While conventional diets may be fine for the average person, they definitely don't work for bodybuilders. It takes an extraordinary nutrition plan to build an extraordinary physique.
After lots of reading, research, and speculation (followed by more screwing up than you'd want to know about) I was finally able to derive a way of eating that not only works for bodybuilders, but works GREAT!
Although I initially set out to find a diet that would maximize fat loss while preserving lean muscle tissue, I soon found that it works equally well to build muscle while minimizing fat gain.
Let me reiterate that what I'm going to share with you is NOT just theoretical. It's well proven, even at the highest levels of bodybuilding — the IFBB Professional stage.
Although you don't have to be a pro bodybuilder to reap the benefits, you will have to have some discipline and consistency. If you're the kind of person that likes to "wing it" when it comes to your diet, then the method I'll describe isn't for you.
Regardless, anyone can benefit from the information I'm going to give you... if you actually apply it.
To begin, let's look at the pros and cons of the traditional methods of dieting, because, once you clearly understand the flaws of other diets, you'll be able to better understand and implement a better alternative.
Low-Carb Pros and Cons
You don't have to be a nutrition guru to know that low-carb diets are extremely effective at burning body fat. As much as mainstream doctors and dietitians hate to let the 80s go, research has proven over and over again that low-carb diets burn fat more quickly than other types of diets.
They work by decreasing blood glucose, insulin, and glycogen stores. This, in turn, promotes the mobilization and utilization of fatty acids for fuel, especially once ketosis has set in. Luckily for us, many (even most) of these fatty acids come from nasty ol' body fat.
But, just when you thought you were ready to get married to a low-carb diet, you realize that she IS actually jealous of your female friends, hates to cook, and lied about how she likes wearing a skirt with no panties.
Chronically consuming a low-carb diet depletes muscle glycogen stores. Although this is good for fat burning, it's not good for your performance in the weight room. Can you say "pumpless and puny?"
Muscle glycogen (stored carbs) serves as the primary fuel source during weight training. But without its preferred fuel source available, working muscles are forced to try to get the energy they need from fatty acids. Unfortunately, this happens a bit more slowly than we'd prefer, leaving you dragging like a bag of wet hammers.
Likewise, low-carb diets tend to leave the user with muscles that are "flat" as we like to say in competitive bodybuilding circles. On the other hand, when your muscle glycogen stores are topped off your muscles have a round, full look to them.
Low-carb diets also have one more (arguably) major drawback: when consumed for long periods of time, they tend to decrease T-3 levels. If you'll recall, T-3 is the active thyroid hormone that is largely responsible for controlling your metabolism. Do I need to point out that you do NOT want your T-3 levels to take a dip? I didn't think so.
Low-Fat / High-Carb Pros and Cons
Although we don't need to revisit the 80s when neon shoelaces, mullets, and low-fat diets were all the rage, we should take a moment to review the pros and cons of a low-fat diet.
Low-fat diets are great in that they are an easy way to control energy intake. After all, if you don't eat any fat it's hard to consume too many energy-containing calories. This is especially the case if those carbs are from natural, unprocessed sources.
Low-fat diets also tend to decrease lipogenesis — the formation of new fat. Although carbs can DEFINITELY be converted to body fat, it's not the most efficient process. That's why studies have shown that high carb/low-fat diets, even when carbs are consumed in excess, do not result in the formation of as much body fat as would mathematically make sense.
Consuming a high carb, low-fat diet is also a good no-brainer way to keep muscle glycogen stores topped off. This makes for good workouts and good pumps. And you gotta admit, even if it doesn't mean anything at all, having a skin stretching pump feels pretty damn good!
But here's the real benefit to consuming ample carbs: muscle growth.
Along with its more androgenic counterpart, testosterone, insulin is one of the most anabolic hormones in the body. And no matter how you slice it, to get insulin to be secreted and work its anabolic magic, you have to consume carbs.
But, don't think for a second that you want to spend the rest of your life with a low-fat diet, either. That hussy will leave you broke, depressed, and undersexed, yet convince your friends and family that it's your fault.
The higher amount of insulin that comes with eating more carbs is great for those looking to pack on some muscle. However, trying to get leaner with high insulin levels is like driving with the emergency brake on. You can do it, but it isn't the most efficient way to get across town.
High-carb diets also tend to cause more dramatic fluctuations in blood glucose levels which leads to an ongoing cycle of feeling great, feeling tired and hungry, feeling great, feeling tired and hungry, and so on.
Likewise, low-fat diets tend to cause deficiencies in essential fatty acids. You know that EFAs are important for a plethora of things, including cardiovascular health, central nervous system function, insulin sensitivity, and cell membrane integrity, just to mention a few.
To say that you need to consume ample amounts of essential fatty acids is an understatement. But it's not just the EFAs that have benefits.
Other types of fat like monounsaturated and even (gasp!) saturated fat have numerous, sometimes surprising benefits. For example, cholesterol is used as a building block for every male's favorite hormone, Testosterone. Still want to throw out those egg yolks?
Now let's discuss the most popular method of dieting around — lowering calories.
Low-Calorie Pros and Cons
Even the average American knows that to lose fat you have to consume fewer energy-providing calories (carbs and/or fat). But if you've dieted for any length of time, especially for a long time, you're already aware that the effectiveness of a low-calorie diet tends to wane pretty rapidly.
The human body is amazingly adaptive, yet seems to have a lazy, even argumentative nature. Instead of simply burning fat from adipose tissue to meet the energy deficit when you lower your calories, your body tends to respond by slowing the rate at which it burns calories.
It's as if your body says, "This idiot is trying to starve us to death! Screw that! If he's only going to feed me 900 calories, then I'm only going to burn 900 calories. I'll show him who's the boss around here!"
When you are dieting, keep in mind that your body will try to match its energy output (metabolism) to the energy you put in. That's why low calorie diets equal a slow metabolism. Can you say PLATEAU?
You can't make your body burn fat; you essentially have to trick it into burning fat.
Mixed Diet Pros and Cons
It's obvious that an optimal diet should contain ample, but not excessive, amounts of both carbs and fat. We have, in part, Barry Sears to thank for helping point this out to the masses. He encouraged us to eat moderate (but arguably too specific) amounts of carbs and fat in the same meal.
Even though Dr. Sears and his idea are brilliant, the Zone diet leaves a bit to be desired for us physique athletes. Those of us lookin' to get big and ripped will need to fine tune things a bit to get more of certain macronutrients when we need them, and less of them when we don't.
Bodybuilders should not be locked into consuming the same percentage of macronutrients with each and every meal.
Now let's move away from diets that you shouldn't be doing anyway, and start talking about what kind of diet you should be following.
The Perfect Diet for Bodybuilders
Wouldn't it be cool if we could create the perfect diet? It would prevent plateaus by keeping your metabolism high. It would feed your body the macronutrients it needs, precisely when it needs them.
The perfect diet would allow you to get the rapid fat-loss benefits of a low-carb diet, but without the reduction in performance and metabolism. It would support muscle growth and performance like a high-carb diet, but without the energy fluctuations and lack of fat loss they're known for.
The ideal diet would also work with your body's physiology, as opposed to working against it.
Enter macronutrient cycling.
Success Leaves Clues
After many years of learning from the best (i.e. Atkins, Berardi, Duchaine, Lowery, Schwarzbein, Sears, and many more), I've finally figured out the common links among diets that work.
I simultaneously studied top bodybuilding coaches like Justin Harris, Chad Nichols, Hany Rambod, and Milos Sarcev to see what commonalities existed among their methods.
As Tony Robbins says, success leaves clues. That's why I studied the methods of every successful bodybuilder, dieter, and coach I could.
After much, much trial and error on myself and others, I finally figured out that the best, most successful diet was a combination of about 20 different dietary strategies, including Massive Eating, Temporal Nutrition, the Zone, the Anabolic Diet, and many more.
I call my hybrid approach Macro Cycling — as in cycling your macronutrient intake.
It involves not only alternating or cycling carbs, but also protein and fat. Additionally, it's not just about cycling your macronutrient intake from day to day, but also within a day.
Now, let me show you how to build your own Macro Cycle Diet.
Building the Ultimate Physique Enhancement Diet
I want to arm you with the know-how to construct your own meal plan — teach you to fish, in other words. But don't worry; I'll also give you a great starting point in case you're the kind of guy who just wants the dame fish!
Protein: A Bodybuilder's Best Friend
When building a meal plan, it makes sense to start with the most critical, yet physique-friendly macronutrient.
Although we're talking about advanced bodybuilding nutrition plans, things don't need to be overly complicated. In fact, I like to keep things really simple. That's why I summarize the intricate biochemistry of protein this way:
Your body uses protein to build stuff.
Anyone who knows what a dumbbell is knows that protein helps build muscle. But we tend to forget that protein helps build many other things like bones, hair, skin, nails, tendons, and ligaments, along with more obscure things like blood plasma, visceral (organ) tissue, and almost 2,000 enzymes.
The fact that the body (especially the body of a hard-training individual) has so many critical uses for protein, is the primary reason why using calories to indicate how much energy the human body will be able to derive from food doesn't make sense.
Virtually all of the protein you eat will be used as building blocks for something else. Very, very little will be available to produce our body's energy currency, glucose. Even less would be available to create fat, largely due to the inefficiency of this process.
When you consider that protein is very unlikely to cause fat gain along with the fact that protein consumption boosts metabolic rate by about 25%, you can see why it's a bodybuilder's best friend.
A good rule of thumb for physique athletes is to consume about 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day. This is enough to put most everyone in a positive nitrogen balance, even if training volume and intensity are high.
However, at times it may be advantageous to consume a bit more protein as "insurance" against muscle loss. One of these times would be on a low-carb day, when your intake of protein-sparring carbs is low, especially if you end up weight training that day.
If you weigh about 200 pounds and are consuming the bodybuilding norm of six meals per day, then you should typically consume about 50 grams of protein within each meal.
However, as mentioned above, you should bump this up a bit on low-carb days.
Likewise, on a high-carb day you could certainly get away with less protein. The protein-sparring effect of carbs will ensure that practically every speck of protein is used to build stuff, with none being needed for energy.
Now that we've got your protein/amino acid building blocks taken care of, let's address the energy-providing macronutrients — carbs and fat.
Carb Are Fuel!
Although naturally occurring carb sources do contain lots of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and other nutrients, the function of carbohydrates themselves is simple: they provide energy. Not only do they provide energy, but they are the body's preferred fuel source, especially for high-intensity activities like weight training.
Just like the amount of gas you put in your car depends on how big the tank is and how much driving you've just done or are planning to do, the same type of planning should go into your carb consumption.
Whether you like it or not, the carbs you eat either have to be used for energy or stored.
To improve your physique (i.e. not gain fat) you want every gram of carbohydrate that goes into your mouth to be burned for energy or stored as glycogen. You don't want those carbs to end up in the other place your body uses for storage: your fat cells.
Avoiding having carbs be stored as fat is as easy as not overfilling your vehicle's gas tank — just don't put in more than you need!
Although fine for protein, your carb intake should NOT be spread evenly throughout the day. Remember, carbs are fuel! At different times of the day you need more or less fuel, depending upon what you've done or are about to do.
That's why I don't have "per day" carb intake guidelines. I opt instead for more specific "per meal" guidelines, with 50 grams of carbs being a fairly typical serving size that can be adjusted up or down depending upon a number of factors.
Some of those factors or variables include weight, insulin sensitivity/resistance, resting metabolic rate, training volume, cardio volume, activities of daily living, occupation, dieting history, lovemaking duration/frequency, and so on.
High (Carb) Times
As LL (not "Cool J" - Dr Lonnie Lowery) has done a great job of schooling us on, insulin sensitivity is higher in the first part of the day as opposed to later in the day. For this reason, you can maximize muscle glycogen storage and minimize fat storage by slanting your carb intake toward the first part of the day, as opposed to the latter. In other words, you're having carbs for breakfast.
You're probably already well aware of the fact that you should consume ample carbs post-workout to maximize recovery from that workout. It only makes sense to fill the tank up after you just emptied it, right?
Another meal that warrants higher carb intake is your pre-workout meal. Remember, carbs are training fuel. You need more fuel when you have just trained and when you're about to train. So adjust your carb intake accordingly.
Consume More Carbs...
- Upon awakening
- First half of the day in general
Of course I'll discuss carb consumption and how you should cycle it, but let's first discuss the final energy-providing macronutrient: fat.
Fat Has a Split Personality
As we've seen, protein and carbs are actually rather simple creatures. The former is used to build stuff while the latter provides fuel. Dietary fat, on the other hand, is not quite so simple. Just like your psycho ex, fat has a bit of a split personality.
You're probably well aware of the fact that dietary fat provides energy. It's a very concentrated, slow-burning energy source. But it also provides a plethora of substrates that the body needs in order to function optimally.
For example, some fatty acids are incorporated into the cell membranes that surround each and every cell. Fats that are incorporated in this manner won't be available for your body to utilize for energy.
It's not just "healthy fats" that are beneficial. As I mentioned earlier, even cholesterol, the redheaded stepchild of fat, is used to make Testosterone.
Although consuming the right types of dietary fat is of utmost importance for optimal health and performance, fat can also be an evil bitch.
Above and beyond the amount of fat needed for these structural and chemical processes, the rest is simply a source of fuel, like carbs.
Recall that carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel source. Although this varies slightly depending on the nature of your activity, your body will typically burn carbohydrates for energy prior to resorting to burning fat for energy. This is essentially the case because carbs produce energy more quickly than does fat.
Fat has another drawback as well. It can be converted into body fat far more efficiently than carbohydrates. For these reasons it's of utmost importance to be really precise with your fat intake.
You definitely need to consume enough fat every day so that your body has what it needs for hormone production, cell membranes, nerve insulation, and so on. However, you want to make sure that above and beyond that, any fat that you consume is burned for energy, as opposed to being stored around your midsection.
In summary, dietary fat has to be used to build stuff, used for energy, or stored. I'll show you how to avoid the latter.
Manage Energy Intake
It takes me about 30 gallons of gas to drive to Las Vegas, yet my tank holds less than half that. Therefore it wouldn't make any damn sense for me to pump 30 gallons of gas into my tank before heading out. More than half of it would go straight to the ground.
Likewise, you should provide your body with the energy that it needs and can use at that particular time, but no more. As you do with your vehicle, fuel your body based on what you are about to do or what you've just done.
Because carbs and fat both provide energy, it's important to manage the amounts of each that you consume.
For example, your first meal, along with your pre- and post-workout meals, should have more carbs. Your fat intake should be low in these meals to avoid providing your body with too much available energy at one time, which would cause some energy to be stored as body fat.
At first glance, it may seem that I advocate separating carbs and fat a la John Berardi's recommendation in his classic article Massive Eating. While this is for the most part true, I recommend it more as a way to manage energy intake.
The consumption of carbohydrates and fat should be inversely proportional simply because they both provide energy. In case you were absent that day in school, that means that as carb intake goes up, fat intake should come down, and vice versa.
Low Day 101
On days that you don't train with weights, you obviously don't need as many calories, especially from carbs. Let's call these "low days," since they're lower in carbs and calories.
For the off-season bodybuilder, or anyone looking to gain muscle, low days are great in that they minimize or eliminate the accumulation of body fat. No longer do you need to pack on excess body fat just to gain some muscle.
If you're looking to get leaner, low days are your new best friend. By significantly lowering carbs and calories on certain days, you'll maximize fat burning without compromising recuperation.
Because your carb intake is going to be lower on these days, your fat intake will therefore be higher. You want to use fat to replace some, but not all, of the missing calories from carbs.
It's also a good idea to increase protein intake on low-carb days, especially if your carbs and calories are getting really low. This will help protect any of your hard-earned muscle tissue from being burned to meet energy requirements.
Let's look at some sample numbers.
On low days, increase your normal protein intake by 10% to 15%. So if your standard protein intake is 50 grams per meal, shoot for 55 to 60 grams per meal, or about 330 to 350 grams per day.
As always, your carb intake is going to depend upon your current physique goals. You could say that, all things being equal, carb intake and fat loss are inversely proportional. If you want to lose more fat, eat fewer carbs.
Although it may very well be warranted for a pre-contest bodybuilder to consume no carbs on a low day, this is generally unnecessary. Instead, opt for about 70 grams of starchy carbs on your low day. Recall Lowery's Temporal Nutrition, and let's put 35 grams of starchy carbs in meals one and two, when your body can use them best.
The rest of your daily carb intake would come from vegetables — "free foods," as I like to call them. To keep things simple, I don't count the carbs in fibrous vegetables. If you subtract the fiber in broccoli, for example, you're left with all of 5 grams of carbs per serving. That's 20 calories, which isn't going to make or break your diet.
The last macro we need to put in your low day is fat. Again, the proper amount would be highly individualized. But a good starting point would be to consume 15 grams of added fat in low-carb meals three, four, and five, and about half that in meal six.
It may seem that 52 or so grams of fat is pretty low for a daily total, especially when carbs are low. However, in keeping with the "elegantly simple" theme, I don't count trivial amounts of fat, like the fat found in lean meats like chicken, or in starches like oats. That's why I used the term "added fat."
Likewise, I tend not to count supplemental fats like Flameout or fish oil capsules, assuming the intake of them is reasonable, as it should be. Therefore, the actual amount of fat consumed is quite a big higher.
To graphically illustrate this sample low day, here's a meal-by-meal breakdown:
Sample Low Day
|Meal||Protein||Starchy Carbs||Added Fat|
Medium Day 101
Medium days are probably about what you'd consume if you were doing a standard, noncyclical diet. They are more moderate in both carbs and fat.
As previously discussed, we'll stick with 300 grams of protein for the medium day, or 50 grams per meal.
To illustrate a middle-of-the-road example, let's go with 60 grams of carbs in Meal 1 and your post-workout meal. In Meal 2 and in your pre-workout meal, let's drop it a bit and go with 40 grams. Though I don't really care what the daily total is, it happens to be 200 grams (not counting what you'll get in fibrous carbs).
With the guidelines below I'm going to appease the majority by demonstrating a plan where you train after work, making Meal 5 your post-workout meal — although that can be easily adjusted as needed.
Now let's fill in the gaps and add a few grams of fat to the more moderate-carb meals, Meals 2 and 4. Add a full 15 grams to Meal 3, and slightly less to your final meal.
Sample Medium Day
|Meal||Protein||Starchy Carbs||Added Fat|
High Day 101
Occasionally consuming higher amounts of carbs and overall calories is one of the single best ways to keep your metabolism high and keep your muscle glycogen levels topped off. Because of the high carb intake, insulin secretion is maximized, which makes high days very anabolic and anti-catabolic.
These high days do wonders for building muscle in the off-season, but they're arguably even more beneficial if you're in the process of getting shredded, whether for the stage or the beach.
A properly timed high day will top off muscle glycogen stores that have become low as a result of dieting. This is great for your performance in the gym, but it also serves to boost T-3 (active thyroid) output and keep your metabolism revving.
Now that you're getting the hang of this, building your high-day nutrition plan will be easy.
Because we're constructing more moderate or middle-of-the-road meal plans, we'll stick with 50 grams of protein per meal. However, if you end up going much higher in carbs, then you should correspondingly drop your protein intake by about 10 to 15%.
As always, we'll make your first and post-workout meals the highest in carbs — 75 grams. Other meals will have 50 grams, with the exception of your final meal in which we'll drop the carbs to 35 grams.
As for added fat, add less than 5 grams per meal in order to avoid the possibility of any being stored as adipose tissue. Essentially you'll just take fatty acid supplement capsules and maybe a teaspoon of olive oil here and a few almonds there — just enough to provide what your body functionally needs but no more.
Sample High Day
|Meal||Protein||Starchy Carbs||Added Fat|
Don't Wear Your Bathing Suit to Church!
Now that you can build a Macro Cycle Diet (MCD), you need to know how to use it.
Some "carb cycling" pundits recommend randomly and arbitrarily rotating between high, medium, and low days. This makes about as much sense as randomly choosing what to wear each day.
Although I enjoy questioning (and sometimes defying) social norms, I still wouldn't wear my swimsuit to church. Nor would I consume a high carb/calorie day when I'm just going to be lying around the house watching UFC reruns.
As I alluded to before, you should typically make non-training days be low days. However, if you're really looking to pack on mass, then you should probably only have one low day per week, even though you'll probably train four or five days per week.
On the other hand, if you're aiming to lose fat ASAP, then you may end up making one of your training days be a low day. If this is the case, then strategically place your low day on a day you train a smaller muscle group or one that is already a dominant muscle for you.
Conversely, place high days on days you train a larger body part like back or legs. The reason is simple — more fuel (glycogen) is used when training a larger body part, thus more is needed to replenish glycogen and maximize recuperation.
Another option I've used with success is to coincide high days with the day you train your weakest body part, like arms, for example. Even though not as much fuel is used when training arms, if they are your weak body part then you want to maximize the delivery of nutrients to them before and after you thrash them in the gym.
As for the other days, simply make them medium days.
Evaluate and Tweak
Whether or not you can hit the nail on the head with your first MCD doesn't matter as long as you can access your progress and tweak accordingly. Heck, I don't always get it exactly right the first time, but it doesn't matter. After a couple weeks on a specific diet (and cardio plan, if applicable), I simply evaluate the changes and adjust accordingly.
If fat loss is slower than desired, simply decrease the frequency of high days, increase the frequency of the low days, or tweak the diets themselves. The primary "tweak" to the diets that would increase fat loss is to lower the number of carbs in each meal and/or the number of carb-containing meals themselves.
On the other hand, if gaining muscle is your goal, but it's not happening as quickly as you like, then increase the number of high days and decrease the number of low days. Another option is to increase the amount of carbs in the medium days and/or high days.
As you should be able to tell, I'm not married to any one way of dieting. I just want something that works, and the combination of cycling macronutrients and calories works, especially when timed properly.
If you'll apply the scientific fundamentals of nutrition I've mentioned, yet personalize them for you and your goals, you'll be able to unlock your body's ultimate potential.