People tend to think that a bodybuilder's diet is basically just shoveling food into your mouth when you're not working out. However, the reality is a lot more complicated than that.
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Bodybuilding isn't an activity that ends when you're done at the gym; it's a lifestyle that also requires you to pay special attention to what you eat. Here's how many calories you need while bodybuilding and some tips to build a healthy bodybuilding meal plan.
The number of calories you need to consume for bodybuilding depends on whether you’re in the bulking phase or the cutting phase. You need to increase or decrease your calorie intake by 500 calories per day for a week to gain or lose 1 pound a week, respectively, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Bulking Phase vs. Cutting Phase
A small study of 47 male and female bodybuilders published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in August 2019 notes that bodybuilding has two seasons: an off-season and an on-season.
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The off-season is known as the bulking phase. The goal of the bulking phase is to gain as much muscle as possible. This phase can last for months — or sometimes even years — and is characterized by a high-protein and high-calorie diet.
The on-season, also known as the cutting phase, is the period leading up to professional bodybuilding competitions. Unlike powerlifting competitions where competitors are judged on their strength, bodybuilders are judged based on their aesthetics, which includes factors like muscle size, muscle proportion and appearance of low body fat.
The on-season involves a high-protein, calorie-restricted diet with resistance training and aerobic exercise. The aim of this phase is to help reduce body fat without losing muscle mass, to help bodybuilders showcase their physiques.
Once the competition is over, bodybuilders revert to an off-season diet and exercise regime known as the recovery phase.
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Basic Calorie Requirements
The USDA's 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adult men consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day and that adult women consume between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day.
The lower end of these ranges is targeted toward people with sedentary lifestyles; however, bodybuilding makes for a very active lifestyle, so your calorie requirements are more likely to be at the upper end of the ranges. The recommended calorie amounts also taper downward as you get older because your basal metabolic rate or BMR decreases.
The USDA notes that these values are just estimates and that the actual number of calories you require varies from person to person, depending on factors like height and weight in addition to age, gender and physical activity level. You can use a calorie calculator or consult a registered dietitian to determine your exact caloric needs.
Calculating Calories for Bodybuilding
The number of calories you need to consume per day depends on how many calories you're burning through exercise. However, depending on whether you're in a bulking phase or a cutting phase, you can adjust your calorie intake accordingly. The rule of thumb when it comes to weight is that 500 calories per day for a week is equal to 1 pound of body weight, according to the ACE.
So if you're in a bulking phase, for example, and want to gain muscle mass at the rate of 1 pound a week, you need to increase your calorie intake by 500 calories per day for a week. However, if you're in a cutting phase and want to lose 1 pound a week, you need to decrease your calorie intake by 500 calories per day for a week.
Keep in mind that the type of calories you consume and the amount of resistance training you're doing is also important. The ACE recommends that people who are trying to gain body weight don't use their increased calorie budget on energy-dense, fattening foods and to ensure that they're doing enough resistance training to convert the additional calories into muscle; otherwise, the body will store them as fat.
Another study that was published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, this one in May 2014, recommends that bodybuilders don't gain or lose more than 0.5 to 1 percent of their body weight per week.
This helps ensure that you don't gain too much fat during the off-season bulking phase and that you don't lose too much muscle during the on-season cutting phase. So for a 200-pound person, that works out to a range of 1 to 2 pounds a week.
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Bodybuilder Meal Plan
The study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in May 2014 also recommends the following breakdown of nutrients for bodybuilders: 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass, 15 to 30 percent of calories from fat and the remainder of calories from carbohydrates.
The number of meals you want to eat per day is up to you; the authors of the study suggest splitting up your calorie intake among anywhere between three to six meals per day, with each meal having a minimum of 20 grams of protein.
If you're finding it difficult to eat a large number of calories at a time, splitting up your meals and eating more meals in the day may help. On the other hand, if your schedule doesn't allow you to eat multiple times a day, you can stick to three large meals instead.
The study also recommends eating meals that have 0.4 to 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight before and after your resistance training sessions, to help your body maximize the benefits of the protein.
Read more: How Much Protein Powder Should I Drink?
While protein is considered to be the key nutrient when it comes to bodybuilding, because it provides the amino acids your body requires to repair and build muscles, you may be surprised to learn that carbs are also important. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for your muscles, since carbs are partially converted to glycogen and stored in your muscles to power your workouts.
The academy recommends eating high-quality carbohydrate source that do not have excessive fat, like whole grain breads and cereals. Dairy products like milk and yogurt, as well as fruits and vegetables, are also good sources of healthy carbohydrates.
However, many of these foods also have a high fiber content. The academy recommends avoiding high fiber foods immediately before or during exercise to prevent an upset stomach.
- American Council on Exercise: "Putting on the Pounds"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Nutritional Strategies of British Professional and Amateur Natural Bodybuilders During Competition Preparation”
- USDA: “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation”
- Mayo Clinic: “Nutrition Rules That Will Fuel Your Workout”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass”