If we had to give the beginning bodybuilder one piece of advice when it comes to proper nutrition, it would be: Don’t overthink it. Keep it simple.
You’re better off focusing on the fundamentals, which is why we’ve boiled your initiation into bodybuilding nutrition down to 10 simple guidelines.
Follow these rules habitually until they become second nature. Live by these diet fundamentals to get your muscle-building off to a roaring start.
1. Don't be too obsessed with calories
One thing you should get straight is that in order to build muscle, the body needs more energy (calories) than it burns each day.
Skimping on carbohydrates, and even small amounts of dietary fat, would be a big mistake.
That said, you also need to understand that no one—not even Mr. Olympia—adds only muscle and no fat. Manage your expectation that you will gain some body fat.
But as long as you’re gaining more muscle than fat, you’re heading in the right direction.
2. Set Your Protein Mark
Protein requirements are higher for bodybuilders than the average Joe because protein molecules repair damaged muscle fibers in the body and support hormones in the body.
If you hope to pack on some serious muscle mass, you need to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. For a 180-pound individual, that means 180 grams a day is the floor, but this figure can rise depending on several factors.
If you fail to grow on 1 gram per pound, or if you’re sore for more than a couple of days after training, bump that up to 1.3 grams—234 grams of protein per day for the 180-pounder.
Most of that should come from whole-food sources (see No. 6), but it’s also a good idea to supplement with two or three protein shakes a day.
3. Spread Out Your Protein Intake
Eating six meals a day (as opposed to two or three) is a requirement.
The more you spread out your protein intake each day, the easier it is to digest. You can’t expect to hit the protein mark (1-1.3 grams per pound of bodyweight per day) and gain significant amounts of mass if you neglect how much of the protein you eat actually makes its way into your muscles.
A constant delivery of protein from eating every 2½-3 hours also helps keep levels of cortisol (a muscle-wasting hormone) in check, which can maintain adequate levels of testosterone, the powerful hormone that influences muscle repair.
4. Set Your Carb Mark
Not to be overlooked, especially in a world where going low-carb is a mainstay for shedding body fat, are carbohydrates.
If gaining mass is your goal you need carbs—and plenty of them—to get your body growing. Carbs fuel your training and allow you to push yourself harder and longer.
They set off a hormonal mechanism in the body that drives amino acids from protein into muscle tissue to aid in repair and recovery.
If you follow a low-carb diet, chances are you won’t be able to train as hard as you need to stimulate hypertrophy.
Your energy balance will fall (see No. 1), and you’ll fail to take advantage of carbohydrates’ ability to help force protein into muscles.
Start by consuming 2g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day (360g for the 180-lb guy) and go up to as much as 3-3.3 grams per pound (close to 600 grams for the 180-lb guy).
The majority of your carbs should be complex, coming from such sources as potatoes, whole-wheat breads and pastas, and oatmeal.
5. Keep the Post-Workout Meal “Quick”
No more than 30 minutes after training, consume 20-30 grams of fast-digesting protein.
This is where whey-based powders that can easily be mixed with water in a shaker cup reign supreme.
Also eat 50-60 grams of fast-digesting carbs such as fat-free cookies, muffins, fruit, Gatorade or other carb-rich drink.
6. Make Meat a Staple
Red meat such as steak and lean ground beef tend to build muscle better than white meat like chicken or turkey.
Some say it’s the greater vitamin and mineral content, while others point out that red meat is dense in creatine (which boosts strength in the gym) and carnitine (which helps elevate testosterone levels).
Eating a lower-fat diet over a prolonged period—even if it’s abundant in protein, carbs, and total calories—may not support testosterone levels to the degree necessary for growth.
7. Eat a lot Before Training
You shouldn’t train on a full stomach. Eeating a larger meal an hour or so pre-workout allows you to train harder and supplies the body with ample pre-workout carbs and protein that prevent muscle breakdown.
Such a meal may cause the beginner to feel bloated, but in time your body will adapt by secreting the digestive juices required to deal with the hefty influx of food.
To start, eat a medium chicken breast and medium baked potato about two hours before hitting the gym.
You’ll protect your muscles from going catabolic and experience an energy boost, which should allow you to train harder and longer.
8. Take a Break
The days off, along with adequate nutrition, allow the body to overcompensate and recover more fully from recent training sessions. The same is true with eating.
It’s a good idea to have a “cheat day” every 10-14 days and eat, in addition to what you normally do.
Having a cheat day actually helps in terms of muscle growth. Of course, the next day you’ll need to get right back on your cleaner diet.
9. Don’t Over-Supplement
Supplements enhance your diet. What you eat is the foundation.
That said, aside from protein powders, beginners should stick with the basics:
A multivitamin/mineral, creatine (3-5g pre- and post workout) and branched-chain amino acids (5-10g pre- and post workout) to help the body stay anabolic.
10. Putting it All Together For Yourself
When it comes to mass-building, the best thing to do is to build your own diet.
With the protein mark in mind (1-1.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight), your carb mark (2-3.3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight) everyday.
Split over six meals, with a larger meal before training and a whey shake with fast-acting carbs after your routine.
Adding mass is a process that takes time and consistency.
Your best bet is to pay close attention to your own diet, weigh yourself every day and track that weight to make sure you’re gaining roughly 1lb every 5-10 days.
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