Nutrition is key for success in bodybuilding but you are probably very confused – “Bodybuilding Nutrition Made Simple” will help you make sense of it all. One big reason you have heard conflicting advice is that the proper nutritional method depends on what your goals are! Nutrition IS very important, but its not as hard as you might imagine. The nutritional program for a bulking teen trying out for football will be far different from someone who is obese trying to get into shape for the beach season. People often stress out about food and go to unhealthy extremes with their nutrition which can cause lifelong physical and mental issues – no need! For most people’s fitness goals, only small modifications are required to their current nutritional plans. As with everything in life though, the more ambitious your goals, the harder you have to work at them and nutrition is no different. Getting 6-pack abs is easy and requires few nutritional concessions. Getting stronger and bigger for football is easy and requires few nutritional concessions. However, if you want to maximize muscle gain and have ripped 8-pack abs so you can enter a natural bodybuilding competition then you need to be very strict with your nutrition. Below is a chart that summarizes what kind of nutrition will work for various goals. Click on any of the headings to find out what is involved with each type of nutritional program.
I have tried to cover nutrition in one page here, you just cant do the subject justice in one page. The best book on bodybuilding nutrition I have ever read is Bodybuilding Revealed by Will Brink. He spends three meaty chapters and hundreds of pages on nutrition. If you are interested, you can read my review of Bodybuilding Revealed.
Want some meal ideas? See my quick healthy meals! If my meals arent appetising to you, check out this highly rated bodybuilding cookbook.
So what is the right kind of nutrition for you? It depends on your goals and how much effort you are willing to put into it. As with most things in life, the more work you put into it the better results you get. Its just not realistic to think you can eat in fast food restaurants like the masses and have a physique like a bodybuilder. This chart can help you choose what kind of eating plan is right for you. To use this chart find your goal in the left column, then look for the leftmost green dot in that row – that will be the easiest nutrition plan that meets your goals.
—-> Increasing Nutritional Difficulty —->
|Typical American Diet||Three Square Meals||Simple Sub Method||GOMAD||Eating Healthy||Portion Control||Carb Cycle||Strict Nutrition|
|Lose fat and get abs|
|Get to 5% bodyfat without losing muscle|
|Add a bit of muscle|
|Gain significant muscle (and fat)|
|Gain significant muscle (stay ripped)|
|look like natural bodybuilding contestant|
|Gain muscle and lose fat at same time|
Let me point out a few important things about this table and what it means. First note that if your goal is just to add a bit of muscle (the third row) then you can eat any way you want and still achieve your goal! Its pretty darn easy to gain a little bit of muscle, just lift weights and eat a slight caloric surplus.
Its also quite easy nutritional wise to gain significant amounts of muscle AND fat, all you have to do is workout hard and eat *lots* of food – this is a typical goal of football players. When you are eating a lot of food like this its easy to get the protein and nutrients you need for muscle growth even if you are eating junk.
Its also fairly easy to lose weight and get sixpack abs (the first row) but you cant just keep eating like you are, you can use the simple subsitution method, count your calories (portion control) , start eating healthy, use carb cycling or strict nutrition. The last two methods are a bit overkill if your only goal is to get sixpack abs.
The last thing I want to point out are the three most difficult goals shown below:
- Get down to 5% bodyfat without losing muscle
- look like a natural bodybuilding contestant
- gain muscle and lose fat at the same time
The above three goals are really tough and you will notice that the same thing is required nutritionally to accomplish them, either carb cycling or strict bodybuilding nutrition. If you want to achieve any of these things then be prepared for your friends, family, and co-workers to think you are weird. You will be bringing all your meals with you in tupperwares where ever you go so you can insure that every single calorie you eat counts. You will be a social outcast by refusing cake at birthday parties and drinking bottled water when your buddies are drinking beers. With the exception of your occasional pre-planned cheat meal, you can’t eat in restaurants unless you are prepared to be one of those patrons that the chef and wait staff hates – ordering off menu or entree modification. To accomplish these three goals you must make every single calorie count. Big goals require big sacrifices, sorry.
Typical American Diet
The average American is obese and out of shape. Part of it is lack of exercise but mostly horrible nutrition is to blame. The #1 health problem is obesity and its related diseases (diabetes, heart disease, etc). The average American has a sugary cereal or sweet pastry for breakfast, greasy fast food or cafeteria food for lunch, and spaghetti or steak for dinner. You can gain a bit of muscle eating like this and you can also gain a lot of weight (fat and muscle). You wont be able to get lean eating like this though.
- Four to five fast food meals a week.
- Lots of fried foods
- Lots of candy, cookies, and sweets
- Lots of simple carb snack foods (chips, etc)
- Almost no vegetables
- Almost no fruit
- Almost no fiber
- Lots and lots of salt
3 Square Meals A Day
This is old school nutrition from the 50’s and there is something to be said for it. When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s this is the way my parents fed me as it was what good nutrition meant back then. Three regularly scheduled meals, each home made and relatively healthy. Maybe oatmeal with two eggs and a glass of OJ for breakfast. Maybe a tuna sandwich or peanut butter sandwich with an apple for lunch. For dinner, meat and potatoes with a salad. You can go pretty far with nutrition like this, its easy to gain a bit of muscle. If you bump up the portion sizes its also easy to pack on a lot of weight (fat plus muscle). There is nothing wrong with just having three meals a day BUT you have to watch carefully what goes into those three meals if you want to gain significant amounts of muscle or get really lean and this old-school nutritional method doesnt focus on getting the proper nutritional macros.
Simple Substitution Method
For weight loss and getting 6-pack abs, this method is the most successful of all. Why? Because its SO easy! Most people who end up fat do it over years, many years. If you added 30 pounds over 5 years its because you ate just 57 calories per day too much! That’s nothing! You can see that it doesn’t take much of a change to turn that ship around. Because its to easy and successful, the healthy substitution method is recommended by the American Heart Association. This method doesn’t result in any deprivation feelings or require any study or hard thinking, just simple substitutions. Here is how it works – choose two foods you eat often that you know are unhealthy, then decide on a healthy substitution. That’s it! If you have coke every day, substitute water or a low cal beverage. If you have french fries often, substitute a baked potato. Then sit back, relax and watch the pounds come off! None of these sacrifices are too great but yet they have a powerful effect over time. Simple substitutions is fine for weight loss, its not so good when it comes to adding muscle – for that you need more precise control over your nutrition. You can easily gain a bit of muscle with this method too but because this method doesnt focus on getting the proper nutritional macros its not optimal for gaining lots of muscle.
GOMAD stands for Gallon Of Milk A Day and I consider it to be the same as bulking nutrition. Here’s how it works. If you want to gain muscle, its important that you eat a lot of protein (1g/lb bodyweight per day) and that you have your protein frequently. In bulking or GOMAD, all you worry about is that you are getting enough protein, vitamins, and EFAs to build muscle and don’t worry if you are consuming too many calories and adding fat. With this nutritional method you will add significant amounts of fat. This is the most typical nutritional method used by teens trying out for football because they need to add bulk as quickly as possible and it doesn’t have to be lean. The reason these nutritional plans are so popular is clear:
- Its easy
- Its fun, you can eat whatever you want!
- Your weight increases rapidly because you are adding lots of fat in addition to the muscle, a real ego boost
Milk is very high quality protein, and its cheap. This is the reason that GOMAD is so popular. A gallon of 2% lowfat milk contains 136 grams of protein, enough for people up to 136 pounds. Those heavier will need more. That gallon of milk will have 2000 calories. The good thing about milk is that its cold and hard to drink a lot at one time so it naturally gets consumed in many small doses throughout the day making it a perfectly metered protein source for adding muscle.
In dirty bulking, all protein sources are fair game. Hamburgers, hotdogs, peanut butter, eggs, etc. The only rule in dirty bulking is to eat often and make sure each meal has protein in it.
A disclaimer here. I hate this nutritional method because it is the most unhealthy thing you can do to your body. There, nuff said.
Eating healthy takes some work but it can help you lose bodyfat to get ripped abs and it can help you gain significant amounts of muscle. Since nutrition is no longer taught in schools, many people are not aware of what is healthy and what is not. That’s the main battle for many people, once they figure out what’s healthy, they don’t have any trouble changing. Basically, try to get most of your calories from vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits. Eat lean meats, and limit bad things. You don’t have to eliminate them, just limit them. Moderation is the key here.
- eat 4-5 cups of vegetables and fruits daily
- eat fiber rich whole grains, at least 3oz (dry) daily
- choose lean cuts of meat like chicken and fish
- limit fried foods
- limit packaged snack foods
- limit cookies, cakes, and other sweets
- limit alcohol
Just with simple healthy eating you can go far in bodybuilding. You can get those washboard sixpack abs and you can gain a lot of muscle while staying ripped. There are three things that eating healthy is not good enough for though: getting to 5% bodyfat, gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time, and looking like a natural bodybuilding contestant. For these things you have to make every calorie count which means NO fried foods, cakes, cookies, and other empty calories.
Strict Bodybuilding Nutrition
OK, you want to maximize your progress and are willing to work hard at nutrition to do it. You will have to be a “Nutritional Nazi” like me. Working out damages your muscles and protein is needed to repair them, this takes many days. Since the human body isn’t very good at storing protein, you need to consume protein constantly not just one big dose at dinner or after working out. Four to six small, well balanced meals a day is key to building muscles in my opinion! Yep, this is a lot of work but you said you were willing to do whatever it takes didn’t you? Some people think that on days they don’t lift weights they can eat poorly – WRONG. It can take 3-6 days to rebuild muscles after a workout so for the entire duration of your recovery you need strict nutrition. If you have had a workout in the last 3-6 days then you need to make sure you eat your 5-6 well balanced meals which basically means 7 days a week.
This is what strict bodybuilding nutrition requires:
- eat lots of fresh vegetables, 5-10 cups a day
- eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods
- consume .75g – 1.0g protein per pound of bodyweight per day
- eat 6 evenly spaced, small, well balanced meals a day each with 1/6 of your protein
- eat less than 25% of your calories from fat and eat only good fats like olives, nuts, and avocados
- eat lots of high fiber legumes, whole grains, and low G.I. carbs –
- avoid all simple carbs like sugar, alcohol, or white flour
- eat omega-IIIs daily, flax or salmon are great sources
- if you need to lose fat, do it gradually – only cut calories by at most 20% underTDEE
- cheat meals? You get one or at most two a week.
- use organic foods when you can, especially with meat and dairy products
- very low salt consumption (to avoid water retention)
- drink water, lots of it!
Yep, this is tough but if you want to look like you could enter a natural bodybuilding contest, you are going to have to work hard! An essential part of strict bodybuilding nutrition is knowing how to read nutritional labels, if you don’t, you are doomed from the start. Companies try all kinds of marketing tricks to make unhealthy products seem healthy and unless you know how to read the labels you will fall for them. You also need to be a pro at portion control, you should be able to just look at something and know how many calories, grams fat, grams protein, and grams carbs.
After about 5 years of bodybuilding I had plateaued, I was only eating 3 meals a day and all the protein came in dinner. By changing my diet (training stayed the same), I added 10lbs of muscle in the next year! What provides me personally with the best results is to eat 6 ‘meals’ a day with the first and last being a glass of protein powder in water right when I awaken and before I go to sleep. I divide up my daily protein (240g) over the 6 small meals so my body has a constant source of protein to rebuild.