One of the first questions our online training clients ask is “What are my macros?”
Macronutrient numbers are a red-hot fitness discussion item and have been for the last few years.
Everywhere you turn, someone is talking about their “macros” and is trying to tweak his/her numbers to optimize their hard-earned gains.
“Macros” are short for macronutrients. Specifically, when someone is discussing their “macros”, they are talking about how many grams of each macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) they are consuming each day.
How important are macronutrient set ups?
What is important to understand about your macronutrients?
What kind of a macronutrient set up should you choose?
What information should you take into consideration when you are picking your macros?
Is macro tracking even necessary?
These are all valid questions; let’s begin.
The Nutritional Hierarchy For Fat Loss and/or Muscle Gain
When attempting to diet in accordance with your goals, there is a list of priorities you should be taking into consideration.
Eric Helms, of 3D Muscle Journey, has an excellent video series on the topic. He discusses this priority as a “Hierarchy Of Muscle And Strength”, with each segment of the pyramid having an order of importance.
The entire series is exceptional and recommended. Here is the first video, “Calories”:
Before we even begin to discuss macronutrients, we need to have our calories accounted for.
We need to consider our primary goal. If we are attempting to lose fat, we need to be in a caloric deficit. If we are trying to gain muscle, we need to be in a caloric surplus.
We must figure this out first. If we aren’t in a deficit, we won’t be losing fat, and if we aren’t in a surplus, chances are slim we will be gaining appreciable muscle.
After this is taken into consideration, it’s time to turn to the next level on the pyramid: macronutrients.
Macronutrient Order Of Importance
With our goals lined up and our deficits and/or surpluses ready to go, our next step is to create a macronutrient plan which will work for us.
The internet is loaded with thousands of articles on how to properly set up your macros. Each article is a bit different than the last. Everyone has their opinion.
What should we believe?
We like to streamline information with our clients and ensure they know what is important and what they shouldn’t worry about.
Let’s discuss the order of importance when it comes to macronutrient set-ups.
Tackle protein first.
Protein needs to be accounted for before everything else. For our training and physique goals, getting adequate protein in our diet is objective one.
How much protein do we need?
This is under scrutiny currently. There are a number of elite fitness professionals who are currently debating these exact questions.
Rather than choose sides, we can make life difficult or simple.
Let’s choose simple.
Most literature shows on the lower end of the spectrum, you should get in the neighborhood of 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.
Meaning, take your body weight and subtract the (weight from) fat on your body. That number is close to how many grams of protein you should aim for each day.
If you would like this number even easier to generate, pick your ideal bodyweight. Use it as your protein number.
This is almost certain to be higher than you actually need, which isn’t a bad thing. Although there isn’t a physiological benefit to having excess protein, it’s the most filling macronutrient and can help dietary compliance.
The rest is your call – with a few caveats.
Now that your protein is taken care of, what about the rest?
The carbs and fats? How much of each is optimal?
This is the part of the argument and the conversation that always gets people riled up.
You will have your low-carbers who believe in the insulin theory, claiming that any time we eat carbohydrates, our insulin raises and every calorie we consume with raised insulin will be shuttled directly to our waistlines.
On the other side, you have your carb-lovers who lift heavy and max out their carbs while eating an incredibly low amount of fat each day.
The best choice is likely somewhere in the middle.
Going to the extremes in the world of carbs and fats is an excellent way to get into trouble with your hormones.
An excellent piece of simple advice? Eat to reflect your activity level.
If you’re lifting hard and an active person, your body needs carbohydrates. You especially need carbohydrates from whole food sources. Pile on the rice, potatoes, and fruit (yes, even fructose!) in and around your training sessions.
If you’re rather sedentary, lower your carbohydrate intake and raise your fat intake. Be sure you are still under your calorie maintenance and you will still lose fat.
The lower levels of body fat you have, the more carbohydrates your body can handle as well, due to being more insulin sensitive. This means your body can handle the carbs without having blood sugar issues. Blood sugar issues are more pronounced for those with higher body fat levels.
In practice, we have found the following recommendations to work well:
- Obese (>20% body fat) men –> 15-20% of overall calories from carbs, the rest fat.
- Lean (<20% body fat) men –> 25-30% of overall calories from carbs, the rest fat.
- Women tend to perform better with maxed out carbohydrates (maxed out means as many as possible while eating for your goals – not binging).
A bit of an expansion on that last piece.
Women tend to do better with completely maxed-out carbohydrates. This means setting the protein macro as low as it can possibly go. Around 0.8 grams per pound of lean body mass.
This works out to around 80-120 grams of protein, max.
Fat is kept on the lower-end as well. 30-40 grams per day, on average.
We keep the goal in mind, and pour every remaining calorie into the carbohydrate number.
It has become obvious after working with many hundreds of female trainees that this set up works best in fat loss protocols for women.
Macro Set-Up Options
Once your ideal numbers have been set up, there are still a few more questions for you to wrestle with.
There are a few more set up options you can mess around with so you can tailor your macros to your preferences, and your lifestyle in general.
Option #1: Straight Numbers
In the “straight numbers” approach, you will eat the same macro numbers every day with no variance.
An example would be someone trying to lose a pound per week with a maintenance of 2,500 calories.
A pound per week would require a 500 calorie deficit each day (500 calories x 7 days = 3500 calories per week, roughly 1 pound of fat loss).
2,500 – 500 = 2,000 calories each day.
Protein and carbs each have 4 calories per gram and fat has 9 calories per gram.
The macro numbers might look like:
- 200 grams of protein / 200 grams of carbs / 45 grams of fat. This would have roughly 2,000 calories.
Eating these macronutrient numbers each day would put you on track to your goal and should cause you to lose around 1 pound of fat per week.
Straight numbers work best for:
- Those who train with high frequency (many times per week).
- Those who want the simplest approach possible, as there is only one set of numbers to worry about.
- Those who eat the same thing each day.
- Those who are new to macronutrient counting.
Option #2: Macro Cycling
A “cycling” approach has you eating more carbohydrates (and less fats) on days you train and more fats (and less carbohydrates) on days you don’t.
Macro cycling attempts to use the theory of nutrient partitioning to expedite results. Nutrient partitioning is the idea that before/after training, your body will use carbohydrates to fuel and repair the body instead of using carbohydrates as storage on the body.
Conversely, when you are not training, the body doesn’t need as many carbohydrates, so we choose foods higher in fat for their hormonal (and taste) benefits.
In the above example, we were aiming for 2,000 calories per day.
In a cycling approach, we will still aim for 2,000 calories per day, but we will taper our calories to reflect training days (of higher carb, lower fat) and rest days (vice versa).
It might look like this:
- Training day macros: 200 p / 235 c / 30 f
- Rest day macros: 200 p / 50 c / 110 f
The overall calories are roughly the same each day. On training days, protein is kept constant and carbs are maxed out. On rest days, protein is kept constant, and fat is maxed out.
Does this really lead to better results?
Possibly. It’s mostly just theory, however, as a study like this would be out of the realm of possibility.
Interestingly enough, having a bit of a cycling approach does seem to have positive adherence benefits.
When a client is “eating like it’s a training day”, they subconsciously will be more diligent with getting to the gym. Their food choices will reflect the fact that they should be training, which makes it more likely they won’t skip their workout.
Cycling works best for:
- Those who train 3 or 4 days per week.
- Those who crave fatty foods and want a few days each week in which to eat them.
- Those who desire a bit more variety in their diets.
Option #3: Extreme Cycling
“Extreme cycling” takes the idea of macro cycling and takes it to the next level.
Certain studies have shown that alternating between periods of overeating and undereating have shown to have favorable effects on fat loss and physique improvements.
Using this approach (with our above example), the daily average would be around 2,000 calories, but on training days, the intake would be above 2,000 calories and on rest days, the intake would be below 2,000 calories.
In practice, this might look like:
- Training days (2,500 calories)
- 200 protein / 335 carbs / 40 fat
- Rest days (1,625 calories)
- 200 protein / 50 carbs / 70 fat
This set up would give us 14,000 calories per week, assuming the individual was training 3 times per week. This is an average of 2,000 calories per day, right on target with our weekly goal of 1 pound of fat loss.
Extreme cycling works best for:
- Seasoned dieters who have no compliance or binging issues.
- Fasting fans who don’t mind going long periods of time without eating (as rest days are rather low).
- Those who train 3 times per week. (Any more training than that and the rest day calories will be extremely low).
- Men seem to do better with extreme cycling than women.
Option #4: The Weekend Warrior
The “weekend warrior” is a great option if you tend to overeat on the weekend, and you would like to reserve your calories for your social situations and your time away from work.
In this situation, you will reserve a large proportion of your weekly allotment for Saturday and Sunday and lower your intake during the week. The goal of 14,000 calories per week (2,000 per day) is still in tact.
In practice, this might look like:
- Weekdays (1,750 calories)
- 200 protein / 120 carbohydrates / 55 fats
- Weekend days (2,625 calories)
- 200 protein / 275 carbohydrates / 80 fats
This set up would give the individual a weekly intake of 14,000 calories and would be on track to lose 1 pound of fat per week.
The weekend warrior works best for:
- Those who tend to be social and dine out frequently on the weekend – and wish to do so stress free.
- Those who are busy during the work week and can use their business to keep their minds off of food.
- Those who have a social event/party to attend that is food/drink-centered.
- Those who do “well during the week, but blow it on the weekend”.
There is a fifth option as well – but it’s for those who don’t want to count macronutrients.
Due to lifestyle considerations, some wish to auto-regulate their intakes.
There is no reason this can’t work for you, with some diligence and mindfulness.
If you are interested in an approach like this, you will find this article of interest. It contains non-counting strategies from some of the best in the world of fitness.
The best set of macro numbers can be executed consistently over time.
In order to find out which strategy works best for you, spend some time reflecting on your current lifestyle.
Consider how many times per week you train and your work/social schedule.
Instead of planning your life around your diet, it makes more sense to flip that and schedule your diet around your life.