There’s a reason they call it muscle building.
Building muscle is a lot like construction. You need a steady flow of raw materials (protein), in addition to the construction workers (resistance training) who put them to use and follow directions of the foreperson (hormone signaling) on what to do.
If you don’t have the construction workers or foreperson, you just end up with a pile of bricks.
And if you only have bricks, you just have a bunch of workers standing around with nothing to do.
Which is why having a blueprint, a plan, for construction is so key. In case you have never heard of Renaissance Periodization (RP), they’ve done a superb job of making science-based eating plans accessible by creating “templates” that make it affordable and accessible to have an eating plan that is essentially custom-designed for you.
I asked RP’s Mike Israetel, PhD, to explain the basics of the three main “modes” of eating and what is most important for you to know about each. The three modes, essentially, are eating more than you need, eating exactly what you need, and eating slightly less than you need. We’ll cover all of them to give you most complete understanding of the physiology behind these practice, but your goals are your own.
JS: Broad strokes, what are the biggest things people should focus on when they’re eating to gain muscle?
RP Dr. Mike: For beginners and those with just a few years of training under their belts, the most important nutrition factor of hypertrophy is consistency of high protein intake. Might sound complicated, but it’s actually super simple.
What’s most important for growing muscle (other than training) at first is to make sure you eat four to six high-protein meals, evenly spread throughout the day. Taking in about a gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight per day is a great start, and splitting that into even meal portions is going to make the biggest difference in your muscle gains early on.
For more advanced athletes, calories do matter more, but for beginners, a consistency in protein feedings is the number one priority. One thing to note is that when you’re in a caloric surplus you’re also likely to gain some body fat as well.
JS: What are the basic facts and considerations for trying to build muscle when you’re eating a surplus of calories? What’s going on inside your body?
RP Dr. Mike: When you’re eating surplus of calories, your body’s hormonal environment becomes optimized for muscle growth. If you think of calories as money and muscle as a luxury item (not like the feeding of your basic organs, which isn’t optional and you need to survive), it’s easy to imagine that spending on luxury items goes up when extra money is coming in. In addition to setting up the best hormonal and signaling environment for growth, extra calories literally fuel the muscle-growth process (which takes energy to perform) and provide the body with the actual building blocks from which muscle is built. More advanced athletes will not be able to gain much or any muscle without being in a calorie surplus.
JS: If your goal is to build muscle, can you still do so while eating a maintenance number of calories?
RP Dr. Mike: Yes, in most cases you’ll put on plenty of muscle eating at maintenance, even when training for hypertrophy (muscle size).The incoming protein provides building blocks, and you’ll lose fat at the same time because that fat is burned in the service of helping to build muscle. This process can go on for years for individuals who aren’t already super lean.
While more advanced athletes will have trouble gaining muscle on maintenance calories, if you’re new to lifting or have only been lifting for a couple of years, you can put on tons of muscle by just eating well at a maintenance level and making sure to get plenty of evenly spaced protein throughout your day.
If you’re pretty lean already, however, you might have to eat a bit more than maintenance for good muscle-growth results, simple because you don’t have enough excess to use up.
JS: What about eating a deficit of calories? What happens to your body’s ability to gain muscle then?
RP Dr. Mike: Eating at a deficit while training for hypertrophy can be a great way to keep your current muscle while losing fat, but it’s not the best way to add new muscle. When your body doesn’t have enough food to sustain its weight, it greatly prioritizes your important organs (your brain, heart, and so on) and doesn’t like to give extra food away to your muscles for their growing benefit.
So it’s OK to train at a deficit to lose fat and maintain your existing muscle, but once you want to gain muscle, returning to maintenance or a slight surplus is the best idea. Super-new beginners can gain lots of muscle in a deficit, but these gains are not likely to be repeatable.
JS: Can having a food plan make building muscle easier? If so, how?
RP Dr. Mike: Your body is a machine. And if you want to alter the structure of a machine, you change the inputs into it. If you’re OK with random results (maybe you gain muscle, maybe not), then random eating is for you. But if you’re interested in specific results (like gaining muscle or losing fat), then you have to eat in specific ways.
Precise outputs require precise inputs. It’s as simple as that. That precision comes mostly in the form of getting in enough protein, carbs, and fats, and making sure to eat mostly healthy foods. That doesn’t mean you need to be perfect, but you need to be on the plan more often than not. So, don’t sweat the small stuff (5 grams of protein here and there, corn versus rice for your next meal, etc.) but do nail the big stuff (multiple nutritious meals per day) and you’ll be on your way to impressive results.
JS: In your view, is there anyone who shouldn’t follow a meal plan?
RP Dr. Mike: If you’ve struggled with eating problems in the past, you might just want to start with eating a bit more protein when you can, or focus on eating healthier overall when you can instead of going full-bore into a detailed plan.(For much more information on this approach, please see the “Diet Reset” section of our Renaissance Woman ebook.) If you have a history of diagnosed eating disorder, you should seek the consultation of a psychologist or psychiatrist, as most nutrition plans will risk too much with regard to returning you to maladaptive behaviors.
Find out when you can get Big again by joining the waitlist for the next round of The Bigness Project, the 14-week muscle-maximizing program by Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, and Jen Sinkler.