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“Do I Need Meal Plans for Bodybuilding?” Why this is a good question

When people ask me “do I need meal plans for bodybuilding”, my answer is surprising to many. That’s because it’s a resounding and opinionated…

“… No… you don’t need meal plans for bodybuilding; you need ‘eating habits’ for bodybuilding.”

The answer speaks for itself and recognizes that eating is something we’ve always done subconsciously and naturally – without much more thought than that required to draw our next breath. To impose a “plan” on something so pleasurable and impulsive seems like painstaking forethought forced to override what’d always been addressed by intuitive reaction to bodily signals. Talk about a recipe for long-term futility. Dumbbell_and_Plates

It might surprise those asking the ‘do I need meal plans for bodybuilding’ question to learn that I’ve never used ‘bodybuilding meal plans’ as they’re commonly prescribed. That’s right… and I’ve gotten super-ripped… and I don’t have gifted genetics… and I’m gaining muscle faster than ever… and I could EASILY gain fat. My abs are rippling and visible as I write this, and I’m not following some ‘meal plan’ to make it happen; I eat intuitively as I know that that’s what can be sustained over the long term.

“Do I Need Meal Plans for Bodybuilding” is better asked “Do I Need to Measure EVERYTHING?”

‘The closer we get to a “precision goal”, the more detailed we need to be in order to achieve it.’

Keep the above-written piece of wisdom (and its inverse) ensconced in your mind if you have this question about bodybuilding meal plans. Better yet, stay cognizant of it as knowledge for higher achievement in any goals you set for yourself. But this principle is especially relevant to the question “do I need meal plans for bodybuilding.”

Here’s what it means: When we set a challenging and long-term goal, our first actions toward achieving it might be better left as broad, nebulous, and somewhat ambiguous in measurement. It’s only as we get closer to achieving the goal that becoming fine-tuned in detailed measurement really makes sense. When we have this backward, we often get overwhelmed and end up failing to achieve the goal.

Here’s an example: Occasionally I’ll witness the ridiculous sight of a personal fitness trainer instructing an obese person on bodybuilding exercises. We’re talking about someone who has a hundred pounds of fat or more to lose, and they’re being guided through the finer details of effectively performing a ‘triceps kickback.’

As much as I love bodybuilding, I would not start out such a person on muscle building exercises. I’d devote all the time, recourses, and energy we had between us on the daunting task of removing the majority of that unwanted fat. Even on that task, I wouldn’t start out recommending a rigid meal plan; I’d get the client to commit to something more nebulous: A simple reduction of 500 calories and an hour of brisk walking each day would likely knock the first thirty pounds or so off the person’s body.

Once that initial thirty pounds was gone, I’d apply more detailed and measurable actions for the next thirty pounds – maybe some more intense, measured interval cardio along with more detailed eating guidelines.  Only after we’d reduced the majority of the hundred pounds of fat would the client’s body even be in a hormonally receptive state for muscle building activity. That’s when we could add that detailed activity. Going in this sequence would greatly enhance the odds of ultimate success in achieving the long-term goal of a lean and muscular body.

The same goes for the quest of building a lot of muscle and losing a bit of fat. Do you really need to bog yourself down with “meal plans”, or do you just need eating guidance? How much “planning” do meals really require anyway? You might need some recipe ideas coupled with some muscle building eating guidelines, but that’s it. Strictly measured meals are likely unnecessary unless you’re at the precision stage of taking your body fat from… oh… 7% down to 4.5%. Doing THAT without losing muscle requires some precision.

‘Do I Need Meal Plans for Bodybuilding’: Examining claims of meal plan gurus

You and I have both seen them – the “muscle building meal plans”, the “fat-loss meal plans”, and the “build muscle while losing fat” meal plans. They typically tell us to eat every 2 to 3 hours while providing meal menus that appear something like this:

3PM Snack

1 cup Cottage cheese, light/low fat

1/2 cup Yogurt, plain, low fat

1/3 cup Oatmeal

6 Almonds, whole

6PM Dinner

9 oz Ground beef (< 10% fat)

1/2 cup Onions

1/2 cup Tomato sauce

1/2 cup Pasta

2 tsp Olive, Flax or Salmon Oils

The rationale behind such timed and measured feedings is based on the assumption that the “wizards of smart” have somehow figured out exactly what you and I need in order to gain muscle. To support this idea, adherence to these “meal plans” is preceded by using formulas that usually include…

  • Figuring out our lean body mass (LBM)
  • Figuring out our basal metabolic rate (BMR)
  • Adding in our ‘activity level.’
  • Adding in a ‘calorie surplus’ for “weight gain”

Know_Your_Body The thing I find almost humorous about these formulas is that the ones advised for “weight gain” are essentially the inverse of the formulas used for “weight loss.” However, the desire for those wanting to “gain weight” is to ‘acquire muscle’, while the desire for those wanting to “lose weight” is to ‘lose body fat.’ These are two physiologically different phenomena, yet they’re treated in a dietary context as if direct inverses of one another. Hence, many bodybuilding gurus prescribe weight gaining formulas as purported requirements for muscle gain while, in reality, they’re nothing more than calorie-surplus formulas that add bodily fat pounds.

‘Meal Plans for Bodybuilding’: Muscle Gain is NOT just “energy in/energy out”

Muscle gains do require calories. They do require slightly more caloric intake than is burned off by the body. But how much more? It’s ridiculous to assume we need as many surplus calories for muscle gain as we would for fat gain.

How can I be sure of this?

Because fat gain is the biological process of the deposition of excess caloric energy into fat cells while muscle gain is the result of mitochondrial recuperation/compensation after the tear-down of muscle tissue. The rate at which tissue can be repaired and grow bigger after a workout is fixed; excess calories beyond a certain point become useless. In fact, excess calories beyond this point typically become fat gain. This makes the “mega-calorie bodybuilding meal plans” a waste of time, energy, and money – not to mention a recipe for delusion as our bodies get fat under the notion that that’s what’s needed to put on muscle.

How fixed is the rate of muscle gain?

I once heard a top-ranked, Mr. Olympia competitive bodybuilder reveal that the fastest he ever gained muscle was at a rate of ten pounds annually. This was when he was young and using steroids. At the “mature” age of 27 (and still admittedly using steroids), he was gaining two pounds per year. Let’s just analyze the ten-pound gain for illustrative purposes:

10/365 = .027 lbs. per day (or about .2 pound per week)

So, on steroids, he was gaining a pound of muscle every five weeks. Even for him, is it really feasible that his body would need 500 to 1000 calories above maintenance each day to gain that muscle… to put on .027 of a pound per day? Even accounting for the energy-depleting taxation of bodybuilding workouts (something you should NOT do daily if training naturally), it’s unlikely; the excess calories would likely become fat in need of removal later on.

‘Do I Need Meal Plans for Bodybuilding?’ Maybe… until you know your body

All this is not to say that meal plans for bodybuilding are worthless; they might be beneficial for beginners at the stage of “learning their bodies.” The person just starting out needs to get a feel for the macro-nutrient ratios and daily calories that support muscle growth without adding body fat.

But this can certainly be accomplished without illusorily following a somewhat arbitrary menu that an “expert” has convinced us holds the magic formula of anabolism. My best bodybuilding gains have come when simply eating every three to three-and-a-half hours with 30 to 40 grams of protein in each meal. I make sure to get some complex, starchy carbohydrates and a good portion of fibrous carbs with these meals by simply monitoring what sustains my energy levels. I keep the dietary fat at about 20 to 30 percent, and instinctively lower my carbs when I have a meal that’s a bit higher in dietary fat.

An alternative to following bodybuilding meal “plans” is to create one’s own meals using a meal calculator. These are extremely valuable for the process of learning one’s own body – and developing the ‘eating habits for bodybuilding’ for which long-term success really depends.

Comments

scott

Hello Rick,

Thank you very much for stopping by my blog and for the very nice compliments.

I want to keep things real here, share the things I know and admit to what I still need to learn.

I'm getting really tired of a lot of what I see online as well. Not only hype and hyperbole, but what about the latest trends in email marketing? It seems that a lot of these people are resorting to trying to scare the living cr#%p out of readers just to grab their attention. Guys selling 'abdominal courses' are telling us that our cell phones might be causing tumors and eating anything that makes our food more palatable is causing liver rot.

Haha... you'd think they'd determined that everyone online is trembling behind their keyboards, only willing to go outside if they have a formula to tip-toe through a mine field.

Look forward to hearing from you again.

Scott

scott

Hey Bali,

Finding that trade-off definitely requires some personal experimentation with attention-to-detail.

Personally, I always like to be a little hungry when I'm about to eat. When I was young, I tried the "eating when not hungry" formula in the name of getting HUGE. Yeah... it made me huge alright... but only '40-inch waistline huge.'

Scott

scott

Hi Glenn,

I think irregular sleep might be more a problem with making gains on military duty than meals would. Give me three good meals per day with some snacks of whey protein, bananas, and almonds between those meals and I'll make muscle gains anywhere... provided I have some decent resistance equipment :-)

Given those things, interrupted sleep and stress could slow things down and require longer inter-workout recuperation.

Scott

Rick

I wanted to compliment you on your blog. From the few posts I've read you seem to have good information, not to mention a good head on your shoulders. I like that you analyze things rationally without giving in to hype or hyperbole. It's tough to get good information on the web sometimes.

Bali

But should one follow a meal plan if it requires the individual to eat even when not hungry? Can one get away with consuming fewer calories if the diet is comprised mainly unprocessed natural food such as beans, peas and vegetables along with lean protein sources? Since digesting food does take away alot of energy which could be used for muscle recovery, its good to know where the trade off starts

glenn

Hmmm but would the 3 big meals nutrition provided by the military and its lifestyle cause you to require significantly more recuperation time than usual?

scott

Hey Glenn,

That's a really good question. Military life often demands unpredictable and exhaustsing schedules that make it nearly impossible to get consistent bodybuilding workouts, eating habits, and sleeping patterns. That's especially the case when deployed somewhere on a mission.

I'd say that I could make progress that's equal to what I do now when at duty stations with lighter demands and regular schedules. But I'd maybe be able to just sustain what I've got (for the time being) when on the tough and irregular schedules of deployment.

I think making the effort to eat better (using quality, non-persishable bodybuilding supplements) would possibly make the demands of overseas deployment a bit easier. I don't know for sure because I was only dabbling with bodybuilding during my military days and never tried it.

If I'd been fully into it then, I'd be a lot further along now. That's for sure :-)

Thanks Glenn!

Scott

Glenn

Hey Scott
If you had your current bodybuilding knowledge back in your days as a Navy SEAL, what are the chances of being effective with making muscular gains with a proper weight training system while still in the Navy? Would you still be able to make sustainable progress living under the conditions of the Navy especially the food and sleep conditions?

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