If you’re trying to build muscle, but you’re not quite sure how many calories you should be eating, then give me a few minutes and I’ll explain more about it in this article.
If you want a short and simple answer to the question, aim for somewhere between 250 and 500 calories per day over and above your maintenance calorie requirements.
The exact amount will vary from person to person depending on how fast you’re capable of building muscle, which in turn is affected by your training age, your physical age, how well your training program is set up, whether you’re on gear, as well as the genetic blueprint you were handed at birth.
But for most people, 250-500 calories per day should be enough to cover it.
How Many Calories Does It Take to Synthesize One Pound of Muscle?
Although estimates vary, the amount of energy required to synthesize one pound of muscle is somewhere in the region of 2500-3000 calories per day. However, this isn’t a subject that’s been studied in any depth, and that number is nothing more than an educated guess.
Maybe it’s a bit more and maybe it’s a bit less, but let’s assume it’s there or thereabouts.
Let’s say you’re gaining muscle at the rate of one pound per month. That’s going to require around 3000 additional calories per month, which comes to just 100 calories per day.
In other words, gaining muscle is unlikely to require a calorie surplus in excess of 500 calories per day. In many cases, it’s going to be a lot less.
That might not sound like much, especially when you compare it with some of the 5000 calorie bulking diets out there. But you can’t force your muscles to grow faster simply by stuffing yourself with food. All that’ll happen is that you get fat.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.
The size of the calorie surplus required to support muscle growth will decline in tandem with the number of years you’ve been training. That’s because the greater your training age (i.e. the number of years you’ve been training with weights), the slower the gains are going to come.
Someone in their first few months of training might be able to gain muscle relatively quickly, and will need a higher calorie intake to support that rate of growth.
But if you’ve been training for several years, the rate at which you can gain muscle will have slowed down. So you’ll need to adjust your calorie intake to compensate.
There’s no point taking in a large calorie surplus designed to support a rapid rate of muscle growth if you’ve been training for two years and simply can’t build muscle that quickly.
That said, it’s perfectly natural to gain some fat when you’re focused on adding muscle. Guys who try to stay lean all the time are often the ones who struggle to make any appreciable gains in size. But you shouldn’t get to the point where your rate of fat gain exceeds your rate of muscle growth.
You’ll also need to pay close attention to what’s happening to your body.
If, after a few weeks, you see that you’re gaining too much fat, then reduce your calorie intake by 100-150 calories per day. The decrease should come from carbohydrate, fat or a combination of the two.
But if you’re not gaining any weight, increase your calorie intake by roughly the same amount. That increase should come primarily from carbohydrate, although some additional fat isn’t going to hurt. If, after 7 to 10 days, your weight hasn’t changed, do the same thing again.
How Many Meals a Day Should You Eat?
To gain muscle, aim for at least 3 meals a day. Each meal should contain 20-40 grams of protein. Ideally, you’d have a dose of protein within the first few hours after waking up, before a workout, after a workout, and before going to bed.
Although you can lose fat quite easily eating just one meal a day, I don’t think such infrequent meals are ideal as far as building muscle is concerned.
In total, your daily protein intake should be around 0.7 grams of protein per pound (1.6 grams per kilogram) of bodyweight. There’s no good reason why you can’t eat more. If anything, I’d rather err on the side of eating a little too much, rather than not enough. But, for most people, 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight will do the job.
Are There Any Foods You Should Avoid?
Not really. As long as you’re hitting your protein and calorie targets for the day, there are no specific foods to avoid. Although a lot of people are still worried about eating foods high in fat, dietary fat does have a number of perks for anyone wanting more muscle than they have right now.
For one, some folks tend to burn off a lot of calories throughout the day, and have a hard time eating enough to maintain their weight, let alone gain any.
That’s where the addition of some high fat meals can help. Because fat contains roughly twice as many calories as carbohydrate or protein, you don’t need to eat as much to get the same amount of energy.
Adding an avocado to your salad, for example, or chomping on a high fat snack like pistachio nuts, is a simple and easy way to bump up your daily calorie intake.
What’s more, fat also has a number of interesting benefits in the muscle-building department.
In one study, a post-workout drink containing whole milk was found to be more “anabolic” than fat-free milk.
Although both drinks led to an increase in protein balance, it was the high fat whole milk that delivered the greatest results.
In another trial, eating a whole egg did a better job of boosting muscle protein synthesis – a key driving force behind muscle growth – than eating just the white, even when protein intake was identical.
While you don’t want too much of the stuff, fat isn’t something to be feared, just as long as your overall muscle building diet is set up properly.
A diet designed to maximize your rate of muscle growth requires eating more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight. That means being in a calorie surplus, rather than the deficit required to lose fat.
However, you’re not going to need a surplus larger than around 500 calories per day. In many cases, particularly for those who have moved past the beginner stages of training, it’s going to be nearer 250 calories a day.
Rather than eating too many calories and having to burn them all off again, it makes a lot more sense just not eating them in the first place.
If you're overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting advice out there, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.