There are so many conflicting opinions out there for how to get jacked. A classic example is clean eating vs If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). People from the clean eating camp debate that it is completely illogical to think that you can sit around eating junk all day and make optimal progress, while people in the IIFYM camp think that it is illogical to sit down to 5 meals a day of chicken, brown rice and broccoli when there is no need to be that restrictive.
This article is not intended to debate these points and is solely focusing on the topic of the nutrition priorities for gaining muscle at an optimal rate.
1) Calories in vs Calories Out
If you are not eating enough calories you will not grow. It is as simple as that.
Calories have the biggest influence over what we weigh. If you are gaining weight consistently, by definition, you are in a calorie surplus. If you are losing weight consistently, you are in a calorie deficit. It doesn’t matter whether the surplus is created by eating more or doing less exercise, all that matters in terms of weight gain is whether you are in a surplus.
Obviously, if you are looking at gaining as much muscle as possible, you will be doing some form of training at whatever volume/frequency you think is optimal, so the calorie intake is what we have more control over.
It is pretty difficult to gain muscle while losing weight. Generally, the only people who can do it for an extended period are untrained or taking anabolic steroids.
If you have been training for a while, bulking to gain muscle and then cutting to lose fat is the way to go. Losing fat while gaining muscle may be possible for some, but it is not even close to being the most efficient way to get results.
If you are gaining weight, you are likely gaining both fat and muscle. If you are losing weight you are likely losing muscle and fat. The trick is to gain more muscle than fat while bulking and lose more fat than muscle while cutting.
This is where the size of the calorie surplus comes into play. Too large a surplus and you gain fat too quickly.
Based on studies such as the one in the above example, a small calorie surplus (in this example around 200kcal over maintenance) often leads to better results in terms of minimising fat gain. This example had a ~50% of the weight gain coming from lean mass, which is pretty solid for well-trained athletes.
Meanwhile, a 500kcal surplus only increases muscle gain marginally, while increasing the fat gain dramatically.
Too small a surplus however and you are leaving muscle gains on the table.
If you are new to lifting weights, have a good program, get good sleep, have low stress, consume enough protein and have a solid diet overall, I would say a 500kcal surplus would be a good starting point. If you are more advanced or are missing any of those other variables, I’d be looking more at a 200-300kcal surplus.
As a practical example of how the average person might implement this: If you maintain your weight on 2000kcal per day (assuming you do the same amount of exercise per day – if you have rest days, it could be worth dropping the calories accordingly to keep the surplus consistent), a beginner could start by eating 2500kcal per day.
Theoretically, a 500kcal should lead to you gaining roughly 1/2kg per week (3000kcal should lead to roughly 1kg per week in this scenario). It doesn’t 100% work out that way in practice though due to metabolic adaptation.
Weight changes aren’t linear, but the goal is to have it average out at the desired rate over the course of weeks/months. Over a longer timeframe, you will gain more muscle, which will speed your metabolism up, meaning you will need to consume even more calories to continue gaining weight at the same rate.
This is a thought experiment I like to go through with clients to help them understand energy balance:
Imagine a person who doesn’t do any exercise. If they maintain their weight on 2000kcal, start lifting weights 5 days a week and continue eating 2000kcal, what will happen?
Common sense might make you think “lifting weights makes you bigger so they will gain weight.” That is not how it works though. Being in a calorie surplus makes you bigger. Weight lifting burns calories like any other exercise, so in this hypothetical scenario, the person would lose weight since their calorie intake remained the same but they added in more exercise which increased their calorie expenditure.
Gaining size always comes back to being in a calorie surplus.
2) Protein Intake
Obviously this will need to be adjusted for outliers though. Individuals with higher levels of body fat likely do not require as much and those who are extremely lean likely require more.
Eating significantly less than this amount will mean your muscle to fat gain ratio won’t be as good as it could be. Having more than this won’t be detrimental to muscle gain, but it is likely unnecessary and could potentially get in the way of consuming other nutrient-dense food sources.
3) Carbs and Fat
This one is not nearly as important as the first two priorities. As we all know, carbohydrates will help you train better. They are the ideal fuel for training. Carbs can also help you get a nice pump. Seriously, try training while on low carbs, compared to high carbs; it is an enormous difference.
With fat, the key thing that is of importance is to keep it above a bare minimum level. If you go too low-fat, it will affect your hormones. If you don’t eat enough fat your testosterone will crash which will severely impact your ability to gain muscle.
For most people, 0.3g/kg/day appears to be the cut-off. I like to stick with 0.5g/kg/day as a safer cut-off, but it really depends on the situation.
The way I typically do implement this in practice with my clients is by figuring out their calorie and protein needs first, then figuring out their minimum fat requirements. After that reverse-engineering, the rest of it based on how many calories are leftover, through filling out the rest of the calorie target with carbohydrates and fats.
My preference is to only go slightly above that safe cut-off for fat, but the difference in results in terms of body composition doesn’t appear to be that great so long as protein and fat are matched, so personal preference also comes into play.
4) Protein Distribution
The average person has very little protein at breakfast, a moderate amount at lunch and then a lot at dinner. A lot of protein-conscious individuals reach or get close to that 1.6-2.2g/kg of protein per day goal without putting in a lot of effort, but aren’t distributing it optimally.
A better way to achieve this would be to have protein evenly distributed over the day to maximise the time spent in an anabolic state. The number of meals matters too.
Consuming a minimum of 4 protein-rich meals across the day appears to be wise if looking to optimise muscle gain. From the research I have seen, consuming 3 protein-rich meals appears to perform relatively similarly too.
The other aspect worth discussing is the anabolic window. This has been discussed beyond belief.
It’s debatable whether it is important for people who aren’t fasting. If you miss the window you aren’t going to lose all your gains, however, if you are doing everything you can to maximise gains then it would be best to pay it some attention.
Rather than being a short 1hr period after your workout, the “anabolic window” is more of a 3-5hr period around your workout where it would be beneficial to consume at least 20-40g of protein.
This is individual as well. Larger athletes require the upper end of that range, while smaller individuals require the lower end. Once again, there does not appear to be any noticeable downsides to going above this range, but the benefits obviously are capped at the point that the total daily target is reached.
Obviously, micronutrients are important for health purposes, however, I’m solely focusing on muscle gain here. Fun fact – people who eat fewer calories live longer on average, so if longevity is your priority, perhaps trying to become huge could be counterproductive anyway. Food for thought.
Micronutrients aren’t high on the list of priorities, which is why people who follow IIFYM still get results. I could go through some examples and say stuff like “vitamin C helps with muscle recovery” which is true, but it really doesn’t make much of a difference.
Deficiencies are what can create issues, however. For example, if you are deficient in iron, you will likely feel fatigued and your training will suffer.
Not only should you aim to avoid deficiencies, ideally you should be aiming to consume sufficient amounts of all vitamin and minerals to reach the optimal amounts. Luckily, once you have reached that point, there isn’t any benefit from going attempting to go above that level.
Simply consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods in sufficient amounts should make this a relatively easy to achieve.
If you are unable to do this however, it could be worthwhile supplementing whatever specific nutrient(s) you have an inadequate intake of.
One other thing to keep in mind though is that sodium will affect your physique in the short term. Sodium won’t affect how much muscle or fat you have, but it will affect how much water you are holding.
People who eat clean usually consume less sodium than people who follow IIFYM, which will make them hold less water. Holding less water usually makes you look leaner.
This is only a short-term thing since your body adapts to whatever level of sodium you consume as long as it is within reason. It won’t be an issue for somebody even at a slightly higher level of sodium intake as long as it is consistent. It’s more of an issue when fluctuations occur.
If you aren’t in a calorie surplus, you won’t gain muscle long-term. If your surplus is too big, you will gain too much fat. If you don’t eat enough protein, you will gain more fat than necessary as well.
Those are the two main priorities and everything else is the icing on the cake.
There is a reason there are so many different approaches to this topic. If you get those first two things right, you will be making progress. Don’t let other aspects distract you from being in a calorie surplus. It’s cool to eat clean, but if it prevents you from eating enough calories then you are shooting yourself in the foot. Cheating the system by taking advantage of IIFYM to have as bad a diet as possible and still make great gains makes an interesting experiment, but I don’t recommend that either.
Aidan is a Brisbane based dietitian who has been exposed to the most recent and up-to-date evidence based approaches to dietetic intervention. Dating back to well before starting uni he has been fascinated by all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the clients desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans for clients, or provide flexible guidance that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life. He offers services both in-person and online.