It’s a bit of a minefield, it’s subjective and there are of course many ways in which you can skin a cat. I will break this down into 3 separate articles (diet, training & other factors) in order to keep this as concise as possible but also to arm you with a decent method and understanding of the basics so you should be able to implement them.
In this article I’ll try and explain the basic principles of the dieting for adding muscle mass. Anybody can do this, it might require a small amount of planning and tracking (for a while) but we eat all the time anyway so it’s not like asking you to do something you wouldn’t normally do.
Diet is one of the biggest tools at your disposal to adding quality mass to your frame, you need to train, that’s obvious, but no training regime will work without the required macro nutrients and building blocks to build muscle.
Diet basics- calories
You need a calorie surplus to grow, there is no avoiding this. This means eating more calories each day than your body needs to perform bodily functions plus any daily activity. You can use the Harris Benedict formula (or other alike methods) to work out rough estimates as to what your maintenance calories are and then add a nominal number (maybe starting at +500kcals), but everyone is different and my suggestion would be to start at roughly 17kcals to 20kcals per pound of lean body weight as total calories each day in order to gain weight.
Since everybody is different you should use this as a starting point and monitor and adjust over time when weight loss stalls. The key is to gain slowly and steadily as anything more than one or two pounds of weight gain a week will most likely mean you’re getting fat.
Let’s use an example of working calories this out….
Let’s suggest you weight 200lbs and you’re approximately 15% body fat. 15% of your total weight is fat leaving 85% as fat free mass.
200x 0.85 gives you you’re approximate lean body weight, which in this case is 170lbs. 170lbs x 17kcals=2890kcals. Remember this is your STARTING point calories and you should monitor and adjust over time. I want to emphasise at this stage that everybody is different, a small guy with a very high metabolism may need as much as 4000kcals or even 5000kcals to start progressively gaining weight.
The above sounds very simple right? You need to eat in a calorie surplus.
Monitoring and adjusting over time
You may find you actually lose weight on this number, in which case you would need to add calories in. Or vice versa, you may experience too much weight gain meaning you might require backing off a little. I suggest weighing yourself as well as looking in the mirror each week. The scales can be deceptive which is when the mirror is useful. For example you’ve gained 2 or 3 pounds this week, but you’re still lean- no need to reduce calories you’ve added lean mass (likely for new trainees).
Tracking calories on My Fitness Pal or another similar tracking platform (www.myfitnesspal.com) is a good way of tracking calories as it is simple and less time consuming. Once you have a good idea of how much you’re eating and you eat the same sort of foods then you may only wish to track once or twice a week (or less frequently) to ensure you’re ticking along on the right numbers for your goals.
Do you really need to track calories and macros?
In short-YES! At least for a while until you have a good grasp of how much you’re eating. How can you begin to make changes to your body without having a clue how much you’re eating and the macro nutrient breakdown of the food you’re putting in your body? It would be like pissing in the wind…..at night time.
I often find that people say “I’m eating a lot but not gaining”. When I make them track or ask them what they’re eating it turns out they’re eating like a 9 year old girl and expecting to grow into a 15 stone man, it doesn’t add up. So get real and make yourself accountable and least track for a while to give your eating some tangible context.
Should you have cheat meals?
I hate the term ‘cheat meal’. It pretty much installs in the mind that eating something you like is detrimental, bad for your health and in extreme cases can lead to eating disorders and creates unhealthy relationships with food. If you cannot go out once every week or two and enjoy some food with friends or family without feeling bad then you seriously need to look at your relationship with food and priorities in life.
Is it as simple as calories in vs. calories out?
No it isn’t. Most studies, my own practice and my own experience suggests otherwise.
Will you gain weight eating mars bars in a calorie surplus? Yes, of course but it is lean mass we’re after and not fat. Much like losing weight, you can lose weight eating in a deficit on mars bars but you will lose far more muscle eating this way and look like a bag of turds whilst stimulating hormones the wrong way.
You want to look like you train so body composition is important and the type of weight you’re gaining is important. You can accept that you may add small amounts of fat, but there is no excuse for walking around at 20-25% body fat citing “you’re bulking”. Slow and steady wins.
So we need to look at the macro nutrient groups (carbs, proteins and fats) and the type of foods we’re eating and their effect on hormones and bodily functions within the body. I’ll touch on the very basics here as each of these need more time spent on them to give more complete understanding.
Protein is responsible for cell repair and growth. The amount of protein required for building muscle is up for debate, Brad Pilon’s research and opinion suggests that the requirements are not as high as we might think but bro science and other studies suggest as much as 3x body weight in grams. My opinion is to eat approximately 0.5 to 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So in our 200lb guy example, you will eat approximately 100-200 grams of protein per day. Protein supplements are NOT required unless you’re struggling to eat your daily protein requirements or you have money to burn and need a burning pit. Protein contains 4kcals per gram.
Carbohydrate intake is a hotly discussed topic. I’ve done much reading of books from people in the low carb camps (Gary Taubes and Mark Sisson to name a couple). I’ve also eaten low and very low carb diets in the past with mixed results. My own opinion is that there is no reason to exclude carbohydrates from ones diet. I would suggest the type of carbohydrate you’re eating is of more importance. Getting constant huge insulin spikes from refined sugary carbs is not what you want as this will spike blood sugar which will in turn spike insulin which is the pathway to laying down fat. Carbs contain 4kcals per gram.
I’d suggest getting your carbs from brown rice, oats, vegetables, sweet potatoes and fresh fruit (in moderation). Avoid foods with sugar in and starchy carbs, these include sweets, candy, chocolate bars, sugar, biscuits, cakes, white bread, white pasta, white potatoes and too much fruit. I would generally keep carb intake in the mid to low range, somewhere between 100g and 350g but this will depend on your food likes and dislikes. Note that some people can tolerate my carbs than others too, especially those training with more volume or athletes.
Fats are essential to fuel the body and are used to regulate hormones such as cholesterol and testosterone (amongst other things) so it’s obvious to say that getting a reasonable amount of dietary fat is a must. Good healthy fatty food sources are eggs, nuts, fish, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, animal fats found in meat. Just remember fats are very calorie dense at 9kcals per gram.
Should you have cheat meals?
I hate the term ‘cheat meal’. It pretty much implies that eating something you like is detrimental, bad for your health and in extreme cases can lead to eating disorders and creates an unhealthy relationship with food. If you cannot go out once every week or two and enjoy some food with friends or family without feeling bad then you seriously need to look at your relationship with food. Remember as long as we’re hitting our sensible numbers in terms of calories and macro nutrients for the day then the occasional ‘dirty’ meal is no problem at all and will help keep you sane.
Would I rather you factored in a small bowl of ice cream every 2 days and stayed at your daily calorie/macro goals or crave this ice cream, fall off the wagon and eat 2 tubs of ice cream in one day (doubling your calorie goal for the day)? I think the former is better for balance, sanity and long term results.
So on occasion go and eat what you want, but factor it into your daily nutrient goals and don’t feel guilty.
What ratios of fats, carbs and protein are best for you?
Neither is best, so long as you’re eating food in its unprocessed state (as much as possible) and you’re avoiding sugar then you’ll be making positive changes. If you abide to this then it’s really up to you. If your carb choices are sensible ones and you’re hitting your protein intake and calories for the day then job done. Remember food is a pleasure of life.
The question you need to ask yourself is which method of diet can you stick to long term? For example If eating low carb is going to interfere with normal life and you’re likely to fall off the wagon every 2 weeks and binge then it seems silly to use low carb (although this is another topic in itself).
There are other tools like intermittent fasting which I will cover at another stage but understand these basics and you’re well on your way.
- Establish your starting calorie intake for gaining
- Monitor your body weight and the reflection in the mirror
- Make adjustments in calories as you go based on the above 2 points
- Avoid sugar in your diet as much as possible
- Eat 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight
- Enjoy good fats
- Ensure the way you eat is sustainable long term
Stay tuned for Part 2 – Training to gain mass.