Welcome to the new face of nutrition. This has been a long time coming, and I wanted to explain why.
A lot of sites out there will give you a ‘meal plan’, you’ve seen them. Usually free, but sometimes not, ‘easy to follow’ programs that tell you exactly what to eat to GET SHREDDED. Well guess what? Those plans aren’t made for you! Every single person has different requirements and different dietary needs. Those plans don’t work and you deserve better.
This macro guide is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some might read this and disagree - that’s OK! My knowledge is based 100% on experience and my own research and this guide is a reflection of that. If you want to know how I calculate my macros, and use that equation to find yours, continue on! This is THE TOP question I get asked and this is (finally) my long-winded answer. LET’S GO!
WHAT IS A MACRO?
You've heard of calorie counting right? Tracking macros is similar, except instead of adding up the total calories in the foods you eat, you're keeping track of THREE values: Protein, Carbs, and Fats. Each macro value has a caloric value:
1g fat = 9 calories
1g carbs = 4 calories
1g protein = 4 calories
By tracking macros you are still counting 'calories' but in a more detailed way!
Why is this important? Here's another phrase you've probably heard: calories in versus calories out. When people count calories they're usually aiming for a specific number; either maintenance calories, over maintenance (to grow), or under maintenance (to lose fat). Of those total calories, a certain percent are protein/carbs/and fat. If you're looking to make a change with body composition in mind, the macro nutrient percentages are going to matter!
Let's look at some extreme examples. Say you need to eat 3,000 calories a day to be below-maintenance and lose weight. You could eat 3,000 calories of olive oil (gross), or 3,000 calories of Skittles (ayyy), or 3,000 calories of white fish. All would be extremely dominant in ONE macro nutrient but if that 3,000 is accurately calculated as your deficit, all options would result in a loss on the scale! But what are you losing? If proper protein intake is disregarded, you'll be losing some muscle as well as some fat. Body composition aside, you may also experience hunger, cravings, and your energy levels will be impacted.
So what's the takeaway? Knowing your macros is important for ANY goal when you care about your resulting body composition. Knowing your macros will also help you create a diet plan that is more sustainable long term, and allow your body to function at it's best!
HOW DO I LOOK FOR MACROS?
You'd think this would be as simple as looking at the label, but there are a few misconceptions out there that can make things complicated! Let's break it down top to bottom:
First thing we're looking for is the serving size. Let's use Dorito chips as an example. Most labels will list an approximate number of chips as the serving size. This is tricky! What if one chip is smaller than the others? Why is it approximate? Good rule of thumb to make ALL measurements as accurate as possible: go with the GRAMS measurement. If you have a scale, always measure for accuracy! If you don't have a scale and the only option is to guesstimate, you can use the secondary serving size listing but just know that it's not as accurate.
Next order of business is to ignore the calories on the label. I'm not saying they aren't important! But trying to track calories AND macros will eat up time and make you insane. Nutrition facts are actually estimates, believe it or not! And the caloric values of protein, carbs, and fat will very rarely add up to the listed calories. Follow one, or follow the other, but don't waste too much time trying to track both!
First macro-daddy on the map is your FAT content. When tracking 'Fats' you want to look at the TOTAL FAT listed on the package. If you want to dial down further and avoid the higher saturated fats, feel free! For basic macro tracking, 'Total Fat' will be your FAT macro value.
Next up we have CARBS. Same as above, you want to use the ‘Total Carbohydrate’ value. Two common misconceptions when calculating carbs:
ONE: dietary fiber should NOT be subtracted from your total carbohydrates. While it is good to include a fair amount of fiber in your diet, it does not 'cancel out' any carbs consumed. 'Net carbs' is a marketing ploy to make people believe higher carb foods (like tortillas) are good for you (and they are) but in this day and age, everyone thinks they need to cut their carbs and that makes giant food companies very sad (and very broke) so this confusing myth was born.
TWO: Sugars should not be ADDED to the total carbohydrates. Those babies are already included! Just like we talked about with Fats, you can dial down and monitor your sugar intake if you so please, but a sugar carb is a carb all the same and the Total Carbohydrates value captures that beautifully.
Last but not least, the easy-going PROTEIN. Simply stated, no confusion there.
Knowing why you're tracking macros and how to track them is awesome, but how do you know what numbers to aim for!? Like going to the grocery store with money but no list. Let's start by looking at your options:
(cutting, leaning out)
You might be wondering why ‘building muscle while leaning out’ isn’t on the list? Here’s why!
You are either at a caloric deficit, or a caloric surplus, or you are neutral (taking in exactly as much as you burn through each day). It would be impossible to be at both a deficit and a surplus at the same time right? Therefore, the concept of growing muscle and losing body fat simultaneously is magic…just like Unicorns.
Now you’re thinking ‘Piece of cake, I’ll just bulk for 6 weeks then shred for 6 weeks. Problem solved!’
Ah, that would be nice! And unlike the previous option, this is actually possible to pull off BUT understand that building or losing weight should and WILL take a good long while! Muscle grows about as fast as your high school beard (possibly slower..) and that's under OPTIMAL conditions (nutrition is on point, training is intense and effective). After just a handful of weeks you'll likely be only a half step ahead of where you were before. Losing body fat can be a quicker process! But to maintain health and sanity, it should be done cautiously with slow and steady adjustments.
Give yourself ample time to progress in either direction! Set realistic expectations based on your time frame and dedication to the plan. Dramatic transformations are usually the result of drastic short-term diets! Don't believe the hype.
LET'S TALK ABOUT BULKING, BABY
There are two types of bulkers in the world: Eat-Everything-Track-Nothing, and the Dedicated Macro Warriors
Pros of the Eat-Everything-Track-Nothing route: you will never have to worry about slipping below maintenance. Your surplus will be alive and well! Cons include the ever-present excess body fat. The Eat-Everything-Track-Nothing ninjas embrace the warmth and welcome the increases in strength and free time not spent counting macros!
Pros of Dedicated Macro tracking during a bulk: maintaining lines and definition! One should expect SOME level of added body fat during this phase, but if the macros are kept just above maintenance, relative leanness can be maintained! Cons include having to track macros as well as the inherent risk of accidentally slipping below maintenance and potentially NOT progressing forward or growing.
No matter which route you choose, you must be in some amount of caloric surplus in order to grow. That means each day you eat more calories than you burn. Your daily 'burn rate' is different than your neighbor, different than your brother, and different than another dude halfway across the world with your same height/weight/and build. A little further down we'll talk about how to figure out this 'burn rate'. For now, we understand bulking= caloric surplus= growing.
LEAN AND MEAN
So you want to get SHREDDED!? Bring on the abs! Leaning out means that you'll be losing weight, preferably of the body fat variety. This requires you to be in a caloric or macro DEFICIT. Like we talked about before, you can disregard macros and just LOSE WEIGHT on the scale by slashing your calories but don't be surprised if you aren't stoked with your physique at the end. It may seem like you've lost muscle, because you may have! Without adequate protein intake, your body will shed muscle and fat at-will.
One common misconception about dieting in a deficit is that you can maintain the same deficit/same diet the whole time. How many times have you downloaded a free workout and diet program that contained a single meal plan to follow for 8, 10, or 12 weeks? Weight loss might happen initially (if that plan happens to be below your personal maintenance), but your body will fight to regain control! Not long into your diet you'll notice the scale stops moving. You're following the plan, you're working out like crazy, so what's the deal? It's time to ADJUST and create a new deficit. Adjustments can be a decrease in your intake (food) OR an increase in your physical activity output (think: cardio). Without these adjustments your weight loss will stall and this can be very frustrating! This is commonly a point at which people give up on shred-mode.
Like bulking, you need to know your daily 'burn rate' in order to calculate a good starting deficit. Deficits should be moderate and adjustments should be conservative! Too aggressive of a deficit will leave you feeling exhausted, hungry, and can do some serious damage to your metabolism long-term!
BURN BABY, BURN
The most commonly asked question is 'what are my macros!?' In fact, I'd bet that's why you're here right now. The reason no one can answer that question outright, is not because they're greedy assholes that want to sell you training. In order to calculate your macros, you need to know your daily burn-rate. And like we went over before, that rate varies immensely! Males can have lower burn rates than females, a construction worker can have a higher burn rate than an athlete, and even your OWN burn rate can be different this year than it was last year.
So how do you find it? You have options!
Option 1: The Online Calculator. You've seen them around, 'enter your age, weight, height, and body fat' and BOOM. Out pops your 'suggested intake'. I wouldn't take these calculators to war, but I do think they provide a decent starting point. Look for a calculator that takes activity into account. Be as realistic as possible about your daily activity! Also look for a calculator that will give you a 'maintenance' value, not just what it assumes you need in order to lose weight or gain weight.
The result the calculator spits out will be a value that it's estimating to be your 'maintenance' calories. To take it further, this is the estimated number of calories you can eat in a day to offset your activity and NOT impact your weight.
Option 2: The Personal Tracker. Time to roll up your sleeves and put in a little work! This option is good for a person who pretty much eats the same thing every day, give or take, and who likes taking notes. You'll need to track everything you eat (in CALORIES) each day for about a week (4-7 average 'typical' days is good). Now this isn't the time to start good behavior! Try not to make any dramatic changes to your intake during this tracking period. Along with intake, you'll want to take your scale weight every morning. Without scale weight this option won't work!
By the end of the 4-7 day tracking period you'll have a list of your daily calorie totals AND a snapshot of what your weight did during that time. It's typical for weight to fluctuate on a daily basis (water, sodium intake, digestion, etc.) but if your weight stays about the same, the average of your total daily calories will be YOUR starting point or ‘maintenance’ calories.
If you notice a downtrend in weight, maybe 2-3 pounds over a week, you know you aren't eating enough to offset your daily activity! Depending on your goal, you can add 200 calories in per day, track another week, and see if you can get closer to a maintenance number (where your weight stays the same). Same with an increase! If your weight goes up consistently over your 4-7 day tracking period, you are eating OVER maintenance. Depending on your goal you can drop 200 calories a day, track another week, and try to get it to stabilize.
Ideally you want to start this project with maintenance calories, but if your goal is weight loss or weight gain and you discover during tracking that you’re already moving in the right direction, feel free to use the average of your tracking period and get rolling!
With our ‘burn rate’ maintenance calorie estimates in hand, we're ready to convert to macros! I'm going to use an example calorie total that is purely for example purposes. Everywhere you see my value (2,500 calories) insert YOUR calculated or tracked result for maintenance calories.
Let's calculate our protein, carbs, and fat to total the 2,500 example maintenance calories
P IS FOR PROTEIN
Protein is not only the easiest and most straight-forward macro to track on a label, it's also the ONLY macro value that can be set based on a simple equation! Adequate protein intake is based on your LEAN BODY MASS. This is the weight of your body if you removed ALL body fat. We're talkin just muscle, bones, organs, and fluids. If you know your current body fat %, you can find a Lean Body Mass calculator here (click here to open a new window). If you don't, think back to the leanest you've been in your adult life and subtract another 10lbs. Yes, this is another estimated value but it works for our purposes! As a bodybuilder, I've actually never measured my body fat %! So I go with historical data. The leanest I've been on stage is 195lbs, subtract 10lbs from that and my estimated Lean Body Mass is around 185lbs.
Since we've established that muscle grows at the rate of grass, your Lean Body Mass isn't going to be changing all that often. I've used the same value in my calculations for years! So don't feel the need to update this value every time the scale moves.
Your total Protein intake should be 1g-1.25g per pound of lean body mass
Using my own example above, my daily protein intake could be anywhere between 185g and 231g per day. Why the sliding scale? What does this mean? In order to maintain my current muscle mass, I absolutely need 185g per day but over 231g would be unnecessary! When I'm cutting for a show and running low on calories in general, I keep that value closer to 185g. I want to make the most of every calorie I put in my body, and I personally would rather have extra carbs or fats! When I'm bulking and calories are higher, I scoot closer to 231g. I want to make sure I have adequate protein coming in and no mistake in tracking could pull me below that required amount.
Let's say for our example I set mine right in the middle of the range: 208g of protein
QUICK MATH BREAK & PROGRESS REPORT:
So far we know we have 2,500 total calories to work with. We 'spent' 208g on protein which equates to 832 calories (208g x 4 calories per gram = 832). That leaves 1,668 calories to divide up between fats and carbs (2,500 - 832 = 1,668)! No matter how you decide to divvy up carbs and fats, just make sure the combined caloric values add up to 1,668 to stay within your 2,500 daily total.
FATS & CARBS
No way around it, calculating Fats and Carbs is part-guess and part-personal preference. If you're someone who prefers foods that are higher in fats, you're going to want a higher percentage of fats so you can eat more of the things you love! If you're a die-hard carb lover, you might want to spare some of your calorie-dense fats to allow for more space on the carb side. Take performance into consideration as well. If you perform better eating a higher percentage of carbs, go with it. Getting a good workout in and being able to think clearly are more important reasons than food preferences, at the end of the day.
I personally prefer carbs over fats, but I never want to cut fats out completely (balance people!) I keep my fats between 50g-70g. If you're a person with an insane metabolism (so-called hard gainers) your total calories will be upwards of 3500 - 5000 or more and you'll want to give yourself more fats! It's not uncommon for someone with a high metabolism to have fats set at 100g/day or higher.
Let's use 70g of fat in our example. I don't have a ton of calories to work with, but I don't want to be at the bottom end of the range either.
QUICK MATH BREAK & PROGRESS REPORT:
Of our remaining 1,668 calories, we've now allocated a few more to fats. 70g of fat = 630 calories (70g x 9 calories per gram fat = 630) Leaving the rest (1,038 calories to be exact) to use for carbs! If we know carbs are 4 calories per gram, then 1,038 calories divided by 4 calories per gram = 259.5g carbs
Our final result in this example of 2,500 calories:
208g protein, 70g fat, 259.5g carbs
Could this be tweaked? Totally! You have room to adjust on protein, to alleviate more calories to put towards the other values. You could pull some calories from carbs and add to your fats as well. But this would be a solid place to start. Remember, these values will need to be adjusted anyway as you head towards your goal of adding or losing weight. So don't get too attached!
Let's talk about Keto and practice making moves with our new macros. A lot of people ask about Keto and Intermittent Fasting (IF), and my answer is always the same. ALL PRACTICES WORK. You can lose weight and build muscle on Keto, IF, or traditional dieting. No one practice is 'better' or more 'effective' than another. It's all about finding a practice that works with your body, with your training, and with your lifestyle.
Another thing that traditional dieting, Keto, and IF have in common is the basis of the macro calculation we did above. Step one in putting together any of these diets is finding your maintenance intake, converting to a macro split, and in the case of intermittent fasting - dividing them between 2-3 meals that fit within your 'eating window'.
If you wanted to give Keto (low/no carb) a try, let's use our example above and tweak the macros. Our protein intake is unchanged! If you wanted to move it up towards the upper end of our scale (231g) you could! Since you'll have an abundance of calories coming back to the party by removing carbs. But in this example let’s leave it the same.
2,500 total calories, 832 coming out for protein, leaving 1,668 for only fats now! 1,668 divided by 9 calories per fat gram = 185g fat. Simple as that!
Commonly I hear of people 'switching to Keto' by simply removing their carbs. From our example, that would eliminate 1,038 calories from your day! Well no shit you're losing weight. Keto dieting should follow the same principles we've gone over. Slow, moderate adjustments to your maintenance intake. Which means your 'no carb' macros should still add up to that maintenance calorie total.
ADJUST LIKE THAT, HE WAS GONE
We've got it nearly handled now! We have a goal, we have solid starting macros based on our own personal 'burn rate' - now to implement. Flexible dieting allows any and all food types so long as they fit within your set macros. You can follow a more bro-style diet (chicken, rice, broccoli), stay flexible, or do a combination of both!
As you implement these macros, you'll need to monitor your weight (daily is best!) so you know when to adjust. Your success at each step along the way depends entirely on your compliance to the plan. If you eat outside of your macros, that will have an impact on your weight and you won't know if an adjustment is necessary or not! Consider your goal and 'how bad you want it' to determine how consistent you want to be with your plan. If you slip off-plan, don't adjust your macros to make up for it! Get back on track and wait until you are consistent to adjust.
If your goal is to lose weight, adjustments will need to be made to your carbs OR fats OR cardio. After tracking your intake according to your macros for a full week, if you don't see a drop in weight on the scale choose from the following adjustments:
cut 20g from your daily carbs
cut 9g from your daily fats
add 15 min steady state cardio (incline treadmill, stairs, bike)
add 5 min HIIT cardio intervals
(40 seconds on, 20 seconds easy pace alternating cardio of choice)
These are all moderate adjustments and don't need to be doubled up! Give each adjustment a full week (with compliance) before adjusting again.
Since we haven't discussed cardio, here's the scoop! If you normally do a 10 min warm up before lifting, or walk the dog once a day, that energy output was already accounted for when you tracked your daily 'burn rate'. Any cardio adjustments will be in ADDITION to the output you had prior, no matter how much or how little!
If your goal is to gain weight/build muscle, adjustments will need to be made in the same areas! But in the opposite direction AND at a different rate. When losing weight, adjustments can be made every time you don't hit a new low on the scale. But as we discussed before, muscle doesn't grow as fast as body fat sheds off! If you were gaining 1lb each week on a bulk, most of that would be added body fat. During a bulk you want to make sure the scale is not going down, and if it does you’ll want to make one of the adjustments above but the opposite direction.
add 25g to your daily carbs
add 11g to your daily fats
remove 15 min steady state cardio
remove 5 min HIIT cardio intervals
If your weight stays the same after a week of consistency and tracking, you can either choose to hold off for a second week OR make an adjustment. As we talked about before, the size of your caloric surplus will determine how your physique looks during this bulk. If your goal is to maintain relative leanness, adjusting every 2-3 weeks is best! If you want to make SURE you’re getting the most out of your bulking season and you don’t mind a little extra body fat you can make the adjustment every time your weight stays the same (week to week).
If you’re wondering how much cardio to do during your bulk, the answer is: as much as you want! Adding cardio to your routine during a bulk will NOT make a ‘lean bulk’ (let that sink in). Adding cardio during a bulk CAN pull you out of your surplus if you aren’t tracking and monitoring your weight. The bottom line is, if you like cardio and you appreciate the added cardiovascular health benefits, include it! Just make sure you adjust your food intake to compensate. If you hate cardio and want to skip it, skip it! Just be aware of stopping ‘cold turkey’ if you are post-show or wrapping up any type of dieting phase. I recommend reducing cardio slowly with adjustments (above) until you’re at a reasonable amount that you’re happy with!