Episode 109 Transcript – Optimizing Nutrition & Lifestyle to Gain Muscle Mass


Hello, and welcome to the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. My name is Aidan Muir and I am here with Leah Higl, my co-host, and this is episode 109, where we’re going to be talking about optimizing nutrition and lifestyle to gain muscle mass.

So, we’re going to go slightly broader than just nutrition stuff, just to cover, pretty much everything we can on this topic in a decent timeframe. I’m just going to say, under 20 minutes, but we’ll see. 


We’ll see. We’ll see how we go. Let’s start with calorie intake for muscle building. Ideally, to optimize muscle building and muscle growth, we are wanting to be in a small calorie surplus. So, muscle building itself is a very energy-intensive process, so if we don’t have additional calories for that process, our body’s just not going to prioritize it quite as much as if we do have some additional calories to fuel that.

For most people, this is going to look like, around a five to 20% increase above baseline maintenance calories, prior to accounting for changes in energy expenditure, which we’ve just filmed a podcast on how our calorie intake affects calorie expenditure. So, that’s a wormhole on its own, but overall five to 20% above baseline maintenance calories is what we’re looking for.

Ideally, this is going to be enough calories to gain weight consistently while aiming for a good ratio of fat to muscle gain. I personally like to aim for at least two parts muscle to one part fat as a good ratio. I think anything worse than that, we’ve probably gone a little too fast, or haven’t optimized other variables, that we will talk about in regards to muscle building.

This would look like, let’s say you gained three kilos over three months. If you did a pre and post DEXA scan and found that two of those kilos were muscle mass and one kilo was fat, I’d call that a success when it comes to muscle building. If you add in this calorie surplus and weight is not changing after a long period of time, you basically just add in more calories. Then just keep an eye on, generally your body composition as you gain weight, because obviously you can do the pre and post-DEXA scans, which are awesome and can inform future bulking sessions or bulking periods, but if you keep an eye on just how much fat you’re gaining, whether that’s through pinch tests, or waist measurements, or just how your clothes fit and look, it’s a good way to gauge whether you’re going too fast or maybe too slow. 

The ideal rate of gain is largely based on your ability to gain muscle. So, a lot of this is based on genetics, how much muscle mass you currently have, and a bunch of other different factors. When I first start working with clients, I do aim for that more modest rate of weight gain for most people, which is around that half a kilo to a kilo per month.


Another factor in that could arguably be desire to stay lean as well. Some people, if they really, really wanted to stay lean, they would really want that two parts muscle to one part fat gain. It’s hard to get fat gain much lower than that, but they go slow, conservative, everything like that.

There are some people in this world who wouldn’t really care if they stayed lean in the process. Let’s use, I know it’s an American example, but an offensive lineman in American, in the NFL, for example, is trying to be massive. Super heavyweight powerlifters, is trying to gain as much size.

Even then though, there is one thing I’d put out there, just being like, being in a larger surplus only really increases muscle gain a very small amount. It doesn’t make a massive difference. There’s a study that I share occasionally on Instagram, but it was based on college athletes who were lifting weights, but they’re obviously decent level athletes already, which also means they probably got good genetics, which is another topic.

But one group got given a 500-calories surplus, the other group were told to eat ad libitum just to have a small surplus. The group that got the small surplus, they stayed quite lean and they gained a decent amount of muscle mass, whereas the other group gained a tiny bit more muscle mass, but a lot more of fat mass. Sp, it doesn’t really speed up the rate of progress.

So, now we’ve got calories out of the way, we’ll talk about some macronutrient stuff, so protein, carbs, fats. Starting with protein, a very good gauge to aim for is 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight protein per day. That number comes from research on people who are probably about 10 to 15% body fat.

So, if you had a higher body fat percentage than that, you could probably scale the numbers down a little bit, to say 1.4 to 2.0. The research on people in that body fat percent range, basically found that 1.6 grams per kilogram optimized it in the majority of cases, and going higher didn’t have any further benefit.

The 2.2 number was there from statistical research. It’s a confidence interval number, is basically what it is, but it’s like to be there are outliers in this world, let’s just make sure we cover them. So really, just getting above 1.6 makes sense.

I like to encourage getting above that and maybe going a little bit higher just so that if there’s any days where you accidentally undershoot a little bit, you still reach that target. Going above that, completely fine. You could even go above the 2.2. That’s not going to slow down muscle gain at all. It just takes away from the opportunity to get in more carbs or fats, which could have other benefits, or come alongside different micronutrients, too.

Talking about the carbs and fat side of things, we’ll start with fat, because I view, in terms of, you figure out your calories, you figure out your protein, then you pick a fat target roughly, and then you fill up the rest of your calories with carbohydrates, and these can be ranges. They don’t have to be specific numbers, but a solid range for dietary fat intake while trying to optimize muscle growth is 0.5 to 1.5 grams per kilogram per day.

So, for somebody who’s 100 kilos, as an example, to keep maths really simple, that would range anywhere from 50 to 150. I don’t really like the upper end of that range so much. I’m much more of a fan of the lower end of that range. If you go below the lower end of that range, it could have implications for hormones. For example, in men it could reduce testosterone levels, which obviously could have an impact on muscle, but once you get above a certain range, it’s no longer really affecting hormones.

Once you’re above that 0.5, for sure it’s no longer affecting hormones negatively. The further above you go, it’s no longer providing additional benefits for hormones, but it cuts into the amount of carbs and protein that you can have. If you’ve already got enough protein, that doesn’t really matter, but it would take away from the opportunity of getting more carbs.

This is another interesting topic, and it’s hard to tell based on research because there’s a lot of variables going into research, for example, genetics, how long people have been training for. We can’t really assess this stuff super clearly, but if we look at things theoretically, it’s difficult for carbs and protein to convert to body fat.

Firstly, protein has to be converted to glucose first and then go through another process to be converted to body fat. Carbs or glucose, technically can be stored as body fat, but usually a lot less easily than dietary fat can. You hear that and it makes you freak out. The research hasn’t really found a difference. It’s finding that if you did put together a study where you had a bunch of people at the bottom end of that fat target and another group at the top end of that fat target, I don’t think we’d actually see that much of a difference in body composition, which means we’ve got a decent range. Right?

You could even make arguments for higher than that, to a degree. Based on the theory, there is a limit in terms of, let’s say somebody is … This is me, my personal interpretation more than anything, so don’t take this too seriously. Let’s say we’ve got somebody who’s coming from a long training layoff, and they’ve previously had a lot of muscle mass. They have an opportunity to optimize their lifestyle for muscle gain, and they can go into a slightly larger calorie surplus, an average person with about a lot of fat gain because they’re primed to build muscle, perhaps than somebody else.

You could make a pretty strong argument that, that person should go in the lower end of the fat target because it limits how much fat can actually be stored to a certain degree, because dietary fat can get stored a lot more easily. If somebody’s gaining at a decent rate and they’re only having, say 50 grams of dietary fat per day, how much of that 50 grams is getting stored as body fat, because obviously some of it will have to be used for other portions. They can only be gaining so much fat per day.

Complex topic, and that’s why I do come back to the logic of being like, the research can’t really find a difference. 


Yeah. It’s, at the moment based on mechanism, but it still makes sense. If you’re comfortable consuming slightly on the lower end of that range, why not?


Yeah. Another topic, I don’t want to go too deep into this topic, but if somebody who’s taking performance enhancing drugs, if a guy was taking testosterone, then suddenly the bottom end of that range falls away a little bit because it’s no longer an issue. They’re gaining at larger rates. Completely separate topic. Once you get to those, kind of things, once you start looking at really low fat targets, it’s almost impossible to get that low anyway. For example, if somebody has lean beef mince as a protein source, it has a few grams of fat per 100 grams. It starts, you’re not going to get below 20 grams, as an extreme example.


Yeah, especially if you have a big calorie budget. 


Exactly. It’s just unfeasible at some stage, which is why that range of 0.5 to 1.5 exists.


We’re going to go to, I guess something more lifestyle-related now, rather than nutrition for specific, but that’s talking about sleep, just because sleep can have a pretty big impact on your ability to gain muscle mass, or at least optimizing gains in muscle mass.

So, research has shown huge benefits from getting over eight hours sleep. I think we all know that we should be getting at least that eight hours sleep. Some research on college athletes have found that even getting nine to 10 hours sleep can even be more beneficial for athletes, specifically more recovery to do, and things like that, more time sleeping from a mechanistic point of view makes sense.

An argument that is made against that would be that the claim around, if you sleep for nine to 10 hours, most of us are going to naturally wake up before we get to the nine to 10-hour mark. So, do we actually need that additional sleep if we’re naturally waking up before that?

A counterclaim to that, so a counterclaim to an argument against something else, but a counterclaim to that is that as we age, we do end up naturally waking up a little bit quicker. Is that because we need less sleep to optimize recovery or is it just because as we age, we get less sleep? That’s just one of the negative things of aging?


Yeah. Jumping in on that, some people can interpret that being like, “Oh yeah, it’s life responsibilities, et cetera jump in. It’s harder to get more sleep.” It is even more than that. If somebody goes to bed at a normal time and they just wake up when they wake up, it seems like as we age, we get shorter and shorter amounts of sleep.

Once again, based on the research … This research is usually based on college athletes. They get heaps of sleep, and it improves their performance, like body composition. Even skills-based testing, if somebody is a soccer player, they do more accurate passes and stuff like that when they get better sleep.

It’s like, could that carry over to improve form in the gym, for example? Heaps of ways of looking at it, but it just seems like people do wake up a little bit earlier, you could say.


Kind of, naturally.


Yeah, and that’s not necessarily better.


It doesn’t necessarily mean we wouldn’t benefit from that extra sleep even though we do naturally wake up. I think a lot of that is also dependent on what you’re doing frequently. If you have a pretty set sleep schedule, your body will naturally be in that cycle of, we go to sleep at this time and we wake up that time.

Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t need that extra recovery time. For me personally, nine to 10 hours feels so good even though it’s, most of the time, not feasible. Overall, sleep is going to be really important to optimizing recovery, and therefore muscle building. That your muscle building journey, potentially even just better body composition outcomes in a calorie surplus, and potentially a reduction in injury risk.


Yeah, and there’s a lot of elite-level athletes who have exceptionally outlier long careers who are massive on sleep, largely for that injury reduction risk as well. A lot of them talk about this concept of, because they can’t get as much as they’d want in that one hit, they do have naps throughout the day. They might get seven to eight hours at night and then an extra one or two hours during the day after a training session or something like that.


Yeah. I’m a big advocate for midday naps after lunch. If it’s something you can do as an athlete, I love it.


Yeah, and it’s another topic from the caffeine perspective and how that affects everything, but it’s like, it starts getting logistically more difficult if you’re napping in the day, as well. 

So, now we are going to talk about training. Obviously, as dietitians, I don’t know, we avoid getting too deep into this for very, very many reasons. I have a clear rule on Instagram that, I just don’t talk about training. I get a lot of training questions, but I’m like, I just think it’s a rabbit hole that, it would be silly for me to go down even though I care about it a lot.

We are going to talk about some very clear, non-controversial statements. From a training perspective, you want to be lifting weights with progressive overload, or you want to be doing some form of resistance training with progressive overload, you probably want to be resting for two to three minutes between sets. 

Research is pretty clear that if people do shorter rest periods, it is not as effective for muscle growth and strength building as well. There are, obviously exceptions to this. This is just a general rule. There are certain exercises, like if you’re doing isolated stuff, you could probably rest a tiny bit shorter. If you’re doing a massive set of squats, maybe you can go a little bit longer or whatever.

Ideally, taking sets to within at least three reps of failure for most of your working sets. Just a friendly reminder, that can actually be quite hard to do in a lot of stuff. If you’re doing a set of 20 on leg press, most people are going to end up just having to stop when it gets too brutal rather than getting to a legit within three reps of failure, if you had a gun to your head-type situation.


Yeah. That’s actually quite close to failure, realistically. You’re going to feel it by the time you get there.


Yeah. It’s another complex topic, but a lot of research is done under those circumstances, where they have somebody motivating them, almost yelling at them as they’re lifting and forcing them to go to failure. They’ll come to the conclusion that a couple of reps from failure seems to be the sweet spot or whatever.

In the real world, what if you go into a gym? You’re training by yourself. You’re not hyped, all those things. Mentally, it might even make sense to try to push for failure rather than trying to keep reps in a tank, because it’s hard to go into a set of leg press sets of 20 being like, “I’m going to keep three reps in the day,” and then not sandbag it and go a little bit too low.

For context as to why that is very clearly not a controversial statement though, there was a meta-analysis that literally came out this year. Layne Norton published, or posted about it the other day. He was saying that his powerlifting coach was one of the authors on this paper. They, I’ve said to be very non-controversial. I’ve said, at least within three reps of failure, within at least three reps.

That paper came to the conclusion that one to two reps of failure. They can measure a difference between three and one to two, which is even shifting the scientific consensus a little bit after looking at this.

Obviously, all of this research has existed, but it’s the first time in recent history that’s been all put together in a meta-analysis. People will make an argument that even though it’s within one to two reps of failure, sometimes you should take some sets to failure at least to get a clearer gauge of where failure is, as well.

Just from a different topic, but what if you took the first set to failure? That reduces your overall volume because you’re cooked for the next sets.

It’s like if you’re going to test out some sets to failure, makes sense to do that at the end. If you did three sets of something, on the third set, it would probably better than on the first set.

Another not controversial statement, avoiding overtraining or undertraining. I’m not going to specify there, I’m just going to leave that as a very … That’s a clear, obvious thing. Hitting each muscle group two plus times per week, very clearly to scientific consensus. This is based on muscle protein synthesis rates and stuff like that.

I’ve seen Greg Nuckols from Stronger by Science talk about a point that, I think a lot of us see, but he added an interesting point that’s, there’s a lot of people who are the best in the world, particularly bodybuilders who were training muscle groups once per week, and they’ve somehow became the best of the world.

I’ve seen a lot of people, particularly in the evidence-based community talking about this concept of, they’re good despite that, not because of that, being the research has always shown that two plus times per week is what is best. 

A point Greg Nuckols made is, basically being like, maybe it doesn’t matter over a training career. Maybe it matters over a 12-week study, but maybe it doesn’t matter over an entire training career.


A long, long time.


Yeah, but if we’re just going based non-controversial, scientific consensus, hitting each muscle group two plus times per week is the goal. Another not controversial thing is having a solid program. I could talk heaps about that, but that is a smart move. That is something that will help facilitate that progressive overload and everything like that.

You probably don’t want to be switching exercises super frequently, having to relearn new movements and new patterns and everything like that. You probably want to be getting good at a few exercises, and getting stronger at those exercises, and obviously just having a good, solid overall program.


Yeah. I think it’s good to briefly touch on training, because from a nutrition perspective there’s only so much we can do without a solid training approach. Even though it’s not our area of expertise, I think it’s a really great summary of the general points I even hit on with my clients in terms of, if you’re not working with a coach, at least have these couple of things going on.


Yeah. It’s, kind of tough because we are doing these things. We are getting clients to do DEXA scans at certain frequencies. Not every single client, but the clients who care about this. It is tough when it’s like, we’re nailing the nutrition side of things, but they’re just doing whack stuff with their training.


They’re just doing weird stuff.

I have a lot of people come in, and they’re doing something like F45, where I know it’s just random training. It’s not programmed training or progressive overload. They’re like, “My main goal is to build muscle.” I’m like, “You’re going to have to change your training.” 


Yeah. I’ll talk about progressive overload and they’re like, “Oh, yes, I’m lifting heavier weights in class.”


It’s not really super solid still. Yeah, so that’s a good thing to mention. Talking a little bit more about training, we want to touch briefly on cardio. So, cardio doesn’t really do much for directly improving body composition. It’s not like you need to add cardio into your training in order to burn fat, or get a better muscle to fat ratio on a surplus, or anything like that. It will, however influence the calories in versus calorie out portion of this discussion.

So, you may need to eat slightly more calories to account for the fact you are doing this additional activity. That’s not to say that cardio is completely useless, obviously just generally from a muscle-building perspective, because it has health benefits.

Obviously, we know, having good cardiovascular fitness is a good thing. So, doing it twice a week in some capacity is probably a good idea. I know a lot of powerlifters try to get a couple of sessions of just steady state cardio. So, nothing that’s going to particularly interfere with their resistance training, but it’s just so they can keep a baseline of good cardiovascular fitness just for general health, and also to have a baseline of physical preparedness for that kind of higher rep training.

In terms of, I guess adding in cardio, the only tips we would give is, separate it from your lifting sessions where possible. If it has to be with your lifting sessions, don’t do it before the lifting session because really realistically, your resistance training is going to be the thing that helps you build muscle, not cardio, but cardio is a good idea for those several reasons that I did mention.


Yeah. One concern a lot of people have is that cardio kills your gains. Talking about that very briefly, as we said, it probably won’t influence body composition or anything like that directly, but there is this concept of the interference effect, which is basically being, maybe it reduces your ability to recover from training. If you do it at a really high level, we can only do so much overall training.

Then the other thing is, maybe it shifts like muscle fiber types and stuff like that. When we look at it based on what the research shows, the interference effect doesn’t seem to exist until you get to quite a high volume of cardio. 

I think it’s as simple as keeping the main thing, the main thing. Based on what the research shows, it seems like if your goal is muscle growth, you should keep your lifting at least two times the volume in terms of the amount of time you spend on it, to what you’re doing with cardio. So, if somebody’s lifting six hours per week, they probably should be keeping cardio to less than three hours per week, which the reason why I think it’s just worth mentioning that is because sometimes people will be scared of doing, say two times per week, two 20-minute sessions or something like that because cardio kills your gains, where it’s like, when we say … If I give a range, like that’s six hours to three hours-type ratio, somebody would be like, “Okay. If I did 40 minutes, it’s not …”


It’s not going to ruin your muscle gains. Yeah.


Yeah. So, we’re trying to keep this under 20 minutes, but we’re going to talk about supplements. I don’t know how deep we’ll go into it. Listing a few supplements that, I think makes sense under a lot of circumstances are creatine, protein powder, caffeine, vitamin D and omega-3s. We’ll try and race through them in a short space of time.

Creatine, talked about heaps. It’s the number one listened to podcast that we have done, fun fact. Creatine helps because it improves ATP regeneration, which allows us to get out a few more reps here and there on sets. People seem to gain a little bit more lean mass when they’re taking creatine versus those who do not.

There’s a good meta-analysis looking at people training with creatine or training with a placebo, showing that, over, say a 12-week period, the people training with placebo gain about 12% on their one rep max. People taking creatine gain about 20% on their one rep max.

It’s like, this is improving performance, and that could carry over to muscle gain as well.


Next supplement we will briefly touch on is protein powder. So, protein powder on top of an already optimized protein intake is not going to do anything special, but it is absolutely a quick, efficient, logistically easy source of protein that you can add in to make sure that you are getting to your desired protein intake.

So, not a magical thing in terms of it’s not a supplement that you need, but if you are struggling to get to your desired protein intake, or want an easy way of adding in some extra protein, it’s a good option.


Yeah. Even from, in addition to total protein intake, also the distribution side of things as well.

If there’s a large gap without protein, it could make sense to use that. Caffeine, clearly improves performance. Firstly, it makes us hyped, it makes us want to train. That could be useful for a lot of people. Beyond that, it literally does improve strength/power. It improves one rep max performance by, say one to 2%. Not huge, but it physically does improve performance.

If it motivates you, you can get closer to that failure, kind of mark. That’s useful as well. Then, obviously lining it up with sleep. There was a meta-analysis on this that came out as well, just showing that one of the interesting findings was that if you had pre-workout within 13 hours of going to bed, like a full strength, like 300 milligram dose of pre-workout within 13 hours, it affects your sleep in some way.

If you have one shot of coffee, I think it was about eight hours. It’s like, if somebody’s going to bed at 10:00, they would have to stop having that at 2:00 PM or a little bit earlier. That’s based on just one isolated thing. If you’d had heaps of caffeine in the morning and then you had that, due to the half-life, you’d probably have to stop a little bit earlier.

That’s why I was talking about the logistics of caffeine around napping during the day. It’s like, clearly if you had any caffeine at any time, it’s probably going to be effective-


Interfere with that quality of sleep. Next one we’ll briefly touch on is vitamin D. So, this can be a little bit of a wormhole, but there is some research to suggest that when we have vitamin D deficiency, that can slightly impair things like recovery and muscle building to a certain extent.

So, if you have vitamin D deficiency, it’s obviously a good idea to rectify it and just keep it topped up. Particularly in times like winter and such when you don’t have a lot of sun exposure, it might be beneficial to take a vitamin D supplement.


Yeah, even immune function as well.

Sick less frequently, train more frequently. Yeah. The other thing I was going to touch on with caffeine very briefly that, I skipped over is, people have different levels of metabolizing caffeine. Somebody might metabolize it quicker than other people. So, that 13 hours is the average. Some will be longer, some will be shorter.

Finally, touching on omega-3s, I think this is far more relevant for people with a low omega-3 intake than people with high omega-3 intake. If somebody with a lower omega-3 intake started taking this, it might help with joint health a little bit, which could allow you to train a little bit harder.

There’s a little bit of research on the body composition side of things, like leaning slightly, very slightly in favor of gaining a tiny bit more muscle when taking omega-3s. I don’t read into that too much, but I also look at it through the lens of being like, that’s based on the average person. If somebody had a lower baseline intake, they might get a little bit more out of this than somebody else.


So, that sums up supplements. Is there anything else you want to add to the muscle building podcast?


That covers it, and most of our time I reckon.


All right, we’ll cut this off before we get to the half-an-hour mark. This has been episode 109 of the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. If you could leave a rating or review, that would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, thanks for tuning in.