So there is a fairly short list of topics that I keep meaning to write about and never seem to get around to (I’m running out of stuff to talk about). Today is one of those since it addresses a question that gets asked fairly frequently. And having officially released my Nutrition for Injury Recovery e-book, it’s time to finally get around to it.
That question has to do with what kind of calorie surplus is optimal for muscle gain. That is, people continuously ask what kind of daily, or weekly, or monthly surplus is required to optimize muscle gain and hopefully avoid excessive fat gain. And, at long last, having run out of podcasts to post links to for a bit, I want to address that question. Now I have mentioned this at least obliquely in earlier articles, primarily the one on the energy balance equation but I want to look at it more comprehensively here. Basically to examine the factors that determine the actual calorie numbers that we are looking at for gains in muscle mass.
I want to make it clear that these numbers are not perfect. Actually pinning down good values for them has been a long-standing problem although there are some decent estimates, based on what limited literature is available, along with some rough estimates and practical experience that can give insight.
I will only say as a preview of what I’m going to talk about in detail that the size of the surplus needed to damn near maximize muscle gain while avoiding excessive fat gain is a lot smaller than most people think. Almost depressingly so. Let me first briefly re-examine a slightly different question.
Maximal Rates of Muscle Gain
In a previous article, I examined some different models on maximal muscular gains and at least two of those included at least some estimates on what kinds of gains per year or per month might be realistic. The primary one I want to focus on is the model that, so far as I can tell, was developed by Alan Aragon (aka The Smug One) although I’ve seen it presented in Eric Helm’s excellent and highly recommended Muscle and Strength Pyramid books. Basically I’m not sure who created it even if I attributed it to Alan originally. No matter. I’ve reproduced the model below.
So another dig into the mailbag to save myself having to think of another feature article to write. The three questions today have to do with fat loss and muscle sparing, phosphatidylserine, cortisol and water retention. Finally is a look at causes of a plateau in weight gain.
Dietary Deficit and Fat Loss when Muscle Sparing is the Same
Hi Lyle. A nerd question: Since the only two things in human body which can: 1. store energy 2. be able to gain and loss in a huge range all year long (compare to glycogen which could only be gained and lost in a small range), are fat and muscle (is that ture?). So is that true all diet would result in exactly the same amount of fat loss, if 1. the deficit is the same and 2. the muscle loss or protection is the same? Ignoring all other factors like insulin level?
Short answer: yes-ish and I say that as I’m going to actually address a question that you didn’t actually ask.
Sort of by definition if the total actual tissue loss is the same and lean body mass (LBM) sparing is identical, actual fat loss will be the same. It has to be. If 10 total pounds of tissue is lost and both diets only allow 1 pound of LBM loss, the other 9 lbs has to be fat (ok, something truly screwy could go on such as loss of bone or organ mass but it’s usually pretty small).
Now, if you want to be pedantic and look at weight loss, this isn’t necessarily true. This is why I was using the odd term tissue loss. Because part of total weight loss is not actual tissue loss but things like glycogen, water, food in the gastrointestinal tract and such. Those will vary depending on diet, a low-carbohydrate diet will cause glycogen to become depleted, water and minerals to be lost and since carbohydrates are the primary source of the food residue that comes out the other end, that will also be decreased. Ketogenic diets may cause a loss of water weight of 1-15 lbs in the first several days for example.
I received a question in my mailbox having to do with manipulating calories and macronutrients for optimal transitioning from gaining to dieting phases and vice versa and this seemed like an excellent impetus to write about this topic in some detail. Because while a lot of people tend to jump back and forth from one to the other (often, I think, spinning their wheels a bit), taking a more long-term approach, a nutritional periodization of sorts, can be beneficial in terms of working with rather than against the body’s inherent physiology.
Bulking to Dieting Transition Phase: The Pre-Diet Phase
Way back in the early days of bodybuilding you would hear physique athletes talk about a “hardening phase” which was meant as a transition from their off-season bulking to their contest diet. Now, in hindsight, it probably had as much to do with switching out their drugs from heavy androgens to more anabolic compounds to reduce water retention but it basically entailed “cleaning up the diet” to prepare for the actual contest prep. This was always kind of ill defined but probably had to do with food choices, taking out most of the junk and eating “cleaner” whatever that actually means. Guys would report losing a bit of fat while still gaining a bit of muscle (perhaps the LTDGE which I really need to write about sometime although the switch in drugs was probably part of it too) and, well, hardening up.
And while this idea has sort of fallen out of favor, I think it has a lot of merit and bears revisiting. I even wrote about it fairly extensively in the forthcoming, I swear it will be done this year, women’s book, although I called it the Pre-Diet Phase there. This was meant to entail a 2-4 week span where calories were brought to estimated maintenance and training was adjusted to prepare for a formal dieting phase.
At least within the context of women’s dieting, this is primarily to keep women from doing what they too commonly do: cut calories way too hard and add too much cardio all at once which causes all kinds of problems. Women can actually cause problems with menstrual cycle and thyroid function with as little as 5-7 days of excessive cardio and calorie restriction and the Pre-Diet Phase is structured to help avoid that by only allowing one or the other to change at once.
Ok, let me start this with a disclaimer: I am not a steroid guy. I know enough to be a little bit dangerous and can throw around big words like leutinizing hormone and steroidogenesis but that’s about it. I’ve read most of the major books (and I have both Duchaine’s Ultimate Steroid Handbook and USHII so nyahh) because it interests me on some level but that’s it. I’m not a steroid expert, I don’t claim to be; despite endless people telling me to write about this there are guys out there who have forgotten more than I will ever know about the topic and I leave the topic to them. So why am I writing about steroids?
I got out of college in 1993, where in addition to my studies (UCLA, kinesiology), I had made it part of my obsession to read all of the muscle magazines every month. What if one of them held the true true secret, I couldn’t afford not to read them. It was all the same stuff, Muscular Development, Ironman, M&F, Flex and the always hilarious Muscle Mag International which would publish the stupidest stuff you can imagine.
Muscle Media 2000
But in 1993, things changed, that’s when Muscle Media 2000 started. Bill Phillips, who had originally published an anabolic steroid newsletter saw the money in the industry and launched the magazine. I read it for years and while it was mostly a supplement catalog (ah, Phosphagain, HMB that feels like deca, CLA), there were also some gems in it. Dan Duchaine for one. Even when he was wrong he was still brilliant. His writings and Bodyopus diet would set me on the path of whatever my current job description is exactly.
In any case, in my dotage, I started wanting to back to my youth (trust me, you will all get there about your late 30’s and early 40’s when you try to find the books, magazines, music and movies of your youth) and someone on my Facebook group happened to have some back issues that he was nice enough to send me (for some cash). And as I was reading through them, I was reminded of something that happened about three weeks ago because in a 1996 research review they looked in detail at a study I had talked about.