Eating Big to Gain Muscle: My Personal Story as a Hardgainer

hardgainer jason stallworth at 17

You train hard. You never miss a workout. You’re consistent and even have the right mindset, but you’re just not gaining muscle mass. 

Here’s the truth: If you wanna get big, you have to eat big.  You can lift all day, every day. But if you’re not eating enough calories, you’re not going to make gains. Period. 

In this post, you’re going to get my personal story of how I starting eating big to gain muscle. And I hope this helps you on your journey towards mass gains. 

My Story (the Beginning)

Recreational bodybuilding - bodybuilders who don't compete

I started lifting weights during my mid-teens (this in back in the late-80s). My dad had some of those old cement-filled plastic weights in our backyard so I started out with the basics.

I was a skinny kid and got picked on quite a bit. So lifting as a means to an end. Little did I know it would become an obsession and a lifestyle. 

I knew that you needed to eat big to get big. And my mom always served us home-cooked meals, every night! So I ate a pretty decent sized dinner. 

But my problem was as I didn’t know anything about bodybuilding nutrition. Macros (protein, carbs, fats). All that was foreign to me. 

I thought I was getting enough food with one big meal every night. But for breakfast, I was only having cereal and for lunch, maybe a sandwich (or whatever crap food our school cafeteria had!) 

I eventually started reading bodybuilding magazines and learned what a true bodybuilder diet looked like. But it was a long and frustrating road because I was an extreme hardgainer

Hardgainers, Learn from My Mistakes!

Alright, it’s class time. You’re a hardgainer and you know you need to eat (bro!). So I’m going to show you what I did vs. what I should have done if I could turn back time.  

Crap, now that Cher song is in my head ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’…

My Ineffective Hardgainer Diet

  • Breakfast: cereal (usually Cocoa Pebbles)
  • Lunch: Sandwich, or crappy school cafe food
  • Dinner: Balanced, high calorie home-cooked meal

Effective Hardgainer Diet

  • Breakfast: whole eggs, oatmeal, bagel, and yes, cereal
  • Snack: peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Lunch: Left-overs from the prior night’s dinner
  • Snack: another sandwich
  • Dinner: Balanced, high-calorie home-cooked meal
  • Before bed: mass gainer shake

In short, I would keep the same dinner because mom always cooked a protein with sides. And those sides were usually vegetable-based or rice. I would also make sure I had a similar meal for lunch.

On top of that, eating snacks between meals, like sandwiches, is a great way to get extra calories. And if you can afford it, drink a mass gainer shake before bed, or a big glass of milk. You’ll hear my story on milk below…

How I Started Gaining Mass, Fast

hardgainer jason stallworth at 17

I graduated high school (in 1993) at about 135 lbs. Yep, that’s me in the pic above, around that time, flexing with all my might…when I had hair! 

After 3-4 years of consistent training and eating more consistently, I had climbed to 170 lbs. Again, this was a slow process. 

My ultimate goal was to be over 200 lbs of solid muscle mass. And I finally reach that goal at 23 years old by adding just 1 element to my diet.

Wanna know the secret?

Chocolate milk! Yes, I drank a quart of chocolate milk twice a day, between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner. 

There was no magic to this. I had simply added more calories each day. On top of that, I was also eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for snacks. Even more calories.

Why ‘Just Eat, Bro’ Doesn’t Work Forever

pizza cheat meals high carb meal

Now I’m going to contradict everything I just told you. The way I gained mass will not work for everyone. And looking back, I could’ve eaten better quality foods which would’ve probably allowed me to gain more quality muscle mass. 

I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of guys saying: ‘Just Eat Bro!‘  And this isn’t limited to just men; I’ve known plenty of women who also want to eat big to gain more muscle. 

I must reiterate that I was a hardgainer (a problem that overweight kids wish they had). I couldn’t gain size or weight to save my life in my younger years. So the chocolate milk and extra PB&J’s worked great for me. I was getting stronger and filling out my ‘s-medium’ shirts…it was awesome!

If you’re on the heavy side and tend to gain weight easily, you need to watch what you’re eating more carefully. The goal is to gain muscle mass, not mere weight (or fat). So you can have your pizza and cheat meals, but not every day. 

From Hardgainer to Gainer

However, the ‘Just Eat Bro‘ mentality eventually caught up to me. Naturally, as you get older your metabolism slows down. So you may find the mass gaining diet that worked for you 10 years ago may give you different results today. 

One night it hit me, and I was put in my place. A buddy and I were at a beach club and had just taken my shirt off. You know how young 20-something-year old gym dudes are. Gotta show it off! 

He leaned over to me and whispered…

“Hey dude, you might wanna start doing something about that gut.”

At first, I was thinking ‘WTH?’  I quickly rebounded with:

“Yeah, I know…but I’m in a mass building phase.”

You know, that’s our typical excuse when someone calls us out, right? But I looked down and yeah, he was right. My stomach was hanging out more than I’d ever seen it, and I was flat.

Another downside to ‘Just Eat Bro’ is that you don’t develop good eating habits. Again, I’m not saying you need to be on a super strict diet…that often will not work for gaining mass. But you do need to ensure you’re feeding your muscles enough quality protein, carbs, and healthy fats to grow. 

Mass Gains vs Fat: The Right Foods for Lean Muscle

grilled ribs bodybuilding protein and fat

That scene was a wake-up call to go back to the basics of the true bodybuilding diet, not just eating whatever, whenever to make ‘gains.’  I needed to turn my focus on eating quality foods to get big (or rather, to make quality muscle gains). 

If I were to drink chocolate milk and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day now, I would be a total lard ass. To my point earlier, our diet and nutrition requirements to gain muscle may, and most likely will change as we age. 

Now you may be thinking: “What if my goal is to gain mass and strength? I don’t care about being ripped! And I don’t wanna be skinny and weak!”

I struggle with this. I always felt that if I tried to lean out that I would lose muscle and would just look skinny. Being a hardgainer does give you a complex. 

So it’s really about finding that balance and going after what you want. And you break it up into phases of your life, like this…

4 Phases of Eating for Muscle Gains

Phase 1 – Hardgainer (usually you’re younger years): Just Eat Bro works pretty well, but you still need to make sure you’re getting enough quality nutrients too. 

Phase 2 – Semi-Hardgainer: You’ve gained a little size, but now you need to start dialing in your diet closer and eating more bodybuilder friendly meals

Phase 3: No Longer a Hardgainer: At this point, you’re a bit older, well over 30, and your metabolism has slowed down. So you really need to watch your eating habits for muscle gains. 

Maintenance Phase: If you’re happy with your physique, a good rule to stick to is 80/20. Eating high-quality foods 80% of the time, and eat whatever you want 20% of the time. Of course, even then, be somewhat reasonable (like don’t have an entire day of pizza and ice cream). 

You still need a certain amount of calories to grow and gain muscle mass. The crucial part of this is the type of calories you’re eating. 

The quality of the calories will determine what your physique will look like. Your activity level plays a ‘huge’ role (always have to throw in a pun!). But no matter how hard you train, if you eat like crap all the time, you’re gonna look like crap. 

*For mass gaining meals and meal planning ideas be sure to read my post: Meal Plans for Mass and Strength Gains

Muscle Building Grocery List

Alright, let me first throw out my disclaimer. I do not eat super healthy all the time. However, I have run several nutrition experiments on myself over the years to see how my body responds…

I’ve found that my body does best on a balanced meal plan with plenty of muscle-building foods: quality protein, healthy fats, and some complex carbs (I’ll eat fruits post-workout).

In addition, this is just my personal basic muscle-building grocery list of foods that have worked for me for gaining muscle. There are many items I may buy from time to time but do not list. For example, I have a habit of eating cereal at night. That’s not listed. 

Also, I’m not saying you should follow what I do. If anything, use my list as a guide to create a grocery list that works for you. 

Mass Building Grocery List

  • Steak
  • Grass-fed beef – same for burger patties
  • Roast
  • Chicken
  • Cage-free eggs
  • Jasmine rice
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Red potatoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Grits (hey, I’m from the south)
  • Cheese
  • Almond milk
  • Regular (whole) milk
  • Greek yogurt, and sometimes regular yogurt
  • Natural peanut butter
  • Raw local honey – I get this at a farmer’s market
  • Organic blueberries – usually frozen, and I put in my oatmeal
  • Organic bananas
  • Apples

Again, I’m sure I left out a few things, but you get the picture. The majority of these foods will help you pack on muscle mass. 

I’m also fairly conscious about buying organic foods, as much as possible. Especially when it comes to meats. I don’t want the extra hormones and crap. 

And yes, I do buy other goodies like cereal, ice cream, and bread (mostly hamburger buns). 

**For bodybuilding recipes and meal prepping ideas, read my thoughts on Anabolic Cooking.

Trendy Diets vs Bodybuilding Diet

IMPORTANT: As you know, there are so many trendy diet fads out there. Seriously, it seems about every few months there’s a ‘new scientifically proven blah, blah, blah’….you know what I’m talking about!

What really works is simply eating meals that contain the appropriate amounts of nutrients that your muscles. Eating for muscle gains isn’t rocket science, yet many over complicate it. 

Here are a few reasons why it’s imperative to eat the right types of foods and balanced meals:

  • More lean muscle helps your body burn calories more efficiently
  • Naturally, get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals through food
  • Overcome the plethora of health issues our society has by eating the right types of foods
  • Escape the extreme ‘mass vs cutting‘ cycle (this is very bad for you!) by eating sensible year-round
  • Experience massive strength gains by giving your body the proper balance of nutrients
  • More energy throughout the day and ability to focus (there are many foods that affect brain function)

Purpose of Food for Muscle Gains

Lastly, let’s cover the purpose of food and how that relates to getting big (muscular big, not fat-big!). 

This is really going to be about the purpose of food in general, not just for muscle gains. However, this concept is imperative for gaining muscle mass.

Food is for:

  • Fuel (energy to workout and function)
  • Recovery (rebuild muscle after workouts)

That’s it! It’s that simple. If you keep these 2 concepts in mind when you’re at the grocery store or getting ready to chow down at a buffet, you’ll naturally gravitate towards the right types of foods for muscle gains. 

It doesn’t mean your diet will be perfect. And if you’re like me, we’re ok carrying a little body fat in order to have more muscle than be skinny and normal looking. 

Also, remember the 80/20 rule I talked about earlier. Unless you’re training for a competition or event where you really need to dial in your diet, the 80/20 rule works great for gaining muscle without getting fat

**Here are some additional resources to help you your meal planning:

Train (and eat) with Passion,

Jason