Muscle Gain Nutrition Considerations (Part 1): How much should I eat?

This three part article series shall cover:
  • Energy Intake
  • Nutrition Considerations
  • Supplment Considerations 

When talk turns to muscle, what immediately springs to mind? For most, I imagine initial focus would turn to bodybuilders. Yes, these individuals have great amounts of muscle, but muscle is not just for turning heads with impressive physiques. Some of you may have thought of other athletes, where muscle can again be of physical importance with regards to strength development. For a moment I want you to think deeper than this. Muscle has great importance to non-athletes too. The maintenance or development of muscle mass should be considered important from a health perspective and not just solely to look good or from a performance angle. The greater the amount muscle mass an individual holds the greater the contribution to resting metabolic rate (RMR) – for some (non-athletic individuals) this is the biggest contributor to total daily energy expenditure. Furthermore, muscle is a glucose disposal site and for lipid (fat) oxidation.

Expectations & Goal Setting

Gaining masses of muscle is not a process that happens overnight and can take longer in some individuals than others. It is therefore important to manage your expectations. Often I hear during a consultation visions of a men’s or women’s fitness cover model body – unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like this. The importance of patience and consistency with both nutrition and training is therefore significant.

The ability to build muscle will be influenced by:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Training status
  • Genetic potential
  • Nutritional intake
  • Training programme design

For example, if you are younger individual, or have limited resistance training experience, then you could expect a decent rate of muscle gain. This is where the phrase, “newbie gains” comes from. Whereas, if you are an older individual, or an individual with advanced weight lifting experience, then you may expect to gain muscle at a much slower rate. When in a calorie deficit a lean (lower body fat) advanced resistance training individual may expect to lose muscle mass or in the best case maintain muscle mass. For the record, although there appears to be an influence of genetics upon our muscular potential, this is not an excuse that you are the individual that just cannot build muscle. You can still obtain a respectable physique with resistance training and appropriate nutrition.

A common question that I get asked is, “Can you gain muscle and lose fat at simultaneously?”. The simple answer … yes you can. See below the outcome of a training intervention within athletes when within an energy deficit.

However, such ability to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously comes with a BUT. What do I mean by this? Well, the ability to gain muscle in such a scenario is dependent upon training status (e.g. trained vs ‘newbie’), current condition (e.g de-trained/returning from injury), magnitude of energy deficit, dietary intake, programme design, age and genetic potential.

Before getting into suggested rates of muscle gain or fat loss I want to further inform your expectations. Below is a graph which shows the influence of individuals who were considered regular resistance trainers consuming supraphysiological doses of testosterone combined with resistance training/no training or no testosterone and training/no-training.

Let’s put this in perspective over a 10 week training period consuming supraphysioligically high doses of testosterone, in combination with resistance training, resulted in a gain of 6.1kg of fat-free mass. That’s on average a weekly gain of 0.6kg fat-free mass in trained individuals. Compare this to the group who received no testosterone, but regularly engaged in resistance training, who gained only 1.9kg of FFM over 10 weeks of training. This works out at an average gain of 0.2kg fat-free mass per week. Overall, a 220% increase in fat-free mass was achieved consuming banned substances. Please note: This example has only been included to highlight the effects of banned substances compared to nutritional intake and what is realistically achievable.

By now you should be aware that it is important to put in place realistic goals for body composition management. Below are the suggested rates of gain based upon the guidelines put forward by Alan Aragon. There will be inter-individual difference with regards to rate of of muscle gain (especially in novice lifters). Those who may wish to gain at a quicker rate than suggested may find that this comes with a greater accumulation of fat mass, which may be worth considering when setting up your dietary intake strategy.

Energy Intake

It is important to have adequate energy availability for not only health, but also to optimise performance and aid training adaptation (e.g. muscle gain). I have previously covered how to estimate daily kcal intake in a previous post

Setting daily calorie intake is the foundation from which your dietary setup is based. Once this is determined, the assignment of amounts of individual macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat) can be made. As our goal is to enhance muscle/body mass a calorie surplus is required, which requires energy intake to be greater than energy expenditure. Building muscle is an energy costly process. By creating a positive energy balance, in combination with strength training, you are implementing the most effective strategy to optimise the anabolic stimulus to enhance muscle mass. However, this is not a free pass to raid the buffet every night! I would also like to re-iterate that muscle can be acquired when within a calorie deficit, although this would only occur in certain scenarios as discussed above.

I have created a spreadsheet which can predict energy intake based upon three prediction equations

A typical strategy to increase body mass is to utilise a weekly 3500kcal surplus to add 0.5kg (1lb) of muscle/mass per week. Technically muscle is not the same as fat, as there is only 800kcal in 1lb (0.5kg) of muscle. However, it is an energy costly process to build muscle, so an additional kcal buffer from 3500 kcal can assist this muscle building process. However, caution must also be used with the utilisation of a higher than required surplus, as there is a risk that such an increase could result in excessive additional fat accumulation. Interestingly, it has been suggested  that a 200-300kcal day surplus is more appropriate than 500kcal per day for individuals who have been resistance training for some years, as their rate of muscle gain will be much slower, and the smaller surplus will minimise fat mass gain. Based upon Alan Aragon’s suggested rates of muscle gain outlined in the table above, I would encourage you to individualise your nutritional strategy accordingly.

Monitoring Progress

It is important that once you have implemented your nutrition strategy you then regularly track your progress – methods of tracking progress have been covered in a previous article. The data derived from tracking body mass and body composition can highlight whether energy intake needs to be increased, decreased or kept the same according to how you have progressed thus far. I would encourage all players to track both gym and body composition/mass progress, whilst additionally some individuals may also wish to track daily wellness data to provide further insight.

I have created a spreadsheet which can log daily
body composition/mass progress

It is important to appreciate the inter-individual variation in response to dietary strategies, which can influence the rate of progression. For example, when non-obese adults were overfed by 1000kcal above maintenance for 8 weeks, on average only 4.6kg body was was gained, with weight gained ranging 1.4-7.2kg. You would roughly expect to gain around 1kg of body mass when overfeeding 1000kcal, which would equate to an estimated 8kg gain over 8 weeks. Why wasn’t this so? The energy expended from Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, otherwise known as NEAT (energy expended through fidgeting, maintaining posture and spontaneous/non-planned activity) varied from -98 to +692kcal. This therefore unknowingly reduced the size of the imposed surplus, which would explain why less weight was gained than expected. This further highlights the importance of tracking your progress to aid the re-evaluation of your dietary strategy.

Structure of Daily/Weekly Energy Intake

It is important to re-iterate that consistency is needed when implementing such a nutritional strategy for the achievement of daily targets, and ultimately your weekly targets. It is is easy to sell yourself short by not being consistent with energy intake and therefore not progressing at the expected rate. It is therefore important to opt for a dietary setup that you will be able to adhere to, whilst suiting your individual training schedule. I shall now highlight two example dietary intake structure options:

(1) Linear

This would be considered a linear approach, as kcal intake is the same each day of the week. For example, if your maintenance kcal intake is 3000kcal and you are looking to gain 0.5kg per week then you would need to increase weekly intake by an additional 3500kcal. This on average over the week would require an additional 500kcal per day on top of maintenance kcal (3000kcal), which would bring your average daily intake to 3500kcal.

(2) Non-Linear

This would be considered a non-linear or undulating approach, as kcal intake varies across the days of the week. For example, if your maintenance kcal intake is 3000kcal and you are looking to gain 0.5kg per week then you would need to increase weekly intake by an additional 3500kcal. As above, this on average over the week would require an additional 500kcal per day on top of maintenance kcal (3000kcal), which would bring your average daily intake to 3500kcal. However, the intensity/volume of your training sessions (e.g. weights, conditioning) or rest day would require varying amounts of daily energy expenditure. Therefore, you could vary your energy intake over different days to accommodate this and fuel training. When averaged out over the week you would still be a 3500kcal surplus.

Within part one we have now covered how to manage expectations and goal setting with regards to muscle gain, whilst also establishing an initial energy intake to compliment such a goal. In part two of this series we shall focus upon dietary intake, with a particular focus upon protein intake.

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