Training and diet are two sides of the same coin. Your training creates the potential for change and your diet will dictate if you reach that potential. To maximize your results, your training and diet should work synergistically. If they do, it will amplify your results. Sadly, this fact is often lost on most lifters.
Both sides of the physique development coin (training & diet) are equally important. It’s not 50% training and 50% diet. It isn’t 60:40, 80:20, or any other ratio. It is 100% training AND 100% diet. To get great results you need to pay attention to both.
This is not reflected in the level of attention most lifters give to each component. The typical gym junkie analyzes their training program in infinite detail. Agonizing over every tiny training variable. Meanwhile, their diet gets little more attention than passing remarks like, “gotta eat big to get big”, “get enough protein, bro”, or “slam a shake post-workout, dude”.
This vague approach to nutrition will limit your progress. The fact is, you don’t get big lifting weights. You get big recovering from lifting weights. Your diet is one of the most powerful recovery tools available to you. Give it the attention it deserves and your physique will transform at a dramatic pace.
If, however, your training and diet fail to complement each other, you end up making little to no progress. This frustrating scenario can be solved by simply taking a step back, clearly defining your goals, assessing what training and diet protocols best support those goals and then, synching these together.
There are two main phases most physique focused lifters go through:
To optimize the success of each one you should ask yourself a few simple questions. The answers to these questions make the decision making thereafter almost fool-proof.
- What is my primary goal right now?
- What type of training is best for this goal?
- What type of nutrition best supports this style of training?
Those three questions, while deceptively simple, are also extremely powerful when it comes to creating complimentary training and diet plans.
Can’t I Do Both?
Assuming you are not an absolute beginner then you are best off choosing either bulking or cutting. Gym newbs can get the magic combo of muscle gain and fat loss but, this is far less likely if you’re a seasoned veteran in the gym.
Trying to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously is a gigantic waste of effort for most experienced lifters. To build muscle past the newbie gains stage you need a calorie surplus. To lose fat you need a calorie deficit. These are two completely opposing states.
The idea of killing two birds with one stone is appealing, but trying to do both is more like trying to ride two horses with one ass! You won’t get to where you want to go.
The body needs a robust signal to adapt. A significant calorie surplus and hard training to build muscle. A sustained calorie surplus to lose fat. Neither is possible if you try and “re-comp” your way to a great physique. For experienced lifters, the myth of lean gains is exactly that – a myth!
Instead of wasting your time chasing a myth, commit to one goal, achieve it, then transition to the next. In this case, that means bulk up, cut down, rinse and repeat in a cyclical fashion, until you’re a much bigger and leaner version of yourself.
Setting Up Your Diet While Bulking
What is my primary goal?
An increase in muscle mass.
What type of training is best for this goal?
High volume weight training, with an emphasis on the 6-12 rep range, and the pursuit of progressive overload.
What type of nutrition best supports this style of training?
A diet rich in nutrients. A calorie surplus. Sufficient protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis. The consumption of sufficient fats to optimize hormonal levels and enough carbohydrate to fuel and recover from high training volumes.
With those nutritional requirements in place you can then work through the hierarchy of needs in a step by step fashion, as follow:
Total Calories While Bulking:
The most important element of a bulking nutrition plan is to consume enough calories to grow. Your body needs an abundance of the raw materials needed to pack on size. Muscle doesn’t grow out of thin air! If your weight isn’t gradually climbing then you can be pretty certain that you are not building much (if any) muscle.
I suggest you eat enough to gain 0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week. To help guide you on this, a 1 pound per week increase will equate to approximately a 500kcal per day surplus. So, if you weigh 200 lbs and are shooting for the upper end of the rate of gain range you will need about 500 calories per day over maintenance intake to achieve it.
Theoretical Surplus Targets While Bulking:
- To gain 0.25 lbs per week = 125kcal per day surplus
- To gain 0.5 lbs per week = 250kcal per day surplus
- To gain 0.75 lbs per week = 375kcal per day surplus
- To gain 1 lb per week = 500kcal per day surplus
If you have not been tracking your intake and don’t have a reasonable ball park figure of your maintenance needs then, I suggest you begin by multiplying your bodyweight by 15 and then adding the appropriate surplus to meet your rate of gain.
Continue to assess and adjust based on your results. After all, that is what matters, not what an online equation predicts. The body is far too complex a system for simple equations to correctly pinpoint your exact needs. The body is always in a state of flux, operating numerous feedback loops which act as balance and checks to maintain homeostasis. Your calorie needs will fluctuate due to countless factors. As such, you must keep an eye on things and adjust if progress is sub-optimal.
If you are not gaining quickly enough increase your calories. If, on the other hand, you are gaining weight too fast the chances are you will be gaining excess fat. You cannot force feed muscle gain! So, reduce calories in this instance.
Once calories have been set, the next most important factor is your macronutrient ratio. Of these the most important is protein.
Protein Intake While Bulking
Muscle growth can only occur if muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown. To ensure this you should eat enough protein to maximize MPS throughout the day.
Research indicates that, in a surplus, 0.8-1g per lbs (1.6-2.2g per kg) of body weight is the sweet spot to achieve this. To keep things simple aim for 1g per pound of bodyweight.
Fat Intake While Bulking
The fat you eat plays an important role in various functions within the body. When it comes to bulking the most relevant is its role in hormonal function. Consuming at least enough fat to achieve optimal hormonal function is a key consideration. About 0.4g per lbs (0.9g per kg) will help to achieve this.
More isn’t better. When people hear that consuming fats can help boost hormonal levels they are tempted to push their fat intake sky-high. They think that washing down avocadoes, cooked in butter, with coconut oil, and fish oils will get them superhuman hormonal levels. Sadly, this is not the case. Once the 0.4g per lbs threshold has been achieved there is no noticeable benefit to hormonal level when in a calorie surplus.
Instead of chasing extremely high fat intakes you would be better off allocating those calories to carbohydrates.
Carbohydrate Intake While Bulking
Once you have established your protein and fat needs you can then fill up the rest of your available calories from carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates, like fats, have a positive effect on hormonal levels. They also happen to be the dominant fuel source for high-intensity training (ex weight lifting). Roughly 80% of your weight training is fuelled by glycogen stores. Eating enough carbohydrate to keep muscle glycogen topped up will improve training performance, endurance, and recovery.
Having enough carbohydrates in your diet allows you to train at a higher intensity, with more overall volume, and recover faster. That’s a powerful muscle building combo!
Carbohydrates also have anti-catabolic properties meaning they protect you against muscle breaking down by having a protein sparing effect. Long story short – carbs are not the enemy, in fact, they are a powerful weapon in your muscle building arsenal.
Tracking Progress and Making Adjustments While Bulking
As previously mentioned, by aiming to gain 0.25-0.5% of your bodyweight per week you can maximize muscle gain while minimizing fat gain.
When progress stalls you will need to eat more. I suggest you increase calories by about 250 to overcome this. Make the additional calories predominantly from carbs as you will already have ticked off your protein and fat requirements.
Setting Up Your Diet While Cutting
What is my primary goal?
To lower body fat levels while maintaining muscle mass.
What type of training is best for this goal?
As high-volume bodybuilding style training as you can recover from. What built the muscle best will keep it best!
You won’t be able to tolerate quite the same overall training volume as you can when bulking because your ability to recover from training is lower when in a calorie deficit. Talking of calorie deficits…
What type of nutrition best supports this style of training?
A calorie deficit is fundamental to a successful cutting phase. Protein should be high enough to combat the risk of muscle loss. Like in a bulk, fat intake should be sufficient to support optimal hormonal function. Unlike a bulk this might have to be a little higher than 0.4g per lbs as the risk of hormonal disruption is higher in a calorie deficit and when carrying very low levels of body fat.
Carbohydrates then make up the remainder of your available calories. Personally, I like to keep carbohydrates as high as possible while still losing fat.
As a side note, when cutting I place a bigger emphasis on food variety and quality. While you want to be in a calorie deficit you don’t want to be in a nutrient deficit. Select foods high in nutrients and low in calories to form the basis of your cutting menu. Lean meats, fruits, and, vegetables are going to be staples of a successful cutting plan.
Total Calories While Cutting:
Creating a calorie deficit is fundamental when cutting. Fat loss is quicker than muscle gain. As such, aim to lose 0.5-1% of your bodyweight per week. If you’ve been on a dreamer bulk and look more like a fat powerlifter than a bodybuilder then you can afford to lose faster than this at first (1-2% per week for a while).
The leaner you get the greater the risk of muscle loss. To minimize the chances of you losing muscle aim for the lower end of the range the leaner you get. So, you might begin your cut losing at 2% per week, spend the majority of it losing 1% per week and then finish off the last few weeks at 0.5%. This will help to preserve your hard-earned muscle while getting you shredded.
If you are unsure of your current maintenance calorie needs, multiply your body weight in pounds by 5 and subtract the relevant amount of calories needed to hit the target rate of loss. A well-established rule of thumb is that, a 500 calorie per day deficit will yield 1 pound of loss per week.
Theoretical Deficit Targets While Cutting:
- To lose 0.5 lbs per week = 250kcal per day deficit
- To lose 1 lb per week = 500kcal per day deficit
- To lose 1.5 lbs per week = 750kcal day deficit
- To lose 2 lbs per week = 1,000kcal day deficit
Protein Intake While Cutting
Protein is a powerful tool in effective fat loss diets. It has the highest effect on satiety (the feeling of fullness) of the three macronutrients. It also helps to preserve muscle mass when dieting. Because of these two factors it is wise to increase protein intake slightly during a cut. Research indicates that intakes ranging from 0.9g per lbs to as high a 1.5g per lbs of body weight can be effective.
In my experience, 1.25g per lbs offers the sweet-spot of mitigating the risk of muscle loss while still leaving sufficient calories available for fats and carbohydrates to make a diet varied enough to be sustainable.
Note: A diet is only as good as your ability to adhere to it!
Fat Intake While Cutting
The longer you are in a deficit and the leaner you are the greater the risk of hormonal disruption. Prolonged cutting phases where you get inside-out peeled can play havoc with your hormones if you are not careful!
To guard against this, it is wise to increase fat intake above what you would have in a bulking phase. You don’t need to go keto but you will want to make sure you cover your needs. About 0.45-0.55g per lbs of bodyweight is a good range to aim for. Like protein, within the suggested range, you should let personal preference be your guide to maximize your ability to adhere to the diet.
Carbohydrate Intake While Cutting
This is pretty simple – whatever calories you have left over will come from carbohydrates. As mentioned earlier, my preference is to keep these as high as possible for as long as possible. This supports gym performance. The harder you can train in the gym the better your chances of retaining muscle mass.
I would suggest you fight to keep these at a minimum of 1g per lbs for as long as possible.
Tracking Progress and Making Adjustments While Cutting
Fat loss is quicker than muscle gain. As such, aim to lose 0.5-1% of your bodyweight per week. If you’ve been on a dreamer bulk and look more like a fat powerlifter than a bodybuilder then you can afford to lose faster than this at first (1-2% per week for a while). When you stop losing weight, reduce calories by 250-500 calories.
Aim to gain, or at least, maintain strength in the gym when cutting. You should be able to do so for quite some time and only really see any performance decreases if getting exotically lean.
So, there you have it, a complete guide on how to structure your diet to fit your goals and your training. Matching your nutrition to your training has a synergistic effect that improves your response to training. It’s like putting two pieces of the puzzle together to finally get the whole picture.