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The Ultimate Muscle Growth Nutrition Guide

user-iconDiego Ricaurte

calendar-iconMarch 1, 2020

Topics:
Build Muscle
Foundational Nutrition Series
Nutrition

Adding lean muscle to your physique key developing an amazing physique. 

Higher muscle mass is not only associated with greater strength and functionality but also makes it easier to lower your body fat percentage.

Our foundational nutrition guide covers the basics of nutrition that will help you understand just about any nutrition plan, but designing a plan for muscle growth requires a little more attention to detail when it comes to energy balance and macronutrients.

If you want to grow muscle, everything you’ll need to know will be covered in this guide!

How Many Calories Should I Consume to Gain Muscle?

In our foundational nutrition guide, we discussed that you need to maintain a positive energy balance in order to gain weight. 

In other words, you need to eat more calories than you burn. The surplus of calories will help you to gain weight.

The question still remains though, how much do I need to eat in order to build muscle? There are 3 different methods for eating additional calories and each of them has different effects on how much muscle your body can gain.

Conservative Caloric Surplus

A conservative caloric surplus is when you are trying to gain weight slowly to build muscle without gaining a ton of fat. This type of surplus is commonly referred to as a lean bulk.

A conservative surplus generally does not allow you to gain the maximum amount of muscle possible each week; however, it also means you are less likely to “overflow” into gaining fat as well as muscle. 

In other words, a conservative caloric surplus translates to slower weight gain in total, but it means that your weight gain comes mostly from muscle and less from fat. 1-5

Eating a conservative caloric surplus means eating 100-300 more calories a day, which is about a 10-15% increase of calories above your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). When you are trying to gain weight with a conservative surplus, you can expect to gain about half a pound of weight gain each week. When you do the math, this means gaining about 2 pounds per month. 1-5

Moderate Caloric Surplus

If you are someone who prefers to gain muscle and gain weight at a faster rate, then it makes sense to consider eating a moderate caloric surplus instead.

That being said, a moderate caloric surplus not only helps you to build a lot of muscle, but it also can lead your body to gain some fat.

Men should aim to eat 300-500 calories above their TDEE in order to achieve a moderate caloric surplus. This means increasing your calories by about 15-25% above your TDEE

A moderate surplus for men generally leads to gaining roughly a pound each week. In total, this leads to men gaining about 4 pounds per month.

Women should eat 150-200 additional calories in order to achieve a moderate caloric surplus. This translates to 7.5%-12.5% surplus above your TDEE. 1-5

Women can expect to gain about a half a pound a week which in total adds up to gaining about 2 pounds per month. 

Maintaining a moderate surplus would mean that you are more likely to put on the maximum amount of muscle that you can each week, but you also risk consuming an an “overflow” of carbohydrates which end up turning into fat. 1-5

Aggressive Caloric Surplus

An aggressive caloric surplus is when someone eats as much as they want in order to gain weight in the form of muscle and fat. This sometimes is also referred to as a "dirty bulk".

Some people think that the more food that they eat, the more muscle they can gain, which leads them to eat as much food as they can fit in their body.  

The reality is, your body can only gain a certain amount of muscle each month, and then the rest just goes to fat. This is why it is not recommended to do an aggressive caloric surplus.

Excess energy intake in a weight-gain protocol should be considered carefully due to undesirable increases in body fat.

Garthe et al.

Men can gain a maximum of 2 pounds of muscle per month. So if a male tries to eat enough to gain 10 pounds per month, he will still only end up gaining 2 pounds of muscle during the month. This means that the other 8 pounds of weight gain are fat, not muscle.

For this reason, in general, it is not advisable to go above 25% over your TDEE for men and 12.5% for women, if you are trying to minimize the amount of fat you are gaining. 1-5

Adjusting your caloric surplus

While maintaining a caloric surplus, you might find you get to a point where you stop gaining weight. 

As your weight and muscle mass rise, so does your TDEE, or the amount of calories your body burns every day. So, in order to continue gaining weight, you will need to once again increase your caloric surplus. 

Typically this entails adding about 100-200 calories for men and 50-100 calories for women to your surplus. When your weight stalls, you should aim to do this on a weekly or bi-weekly basis until you see your weight once again increasing.

Muscle Growth In Men vs. Women

Something else to keep in mind is that men and women do not build muscle at the same rate.

Testosterone is required for muscle growth and maintenance, and there is a limit as to the amount of testosterone the male body can produce in good health… Once the body has attained the maximum amount of muscle mass that the available testosterone can maintain then no additional proteins, and therefore no additional muscle mass, can be added and maintained.

Casey Butt, Ph.D

Since muscle growth is reliant on and limited by testosterone. Men naturally have more testosterone than women which means they (generally) can build muscle faster than women.

On average,  men can build at most about 2 pounds of muscle per month. 1-5Anything more than 2 pounds of weight gain is likely some fat in addition to the muscle.

Women generally gain muscle at half the rate that men do. This means that it takes a woman twice as long to gain 5 pounds of muscle as it does for a man.

What’s the Best Macronutrient Split to Build Muscle?

Muscle growth from nutrition comes from a combination of optimal energy balance as well as the composition of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat).

If you are someone who has asked what to eat for bodybuilding, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan. The formula for maximum muscle growth comes down to balancing macronutrients.

Protein for Muscle Growth

Eating enough protein is an important part of growing muscle, mainly because your muscles are built with lots of protein.

That being said, it is a common misconception that you need to overload on protein in order to build muscle.  

The reality is, while aiming to gain muscle, it is generally recommended to stay within the range of 0.8g – 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. 6-17

In our article about core nutrition principles, we recommended eating a general range of 0.8g – 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight each day as a general rule of thumb. 

Eating on the lower end of that range is safer because you are at a lower risk of losing muscle mass while eating extra calories above your TDEE. 6-17

Contrary to popular belief, eating a higher amount of protein is actually best for when you are trying to lose weight rather than when trying to gain weight.  

When you are trying to gain weight, your body is less likely to use your muscle mass for fuel.

When you are trying to lose weight, your body is more likely to use your muscle mass for fuel because it is at a calorie deficit. Consuming more protein (closer to 1.2g/lb) can help you prevent your body from losing muscle while on a deficit. You can read more about this in our post about nutrition for fat loss.

All things considered, 0.8g – 1g of protein per pound of body weight should be enough protein to supply your muscles with the nutrients they need for growth. This also leaves room and flexibility in your diet for things like carbohydrates that help fuel your workouts.

Carbohydrates for Muscle Growth

Lately, carbs are associated with negativity and gaining fat; however, carbohydrates are actually a key component to muscle growth.

A carbohydrate loading regimen increases CHO oxidation during submaximal exercise and improves high intensity, short duration run performance.

Pizza et al.

It can be helpful to increase your carbohydrate intake while trying to gain muscle. 

This is because carbohydrates give you the energy you need to work out which is a critical piece when trying to gain muscle. 13,16-20

Carbohydrates provide your muscles with glycogen. (You can read more about glycogen in our post on general nutrition). Glycogen is the fuel your body uses as its primary source of energy when exercising. 13,16-20

With all of this said, while aiming to gain muscle, it may be advisable to eat a higher amount of carbohydrates, or about 3.5–4.5g per pound of body weight. 13,16-20

Fat for Muscle Growth

Fat is essential for your body to maintain hormonal balance. Fat helps to regulate testosterone, which is the critical hormone for helping your muscles to grow.

Diets with insufficient fat and/or excessive protein may compromise the anabolic hormonal environment over a training program.

Sallinen et al.

While aiming to gain muscle, you should aim to consume between 15-25% of your calories from fats. 13-15, 21

Aiming for the higher end of this percentage can be useful to ensure optimal hormonal balance. In any case, you should never reduce fat intake to below 15% of your total caloric intake for general health.

Putting it Into Practice

Now we’ll walk through the steps to construct a custom diet for optimal muscle growth! Since muscle growth rates differ between males and females, we’ll make two versions. Ladies first!

Muscle Growth Macros For Women

Step 1: Calculate Your TDEE

For this example, let’s pretend that you are measuring TDEE for someone that is 5 feet and 9 inches, 30 years old and 160 pounds. The goal of the nutrition plan is muscle growth. 

  • Entering this information into a TDEE Calculator, give you an estimated TDEE of roughly 2000 calories. Since we want to gain muscle, we’ll aim for 125 more calories than this for a moderate surplus. This means we’re aiming to consume 2125 calories a day. 

Step 2: Calculate Your Protein Intake

Now we’ll figure out the macronutrients in our 2125 calorie diet. First, we’ll find how much protein is needed:

  • Assuming we want 0.8-1 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight, multiply your weight by 1 (the middle of this range). That means we want about 160g of protein per day. 
  • There are 4 calories per gram of protein, so by multiplying 160 by 4, we also find out that 640 calories of our 2125 will be dedicated to protein daily.

Step 3: Calculate Your Fat Intake:

Next, we’ll figure out how much fat is needed:

  • We know we need 15-25% of our calories from fat. To leave some room for carbohydrates and minimize calories, we’ll aim for 20%.
  • 20% of our 2125 calorie diet would mean 425 calories from fat
  • There are 9 calories in each gram of fat. If we divide 450 by 9, we find that we should aim to consume roughly 47g of fat daily.

Step 4: Calculate Your Carbohydrate Intake:

Last, we’ll figure out how many carbohydrates are needed:

  • Now that we know we need 160g or 640 calories of protein per day, and 47g or 425 calories of fat every day, we can dedicate the remaining calories to carbohydrates.
  • This leaves 1070 calories worth of carbohydrates in our 2125 calorie diet, or 267g of carbohydrates daily.

While this is below the recommended level of 2.7g-4.5g of carbohydrates per lb of bodyweight for optimal athletic performance, it is still enough to provide energy, maintain nutritional health, and leaves enough room for the protein and fat we know we need. 

With that, we have a complete nutritional plan for a 5 foot 9, 160lb 30 year old female aiming to gain .25 pounds of muscle a week while minimizing fat gain! The total macros and calories are:

  • 160g of protein
  • 47g of fat
  • 425 g of carbs
  • 2125 calories in total

This caloric surplus and macronutrient breakdown will ensure you gain lean mass, fuel your workouts, and maintain your hormonal health!

Muscle Growth Macros For Men

Step 1: Calculate Your TDEE

For this example, let’s pretend that you are measuring TDEE for someone that is 5 feet and 9 inches, 30 years old and 160 pounds. The goal of the nutrition plan is muscle growth. 

  • Entering this information into a TDEE Calculator, give you an estimated TDEE of roughly 2000 calories. Since we want to gain muscle, we’ll aim for 250 more calories than this for a moderate surplus. This means we’re aiming to consume 2250 calories a day. 

Step 2: Calculate Your Protein Intake

Now we’ll figure out the macronutrients in our 2250 calorie diet. First, we’ll find how much protein is needed:

  • Assuming we want 0.8-1 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight, multiply your weight by 1 (the middle of this range). That means we want about 160g of protein per day. 
  • There are 4 calories per gram of protein, so by multiplying 160 by 4, we also find out that 640 calories of our 2250 will be dedicated to protein daily.

Step 3: Calculate Your Fat Intake:

Next, we’ll figure out how much fat is needed:

  • We know we need 15-25% of our calories from fat. To leave some room for carbohydrates and minimize calories, we’ll aim for 20%.
  • 20% of our 2250 calorie diet would mean 450 calories from fat
  • There are 9 calories in each gram of fat. If we divide 450 by 9, we find that we should aim to consume roughly 50g of fat daily.

Step 4: Calculate Your Carbohydrate Intake:

Last, we’ll figure out how many carbohydrates are needed:

  • Now that we know we need 160g or 640 calories of protein per day, and 50g or 450 calories of fat every day, we can dedicate the remaining calories to carbohydrates.
  • This leaves 1160 calories worth of carbohydrates in our 2250 calorie diet, or 290g of carbohydrates daily.

While this is below the recommended level of 2.7g-4.5g of carbohydrates per lb of bodyweight for optimal athletic performance, it is still enough to provide energy, maintain nutritional health, and leaves enough room for the protein and fat we know we need. 

With that, we have a complete nutritional plan for a 5 foot 9, 160lb 30-year-old-male aiming to gain .5 pounds of muscle a week while minimizing fat gain! The total macros and calories are:

  • 160g of protein
  • 50g of fat
  • 290 g of carbs
  • 2250 calories in total

This caloric surplus and macronutrient breakdown will ensure you gain lean mass, fuel your workouts, and maintain your hormonal health!

Conclusion

To ensure optimal muscle growth, you'll need to make sure you maintain a positive energy balance and a specific ratio of macronutrients. A positive energy balance will ensure you are gaining weight, which is necessary if you want to add muscle mass.

Optimal muscle growth requires a positive energy balance which means eating a caloric surplus. 

There are generally 3 ways to go about this:

  • Conservative caloric surplus – eating 100-300 more calories per day but more of that weight will be muscle and less of it will be fat.
  • Moderate caloric surplus – eating 300-500 more calories per day which means faster weight gain but more of that weight being fat.
  • Aggressive caloric surplus – eating more than 500 calories surplus per day which will lead to more fat gain but ensure maximum muscle growth

Eating the right balance of macronutrients is also key:

  • Eating 0.8g-1g of protein per lb of bodyweight will give your body the materials it needs for building muscle. 
  • Getting at least 15% of your calories from fats will help maintain a healthy hormonal balance for bodily functions.
  • Using the rest of your calories on carbs will help you perform at its best while exercising

Abiding by these guidelines will guarantee that you create the perfect conditions in your body for muscle growth, and together with optimal rest and training, you'll be adding pounds of lean muscle mass in no time!

References

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  2. Butt, C. (2011). The WeighTrainer – Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements. [online] Weightrainer.net. Available at: http://www.weightrainer.net/potential.html [Accessed 26 Jul. 2018]. Link
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  4. Helms, E. (2014). What Can be achieved as a Natural Bodybuilder? [online] Alanaragonblog.com Available at: http://www.alanaragonblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Aug-2014-AARR-Eric-Helms-Article. Accessed July 26, 2018. Link
  5. McDonald, L. (2009). What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?. [online] Bodyrecomposition. Available at: https://bodyrecomposition.com/muscle-gain/whats-my-genetic-muscular-potential.html/ [Accessed 26 Jul. 2018]. Link
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Date Created: March 1, 2020

Last Updated: April 6, 2020