Building muscle is an energy-intensive process. That energy generally comes from the calories in your food. A calorie is simply a unit of energy — to be precise, the amount of energy that is needed to heat a gram of water by 1° Celsius.
Throughout the day we are in a constant state of flux between the energy we burn through movement and metabolic functions, and the energy we consume through our foods and drinks. This balancing act is known as energy balance While many factors influence it, this is the fundamental mechanism behind changes in body composition.
Building new muscle happens when your body is in an anabolic state, a state in which your body builds and repairs tissue. For muscle building to be optimal, you require a caloric surplus, where you consume more calories than you burn. The scientific term for a diet of excess calories is a hypercaloric diet. The opposite of this is a catabolic state, in which your body breaks down tissue to replenish depleted energy levels. These depleted energy levels would be a result of a calorie deficit, or a
Just like you have muscles that both push and pull — your biceps and triceps — that work together to produce controllable and reversible movement, these two states are necessary tools to adjust your body composition.
If you’re trying to build muscle in a slight energy deficit so you can also lose fat, you can, maybe do this effectively for a short period of time in certain circumstances, such as the beginning of your training career, or when coming back to training after a long hiatus. But, neither process will be optimal. Generally you would be better off focusing on one or the other.
Imagine trying to build a sandcastle without using enough sand. As you build the castle, your structure will form, but it will be lacking in certain areas, and not as tall or impressive as it could be. Let’s take that a step further. Even if you have enough sand (calories) to build the castle, you also need adequate water (protein) to keep it firm and hold it all together.
Muscle Protein Synthesis
Protein is the most important macronutrient for muscle growth, as it is the key player in muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a physiological process in which protein is used to repair muscle damage caused by intense exercise. When you apply a controlled amount of stress or force to your muscles, your central nervous system (CNS) essentially thinks “What was that?!” and takes measures to ensure that next time you decide to subject yourself to a similar ordeal, you’ll be better prepared. In other words, you’ll be stronger.
The flip side is a process known as muscle protein breakdown (MPB), in which muscle mass deteriorates. These two opposing forces are constantly in play, and its the balance between them that dictates the outcome. If MPS exceeds MPB, your muscles will grow, and vice versa.
All proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 in total, strung together like the pearls on a necklace. Different orders of amino acids form different proteins. You could imagine 20 letters in an alphabet soup representing the 20 amino acids. Different combinations would form to create “words” or different proteins such as “collagen” and “casein”.
9 of these amino acids are known as essential amino acids (EAAs). They are essential because they cannot be created by your body! Therefore, they need to be obtained from eating them. When a protein source contains an adequate proportion of each of the 9 EAAs, it is considered a complete protein. The other 11 can be made by your body, so are not as essential as long as you eat enough protein in general.
Of these, 3 of them are known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), the key players in muscle growth and repair. These are:
Leucine in particular activates a certain pathway that stimulates MPS. However, while leucine is important, it is still only part of the puzzle.
Animal and Plant based sources
All animal sources of protein are generally “complete” — meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, and so you don’t need to worry about looking up how much Leucine or Valine or Tryptophan a particular food has. That includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, which contain all of the essential amino acids, including Leucine. For this reason, these are the best sources of protein you can consume to optimize MPS and maintain lean muscle tissue when in a cut.
Some plant-based sources are also complete, such as quinoa, buckwheat, hempseed and soy/tofu. However, do bear in mind that aside from soy, these are also significant sources of fats and carbs, so simply eating a large amount of these may not be a good solution.
The fact is, when 100% plant-based, it will be very difficult to hit your protein targets from only these plant-based complete protein sources. Ensuring you eat a variety of protein sources throughout each day should ensure you receive adequate amino acids as each food can contribute different ones.
If you would like to get a bit more intentional about it, combining grains and legumes will often help ensure you get all of the EAAs. Nuts and seeds are also complimentary to legumes as they contain tryptophan, methionine and cystine.
Optimizing MPS with Nutrition
For most people, most of the time, avoiding MPB is a relatively simple task. Changes in MPS are far more responsive to training and eating methods than MPB. Research shows just a small release of insulin is enough to inhibit MBP by up to 50%. As long as you’re consistent with your training and not in a catabolic or fasted state, MPB’s effects will be little to none.
When it comes to MPS, various areas of nutrition will significantly help optimize it:
Amount of protein
20 grams of protein has been shown to give a near-maximal increase in MPS, while increasing to 30 or 40 grams has been shown to increase this effect by 10% and 20% respectively. However, the studies focused on different training protocols so it’s hard to say what came from protein and what came from training.
More recent research has concluded that, for most people, around 0.4 grams of protein/kg of lean body mass/meal would optimize MPS. If you weighed 80 kgs (or 170 pounds) with 20% bodyfat, this would be 25-30 grams of protein in each meal.
Two main factors that determine the anabolic effect of protein are its digestive rate, and amino acid profile, particularly the quantity of leucine.
Take casein, a slow digesting protein, and whey, a fast digesting protein. When casein is hyrdrolyzed (cut into smaller pieces) it becomes fast digesting, and stimulates MPS more than standard casein. However, whey still increases MPS more due to its higher EAA profile, as this study demonstrates.
Further, animal protein sources tend to have much richer amino acid profiles than plant proteins, although if plant based, this can usually be overcome by consuming a higher amount of protein and ensuring you eat from a variety of sources in order to capture different amino acids.
For years it was believed that ingesting protein straight after training would take advantage of the anabolic state of your metabolism. More recent research has shown that training actually enhances the MPS response to protein for at up to 48 hours, so it appears less vital to immediately seek out protein or have a shake as soon as you finish training.
However, data is unclear and it seems plausible that the synergy between training and protein is strongest post-workout. Also, a meta-analysis found that protein supplementation in the hour before and/or after training may very slightly improved hypertrophy, although this was probably more to do with total protein intake rather than timing.
Overall protein intake throughout the day is key, but a good way to think about it could be that it seems likely there may be some benefit to ingesting protein post-workout, so, why not?
As mentioned above, overall protein intake is most important. If you should be ideally consuming 120 grams of protein a day, your first focus should be to consume 120 grams of protein in your day!
Beyond that, you can optimize how you are distributing it through the day. A fair amount of research does suggest that the distribution of protein over the course of the day can optimize anabolism. However, some other studies show there to be no distinct benefit, so research here is still ongoing.
What we do know for sure is an even balance of protein over 3 meals will stimulate MPS better than only eating protein in your evening meal.
And having 20 grams of protein every 3 hours may stimulate MPS further still, more than 40 grams every 6 hours or 10 grams every 1.5 hours. However, we also realize you have a life and other work to do beyond eating protein full time. This is a classic case of perfect being an enemy of the good, and chasing an ultra-optimized protein distribution could result in just giving up and not getting enough protein at all.
All this being said, most studies conclude that the effect on anabolism is small, so your focus should be on getting your total for the day in whatever time and amount is sustainable long term.
Protein before sleep
40 grams of protein has been shown to increase post-workout MPS when ingested before sleep. Another study also concluded that supplementation of 27.5 grams of pre-sleep protein over the course of a 12 week resistance training program improved muscle mass and strength.
However, eating a huge meal soon before sleep can impact your sleep quality and cause a higher resting heart rate, so those factors should be balanced.
Building muscle and losing fat (bulking and cutting)
The technical terms for diets that intentionally increase or decrease calories for the purposes of weight management are hypercaloric and hypocaloric diets, respectively.
When the focus is targeted toward building muscle or losing fat while following a resistance training program, they’re more informally referred to as phases of “bulking” and “cutting”. You usually go through phases of one followed by the other, with occasional periods of “maintenance” thrown in where you eat according to your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). More on your TDEE in the How to Calculate your Macros section below, but it is essentially how many calories you will burn throughout the day, including from exercise and movement.
Whether you should be focused on bulking or cutting will depend largely on your goals and current body fat %. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re male and between 10-15% body fat, you could consider bulking if building more muscle is your goal, and if you’re female that would be 20-25% body fat. Cutting would be advised if body fat % was in the higher ranges (to get within healthy ranges away from obesity as a first priority) or if you had specifically low body fat goals like athletic performance or bringing out the 6 pack.
How long should you focus on each for?
A bulking phase is usually around 4-6 months, while a cutting phase would be more like 2-4 months. For the best results (minimal fat gain when bulking and minimal muscle loss when cutting) take your time with each phase. However a cutting phase will usually be shorter than a bulking phase!
Keep it Lean
While some still prescribe to a less structured approach to bulking, with less emphasis on food quality or caloric limits, we recommend you aim for what is known as a “lean bulk”. This limits the amount of fat you gain in the process by focusing on both food quality and a controlled calorie surplus. This is important for your long term health and longevity, and avoiding conditions like insulin resistance or diabetes.
For an effective lean bulk, you should aim to consume around 110% of your TDEE every day. A 10% increase on your TDEE will elicit enough of a surplus to build muscle, but — when macros are optimized — not enough to promote fat gain. Up to a 20% increase could be considered depending on your goals, lifestyle and training intensity, but after a while there are diminishing returns so we usually suggest keeping a conservative surplus while optimizing the process and having patience.
When cutting, the reverse is in order, with a 10-20% reduction on your TDEE recommended. The more aggressive your deficit, the more lean muscle tissue you’re likely to lose along with fat, but keeping protein high and training intensive will help limit this.
Warning: Go above 20% of your TDEE intake and you will just start getting fat! Strength training is not a license to eat unlimited foods or stop thinking about nutrition quality in every meal. A 10% increase can be achieved with just minor adjustments to your diet, and doesn’t mean you should proactively eat an extra pizza or sweets to boost your calories.
Where should your calories come from?
There are 3 macronutrients that make up all the food we consume: protein, fats and carbs — plus alcohol, sometimes.
Almost all foods contain a mixture of these nutrients, but generally an ingredient is very high in one. For example, avocados or cream could be thought of as a fat, meats like chicken or steak could be thought of as protein (though there is some fat too), and vegetables or grains can be considered as carbs (though there can be some traces of protein and fats). These are then combined into meals that should promote a balance of the nutrients.
Protein contains around 4 calories per gram.
We’ve discussed in depth the importance of MPS above. Protein is the one macro that should be maintained as much as possible, whether you’re bulking (to build muscle) or cutting (to maintain muscle as you lose fat).
Protein is not only the most satiating macronutrient, it also has a higher Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) than carbs and fats. Protein has a TEF of 20-30% against 5-10% for carbs and around 0-3% for fats. Put simply, from 100 calories of digested protein you can expect around 20-30 of the calories to be lost as heat in the process.
When maintaining or bulking, you should aim to consume 0.7-1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.6-2.2 g/kg) on a daily basis.
When cutting, you should aim to consume 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight (2.2-2.6 g/kg) on a daily basis.
Fats come with 9 calories per gram, a very dense source of energy.
Fats are an essential source of energy. They facilitate absorption of some vitamins and help regulate hormones. They are very important for the proper functioning of your brain, so if productivity is important then optimizing fats will be critical. While they don’t play a significant role in MPS, you still need certain fats and should ensure you get most of your fat from the optimal types.
The research on different types of fat is ongoing, but its generally agreed that unsaturated fats are the best ones to consume for the most part (olive oil, for example), saturated fats are ok in moderation when coming from whole foods, and trans fats should be avoided as much as possible.
Fatty fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado and eggs are some great options to focus on.
We recommend 20-30% of your total calories to come from fats.
Aim for an absolute minimum of 0.25 grams per pound of body weight (0.11 g/kg)
A helpful formula is as follows:
• Like fats and carbs equally? Multiply weight in lbs by 0.4 (or kg by 0.18)
• Prefer fatty foods to carbs? Multiply weight in lbs by 0.45 (or kg by 0.2)
• Prefer carbs to fatty foods? Multiply weight in lbs by 0.35 (or kg by 0.158)
That will give you how many grams of fat you should aim for each day, ideally from unsaturated sources high in omega 3’s.
Carbohydrates contain around 4 calories per gram.
Carbs are not “essential” for life like protein and fats are, but they play a pretty key role in building muscle mass. And as the muscle’s first source of energy, they can help with performance too. They are the sugars, starches and dietary fiber that are found in plant foods and dairy (in the form of lactose).
A good goal is to keep the majority of your carbohydrate intake as complex and fibrous as possible, limiting the amount of refined carbs — white breads, pasta, rice, pastries, sugars. Try to go for things like beans, quinoa, lentils, whole grains, potatoes, and plenty of vegetables. Remember, veggies are carbs too!
As far as building muscle is concerned, carbs will help by replenishing glycogen. Glycogen is unused glucose your body has stored for later use. Training depletes your glycogen stores, carbohydrates replenish them, and for this reason having some carbs in your post workout meal is recommended. If glycogen is not replaced, a process called gluconeogensis occurs, meaning your body sources glucose from fats and protein.
Eating some carbs may also help prevent muscle degradation. Restricting carbs can cause an increase in the amount of nitrogen that gets excreted by the body. Nitrogen is a component of amino acids, protein is the only macronutrient to contain it. Nitrogen loss can indicate the breakdown of muscles. However,, the breakdown of muscle tissue (MPB is offset by positive MPS (muscle protein synthesis), and should generally not be an issue for most well trained individuals consuming enough protein.
To calculate how many grams of carbs to eat per day, simply deduct the number of remaining calories after accounting for fats, protein (and alcohol), and divide the remaining number of calories by 4.
Calculating Energy Expenditure and Macronutrients
Tracking macros is not essential for muscle building or fat loss. Whether you track or not, you do need a surplus for building muscle and a deficit to lose fat. While tracking can help make sure you do it correctly, both of these states could be achieved without numerically tracking.
Too much of a surplus can lead to excess fat gain, and too much deficit can lead to losses of muscle and energy. We do recommend you at least make yourself aware of your rough targets, even if you don’t track everything diligently. If you are a beginner, tracking everything at least for a while can help you get your habits dialed in and learn more about the food you are eating.
For the purposes of weight control and macro tracking:
Protein - 4 calories/gram
Carbs - 4 calories/gram
Fats - 9 calories/gram
Alcohol - 7 calories/gram
As you can see, if you have an idea of how many total calories you should be consuming, you can focus on the grams of the macro instead of counting calories. For example, 170 grams of protein = 680 calories (170x4). Optimizing specific macronutrients is a much more sophisticated and useful approach than simply total calories, due to the thermic effects of different foods as well as the fact that the different macronutrients are not interchangeable.
The first thing to do is calculate your estimated basal metabolic rate (BMR = how many calories you burn in a day, at rest). From your BMR, you can calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
You can use the calculator in the app to generate these numbers for you but here is the raw numbers and math behind the scenes. The formula most often used is an updated version of the Harris Benedict equation that dates back to 1918. Miffin and St. Joer updated it in 1990 as follows:
Men: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
Women: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161
Once you have your BMR, you can multiply it as follows to estimate your TDEE:
Sedentary (little or no exercise) = BMR x 1.2
Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) = BMR x 1.375
Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) = BMR x 1.55
Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) = BMR x 1.725
If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & a physical job) = BMR x 1.9
Your TDEE is an estimate of the total number of calories an average human with your weight and gender would burn in a day. This is just an estimation, but that is OK. Its job is just to provide you with a baseline to work from. Then, you can monitor and tweak as based on the actual results that you see.
The total TDEE number is made up of many areas that your body expends energy:
BMR — Basal Metabolic Rate
The amount of calories you burn at rest. This includes basic cellular functions, and basic activities like thinking and breathing which never stop. Even though you likely never think about these things, they account for the majority of your daily calorie burn, around 70%! It is pretty amazing that we don’t need batteries, and can just power ourselves from some food we ate long ago.
NEAT — Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
NEAT consists of all movement that is not exercise, from walking around the supermarket, doing housework, or even fidgeting while you sit and watch TV. This should be responsible for the second largest amount of daily calorie burn, generally 15% for a healthy individual. It is a variable that your body can adjust depending on how much energy is available.
TEF — Thermic Effect Of Food
A significant 10% if macros are optimized. As mentioned earlier, protein has a much higher thermic effect than an easily digestible food like sugar, which has almost 0. Therefore, eating a diet high in whole foods and avoiding sugary processed foods could result in a 10% difference in calorie expenditure, and why just looking at the calorie count on a label is not the whole story.
EAT — Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
This includes calories burned during exercise and strength training. Most people would guess this is the largest source, but in fact it is the smallest percent of the total — less than the amount of energy burned from digesting protein. The human body is extremely efficient at using energy for skeletal muscle movement, and generating motion and strength from minimal muscle activity. Generally, the calories burned from exercise are only around 5% of your TDEE.
Don’t worry about the low amount of calories that exercise burns in the bigger picture. This doesn’t mean exercise is useless. You can increase this a bit by doing more intense workouts, but it’s not necessary for the most part. Any TDEE equation takes exercise into account. If you’re building muscle through your training, you’re doing far more for your overall metabolism and calorie burn than any stand alone HIIT workout will do.
You’ve got your TDEE - what about your Macros?
1. Let’s say your TDEE was 2,500 calories and you weigh 170 lbs. For a lean bulk, we’ll increase your TDEE by 10%, bringing it to 2,777 calories. Calories are not so precise (labels on even a packed food can be off by about 10%), so in reality this means aiming for between 2,700–2,800 calories.
2. Next, figure out how much of that should be protein, the most important macronutrient to focus on tracking. If you weigh 170 lbs, you can keep it simple and aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
170 grams of protein, which provides about 680 calories.
3. Now we can dial in our fat intake. Let’s say you prefer fats to carbs, and eat a lot of cheese and butter. We can multiply your weight in lbs by 0.45.
170 x 0.45 = 76.5
77 grams of fat, which is 693 calories.
4. Assuming you don’t drink much alcohol, the rest can come from carbs.
(2777-680-693) = 1404 calories
1,400 calories/4 = 351 grams
This means about 350 grams of carbs (from vegetables and whole foods), or about 1,400 calories.
If you were cutting, the simplest approach would be to reduce your TDEE by 10%, keep protein around the same, and reduce fats or carbs (or both) accordingly.
We’ve mentioned that these numbers are an estimation. This is is not an exact science, just a guide. In reality, you will continually tweak things based on looking at what happens to your weight trend and verifying if you are actually in a surplus or a deficit.
To avoid getting fixated on exact numbers and lose sight of the big picture, we suggest thinking within ranges. In the above case that could be:
- Daily Calories: 2600-2900
- Daily Protein: 160-170 grams
- Daily Fat: 70-80 grams
- Daily Carbs: 340-360 grams
How do you actually hit these targets?
Our premium tier will provide you with an expert human coach who provides insights, guidance and a strategic coaching plan, plus a team of nutritionists who will analyze all your meals for you using our XRAY food tracking system.
Your analysis will cover energy balance, macronutrients, muscle protein synthesis and your daily reports will show a detailed breakdown of your day’s meals so you can constantly review, stay on track and continuously optimize.
You also have the option to opt out of the human coaching element and just have a team of nutritionists and the XRAY food tracking system, providing advanced insights and analysis of all your meals.
Or, you do also have the more affordable option of analyzing your meals yourself with Gyroscope Score’s self analysis. This requires a bit more time and discipline, but can be just as powerful if it works for you, and provides the additional benefit of teaching you everything about what you are eating. Plus, you have features like the Academy and Labs along with guides such as this one to keep you on the right path.
You could also create spreadsheets, note down everything you consume, or use public databases like MyFitnessPal and Nutritionix to look up your foods. Whatever you choose, just make sure you do it with consistency, patience and discipline for the best results.
What NOT to eat
Total calories are the most important factor for weight management. You should be in a slight surplus to effectively build muscle. Otherwise it’ll be like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom that allows water to escape at a faster rate than which it is being poured in. It’s a losing battle.
Once calories are accounted for, protein is the only macro that will directly stimulate MPS. A diet that hits your total calories will result in a gain of weight. However, if it’s low in protein and high in fats and carbs, most of the weight gained may come from bodyfat rather than muscle mass.
When you’re trying to build muscle, then a diet that’s very low in carbs makes things more challenging. Yes, you can build muscle on a low carb or keto diet — many people do — and if you would prefer to stay keto or low carb then that’s totally fine. The core principles are to create the energy surplus, consume adequate protein and train accordingly. However, for most people adding enough carbs will both help with energy for your workouts (boosting performance) and replenishing lost glycogen (improving recovery). It is just important to do this while strength training and then go back once you stop, rather than having high carb diet continue once your exercise stops.
Finally, a calorie is a calorie, but all foods are not created equal. You could make gains by hitting your macros with fast food, and you could eat desserts with every meal and still build some muscle, but it is not a great strategy when considering your long term health. This is because food is not simply calories and macronutrients. They are also used to provide essential micronutrients — vitamins and minerals that your body can’t make otherwise. These come from the food you consume, and your body needs these to stay alive.
Getting all the vitamins and minerals you need from high quality meals will optimize metabolic tasks, hormone regulation and cellular functions. They matter. You’ll feel better, look better, sleep better and gain better by eating a diet that’s predominantly rich in whole foods, good quality protein sources, fiber and phytonutrients. You can also take a multivitamin to supplement these, but generally they are more easily used and digested when coming from real foods (bioavailability).
A Day in the Life…
Following a set meal plan someone has created for you has many drawbacks. The rigidity of it, to the lack of sustainability and personalization. With Gyroscope Coach, we try to create a custom plan for each person based on their actual goals and preferences.
However, it can be very helpful to see some real-world examples of how these numbers and macros could be applied to meals in different situations. Here are some examples of 1-day meal plans, showing how these macros could be fulfilled, whether you’re a meat-eater, vegetarian or plant-based.
It’s important to note these are flexible, and going a little above or a little under the ranges you’re aiming for is OK as long as it adds up in the long run. Following it very strictly for 5 days and then going crazy on the weekend, on the other hand is not great and can significantly skew your averages. Always remember, biology works in averages.
Also note, this particular example has not included things like sauces and condiments - ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, chutneys - or liquid calories like milky coffees, sodas, alcohol etc. All these small things can add up, so if they are a part in your daily life, make sure you include them all when counting your own energy intake!
Using our above hypothetical example, let’s try to plan some meals.
- Daily Calories: 2700-2900
- Daily Protein: 160-170 grams*
- Daily Fat: 80-90 grams
- Daily Carbs: 320-360 grams
Meat Eater Meal Plan
Vegetarian Meal Plan
Plant Based Meal Plan
We know alcohol provides excess calories that can affect weight loss. These calories are often referred to as ‘empty’, due to the fact they have little benefit to the function of your body other than providing energy. However it is a pretty useless source of energy as the effects of alcohol itself do the opposite!
If you have a TDEE of 2,000 calories and get 500 of them from alcohol, you’ve only got around 1500 left to play with. If you’re cutting instead of bulking, then it is even less! This can cause issues with excess calories as well as making it harder to obtain adequate nutrients. Aside from this, can alcohol negatively interfere with building muscle?
Research shows alcohol does indeed appear to affect fitness and muscle in a number of ways…
- MPS is reduced by alcohol consumption. A study on athletes showed a clear reduction in MPS, even when nutrition was otherwise optimized
- Alcohol is inflammatory, which can interfere with the repair of muscle during recovery
- Alcohol can decrease your metabolism and reduce the production of important hormones such as testosterone
If you enjoy a drink and want to continue to do so, you can still do so but should just be aware of the tradeoffs and reduced speed of muscle gain. You can still enjoy an occasional drink without losing all your muscle mass, but there is a direct correlation between dose and effect. As a rough guide, stick to to 1 (women) or 2 (men) units or less a day, while remaining within your caloric boundaries and hitting your macros, and you should be OK.
Whole foods will always be best source, but if you struggle to hit your protein intake with just food, protein powders can help get you there. They vary in quality, so go for a reputable company. For MPS, you want to ensure that the leucine content is ideally at least 2 grams per serving.
Whey protein has the highest amount of leucine, usually around 2.5 grams per 25 grams of protein,. It is also one of the fastest absorbing proteins, which is what made it so popular when having a shake post-workout was thought to be important.
If you struggle with whey (bloating or digestive issues) but are not allergic to dairy, you could try casein or even whey isolate. Both have slightly lower lactose contents.
If you are vegan or avoiding dairy, then there are also plenty of plant-based options. Hemp and soy proteins are “complete.” Pea protein also has a relatively high leucine content, but lacks in its complete profile of amino acids. You can also source plant-based powders that have been fortified with leucine and amino acids
Creatine is found naturally in the body, with around 95% of it being stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine, and the other 5% being found in your brain, kidneys and liver.
It can be purchased in various forms but we suggest going for plain Creatine Monohydrate. Supplementing with it increases your stores of phosphocreatine, which we mentioned in the last chapter when discussing energy systems. Your ATP-PC system is the first responder to any intense anaerobic exercise your body performs, and increasing your stores can lead to production of extra ATP, providing an extra few seconds of power that can give you a considerable boost when training.
It can help build muscle by:
- Boosting workload
- Improving cell signaling
- Raising anabolic hormones
- Increasing cell hydration
- Reducing MPB
Some people question it’s safety, but it actually has an extremely robust safety record. It is only a potential concern for people with underlying kidney issues. As with any changs, you should talk to your doctor first and stop if you notice any potential issues.
You have a number of ways you can take it, but either way you need to saturate your system before effects start to show.
The 1 Week Loading Method
For 1 week, take 15-20 grams every day, usually in 3-4 x 5 gram doses.
After that week, reduce dose to 3-5 grams per day.
The 2 Week Loading Method
For 2 weeks, take 10 grams every day, usually in 2 x 5 gram doses.
After those 2 weeks, reduce dose to 3-5 grams per day.
The No-Loading Method
Go straight for a daily maintenance dose of 3-5 grams per day.
The faster you want to saturate your cells and start seeing the effects, the more loading helps. However, some people report digestive discomfort and other mild side effects when loading. Also bear in mind that starting straight off with a maintenance dose of 3-5 grams per day will still yield results, you just need to wait a bit longer to see improved performance in your workouts.
Some claim that creatine needs to be cycled. However, as creatine doesn’t act upon any receptors there is no creatine “sensitivity” produced, so cycling is not necessary unless it’s a personal preference.
The most stimulating ingredient in most pre-workout supplements (the ones that are still legal, anyway), caffeine has been widely studied for it’s effects on strength and endurance training. That said, the evidence is still a bit inconclusive in it’s exact benefits, if any.
One study showed participants who consumed 1.4 mg of caffeine per pound of bodyweight, to significantly increase force and power output on the bench press when compared to a placebo. Other studies have had similar results.
On the other hand, there’s a study of CrossFit athletes that showed no difference in strength output.
The research is ongoing, but promising. The amount of caffeine that seems to potentially enhance performance ranges from 1.4-4 mg/lb of body weight, taken an hour before training.
Caffeine can also affect sleep and other variables besides strength, so be aware of the timing and amount.
BCAA’s (Branch Chain Amino Acids)
These are an extremely popular supplement, even though the evidence of their efficacy is scarce. BCAAs themselves are extremely important, as we have discussed. But if you are consuming adequate protein — which you should be before even thinking about supplements — then you should have enough of them hanging around anyway.
There is some evidence that they can help sustain energy during a workout and prevent muscle breakdown.
If for some reason you are not able to get enough BCAAs from your diet, they may have a place. But for the most part, if your nutrition is already optimized they are little more than expensive flavored water.
For building muscle, you should be in a slight surplus, aiming for about 110% of TDEE. Calculate your macronutrients to understand how much you should be eating on an average day.
Protein is the nutrient that will influence MPS. Leucine is the main amino acid that needs to be present to trigger this. Use the calculator to figure out how much protein you need based on your bodyweight and activity levels. You should have a solid plan for where you’re going to get it and how you’re going to consistently stay on top of it every single day.
If you’re unable to fulfil your daily nutrient needs with food, make sure you have protein supplements readily available.
If you’re vegan, make extra sure you have your meals and protein sources figured out in advance, since it’s a lot harder to find adequate sources of all the amino acids required at the last minute.
Carbohydrates and fats will make up the rest of your intake, enough to get to your totals for the day but not too much extra that you end up storing a lot of bodyfat. Make room in your macros for alcohol if you are going to be drinking, but be aware of the reduction it can have on progress!