Muscle Gain Math

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 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.


Muscle Growth and Post-Workout Nutrition

In recent years, there has been huge interest in the topic of around workout nutrition for promoting optimal gains in strength and muscle size (prior to that, most interest had to to with recovery from exhaustive endurance exercise).  And, as is so often the case, as research has developed, many ideas, some good and some bad, have developed out of that.

Early research into post-workout nutrition focused almost exclusively on endurance athletes and, really, the only issue of importance was refilling muscle glycogen and re-hydrating the athlete.  For this reason the focus was on carbohydrates and fluids with little else considered.  At some point, I recall it being the mid-90’s some early work suggested that adding protein to post-workout carbohydrates was beneficial in terms of glycogen re-synthesis and a new dietary trend started to form.

Now, it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that whether additional protein actually increases glycogen synthesis depends on a host of factors, primarily how much carbohydrate is provided.  Simply, if sufficient carbohydrate is given following training, adding protein has no further benefit in terms of promoting glycogen re-synthesis.

In situations where insufficient carbs are consumed (by choice or otherwise), extra protein helps.  Which isn’t to say that additional protein following training isn’t valuable for endurance athletes even if carbohydrate are sufficient but that’s not really the topic of today’s article.

While individuals involved in the strength sports and bodybuilding were quick to jump onto the post-workout carb/protein bandwagon, the research wasn’t really aimed at them.  As well, there has always been a bit of a disconnect in using work on endurance athletes (who may be doing hours of exhaustive work) and trying to apply it to individuals in the weight room.

Differences in volume of training, fuel use and goals make using data on one group inappropriate for application to the others.  It’s still common to see well-meaning nutritionists use the same guidelines for both strength/power athletes (including bodybuilders) and endurance athletes but that is simply silly.


Meal Frequency and Mass Gains

The issue of meal frequency for muscle mass gains would seem to be pretty well decided, right?  Bodybuilders have been pushing for 6 (or more) meals per day spread out every 2.5-3 hours for decades and this is taken as an almost de-facto requirement for success in terms of optimal mass gains.

Then again, the people who have used Intermittent Fasting (for examples, check out Martin Berkhan’s appear to be making exceedingly good progress in terms of muscle gain despite not eating for 14-16 hours during the day suggesting that perhaps the above dogma regarding meal frequency isn’t quite as well established as folks might think.

Now, I’ve discussed meal frequency previously, in terms of its effects on weight, body fat and body composition in the research review on Meal Frequency and Energy Balance and won’t rehash those points here.  Rather, what I want to discuss here is the potential impact of meal frequency on mass gains for athletes trying to increase muscle mass.

And since I covered the topic in exceeding detail in The Protein Book, I’m simply going to excerpt that section of that chapter.  I’d note that I cover a tremendous number of other topics related to meal frequency in that chapter including many practical issues along with the impact of meal frequency on muscle mass maintenance during fat loss.

I’d also note that apparently Layne Norton (a professional natural bodybuilder and all around smart guy who is doing scientific research on the issue of protein and muscle gain) has been experimenting with the ideas I’m going to discuss below (he calls it protein bolusing) but I have no idea how or if it actually panned out.

Finally I’d note that I’m not going to include the reference list for this excerpt.  It’s in the book.


The Baseline Diet 2009 – Part 2

In The Baseline Diet: Part 1, I discussed three of the primary aspects of the baseline diet: meal frequency, caloric intake and water intake and I want to recap here briefly.

In terms of meal frequency, a daily intake pattern of 4-6 meals (depending on such factors as size and caloric intake) should be sufficient for the majority of bodybuilders and athletes. There are, of course, going to be exceptions.

In terms of caloric intake, the biggest problem I see among most lifters (especially those who classify themselves as ‘hardgainers’) is that they don’t eat enough in total (this is often coupled with exceedingly poor training approaches). And since you can’t build muscle out of thin air and wishful thinking, that will limit results. A good starting point for calories, is 16-18 cal/lb but this will have to be adjusted based on real world changes in body composition. Some need much more and some may need less to avoid excessive fat gain.

Finally, water is intimately involved in just about every reaction in the body, and water/fluid intake should be kept high to ensure adequate hydration. A good rule of thumb to individualize water intake is that you should have 5 clear urinations per day with two after training. Drink however much fluid (and note that many foods contain water, and all liquids count) is necessary to meet that goal.

Did you do the assignment I gave you, checking to see if your current diet matches up with the above. If not, you need to work on fixing it. As well, you need to see if the rest of your diet matches up with what I’m going to talk about in The Baseline Diet 2009: Part 2.

Today, I’m going to talk about the other three components of The Baseline Diet which are protein, carbohydrates and fats. For each I’m going to talk about a variety of issues including total intake recommendations along with looking at issues of quality, timing, etc. in the context of The Baseline Diet.



For bodybuilders and other strength/power athletes, arguably more has been written about protein than any other nutrient and there are reasons (both good and bad) for this. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of confusion surrounding dietary protein for athletes; since much of the supplement industry tends to be driven by commercial (rather than scientific) biases, the profit to be had from protein powder sales means that a lot of nonsense gets written about the topic.

Contrary to popular belief, protein is NOT the main component of muscle; rather water is. Frankly, I’m a little bit surprised that nobody has pushed anabolic water supplements for this reason (new Hydrobolic Dermal Water, now with an added Ester!) but I digress.

Protein requirements for bodybuilders has been a perennial topic of debate. Athletes have long-felt that high-protein diets were superior for muscle growth and results while classically trained dietitians maintain that only the RDA is necessary. Who’s right? Well, I am.

Varying lines of research strongly suggest that higher protein intakes than provided by the RDA (or DRI or whatever you want to call it) are necessary to optimize the results from training. How much is still debated endlessly in the literature among scientists but this isn’t the place to detail that debate.

As I discuss in some detail in The Protein Book, I recommend that bodybuilders consume 1.1-1.4 g/lb protein per day (bodybuilders have long used a range of 1-1.5 g/lb); for reasons I won’t discuss here, females can usually get by with less than that, about 1.1-1.2 g/lb. I’d note that these values are for natural lifters; while there is far less research available, it’s generally felt that anabolics work better with more protein and intakes of 2 g/lb or higher are common.

I do want to point out that just jamming in more protein than needed won’t magically increase muscle growth; there is a limit to the rate at which muscle can be synthesized no matter how much protein you eat. I talk about the possible rate of muscle growth in General Philosophies of Muscle Gain.

I’d also note, and this is discussed in The Protein Book, that once protein requirements have been met, eating more dietary energy (from carbohydrates or fats) actually has a greater impact on growth than just eating more protein. I bring this up as lifters often get so far on the protein bandwagon that they eat little else; growth is usually disappointing.

Having talked about total protein requirements, I want to talk about a few related issues such as frequency, timing and type. Like the issue of meal frequency (discussed in The Baseline Diet: Part 1), lifters often go a bit insane about protein frequency. Claims that your muscles will fall off if you don’t eat protein every 2.5 hours has people acting like obsessed maniacs but the truth is far different.

The fact is that whole protein sources take a pretty long time to digest, they may still be releasing amino acids into the bloodstream 5-6 hours later. As I discuss in both The Protein Book and What are Good Sources of Protein – Speed of Digestion Part 1, the now famous Boirie study showed that casein protein was still digesting 8 hours later. The idea that you have to eat protein every 2.5 hours just makes no sense.

As an additional factor, there is actually some evidence that consuming protein too frequently could be detrimental for growth. Again, this is a topic I discuss in some detail in The Protein Book and while the data is preliminary, the idea does seem to be supported. I know this goes against long held ideas in bodybuilding nutrition but the research says what it says.

With that said, I do feel that whenever a meal is consumed, it should contain some protein. Given the rather high protein intakes of bodybuilders and athletes (a 200 lb lifter at 1.5 g/lb is getting 300 grams of protein), spreading it fairly evenly throughout the day simply makes sense.

Of course, an additional issue is that of protein timing around training; as I noted in The Baseline Diet: Part 1, some researchers feel that timing of protein around training is more important than total intake per se. Maybe. The point is this: having nutrients in the system around training certainly seems to be critical for optimal results. This is a topic I can’t do fair justice in this article, I spent 35 pages on it in The Protein Book and anything I’d write here would pale in comparison.

Another issue that athletes often get very obsessive about is protein quality, which protein is best. Well, as I eventually answered in the 12 part series on What Are Good Sources of Protein, there is no single optimal protein source, they all have pros and cons.

Frankly, once total protein and caloric intake is met, I don’t feel that there will be a huge benefit to one protein source over another, total intake will trump quality issues unless someone is doing something very strange with their diet (like eating a single low-quality protein as their only source).



Before I discuss dietary carbohydrates, I want to get something out on the table first. Despite what has been written by otherwise well-meaning individuals, activities such as weight training can ONLY be fueled by muscle glycogen (carbohydrate stored within the muscle).

No amount of adaptation can shift the body to using fat for fuel during weight training (unless your sets last more than about 3 minutes). The implication of this is that glucose is an absolute requirement to sustain weight training performance. And the primary source of glucose in the diet is going to be dietary carbohydrate (I’d note that protein can be converted to glucose in the liver as well).

Carbohydrates are surrounded by controversy in the world of sports nutrition for lifters (and in the general public). Well meaning dietitians give the same carb recommendations to lifters as they do for endurance athletes. Others argue that there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate (true) and prefer to use ludicrous protein intakes to produce glucose.

As with so many topics, I tend to come in more or less right in the middle. While I think that lifters generally don’t need massive carbohydrate intakes (well, maybe if you’re training 2 hours/day every day), I consider excess protein intake an expensive (metabolically and financially) way to produce glucose.

Carbs taste better anyhow and produce more insulin (which is important for overall growth). How many carbs is needed depends on a lot of factors, which I discuss in the article How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?

A lot of general equations have been thrown around for lifters in terms of carbohydrate intakes for optimal results. I’m no fan of percentage based diets but, assuming calories are adequate, an intake of 45-55% of total calories seems about right as a starting point for carbohydrate intake.

In practice, this might yield a carbohydrate intake of 2-3 g per pound body weight. So a 180 pound lifter might be consuming 360-480 grams of carbs per day or 1440-1920 calories per day. Assuming he was consuming 18 cal/lb (3240 calories), this would yield 45-60% of the total. Math is fun.

I’d note that this can be highly variable, individuals with poor genetic insulin sensitivity often do better with proportionally less carbs and more fats in their diets. So take the above as a starting point and nothing more. If you find yourself bloated and puffy with that many carbs, consider reducing carbs and increasing dietary fats.

Beyond the argument about carbohydrate quantity, there is a separate (but somewhat related) argument about carbohydrate quality (i.e. type of carbohydrates). Carbohydrate sources are roughly divided into starchy carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc) and fibrous carbohydrates (e.g. most vegetables).

More technically minded nutritionists will frequently speak of something called the Glycemic Index (GI), which refers to the propensity of a given food to raise blood glucose and insulin. In general, fibrous carbs tend to have a lower GI (meaning they have less of an impact on blood glucose and insulin) than starchy carbohydrates but there are some exceptions and GI is problematic at best in the real world.

Lately, this concept has been further developed into discussions of the glycemic load of the diet. Glycemic load is found by multiplying the glycemic index by the total carb intake. Thus a huge amount of a low GI food can have a similar glycemic load to a small amount of a high GI foods.

There is much debate over the importance of GI for athletes and bodybuilders. Many are adamant that only low GI foods should be consumed and, certainly, from a nutrient density standpoint (low GI foods typically contain more fiber and nutrients than higher GI foods, but not always) there is some logic to that. There is also a school of thought that low GI foods should be consumed except around training (where more insulin release is required) and there is certainly much logic to that.

At the same time, GI becomes increasingly more irrelevant when mixed meals are being consumed. High GI foods become lower GI food when you start combining them with protein, fat and fiber. As well, there is evidence that regular (endurance) training decreases the GI of foods as discussed in The Influence of Subject’s Training Status on The Glycemic Index.

Stranger still, at least one study suggests that low GI foods are low GI because they cause a larger initial insulin spike as discussed in Different Glycemic Indexes of Breakfast Cereals Are Not Due to Glucose Entry into Blood but to Glucose Removal by Tissue.

My point being that the whole issue of the glycemic index and glycemic load is a lot more complicated than low GI is good and high GI is bad.

The best guideline I can give regarding this is that, of course, it will be better to choose more nutrient dense, high-fiber carbohydrates (which are usually lower in terms of GI) for the majority of your diet. Just don’t lose sight of the big picture, small differences in GI (or even moderated amounts of higher GI foods) aren’t going to kill you, especially not in the context of regular training, maintaining a reasonable body fat, etc.



For years (especially coming out of the fat-phobic 80’s), dietary fat was the forbidden nutrients in athletic and bodybuilding diets. Sometime around the 90’s, that perception started to change as it was recognized that not only were essential fats crucial for health, fat loss, etc. but that fats were not inherently evil.

Arguably one of the main benefits of increased dietary fat is that it makes foods taste better and adherence to your daily diet is a huge aspect of maintaining it in the long-term. As well, for many individuals it can be difficult to consume sufficient calories when dietary fat intake is too low. The caloric density of dietary fat is an easy way to raise calories. I’d note that some individuals find the opposite to be true, in that increased dietary fat promotes such feelings of fullness that caloric intake is more difficult to keep high.

Before I continue, just for background, I want to make sure everyone is familiar with the different ‘types’ of dietary fats which are:

  • Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found primarily in animal source foods, although coconut and palm kernel oil both contain high amounts of saturated fats (although they are a special type of saturated fat called medium chain triglycerides). They are solid at room temperature (think butter, milk fat).
  • Unsaturated fats: Unsaturated fats are found primarily in vegetable sources foods, although they are alos found in animal source foods in varying amounts. They are liquid at room temperature (think vegetable oil). Oleic acid (found in olive oil) is the most common mono-unsaturated fat.
  • Polyunsaturated fats: Technically a sub-category of unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. The essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and are found in varying amounts and ratios in various foods. Generally speaking, they are found in vegetable source foods but the omega-3 fatty acids (aka the fish oils) are found, as you might expect, in fatty fish.
  • Trans-fatty acids: Also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans-fatty acids are formed when hydrogen is bubbled through vegetable oils to make a semi-solid (think margarine) with a longer shelf life. Some research suggests that trans-fatty acids are worse than saturated fats in many health-related respects.

From a health perspective, massive amounts of research support the critical importance of the essential fatty acids (EFA’s), they improve calorie partitioning, decrease inflammation, and have so many health benefits that if you saw a list of them you’d probably think I was making them up.

And while bodybuilders may be less interested in health than in getting huge, the simple fact is that an unhealthy athlete of any sort isn’t one who can make optimal progress. Ensuring daily EFA intake is critical to optimal health and functioning.

And while it is held as proven true that the omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory (and that an excess of w-6:w-3 fatty acids causes health problems), recent research actually calls this into debate. At some point in the future, I’ll do a feature article on this topic to discuss it in more detail.

Of course, there is a great deal more controversy regarding the health effects of the different types of fats. The reality is that a great many studies link a high dietary fat intake with a number of disease states. However, it’s a lot more complicated than that sentence makes it out to be.

I’d suggest readers read Carbohydrate and Fat Controversies Part 1 and Carbohydrate and Fat Controversies Part 2 for a lot more detail on this debate. I’m not going to detail the whole argument here since this is already getting too long. Simply put, the global context that fats are being consumed in (e.g. sedentary, overweight, stressed out vs. lean, active athlete) plays an enormous role in how dietary fats affect human physiology.

Of course, there are other reasons for athletes and bodybuilders to worry about dietary fat beyond just heath effects.

One of the major issues that usually comes up with regards to dietary fat is an apparent link between dietary fat intake and testosterone levels. A number of studies have shown that low-fat, high-fiber diets can lower total testosterone and higher-fat, lower-fiber diets can raise it. Some work has suggested that it is saturated fat per se that has the effect on testosterone levels, others suggest that it is total fat intake.

But there are some problems. One is that when you do diet studies of this sort, many variables change. Is it the change in dietary fat, the fiber intake, the carbohydrate to fat ratio or some combination that is causing the changes.

As well, at least some work suggested that while diet could modulate total testosterone levels, it looks like the body will keep free testosterone levels pretty static by modulating levels of sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG, the thing that binds testosterone). So it may all be moot anyhow.

At this point all that can be said is that sufficient dietary fat intake may be required for optimal hormone levels. But the data set is more unclear than many make it out to be.

I would also note that a handful of studies have noted improved nitrogen balance (a measure of how much protein is being stored in the body) with higher fat and lowered carb intakes; some work I cite in The Protein Book suggests that dietary fat may be better for protein retention than carbs.

Which brings us to the question of how much dietary fat.

As noted, I don’t particularly care for percentage based diets but, for dietary fats, I make an exception and feel that an average intake of 20-25% of total calories is probably as good a starting point as any. If we take our same 180 lb lifter above consuming 18 cal/lb (3240 calories), a 20-25% fat intake equates to 72-90 grams of fat per day (or about 0.4-0.5 g/lb). Across 4-6 meals per day that’s 12-15 grams of fat per meal which I think is about right. As I noted above in the section on carbohydrates, some lifters may find better results with less carbs and more fat depending on the specifics.

Of that total intake, the majority should probably come from monounsaturated fats, I entreat all athletes to get sufficient fish oils (an intake of 6-10 standard 1 gram capsules per day is sufficient IMO) and the rest can come from saturated fats.


Summing Up

Ok,so that’s the 6 factors of The Baseline Diet. Once again, by baseline diet, this is the diet I think lifters, athletes or even the general public should follow (to establish their results) prior to trying other diet interpretations.

Of course, it’s also arguably the dietary template that most bodybuilders have followed (more or less) over the years. There’s not much new under the sun here. To sum up the 6 aspects:

  1. Meal frequency: 4-6 meals per day depending on the specific circumstances. There are exceptions.
  2. Total caloric intake: for mass gains, a rule of thumb starting place is 16-18 cal/lb to be adjusted based on real-world body composition changes.
  3. Fluid intake: Sufficient to generate 5 clear urinations per day, with 2 after training.
  4. Protein intake: 1.1-1.4 g/lb for males, 1.1-1.2 g/lb for females.
  5. Carbohydrate intake: ~45-55% of total calories (~2-3 g/lb) from a mix of starchy and fibrous carbohydrate sources, high GI carbs right after training
  6. Fat intake: 20-25% of total calories (~0.4-0.5 g/lb).

And that’s The Baseline Diet. Spend some time with it to get your fundamentals right before you start worrying about fancy implementations or magic programs. Until you know how your body responds in general, you can’t ever know if the fancier stuff is working better, worse or the same.

The Baseline Diet 2009: Part 1

Preamble: I originally wrote this piece 10 years ago and have done rewrites to it over the years as the knowledge base and my own opinions have changed about things.  I’d note that, the changes I’ve made over the years are fairly minor and I’m actually pleased with how well this has held up since I originally wrote it.

I find that lifters, especially new lifters often get so fixated on magic, complicated approaches to training and diet (including mine) that they forget to get the basics in place.  The simple fact is that the basics and fundamentals are where every diet and every training program should start.

Why?  Because they always work.  More advanced approaches should be brought in when they are needed, not just because the trainee is bored or wants to do them.

The bottom line is this:  Before you worry about advanced approaches, get your fundamentals straight. That’s what The Baseline Diet is all about.



I’m going to start this article with a few questions. How much mass have you gained in the last few months (or years as the case may be)? If you’re like the average lifter, the answer is assuredly ‘Not as much as I’d like’.

Ok, next question: how much money have you spent on exotic supplements hoping they’d be the secret to freaky mass? Again, if you’re the average lifter the answer is probably ‘Way more than I should have’.

Next is a series of questions: How many meals are you eating per day? How many calories? How many grams of protein?  Carbs?  Fat? When’s the last time you ate fruit or vegetables?  Consistently? How much water are you consuming on a daily basis. If you’re an average lifter (and want to stay such), your answer is probably ‘Umm, I don’t know.’