Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.
In the third and final instalment of this multi-part series on bodyweight data and dieting, I’m going to tackle the following topic: How do you make adjustments to a muscle gain phase based on your bodyweight?
Before we dive into this subject, I want to point out that the most important component in a muscle gain phase is your training, not your diet.
Your diet can only help you gain muscle if you’re giving your body the necessary stimulus to grow muscle, a stimulus that only training can offer.
If you eat in a caloric surplus, but you don’t train, you can eat all the protein you want… but the only mass you’ll be putting on, sadly, will be fat.
So, before you read the rest of this article, make sure you have a solid training program, and that you’re consistent with it.
Before the start of a muscle gain phase
If you haven’t already read it, go back to Part 2 for more guidance on how to calculate your maintenance calories.
These will be your starting point to estimate your initial caloric surplus.
Growing muscle is a slower process than losing fat, and it requires some fat gain. However, excessive fat gain can be counterproductive for your health, and it can force you to cut your muscle gain phase short, which is also counterproductive for, well, your gains.
In order to prevent body fat from increasing too fast, you want to keep your weight gain at a slow to moderate pace. For instance, the existing scientific literature on bodybuilding suggests a rate of gain equal to around 0.25 to 0.5% of your bodyweight per week, or 1 to 2% per month.
During a muscle gain phase, due to the fact that growing muscle takes a long time, your bodyweight may be less predictable on a weekly basis than during a fat loss phase, so focusing on a monthly rate of gain can be more helpful than expecting weekly changes. For the same reason, when you make an adjustment to your calories, wait to have at least two to four weeks’ worth of bodyweight data to assess whether the change had the desired effect.
This is a stepwise approach to calculating your starting surplus using maintenance calories and bodyweight at maintenance:
*1 lb of muscle actually seems to be equivalent to less than 3500 calories. However, building muscle has a higher energy cost than gaining body fat. So, overall, as Dr. Eric Helms writes in his Muscle & Strength Pyramids book on nutrition, “the ‘3500 calorie rule’ actually holds up decently well for setting up your diet for weight gain as well as weight loss”.
In my own experience with muscle-building phases, trying to calculate the size of a surplus assuming that 1 lb of muscle contains less than 3500 calories, led to a very small surplus, which could be easily cancelled out if I happened to do a little more daily activity than at the time of the original calculation.
As a result, I spent weeks barely gaining weight – which could have been just water weight anyway – only to lose it again soon after; weeks that I could have spent building some actual muscle.
The first few weeks in a muscle gain phase
If you are in a true caloric surplus, you can expect to gain weight at a faster rate than what you’re targeting, usually due to the fact that, to achieve a caloric surplus, you’re going to eat more carbs. As stated in the previous article, each gram of carbs is absorbed with 2 to 3gr of water, so you may see a jump on the scale due to extra glycogen (stored carbohydrates in your muscles and liver) and water.
Therefore, for at least two weeks, ignore the rate of weight gain. Keep a record of this data, so you know what to expect from a future muscle gain phase, but don’t use it for the purpose of this particular diet.
For now, trust the process and stick with the surplus.
After the first two weeks
Discarding Weeks 1 and 2, you need to wait until at least Week 4 before you have two weeks of more reliable data to look back on. As stated, muscle gain is a very slow process, so I actually like to wait until at least Week 6 in order to have four weeks of bodyweight data for my analysis.
At this stage, you may encounter one of the following scenarios:
Scenario A: You’re gaining weight, but the pace is either too fast or too slow.
If you’re gaining too slowly, take a look at these considerations on muscle gaining phases, which can help you troubleshoot the problem. If none of them apply, then you may need to increase the size of the surplus.
If you’re gaining too fast, you need to reduce the size of the surplus.
This is a stepwise process to recalculate your surplus:
An alternative, simpler approach would be to reduce calories by 5% every two weeks, until you achieve your preferred rate of gain. For our 150 lbs person eating 2675, the first decrement would be 135 calorie (2675 * 0.05), going from 2675 to 2540 calories per day.
Scenario B: You aren’t gaining weight at all.
This can happen if you tend to increase your subconscious activity or NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) – such as fidgeting or blinking – whenever you eat more food than required for maintenance.
This is your body’s way of adapting to the increase in calories in an effort to preserve your current bodyweight, because the body prefers homeostasis (balance) over extremes like a caloric surplus or deficit.
Adaptations to a caloric surplus or deficit tend to happen at one point or another. Some people make progress on the same calories for weeks; others hit a plateau almost immediately.
When you reach your first stall, you can increase calories by 5% every two weeks, until you achieve your desired rate of gain once again. For example, for our 150 lbs person eating 2675 calories, the first increase would be 135 calories (2675 * 0.05), going from 2675 to 2810 calories per day.
At the end of a muscle gain phase
At this point, a lot of people want to start a fat loss phase to uncover the new muscle tissue they’ve just put so much effort into building.
However, spending at least two to four weeks at maintenance calories can have the following benefits:
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