If you’re trying to put together a muscle building diet, but you’re not quite sure how many calories you should eat to gain muscle, this page will show you how it’s done.
Here’s the story:
When it comes to diet and exercise, I have made a great many mistakes over the years.
Perhaps the biggest was spending far too much of my late teens and early twenties carrying around too much fat.
My main goal was to gain as much muscle as humanly possible. And I believed (wrongly as it turns out) that a muscle building diet involved nothing more than eating a vast amount of food. Which is exactly what I did.
I ended up gaining a lot of weight, and did a very thorough job of convincing myself that a) most of this weight consisted of muscle and b) the day would soon come when I would strip away the fat to reveal the Herculean physique I’d been working on all these years.
In truth, I was deluding myself on a grand scale.
If you’re carrying around a decent amount of muscle, adding a layer of fat can create the illusion of size, especially when you’re wearing clothes.
People may say that you’re looking bigger, which is always nice to hear.
And you might feel that warm glow of satisfaction when you step on the bathroom scales and see your weight going up every week.
But what’s the point if you’re just getting fat?
Contrary to all this “eat big to get big” nonsense out there, you can’t increase the rate of muscle hypertrophy simply by stuffing yourself with food.
Someone in their first few months of training might be able to gain several pounds of muscle each month, and will need a muscle building diet to support that rate of growth.
But if you’ve been training for several years, the speed at which you gain muscle will have slowed down.
Extra energy that isn’t used to fuel your workouts, to help you recover from those workouts, or to support the muscular remodeling process that occurs in the hours and days after training, will just end up stored as fat.
Do You Need a Lot of Calories to Build Muscle?
What you do in the gym is only part of the story when it comes to building muscle. Without enough food, much of your efforts in the gym will go to waste. But that doesn’t give you a license to go and eat anything and everything in sight.
There’s an upper limit on the amount of nutrients you can take in and turn into muscle. If you’re currently eating below this upper limit, then you’ll build muscle faster by increasing your nutrient intake.
But once you’ve “maxed out” your rate of muscle gain, simply adding more calories won’t automatically lead to a faster rate of growth.
Let’s say that the amount of energy required to keep you alive, fuel activity and maximize the rate at which you gain muscle is 3000 calories per day. But, you’re only eating 2000 calories per day. In this case, taking in an extra 1000 calories will lead to a faster rate of muscle growth.
But just because those extra 1000 calories have helped you gain muscle faster doesn’t mean that doubling up on the calories is going to result in muscle being built twice as fast. That is, bumping up your calorie intake still further to 4000 calories won’t make your muscles grow any faster.
In other words, with any muscle building diet, there is a sweet spot to be found between “not enough” and “too many” calories. Find that sweet spot, and you’ll be able to maximize your rate of muscular growth while minimizing the amount of fat that’s gained.
How Many Calories Should I Eat to Gain Muscle?
To gain muscle, you need to eat somewhere between 100 and 500 calories per day over and above your maintenance calorie requirements. The exact amount will vary from person to person depending on a number of different factors, most notably your training age, genetics, and activity levels.
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 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 five years and simply can’t build muscle that quickly.
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.
Your calorie requirements are also linked to your bodyweight and activity levels.
All other things being equal, a guy who weighs 200 pounds will need more calories than a guy who weighs 150 pounds. And if you’re very active outside the gym, you’ll need to eat more to compensate for all the extra calories you’re burning.
How Much Do I Need to Eat to Put on Muscle?
A good rule of thumb is that gaining a pound of muscle, while leaving room for some fat gain, will require around 3,500 additional calories.
It’s highly unusual to gain muscle without gaining any fat at all. The best you can hope for is to minimize the rate at which you gain fat, and you shouldn’t eat so much that you end up gaining more fat than muscle.
Let’s assume that all the muscle-building stars align. You’re a newbie in your late teens or early twenties. You have plenty of time on your hands to train, eat and sleep. You have favorable muscle-building genetics, a willingness to work hard, a low-stress lifestyle, and a diet and workout routine that’s set up properly.
In your first few months of training, it’s possible to gain around 2-4 pounds of muscle each month. To synthesize that muscle tissue will require approximately 7,000-14,000 additional calories. Spread that over 30 days, and it works out at between 233 and 467 additional calories per day.
In other words, even if the perfect conditions for muscle growth are present, the extra energy required to build muscle is less than 500 calories per day.
I know 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.
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.
Now, let’s say that the conditions for growth are less than perfect, and you’re gaining muscle at the rate of one pound per month (still an impressive rate of progress for anyone who’s moved past the beginner stages of training). That’s going to require around 3,500 additional calories per month, which comes to just 117 calories per day.
In other words, gaining muscle is probably not going to require a calorie surplus in excess of 500 calories per day. In many cases, it’s going to be less than 250 calories a day. What’s more, the size of the surplus required to support muscle growth will decline in tandem with the number of years you’ve been training.
On any muscle building diet, it’s important 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.
If, on the other hand, 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 I Eat to Gain Muscle?
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 I 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 muscle building 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.
For most people, the number of additional calories you should eat to build muscle will be somewhere between 100 and 500 calories per day over and above your maintenance requirements.
Remember, gaining muscle mass doesn’t require going on a dirty bulk and eating massive quantities of food. This will almost always lead to large amounts of fat being gained. Think of a muscle building diet as permissive in the sense that it allows the muscle-building stimulus delivered in the gym to manifest itself as an increase in muscle mass over time.
“Training is the actual stimulus while nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth,” explains Eric Helms. “Nutrition can permit the growth of muscle tissue but it is not the root cause. That is the function of training. All you can do is eat to provide the ideal environment to permit growth. You can train to grow, but you cannot truly eat to grow.”
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.
ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.