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How to Eat for Muscle Building – Complete Beginner’s Guide

In this post, Jeff Nippard and I will show you how to approach your nutrition in order to build your first 5 kilograms of muscle. You’ll learn why nutrition matters for muscle growth, how to calculate your calorie and protein intake, what foods to focus on, and how to time your nutrients throughout the day. These recommendations cover both men and women. Let’s go.

Nutrition has a permissive role in muscle building

Remember from the previous video that high-tension training is what stimulates the production of new muscle tissue. But the availability of nutrients determines how much new muscle can be built. If there aren’t enough amino-acids and excess energy available, muscle growth will be limited or may not occur at all – even if your training provides a great stimulus for growth. This makes sense right?… You can’t just make muscle out of thin air. New muscle is constructed out of amino-acids, so you need to eat protein to supply them. It also takes energy to build muscle so you need to make sure you’re eating enough calories as well. On the other hand, without the training stimulus, all the protein and calories in the world won’t get you much new muscle.

This is why we say that nutrition plays a permissive role in building muscle: it doesn’t initiate muscle growth but it does influence how much muscle growth can occur.

Now, there are exceptions to this. For example, undernourished people can gain muscle simply by eating more food, at least until they regain their normal amount of lean mass. Also, some individuals (usually those that are naturally lean) can temporarily gain some muscle mass along with fat when they gain weight, even if they don’t do high-tension training. But in your case, you should think of nutrition as providing the building blocks and energy necessary for constructing new muscle tissue.

The key lesson here is that you can’t “force feed” muscle growth. If you fail to initiate a growth stimulus in the gym, you can’t compensate in the kitchen. Similarly, you can’t boost the effect of a good workout by overeating in the post-workout period. Eating far beyond what’s needed to permit growth won’t actually help you gain much more muscle. It will mostly result in increased fat gain. And unless you’re going for the bear mode look, which is fine if that’s your goal, I assume fat gain is something you want to minimize.

So, with this in mind, how should you approach your diet? Well, to permit muscle growth, you need to eat enough protein and enough calories (from a mixture of carbs and fat). When it comes to protein, how much you eat per day is the most important factor. Take a look at this graphic.

Note: If you are overweight, setting your protein intake based on body weight will seriously overestimate your daily protein needs. Instead, aim for 0.7 to 1 grams of protein per centimeter of height.

As you can see, you hit the maximum rate of muscle growth at a protein intake of 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. This green zone is where you want to be. Some “broffesors” will insist that that’s too low and you really need at least 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight and, if you’re really serious, be closer to 1.5.

It also wouldn’t hurt to always have a protein shake handy to feed your starving muscles. But, these broffesors are mistaken. Protein intakes above 1 g/lb don’t seem to provide any additional hypertrophic benefit. Again, you can’t force feed muscle growth.

To be fair, higher protein intakes can have some application in more advanced trainees (especially if you’re cutting to a low body fat) but for the most part, intakes above 1 gram per pound just aren’t necessary for building muscle. 

Also, try to avoid the common mistake of thinking about muscle growth as an on-off switch. A lot of people think that you either eat enough protein to build muscle at the maximum rate or you don’t build any muscle at all. But this isn’t how it works. Any intake above what’s needed for basic health (so, just 60 to 70 grams per day) will provide enough amino-acids for some muscle growth – as long as your training is on point. 

So if you can’t financially afford to eat a high protein diet, or you don’t like to eat high protein foods for whatever reason, this doesn’t mean you can’t still build muscle. You can, it’ll just be at a somewhat slower rate and you may not maximize on your full potential. For example, if a high protein diet would allow you to gain 15 lbs of muscle in your first year, a low protein diet might still allow you to gain 10, 8, or 5 lbs of muscle – depending on just how low your protein is. 

Ok, so that’s the broad strokes for protein. Now, the amount of calories you should eat depends on your starting point and your primary goal. But before I get to that, I think it’d be helpful to clarify how we should think about food in terms of macronutrients and calories.

Food, macronutrients, and calories

If you’re like most people, you choose the foods you eat based on how good they taste or how full they make you feel. You don’t choose them based on macronutrients and calories. While this is a psychologically healthy mindset, in order to achieve fitness goals, you need to develop at least a general sense of how much protein, carbs, fat and calories are in the foods you’re eating. This is a skill you’ll learn over time, until eventually, you can get to a point where you’re like Neo inside The Matrix: when you look at a food you see the numbers inside of it.

That said, it’s important to not become too obsessed with this. Some people get to the point where they won’t eat anything unless they know the exact nutritional information beforehand. This isn’t good either. The goal is to develop a strong familiarity with the macronutrient profile of the foods you eat on a regular basis; not to become obsessed with hitting your macros to the gram. So here are the basics you need to know. 

A kilocalorie (what everybody calls calorie for simplicity) is a measurement unit for energy, and is equal to the amount it takes to heat up one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

When we say that a food has a certain amount of calories we refer to how much heat is released when that food is burned in a device called a bomb calorimeter. Food is “burned” in your body as well, so the calorie value of a food is a pretty accurate estimate of how much energy your body is able to derive from it.

Your body oxidizes food to get the energy it needs to exercise, to do daily activities and perform internal functions like keeping your heart beating, maintaining body temperature, or growing new tissues like your fingernails or hair. If you eat more calories than you burn, that means you’re in a caloric surplus and you’ll gain weight over time. And if you eat less calories than you burn, that means you’re in a caloric deficit and you’ll lose weight over time. This is how you can control your body weight.

Calories come from 3 macronutrients that form the basis of all foods: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Technically alcohol, fiber, and water also count as macronutrients, but we’ll mostly ignore those for now.

1 gram of protein = 4 kcal
1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 kcal
1 gram of fat = 9 kcal
1 gram of alcohol = 7 kcal
1 gram of fiber = 2 kcal
1 gram of water = 0 kcal

Note: these are average values and can vary slightly depending on the type of protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fiber. But it’s not worth worrying about this variation.

In most parts of the world, the nutritional value of food is listed for 100g of product. For example, 100g of commercially prepared bread may contain: 11g of protein, 45g of carbs, 3g of fat, and 4g of fiber. The calorie content would therefore be around 260 kcal: 11g protein x 4 kcal + 45g carbs x 4 kcal + 3g fats x 9 kcal + 4g fiber x 2 kcal.

Now if you’ve paid any attention to food labels over the years, you’ve probably noticed that the caloric content of different foods varies a lot, even if those foods are the exact same weight. For example, 100 grams of lettuce has only 15 calories, while 100 grams of peanut butter has 590 calories.

The same is true for food volume. 1 cup of fresh strawberries has 50 calories while 1 cup of strawberry gushers has 640 calories. In this case, we would consider fresh strawberries to be a so-called “high volume food” because you would need to eat 8 TIMES the volume of fresh strawberries to match the same calories worth of gushers. So, gushers would be a higher calorie, low volume food and fresh strawberries would be a lower calorie, high volume food.

Note: in the video we show that 1 cup of gushers is equal to 12 cups of fresh strawberries, not 8. That’s because Jeff is referring to the volume of the actual strawberries, not the cups. So 1 cup of gushers is equal to 8 cups of mashed strawberries or 12 cups of whole strawberries.

Because of this variation in caloric density, it should be clear that even though weight loss and weight gain ultimately comes down to calories in versus calories out, certain foods are clearly better suited for some fitness goals than others. Low-calorie, high-volume foods are great for fat loss because they make you feel much fuller, while high-calorie, low-volume foods are better suited for gaining weight, especially for people that have naturally low appetites. I’ll detail exactly which foods are better for your goals a little later in the video with some specific examples.

For now, the key takeaway is that there’s a difference between food quantity and calorie content. It’s possible to eat tiny amounts of food and still have a high caloric intake. And it’s possible to eat a large amount of food and still have a low caloric intake. It all depends on the foods you choose.

Ok, next let’s see exactly how many calories you should be eating to build muscle effectively.

How to set calories and macros for muscle growth

My go-to rule for lean muscle-growth is to eat around 10 to 20% more calories than you’d need to maintain your weight. In other words, you take your maintenance calories and add 10 to 20%.

As a rule of thumb, multiplying your bodyweight in pounds by 14-16 will get you in the right ballpark for your maintenance calories. If you’re more active, you’ll want to be closer to 16, or maybe a bit higher. If you’re less active, you’ll want to be closer to 14, or a bit lower, especially if you’re overweight.

So let’s say you weigh 175 lbs (or about 80 kilos) and you’re regularly active, your maintenance calories should be around 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day. Adding 10% to that would give you a ballpark range of 2,700 to 3,000 calories per day for your lean gaining plan. 

For a more individualized recommendation, you can use a guess-and-check method. 

Guess-and-check method for setting lean bulk calories

  1. Estimate your maintenance calorie intake by multiplying your bodyweight in pounds by 14-16 or bodyweight in kilograms by 31-35. Add 10-20% to that to guess your required calorie intake for muscle gain.
  2. Weigh yourself every day and see how your weekly average weight is changing: add up all 7 day weigh-ins and divide by 7. If you gain weight at the rate of about 0.35% of your bodyweight per week, that means your calorie intake is set correctly. Note: 0.35% of BW is equal to ~0.25 kg / ~0.5 lb for a 70 kg / 155 lb individual (you calculate this by multiplying your BW by 0.0035).
  3. If you are gaining weight at a slower rate than 0.35% of BW per week, increase your calorie intake by 5-10%. If you are gaining weight much faster than 0.35% of BW per week, decrease your calorie intake by 5-10%.

Note: this rate of weight gain is mostly recommended for beginners as they can build muscle quickly in the first 1-2 years of training. Intermediates should lower the rate of gain to ~0.15% of BW per week if the goal is to minimize fat gain or ~0.25% if more fat gain is acceptable.

Even more accurately, you can use an app like MacroFactor, which very accurately determines your individual energy expenditure through finely tuned science-based algorithms. Full disclosure, Jeff is a part of the macrofactor team and even had a hand in some of the app’s development, but we think it’s the best paid nutrition app on the market.

Regardless of what method you use, the key point is that most people really only need a few hundred calories above maintenance for muscle growth. Going higher than this will result in more weight gain, but the higher you go, the more fat you’ll gain as opposed to muscle.

Once you’ve determined your calories, you should set up your macros by setting your protein at 0.7-1 g of protein/lb as we already discussed. Set your fat intake at around 20-30% of calories, and then simply fill in any remaining calories with carbs. The specific carb and fat numbers aren’t nearly as important as hitting your daily calorie and protein target, so I mainly encourage people to focus on calories and protein, and you can let your carb and fat intake be more flexible, according to your own personal preference.

Now, if you don’t want to bother with the calculations, you can use the ShredSmart calculator.

In the weight section, input your current body weight and select pounds or kilograms. Then choose your activity level. In the goal section, select lean bulk. And in the macro option section select your preferred protein and fat intake. I recommend 0.8 grams of protein per pound, 30% fat, rest carbs but your carb and fat intake can fluctuate between days as long as you hit your daily protein and calorie targets. After you do all this, the calculator will estimate your daily target calories and macros.   

However, this basic guideline of eating 10-20% above maintenance, isn’t ideal for everyone. In fact, for some it can be counterproductive. For example, if you’re a naturally lean individual that struggles with gaining weight (the so-called “hardgainer body type”), setting your calories at 10 to 20% above maintenance may not be enough to permit muscle growth – you may need more food. Alternatively, if you currently have a good amount of belly fat, you may not wish to gain more weight and would rather build muscle and lose fat while staying at the same body weight. Or if you’re currently at a high level of body fat, your primary goal may be to lose weight while building some muscle, in which case, a slight caloric deficit would be best. To account for these individual cases, it’s best to set your calorie intake based on your starting point and your primary goal. 

So in the next sections, you will learn how you should approach muscle building from three possible starting points: lean, skinny-fat, and overweight.

Starting point 1: Naturally Lean

If all your life you’ve been lean and your goal is to gain weight and muscle, you should eat as many calories as needed to gain roughly 1-1.5% of your BW per month.

Males: ~2 lbs/month or ~1 kg/month
Females: ~1lb/month or ~0.5 kg/month

This rate of weight gain may require eating much more than a 10-20% calorie surplus because naturally lean individuals are often resistant to weight gain. To show you just how resistant, I’ll briefly describe the results of a 1999 study by Levine and colleagues.

These researchers took 16 young adults and overfed them by 1000 calories above maintenance every day for 8 weeks (so just about two months). Remember that the 10% surplus we recommended in the previous section would only be a few hundred calories above maintenance. These subjects were eating 1000 calories above maintenance. But despite the massive surplus, some subjects hardly gained any weight. As you can see, the person who gained the least weight only gained 1.4 kilograms (or just about 3 lbs) in 2 months, while the person who gained the most weight gained 7.2 kilograms (or just about 16 lbs) in the same time frame. The most weight-gain-resistant individual stored only around 60 kcal/day as body fat while the least resistant individual stored more than 10 times as much: about 690 kcal/day.

The main reason for this vast disparity was that upon being fed a calorie surplus some people started to feel more energetic and dissipated most of the calorie surplus through unconscious movements (which are part of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). Unconscious movements include things such as fidgeting, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, spending more time standing up, or having better posture while sitting. One person burned as much as 700 kcal/day in this manner. In stark contrast, other participants responded to the calorie surplus by becoming more lethargic, as evidenced by one person actually decreasing his daily energy expenditure by about 100 kcal. This is that unlucky guy that gets fat just thinking about food.

What this study shows is that we cannot know exactly how many calories a person will need to gain weight effectively. The surplus we set on paper and the one that actually occurs may be very different. Some naturally lean individuals may need a daily surplus of 500 kcal or more to gain weight at the ideal rate while other people may only need a 300 kcal surplus. For this reason, it’s best to set your calorie intake based on your weekly rate of weight gain rather than based on formulas and calculators. Your main target should be to eat as much as necessary to gain roughly 0.25-0.35% of your BW per week or roughly 1-1.5% of your BW per month. 

But a common problem for many lean beginners is that they struggle to physically eat the volume of food they require to gain size. Luckily, there is an easy fix to this: simply choose lower-volume foods that are less filling and higher calorie. This is the opposite of what you’d do for weight loss. Here’s a full list of strategies that you can use:  

  • Add one or two extra daily meals: for example, go from 3 meals per day to 4 or 5 meals per day.
  • Add snacks between meals: ideally you should choose healthy, high-protein options. Some ideas include peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, cereal bars, protein bars, fruit bars, bagels, biscuits, and trail mix.
  • Add more oil when cooking your meals. However, something worth mentioning here is that although increasing fat intake is the easiest way to add calories to your diet, limiting fat intake to a maximum of 30-35% of daily calories and creating most of the calorie surplus through carbohydrates may result in less body fat gain because dietary fat is stored more easily than carbs. 
  • Replace lean protein sources with fattier options: you can replace lean meats, low-fat cheeses → fattier meats, full-fat cheeses, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, full-fat tofu, hummus, mock meats. Also, in order to contribute to reducing animal suffering and climate change, you can limit or completely avoid animal products. After all, can our fitness goals be more important than the suffering and lives of other animals? This is a question that gets ignored in the fitness world because we intuitively believe that if the majority of people do something, in this case consume lots of animal protein, the choice must be acceptable, and so any moral issues are diffused by the peace of mind that comes with sharing the burden of responsibility and knowing that we’re not going to incur social reproach. But if reducing suffering is one of your values, what you can do is replace lean meats with plant-based meats or with high-fat plant protein sources such as full-fat tofu.
  • Replace solid protein with liquid protein: replace meat, eggs, tofu, or mock meats with protein shakes, milk, soy milk.
  • Add liquid calories to your diet: fruit juice, sports drinks, sweetened coffee or tea, flavored oat milk.
  • Don’t overdo fiber: in addition to veggies, legumes, whole grains, also consume cereal, bread, pasta, white rice, tortillas.
  • Leave snacks/foods out in the open around the house in order to tempt you to get a serving. One idea is to leave a bowl of trail mix or a box of protein bars on the desk next to your computer.

Now, even though gaining weight can be harder, genetically leaner individuals are still lucky because they usually gain more muscle and less fat as they gain weight. One study found that naturally lean people gained 60-70% of their weight as lean mass during a period of overfeeding… whereas the percentages flipped for people with naturally higher body fat: they stored 60-70% of their weight gained as fat mass and only 30-40% as lean mass.

So if you’re starting out naturally lean, you can expect that for every 2-3 pounds of weight you gain, at least half of it should be muscle. This is very good.

There are a few exceptions though. Some naturally lean individuals have a body frame with narrow shoulders, a narrow rib cage, wider hips, and more belly fat with love handles. In my coaching experience, I’ve found that these individuals often do have a harder time building muscle without gaining fat. And in this case, I’d suggest lowering your target rate of weight gain to make sure that more of the weight being gained is in fact muscle.

Starting point 2: Skinny-fat

The second starting point is the so-called “skinny fat” body type (characterized by both low muscle mass and high body fat). This starting point can be a bit trickier because these individuals often don’t want to gain weight (as it’ll result in more fat gain) but they also don’t want to lose weight (because it’ll make them look more skinny).

If you fall into this category, I’d simply focus on body recomposition for your first six months or so. This means your goal is to build muscle and lose fat at the same time while maintaining your body weight. When you first start lifting weights you can see impressive body recomposition because the calories from your excess body fat can provide the energy to fuel muscle building. You don’t really need a caloric surplus, because the surplus is already on your body – so to speak. So even if your body weight stays more or less the same, you’ll still notice your muscles getting bigger and your belly getting smaller as long as you’re making solid progress in the gym. Keep in mind, muscle growth can be a bit slower if you go the recomp route, but most people do find it’s worth it as they can take care of their muscle goals and their fat loss goals at the same time.

For recomp, all you really need to do is three simple things:

  • eat at around maintenance calories (so, again, the number of calories you need to maintain your body weight)
  • eat enough protein and
  • train hard and smart in the gym (as I explained in part 1 of this video)

If you’ve been maintaining the same body weight for a while, you can even see body recomposition by eating more-or-less the same as you’ve been eating, adding a daily protein shake, and focusing all your attention on training.

Starting point 3: Overweight

And finally, if you’re starting out overweight or obese, you can set up your diet to prioritize fat loss but still allow for muscle gain as well. This is essentially another type of body recomposition where your body fat goes down as your muscle mass goes up, except instead of maintaining your weight, you’ll be losing weight. In this case, I’d recommend setting your caloric intake at 10-20% below maintenance, ensuring a protein intake of around 1 gram of protein per centimeter in height, and focusing on progressing in the gym. 

In general, you want to be somewhere in the range of losing around 0.5 to 1% of your bodyweight per week. Slower weight loss is usually better when simultaneous muscle growth is the goal because the body is less likely to break down muscle tissue for fuel. And yes, even though you’ll be in a caloric deficit, you can still build muscle, because once again, your body can tap into existing fat stores to fuel muscle building.

The most reliable way to ensure that you’re hitting the desired caloric deficit is to measure your food and use a diet app like MacroFactor to track your calories and macros.

Tracking your food intake with a food scale and an app is the most reliable way to create a calorie deficit. However, if you don’t want to track your food, there’s another method you can use to create a deficit that is less reliable but it is much less stressful psychologically. That is setting up diet rules that reduce your calorie intake indirectly. Here’s what you can do:

  • Limit fatty foods: oil, fried foods, chips, fatty meats, full-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, chocolate, most desserts
  • Limit sweet foods and drinks: table sugar, most desserts and snacks, soda, fruit juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee and tea
  • Limit or eliminate alcoholic drinks
  • Increase lean protein intake: lean meats, cottage cheese, low-fat tofu, seitan, low-fat mock meats
  • Increase intake of high-fiber protein sources: beans, chickpeas, lentils, mushrooms
  • Increase veggie intake: green peas, green beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, etc
  • Eat high-protein foods and veggies at most meals
  • Drink more water
  • Skip one of your daily meals: replace breakfast with water and black coffee, for example
  • Establish a regular meal schedule: try to eat around the same times every day (not a big deal if it varies occasionally)
  • Save most calories for the time of day when you’re most hungry: if that’s in the evening, eat small meals throughout the day to save calories for a larger dinner
  • Avoid snacking and picking throughout the day, and focus on eating discrete meals instead
  • Avoid bringing high calorie foods into your home, car, or workplace (half the battle is won at the supermarket)
  • Don’t leave food or snacks where you can see them (especially where you can easily grab a serving)
  • Eat most of your meals at home

If you follow most of the diet rules I’ve listed here, you’ll likely manage to create a 10-20% calorie deficit for at least the first few weeks and if you’re lucky, maybe even for a few months.

But the best approach is to use tracking and diet rules together: logging your food intake will help you stay on track and the non-tracking-based behavioral strategies will make dieting easier, increasing your likelihood of success.

The Details: Food Sources and Nutrient Timing

It should be clear by now that the three pillars of muscle growth are: eating enough protein, eating enough calories, and progressing in the gym. If you just get these three things right, you’ll have no problem building your first 10 lbs of muscle. In fact, most people could even keep their diet more-or-less the same, focus all their attention on training, and still gain their first 10 lbs of muscle because the average Western diet is already high enough in calories and protein to permit muscle growth at the beginner level. 

Still, if you want to maximize your results, as many new lifters do, you can pay attention to some of the finer details like food sources and nutrient timing. Let’s start with food sources.

A common mistake a lot of beginners make is having a very restrictive diet. I still see a lot of new lifters picking up an old-school bodybuilding menu of chicken, rice, and broccoli – every meal, every day. Of course, restrictive so-called “bro diets” can work (as long as macronutrient needs are met) but the problem is that their lack of food variety can make them harder to stick to and they can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies if the food list is really restrictive. This can then negatively impact health and training performance.

So it’s a lot smarter to get a wide variety of different foods in your diet. One easy way to do this is to pick five or six protein sources, starchy carbs, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, sauces-and-fats, and combine them in different ways over the course of the week. Remember, having some flexibility is good, moderation is good, and no foods need to be strictly off limits.

When it comes to nutrient timing, there are three things you can pay attention to, if you really want to cross your t’s and dot your i’s. These are: protein meal distribution, peri-workout nutrition, and protein intake before bed.

The best data suggests that it’s optimal to spread your daily food intake across 3 to 5 meals, with each meal containing at least around 30g of protein. It does seem that having at least 3 solid hits of protein per day is a bit better than having only 1 or 2 high protein meals. But again, total daily protein intake is the most important factor.

You can also pay attention to how you time your nutrients around the workout: something we call peri-workout nutrition. I think this area is largely overhyped by gym bros, but there are still some advantages to consuming a well-balanced pre-workout meal to fuel training and a reasonably timed post-workout meal, ideally coming within 4-6 hours after the pre-workout meal.

Some people call this 4-6 hour period the “anabolic window” because meals consumed in this timeframe ensure amino-acids are circulating in the bloodstream when muscle protein synthesis ramps up in the first few hours post-workout. But like Jeff said, this tends to be given much more attention than it actually deserves.  

Not too long ago, most lifters believed the anabolic window was very short; so short that they had to rush to drink their fast-absorbing protein shakes in the locker room to prevent the workout from going to waste. We now know this is unnecessary. When you consume a high protein diet you have elevated levels of amino-acids circulating in your bloodstream pretty much at all times. This study found that just 26g of protein from lean beef eaten alone sustained a release of amino-acids into the bloodstream for six hours, which was the entire study period. Given that fiber, starch, and fat slow protein digestion, your average meal likely sustains elevated levels for much longer than that. So even if you worked out fasted in the morning and did not eat protein for several hours afterwards, you’d still have enough amino-acids in your bloodstream from the meals of the day before to permit less-than-ideal muscle growth and repair. Secondly, muscle protein synthesis remains elevated above baseline for at least 24-36 hours after weight training. This means that as long as you hit your daily protein targets you will get most of your results regardless of how you time your nutrients. Still, if you really want to optimize muscle growth, it’s best to sandwich your workouts between two protein-containing meals to take advantage of that peak anabolic window as well.

In addition to containing protein, your pre-workout meal should also be relatively high in carbs as having glucose in the bloodstream during training can help boost performance a bit. I said a bit. Most of the glucose used to fuel training comes from muscle glycogen stores, not the bloodstream, and muscle glycogen levels are determined by your total carb intake. A workout session may only reduce muscle glycogen stores by 25% to 40%, depending on how much volume you do. If you don’t train that muscle group again for at least a day and you consume carbs in the meantime, that muscle group’s glycogen levels will be mostly or fully replenished by the time you do the next workout. This is why you can lift heavy weights and make progress in the gym even if you train on an empty stomach. That being said, since glucose from the bloodstream is also used to fuel muscular contractions, eating carbohydrates prior to working out can improve training performance. 

To give myself as an example, for my first two years of lifting I trained mostly on an empty stomach around 1 PM, after a long morning fast. And it was ok, I could build muscle and strength just fine. But I later found that if I trained in the afternoon or evening, after having at least one carb-rich pre-workout meal I felt a bit stronger and could maybe perform one more rep with a given weight compared to when I trained after not having eaten for 12 to 16 hours. 

So if you want to take advantage of this potential boost in performance, you can time your pre-workout meal 1-2 hours prior to training and aim for it to contain around 1 gram of carbs per kilogram of body weight. We don’t advise making your pre-workout meal larger than this as it can make you too full to train without discomfort.

Lastly, there may be a benefit to setting up your last meal in a way that prolongs protein digestion so you get a sustained release of amino-acids throughout the night. There are four ways you can do this: 

  1. You can make your last meal very large, as the more food you eat, the more time it will take to digest and absorb. Perhaps something like >50g protein and >700 kcal.
  2. Have more fat in your last meal. Fat slows down protein digestion. So for example you can have fattier protein sources or more added fats in your last meal.
  3. You can choose slower digesting protein sources: high protein plant foods (like wheat, pea, or soy based mock meats), legumes, nuts or seeds, cottage cheese, milk protein, eggs.
  4. You can include more fiber in your last meal of the day such as legumes or veggies because fiber also slows down protein digestion

A simple way to cover all 4 of these points is to make your last meal mostly or entirely plant-based, as with plant foods you generally need to eat more calories to reach your protein targets, plant-proteins are generally slower digesting, and high-protein plant foods are generally high in fiber or fat.

Alternatively, you can just have a protein shake before bed as that will also ensure a release of amino-acids into the bloodstream for the first few hours of the night.  

But remember, protein meal distribution, peri-workout nutrition, and protein intake before bed matter little in the big picture, especially as a new lifter. So if you want, you can not worry about this stuff at all. For most beginners, a good nutrition plan for muscle growth can be reduced to just three simple points: eat enough to slowly gain weight, drink a protein shake per day, and make progress in the gym. That’s it.

Muscle Building and Fat Loss programs

And now, if you need more help to put everything you’ve learned here into practice, there are two programs that can help you do that.

First, there’s Jeff’s Fundamentals Hypertrophy Program. Even though this video focused on nutrition, muscle growth ultimately starts with training. Without a good training stimulus, no nutrition strategy will get you muscular. The Fundamentals program comes with 3 separate routines that you can run for 8 weeks each in order to put on muscle mass in your first year of training.

And if your main goal is to improve how your physique looks as quickly as possible and not necessarily to put on size, I recommend enrolling into my ShredSmart program. ShredSmart is perfect for you if you’re starting out skinny-fat or overweight as it shows you how to set up your diet and training to build muscle while reducing your belly fat and, if you run it long enough, even get 6 pack abs.

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