The hierarchy of eating for muscle gain can be described by the “3 Ts”.
Type of calories
Timing of nutrients
The most important factor when it comes to eating for muscle gain is your total calorie intake. Unless you are a complete newbie in the gym or coming off a long layoff from training you will need a surplus of calories to build muscle.
To determine if you are in a surplus, track your bodyweight. If your weight is increasing you are in a surplus. If the scales aren’t budging you are at maintenance.
To maximise muscle gain, but keep fat gain minimal, I suggest you aim to gain 0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week. So, rule number 1 of bulking nutrition is to eat enough to grow at this rate.
Next up is type of calories. What I mean by this is macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs). Now you have some wiggle room here. There isn’t one definitive best macro ratio for everyone. However, there are some fairly well established and evidence backed guidelines. I suggest you begin with these:
- Protein 2g per KG of body weight
- Fats 1g per KG of body weight
- Carbs = the rest of your calories
From this starting point, you can tweak things a little to find what suits you best. I wouldn’t play with the protein number too much, but I think you have more flexibility to push carbs/fats up or down.
Finally, we have timing. This relates to the questions of, when exactly do you consume your calories and how do you time the specific macronutrients you eat?
As nutrient timing is third on a list of three it should be fairly obvious it’s not the most important factor. You can build muscle without considering nutrient timing. However, if you want to build as much msucle as possible then, it makes sense to optimise it.
So, in summary – you can build muscle without considering nutrient timing, but you can build a little bit more if you optimise this variable.
Nutrient timing falls into the category of marginal gains. In the short-term you won’t notice anything much, but the tiny incremental benefits add up over time.
The good news is that nutrient timing is actually pretty simple to understand and implement. Here is a quick guide to get you gaining ASAP…
Divide your total daily intake fairly evenly into 3-5 meals per day. Aim to get a minimum of 0.4g of protein per KG of body weight at each meal to maximise the muscle building machinery every time you eat.
If you weigh 80kg then you should be having about 160g of protein per day (2g per KG).
You should also be having at least 32g of protein per meal (80 x 0.4 = 32).
If you divide your daily total intake by your minimum per meal needs you can determine your total meals for the day. In this case that is 160 divided by 32. This comes out neatly at 5 meals per day. Each containing 32g of protein.
The exact timing of these protein servings isn’t that important. Try to space them evenly throughout the day and be sure to have some within a few hours of your session starting and then again within a couple of hours of your session finishing.
If you train first-thing in the morning then timing of protein becomes a little more important. If you have time and can stomach it then, having a protein shake before your session is a good idea. This means you will have amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in the bloodstream quickly and the repair of muscle tissue will not be impaired.
Alternatively, if you don’t have time or cannot face a shake pre-workout then have one immediately upon finishing your session when training fasted.
Fat doesn’t really have any significant positive timing effects in relation to your workout. It doesn’t boost weight training performance when eaten pre-workout or have a significant effect post-workout.
So, having lots of fat pre- or post-workout doesn’t have any major benefits on growth.
Taking it within your workout can actually be detrimental. The absorption of fat is quite slow and taking it mid-workout means it won’t be digested quickly enough to be utilised as fuel during the workout.
It might also cause some gastric distress if taken within a workout. It will cause blood to be shuttled away to the digestive tract for digestion instead of the working muscles. This could compromise performance and also places stress on your gut.
Long story short, you will probably feel sick if you eat fats close to or during a hard workout.
Because fat doesn’t have a positive effect on workout performance and, if taken to close to the start of a session can cause stomach upset, it is generally best to time most of your fat intake for the day away from your workouts.
Carbohydrates are the fuel of choice for high-intensity physical activity like lifting weights. Your muscles store carbs as glycogen and these are your energy reserves for hard training. Having these topped up will increase training performance. Better performance in the gym translates to a better physique long-term.
So, it makes sense to have carbohydrates pre-workout.
If you are training with very high volumes, for long durations, or multiple times per day then, also including carbs during and post-workout is a wise decision.
If you ate carbs a couple of hours before training then intra-workout carbs probably aren’t needed unless you are training for much longer than an hour.
Intra or during-workout carbs are quite trendy at the moment. However, if you’ve eaten plenty earlier in the day then, taking them mid-workout is unnecessary for most people.
The Anabolic Window
Post-workout we’ve all been taught to slam a shake immediately. Research would indicate this probably isn’t required if you ate a good meal a few hours before training and will have another within a couple of hours of finishing.
The body replenishes glycogen fully within 24 hours regardless of when you consume the carbs. So, you don’t need to be too concerned with inhaling a mountain of carbs within seconds of finishing a session. With that said, I’d suggest you try and get a serving in within an hour of training.
The Exception to the Rule…
If you are training twice in the same day then post-workout carbs are far more important!
Speed of glycogen replenishment then becomes a much greater concern. If you want to perform well in session two then, getting carbs in quickly will help to make sure you have replaced the glycogen that was depleted by session one.
Given twice-a-day training is pretty rare then I’m assuming this isn’t an issue for you.
On that basis, I’d simply suggest dividing your daily carbohydrate intake across your meals. Be sure to have had some before training. If you train first thing in the morning then, make sure you ate sufficient carbs the day before to have topped up your glycogen levels. A high-carb dinner the night before should do the job.
- Eat 3-5 protein containing meals per day
- Pre-workout meal (1-3 hours before training) – Protein and Carbs
- Avoid high fat meals close to (within an hour) the start of a workout
- Include fat in meals further away from workouts
- Don’t consume fats during a workout
- If your training sessions are very long (e.g. 90+ mins) or you are training again that day consider during workout carbs
- Post-workout meal (within 2 hours of training) – Protein containing meal
There is a lot more detail I could go into on nutrient timing. Much of this is based on your individual needs. I am writing a very detailed chapter as part of a nutrition for muscle gain book on this subject. I will also be covering it as a webinar within a muscle gain education series. If you want to learn how to apply the specific details to your own situation then, I highly recommend both of those
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