When starting out in powerlifting and bodybuilding, I was misguided in many ways when trying to set up my diet.
I would read about different calorie calculations or what the “experts” recommended, and the numbers never matched up.
Some sources suggested a low fat diet while others said a ketogenic diet with high fat was the way to go. Other resources recommended protein at 1g per pound of bodyweight, and of course others said higher or lower.
Talk about frustrating!
So, in this article I am going to outline a generalized approach to setting up a base plan diet when your goal is to body build or power lift.
The one thing I was glad I did early on as a lifter was being consistent with a diet plan.
I would set up a diet and if I was able to adhere to it, changes occurred with my body.
The first diet someone actually wrote for me had me eating 500g of protein per day. Thinking back now I just laugh at how wrong that was, but I did it anyway because I didn't know any better.
I was a waiter at a restaurant at the time and smashing down that much meat was nearly impossible. My ground turkey and sweet potato mound still gives me nightmares.
With all that said, whatever plan you decide to go with make sure it is realistic for you to consume.
How to Figure Out Your Caloric Intake
First step is setting up your calorie level. We must first estimate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This is composed of your basal metabolic rate (BMR), non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), thermic effect of exercise (TEA), and thermic effect of food (TEF).
BMR being less variable when compared to NEAT and TEA. A thorough discussion of each of these components and of the many equations for TDEE is beyond the scope of this article.
I want to help you get to the point of calculating how many calories you should start with. There are many formulas to use for BMR and then we can estimate calories during exercise and still it is an educated guess.
Where the rubber meets the road is sticking to a plan for a week and seeing the response. Did you lose weight, maintain or gain weight? The answer to that will let you know if calories are estimated correctly.
For a quick calculation and to save you some brain power I recommend using 14kcal/lb of bodyweight for men and 12kcal/lb of body weight for women. This should be a great starting point for weight maintenance. If you are in a cutting phase, decrease calories by 10%, if you are in a building phase, increase calories by 10%.
So, a 150lb women would multiple her bodyweight x 12kcals to get 1800kcals per day.
A 200lb man would multiple his bodyweight x 14kcal to get 2,800kcals per day.
This is the quick and painless version to get a starting calorie level for yourself. Please realize by no means is this the end all be all of setting up calories and is purely a rough estimate. If you gain weight or lose weight on this set up after a week adjust calories another 10%.
How to Calculate Your Protein Needs
This has been one of the most widely debated macronutrients of them all. It’s hard to nail down a specific number from the research since research might not apply to every situation.
In bodybuilding we face intense resistance training, high aerobic exercise, and caloric deficits all which jeopardize fat free mass and require a higher protein intake. Helms et al, performed a systemic review for this very topic looking at varying protein intakes in lean athletes in a caloric deficit that also resistance trained.1
The researchers concluded that a protein intake of 2.4-3.1g/kg (1.1-1.4g/lb) of fat free mass was the most protective to preserve fat free mass. Also, those athletes with the greatest caloric deficits and the lowest body fat were at the most risk for muscle loss and needs should be at the higher end of the range for these individuals. So, this is a good starting point, I would put offseason competitors on the lower end and pre-contest athletes on the higher end.
Just remember this calculation is based on fat free mass. So, body fat must be measured, or you can estimate to the best of your ability based on pictures.
How to Calculate Your Fat Needs
Fat intake should be addressed next. The body requires the essential fatty acids and carbohydrates are not necessarily essential, so let us calculate fats first.
I am not a fan of percentage-based calculations as I feel calculations based on body mass are more precise. However, in the literature there is not a firm body weight calculation for dietary fat.
A fat intake between 20-30% has been recommended for strength trained athletes to optimize testosterone.2 However, solely looking at testosterone levels as the determinant for fat intake is too simplistic.
Comparing studies with hypocaloric diets, it appears a higher carbohydrate/low fat approach preserved muscle mass more than a lower carbohydrate/high fat approach.3,4 So, it’s likely the caloric deficit has more of an impact on muscle mass retention than a higher fat diet to optimize testosterone levels.
With that said, 25% of calories can be applied to dietary fat. So, if you need 2500 calories per day, multiple this by 0.25 and you get 500 calories from fat. Divide this by 9, to get 70g of fat. Now, if you need a caloric deficit I would start by reducing fat first to aid in reserving calories for carbohydrates to preserve performance. I would not let fat go below 15% of total calories as a general recommendation.
How to Calculate Your Carbohydrate Needs
Last, but not least we have carbohydrates. It has been recommended for bodybuilders to consume 4-7g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight to optimize performance.5
However, depending on the phase of the bodybuilder this carbohydrate amount would not be possible without negatively impacting fat and protein intake. I would apply the remainder of calories to carbohydrate after you have optimized protein and fat.
So, add the calories from protein and fat and then subtract that from total calories. Divide that number by 4 and you will be left with the total grams of carbohydrates for you diet. Monitor performance in the gym and if it is good then keep this amount, if performance suffers shift calories from fat to carbohydrate.
Setting up a diet can be a daunting task when looking at multiple recommendations in research and coaches. The best plan is ultimately one you can be consistent on.
So, set up a plan you like, and you can stick to. Monitor the changes that happen and then adjust from there.
There is no calculation that will be precise for you, but mere estimates. Use the guide below to get you started, don’t overthink it just execute.
And if you want someone to really nail down exactly what you need then it’s time to reach out to a nutrition coach.
Set up your diet quickly by using these prinicples:
- Men: 14kcal/lb of bodyweight
- Women: 12kcal/lb of bodyweight
- 1.1-1.4g/lb of fat free mass
- 25% of total calories
- Apply the remainder of calories to carbohydrates
- Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR: A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013, Epub ahead of printPlante TG, Madden M, Mann S, et al.
- Bird SP: Strength nutrition: maximizing your anabolic potential. Strength Cond J. 2010, 32: 80-86. 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181d5284e.
- Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J: Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011, 21: 97-104.
- Walberg JL, Leidy MK, Sturgill DJ, Hinkle DE, Ritchey SJ, Sebolt DR: Macronutrient content of a hypoenergy diet affects nitrogen retention and muscle function in weight lifters. Int J Sports Med. 1988, 9: 261-266. 10.1055/s-2007-1025018.
- Slater G, Phillips SM: Nutrition guidelines for strength sports: sprinting, weightlifting, throwing events, and bodybuilding. J Sports Sci. 2011, 29: S67-S77. 10.1080/02640414.2011.574722.