In other articles, we’ve looked at the role eating plays in bodybuilding – and the importance of reaching calories. Today, we’re going to take a slightly different approach – but discuss some of the same themes.
Eat Big to Get Big: fact or fiction?
We’re discussing this famous Rich Piana quote, what it means, what it should mean for you, and what you can take away from one of bodybuilding’s most controversial figures.
We’ll touch on a few other key areas that I get asked about all the time:
How important is a calorie surplus?
How much of a calorie surplus do you need to make great gains?
Do you make better gains being in a calorie surplus long-term?
How much should you eat?
Just how much eating is “eating big”?
We’ll also cover other areas and burning questions like Greg Doucette MainGaining, a concept gaining traction from Greg Doucette and other fitness influencers in YouTube fitness media which is a perfect fit for this article debating calorie surplus, maintenance, and deficit. And, finally, everyone’s favourite question: can you gain muscle at calorie maintenance?
Eat big to get big: where it comes from and what it means
Eat big to get big isn’t about a specific amount. It’s a Rich Piana saying that got famous from repetition and has only become more appreciated after Rich’s premature death. It’s a fitness soundbite that bodybuilding loves, from a character that was at the centre of YouTube bodybuilding and fitness in the early to mid 2010s.
Despite not always agreeing with Rich’s approach to bodybuilding, we highly respect his memory here at NaturalFlex. Rich was controversial in the industry and often called out important matters, he was very open and honest about his personal drug use through his channel, even though some of his more meme-y workouts were drug-dependent. (Yes, we’re talking about the 8-hour arms – don’t try that at home as a natural!)
The context was simple: eat big to get big is a commitment to eating the food you need to get the results you want. It echoes the same things we were talking about in other articles on bulking, gaining weight, and building muscle: your main considerations are what your food does for your body. If it helps you gain muscle, strength, and recovery, then you eat it.
Rich was always a proponent of eating real food and “eat big to get big” comes mainly from videos about eating hard. Bodybuilding often involves laborious eating of uninteresting, routine foods like chicken breast and rice. This was one of the key factors discussed under the “EBGB” banner.
It also involved Rich’s own commitment to the calories when that involved eating less-healthy foods, however. It extended to his own ritual of eating a Ben and Jerry’s tub if he was in dire need of calories. Again, this isn’t something you should rely on as a natural bodybuilder – since you can’t just “magically” turn it into muscle – but you can reduce it by about 75% and start taking it seriously.
Some ice cream at the end of the day isn’t a problem if your diet is healthy overall – and it pushes you into target calories. It’s not optimal, but you don’t always have to be perfect, and there’s nothing wrong with being flexible in your diet while it makes you bigger and stronger.
You shouldn’t be sloppy with your diet because you’re eating big. Eating big means eating lots – and the higher standard of quality food you can apply, the better. It does mean always eating the food you need to drive muscle growth.
A lot of guys want to pretend they’re ‘hardgainers’ or ‘naturally skinny’, but that’s in most cases simply because they don’t commit to eating. Rich Piana – and now Natural Flex – said you should eat big to get big. And if you fail to eat big (or rather enough and smart, as we will see in this article) don’t be surprised when you fail to get big!
Diet is part of the discipline of bodybuilding. Eat hard and smart just like you train hard and smart.
How Big is Eating Big?
How much eating do you have to do to get big? Where does ‘eat big’ start, and where does it end?
As you could tell in the introduction, we like to insist on the EBGB idea! Because most people never eat enough, and some people really need to be told regularly to start eating properly and enough to drive results while training!
But while we like to push the idea of eating big as a gimmick, we will most importantly push the: “eating big SMART to get big” idea.
Eating big is relative to you and your goals. Eating big for a 45kg woman might be eating 1800 calories a day, while a man weighing 120-130kg may need to eat 5000 a day with the right training program.
Eating big isn’t about a specific number. It’s not a multiplier you can put on your bodyweight to get the right number of calories – and we can’t even say it’s an exact calorie surplus. It’s specific to your needs and your goals.
Some can eat big and get big in the 400-800 calorie surplus range. However, that might be
too much for some people – like the 45kg woman we used as an example before.
The reality is that you should be using a % of your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) as a calorie surplus if you want to get the results tight to your personal needs. The kind that help you get big, but make sure that it’s muscle and not fat. This is a far less sexy approach for naturals, who simply can’t gain as much weight as quickly as someone like Rich Piana, who talked openly about PED use.
With injectable and oral hormones, you can go on larger calorie surpluses because eating big really almost does mean getting big (with muscle). As a natural, you typically want to stay at or below 25% calorie surplus. Anything after this is likely to be a waste unless you’re super active.
Diet is there to support your training, fuel your recovery, and provide the raw materials for growth. If you’re deficient anywhere in your diet, it’s going to show up as a negative. This is even more obvious in calories, protein, carbs, fats, which are all related to your ability to grow. Skipping out here means limiting growth and cutting your progress short because you’re disappointed with the results.
Eat big to get big: mostly true, sometimes false…
The important thing to me is that “eat big to get big” is more true than false. It’s not the most detailed explanation ever, but it doesn’t need to be. Struggling to gain weight? Eat big. There’s a 99% chance that struggling to gain weight comes from poor diet or the wrong expectations (on the speed of muscle gain).
Again it depends if you take the “EBGB” mentality too far(eating way too much), or not at all (eating very little). If you use it the “Eat Big Get Big” intelligently as we will explain in this article, then it is 100% true. If we take it from the original idea which isn’t particularly about eating smart but just eating big as much as possible – then there are certain things we like about the idea, but also things we don’t fully agree with.
Let’s check out what we like and don’t like about the original idea.
What we like about it
The Eat big to get big approach makes skinny guys commit. It’s fundamentally true: if you don’t give yourself the calories you need, you’re not doing things well in the nutrition department.
Calories are a measure of energy, and you can’t cause weight change without them. If you lack energy, you’re not getting bigger. Eat big to get big isn’t an opinion – it’s a reflection of the basic way your body works.
The calorie surplus is your 1, top priority when trying to gain weight. Even things like protein and carbs don’t change the fact that weight gain comes from total calorie intake. The simple reality is this: if you don’t eat enough, you’ll end up sabotaging your long-term muscle gaining goals.
Even for naturals, commitment to big eating is one of the most common pitfalls. It’s too easy to worry about the ‘healthiness’ of foods or the worry of gaining fat while bulking. Most guys never start gaining weight because they’re worried they’ll do it badly.
Cutting too often breaks your momentum and the calorie surplus is the only thing that maintains it. Secondary factors like protein intake matter, but calories are still king.
It’s also usually better to gain a little extra fat while bulking and then simply burn it off while cutting. You can also maintain great amount of muscle while cutting and it’s most likely faster to burn fat than it is to build muscle.
Calorie surplus also drives your progression in training, which is the key factor to muscle growth. If you’re not eating big, you’re not going to be lifting big long-term, and this offers yet another avenue for poor results, plateaus, and a loss of that all-important momentum.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean gaining tons. You should be aiming to gain only a few % bodyfat on a bulk, while driving major muscle gain through intelligent training. Again, it’s about a good ratio, and being patient enough to gain weight slowly. Gaining 5-10% bodyfat in a 3 months massing phase is a very unhealthy approach and should be avoided. Keep it decently lean, and you’ll have no trouble working it off.
What’s wrong about it
Almost everything we dislike about “EBGB” culture is about how other people have interpreted it. The “real food and lots of it” approach Rich discussed was great. However, you’ll see people really misusing it as a meme or just going against the spirit of it.
First, remember that eating big is about a consistent, smart surplus that you stick to. It’s not about binge-eating 5000 calories every once in a while when you’re bored. That’s both unhealthy physically and mentally, being a major stepping stone for disordered eating patterns and just quitting out on your dietary habits.
Watching 15,000 calorie challenge is a great morbid curiosity, but it’s not a good approach to building muscle in a healthy way. Eating big also comes with the built-in focus on good foods. Even when dealing with huge calorie intake, the idea is that eating big starts with muscle-building foods. That is to say, high-protein foods, high-quality carbohydrates and high quality fats.
Eating big – as in quantity and frequency of meals – starts with nutrient-dense foods. This means things like eggs, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, and similar foods. The goal is to eat big on the foods you’d be eating anyway, it’s about eating more and not just worse. Junk food can be helpful but it’s a last-ditch effort to reach your calories from time to time as part of a flexible diet. They’re not the priority and the EBGB mentality isn’t just carte-blanche to eat with no planning all the time.
Maingaining: The Greg Doucette Muscle-Building Approach
One of the main things that you should be focusing on is what you’re gaining – is it fat or muscle? Sure, you have to live it, but even when you eat big, the goal is to gain muscle, and not just to give yourself license to bloat up and ignore quality weight.
The idea of “maingaining” or just slowly getting bigger and stronger without worrying about reaching a certain weight on the scale, is as old as bodybuilding itself. The recent Greg Doucette approach has become popular, so we’ll cover that. Greg calls it maingaining, but in reality it’s just an old lean bulk, where the main focus of eating is to recover from workouts and stay near your maintenance calories.
This is opposed to the binge-y mega-bulks you see many enhanced bodybuilders using, which might involve 1000+ calorie surplus. The results of a hard bulk are far more “sloppy” weight-gains, more fat, more water, and the associated health problems you expect from gaining too much weight. This is even more of a problem in guys who already weren’t lean.
Greg suggests just eating at maintenance, however, which isn’t likely to work outside of your first year of training – at least no as a natural. The small calorie surplus (a few hundred, maybe 10-12% of TDEE) is necessary to drive better results and give your diet “headroom” for better nutrient-intake.
Again, the calorie surplus drives momentum, which drives long-term results. Maintenance blocks are a good part of a smart, structured diet but they usually don’t last longer than 4-6 weeks.
The idea that Greg is preaching, that we’re co-signing, is the notion of being patient. Muscle gain is not going to happen quickly, and eating way too much doesn’t always accelerate it. Sometimes you just need to roll with the slow muscle gains because that allows you to gain high-quality muscle mass without fat.
I’ve definitely enjoyed heavy bulks before, because I really get great momentum from it and huge progress and after a cut or ‘clean’ phase, it can be nice to put on a little more size and free yourself from very restrictive dieting habits. But there are some downsides, like looking chubbier and less aesthetically pleasing.
For most purposes, use a diet that is around 10-15% of TDEE calorie surplus and you’ll make good gains, at a good pace, without getting too chubby too quickly.
When to start eating big and how to eat big to get big
As a beginner, the main focus of your diet shouldn’t be on massive surplus or cramming food. The idea is to build a better set of dietary habits and work on quality. Most people have never even controlled their diet by the time they start bodybuilding!
Maingaining is easy here: you will burn fat and build muscle if you just eat at maintenance as a beginner. Your body doesn’t put up the resistance that it will when you become trained and experienced, so you can do almost anything you want. The training effect alone will carry you to better body composition.
Spend that time working on quality in your diet, even for the first 6-12 months, and only shift the calorie content up or down slightly from “maintenance”.
As you become an advanced novice and intermediate, most people should be working at a small to moderate calorie surplus. This is the way you gain quality muscle when you’re in the first few years of training and have run out of ‘noob gains’.
You’ll still be producing muscle rapidly as you’re relatively inexperienced, but it could be slower and more hard-fought than in the first year. This is the time where a moderate calorie surplus will help drive better results and when you need to start thinking about the cycles of massing and cutting that are so popular in bodybuilding.
Having a bigger picture idea of what you want, with cutting, gaining, and maintenance phases is a good idea.
You could also have a natural, deliberate limit on the amount of weight you want to gain or lose, and use maintenance blocks to “book-end” a block of massing or cutting. It’s just good for health – both physical and mental – to get back to maintenance for 2-6 weeks every now and then.
As you become more advanced, you’ll find that old “moderate” calorie surpluses are actually quite small. If you’ve been training for 7 years, a 500-calorie surplus is probably not that much as you’re bigger, stronger, have a faster metabolism, and likely a much higher TDEE than when you started.
I don’t need to provide basic information to advanced trainees – experience should tell them that they need to maintain a patient gaining phase.
The balance is simple and true for most people novices or intermediates: the faster you usually gain it, the sloppier that weight will be and the more time you spend getting it off again. That’s down to personal preference.
Some natural bodybuilders find it easy to gain and hard to lose, or vice versa, by personal experience. What I will say for sure is that patient bulking is a good approach for performance and muscle gains. It’s fine to go slower, keep your abs, and build muscle year on year at a steady pace if that’s what you prefer.
This is the approach that many athletes take when moving up weight classes and its proven by the careers of dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of elite bodybuilders – both natural and enhanced. The body has a pace for these kinds of changes and you have to work with it as a natural bodybuilder.
Eat Smart to Get Big
One final word about eating big and getting big: remember it all changes over time. Your bulking calories need to change as your body weight and composition change. Whether bulking or cutting, you need to adjust your TDEE and macros and calorie-goals regularly. They need to be accurate to your body size and needs, or you’ll under-/over-feed very quickly.
Make sure to adjust your daily goals as your body changes and provide yourself with updated targets every month (as a beginner or intermediate) or quarter (as an advanced trainee). You need to stay in touch with your metrics and adjust them every now and then.
The eat big to get big mentality can go too far, and you do need to touch down with yourself often. It can also provide some use for those ‘progress pictures’ you keep taking. Look at your body composition over time and see how it’s changing.
If you find yourself going from visible to non-visible abdominals in a relatively short period of time, then you’re gaining a lot of bodyfat. These kinds of rule-of-thumb measurements are useful. You need to get better at feeling and reviewing your body, as a natural bodybuilder, for information on what’s changing.
Be willing to go slower with muscle gains, specifically, because you’re going to be in this game for a long time. Patience is rewarded with a big, muscular, strong, and lean physique. It also comes with lower injury risk, lower risks of developing bigorexia, and a happier body when you reach your goals!
Eating Big To Get Big: Editor’s FAQ
How do you gain weight?
Weight gain is about the calorie surplus. You can also gain weight in “transient” forms that come and go quickly. These include things like water, intestinal mass, and even the glycogen in your muscles. The kind of weight gain you want – muscle gains – comes from a combined increase in calories splitted with protein, carb and fat intakes and regular training.
How do you build muscle?
Muscle gain is more difficult than weight gain. It involves eating more than you use, resistance training, and proper recovery (sleep and relaxation).
The things you eat help you build muscle, when you train hard. It’s a slow process, this is why patient calorie surplus works well: you’re going to stay relatively lean while building muscle at a small to moderate calorie surplus.
How important is a calorie surplus?
It’s not important, it’s essential. You can’t gain weight without calorie surplus, it’s just maths. Your body needs energy to do things, to make tissue, and to replace resources its used. You lose weight if you’re not eating enough, and you can’t build new, calorie-expensive tissues like muscle at a good rate without calorie surplus as a natural.
How much of a calorie surplus do you need to make great gains?
It depends on who you are, what your training looks like, and other factors. Usually, we say 10-15% calorie surplus (over TDEE) is the right starting point.
Using a % makes it easier for people of all sizes, since 500 calories is a huge amount to smaller people, but not much to very large people. Start with your body and needs, or you’ll miss the important stuff.
Do you make better gains being in a calorie surplus long-term?
Yes, you do. This could also put you at risk of larger fat-gains, however, and even health risks. Your body is healthier when you don’t go to extremes like a very large calorie surplus with unhealthy foods. So try and be balanced.
Use patient calorie surplus if you’re going for long-term gains. It’s important to work with your body when using periods of massing or cutting more than 3-months long. These open the door to chronic health and metabolism changes, which is you can also put in short maintenance blocks to help your body and mind rest.
Just how much eating is “eating big”?
That’s down to you. Eating big isn’t a number or a meal plan: it’s a commitment to your diet and getting the food in even when it’s a bit of a chore. There’s nothing wrong with a little disciplined eating, especially on a massing phase. You’ll often find yourself full and not-hungry. Eating big is about continuing to eat when you need to, rather than just when you want to. It’s part of the challenge of bodybuilding.
Do you need protein supplements to gain weight?
No, you can get very big and strong without protein supplements. They’re one way of increasing your protein and calorie intake, but not essential. Real foods are typically better for building muscle since they include many other nutrients (e.g. beef contains a range of high-quality, rare nutrients that whey protein doesn’t).
Protein shakes are just convenient, which is good for fitting bodybuilding around your everyday life – work, studies, and family.
Can shakes and smoothies help gain weight?
Absolutely. They’re a simple and easy-to-drink (sometimes) way of getting more calories. You might not be eating big, but you’re getting plenty of calories in and liquids can be a low-satiety way to reach your calorie goals.
One of the ways that I help some guys get bigger is to have them eat a normal, healthy diet at roughly maintenance calories. And then we add a protein shake with banana, oats, protein, and milk. This leaves them roughly 500 above their requirements without changing their healthy eating habits.
This is a good way to ease yourself into better weight gain if you’re struggling – or you’re worried about the healthiness of a weight-gain diet!
We agree: eat big to get big.
Just make sure that you’re using that philosophy properly. And if you understand everything we said in this article, it’s even: eat smart to get big!
Commit to eating – and eating well – and then to eating whatever you need to reach your goals. It’s smart to be committed to consistent big-eating and put on high-quality muscle mass. It’s not smart to binge on junk food and get fat and lose sight of your own goals.
The idea is to eat big quantities of good food. You can go slower with a bulk to gain high-quality weight, and that’s usually what I’d recommend, but once you’ve got a target calorie intake for the day, you have to put in the work of eating. That is what eat big to get big means to me, and it’s how I’d recommend you approach it.
Eat smart, eat big when you need to, and eat with quality. If you can balance these up, you’re on your way to great results. Go find what works for you – and take Rich’s words with you into your next day of big eating!