Question: I’ve seen your articles outlining the differences in macronutrient ratios for dieting (basically the difference between carbs and fat once protein is set), but I’m wondering if the same applies to gaining muscle mass.
Is there an optimal macronutrient ratio for mass gains?
Answer: Certainly there are some general tendencies in terms of setting up macronutrient intake for mass gains and I discussed many of them in some detail in The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 1 and The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 2.
However, those articles were meant only as a starting point and there is actually a fairly wide variability in what might or might not be optimal for a given individual. Part of the problem in answering this is that folks have made a lot of different approaches work to greater or lesser degrees and, just as with fat loss dieting, you can usually find someone who’s succeeded with just about anything.
While that doesn’t mean that ‘everything works’, what I do think it means is that there is sufficient variability between people to make absolute statements about optimality rather incorrect. As I recently rambled about, a lot of it simply depends. Never forget the Importance of Context.
With that said, let me look at some of the issues that go into determining what might be optimal for a given individual.
Although you asked about macronutrient (carbs, protein, fat), I have to at least mention caloric intake. In the same way that generating fat loss requires the creation of a caloric deficit, gaining any sort of body mass (whether muscle or otherwise) requires a caloric surplus. Many trainees seem to think that they can gain muscle on air and wishful thinking (and maybe creatine) and fail to gain any appreciable muscle mass for the simple fact that they aren’t eating enough calories to support growth.
How much of a surplus is too complex of a topic for me to address here, I will be doing a future article on the issue. But sufficed to say you need some amount of caloric surplus to support growth. A decent starting place for many is roughly 18 cal/lb (39 cal/kg), representing perhaps a 10-20% increase over maintenance caloric intake. This can be too low for some and too high for others depending on a host of issues. But you’ll have to wait for the future article for more detail.
It’s probably safe to say that most people wanting to gain muscle mass know the importance of protein. Muscle is made out of protein, right? Actually, no, muscle is mostly water and the protein content of a pound of muscle mass is only about 100-120 grams or so (the remaining weight being water, glycogen, minerals, etc.).
Protein recommendations have varied throughout the years and intakes ranging from a low of 0.8 g/lb to 1.5 g/lb lean body mass have been thrown out and successfully used by athletes to gaining muscle mass. In The Protein Book, I actually argued for erring on the side of higher rather than lower (for various reasons discussed in that book) and recommending taking protein up to 1.5 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) when muscle gain is the goal.
But that doesn’t change the fact that many have grown well with less protein. Whether this represents individual variability or some interaction with the rest of their diet I can’t say. But protein somewhere in that range is generally sufficient (I consider the recommendation of 2 g/lb to be useful only for individuals using anabolic steroids).
Traditionally, bodybuilders have advocated fairly high-carbohydrate diets for gaining muscle mass, at least in relative terms. A common recommendation for gaining might be on the order of 2-3 g/lb (4.4-6.6 g/kg), contrast that to a common dieting recommendation of perhaps 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg). As discussed in How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need, there is quite a bit of variability in this value.
Empirically, while many grow best (while staying relatively leaner) on higher carbohydrates (and lower fat intakes, discussed next), there is also a group that seems to do better with the opposite, relatively moderated carbohydrate intakes with higher fat intakes (or higher protein).
This likely represents at least two major variables (and a host of lesser variables): training volume and genetic insulin sensitivity. A lot of the high-carbohydrate intake recommendations seemed to develop during the 80’s when bodybuilders did massive volumes (the 40-60 set marathons popularized by Arnold and his ilk). In modern times, few do that amount of volume and, frankly, the amount of glycogen used on a workout per workout basis isn’t really that massive.
You can find the calculations in my first book The Ketogenic Diet but, very roughly, for every 2 moderate rep sets, you might need 5 grams of carbohydrates to replace the glycogen used. For a fairly ‘long’ 24 set workout, that’s only 60 grams carbs (24 sets * 5 grams/2 sets) to replace the glycogen. Of course, you need more calories than that to cover growth but I think the point is made: carb requirements from weight training simply aren’t that big unless volume is very high.
Additionally, genetic insulin sensitivity (which can vary 10-fold) at the same level of body fat is another factor. Successful bodybuilders seem to have a propensity to more effectively store calories in muscle (as opposed to fat) better than less successful bodybuilders. Part of that is their training volume but part of it is assuredly genetic (and please note that there is more to this story than just insulin sensitivity, you can think of it as nutrient sensitivity perhaps).
As discussed in Insulin Sensitivity and Fat Loss, people with good insulin sensitivity do better with higher carbs but people with poorer insulin sensitivity often do better with lowered carbs and higher fat intakes. They tend to not only feel better but grow as well without gaining as much fat.
And while training certainly improves insulin sensitivity (it’s arguably the most powerful tool we have to do so), for folks with truly shit-poor genetic insulin sensitivity, carbs may still have to be kept fairly moderate even while gaining. They may do better with perhaps 1 g/lb (with a minimum of perhaps 150 g/day) with the remainder of their caloric intake coming from fats after protein intake has been taken care of.
And fat makes up the rest. As you can guess, fat intake tends to vary inversely with carbohydrate intake. That is, folks who do better with higher carbohydrates, usually do and feel better with lower fat intakes and vice versa (as carbs go down, fat goes up). Some of this just reflects the need to keep calories sufficient, if you’re eating less calories from carbs, fat has to go up to compensate.
So what’s high and low? In the bad-old days, diets containing as little fat as possible were recommended, with 10% or less being common. I consider that too low for a number of reasons. I generally use 20% as an absolute low cutoff point for dietary fat intake with 20-25% being more common, some coaches I know stick to 15% but I think that’s pushing it on the low-end of things. On a fairly typical 18 cal/lb gaining diet, this comes out to about 0.5 g/lb (1.1 g/kg) of fat per day. For a 180 lb individual, that’s 90 grams.
For individuals for whom excess carbs make them feel dopey and bloated, obviously a higher fat intake would be recommended. How high would depend on total caloric intake and how low carbs are. But for a diet containing set at 18 cal/lb with 1.5 g/lb protein and 1 g/lb of carbs, dietary fat would have to be just under 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg). So 180 grams for our 180 pound guy.
Summing Up Nutrient Intake for Mass Gains
So that’s a look at ‘optimal’ macronutrient intake and, as usual, it depends. There are a host of variables that determine what might or might not be optimal but, at best, it can only be said to be optimal for a given individual. Training volume, genetics, and other factors all go into this. But to give a general picture of the range of intakes that might be optimal for a given individual under a given set of circumstances:
|Calories||18 cal/lb (39 cal/kg) Or Higher|
|Protein||0.8-1.5 g/lb (1.76-3.3 g/kg)|
|Carbohydrates||1-3 g/lb (2.2-6.6 g/kg)|
|Fat||0.45-1 g/lb (1-2.2 g/kg)|
Some seem to grow just fine with fairly moderate protein intakes but high-carbs and low fats. Others feel and perform better with higher protein intakes, lowered carbs and higher fats. And some do best with moderate amounts of everything (e.g. something approximating a Zone type setup or Duchaine’s old Isocaloric 33/33/33 diet for folks who remember it).
Of course, the obvious follow up question is how to know ahead of time what might be optimal for a given individual. I’ve given some of the factors that go into the decision above but, for now at least, it remains a bit of trial and error beyond that. You’ll have to start with some of the generalities above and then tweak them to find out what might be optimal for you.