both pretty much had the same experience.  Once a degree of muscle mass had been laid down, and once a foundation is really cemented into place, it doesn't really require that much food in order to simply maintain that degree of muscle mass.  Or let's be clear here, not as much as most people would imagine.

Something to add to this, I want you to go eat 5,500 calories a day of "clean food" (fuck you if you don't like that term, you skinny internet nerd pretend scientist), and see just how much food that is.  The whole reason so many people can't do a "clean bulk" for very long is because eating pounds and pounds of chicken breast on top of can after can of tuna along with mountains of rice, is flat out hard.  So they just resort to "dirty bulking" in order to make the calories fit.

Back in the 90's, Mike Francois was one of my favorite bodybuilders.  He had that incredible look of power and strength that I greatly admired.  He was an absolute tank.  

It was rumored at the time in the magazines that John was working with a guy by the name of John Parillo and was eating upwards of 10,000 calories a day.  However, according to Mike's own words in an interview, that simply wasn't the case.

"I always tried to eat 5 times a day. Any more than that never seemed to work for me. I would guess I was eating around 6,000 calories a day when I was in peak growing phase."

How big was Mike in the offseason in this "growing phase?"

"My off season weight topped out around 290-300 lbs. and my contest weight would be 255-265 lbs. So, taking out 15 pounds for water, I never really had a lot of fat to get rid of."

Just to set a bit of a pattern here...

Dorian was about 310 pounds, and ate 5,500 calories a day.

Ronnie was well over 300 pounds, and ate about 5,500 calories a day.

Mike Francois was in the 300 pound range, and ate about 6,000 calories a day.

You may or may not remember the exceptionally huge Gunter Schlierkamp, but via his own words his offseason food intake was "between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day."  He was 330 pounds or so during that time.  

My own IFBB Pro client, Fred Smalls, who now pushes the scales at between 275 and 280 pounds at 5'7" told me his "clean eating offseason calories" total up between 4,500 and 6,000 a day depending on the training volume for the day.  

Both Dorian and Mike were exceptionally meticulous about their eating, and ate "clean" pretty much year round.  And despite the fact that Dorian said one time in a video that he ate a chocolate bar after a show, he was not a IIFYM guy.  Once he was competing at the Mr. Olympia level, he was so exact that he weighed his food even in the offseason, and generally ate the same foods year round.

So we're talking about guys who are indeed meticulous in regards to their food intake, and not just winging this and taking guesstimates. 

Just to be thorough here, I tried to make sure to use interviews from the actual guys about how much they ate in the offseason to grow.  

Rich Gaspari weighed in on this on back in 2014....


Well, I went from 189 as a teenage competitor to about 205-210 for the Jr. Nationals. One of the things I learned is that I was over dieting as a teenager. When I would get ready for a show, I would drop my calories down to about 1000 calories a day. That was way, way too low. I didn't really know what I was doing. I would just eat tuna, water, eggs, etc. When I looked at the calories, I was shocked at how low it was.

Actually, a guy named Bob Gruskin gave me some guidance. He didn't really help me but he looked at me as a teenager because I was beating a lot of his guys in competition. He looked at what I was eating for my diet and he told me I was really over dieting. I would normally eat between 3000-4000 calories in the off season and then drop it down to 1000 for a competition. When I started increasing the calories for my pre-contest diet, I cut out the simple sugars and less refined foods but ate low-fat proteins and complex carbs, I was now eating around 2500-3000 calories. That's when I started looking bigger for a competit

3000-4000 calories to grow.  Rich's offseason weight?  About 245 pounds.

So when some clown argues with me that "4,800 calories isn't enough to get to 275 pounds" it's one of those times when talking about training and nutrition on the internet is exceptionally frustrating.

 To get to around that weight (275 pounds), from about the 250-255 pound range I was at, my caloric total was just about exactly that.  4,500-4,800 calories a day.  Just using the basic model that I use to establish baselines for fat loss, maintenance, and growth stages (bodyweight times a certain number), on the highest end of the 255 pound weight gain scale (255 x 20), it's still only 5,100 calories.  Mind you, that's the TOP END of the scale.

So even if you're the skinny but shredded 175 pound guy, so desperately trying to reach a buck-90, the odds of you needing 5,000 calories a day to accomplish that are slim.  

Because there's these two words that have to be taken into account in just about every situation in regards to gaining muscle, losing fat, or getting stronger.

"It depends..."

If you're 17 years old, and weigh 175 pounds with 7% bodyfat, and have a hellfire and damnation metabolism, work a part time job during the week that is very labor intensive, and train 5-6 days a week, you may need 6,000 calories a day just to work your way up to 190 pounds. Yes, this is quite possible.  But that is due to age, metabolism, training frequency, and your part-time labor intensive job.  If any of these factors change, then so does the amount of calories needed to grow.

There are no absolute solutions here.  There are no absolute rules because the law of individuality will always be in effect.  There are baselines.  And the baselines get manipulated in regards to your age, training, job, metabolism, and genetic potential.  Different diets work differently for different people, for a whole host of reasons we can't always identify.  Some of which, are as simple as what people prefer.

I saw this happen with my own eyes many years ago with a client.  I gave her two options for dieting for fat loss.  A low carb one, and a high carb one.  Protein was relatively the same for both diets, but obviously the fat and carbohydrate intake was quite difference.  After three weeks on the low carb diet, she came to me and said "I flat out cannot do this.  I hate not being able to eat carbs.  I want to switch to the other diet." 

We switched her over to the higher carbohydrate diet, dropped her fats, and she literally showed up at my doorstep a few months later, and had lost so much weight and changer her body composition so much I barely recognized her at first.  

A big part of that of course, is finding what training and diet "styles" resonate with you, then manipulating things from there.  

However, not to get off track, these kinds of exchanges get frustrating to have with people because so many of them have very little experience to draw from.  Mainly, the only experience they have to draw from, is their own.  And of course, since the world revolves around how things work for them, it has to be gospel.  That's a heavy dose of sarcasm in case you missed it.

A client I have that had been stuck at around 260-262 pounds for quite some time came on with me and we found his baseline for maintenance caloric intake.  To make sure this was his baseline, I kept his calories at that total for quite a few weeks.  


Because understanding your maintenance level of calories is a huge part of understanding how to manipulate your diet in order to get leaner, or to grow, at an optimal pace.  Optimal being, you're not gaining fat at an exponential pace compared to lean tissue gain.

After a few weeks, I made one minor change to his diet, adding in just half a cup of one food (that was already in his diet) in one meal, and within a month, he was between 268 and 270 pounds.  

"That's impossible!"

No, it really fucking happened.  

Adjusting calories up or down in small amounts can have tremendous impact on muscle gain, fat loss, or fat gain.  It really all is just very individualistic.  And making small changes at a time is the best way to obtain an understanding of how your body reacts and responds to certain foods, and caloric intake levels.  

Then of course, if your training frequency changes, or the volume of your workouts change, depending on goals, your eating has to change along with it in order to obtain said goals.

All of these things becomes moving targets based on your age, metabolism, frequency of training, your degree of experience and foundation of muscle mass.

Yes, it is true that there are some good general guidelines to start with.  But from there, individual manipulation becomes the most important aspect in creating a design nutritionally that works optimally for YOU based on those factors.

So how much do you really need to eat in order to grow?

The first thing to do, is establish  your baseline for maintenance level calories.  Again, just as a generic solution that works pretty well with most people, it's usually in the bodyweight x 15 range for overall calories.  Seeing as how 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is the standard, you start there, fill in 20% of the diet with fats, and the remainder of calories left over with carbs.  

Hold your baseline for at least two weeks, then increase your calories by a measly 200 per day.  Do this via carbohydrates.  You do NOT want to be gaining more than 1 to 1.5 pounds a week.  I understand that lots of guys get really excited when they see the scale moving at an astronomical clip, but if that's the case, I'm telling you that you're just getting fatter.  New muscle, even chemically enhanced, can only be synthesized so fast.  And for natural guys, after the first two or three years of training, it's at a snail's pace.  So if you are natural, let me spell this out for you.

Bulking should never be an option.  And by bulking I mean, allowing your bodyfat levels to climb over 15%.  Even more bad news, the fact is, as a natural guy you are going to be pretty "maxed out" in terms of muscle mass after about 7-10 years of consistently hard training and eating.  Before you proceed to pound your keyboard with fists of fury in disagreement, I said 7-10 years of CONSISTENT hard training, and eating.  Not "well I've been on and off for...".  Yeah, not that guy.

And lastly, if you're actually eating what I consider "clean" food like chicken breast, tuna, rice, potatoes, etc then you have no idea just how much 5,500 calories worth of food a day is.  It is A LOT.

How much?  

Well, at 6 meals a day that's an average of 916 calories per meal.  Let's say you're 275 pounds, and meeting the gram of protein per pound of bodyweight ratio.  

That's 275 grams of protein.  Only about 1,100 calories.  If we did a diet split where 20% of the 5,500 calories came from fats, that's another 1,100 calories.  Between fats and proteins we now have 2,200 calories.  Which means we need to make up 3,300 calories from carbs.  Which is 825 grams of carbs.

Let that sink in for a bit.

One large baked potato is around 63 grams of carbs.  1 cup of jasmine rice (cooked) is around 45 grams of carps.

So even if you ate 4 large baked potatoes, and had 6 cups of jasmine rice, you're still at only 522 grams of carbs a day.  So we've still got 303 grams of carbs to go.

So hey, let's throw in 2 cups of uncooked oatmeal, which is 4 cups cooked.  Which is well, a metric fuck ton.  Now we've added a measly 108 more carbs to the diet.  Fuck, we're only at 630 grams of carbs.  195 left to go.

Let's add 4 bananas.  Which is 108 grams of carbs.  Now we've got 87 grams of carbs to go.  No big deal. We'll add 4 ounces of raisins to that whopping 4 cups of Oatmeal for 88 more grams of carbs.  

Boom, now we are there.

So on carbs alone here is what we ended up with - 

4 cups of cooked oatmeal
4 ounces of raisins 
4 large baked potatoes
6 cups of jasmine rice.
4 bananas.  

We haven't even talked about the fact that all of this comes with 275 grams of protein.  

Which is like 20 egg whites (72 grams), 20 mother fucking ounces of chicken breast (130 grams), along with 12 ounces of tuna (59 grams)....and we're still just a little short on the 275 grams.

So you're telling me, that you can't grow on that amount of food?  In what world is this not possible?

Dieting rules to grow- 

The only "rules" in place are the rules that work for YOU, as an individual, based on what goals it is you are trying to reach.  What the other guy doing may or may not pertain to what you need in any way, shape, or form.  Once you understand that, you'll be able to make better choices in regards to deciding in how to create a plan that is efficient for your needs.  Not based on someone else's.

The gene pool is a big place.  One man's mass gaining plan is another man's fat loss diet.  However the fact is, we're not special snowflakes.  And regardless of the myths you've read on the net about caloric consumption and growing. the majority of the most muscular, chemically enhanced men ate very similar amounts of calories to obtain or maintain that degree of muscularity.  More than likely, if you looked at the truly natural guys, you're going to find they probably had similar levels of caloric intake.  

Setting some realistic goals in regards to growing is a great place to start.  The problem is, no one wants to work their ass off for "5 pounds of lean muscle in a year."  When in all reality, you may indeed have to work your ass off for that "measly" 5 pounds of muscle for that year.  

Dial your calories in so that weight gain comes at a slow and steady clip, and don't increase them until you've plateaued for a while.  Once you do make an increase, make one small increase and note the results from there.  

And to close, if you're well over 15% bodyfat, you have literally no reason to bulk.  Unless White Goodman is indeed your ideal bodytype.  

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  1. Thanks for the article Paul.
    I have one question, when you are calculating the number of grams of protein someone is consuming, do you count the amount of protein contained in rice, oatmeal etc? I know they don't have the complete amino acids, but i am just curious about this.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Thanks Paul. Regarding the 15x bodyweight, if you let yourself go for two years, creeped up to 270 @ 35% fat, and are just getting back to the gym, where do you start? 10x bw? 15x lean mass?

  3. LMFAO you are the most name dropping retard on the internet.

    1. You're so fucking stupid that you don't even realize that Charles asked ME to contribute to said article. That John asked me to promote his food bars you stupid fuck. I love keyboard warriors that talk shit behind their computer screen but wouldn't dare talk this kind of shit in person. And spare me the "I would say it to your face" because I've heard this shit 1,000 times and I'm at every expo and event you can name and no one has ever said shit. And you wouldn't either you pussy.

  4. Hi Paul, thanks for having a great blog not only about training but about life in general. I was wondering how you would set up a training template for someone with hypertension. From going thru your blog I know your pretty big on two days per week lifting for weight loss. I'm just not sure if I should use low reps or high reps for main lifts ?

  5. Hi Paul thanks for writing a great blog about lifting and life in general. I was wondering how you would set up a training template for someone with high blood pressure. I'm a 30 year old 5'9 225 pound male who is medicated. Should I train with high reps or low reps? I know your pretty big on two days per week lifting for weight loss just not sure how to set things up.

    1. I'd get the diet in check, starting with sodium, then lots of steady state cardio work actually.