“There is no secret” – that’s the answer you are most likely to hear when questioning jacked and shredded gym freaks… But how do you put that advice into practice?
Not many guys in the industry will explain to you how to design a diet and build a meal plan from scratch. After all that skill pays the bills of many fitness professionals. Well, we are going to make them a little poorer with this article and give Myprotein readers a step by step guide on how to set up a clean bulk and cutting diet.
Some maths incoming so be ready!
Step 1: Baseline Diet Assessment
Before making any dietary changes you need assess your current eating habits. You can’t simply jump straight into a meal plan found in a fitness magazine.
For example: if currently you’re eating approximately 2000kcal a day nothing good will happen if you decide to follow a 4000kcal a day diet programme of a pro bodybuilder. You’ll quickly kill your appetite and get fat – even when eating “clean” foods.
Yes, you can get fat on plain chicken breast and rice if you go overboard! Similarly, if you decide to drastically drop calories you will suffer unpleasant consequences.
For example: If you go down from 2000kcal to 1000kcal a day you are likely to lose your precious muscle mass and stay hungry 24/7 without any quicker fat loss then when introducing a gradual calorie deficit.
Now you might be scratching your head – how do I know how many calories do I eat? That’s what the first step is all about. You may not be counting calories and aiming for a particular number a day. However, if your weight is stable (doesn’t go up and down few pounds a week) then your calorie intake will average out over a couple of days. That average is your baseline calorie intake. That’s how many calories you need to eat to keep your weight as it is.
The graph below shows how many calories you may be eating over a week. Small ups and downs in amount of food eaten from Sunday to Thursday followed by Friday night-out feast and modest eating Saturday.
In this example, if you work out the weekly average you’ll get roughly 2250kcal a day. Your new plan would aim to provide that many calories every day (with adjustment for bulking or cutting explained in step 2). Making the line flat, easy to track and adjust (blue line on the graph below) – this is the simplest way of structuring your calories intake!
More advanced approach can cycle the calories depending on your physical activity.
For example: you may want to keep calories higher on training days and lower on days off (red line on the graph). In this scenario the average of all seven days would still equal to roughly 2250kcal.
To figure out how many calories a day you are currently eating and set your baseline calorie intake you can use two methods:
1) Food Diary Analysis,
2) Predictive Equations.
In the first case you write down everything that goes through your mouth over 3 days (2 weekdays and one weekend-day) or 7 days (Monday to Sunday). Three days is the absolute minimum, however seven-day food diary will be much more accurate.
If the food is packaged you can simply check the label and make note of how many calories you just ate. If you eat out you may be able to look up the amount of calories in the menu or use one of many free online nutrition databases. Some phone apps can make your life easier by allowing you to type in your meals and estimating their calorie value.
Once you know the amount of calories you had on each day, workout the weekly average by adding up all the values and divide them by the number of days you kept your food diary for (recommended 3-days or 7-days).
|Average = 2250 + 2500 + 2000 : 3 = 2250kcal|
Another way to estimate your daily calorie intake is by using predictive equations. The results will be less accurate than these from an honest food diary – however, if you want to cut yourself some slack (food diary analysis takes hours) you can give it a go while keeping in mind that over- or underestimation is likely!
There is a number of basal metabolic rate equations, which allow you to estimate how many calories your body uses up at rest. The most recent, validated by scientific research and used by British Dietetic Association are the Oxford equations shown in a table below.
|Males||10-18||15.6 x Weight(kg) + 266 x Height(m) + 299|
|18-30||14.4 x Weight(kg) + 313 x Height(m) + 113|
|30-60||11.4 x Weight(kg) + 541 x Height(m) – 137|
|60+||11.4 x Weight(kg) + 541 x Height(m) – 256|
|Females||10-18||9.40 x Weight(kg) + 249 x Height(m) + 462|
|18-30||10.4 x Weight(kg) + 615 x Height(m) – 282|
|30-60||8.18 x Weight(kg) + 502 x Height(m) – 11.6|
|60+||8.52 x Weight(kg) + 421 x Height(m) + 10.7|
They may look a little intimidating but they are quite straight forward…
Let us say that you are an 18-year-old male, 180cm tall, weighing 70kg – you pick the right equation for your gender and age (i.e. 2nd row) and fill it out with your weight in kilograms and height in meters.
BMR = 14.4 x Weight(kg) + 313 x Height(m) + 113
BMR = 14.4 x 70kg + 313 x 1.8m + 113
BMR = 1008 + 563.4 + 113
BMR = 1684.4 kcal
The number above is the number of calories our 70kg male needs on a daily basis for basic physiological functions only. To maintain his weight he would need approximately 1684.4kcal… if he was not moving a muscle. In order to estimate how many calories he needs to maintain his weight whilst moving around (Total Energy Expenditure) we need to multiply his BMR by Physical Activity Level (PAL).
Total Energy Expenditure = Basal Metabolic Rate x Physical Activity Level
PAL’s are factors describing physical activity, where 1.0 means floating in the outer-space, 1.4 means being a coach potato (sadly most of people will find themselves on this mark) and 2.4 means being a professional cyclist, swimmer or a marathon runner. You can see the range of PALs in the table below.
|Physical Activity Level (PAL)||Description|
|1.2||Immobile – bed-bound|
|1.4||Sedentary at work (e.g. clerk) – little to no exercise|
|1.7||Moderately active at work (e.g. shop assistant) – exercising 2-3x a week|
|2.0||Very Active (e.g. labourer) – exercising 3-4x a week|
As you probably realise this is when our estimation gets very subjective. Most people over estimate how active they are and on top of that the definitions of activity are not set in stone. Keep in mind your tendency to gain body fat and honestly judge on which end of the spectrum you might be.
If weight training 3-4x a week is your only physical activity you may want to go with 1.4 just to play it safe. In our example scenario the calculations would like this…
Total Energy Expenditure = 1684.4 kcal x 1.4
Total Energy Expenditure = 2358.16 kcal
There you have it, the baseline amount of calories you need on a day to day basis. Now is it time to cut or bulk?
Step 2: Calorie Adjustment – Surplus/Deficit
The next step is to add or subtract calories. Pretty simple:
Want to put on size? Increase your energy intake.
Want to lose weight? Cut your calories down.
In the dietetic community it is a common practice to work with 500kcal increments/reductions – i.e. +500kcal for weight gain and -500kcal for weight loss. Personally, I believe that this approach is somewhat too aggressive in physique sports or any other sport when preserving lean body mass and keeping body fat in check is the priority. I recommend adjustments relative to how many calories you currently eat while maintaining your body-weight.
Initially – you may want to stick to the amount of calories you worked out in step 1. Especially if you used the predictive equation or your food diary was a little sloppy. You may find yourself losing or gaining weight simply doing that – meaning that your calculations were as accurate as lottery predictions.
Once you’re ready for adjustments, or if you’re confident in your baseline calories estimate, increase your calories by 10% to gain weight or reduce it by 10% to lose weight.
Getting back to our imaginary 70kg bodybuilder with the starting point of 2358kcal, his weight gain and weight loss calorie targets would look like as follows…
|Weight Gain (+10% kcal)||Weight Loss (-10% kcal)|
|100% – 2358 kcal /:100%||100% – 2358 kcal /:100%|
|1% – 23.58 kcal /x110%||1% – 23.58 kcal /x90%|
|2594 kcal||2122 kcal|
That sums up the baseline dietary assessment and calorie adjustment. Now you should be able to estimate how many calories you need for your next clean bulk and cut programme!
Take Home Message
The first step to design your personalised bulking or cutting diet is a dietary assessment. You need to work-out how many calories you need to maintain your current body-weight. You can do this by keeping a food diary and analysing it with a phone app calorie tracker or on-line nutrient database.
Alternatively, you can estimate your calorie needs using a predictive equation. Following, depending on your goal you need to adjust the amount of calories by 10% – add 10% if you want to gain weight, subtract 10% if you want to lose weight.
In the next part we will focus on:
✓ Calculating macro-nutrients.
✓ Structuring your meals.
✓ Food choices.