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.

 

Introduction

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.’

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General Philosophies of Muscle Mass Gain

Because of the primary focus of my books and many of my article topics I tend to get tagged as the fat-loss guy more often than not; but nutrition and training for muscle gain is actually a primary interest of mine. Having worked with bodybuilders, powerlifters and other athletes over the years, figuring out how to put muscle mass on them (in terms of both training and nutrition) is obviously important.

In this article (which will actually form an introduction to a series of articles I’ll be doing over the next several weeks and months), I want to talk about some basic concepts related to mass gaining nutrition, primarily looking at some of the different philosophies of mass-gaining that are out there. As usually, I’ll look at each in my normal way, looking at the various pros and cons of each approach.

And, of course, I’ll give my own recommendations for what I think is actually optimal for most trainees under most circumstances. Please note my use of the word ‘most’ in that sentence; there are always exceptions, situations where I might do something different. Here I’m speaking more in generalities.

 

Old School Bulking/Cutting

In the olden days of bodybuilding, the standard approach to gaining muscle mass was to get big and fat in the off-season and this was called bulking. In modern terms this is generally referred to as GFH which stands for Get Fucking Huge

Both approaches revolve around the same concept: trainees train their balls off and eat as much as they can force down, gaining weight (and body fat) rapidly. In the old days, guys would then diet like maniacs and there are stories of guys bulking up to over 300 pounds before dropping to sub-200 pounds for their contest. Yes, insanity. Dieting is a little bit more sane now and it usually takes a good 6-12 months for the fat boys to get lean again.

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Muscle Gain Mistakes

Although it may seem strange to talk about how to gain weight as we approach the holidays (where people typically gain weight without trying very hard), the simple fact is that, for athletes and bodybuilders, the winter (when it’s cold outside and you’re covered up) has always been one of the primary times that trainees focus on muscle gain.

You can worry about being lean and having a six pack when it’s warm and you don’t look stupid being mostly nude. The winter is a good time to pack on some muscle mass and justify all that Halloween candy (“I’m bulking, bro”).

But in the same way that many diets fail for a lot of reasons, there are equally common reasons that trainees fail to make the muscular gains that they desire. I want to look at several of them, addressing potential solutions along the way

Not eating enough

Outside of poor training (which can be either too much or too little), not eating enough is the number one mistake I see most trainees making who can’t gain muscle. This is true even of individuals who swear up, down and sideways that they eat a ton but no matter what they can’t gain weight. It’s been said that ‘hardgainers’ tend to be overtrainers and undereaters and there is much truth to that.

Almost invariably, when you track these big eaters, they really aren’t eating that much. Research has routinely shown that overweight individuals tend to under-estimate food intake (e.g. they think they are eating much less than they actually are) but in my experience ‘hardgainers’ are doing the opposite: vastly overestimating how much they are actually eating in a given day, or over the span of a week.

Similarly, although such trainees may get in a lot of food acutely, invariably they often compensate for those high-caloric intakes by lowering calories on the following day (or even in the same day). So while they might remember that one big-assed lunch meal, they won’t remember how they ate almost nothing later in the day because they got full.

Some people simply lack the appetite to eat sufficient amounts to gain muscle (or any weight at all). While they may be able to force feed calories for a little bit, their appetite regulatory mechanisms kick in and they unconsciously reduce calories. Their bodies also tend to upregulate metabolic rate better than others, so they burn off more calories (a phenomenon called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT).

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Contest Dieting Part 1

Of all athletes in the world, bodybuilders (and other physique oriented folks such as fitness and figure girls) tend to be the most anal compulsive and neurotic about their food intake. Nowhere is this seen more than during contest dieting where folks that are already on the far edge of what most would consider sane turn batshit crazy about their food intake.

The normal approach to clean eating (which I’m not going to get into here) becomes even more extreme and it’s not uncommon to see these folks diet on the same 5 or 6 foods eaten day in day out for 12-16 weeks. This list might include skinless chicken breast, tuna, broccoli, oat, rice, sweet potatoes and nothing else. Fat intake can be highly variable, many try to remove dietary fat completely (a huge mistake for any number of reasons) while bodybuilders who live on the edge will allow natural peanut butter. Whoa.

Along with that rather limited selection of foods, there are a host of ‘rules’ that go along with contest dieting, age old beliefs that should have been dismissed to the realm of lore and bullshit long ago. No sodium, no dairy, no red meat (sometimes but not always) and of course no fruit; there are assuredly others and which variety of lore you come across probably depends on what you’re specifically reading.

Of course, the people advocating these rules point to the folks who succeeded doing such, casually ignoring the folks who did the same thing and still looked like shit onstage. Nevermind the simple fact that, almost regardless of diet, contest bodybuilders have gotten into shape over the years. High carb/no-fat, they got into shape; high-fat/high protein, they got into shape, moderate carb/moderate fat, they got into shape.

But what if I told you that some of these strategies not only were not necessary to get into contest shape, but were actually slowing your progress and fat loss (or harming your health)? Because, in some cases, that’s certainly the case. In this article and the next I want to address several of these “rules” of contest dieting; this time I’ll tackle sodium and dairy. In the next part, I’ll deal with several others such as red meat and fruit intake while dieting.

No/Low Sodium

One of the most prevalent beliefs among physique athletes is that sodium must be kept low (or nonexistent in extreme cases). This, of course, has to do with the issue of water retention that sodium tends to cause, blurring definition. Now, let’s ignore for a second that sodium is a required nutrient in the body and that eliminating any required nutrient generally has negative effects. That should be obvious to anyone with an IQ bigger than their shoe size.

But let’s be realistic: definition only counts on contest day anyhow, what does it matter if you look a little smooth for the 12-16 weeks running up to the show? Adding to that is that is the fact sodium only causes water retention when folks move from very low to very high sodium. This is why that piece of pizza you snuck on your diet caused you to bloat like crazy. You see, when you reduce sodium too much, the body increases levels of a hormone called aldosterone which is involved in water balance (causing water retention).

When you throw sodium back into the mix, the body holds water. But guess what happens when you increase/maintain sodium at reasonable levels? The body decreases aldosterone. So sodium no longer causes any problem with bloating. Read through that again: sodium only causes bloating when you make the switch from low to high sodium, a few days on a higher sodium intake and everything will normalize anyhow.

Add to that the fact that physique folks want low aldosterone going into their contest. Removing sodium from the diet 4-12 weeks out cause more problems than it solves. Quite in fact, cutting edge contest gurus are actually keeping sodium intake high up until shortly before a show these days as it makes it EASIER to drop water a day or two out.

But none of that has to do with fat loss. To understand the role of sodium in fat loss, I need to tell you about a hormone called ghrelin. Released from the gut, ghrelin goes up when you diet and goes down when you eat. Along with leptin, peptide YY and a host of other hormones, ghrelin is involved in energy balance and appetite. When ghrelin goes up, so does hunger, metabolic rate drops and fat storage is increased (1).

Now, unfortunately, increased ghrelin (along with lowered leptin, etc.) is part and parcel of dieting. However, a recent study found that individuals placed on a sodium restricted diet showed a larger post-meal increase in ghrelin (2). Essentially, extreme sodium restriction just makes problems related to ghrelin worse.

In addition to effects on ghrelin, it also turns out that whole body hydration status affects protein balance and lipolysis with dehydration causing decreased lipolysis and protein loss and hyperhydration improving lipolysis and sparing body protein (3). Adding to this, a recent animal study (that will need to be replicated in humans) found that increasing hydration directly affected resting metabolism in skeletal muscle (4).

Interestingly, contest preparation guru Scott Abel has been advocating sodium loading for his athletes during their contest diet for many of the above described reasons. He has a reputation for bringing in his athletes lean and dry and you might want to consider that, along with the data I’ve presented, before you cut out your sodium prematurely.

Dairy

One of the more pervasive rules of contest dieting is the removal of dairy. Different competitors take it out at different times, typically arguing that ‘dairy makes them smooth’. Despite quite some time looking, I’ve yet to find out exactly what mechanism this is supposed to occur by or where this idea came from.

My best guess is this: back in the day, bodybuilders used to bulk up on whole milk. When it came time to diet down for a contest, they would remove milk from their diets (reducing calories and fat intake massively) and lean out; hence milk became known as a food that made you smooth (a polite way of saying fat). Add to that Arnold’s classic comment in Pumping Iron that ‘milk is for babies’ and a myth is born; dairy must be dropped while contest dieting.

So why is dairy in fact important while dieting? Well one important reason has to do with calcium intake and bone health status. Dairy foods contribute the largest amount of calcium to the diet and ensuring adequate calcium intake is crucial for bone health maintenance (especially for women); this is especially true in the face of a high protein intake (5). Simply put, a high protein intake with inadequate calcium intake causes bone density to be lost; a high calcium intake combined with a high protein intake has a beneficial effect on bone density (5). Female bodybuilders consuming tons of protein and insufficient calcium are risking their long-term bone health because of it.

However that doesn’t really have to do with fat loss per se, since calcium supplements can sufficiently cover needs. So what’s the importance of dairy to fat loss? Well, some aspect of dairy foods increases fat loss while dieting (6). At first it was thought to simply be calcium which in and of itself appears to affect fat cell metabolism, increase fat oxidation (burning) during the day and increase the excretion of fat from the gut without being absorbed. In one study, increasing dietary calcium caused an excretion of about 60 calories extra of fat per day. Over a 12-16 week contest diet, this could add up to an extra two pounds of fat lost (7). However, the effect is only seen with increased dairy calcium, not pills (8).

However, the effect is no longer thought to be due solely to calcium, it’s thought that other components of dairy foods may also play a role. Interactions with the high BCAA/leucine content of the protein or other bioactives found in dairy (especially in whey) may be playing a role (6). I should mention that whey, casein and milk protein isolate (MPI) protein powders also contain dairy and might confer the same benefit for those wishing to avoid dairy foods. I should also mention that some physique competitors insist on dropping out protein powder as part of their diet, in addition to removing dairy, they are losing out on any potential benefit from dairy proteins and the nutrients involved with them.

None of which really addresses why or how dairy got the reputation for smoothing people out. My best guess is that it has to do with the sodium content of dairy which, as discussed above, when coupled with a typically low sodium diet, can cause water retention. Cottage cheese (a frequent staple of bodybuilding diets) can contain nearly 500 mg of sodium per serving with foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese containing 150-300 mg or so.

As discussed above, with a normal sodium intake to begin with, the added amount from dairy shouldn’t cause problems. Since sodium needn’t be manipulated until a few days out from a contest anyhow, avoiding sodium during the contest diet (as described above) is a mistake anyhow. Who cares if your bloated 4 weeks out if you’re losing fat more effectively, you can always drop the water when it’s time to do so.

Another potential issue might be related to allergies to milk which can cause bloating. However, research shows that the true prevalence of allergies to cow’s milk is only 1-3%, although it is often self-reported at 10 times that level (9,10). I should mention that lactose intolerance (lactose maldigestion) is separate from a true food allergy; lactose intolerance refers to an inability to digest lactose often causing gas, stomach bloating and an upset stomach.

The prevalence of lactose intolerance varies by ethnic group but problems can be avoided by choosing lactose removed milk or using lactase tablets. Additionally, individuals with severe lactose intolerance often find that hard cheeses and yogurt can be consumed; consuming dairy with meals appears to eliminate problems with lactose intolerance as well (11). The active cultures in yogurt appear to improve lactose tolerance, in addition to keeping the bacteria in the gut health as well (12).

Clearly individuals with a true allergy should avoid dairy foods but it seems doubtful that every bodybuilder and fitness or figure competitor on the planet is in that 1-3% incidence found clinically. More likely, issues to do with sodium intake on a pathologically low sodium diet are the cause of the bloating and, once again, with normal sodium intakes, this should be a non-issue. In any case, as I mentioned above, who cares if you’re a little bloated during most of your diet, looks only count on contest day.

If dairy gives you problems, drop it a week out from your show since, if you’re doing everything correctly, you should be as lean as you’re going to get anyhow. Manipulate water balance when it’s necessary (1-3 days out from the show), stressing over it 16 weeks out, to the extent of avoiding a class of foods that can actually increase your fat loss is simply silly.

I’d note that dairy proteins (both casein, whey and whole foods) are discussed in detail in The Protein Book.

Summary

In this article I’ve only addressed two common contest dieting concepts, both of which are based more on lore than physiology. In an upcoming article, I’ll take a look at other ideas that are prevalent to contest diets including the removal of red meat from the diet, the idea of removing all dietary fat from the diet and the perennial favorite, removing fruit from the diet.

References:

  1. Hosoda HJ. Biological, physiological, and pharmacological aspects of ghrelin. Pharmacol Sci. 2006;100(5):398-410. Epub 2006 Apr 13.
  2. Brownley KA Dietary sodium restriction alters postprandial ghrelin: implications for race differences in obesity. Ethn Dis. 2006 Autumn;16(4):844-51.
  3. Keller U et. al. Effects of changes in hydration on protein, glucose and lipid metabolism in man: impact on health. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003 Dec;57 Suppl 2:S69-74.
  4. Antolic A et. al. The effect of extracellular osmolality on cell volume and resting metabolism in mammalian skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2007 Jan 18; [Epub ahead of print]
  5. Dawson-Hughes B. Interaction of dietary calcium and protein in bone health in humans. J Nutr. 2003 Mar;133(3):852S-854S.
  6. Zemel MB. Role of calcium and dairy products in energy partioning and weight management. Am J Clin Nutr (2004) 79 (suppl): 907s-912s.
  7. Jacobsen R. Effect of short-term high dietary calcium intake on 24-h energy expenditure, fat oxidation, and fecal fat excretion. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Mar;29(3):292-301.
  8. Lorenzen JK et. al. Effect of dairy calcium or supplementary calcium intake on postprandial fat metabolism, appetite, and subsequent energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;85(3):678-87.
  9. Bahna SL Cow’s milk allergy versus cow milk intolerance.. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2002 Dec;89(6 Suppl 1):56-60. Links
  10. Crittenden RG and LE Bennett. Cow’s milk allergy: a complex disorder. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Dec;24(6 Suppl):582S-91S. Review.
  11. Huth PJ et. al. Major scientific advances with dairy foods in nutrition and health. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Apr;89(4):1207-21. Review.
  12. Shah NP. Effects of milk-derived bioactives: An Overview. Br J Nutr (2000) 84 (Suppl 1): S3-S10.

Initial Body Fat and Body Composition Changes

Introduction

For many years (decades?) a common suggestion was that one should attempt to gain some muscle mass mass (through resistance training and possibly overeating) prior to beginning a diet. Well meaning individuals would suggest you spent 3-4 weeks or more training hard and eating well to gain muscle mass. The goal was to raise metabolism so that the diet would go more effectively.

In that current data indicates that each pound of muscle might burn an additional 6 calories (as opposed to older values of 25-40 cal/lb or even higher) (1), this argument is no longer tenable; to significantly affect metabolic rate would require a monstrous gain of muscle mass, far more than you could gain in 3-4 weeks.

Even if you gained 10 pounds of muscle, that would only add up to an additional 60 calories burned per day, hardly enough to worry about and certainly not enough to affect the following diet. Which isn’t to say that diets don’t work better after short or even medium periods of overfeeding, mind you, it’s simply not because of gains in muscle mass.

A more recent idea making the rounds in bodybuilding nutrition is that, prior to trying to gain lean body mass, people should diet down first. This reasoning is based on a variety of data that has examined the changes in body composition that occur when you overfeed either thin or fat individuals (see for example, Reference 2 or just about anything Gilbert Forbes has written over the past 30 years).

A Primer on the P-Ratio

The above recommendation is based on a lot of data on something called the P-ratio (which stands for partitioning ratio) which essentially represents the proportion of protein (LBM) you gain relative to the total weight you gain (this isn’t the technical definition of P-ratio, by the way, I’m just trying to simplify it a bit).

Now, a lot of factors control P-ratio including genetics, hormones, diet and training (to a smaller degree than you’d expect) and probably some I’m forgetting (3). But by and large, the primary predictor of P-ratio is starting body fat percentage. Basically, your starting body fat percentage predicts the great majority of what you will lose/gain when you diet/overfeed (4).

So, when you diet, the fatter you are, the less LBM (and more fat) you will lose. Conversely, the leaner you are, the more LBM and less fat you will tend to lose when you diet. This makes sense in evolutionary terms, the more fat you have to lose, the more your body can lose without having to burn off muscle tissue; the leaner you get, the less fat you have and the more muscle you end up losing. Anyone who’s dieted naturally to sub 10% body fat levels knows this to be true: the leaner you get, the more muscle mass you tend to lose

So what about overfeeding and gaining weight? Well, in general, the same holds but in reverse: leaner individuals will tend to gain more LBM and less fat and fatter individuals will tend to gain more fat and less LBM. This actually makes sense when you think about it. The fat individual loses a lot of fat/a little LBM when they diet and gains a lot of fat and little LBM when they overfeed while the leaner individual does the opposite. P-ratio appears to be constant going in both directions. That is, P-ratio appears to be constant for a given individual (5).

So, typically, when overfed, thin/lean individual will gain 60-70% lean body mass (LBM) while fat individuals may gain only 30-40% LBM. Note that these percentage gains are without exercise, simply with overfeeding from a starting body fat level. Although research hasn’t examined overfeeding nearly as much as underfeeding, we might expect intensive weight training to skew these numbers to an even better point.

So far, so good right; it sure seems like the leaner you are, the better your body composition changes will be during overfeeding? So get lean and then train and eat and you should gain piles of muscle back, right?

The Problem: Naturally Lean People vs. Dieted Down People

The problem with the above analysis, exciting as it sounds, is that there are significant differences between folks who are naturally lean (on whom the original overfeeding research was done) and subjects who have been dieted to leanness.

Let’s consider, for a second the likely physiology of those folks who stay naturally lean. Based on the Geneticcs Hypothesis (3), we’d expect them to have pretty good hormonal status in terms of thyroid levels, low or normal cortisol, maybe decent levels of testosterone, GH and IGF-1. They probably also show a normal nervous system output and an ability to increase fat oxidation when calories are raised as well.

We’d probably expect them to exhibit a spendthrift metabolism (6), one that cranks up in response to overfeeding to burn off excess calories. It wouldn’t be surprising if they were the ones who showed a great deal of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT, 7) which is what allows them to burn off excess calories without getting fat. All of this, almost certainly with other factors would all contribute to their general lack of fat gain during overfeeding. Of course, if fat gain is limited during overfeeding, that would tend to mean that any weight gain will tend to be LBM, as the P-ratio data described above indicates.

The problem is that the above physiological profile in no way describes individuals who have dieted down to a low body fat percentage. Rather, dieted individuals typically show a biology that is absolutely not geared towards anything except packing the body fat back on. Typically, the metabolic consequences of dieting include a lowered metabolism, decreased fat oxidation, decreased HSL activity, increased LPL activity impaired hormonal status (including lowered testosterone and raised cortisol), decreased thermogenesis from a reduction in both thyroid levels and nervous system output and a host of other metabolic defects. All of these serve to both slow fat loss during the diet and ensure rapid fat regain when food is reintroduced.

For example, in the classic starvation study (the Minnesota Semi-Starvation study) men were dieted for 6 solid months reaching 4-5% body fat at the end of the study. Then they were refed and body composition was tracked. By the theory being advocated, they should have gained lots of LBM and little fat during refeeding, they were clearly super lean to start out with. But this is absolutely not what happened.

As would be expected based on the metabolic adaptations to dieting, their bodies were mainly primed to replenish fat stores. Reductions in metabolic rate, fat oxidation and thermogenesis all contributed to a preferential gain of body fat and these systems didn’t reset themselves until all of the body fat lost had been regained (8). Quite in fact, signals from body fat (i.e. leptin and the rest) are the mechanism behind this physiology (9).

The bottom line is that, in dieted down individuals, the body is primed to gain body fat at the expense of LBM to replenish what was lost during the diet. Again, this is fundamentally different than looking at genetically lean individuals (for whom a low body fat percentage is their normal level) in terms of what happens when they are overfed.

And even without this research available, anybody who’s dieted to a low body fat percentage can attest to the above. Regardless of the theories being advocated by the individuals looking just at Forbes’ data on P-ratio, the end of the diet is a time when you gain body fat the most easily. Even a brief look at the real world should have pointed out why the theory was incorrect in the first place.

Now Watch me Backpedal a Little

Having hopefully shown you why I think the idea that getting lean first will magically let you pack on the LBM without fat gain, I’m going to backpedal and say that that doesn’t mean I think that dieting first is always a bad idea. Quite in fact, there may be very good reasons to diet prior to going on a mass gaining phase. It’s just not for the reason that many are now advocating.

Part of the reason that preceding a mass gaining phase with a diet is one of practicality. If you want to compete in a bodybuilding contest, you need to be sufficiently lean to start with (10-12% body fat for males) to have a chance of coming in on time. That may mean keeping body fat in check by dieting prior to trying to add mass. Similarly, if you simply want to get lean for appearances sake, you need to keep body fat under control.

Meaning this: if you start a mass gaining phase at too high of a body fat percentage (say 12-15%), you’re going to gain some fat during that phase and end up in the high teens or worse. This makes dieting back to a non-fat assed body fat percentage a real hassle. Better to keep things in check by alternating periods of cutting and gaining.

As well, it seems empirically that once body fat gets to the 15% range or so for men, fat gains tend to accelerate during mass gaining phases. I suspect this is due to the development of systemic insulin resistance which causes calories to go into fat stores more readily. Keeping body fat levels below that may be helpful.

I should mention that there was always an anecdotal idea that mass gains were best with body fat about 10-12% body fat (for men, add 9-12% for women). While I had always dismissed this as being an excuse to stay fat, I suspect it’s probably close to correct. Based on what’s going on hormonally and physiologically at both low and higher body fat percentages, this may very well be a sweet spot for mass gaining. You’re fed and healthy enough to lift well and make gains but not so fat that other problems arise.

Practical Recommendations

Ok, enough theory crap. Based on the above data, here’s what I would generally recommend to bodybuilders or athletes who want to put on muscle mass (i.e. all of them).

  1. If you’re above 15% body fat (about 24-27% for women), diet first. If you can get to the 10-12% (19-24%) body fat range or so, I think you’ll be in an overall better position to gain mass. Trying to get super lean will probably end up screwing you in the long run because your body will be primed to put back fat on (and most other physiological systems are screwed up as well) when you get super lean.
  2. After finishing your diet, regardless of how lean you get, take 2 weeks to eat at roughly maintenance calorie levels before starting your mass gaining phase. The reason has to do with the physiological adaptations to dieting described briefly above. Although you can’t reverse all of them short of getting fat again (or fixing the problem pharmaceutically), 2 weeks at maintenance, which by definition should be higher calories than you were eating on your diet, will help to normalize some of them. Leptin, thyroid, SNS output should improve a bit, along with other hormones, putting you in a better place to gain mass without super excessive fat gain. Make sure to get at least 100 grams of carbs/day or more during this phase so that thyroid will come back up.
  3. Only try to add mass/bulk until you hit the top end body fat percentage listed in #1 above. So that’s about 15% body fat for men and 24-27% body fat for women. What this would mean in practice is that you diet to 10-12% body fat for men (22-24% for women), eat at maintenance for two weeks to try and normalize things, and then add mass until you hit 15% body fat for men (22-24% for women) and then diet back down. Over a number of cycles, you should be able to increase your muscle mass while keeping body fat under control

Summing up:

So there you have it, a look at the impact of initial body fat and how it impacts on changes in body composition. Contrary to current (mis) interpretations of the literature, individuals who have dieted down to low body fat levels don’t magically put on lots of LBM when they gain. Quite in fact, if anything, the opposite is true. After an extended diet, the body is primed for fat gain.

However, that doesn’t mean that dieting prior to a mass-gaining phase is a bad idea and getting reasonbly lean prior to ‘bulking’ is probably the best strategy for the average natural bodybuilder.

References:

  1. McClave SA, Snider HL. Dissecting the energy needs of the body. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001 Mar;4(2):143-7.
  2. Forbes GB. Body fat content influences the body composition response to nutrition and exercise. Ann N Y Acad Sci. (2000) 904:359-65.
  3. Bray GA. GENETICSS hypothesis of nutrient partitioning. Progress in Obesity Research:7 (1996) 43-48.
  4. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. The control of partitioning between protein and fat during human starvation: its internal determinants and biological significance. Br J Nutr. (1999) 82:339-56.
  5. Dulloo AG. Partitioning between protein and fat during starvation and refeeding: is the assumption of intra-individual constancy of P-ratio valid? Br J Nutr. 1998 Jan;79(1):107-13
  6. Weyer C et. al. Changes in energy metabolism in response to 48 h of overfeeding and fasting in Caucasians and Pima Indians. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 May;25(5):593-600.
  7. Levine JA. Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science. 1999 Jan 8;283(5399):212-4.
  8. Dulloo AG et. al. Autoregulation of body composition during weight recovery in human: the Minnesota Experiment revisited. nt J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1996 May;20(5):393-405.
  9. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 Sep;68(3):599-606.