You want to gain muscle.
That’s why you’ve been [training hard](https://evidencemag.com/how-to-build-muscle-podcast/) and eating more.
You’ve gotten bigger, but you want better results. You also have a life outside of the gym, so you need to [keep your diet simple](https://evidencemag.com/flexible-dieting-basics/).
You know roughly [how many calories you’re eating](https://evidencemag.com/calorie-needs/). Now it’s time to take things one step further and decide how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat you need.
This might seem a tedious, but setting the right macronutrient ratios is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do to build more muscle without adding excess fat.
### Step 1: Set your protein intake.
Protein is the most important macronutrient when it comes to losing fat and building muscle.
If you don’t eat enough protein, your body won’t recover between workouts and you won’t gain much muscle.
If you eat too much, it might be hard for you to eat enough fat, carbohydrate, or calories.
You want to be in the sweet spot between these two extremes.
Most research indicates that people who lift weights, like you, should eat about 50-250% more protein than the average person.
Most sedentary people need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.(1-3) On the other hand, you’ll probably gain the most muscle if you eat 1.2-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram.(4-8) That’s about 0.5-1.0 grams per pound.
It’s probably best to shoot for the upper end of that range.
Not eating enough protein is going to cause more problems than eating too much. When you eat more protein than you need, the excess is “burned off” in your liver, which doesn’t cause any problems.(9)
Most studies aren’t designed to find what the optimal protein intake is for gaining muscle. They’re designed to find what the minimum amount is to keep you from getting sick, so they may underestimate how much athletes need.(2,4,6,8)
Even when people aren’t [strength training](https://evidencemag.com/max-muscle-plan-podcast/), those who eat more protein while overeating gain more muscle than those who eat less.(10)
If you’re a woman or an advanced athlete, you can probably shoot for the lower end of that range — 1.2-1.6 g/kg. You won’t gain muscle as fast as dudes or newbies, so you may not need as much protein.
If you’re a beginner or a guy, you should probably aim for the upper end of that range or even slightly higher — 1.6-2.2 g/kg. That’s about one gram per pound of bodyweight.
If you’re unsure of how much to eat, err on the side of more rather than less.
### Step 2: Set your fat intake.
Eating enough fat is important for three reasons.
1. Fat keeps you satisfied and happy.
If you don’t eat enough fat, it’s often hard to feel satisfied after a meal even if you eat more calories than you need. Moderate fat diets are also usually more enjoyable. When athletes eat low fat diets, they tend to feel worse.(11)
2. Fat helps maintain your hormone levels and performance.
Low-fat diets tend to make sex hormones like testosterone drop, which could make it harder to gain muscle and strength.(12-13)
Low-fat diets can make it hard to consume enough total calories to support your performance.(14,15)
3. Fat makes food taste better.
Start your diet with around 20-40% of your calories from fat.
That’s generally enough to keep you happy and healthy, while leaving enough calories for protein and carbs.
Speaking of carbs…
### Step 3: Set your carbohydrate intake.
You’ve set your protein and fat intake. Now you need to fill in the rest of your calories with carbohydrates..
Strength training is only fueled by carbohydrate, meaning low-carb diets are generally going to make you [perform worse in the gym](https://anthonycolpo.com/why-low-carb-diets-are-terrible-for-athletes-part-1/). Studies have also shown that low-carb diets tend to increase cortisol levels, and decrease testosterone and thyroid levels.(16) That’s generally not a good thing if you want to build muscle.
Most research indicates you need about 3-6 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight.(17) That’s about 1.5-3 grams per pound.
The easiest method is to fill in your remaining calories with carbohydrate. Then, you can check to make sure you’re eating around 1.5-3 grams per pound.
There isn’t much research on what an optimal carb intake is for strength training. It’s mainly an estimate based on how many carbs other athletes need. The above numbers are a good starting place, but they aren’t perfect.
You’ll probably need to adjust them, which brings us to step four.
### Step 4: Adjust your macronutrient intake based on your goals and preferences.
If you want to eat more protein, fat, or carbohydrate, then move up or down within the ranges until you find what you like best.
There’s also no reason you can’t keep shifting your macronutrient ratios slightly to suit your taste. Small changes won’t matter.
Here’s a cheat sheet for how to adjust your diet based on how you feel and perform:
You lose strength = eat more carbs.
You’re hungry = eat more protein and/or fat.
You’re moody or anxious = eat more fat.
You aren’t recovering between workouts = eat more carbs.
Let’s put this information into practice.
### Discover a macronutrient ratio that works for you.
Here’s the simplified equation of what you just learned:
(Protein Calories + Fat Calories) + Carbohydrate Calories = Total Calories
Here’s an example. Let’s say there’s an athlete named “Dan” who’s 5’10, 150 pounds, and wants to gain muscle. When you combine Dan’s weight training and weekend mountain bike rides, he’s training about 10 hours per week.
Here’s what Dan should do to gain muscle.
**Step 1. [Set calorie intake](https://evidencemag.com/how-to-build-muscle-with-food).**
Based on the equations in that article, Dan needs to eat about 3,400 calories per day.
**Step 2. [Set protein intake](https://evidencemag.com/how-to-build-muscle-protein).**
Dan sets his protein intake at 0.9 grams per pound, which is 135 grams per day. He’s had trouble eating enough in the past, so he didn’t want to overdo his protein intake.
Every gram of protein has four calories, so he needs to eat 540 calories per day of protein.
**Step 3. Set fat intake.**
Dan decides to eat 30% of his calories from fat.
30% x 3,400 = 1,020
Every gram of fat has nine calories, so Dan needs to eat 113 grams of fat per day.
**Step 4. Fill in the rest of your calories with [carbohydrate](https://evidencemag.com/build-muscle-carbs).**
At this point, Dan has 1,840 calories left for carbs. Every gram of carbohydrate has four calories, which means he needs to eat 460 grams of carbohydrate per day.
**Step 5. Put it all together.**
Based on this system, Dan’s daily macronutrient targets are:
Protein: 135 grams.
Fat: 110 grams. (I rounded this down from 113).
Carbs: 460 grams.
### Your Quick-Start Guide for Setting the Right Macros for Muscle Gain
1. Set your daily calorie intake.
2. Set your protein intake at 1.2-2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.5-1.0 grams per pound.
3. Set your fat intake at 20-40% of your total calories.
4. Fill in the rest of your calories with carbohydrate.
5. Adjust based on your progress and preferences.
Setting the right macronutrient ratios will help you build more muscle and less fat. You’ll perform better, recover faster, and stay leaner while you “bulk.”
It might take a little while to find what works best for you, but it’s worth it.
Do you have any questions about setting up a diet for muscle gain? Let’s chat in the comments below.
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