How to eat if you want maximum muscle growth is often made unnecessarily difficult. In fact, the rules are quite clear and simple. Let’s put them in a row.
The guidelines in this article are primarily intended for the natural bodybuilder and may therefore not apply to practitioners of other sports, such as endurance sports.
While there are some general guidelines for bodybuilders, nutrition programming also depends on the actual training goal. There can be four within bodybuilding:
- muscle growth (bulk);
- fat loss (cut);
- muscle growth and fat loss (recomp*);
- muscle preservation (maintenance or ‘primer phase’).
* Abbreviation for body recomposition. Building muscle and losing fat at the same time is especially feasible if you are a beginner or ‘returner’, and/or if you have a lot of fat mass. It is almost impossible for advanced bodybuilders with little fat.
MEASURE WHAT YOU EAT
Only by knowing your nutritional needs and closely tracking your eating behavior can you monitor and (if necessary) adjust the process leading to your training goal.
That is why it is important that you know your daily energy needs, which is always an estimate — the only way to know if you’re on the right track is to use your scale. If you have an energy surplus for a longer period of time, but your weight remains the same, then your maintenance is apparently higher than what you have calculated.
To know how much calories and macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) you consume in a day, use a calorie app, at least fore a while. To know what your energy requirement is, read this article.
YOUR DAILY NEEDS
The key to your results is how your food intake looks throughout the day. So it’s mainly about the total amount of calories and macronutrients you consume in a day.
Other aspects of nutrition, such as timing and taking supplements, are less important, although they become more important as you get more advanced. Also how healthy you eat (including micronutrients) is not decisive for muscle growth, nor for fat loss, although it does play an indirect role in this. In addition, healthy eating is of course important for many other reasons.
Take a look at bodybuilding coach Eric Helms’ nutrition pyramid for muscle growth below.
Your daily energy level is the most important factor for the desired change in your body composition. For example, you will never lose fat if you have neutral or positive energy balance. And experienced bodybuilders usually don’t build muscle mass when they’re in a negative energy balance.
Whatever your goal – muscle growth, fat loss or both at the same time – only adjust your energy level to a limited extent. So do not eat too much if you want to build muscle (after all, you will gain a lot of fat mass) and do not eat too little if you want to lose fat (after all, you risk losing muscle mass). For the different training goals this means the following:
- muscle growth: energy requirement + 10-20%
- fat loss: energy requirement – 20-25%
- muscle growth and fat loss: energy requirement – 5-10%
- muscle retention: energy requirement
Example: if your maintenance is 2000 kcal and you want to gain muscle mass, in principle you add 200 kcal (10%) to that. If that turns out to be too little after a while, make 300 kcal (15%). A surplus of more than 15-20% is usually not necessary during a bulk; it only leads to an increase in fat mass.
After energy level, the amount of protein is the most important factor for muscle growth or maintenance. After all, the amino acids from proteins are the building blocks of your muscles. If you eat too little protein, you will never build optimal muscle, no matter how hard you try in the gym.
The general guideline for bodybuilders is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. But you can (or should) deviate slightly from this, depending on your training goal:
- muscle growth: 1.6-2,2 g/kg/d
- fat loss: 1.8-2,7 g/kg/d *
- muscle growth and fat loss: ~2.5 g/kg/d **
- muscle retention: 1.6-2,2 g/kg/d
* To maintain muscle in a persistent energy deficit you may need a little more protein than 1.6 g/kg/d.
** Some studies suggest that an extra high protein intake may facilitate body recomposition.
Eating (even) more protein?
Of course, just to be on the safe side, you can go a little higher than the 1.6 g/kg/d, for example at 2.2 g/kg/d (roughly like the ‘gold’ 1 gram per pound rule). That is why we have included margins in the summary.
However, eating more protein is not normally necessary and therefore does not lead to more muscle growth (as confirmed by a recent study). In fact, from a certain point it can even have a negative effect: not for your health (that’s not a problem), but for your body composition. After all: the more ‘superfluous’ proteins you eat, the less of your calorie intake you can spend on carbohydrates and fats, which are also important for achieving your training goal, as we will see later.
Coach and author Mike Israetel calls this The Caloric Constraint Hypothesis :
The Caloric Constraint Hypothesis tells us that there IS something like “too much of a good thing,” because the addition of too much of that good thing (protein, in this example) comes at the expense of other “good things” (carbs, dude).
This is reflected in the figure below: the most optimal protein intake for muscle growth is between 1.6 and 2.2 g/kg/d (with in principle no difference between 1.6 and 2.2). If you eat even more, it can negatively affect your body composition (indirectly or indirectly, due to reduced exercise performance). If you eat less, it will come at the expense of muscle growth.
The type of protein you eat doesn’t really matter – both animal and vegetable sources will suffice, although you should preferably choose nutritious sources with a high protein quality, especially during the cut.
Animal protein sources are better at stimulating muscle protein synthesis than vegetable ones. This is due to their higher biological value and their higher digestibility. Therefore, in order to get all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities as a vegan, you need a little more protein in total than normal – aim for 2-2.5 g/kg/d [ ix ] .
Distribution of proteins
Unlike carbohydrates and fats (see below), proteins cannot be stored and preserved until the times when they are needed most. That is why you have to take into account the spread of proteins.
It has been shown that it is best to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day in ‘shots’ (meals) of 20-40 grams. This is probably the best way to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. In practice, this means that you eat four to five meals a day with three to four hours in between. Plan your training just between two (protein rich) meals.
Fat is important, but you don’t need a lot of it.
For example, fats play an important role in the absorption of vitamins and in maintaining your testosterone level. (To what extent fluctuations of that level within the natural range affect muscle growth and fat loss is another question.) You have to get the so-called essential fatty acids from food anyway (the body cannot make them itself), so not eating any fat at all – if that is possible at all – is not an option.
However, your fat intake does not have to be excessively high to fulfill these functions: normally 1 to 1.5 grams of fat per kilogram of body weight per day is sufficient. Some sources speak of 20 to 35% of the total energy, which amounts to about the same. In that case you have to divide the value by 9 to get the number of grams, because 1 gram of fat contains 9 kcal.
A review by coaches Eric Helms and Juma Iraki, among others, recommends a fat intake of between 0.5 and 1.5 g/kg/d, although it is specifically aimed at competitive bodybuilders [ ii ] . The absolute minimum fat intake is indeed estimated at 0.5-0.7 g/kg/d (the literature is not really conclusive), but in principle you only have to aim for that minimum if you are cutting and a strict calorie-restricted diet.
For many, 0.5 g is really too little; a greatly reduced libido, as a result of a lowered testosterone level, is a good indicator of this. Mike Israetel therefore recommends taking 0.8 g/kg/d as a starting point and adjusting this upwards if your testosterone production suffers too much. If, on the other hand, you feel fine, you can safely go a little lower (to 0.5 g/kg/d), so that you can eat more carbohydrates.
- muscle growth: 1-1.5 g/kg/d
- fat loss: 0.5-1 g/kg/d
- muscle growth and fat loss : ~1 g/kg/d *
- muscle retention: 1-1.5 g/kg/d
* Fairly arbitrary, but with a view to a possibly extra high protein intake (see previous paragraph).
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (including omega 3 and 6) are also called healthy fats. It is important that you get enough of these, for example by eating fish, eggs (with yolk), nuts, olive oil and avocado.
Are carbohydrates your enemy? No, they’re not — on the contrary: carbohydrates provide the most efficient form of energy and as a bodybuilder you really need them (even when you are cutting, by the way).
Why carbohydrates are so important
Carbohydrates first and foremost provide (fast) fuel. After digestion, carbohydrates mainly end up in our blood as glucose. Then the tissues take up glucose where it can be burned. This creates energy for the body.
Unused energy is initially stored in the muscles and liver. This occurs in the form of glycogen. Think of it as an energy supply that is used when your body needs energy. During your training for example. Carbohydrates are therefore a much more efficient source of energy for strength athletes than fats [ i ] .
But a lot of carbohydrates may have even more benefits in terms of muscle growth. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of the hormone insulin, which, according to Mike Israetel, has a positive effect on the recovery of your training and on muscle growth. Although the literature on the anabolic role of insulin is not yet conclusive. In addition, full glycogen stores would promote recovery and the presence of (a lot of) glycogen may also be a driver of muscle growth in itself [ vii ] .
How many carbohydrates do you need?
Based on the principle of The Caloric Constraint Hypothesis, you would do well not to eat more proteins and fats than is strictly necessary, so that you can eat carbohydrates for the rest.
Your daily amount of carbohydrates is therefore what remains after deducting the quota proteins (1.6 g/kg/d) and fats (1-1.5 g/kg/d). That usually amounts to 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight [ xi ] . The recommended daily amount of carbohydrates is therefore:
- regardless of purpose: as much as possible*
* Taking into account the recommended amounts of proteins and fats.
From a health perspective, vegetables, fruits and whole grains (such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice and whole wheat pasta) are the best sources of carbohydrates (so-called complex carbohydrates). They are also very filling and contain a lot of fiber, making them ideal for during the cut.
In the bulk, however, you will also need to use less filling and fiber-rich sources, such as bread, potatoes and white rice (the so-called simple carbohydrates).
Simple carbohydrates are also found in snacks, drinks and ready meals, but it is better to avoid these from a health point of view. Although you can sin during a firm bulk, especially if you find it difficult to eat a lot.
Micronutrients are especially important for your overall health. Dietary fiber also contributes to good digestion and makes you feel full after eating.
For muscle growth – and body composition in general – the right amount of calories and macronutrients counts above all. Picture it as three cylinders side by side: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. At the end of the day, all three should be filled to a certain height. With which substances the tubes are filled, in principle does not matter for muscle growth, as long as the amounts are correct.
Yet micronutrients are also important for muscle growth, albeit more indirectly. The credo If It Fits Your Macros is therefore too short-sighted.
A varied diet generally provides more than enough micronutrients. If you want to play it safe, you mainly consume unprocessed food. That is food that comes directly from nature, such as vegetables, fruit, seeds, kernels, nuts, eggs, fish, meat, herbs and so on.
If you also want to snack some, fine – your muscles will grow no less because of that. Only during a strict cut it is better not to snack. It just makes dieting more difficult.
For bodybuilders, the micronutrients magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6 are especially important. If you are not sure whether you are getting these in sufficient amounts, for example because you follow a vegan or calorie-restricted diet, you can use supplements. But they only make sense if you can’t get the substances sufficiently from regular food.
Sports supplements are overrated. The interest in it often arises from a lack of knowledge about programming training, nutrition and recovery. If you don’t grow (anymore) because, for example, you do too many sets or train too much until muscle failure, the solution is often sought in supplements, while it lies in the training volume or the training intensity. Stress and lack of sleep can also disrupt the muscle growth process and you cannot solve that by taking supplements.
Are supplements worthless? We won’t say that:
- Protein supplements, such as powders, can help you to eat sufficient (animal) proteins if this is not possible through regular food. Vegetarians, for example, can benefit from it. Also, protein supplements are handy to take with you;
- Vitamin supplements are helpful if you’re on a strict calorie-restricted diet and may not be getting all of your micronutrients as a result;
- Depending on the composition of your diet, omega 3 supplements can be of added value for your health, but there is probably little or no positive effect on muscle growth;
- Strength supplements are generally useless, with the exception of creatine (3-5 g/d), whose performance-enhancing effect has been amply scientifically proven. The supplements citrulline malate (8 g/d) and beta-alanine (3-5 g/d) may work a bit. Finally, caffeine (5-6 mg/kg/d) only promotes strength performance if your body is not used to it.
EATING AROUND TRAINING
If needs throughout the day are decisive, how important is eating around training?
That mainly depends on your training status and your training goal. But in general, timing food intake is a relatively small effort that may give you slightly better results – the principle of picking the low-hanging fruit first. And if it doesn’t help, it won’t hurt.
After strength training, you need to get enough nutrients for 24-72 hours for muscle recovery and building. This period is called the anabolic window of opportunity. This certainly does not only concern the first hour after training. However, the ‘window’ narrows as you get more advanced [ ii ] . Hence, timing of protein intake around training is probably more important for advanced users than for beginners [ iii ] .
In addition, regardless of training status, muscle protein synthesis has the fastest increase in the hours following the training. Therefore, make sure that your body has enough protein immediately after training.
In addition, according to coach Menno Henselmans, it is beneficial if your body also has access to proteins during training, namely to prevent muscle breakdown.
To have enough protein during and immediately after training, make sure that your training falls more or less between two protein-rich meals, with three to four hours between those meals. Something you may already be doing automatically.
‘Meal’ can also be a protein powder shake, but it doesn’t have to be!
5:30 pm dinner (pasta with 150 g chicken): 30 g protein
7:00 pm-8:00 pm workout
8:30 pm whey protein shake: 40 g protein
As you can see, you don’t have to eat that protein shake right after your workout. After all, during and immediately after training, your body can still have proteins from the 5:30 PM meal.
Finally: always eat whole proteins and therefore no individual amino acids (BCAAs).
Many bodybuilders intuitively eat a lot of carbohydrates before and after training. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Whether it is really necessary, however, remains to be seen.
Carbohydrates for training
Carbohydrates are indeed the most efficient source of energy for strength training, but you are not solely dependent on the carbohydrates you have just eaten. After all, we already saw that energy from carbohydrates that is not immediately used is stored in your muscles as glycogen. So you have a stock of fuel.
Still, according to Mike Israetel, it is wise to optimize your glycogen stores [vii ] . You do this by eating a meal a few hours before training that contains 30-40 grams of protein and as much carbohydrates and as few fats as possible. As mentioned, fats are not an efficient source of energy for strength training and, moreover, they take longer to digest.
Do not eat too short of training: plan your meal 3 to a maximum of 1.5 hours before the training. This is to prevent your body from still digesting during your training, which is at the expense of your energy level and training performance.
Are you unable to eat such a meal a few hours before training? Then take a source of simple (fast absorbing) carbohydrates just before training, for example a banana.
Carbohydrates after training
Eating (a lot of) carbohydrates immediately after training is probably not strictly necessary: even after training you normally still have sufficient glycogen stock available, and there is no convincing evidence (yet) for any specific anabolic effect of eating carbohydrates immediately after training. While insulin can promote recovery and muscle growth, insulin levels actually need to be elevated throughout the day [ vii ] .
But many like to eat a lot of carbohydrates after training, if only because of the Fear Of Missing Out, or because you simply have a strong appetite after training. It can’t hurt anyway.
Eating carbohydrates after training is urgently recommended if you have trained on an empty stomach (which is not recommended ), if you train a second time later in the day, and if you do endurance sports [ v ] . The latter also applies to cardio after strength training.
Carbohydrates during training
Should you also eat carbohydrates during training? Basically not, unless you train for more than an hour. Then you may benefit from taking a small ‘shot’ of carbohydrates to maintain your energy level, for example by eating a banana after 60 minutes of training (good for about 30 grams of carbohydrates) [ iv ] [ v ] .
Do not eat too much fat in the hours before your training, because fats are more difficult (and therefore slower) digested than carbohydrates. Eating a lot of fat just before training can therefore undermine your training performance.
Also, do not eat too many fats after your training: they can reduce the rate of digestion of other nutrients [ x ] .
If you’re already taking strength supplements, you usually don’t need to take them at a specific time. Only citrulline malate and caffeine should be taken about half an hour before your workout. These substances are therefore often in ready-to-use pre-workout supplements. However, keep in mind that the doses are not always sufficient; it’s even better to buy the individual supplements and prepare a pre-workout yourself.
EATING BEFORE GOING TO SLEEP
Although its exact effect needs more research, it’s probably a good idea to take one of your servings of protein right before bedtime. This ensures that muscle protein synthesis can also remain elevated during your sleep.
It is unclear whether and to what extent it is possible to provide your muscles with protein throughout the night with one pre-nightly protein intake. That possibility seems more realistic if you take a somewhat larger ‘shot’ of protein, of at least 40 grams, and if you use the slowly absorbing casein protein. That is also the protein from which quark is largely made.
|muscle growth: energy requirement + 10-20%
fat loss: energy requirement – 20-25%
muscle growth and fat loss: energy requirement – 5-10%
muscle maintenance: energy requirement
|sources: as much unprocessed food as possible|
|muscle growth: 1.6-2.2 g/kg/d
fat loss: 1.8-2 g/kg/d
muscle growth and fat loss: ~2.5 g/kg/d
muscle maintenance: 1.6-2.2 g/kg/d
|sources: only whole proteins, no single amino acids; protein shake not a must|
|spread: ‘shots’ of 20-40 grams, with 3 to 4 hours in between|
|timing: plan training in between two protein-rich meals, take ~40 g casein protein before bedtime|
|muscle growth: 1-1.5 g/kg/d
fat loss: 0.5-1 g/kg/d
muscle growth and fat loss: ~1 g/kg/d
muscle maintenance: 1-1.5 g/kg/d
Do not eat more fat than necessary so that you can eat a lot of carbohydrates.
|timing: don’t eat too much fat in your pre-workout meal|
|sources: at least half unsaturated fats; you usually get enough saturated fats automatically, unless you are vegetarian or vegan|
|Can be stored as glycogen; total consumption in one day is decisive. Calculate how much protein and fat you need; what remains are carbohydrates (usually 3-5 g/kg).|
|timing: to optimize glycogen stores: eat meal with a lot of carbohydrates (1-4 g/kg) 3 to 1.5 hours before training. Intake of carbohydrates immediately after strength training is not strictly necessary, unless further training sessions, for example cardio, follow afterwards or in the coming hours. If you train for longer than an hour, take a small source of fast carbohydrates after an hour, such as a banana.|
|sources: complex carbohydrates as a basis, to be supplemented in the bulk with simple carbohydrates, provided not too many snacks|
|Are in principle not necessary, except perhaps protein powders (if you find it difficult to eat enough protein), creatine (3-5 g/d; positively contributes to strength performance and recovery in many people) and vitamins / minerals / omega 3 (if you can’t get enough from regular food, for example with a calorie-restricted diet). You can also try citrulline malate (8 g/d), beta-alanine (3-5 g/d) and caffeine (5-6 mg/kg/d).|
- [ i ] https://youtu.be/NQS-bhb_vk8?t=2145
- [ ii ] https://www.instagram.com/p/BnBCDy8H0fL/
- [ iii ] https://www.facebook.com/MennoHenselmans/posts/does-nutrient-timing-matter-it-depends-on-various-factors-including-your-trainin/2249401281784361/
- [ iv ] https://www.amazon.de/Eet-als-een-athleet-praktische/dp/9082700204
- [ v ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28919842/
- [ vi ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31247944/
- [ vii ] https://youtu.be/gcUXMW0sWBA?t=1906
- [ viii ] https://www.instagram.com/p/CFaBgyzhek5/
- [ ix ] https://youtu.be/9sHGcc6pMnc?t=871
- [x] https://www.instagram.com/p/CfZNNUzsGYy/
- [xi] https://www.instagram.com/p/Ch9eANdPg0c//