The Key To Adding Muscle While Minimizing Fat

Dustin Elliott
Written By: Dustin Elliott
June 11th, 2010
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
19.6K Reads
Forget off-season bulking cycles! Dustin Elliot explains exactly how to add muscle mass without adding much fat.

No More “Bulking” in the Offseason

Gain Muscle Without Gaining FatTraditionally when it came to gaining weight or “bulking” in an attempt to add muscle, carbohydrates were the focal point in bridging the caloric gap that stood between the bodybuilder and his weight gain goal. This practice usually delivers results for hard gainers or young adults (typically those who are 18 and under). The reason is that carbohydrates are protein sparing. They cause the body to release insulin which pulls available nutrients in the blood and puts them to use (amino acids for muscle recovery) or storage (excess calories stored as fat) (1). For someone with a fast metabolism, taking in complex carbohydrates 6 times a day will help prevent muscle wasting.

The problem with this that many of us either gain fat easily because of genetics or we’re way past our teen years and having a fast metabolism is a thing of the past. What it comes down to is that you can’t gain muscle without at least a moderate surplus in calories over what your body burns in a day including exercise. However, excess carbohydrates may not be the right way to go for gaining size and staying lean. Now before you take all your bread, pasta, and rice and beans and throw them away, listen up: carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our bodies….if you don’t consume enough, your body will brake down muscle for amino acids it can convert into glucose.

Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates in the body; under normal circumstances the body can store about 400 grams at a time. So next time you crack open that Family Size bag of chips and dip and use the excuse that your “bulking”, take that into consideration. When it comes to just weight lifting alone, your carbohydrate requirement is going to be based on volume (sets x reps x weight) and intensity (rest between sets, drop sets, free weight exercises like squats, deadlifts, etc.) (2).

Now, of the premeditated amounts of carbohydrates you’re going to be taking in everyday, there is a timing issue with carbohydrates that must me taken into consideration to maximize their effect. The primary times to consume carbohydrates to take advantage of its protein sparing/anabolic capabilities is in the morning as soon as you wake up (because you haven’t eaten for at least 6-8 hours and cortisol levels are elevated) and post-workout (high glycemic carbohydrates after exercise causes insulin to spike which pulls amino acids from the blood and delivers them to muscle tissue).

Another important time for the consumption of carbohydrates is 1 to 1 ½ hours pre-exercise. However pre-exercise carbohydrates suppress lypolytic activity (metablization of fats during exercise)3. This is okay however, because in caloric surplus becoming leaner is almost impossible unless you’re a novice weightlifter or you have good genetics. Just be sure to be weary of the glycemic index (a grading scale of how much different forms of carbohydrates spike insulin). In general, lower GI foods are usually things like whole wheat bread, oatmeal, or anything else fiberous.

High GI foods are usually those containing high amounts of sugar (regular soda, fruit juices, fat-free yogurt, anything high in sugar). There is no evidence that sugar will make you fat (the concern is about total carbohydrates for the day and not necessarily glycemic index) but if you are trying to lose fat the spike in insulin will prevent weight loss and the rush of sugar could cause you to “crash”. Have you ever heard someone say “Ever since I stopped drinking soda and sugary juices I lost a couple pounds without doing anything”. For sedentary people (those who don’t exercise on a regular basis) this can actually happen.

The fact is, that the during the “low-fat” diet revolution that has been going on in the U.S. over the last few years obesity rates have doubled (coinciding with “fast” and processed foods and also sedentary lifestyles). In an attempt to avoid fat, Americans have increased carbohydrate intake which has consequently increased their consumption of processed high glycemic foods (from high GI white bread, to high sugar fat free products) (4). Most notable of the effects of healthy fats is reducing inflammation, increasing hearth health and lowering blood cholesterol.

Jorge Betancourt

The fats you should be looking for are poly and mono-unsaturated fats, they are never solid at room temperature (ex: butter vs. olive oil). An easy way to up your dietary fats is to buy some peanut butter and eat your chicken breasts/turkey sandwich with oil and vinegar for flavor. Supplementing with Omega 3 or eating fish at least twice a week is highly recommended as well. Omega 3 fatty acids help to keep blood pressure in check (bodybuilders put there blood pressure through the roof every time they’re in the gym), decrease triglyceride levels (blood fats) which can aid in the decrease atherosclerotic plaque (reducing plaque that causes blood clots) and reducing your chances of heart disease in general. As well as aiding in reducing inflammation; this is good for your immune system and joints.

The best example of a moderate fat diet that has the most proven long term success is the Mediterranean diet. A Harvard study was done with 101 men and women and what was discovered with the moderate fat Mediterranean diet (35% calories from fat, mostly monounsaturated from peanut butter, peanuts, mixed nuts, olive, canola and peanut oils) is that it increased compliance (it was easier for subjects to stay on the diet) (5).

Despite the advocacy for healthy fats, moderate amounts of saturated fat should not be feared. Don’t be scared of the saturated fat in your oils and peanut butter (they are usually 2g per serving or less), and keep the saturated fats from your red meat in check (have your white meat chicken and turkey on a regular basis, switch it up with fish twice a week and steak once or twice a week so you don’t get bored). In a study done in the Journal of Applied Physiology they found that serum levels of testosterone were elevated following exercise with subjects who consumed a diet that was relatively high in fat (6).

While serum testosterone doesn’t have a direct link with increasing protein synthesis; low levels of testosterone have a correlation with loss of libido and disease with old age. It is also well known that moderate amounts of fat, and essential amino acids while dieting for a contest are all a natural bodybuilder can do (outside of high intensity exercise of course) to make sure cortisol (a catabolic stress hormone) doesn’t completely evaporate testosterone. Just be weary of the fact that high amounts of saturated fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (7).

So if you’re a hard gainer, and you’ve tried eating like there’s no tomorrow but to no avail; you can easily increase your calorie intake by adding in more fats into your diet (remember, fat is 9 calories per gram as opposed to the 4 calories per gram of protein or carbs). If you gain weight easily and your goal is muscle mass, think of carbohydrates as your fuel source and take in the healthy fats and protein to get big.

Here’s an example based on some NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) recommendations. First off, your goal for weight gain according to them should be 1 pound every one to two weeks more an intermediate lifter and one pound every one to two months for an advanced lifter (a bulking period for a natural bodybuilder should be about 6 months). Through my own experiences with bodybuilding, I definitely agree with this (gaining weight any faster while natural is usually associated with great genetics, fat gain, or water retention/muscle volumization).

RJ Perkins Betancourt NutritionTaking in an extra 250 calories a day above what is expended (from metabolism and physical activity) is recommended for weight gain as well. During a good bodybuilding routine, usually a good 300 calories are expended and should be taken into account when trying to increase calorie intake. Protein intake should be 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight or .65-.8 grams per pound. I tend to agree with taking in the upper range of .8-1.0 grams per pound, although adequate water intake is essential when it comes to increasing protein.

Here’s a generic example: lets say you’re a 21 year old, 6 foot tall, 180lb guy and you lift weight five times a week, your maintenance level calorie consumption (including your workouts) will be about 2,900 calories (you can use an online calorie calculator to help you). So you will need about 3,150 calories a day for weight gain. Consistency is a big issue however, many people will eat and sleep like a bodybuilder until the weekend hits and they revert back to there old ways until Monday comes. For you to actually make lasting gains as an advanced lifter, you have to live it day and night for a lengthy period of time before you can ease off the gas (in regards to the diet I mean, don’t go overtraining on me).

Now the next step is, once you find out the number of calories you should be taking in, what’s the macronutrient profile (how many calories in carbs, fats, and protein make up your diet). If your using the moderate fat method we just discussed, then the ratio for your weight would be 40-25-35 (carbs-protein-fat). They usually have preset rations for things like the zone diet and the low carb diet, but I personally prefer calculating your daily protein requirement and then going from there. The fats should be about 30-35% and the carbs should be 40-45% of you total calories. So for the 3,150 calories for bulking of a 6ft 180 young individual the macronutrient profile would be about: 315g of carbohydrates-  about 80-90g carbs for breakfast, 70-80g carbs for lunch, about 60-70g carbs 1 hour before lifting, and 80-90g carbs after lifting, 185-195g of protein- about 30g per meal, chicken or turkey mostly, fish two maybe three times a week, try to limit red meat to twice a week. 122g of fat- about 20 grams per meal, peanut butter with bagels for breakfast, almonds as a snack, oil and vinegar on sandwiches and salads, supplement with Omega 3’s. If you can follow these guidelines for your bodyweight, sleep 7-8 hours a night, and lift at a high intensity with a different workout every 2-3 weeks you should be able to put on muscle over time.

  1. Janice Hermann, PhD, RD/LD. Carbohydrates in the Diet. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.T-3117
  2. Ira Jacobs, Nils Westlin, Jan Karlsson, Margareta Rassmusson, Bob Houghton. Muscle Glycogen and Diet in Elite Soccer Players. Euro Journal of Applied Physiology (1982) 48: 297-302.
  3. Jeffrey F. Horowitz, Ricardo Mora-Rodriguez, Lauri O. Byerley, and Edward F. Coyle. Lipolytic suppression following carbohydrate ingestion limits fat oxidation during exercise. Am J of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism
  4. Maya W. Paul, Suzanne Barston, Jeanne Segal, PhD., Mary Toscano, and, Robert Segal, M.A. Healthy Fats and Nutrition.
  5. K. McManus, L. Antinoro, F. Sacks. A randomized controlled trial of a moderate-fat, low-energy diet compared with a low fat, low-energy diet for weight loss in overweight adults. International Journal of Obesity. (2001) 25, 1503-1511.
  6. Jeff Volek, William J. Kraemer, Jill A. Bush, Thomas Incledon, and Mark Boetes. Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. (1997) 82: 49-54
  8. Joseph A. Chromiak, PhD, CSCS. Strength Training for Muscle Building. NSCA Hot Topic Series.

Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.

Posted on: Wed, 04/25/2012 - 09:39

I am 37, 6'3" and I currently weigh 250lb with 21% bf and I am trying to drop to 240lb with around 10% bf I take in around 3120 calories per day, what should my ratios be to maintain as much muscle as possible? I am cutting for a possible bodybuilding show in September.

Posted on: Sat, 07/03/2010 - 19:37

I'm 61, 5'-10", weigh 155 lbs, about 14 %body fat. I want to get up to 160 with 9% body fat. My concern is adding calories which would put on bulk. I want to be lean and maintain my size 40reg suit, which are the modern cut for thinner guys. My jeans are 31" slim fit. What do you recommend. I have enough equipment to work out at home. Thanks

Posted on: Wed, 06/16/2010 - 13:42

Hello. Im 17 years old at 148 lbs 5ft7in and 10%bodyfat trying to build muscle and loose fat. I workout every other day for about 1hr-1hr30min at a decent intensity (I keep a sweat for most of my workout) and use a upperbody/lowerbody on alternating days(upper,rest,lower,rest,upper...). My goal is to achieve 6% bodyfat and to increase my mucle weight. Your metabolic calculator says i need to heave 2662 to maintain my weight. How many calories should I consume and how much carbs/protiens/fat should i have?

Dustin Elliott ...
Posted on: Wed, 06/16/2010 - 21:11

Hello G.F., at your age your going to have more of a battle when it comes to gaining muscle. I would focus on that for now. Maintaining a body fat percentage under 10% is very tricky, many natural bodybuilders compete at 6% bodyfat and are unable to maintain such a low percentage for any extended period of time. However, at 10% bodyfat you will look very lean if you are able to increase your muscle mass, you are already very lean by many standards.

As far as gaining weight, shoot for 2,900 calories, as i stated in the article, you will respond better to a diet relatively higher in carbohydrates. Make sure you get plenty at breakfast, 1 to 1 1/2 hours before your workout and immediately after your workout. 400g of carbs, 150g of protein and 77g of fat should be your daily goals. Hope this helps

Posted on: Sat, 06/19/2010 - 09:13

Thanks, helps alot im already feeling results!

Dustin Elliott ...
Posted on: Wed, 06/16/2010 - 12:33

Thanks for reading the article, at 19 years old with a fast metabolism, if you look back to my first paragraph you'll see that for your age range carbohydrates are still very much important for you. And your right, a high intensity workout for the length of time you specified can burn well around 600 calories. The calories specified in the article were based on a more general weightlifting routine.

As far as the BMR from this site, if you take a second look at it it utilizes two formulas in an attempt to include calories expended from exercises in the recommended requirement. So if you need about 2,800 calories based on your activity level, shoot for 3,000 or 3,100 calories. Your youth also increases your calorie requirment as someone who is older could gain weight easier. And knowing your lean body mass will make the caloire estimates more accurate as well.

Your macronutrient profile should look something like this:
Carbs: 400-415 Protein: 160-165 Fat: 76g

this will very depending on how lean you are, you would consume the same amount on off days...and at your age consistency is key

Posted on: Wed, 06/16/2010 - 13:06

Excellent, that really clears things up well. Thank you very much, and thanks for getting back to me so quickly, too.

Posted on: Tue, 06/15/2010 - 19:41

It's interesting this article should appear about now, as I have been looking for info on how to accomplish this very goal. I'm still a bit confused though, as this is the third different explanation I've heard to how to go about it. I'm 19 years old, 160lbs, and 5'9, and have a relatively fast metabolism. I currently lift weights 5 days a week, and usually do low-intensity cardio on off days. My workouts generally take 1.5-2 hours, and I keep my heart rate elevated at least partially the whole time. The BMR calculator on this site indicates my BMR should be around 2800-3000. What kind of caloric intake should I be shooting for? I've read that an active weight workout can burn as many as 600 calories an hour, so that's where part of my confusion comes from. Thanks, and great article!