Diet: Caloric Excess - The Big 90% Block

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1. What is a Reasonable Diet?

2. What is Caloric Excess?

3. How Can I Tell if Caloric Excess is Present?

4. Some Perspective

5. An Intuitive Example

6. Takeaways




What Is a Reasonable Diet?


First, a lot of BBers claim that diet is 90% of everything - that's some nice crap to spew when a guy is running the test levels of 20 men, has no performance criteria whatsoever to be judged by, and even a horrible training stimulus will still get him results. The bottom line is that for an experienced natural or someone who isn't living on large dosages of drugs, as long as your diet is "reasonable" you will gain muscle and get stronger only if the training is in line and provides your body with a need for adaptation.  I'm not saying diet isn't a big key, what I'm saying is that once it's in the "reasonable" stage for adding muscle - training is king and substantial effort in that area will compensate one far greater than tweaking some trace mineral balance (so the 90% is true only if one assumes people are going to be dumb, unfortunately this is sometimes the case).

This is common sense blocking and tacking stuff. Eat a good balanced diet, get enough protein, vitamins, whatever, drink lots of water, and make sure you supply yourself with enough calories to grow (i.e. body needs energy and nutrients above and beyond what is required to maintain it). Combine that with a good training program and voila - you will get bigger and stronger.

Of course there is one problem. The assumption of a "reasonable" diet and the key factor here is caloric excess. The key factor is not 6 meals a day, nor is it X grams of protein, nor is it weighing one's food and counting every last scrap of it while extracting yolks from egg whites like a baby salamander. It is also not some very expensive trace mineral that you buy for $50 a month at the supplement store.  The key is food and quantity.  It is caloric excess.  If you don't have it, you can't grow. Contrary to popular BBing mythos, it need not even be a clean diet. You can eat quite a bit of garbage and get big and strong (even staying reasonably lean for a lot of people) as long as there is caloric excess. If you choose to eat clean, more power to you but make sure that you get caloric excess or you won't be adding muscle. 



What Is Caloric Excess?


Essentially caloric excess is what allows your body to grow and get bigger than it currently is now.  How are you going to add another room on your house with only enough wood or concrete to make small maintenance repair on your existing structure?


Intake - Requirement = Caloric Excess (Deficit if negative and maintenance if zero)

Now some people start with a pretty big margin of bodyfat (approaching 20% or more), these people already have significant caloric excess built into their base diet. Most of them find that they can hold their calories constant and for a while they will add muscle and the maintenance of that muscle will use up the excess calories that are currently going toward maintaining their excess fat. This won't last forever but it will likely get them down to the mid to low teens without any issues. Everybody with lower bodyfat needs to add excess to their base diet as this body recomposition lowers bodyfat by nature and it gets harder and harder to pull off.  And really even holding bodyfat constant and gaining muscle requires a proportion of the gain to be fat just to maintain the ratio.

Now this sounds like common sense but here is the kicker. There are a lot of people who really put a lot of effort into their diet and maintain fairly lean physiques. They carefully calculate and maintain a constant diet and precise level of caloric excess - nothing wrong with that. The only problem is that their calculations might not fully reflect their activity level or the requirements of their own individual body.

Keep in mind that they are already fairly lean so there is obviously little to no caloric excess in their base diets. Also understand that the lower your BF is, the less willing your body is to add muscle - very logically, muscle is calorically expensive and increases risk of death from famine, if fat stores are already low, it is very hard to convince the body to add muscle (the people with this genetic makeup died millions of years ago). This is also why people loose muscle when cutting (this is all based on natural lifters, steroids enhance certain abilities but don't erase restrictions completely).  Granted a total novice can pull it off for a short while if there's a margin present but that's still suboptimal and generally they'd do fine adding excess, gaining a little fat and adding a whole lot more muscle. 


How Can I Tell If Caloric Excess Is Present?

So given that some of these people are already lean (no caloric excess) and run their diets based at the margin of a calculation, these people can go through a good training program, get strong as hell raising their capacities in all the lifts and not gain any weight. How is this possible? Very simple, no caloric excess. All any good training program can do is get you better at the activity (this is true in any sport).  If you eat more than you need you will gain weight. If you are a couch potato, that weight might be all fat. A good training program will ensure that a large portion is muscle. Either way, if caloric excess is present - one will not be the same weight and body composition by the very definition of caloric excess.  Lift bigger, eat bigger, get bigger.  Very easy.

This may sound like common sense but it snafu's tons of people, particularly BBers because many of them like to maintain lower levels of BF and spend a lot of time on their diet and eat right at the margin of a somewhat arbitrary calculation that works on the average but in reality needs to be tailored to their own requirements. In addition, many will make their diet squeaky clean and not realize that their volume of consumption has to increase drastically to get the same number of total calories - so they wind up putting themselves in caloric maintenance or worse, deficit.

In addition, as people gain muscle their base requirement increases and thus their diet must be adjusted to maintain the same caloric excess margin. I know it sounds easy but a lot of people eat the same diet at 195 as they did when they were working their way up from 180. They sit there with this nice lean body and wonder why they can't ever seem to break the 200 barrier because their training is good and they eat the same good healthy diet that got them all the way to 195.  Also some people think they are eating a ton, far more than enough, but if their weight isn't can excess be present?  It can't, and that's what these people need to accept despite the fact that their "diet faith" is rather strong.


Some Perspective:

Another good thing to remember is that you don't eat too much one day and wake up to find that you went from 8% to 20% BF overnight. A lot of people have a good feel for their base diet and just consume more when they want to gain. If they start getting too fat too quickly, they cut back appropriately. For the vast majority of people, they can likely monitor this without every doing heavy micromanagement while gaining muscle. If your goal is hardcore cutting and getting down much below 10%, well that takes work but adding muscle is pretty easy without micromanagement. But, if one wishes to quantify their diets and spend time on this then go right ahead, I just don't like to see people with pretty mundane and attainable goals think that this it's absolutely necessary if they want to add even an ounce of muscle.

I'm not crapping on the desire to eat clean wholesome foods but it is not necessary for the purpose of adding muscle whereas caloric excess is. Eating clean is a separate goal from adding muscle, it's a lifestyle goal and takes work - kudos to those that do it because it makes the whole thing a bit harder and requires more planning. I'm not saying to eat total garbage but a reasonable diet is fine and to be honest more than a few people have found it necessary to add in more calorically dense foods (i.e. fried chicken etc...) when bulking simply because they can't consume the volume and get all the calories any other way (I'm not talking about your standard 150lbs kid here obviously).



An Intuitive Example:


A helpful way to look at gaining muscle is a chart with a wavy horizontal line with lots of uneven peaks and troughs (i.e. some peaks are higher than others and some troughs deeper).  Your diet is a kind of horizontal line or high-water mark.  The more peaks you want to capture (representing potential muscle gain) the more excess over the troughs (excess over troughs representing potential fat gain).  So, want the most muscle...raise the diet line to cover every peak (i.e. to the tip of the highest) but realize that there is a lot over the troughs too and substantial fat accrual will not doubt result.  Obviously you scale down from there leaving some gains on the table but not gaining as much fat.  At some point there's maintenance where the areas above and below the line are equal and then deficit where more is above the line than below (this is where you are for cutting).  Now there are some things you can do with timing and nutrient balance etc to skew this relationship in your favor but this is the big 90% block and nothing out there is going to change it.  You can even take a novice trainee (or anyone in a very adaptable state) and integrate them into this structure as someone who has an abnormally high number of peaks or wider peaks so to speak.  You can also consider the longer term where you are going weight over time (let's say going from 180 to 200) and the chart will produce a trendline where the peaks and troughs gradually move up on the chart over time and it is necessary to further increase diet to maintain the same relative level of excess one had at a lighter bodyweight.  This example isn't perfect but it does convey what you need to know in a fairly intuitive manner that most have found easy to get their heads around.

Basic Takeaways:

1) Caloric excess is required
2) Your body and weight will change if excess is present (proportion of muscle/fat will depend on training effectiveness)
3) If over the period the body did not change - caloric excess was not present
4) If you add muscle, your base requirement will change and you will need to eat more to maintain excess

5) Do not spend 95% of your effort balancing the 5% minutia, eat a reasonable diet and spend 95% of your effort making sure you are getting enough.