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 number of calories 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, the type of training you’re doing in the gym, whether you’re taking anabolic drugs, as well as the genetic blueprint you were handed at birth.
But for most people, 250-500 extra calories per day should be enough to cover it.
How Many Calories Does It Take to Synthesize One Pound of Muscle Mass?
Although estimates vary, the amount of energy required to synthesize one pound of muscle is somewhere in the region of 2500-3000 calories.
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 extra 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 dirty 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.
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 hitting the gym 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, and 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.
To calculate what your daily caloric intake should be, the first thing you need to do is calculate your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE for short. This calculator will crunch the numbers for you.
TDEE is a function of several things, such as your basal metabolic rate (which in turn is affected by your body composition, your activity levels, and so on.
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Once you have an estimate of your TDEE, you just add 250-500 calories to that number.
The number you’re left with is meant as a guide to what your daily caloric intake should be, rather than a rigid prescription that’s set in stone.
Treat it as a simple starting point. It’s not 100% accurate, but nor does it need to be. It’ll need to be adjusted over time, based on how your body responds to the diet.
Weight Gain vs Muscle Gain
When they say they want to gain weight, most people want the majority of that weight gain to come in the form of lean muscle rather than body fat.
That said, it’s perfectly natural to gain some body fat when you’re focused on adding muscle. Guys who try to stay lean during a period of weight gain are often the ones who struggle to make any appreciable gains in size.
However, you don’t want to get to the point where you’re putting on more than a pound of fat for every pound of muscle gained.
While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll gain 100% muscle mass and 0% body fat, your rate of fat gain shouldn’t exceed your rate of muscle growth.
Ideally, you want every pound of fat to be accompanied by at least 2-3 pounds of muscle.
It is possible to build muscle in a caloric deficit, meaning that you’ll actually lose fat at the same time as gaining lean muscle. But in most cases, muscle growth in a caloric deficit tends to happen a lot more slowly than muscle growth in a calorie surplus.
Building a decent amount of lean muscle while in a caloric deficit is a phenomenon that’s generally limited to people who are very overweight and have never lifted weights before (who tend to see rapid changes in body composition when they start working out), or those who are returning to exercise after a layoff, where muscle memory comes into play.
During any period of weight gain, you’ll need to pay close attention to what’s happening to your body.
If, after a few weeks, you see that you’re gaining excess 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 seeing any weight gain, increase the number of calories you’re eating 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 mass, 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.
That protein can come from whole foods, such as chicken, mackerel, salmon, cottage cheese, tuna, greek yogurt, beef, turkey, or a few whey protein shakes.
Some vegetable-based protein sources, such as pea protein or mycoprotein (Quorn), have been shown in some studies to work just as well as other high-quality protein sources when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis and supporting muscle growth [1, 2].
In many cases, the addition of 1-3 protein shakes to your regular diet is an easy and convenient way to get the extra protein you need to maximize the speed at which muscle is gained.
In total, your daily protein intake should be around 0.7 grams of protein per pound (1.6 grams per kilogram) of bodyweight. That can come from a mixture of animal and vegetable-based protein sources.
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 body weight 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 mass 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 current size, let alone gain weight.
That’s where the addition of some high fat meals can help. Because fat contains roughly twice as many calories as carbs or protein, you don’t need to eat as much to get the same amount of energy.
Adding an avocado to your salad, putting flaxseed oil or nut butters (such as peanut butter or almond butter) in a protein shake or smoothie, or chomping on a high fat snack like pistachio nuts, are all simple and easy ways to bump up your daily calorie intake.
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.
Nutrition Plan for Building Muscle: Summary
Here’s a quick summary of what your nutrition plan should look like if you want to gain muscle.
- CALORIES: Your daily calorie intake should provide somewhere between 250 and 500 calories over and above your maintenance calorie requirements.
- PROTEIN: Eat 0.7 grams of protein per pound (1.6 grams per kilogram) of bodyweight. Eating more isn’t going to hurt, but it’s probably not going to help much either.
- FAT: Fat intake can vary from 20-40% of total calories depending on your food preferences. Some days you might eat a little more fat, some days a little less. As long as total calories and protein are set at the right level, it doesn’t matter too much.
- CARBOHYDRATE: Once protein and fat are taken care of, the rest of your calories should come from carbohydrate, which is found in foods like pasta, oats, bananas, quinoa, potatoes, rice and so on.
How to Measure Muscle Gain
It’s not always easy to tell if the weight you gain is the result of putting on muscle rather than fat.
How can you measure muscle gain?
The simple answer is that you can’t, not with any degree of precision anyway.
Instead of splashing out on a DEXA or InBody scan, I think you’re much better off monitoring your waist size, your weight on the scales, and your performance in the gym.
Is your weight on the scales going up? Is your performance in the gym improving? Are you seeing minimal changes in waist size? If so, the chances are very high that muscle is being gained.
If, on the other hand, both your waist size and body weight are going up, but your gym performance is flatlining, then something isn’t quite right, and your training program may be in need of an overhaul.
What if your gym performance is improving, your weight is going up, but your waist size is expanding far too quickly? This is a sign that your overall calorie intake is too high, and you could do with cutting back slightly on the food intake.
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 calorie 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.
Eating too much will just lead to excess fat being gained, which you’ll then need to spend time and effort getting rid of. 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is 3000 calories enough to bulk?
If your maintenance calorie requirements are in the region of 2500 calories per day, then 3000 calories represents a surplus of 500 calories. That’s more than enough for most people who want to bulk up and gain muscle.
Is 2000 calories enough to build muscle?
You can certainly build some muscle on 2000 calories per day, especially if you’re a beginner just getting started, or if your maintenance calorie requirements are relatively low. However, to build muscle as fast as your body will allow, chances are you’ll need to eat more.
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