The sport of women’s bodybuilding has grown tremendously over the past two decades. The spirit of competition, the intensity of training, and the excitement of stepping on stage draw many competitors back repeatedly.
The process of getting to the competition stage is a long one and requires great attention to detail. The diet is, just like with any type of training, 80% of the success of the program. The correct fuel for the body will support daily activities, promote tissue repair, and support higher intensity. It is also the literal lifeblood of the human body. Our nutrition determines how our bodies will perform. This article takes a deep dive into the diet required for a female bodybuilding program.
Successful bodybuilding prep requires proper nutrition, attention to detail, and consistent precision with both training and nutrition. How you train and how you fuel and repair your body will determine how long it will take to achieve your goal of stepping on stage!
The two phases in a bodybuilding program are the bulking or hypertrophy phase and the cutting phase. You cannot combine these as one requires a calorie surplus and one requires a calorie deficit. The total process of competition prep can take 12-16 weeks or longer depending on the athlete’s starting point.
Bulking requires a slight increase in calories focusing on protein and carbohydrates as the building blocks of muscle tissue. This is also when you will lift to maximum efforts with low rep counts of 4-8 with longer rest periods between sets. Ensuring proper muscle repair in this phase is paramount for effective muscle growth. This phase can last as long as needed until achieving the desired muscle mass.
The cutting phase can range from 8-12 weeks depending on the amount of body fat you need to shed. A decrease in calories will stimulate the use of body fat for energy and the workouts will remain high effort, but the intensity will be increased as high intensity interval training and cardio are introduced to increase daily calorie burn.
Especially when working to add muscle mass, the careful addition of calories in the right way will make or break a bodybuilding program’s results. First, you’ll start by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the number of calories your body needs to function and does not consider any calories burned during activity. You should not consume less than your BMR calories as it will quickly slow the metabolism.
To calculate BMR, you can use an online calculator or, knowing your current body fat percentage, you can do the math yourself. To calculate yourself, first, use calipers or a bioelectrical impedance tool to measure body fat. An InBody scale, BodPod, or water weighing will give the most accurate body composition results.
(total weight in lbs./100) x (100 – body fat %) = lean body mass in lbs.
total weight – lean body mass = fat mass
Assume that half of the lean body mass is muscle tissue and half is essential organs, bone, and tissue.
lean body mass/2 = muscle mass in lbs.
Muscle burns 30-50 calories per pound per day. 30 calories would be a relatively inactive individual while 50 calories would be for a highly active person.
Multiply muscle mass in lbs. by 30 = low range of calories needed or BMR
Multiply muscle mass in lbs. by 50 = high range of calories needed.
Now, you have a range of calories to work with. Typically, an average of these two numbers will give a good starting point for daily calories. Every individual is different, so small adjustments may be necessary to find the correct balance. Allow one to two weeks to track changes before adjusting the diet. Remember, as your body composition changes, adjust this number as well.
With the required calories for the day, you’ll add 200-500 calories to the daily total for muscle building and, when the timing is right, remove 200-500 calories from the daily need for fat loss.
You must break down calories into an ideal macronutrient count. The macronutrients in human nutrition are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The average person who has a basic workout routine will benefit from a distribution of 40/30/30—40% of calories from carbohydrates, 30% of calories from protein, and 30% of calories from fats.
For a bodybuilder looking to gain muscle mass with a heavier workout routine and, in many cases, the addition of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), the ratio needs to accommodate the greater intensity. The protein ideally bumps towards 45-50% of the daily calorie intake (not to exceed 1g of protein per pound of body weight for long term kidney health) with the calorie intake from carbohydrates around 30% of the daily calories and fats with the remaining 20-25% of daily calories.
An important side note on fats—engaging in low-fat dieting can disrupt women’s hormones. Fats aid in the production of female hormones and other important body functions. Too little fat in the diet will disrupt hormones and can lead to many other issues in the body. Some athletes find higher fat diets to work well for them. Trial and error with results and progress tracking will help determine if you need minor adjustments to calorie numbers or the ideal macronutrient split.
For more details on nutrition, calculating macronutrients, and how food works in the body, be sure to explore the ISSA Nutrition Certification!
*Pre- and post-workout, assume consumption of calories within a half-hour before or after the workout
Fats are not ideal post-workout as they will slow the gastric emptying and keep food in the stomach longer. After a workout, you are trying to get nutrition into the cells quickly to begin the repair process and prevent muscle breakdown. However, for other meals during the day, this effect is ideal. Fats will keep you more satiated longer and prevent hunger throughout the day.
Carbohydrates can sometimes be a dirty word, but, for a female bodybuilder, they are simply energy. Carbs supply glucose the brain uses to function and also helps your body in replenishing glycogen after a strenuous workout. They cause an insulin spike, which forces the nutrients in the bloodstream into the cells for use.
Protein is essentially amino acids ready to use in the body. Whether it is in the form of solid food or consumed as a powder supplement (e.g., protein powder or amino acid drink), protein will supply the best source of building blocks for muscle tissue repair and growth.
The source of macronutrients is important as not all are considered equal. The key is eating “real” food. The less processed or “cleaner” the food, the better! This also means the volume of food consumed will be high.
Many athletes have questions about whole foods versus supplements and processed alternatives. As mentioned, the less processed the better and the fewer calories the food item usually has. Another way to think about it that you want your food to have a peel, not a wrapper!
Typically, the amount of food required to meet the daily calorie needs on a bodybuilding diet will require the athlete to eat six or more times each day. This makes it easier to divide the calories over the course of the day and into reasonably sized meals.
Example Meal Plan Approx. 1600 calories
In this sample plan, protein intake is high with a solid protein source anchoring every meal. Consume carbs earlier in the day to supply energy when you’re often the most active. Evening meals focus on protein and light carbs from veggies to promote repair and help the body reach natural ketosis during sleep. Water is essential to life and digestion, so it is monitored and added to every meal. A bodybuilding athlete should aim for 1.5 to 2 gallons of water daily.
As you progress into the cutting phase, the reduction of carb serving sizes will be the first way to begin to reduce calorie intake. Next, slightly adjust fats. Protein intake should remain high to support muscle tissue.
The precision of the weights and measures of foods on a bodybuilding diet is key. Use a food scale and measuring cups, dry and liquid when applicable. If you do not measure the food, you are simply guessing. Guessing or “eyeballing” amounts and servings is not effective!
The aspect of supplementation is next, but the addition of a small protein shake during a workout supplies the body with essential building blocks at its greatest time of need. If you are unable to stomach drinking during training, within 30 minutes post-workout is also efficient.
Nutritional supplements important in a bodybuilding diet include branch chain amino acids, glutamine, protein, and multi-vitamins.
BCAAs are a mix of essential amino acids (not found naturally in our bodies and must be supplemented), the building blocks of protein and muscle tissue. Taking BCAAs before, during, and/or after a workout aids in muscle repair and supplies a fuel source for the body. They become especially important during the cutting phase when calories are lower, fasted cardio may be introduced, and energy levels can begin to suffer.
This is a non-essential amino acid (found in many whole foods naturally) that is often not in a powdered BCAAs as the taste can be bitter to some consumers. Glutamine is a supplement that specifically affects the synthesis of protein. The high intensity of a bodybuilding training routine will increase the body’s need for glutamine. Therefore, it should be supplemented daily.
The use of powdered protein is an effective way to increase protein intake daily with a minimal calorie impact. Dairy-based whey protein is a common option while plant-based proteins are available as well. Plant-based proteins often have higher carbohydrate content which should be considered for the counting of macronutrients.
Never underestimate the power of a good multi! Everyone should be taking a multi-vitamin to bridge any micronutrient gaps in their diet. With a strict diet such as the one needed for bodybuilding prep, the shortlist of food choices does leave holes. Nutrients like calcium, zinc, iodine, iron, vitamin A, manganese, and even copper are needed for various processes in the body. A good multi-vitamin taken upon waking and then again about 12 hours later will supply these necessary micronutrients.
There are many other supplements available and marketed to serious fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilding athletes. However, anything outside of the supplements listed above is a personal choice. Items like pre-workout, caffeine, creatine, powdered glucose supplements, and fat burners are options, but your clients should discuss these supplements with their doctor prior to use to ensure there are no contraindications.
Now, armed with the details of a bodybuilding diet, you can get to work! Logging your daily intake will prove helpful to track daily intake and to look back throughout the process and determine what worked and what did not. Make food journaling a habit and, most importantly, be honest about what you eat! What is not tracked cannot be changed and, remember, guessing doesn’t work!
Check out the ISSA Bodybuilding Specialist Certification for more on the training for bodybuilding prep as well!
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.