Losing body fat is a cakewalk compared to building muscle mass. In order to lose fat, you only have to follow the essential rules of fat loss and your body will do the rest. Exercise is not a requirement for fat loss. On the other hand, you cannot build muscle mass without exercise. Building muscle mass, requires you to monitor your diet and while being active.
Best Diet for Building Muscle Mass
Just as with the best diet for fat loss, the best diet for building muscle mass must begin with the basic principles of the easy diet. We will place a special focus on protein consumption which is discussed further below, but for the average person consuming a 2,000 calorie diet, the 200 grams of protein in your macronutrient requirements should be sufficient for a muscle mass building diet.
Essential Rules of Building Muscle Mass
1. Pick an exercise regimen – You have to start by picking your workout routine because this will help you calculate your daily caloric burn. It is imperative that the program you follow requires minimal equipment, no outside assistance (like a trainer or a spotter), can be modified and adapted to suit your needs, and can be performed over the long run. These things are important because they will let you avoid possible excuses in the future, such as “I can’t afford the equipment / gym fees / personal trainer” or “I’ve outgrown the program”. Personally I’ve found P90X (the original, I haven’t tried part two) to be a fantastic program of this purpose and wholly recommend it. All you need is the P90X Base Program (not an affiliate link) for $125 and the Black Mountain Pull Up Bar and Resistance Bands (not an affiliate link) for $60. So what I’m saying is, the complete workout program and equipment will cost you $185 as a one time investment.
2. Calculate your daily caloric burn – Once you’ve selected a program, you can do the routines and calculate calories burned either by using a heart rate monitor or other activity tracker (like Nike+ FuelBand) or alternatively you can still use the Harris-Benedict equation multiplication guide (from step 2 of The Easy Diet). This number is calculated using your BMR and your activity level, so if either of those changes, you will need to recalculate this number and make adjustments. Your BMR is composed of your height, weight, age, and varies by gender. As you build muscle mass, your BMR will go up because your weight will go up (from muscle). Make sure you have a pretty accurate number for your daily caloric burn to ensure you correctly calculate your goal and can effectively build muscle mass.
3. Calculate your daily caloric goal – take the number you calculated in the previous step and add 300 calories to that number. This will be your new caloric goal. For example, if you burn 2500 calories per day, you should now aim to consume 2800 calories per day. You need to make sure that you continue to slowly and carefully increase your caloric intake based on your daily caloric burn which will increase as you continue to build muscle mass. If you don’t proportionately increase calories, you will not build any new muscle mass and may have a difficult time maintaining existing muscle. People often worry about workout days versus rest days – personally I average out my calories burned, calories consumed, and macronutrient proportions on a weekly basis using MyFitnessPal (website, app). It may take you some trial and error (or a week’s worth of measuring and recording) but it will save you the hassle of having to increase or decrease calories and macronutrient proportions on a daily basis.
4. Monitor your macronutrient requirements – while all macronutrients are essential and should be consumed sufficiently and daily, Protein is the most important macronutrient for building muscle mass. Please read our introduction to essential macronutrients and micronutrients to learn more about each. A standard goal should be to have a 40:40:20 ratio of Carbohydrate to Protein to Fat while consuming at least 1.25 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight. As I mentioned at the start, this should not be a problem for the average person consuming a 2,000 calorie diet and consuming 200 grams of protein.
5. Plot your body composition every week – familiarize yourself with the concept of body composition. Your body is composed of fat and non-fat, and your goal is to improve your body composition by lowering your body fat percentage. You can lower your body fat percentage by losing fat, building muscle mass, or a combination of the two. Ideally you do not want to gain fat at the same time you’re building muscle mass. Weight is an inaccurate measure of success because your goal is to increase muscle mass and not simply increase weight (which can also come from water retention or fat gain). Therefore it’s important to plot your body composition (lean mass, body fat, and body fat percentage) alongside your overall weight so you can not only see your gains in data but also ensure that your gains are from muscle (lean mass) and not fat.
Measuring Lean Muscle Mass
We’re interested in improving body composition by building muscle mass (while losing or maintaining body fat). This may result in an increase in overall weight (if you build more muscle mass than you lose body fat), a decrease in overall weight (if you lose more body fat than you build muscle mass), or your weight staying the same (you lose as much fat as you build muscle mass). In each of these cases you’ve successfully achieved your goal because you’ve built lean muscle mass and improved your overall body composition. Another way to put this is not all weight gain is good weight gain – make sure you’re gaining only lean mass and your body composition is improving.
To get the numbers right it is important to measure your body fat percentage frequently and accurately. The best affordable method for this is using the skinfold estimation method. In this method you use calipers at 7 specific points on the body to determine how thick the subcutaneous fat layer is and convert it to an estimated body fat percentage.
Bulking for Building Muscle Mass and Cutting for Fat Loss
You may have read about bulking and cutting prior to this. This is a concept that doesn’t apply to the 99.9% of us and is only somewhat important for professional body builders. Again, you can simply follow the rules I laid out above and ignore everything else.
I’m a proponent of doing something once, doing it patiently, consistently, and correctly. This is true of fat loss and the same is true about building muscle mass. Erratic swings in bodyweight and body composition are not healthy for you and I don’t recommend them. Think about it this way, would you rather lose fat and then build muscle mass and just do it once, or would you rather build a bunch of muscle mass but also gain fat with it, and then lose the fat you gained but also lose muscle with it, and then continue to lollipop up and down forever?
Go in one direction (fat loss) until you’re satisfied, and then go in the other direction (muscle gain) and when you’re satisfied, adapt The Easy Diet to maintain your ideal body composition.