Quick Overview. I’ll go over each step in detail, but here are all ten steps at a glance:
Need-to-Know Basics. Not so fast…. If you don’t already know these basic nutrition concepts, you must master them before going too in-depth with the ten steps, listed below:
Short-Term Goal. Decide whether the first step towards your ultimate goal is to bulk up or cut down.
Daily Calories. Estimate your daily caloric needs based on your short-term goal, bodyweight, activity level, and metabolism.
Estimate Lean Body Mass. To accurately calculate your protein intake (step 4), you must first get a rough estimate of your lean body mass (bodyweight – fat weight).
Protein Intake. Eat 1.1-1.4 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.
Fat Intake. Set fat intake at about 20% of total daily calories.
Carb Intake. Carbohydrates fulfill the remaining calories after setting protein and fat intakes.
Workout Nutrition. Eat solid or liquid meals pre- and post-workout for enhanced performance and recovery.
Meals and Food. Eat as often as needed to fulfill your requirements (calories and macros) and eat the right foods to stay healthy and keep your bodybuilding diet on track.
Hydration. Drink about a gallon of water (or any calorie-free drinks) per day.
Test and Tweak. Test your diet plan and modify it if you are not getting the desired results.
Stay Focused. Avoid wasting time and energy with any fad diet tactics or advanced techniques that you might find elsewhere. All you need is right here – the bodybuilding diet fundamentals that drive results.
Need-to-Know Nutrition Basics
Before You Start. Before diving into the ten steps, I’m going to explain why a good bodybuilding diet is important and what important nutrition concepts you must know.
Nutrition Fundamentals. I’m going to make sure you understand a few simple nutrition concepts before we get to explaining each of the ten bodybuilding diet steps. You’ll learn about calories, macronutrients, and how they are related. I have also provided an example (see table below) of how to convert macronutrients into calories, which is essential to creating and understanding your diet.
Definition of Calories. Calories is defined as a measurement of the energy in food. Your body needs the calories in food to get the energy it needs to function.
Burning Calories For Energy. Your body is constantly burning calories for energy – every time you take a step, talk, blink, breathe, or even while reading how to create your bodybuilding diet.If you can’t get the calories you need from food, then your body is forced to go cannibalistic and eat away at its own tissue. This means that it will burn stored energy in the form of fat or muscle.
Definition of Macronutrients.Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are the three macronutrients that contain the calories in food. Macronutrients act as a source of calories as well as the building blocks for body tissue.
Calories per Macronutrient. Each gram of a given macronutrient has a certain number of calories as shown in the table below. Note that grams (g) are the standard for measuring macros.
Conversion Table: Grams to Calories
Calories Per Gram (cal./g)*
*These values are rounded, which is why you may get a different number if you try to calculate calories on a nutrition label
Your New Best Friend – The Nutrition Label. When it comes to putting your diet into practice, you must be able to read and understand the nutrition facts on the back of the food packaging. Otherwise, you can’t keep track of calories and macronutrients – the most critical aspect of an effective and productive bodybuilding diet plan. The table below demonstrates how to convert the grams listed for each macronutrient into calories using 2% milk as an example.
Grams to Calories for 2% Milk
Protein Calories. 8 grams of protein contains 32 calories. → (8 grams of protein) x (4 calories per gram of protein) = (32 calories from protein).
Carb Calories. 13 grams of carbohydrates contains 52 calories. → (13 grams of carbs) x (4 calories per gram of carb) = (52 calories from carbs).
Fat Calories. 5 grams of fat contains 45 calories. → (5 grams of fat) x (9 calories per gram of fat) = (45 calories from fat).
Total Calories. A cup of 2% milk contains a total of 129 calories → (32 calories from protein) + (52 calories from carbs) + (45 calories from fat) = (129 total calories).
Now You’re Ready. Finally, we’re ready to move on to the good part – creating your personalized bodybuilding diet plan and getting you on your way to real results!
Step #1: Choose a Short-Term Goal
Short-Term Goal. Your long-term goal is probably something along the lines of being bigger, stronger, and leaner. But for now, you must choose a short-term goal. Start with one of the following bodybuilding diet types:
Bulking Diet. A weight gain plan for increasing muscle mass while ideally minimizing fat gain. In simplest terms, bulking involves eating more food. You’ll learn the details of creating a bulking diet plan in the remaining steps.
Cutting Diet. A weight loss plan to burn fat and get shredded while ideally maintaining muscle mass. In simplest terms, this means eating less food. As with bulking, you will discover how to set up a cutting diet plan by the end of this guide.
Newbie Gains! There’s great news if you are a beginner and deciding between bulking and cutting for your bodybuilding diet: newbie gains. This phenomenon allows beginning lifters to see rapid progress.
In addition to overall faster results, you can also observe fat loss while gaining muscle if you choose to bulk. Likewise, you experience some muscle gain while burning fat if you choose to cut. This only lasts for a few months, so be sure to take advantage of the situation like a man with an almanac and a time machine!
Still Deciding to Bulk or Cut? Not sure which route to take? The easiest way to decide is by looking in the mirror and going with your gut feeling. Would you rather get bigger and more muscular or get more shredded first? I recommend bulking if you are under 15% body fat. If you are 15% or above, then start cutting to lose fat. These are just recommendations – Do what you feel most comfortable with.
Step #2: Estimate Daily Calories
Maintenance Level. Maintenance level refers to how many calories you eat and burn per day. The starting point for any bodybuilding diet plan is to find out how many calories you must eat per day. This will depend on whether your short-term goal involves bulking or cutting. The following statements demonstrate the basic concept behind calorie requirements.
Bulk. Eat above maintenance level (i.e. more calories than you burn per day).
Cut. Eat below maintenance level (i.e. fewer calories than you burn per day).
Note Regarding Estimations. The above equations work very well for the majority of people. However, different body types can make a difference if you’re on one extreme or another. For example:
The “Ectomorph” Body Type. You can try multiplying your bodyweight by a higher number if you’re a pure ectomorph (e.g., bw x 20 to bulk; bw x 14 to cut).
The “Endomorph” Body Type. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you can multiply your bodyweight by a lower number if you are a pure endomorph (e.g., bw x 16 to bulk; bw x 10 to cut).
Step #2: Bulking Example
Meet Sammy Smalls, an aspiring gym rat. Sammy wants to gain muscle mass and get strong. Right now he tips the scale at a meager 140 lbs. Based on the above weight gain formula, Sammy should start his bodybuilding diet with 2500 calories per day → (140 lbs.) x (18 calories) = (2520 calories per day)
Step #2: Cutting Example
Meet Freddy Fatts, a guy determined to put in the work to lose his gut and finally get ripped. He steps on the scale and weighs in at a gelatin-like 185 lbs. Based on the above formula for weight loss, Freddy should start his bodybuilding diet with 2200 calories per day → (185 lbs.) x (12 calories) = (2220 calories).
Step #3: Estimate Your Lean Body Mass (LBM)
Calculating LBM. You need a rough estimate of your lean body mass in order to set your protein intake correctly.
The calculation for lean body mass (LBM) is simple.
It’s your total bodyweight (BW) minus the weight of your body fat (BF).
LBM = BW – BF
“Wait!” you say, “How the hell do I figure out much my body fat weighs?!”
That’s a piece of cake. To calculate body fat weight (BF), just multiply your total bodyweight by your body fat percentage (BF%).
BF = BW x BF%
“Hold on! I thought you said this was supposed to be easy… How am I supposed to find out what my body fat percentage!?!”
Calm down, you’re almost done.
Remember, we just need a rough estimate of your LBM. That means, you don’t need a precise measurement of your body fat percentage – Obviously the closer to your actual body fat percentage, the better. But it’s okay if you’re off by 5 percentage points.
So, how can you get a rough body fat percentage estimate? You could buy a cheap body fat caliper or use an online body fat calculator. Once, you’ve got the estimate, just plug it in to the equations.
Step #3: Bulking Example
Sammy Smalls stepped on the scale just yesterday so he knows he is 140 lbs. But he’s got no idea what his LBM is. Let’s help him out.
LBM = BW – BF → Knowing his bodyweight, we can fill in one variable → LBM = 140 – BF
Now, we just need to know how much his body fat weighs:
BF = BW x BF% → Again, knowing his bodyweight, we can fill in part of this equation → BF = 140 x BF%
Now, Sammy just needs to estimate his body fat percentage. He uses an online calculator which says he’s around 10% body fat.
Let’s plug this in to solve the other equations:
BF = 140 x 10% → BF = 14
LBM = 140 – 14 → LBM = 126
Step #3: Cutting Example
Freddy Fatts tips the scales at a not-so-solid 185 lbs. We’ll figure out just how much of that weight is solid by calculating his LBM.
LBM = BW – BF → Knowing his bodyweight, we can fill in one variable → LBM = 185 – BF
Now, we just need to know how much his body fat weighs:
BF = BW x BF% → Again, knowing his bodyweight, we can fill in part of this equation → BF = 185 x BF%
Now, all Freddy has to do is get a rough idea of his body fat percentage. He uses a body fat caliper, which gives a reading of about 25% body fat.
Let’s plug this in to solve the other equations:
BF = 185 x 25% → BF = 46
LBM = 185 – 46 → LBM = 139
Step #4: Set Protein Intake
Setting Protein Intake. Your protein intake should be 1.1-1.4 grams per pound (g/lb.) of lean body mass (LBM). This may be considered “low” by some of the more hardcore “bros” out there, but both research and anecdote back up these numbers.
In fact, research suggests that this may be more protein than is necessary to maximize muscle gain or preservation, or minimize muscle loss.
Here are my general protein intake recommendations for different types of lifters:
1.1 g/lb LBM for most people who are bulking or maintaining (exception: those with lots of muscle mass who are trying to stay below 10% bodyfat while bulking or maintaining).
1.2 g/lb LBM for people who are cutting, or those with lots of muscle mass who are trying to stay below 10% bodyfat while bulking or maintaining
1.3-1.4 g/lb LBM for people who are cutting while below 10% body fat, regardless of how much muscle mass they have. However, if they do have a lot of muscle mass, it is especially important for them to get this amount of protein to prevent or minimize muscle loss.
Step #4: Bulking Example
A quick recap – Sammy Smalls weighs in at a twig-like 140 pounds, and his LBM is 126 lbs. His bodybuilding diet calls for 2500 calories per day for weight gain.
Calculating his protein intake using 1.1 grams per pound of lean body mass reveals that Sammy should eat about 139 grams of protein per day → (126 lbs.) x (1.1 g/lb.) = (138.6 grams of protein).
Using the conversion of (grams of protein) x (4 calories per gram of protein), we find that 139 grams of protein is equivalent to 556 calories → (139 g) x (4 cal./g) = (556 calories).
So, by subtracting the 556 protein calories from total calories, we find that 1944 calories are leftover → (2500 total calories) – (556 calories from protein) = (1944 calories leftover for carbs and fats).
Step #4: Cutting Example
A quick recap – Freddy Fatts is a bit pudgy at 185 lbs, with a LBM of 139 lbs. His bodybuilding diet calls for 2200 calories per day for fat loss.
Calculating his protein intake using 1.2 grams per pound of lean body mass reveals that Freddy should eat about 167 grams of protein per day → (139 lbs.) x (1.2 g/lb.) = (166.8 grams of protein). Using the conversion of (grams of protein) x (4 calories/gram of protein), we see that 167 grams of protein is equivalent to 668 calories → (139 g) x (4 cal./g) = (668 calories).
So, by subtracting the 668 protein calories from total calories, we see 1532 calories are still leftover → (2200 total calories) – (1120 calories from protein) = (1080 calories leftover for carbs and fat).
Step #5: Set Fat Intake
Setting Fat Intake. A fat intake of approximately 20% of total calories works well for the average person’s bodybuilding diet. However, it can vary quite a bit for different people. Some individuals do better with low fat diet plans, while some do better with high fat, low carb meal plans.
Use 20-30% to calculate fat intake for now and change it if needed during step ten.
Step #5: Bulking Example
A quick recap – Sammy Smalls is 140 lbs. and bulking on 2500 calories per day. We know that 556 of those calories come from protein (139 grams of protein), so the remaining 1944 calories must come from fats and carbohydrates. We’ll calculate fats first.
20% of his 2500 calories should come from fat, which equals 500 calories from fat → (20%) x (2500 total calories) = (500 calories from fat). A simple conversion of (calories from fat) ÷ (9 calories per gram of fat) reveals that 500 calories equals about 56 grams of fat per day → (500 cal.) ÷ (9 cal./g) = (55.5 grams of fat).
Now, he only needs to consume 1444 more calories, all of which will come from carbohydrates → (2500 total calories) – (556 calories from protein) – (500 calories from fat) = (1444 calories leftover for carbs).
Step #5: Cutting Example
A quick recap – Freddy Fatts, is 185 lbs. and cutting on 2200 calories per day. We know that 668 of those calories come from protein (167 grams of protein), so the remaining 1532 calories must come from fats and carbs. We’ll deal with fats first.
20% of Freddy’s 2200 daily calories should come from fat, which equals 440 calories from fat → (20%) x (2200 total calories) = (440 calories from fat). A simple conversion of (calories from fat) ÷ (9 calories per gram of fat) shows that 440 calories equals 49 grams of fat per day → (440 cal.) ÷ (9 cal./g) = (49 grams of fat).
Now, he only needs to consume 1092 more calories, all of which will come from carbohydrates → (2200 total calories) – (668 calories from protein) – (440 fat calories) = (1092 calories leftover for carbs).
Step #6: Set Carbohydrate Intake
Setting Carbohydrate Intake. Once protein and fat intakes are set, you simply fulfill the remainder of your caloric needs with carbohydrates. If you’re going the low carb diet route, I recommend you take a look at this low carb foods list for food shopping and meal planning.
Step #6: Bulking Example
A quick recap – Sammy Smalls is 140 lbs and is scarfing down 2500 calories per day on his bodybuilding diet to bulk up. 556 of those calories come from protein (139 grams of protein) and another 500 calories come from fat (67 grams of fat), leaving Sammy with 1444 calories leftover.
All of the remaining 1160 calories will be fulfilled by carbohydrates. An easy conversion of (calories from carbs) ÷ (4 calories per gram of carbs) shows that Sammy’s 1444 calories are equivalent to 361 grams of carbs per day → (1444 cal.) ÷ (4 cal./g) = (361 grams of carbohydrates).
Step #6: Cutting Example
A quick recap – Freddy Fatts, a pudgy 185 pounder is starting a bodybuilding diet for weight loss that involves eating 2200 calories per day. 668 of those calories come from protein (167 grams of protein) and another 440 calories come from fat (49 grams of fat), leaving 1092 calories leftover.
All of the remaining 1092 calories will come from carbohydrates. A conversion of (calories from carbs) ÷ (4 calories per gram of carbs) reveals that Freddy’s 1092 calories is equal to 273 grams of carbohydrates per day → (1092 calories) ÷ (4 calories per gram of carbohydrate) = (273 grams of carbs).
This step concludes the “big picture” view of the bodybuilding diets. The next steps cover the details…
Step #7: Eat Pre- and Post-Workout
Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition. The pre-workout meal and post-workout meal are extremely important to your bodybuilding diet, but don’t lose your head about being laser-precise with timing. Many well-intentioned lifters are borderline OCD in that they must have their meal/shake the millisecond they finish a workout because of an irrational fear (thanks to supplement propaganda) of rapidly losing muscle and withering away. Just follow the guidelines below and you’ll be golden.
Pre-Workout Guidelines. Optimal protein intake is 0.25 g/lb of bodyweight. Optimal carbohydrate intake is also 0.25 g/lb of bodyweight. Fats are optional. You can eat this as a solid meal or as a shake – I do whatever is most convenient in terms of time vs. when I’m planning to work out. Have this meal 1-2 hours before working out. If you’d rather have a shake.
Post-Workout Guidelines. The optimal protein intake for your post-workout meal is 0.25 g/lb of bodyweight. The optimal carbohydrate intake for your post-workout meal is also 0.25-0.5 g/lb of bodyweight (depending on how carb-restricted your diet is). Fats are optional.As with the pre-workout meal, you can have this as a shake or a solid meal. Either way, it should be eaten within 90 minutes of finishing your workout. I typically have a shake because it’s convenient, and I drink right after working out so I don’t forget.
Step #7: Bulking Example
Pre-Workout Guidelines – Sammy Smalls weighs 140 lbs. Multiplying his bodyweight by 0.25 grams of protein and carbs shows that he should eat 35 grams of protein as well as 35 grams of carbs in his pre workout meal → (140 lbs.) x (0.25 g/lb.) = (35 grams of protein/carbs). Fats are optional.
Post-Workout Guidelines – Multiplying his bodyweight by 0.25 grams of protein reveals that he should eat 35 grams of protein in his post-workout meal → (140 lbs.) x (0.25 g/lb.) = (35 grams of protein). Multiplying his bodyweight by 0.5 grams of carbs reveals that he should eat about 70 grams of carbs in his post workout meal → (140 lbs.) x (0.5 g/lb.) = (70 grams of carbs). In summary, Sammy should eat 35 grams of protein and 70 grams of carbs for an ideal post workout meal. Fats are optional.
Step #7: Cutting Example
Pre-Workout Guidelines – Freddy Fatts weighs 185 lbs. Multiplying his bodyweight by 0.25 grams of protein and carbs shows that he should eat about 46 grams of protein as well as 46 grams of carbs in his pre-workout meal → (185 lbs.) x (0.25 g/lb.) = (46.25 grams of protein/carbs). Fats are optional.
Post-Workout Guidelines – Multiplying his bodyweight by 0.25 grams of protein reveals that he should eat about 46 grams of protein in his post-workout meal → (185 lbs.) x (0.25 g/lb.) = (46.25 grams of protein). Note that Freddy can only eat 160 grams of carbs per day, and he’s already down by 46 grams just from pre-workout carbs. So, we’ll find Freddy’s carbs by multiplying his bodyweight by the minimum 0.25 grams, which equals 46 grams → (185 lbs.) x (0.25 g/lb.) = (46.25 grams of carbs). In summary, Freddy should eat 46 grams of protein and 46 grams of carbohydrates for an ideal post-workout meal. Fats are optional.
Step #8: Meals and Food
Meal Frequency. Contrary to bodybuilding diet dogma, there is no magic number of meals per day that you must eat. You can eat as often as you want to as long as you meet all your calorie/macro requirements and include proper workout nutrition.
If you prefer eating 7 small meals per day, then by all means, go for it. I personally find preparing and eating meals to be tedious, so I squeeze my 3500 calories into 3-5 larger, more satisfying meals depending on the day. However, hardgainers who may need to eat 5000+ calories would do much better eating 6+ smaller meals than scarfing down 3 huge meals.
Eat Mostly Healthy Foods. The majority of your food should come from healthy food sources, in order to fulfill your calorie and macronutrient requirements, as well as your vitamin and mineral needs. Check out the muscle building foods page to discover the most nutritious foods to eat for a successful diet.
Flexible Dieting. Note that I said to eat mostly healthy foods. Although there are many healthy foods that taste good, you probably have a not-so-healthy favorite food (pizza or subs for me).
I strongly recommend “fitting” your favorite foods into your dietary requirements on a regular basis (but still hit your calorie and macro goals). This advice may go against the hard-headed, all-or-nothing mentality that is common with the “hardcore” crowd. But, unless you are dieting for a contest, a flexible bodybuilding diet is superior because:
Any difference in results is negligible or non-existent.
You can actually enjoy eating.
You are much more likely to stick to your diet plan.
Strict diets tend to end in crazy binges of deep fried Twinkies and pixie sticks…. You don’t want that.
Step #9: Drink Water
How to Stay Hydrated. Hydration is a critical, but commonly forgotten aspect of the bodybuilding diet. Most people will be fine if they drink about one gallon of water per day. However, water intake can vary on several factors, especially if you’re drinking water to lose weight.
Top Hydration Tips. Some basic tips and guidelines for proper hydration include the following:
Replenish. Drink more on training days, especially before, during, and after workouts or strenuous activities, as well as if you’re outside for long periods on hot days.
Avoid Thirst. Thirst is a sign that you’re already partially dehydrated. The best way to avoid this is by making it a habit to sip on water throughout the day.
Have No Fear If Your Pee is Clear. The color of your urine is the best indicator of hydration. You’re good to go if your pee is clear or slightly yellow. However, you should up the water intake when your urine is yellow.
Step #10: Test and Tweak
Adjust Your Calories. You will likely need to make a slight adjustment to your calorie requirements based on how much weight gain or weight loss you experience.
Bulking Adjustments. If you are bulking, you should aim to gain about a pound of bodyweight per week. If you are not gaining any/enough weight, then increase your calories by 10-20% per week until you are gaining about a pound per week. If you are gaining too much weight, decrease calories by about 10-20%.
Cutting Adjustments. If you are cutting, you should aim to lose about 1-2 pounds per week. If you are not losing any/enough weight, then decrease your calories by 10-20% per week until you are losing about 1-2 pounds per week. If you are losing too much weight, increase your calories by about 10-20%.
Step #10: Bulking Example
Sammy Smalls is now two weeks into his bodybuilding diet. He has been eating 2500 calories per day, which includes 139 grams of protein, 56 grams of fat, and 361 grams of carbs.
When he checks his weight, he’s barely gained any weight – half a pound if he’s lucky. There’s no need for Sammy to worry. He simply needs to increase calories by 10-20% (250-500 calories) for the following week. That means he should eat 2750-3000 calories per day for the upcoming week.
Step #10: Cutting Example
Freddy Fatts is now two weeks into his bodybuilding diet. He has been eating 2200 calories per day, which includes 167 grams of protein, 49 grams of fat, and 273 grams of carbs.
When he checks his weight, he’s barely lost any weight – half a pound if he’s lucky. There’s no need for him to fret. He should simply decrease total calories by about 10-20% (220-440 calories) for the upcoming week, which means eating 1760-1980 calories per day for the upcoming week.
Bodybuilding Diet Summary. All ten steps are very important to building your custom-tailored nutrition plan. However, the bare minimum that you should take away from this page are the following underlying bodybuilding diet principles:
Begin With the End in Mind. You should know exactly which direction you want to take for your short-term goal. This means no wishy-washy, middle of the road approaches that lead to stagnant progress. Decide, then take proper action.
Meet Your Calorie and Protein Requirements. As long as you eat your target number of calories and enough protein, you will make good progress. The rest certainly does matter, or else it wouldn’t be included on this page. However, it does not make the difference between success and failure.
Eat Foods That You Enjoy. You must be able to stay on your nutrition plan to have a successful diet. Avoid insane cravings and binges by making your favorite foods a regular part of your diet (while still meeting calorie and macro requirements).
Consistency is Key to Victory. This wraps up the ten fundamental steps of making your perfect bodybuilding diet. It may take a little time to get used to and a couple of cycles to find what works best, but just stick with it and it will soon become second nature. Be consistent with your diet plan and the new and improved body will follow suit.