TLDR: When bulking, the best macros for building muscle and optimal results are achieved at a surplus of 10% above maintenance levels, where the caloric intake is made up of 40% protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fats. This will grant enough resources for intense workout activity and recovery afterward.
The Best Macros for Building Muscle (And Why)!
When the task at hand is to build solid muscle, your caloric intake and the macronutrients it is made up of, are the two most important things to factor in.
We all know about protein, carbohydrates and fats, but what exactly are their functions and how can you manipulate them to yield the best results during your bulking period?
In this article, we are going to answer these questions to give you actionable advice, which you can apply in your day to day nutrition.
All of this will allow you to get an unfair advantage over your fellow gym members.
Without further ado, let’s start off with the most important thing – Your total daily energy balance.
Why Tracking Calories and Macros Is Essential for Building Muscle
The reason why tracking your nutrition is the best way to optimize your results is because we all have our own, individual daily energy needs.
Think about it – We are all of different age, height, weight and we all have different activity levels and body compositions.
These factors make up your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is the number of calories your body needs daily, to maintain its vital functions and weight. (1)
And so, finding out your TDEE and building your nutrition around it, is your best bet, whether we’re talking about gaining muscle or losing fat.
So let’s calculate that number, shall we?
Step 1: Calculating Calories to Gain Weight
So far, so good – You learned that there isn’t really a unified meal plan that fits everyone, which is the reason why you first need to calculate YOUR daily needs.
Now, though calculating your TDEE is important (you’ll do that in a sec), there is one more thing to factor in afterwards.
That is namely the fact that in order to build muscle at an optimal rate, you MUST eat in a caloric surplus. (2)
Eating in a caloric surplus simply means that you will be consuming a number of calories, greater than your TDEE.
Why is this necessary, you may ask?
Well, think of it this way – In order to build new tissue (which has its own energy value), you must provide the body with adequate resources.
Building muscle without a surplus is kind of like building a house without bricks – You may find random stones around and build a wall, but you won’t have a solid, stable building in the end.
Can you build muscle if you’re not in a surplus?
Yes, you can, but it won’t be at an optimal rate!
Beginner trainees can reap the benefits of the newbie gains phase for the first 12-18 months, without paying much attention to training and nutrition.
However, as you advance and the law of diminishing returns sets in, you need to pay more and more attention to how you train and eat.
Use our TDEE calculator below, which will tell you how much energy you burn each day and how much you need to bulk up.
Step 2: Calculating Macros to Build Muscle
After you are done with calculating your TDEE and adding 10% on top of it to create a surplus, it is time to break that number of calories into macronutrients.
This part is easy as pie!
First, we calculate the two essential macronutrients – Protein and fats.
Then, we give the remaining calories to the king of high-intensity performance – Carbohydrates.
And Voila! Your nutrition plan is set!
Now let’s get to it, by first calculating your protein intake.
The word “Protein”, in and of itself means “first/primary”, derived from the Greek word “Protos”.
That is to say, that protein is essential for the body and you must get adequate amounts of it from food to sustain healthy functioning, muscle growth and recovery.
The more muscle mass you have, the higher on that spectrum you would be.
Example: If you weigh 170 lbs and your TDEE is 2500, you’d need 2750 calories to bulk up (10% surplus).
Out of those 2750 calories, you’d have 135-170 grams of protein (0.8-1g per lb. of bodyweight), which is 540-680 calories.
After calculating protein, you have roughly 2070 calories remaining and it’s time to calculate the second essential macronutrient – Fat.
Alright, we learned that protein is the most important macronutrient when you are looking for optimal recovery and muscle growth.
The reason why fat is the second most important nutrient after protein, is because it plays a KEY role in the endocrine (hormonal) system.
This is why, optimal fat intake forms at about 0.35-0.45 grams per lb. of bodyweight (Roughly 25-30% of your total daily energy intake). (7)
Example: If you weigh 170 lbs and your TDEE is 2500 calories, you’d need 2750 to bulk up (10% surplus).
Out of the 2750 calories, you have 70 grams of fats (0.4g per lb of bodyweight), which is 630 calories.
Now let’s move on to calculating your carbohydrates!
Even though a balance of all 3 macros is the best solution for your fitness goals, carbs are often demonized and misunderstood.
However, the fact of the matter is that there really isn’t a better nutrient when it comes to sustained energy for high-intensity performance.
And though that stands true, carbohydrates are not essential for the body like the first 2 macronutrients.
That is simply because the body can produce its own glucose, through a process called “gluconeogenesis”. (8)
To calculate carbohydrates, you take the remaining calories, after calculating protein and fats, and divide by 4.
You divide by 4 because carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram.
Example: If you weigh 170 lbs and your TDEE is 2500 calories, you’d need 2750 calories to bulk up (10% surplus).
Out of those 2750 calories, you have 680 calories of protein (170 grams) & 630 calories of fat (70 grams).
The remaining 1440 calories, we divide by 4 to get the exact number of carbohydrates, in grams.
1440 / 4 = 360 grams of carbohydrates per day
To build muscle at an optimal rate, you need to create a caloric surplus of 10% above your total daily energy expenditure.
Optimal protein intake forms at around 0.8-1g per lb. of body weight, while the optimal fat intake is about 0.35-0.45g per lb. of bodyweight.
After calculating these two essential macronutrients, you divide the remaining calories by 4, to get the exact number of carbohydrates you need, daily.
By doing all of the above, you will provide the body with all the nutrients needed for recovery from high-intensity bouts.
Step 3: Divide New Muscle Building Macros Into Meals
Now that you are done calculating your macros, it is time to split them into separate meals across the day.
The best thing about this?
Well, research shows that the total number of meals daily doesn’t matter as much as the total amount of food for the day. (11)
You want to have all your food for the day in 2,4 or even 6 meals? All of those are fine.
Just pick what you like and what you can adhere to!
Don’t forget that the most important thing about a bulking nutrition plan, is to make it enjoyable and sustainable.
And so, let’s have a look at how you can split your macronutrients into meals, following the 2750 calorie example we used thus far.
3 Meals A Day
This option is suitable for individuals who like to have big meals.
|#1||55 grams||25 grams||120 grams|
|#2||55 grams||25 grams||120 grams|
|#3||60 grams||20 grams||120 grams|
4 Meals A Day
This one is best for people who get satiated easily and would rather eat less but more frequently.
|#1||45 grams||15 grams||90 grams|
|#2||45 grams||15 grams||90 grams|
|#3||40 grams||20 grams||90 grams|
|#4||40 grams||20 grams||90 grams|
An important thing to remember is that the total amount of protein and calories for the day are the two primary determinants of body composition.
Though that is true, there are things you can optimize with nutrient timing, to reap extra benefits.
Carbohydrates can be consumed during any time of the day and do not need to be timed like protein.
Keep those things in mind when splitting your macros into meals.
Step 4: Start Tracking Your New Muscle Building Macros
The last thing to acknowledge about your nutrition habits is that the requirements of your body will change, as you get into new activities in your daily life.
This is why, tracking your macronutrients and your body weight, is the best way to take control of your weight and progress.
Especially in a bulk, tracking is a must, as you will be able to micro-manage the weight gain and thus, avoid fat gains.
By avoiding fat gains, you will shorten the cutting period afterwards and therefore, lose less muscle.
Pretty cool, huh?
Here’s what you’ll need to track your macros:
- MyFitnessPal – Food tracking app that shows all nutrients and caloric values
- Kitchen scale – To get precise measurements of each food you’re cooking
- Misc. kitchen equipment like measuring cups, scoops, etc.
For the most part, this will be enough for you to make sure you are hitting your macros on a daily basis.
As you track your macros, monitoring the change in weight is also important, to get an idea of how the nutrition plan is affecting you.
Ultimately, during a bulk, you should be aiming to gain no more than 2 lbs. per month.
Important: To get a precise measurement of your weight, weigh yourself every Sunday, in the morning, before breakfast and after going to the bathroom.
Adjust the calories and macros accordingly with the change in weight.
If you are gaining too much, decrease calories, if too little, bump them up a bit.
Another marker for progress is the increase in strength and strength endurance, which will inevitably come, if you follow the right workout program
Step 5: Follow a Workout Program for Building Muscle
If you’ve heard the phrase “Fitness is 70% nutrition and 30% training”, you might have been misinformed…
Fact of the matter is that fitness is 100% nutrition and 100% training, simply because both have their unique roles.
That is especially valid, when the task at hand is gaining quality active weight (muscle mass).
After all, if you are in a surplus of energy and do not create any muscle stimulus, the end result will be fat gains.
This is exactly why, following a workout program, suitable for the goal, is of prime importance.
Now, I’ll give you a recommended program to follow, but let’s first answer the 3 frequently asked questions about training.
#1 How many reps should I do?
In weightlifting, repetitions are separated into 2 main ranges:
- 1-5 (Powerlifting rep range)
- 6-12+ (Bodybuilding rep range)
The powerlifting range will lead to increases in relative and maximum strength and yield less of a bulk muscle growth.
The bodybuilding rep range will lead to bulk muscle growth, increases in strength endurance and a secondary adaptation will be the increase in maximum strength.
Your best bet is to combine both, in order to create stimulus for both types of adaptations.
#2 How Many Sets Should I Do?
Studies suggest that the optimal weekly volume is 10-20+ challenging sets, per muscle group, per week.
Beginners can reap all the benefits from just 10 sets per week, but as the body adapts, you will need to increase that number.
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced trainee, remember that scattering your total number of sets across as many sessions as possible, is the best approach.
That is simply because, doing 10 sets in two sessions of 5 will simply allow you to lift heavier on each set, thus creating more volume and a better stimulus for growth.
#3 How Long To Rest Between Sets
The heavier you lift, the more rest you are going to need.
If you are in the powerlifting rep range, you may need as much as 5-8 minutes between sets.
That is because the heavier the weight, the more strenuous it is for the nervous system, which therefore requires more rest.
If you utilize the bodybuilding rep range, going for ~3-4 minutes between sets is a good idea, as that will again allow you to lift heavier on each set.
Now let’s recap the most important things about bulking:
- Bulking is best done in a caloric surplus of about 10%
- Optimal protein intake for muscle gain forms at 0.8~1g of protein per lb of bodyweight (roughly 40% of total daily caloric intake)
- The optimal fat intake forms at around 0.35-0.45g per lb of bodyweight (Roughly 25-30% of your total daily caloric intake
- After calculating protein and fats, we give the rest of the calories to carbohydrates, which will help us perform optimally in the gym
- You can utilize all spectrums of the rep range in the gym, to stimulate both bulk muscle growth and strength gains
- Beginners can use ~10 challenging sets per muscle group per week and that number grows to 20+ as you advance
- Training in the 1-5 rep range requires 4-8 minutes of rest between sets, while the 6+ rep range requires 3-4 minutes