One common question about gaining muscle is, how much can I realistically expect to gain? The amount of lean mass gains varies among individuals due to such factors as genetics, body structure and training intensity. Those who have a combination of naturally high androgen, or testosterone, levels and a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres will make the most rapid initial gains, but even those who have less of a genetic head start will nonetheless make impressive gains by supplementing, eating properly and training hard. You make your best gains when you first begin training, simply because your body isn’t used to it and responds rapidly to the added stress of exercise. As you progress to the advanced level, adding muscle each year becomes increasingly difficult.
Regardless of genetic predispositions, you’ll need a positive energy balance to increase your muscular bulk. That simply means you must eat more food than you burn. The effect is so potent that eating an unusual amount of food alone can add lean mass even without exercise, although that isn’t always recommended procedure. Studies involving human subjects who increased calorie intake but didn’t exercise showed changes in body composition. The subjects all showed increases in muscle mass.
The gains were the result of the body’s adjustments to the unaccustomed levels of food. The body compensated by increasing the levels of anabolic hormones, including growth hormone, testosterone, insulin and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which led to the subjects’ building more muscle.
Eating all those calories also blunted the levels of the primary catabolic hormone in the body, cortisol. High levels of cortisol promote the catabolism, or breakdown, of muscle. Cortisol is secreted mainly under high-stress conditions; hence its designation as a stress hormone. But the stress conditions that promote cortisol release more often involve an energy-deficit condition, such as a lack of sufficient calories or carbs. So over-eating itself is an anabolic process.
The point here is not to suggest that you must over-eat to gain muscle size but that you do have to up your calories because it promotes the secretion of anabolic hormones that will work in tandem with exercise to produce lean mass gains.
A vital consideration in any bulking plan is protein and supplementation. While it’s true that providing additional calories in the form of carbohydrates alone has a protein-sparing action in muscle, maintaining a high level of amino acids from protein sources and supplements promotes a positive nitrogen balance that sets the stage for muscular gains through increased muscle protein synthesis reactions in muscle. Some call the process the “anabolic-drive effect.”