One of the most important things when it comes to building muscle and strength is your diet. In fact, diet is probably the number one thing you’ll need to focus on when trying to pack on muscle.
This is scary to a lot of people. The word “diet” has a tendency to stir up negative thoughts, but I assure you, once you’ve been doing this for a while it’ll become a no brainer for you, and you’ll look and feel much better over all.
So let’s jump right into it.
In the bodybuilding and weightlifting world, you’ll hear the terms “bulking” and “cutting” quite often. This is referring to caloric intake, bulking is taking in excess calories which is what allows your body to repair and build new muscle. Cutting is putting your body in a caloric deficit, to burn fat and reveal the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build.
The reason seasoned body builders switch from bulking and cutting throughout the year is because your body cannot build muscle on a caloric deficit, but you cannot lose fat on a caloric surplus.
but here’s the good news…
You as a newbie have a rare advantage. Brand new weightlifters can actually build muscle and burn fat simultaneously! The reason for this is because your body is being subjected to new stress and stimulus that it isn’t used to or prepared for.
It’s after about a year or so that your body adapts and it becomes harder to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but you don’t have to worry about that yet.
What you do have to worry about right now is calculating your caloric needs. First thing you need to calculate is your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). Your body is burning calories every single minute of every day, your BMR is how many calories your body would burn with absolute zero activity. To calculate your BMR, click here.
After you have your BMR, you’re going to calculate your actual caloric maintenance level by multiplying your BMR with the number that corresponds to the activity level that best describes you.
- Sedentary (doesn’t work out, doesn’t have a physically demanding job) BMR x 1.2
- Lightly Active (Work out once or twice per week, non demanding job) BMR x 1.375
- Moderately Active (Work out 2 to 3 times per week, non demanding job) BMR x 1.55
- Active (Work out 4 to 5 times per week, non demanding job) BMR x 1.725
- Very Active (Work out 5 to 7 times per week, physically demanding job) BMR x 1.9
Here’s a quick example of what this will look like. Let’s say we have Joe Biggalo, a 5’9, 22 year old male who weighs 180 pounds. He is moderately active and his BMR is 1914 calories. He works out 3 times per week and has a desk job, so he will take his BMR (1914) and multiply it by 1.55, getting 2966.7 calories as his new maintenance level, but you can go ahead and round that up to 2970 calories.
Now, odds are you want to build muscle, not maintain your current weight. A good rule of thumb is to increase your calories by 150 to 200 during a bulk, no need to go insane and consume 4000 calories a day like Michael Phelps, you’ll end up just putting on a lot of excess fat.
So in our example here, a good place to start for Mr. Biggalo is eating 3170 calories per day, perhaps a little bit less on non workout days, but still higher than someone with a completely sedentary lifestyle.
These numbers may seem a little high, but remember that building muscle and maintaining it is a very calorically expensive process for your body. A muscular body burns many more calories, even at rest, than a skinny body. Muscle is a very expensive tissue for your body to maintain, the more muscle you have the more fat your body is forced to burn and the more calories it needs to dedicate to maintaining that tissue.
I always recommend that beginners underestimate their activity level. If you are moderately active, calculate your BMR as if you were lightly active. The reason for this is you don’t want to put on too much weight too quickly, it’s better to start small and increase your calories as needed.
When you start your bodybuilding diet make sure you weigh yourself once per week, preferably on the same day and in the morning on an empty stomach for the most accurate results. You should be aiming to gain about half a pound per week, or two pounds per month. This is where tweaking will be necessary, if you aren’t gaining any weight try increasing your caloric intake by about 100-200 calories. If you are gaining too much too fast, decrease your calories by 100-200.
Now if you are starting out overweight, you can start on a cutting phase to lose fat first. If you’re a newbie, it’s still possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but be aware that your energy levels will be lower during a caloric deficit. If you are looking to cut first to lose excess fat, follow the same formula above and simply subtract 100-200 calories from your caloric maintenance level, and aim to lose about half a pound per week. Don’t panic if you don’t see the scale move very much at first, as you are also building muscle, and muscle weighs more than fat, so it’s also a good idea to keep track of progress by simply looking at yourself in the mirror. You should start noticing small yet significant changes in your physique within the first month or two if your workout routine and diet are in check.
Calculating your Macros
Now that you have your caloric needs, you need to calculate your macros. Macro is short for macro-nutrient, these are the basic building blocks your body needs to carry out day to day functions and build muscle.
The first macro-nutrient we’ll focus on is protein. The average body builder should take in about 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So back to our example bodybuilder, Joe being 180 pounds should shoot for roughly 180 grams of protein per day.
Protein is the nutrient your body needs to build and repair muscle tissue, so this macro is very important to your bodybuilding diet. Make sure most of your protein comes from lean sources. Good protein sources include egg whites, greek yogurt, chicken breast, turkey, lean beef, pork chops, salmon, tuna and so on. Avoid protein sources that are too high in fat and grease like bacon, though one or two strips of bacon is ok on rare occasions.
Next let’s look at fat. Fat is the most calorically dense macro at 9 calories per gram. You should aim for .4 grams of fat per pound of body weight. So muscle man Joe at 180 pounds will be consuming 72 grams of fat per day.
Your body uses fats to produce your hormones, like human growth hormone and testosterone. These two chemicals are of vital importance when it comes to building a muscular physique. Aim for mostly healthy fats like peanuts, cashews, almonds, olive oil, fish oil, flax seed oil and pistachios.
Now we’re moving onto carbs. You’re going to fill the rest of your calories with good, clean, slow digesting carbs. So at 9 calories per gram with fats, and 4 calories per gram of protein, Joe here has already consumed 1368 calories (720 calories from protein and 648 calories from fat).
Carbs, like protein are 4 calories per gram. So Joe has to consume an additional 1802 calories to achieve his goal. at 4 calories per gram that would mean Joe has to consume 450 grams of carbs and he’s done for the day, he hit both his macros and his calories for the day.
Good sources of carbs include whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, fruits, vegetables and sweet potatoes. Avoid bad carbs like candy, white rice, white bread and white potatoes.
You can go on the lighter side in terms of calories on rest days away from the gym. If you are gaining too much weight too quickly and need to cut some calories from your daily intake, cut them from your carbs. Carbs are going to be the macro nutrient that you have the most leeway with, but you want to make sure you always hit your protein and fat needs. That isn’t to say carbs aren’t important too though!
If this all seems confusing or overwhelming to you, don’t worry. There are several apps that make calorie and macro tracking fast and easy. MyFitnessPal and MyPlate to name a few. After a while, you’ll be able to tell exactly how much you’re eating just by looking at it.
Just remember, have fun and don’t stress about diet too much. It isn’t the end of the world if you don’t hit your macros or if you have a cheat day once in a while. Just try and do it right about 80-90% of the time and you’ll be on your way to a great physique.
(If you’re looking for a guide on nutrition and weightlifting needs, check out my review of my favorite program on the home page.)