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The Ultimate Muscle Growth Nutrition Guide

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calendar-iconMarch 1, 2020

Build Muscle

Foundational Nutrition Series

Nutrition

Heads up! This article is connected to our Muscle Growth Journey page. For the complete picture on how to build muscle using our evidence-based system, check it out here!

If you’re looking to build muscle, having the right nutrition plan is absolutely necessary. 

In this article, we’ll show you exactly how to create your own muscle growth nutritional plan. 

First, we’ll show you how to pick the right number of calories as well as the right balance of macronutrients, and then walk you through an example diet!

Deciding Your Caloric Intake 

If you want to design your own diet for muscle growth, you first need to figure out how many calories you want your diet to be. 

To put on muscle you’ll need to take in more calories than you burn each day, which means you’ll be in a caloric surplus. Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) will tell you how many calories you burn each day. We go into more detail on what makes up your TDEE in our Basics of Nutrition article, but all you need to do for now is enter your information into this TDEE calculator to get a solid estimate. 

Once you get your estimate, write it down! This is the first step in building your muscle growth diet.

With an estimate of your TDEE, you’ll then need to decide how many calories above your TDEE you want to consume, or how much of a surplus you want to be in. You can choose a conservative caloric surplus, a moderate caloric surplus, or an aggressive caloric surplus. 

A conservative surplus will mean slower muscle gain, but minimal fat gain. A moderate to aggressive surplus will mean faster muscle gain, but also more fat gain along with it. We’ve illustrated that in the figure below.

This chart shows you how much muscle and fat you'll gain with different caloric surpluses. Notice that eating more calories than you need will leave you gaining more fat than muscle!

Next, we’ll go into each option in more detail so you can be sure to choose the best caloric surplus for your goals!

Conservative Caloric Surplus

You should go with a conservative caloric surplus if you are trying to gain weight slowly and build muscle while gaining a minimal amount of fat. 

While a conservative surplus generally does not allow you to gain the maximum amount of muscle possible each week, you are making that sacrifice in order to gain as little fat as possible. 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.

For men, a conservative caloric surplus means eating 100-300 calories above your TDEE, or roughly 10-15% above your TDEE. You can expect to gain about half a pound each week, or 2 pounds per month.

For women, a conservative caloric surplus means eating 50-150 calories above your TDEE, or roughly 5-7.5% above your TDEE. You can expect to gain about a quarter pound each week, or 1 pound per month.

Moderate Caloric Surplus

If you are someone who prefers to gain muscle at a faster rate, even if it means gaining a bit more fat, then a moderate caloric surplus is right for you. 

Maintaining a moderate surplus would mean that you are more likely to put on the maximum amount of muscle that you can each week. When on a moderate surplus, you do run a slightly higher risk consuming an “overflow” of carbohydrates which end up turning into fat. So you are making a trade off by choosing to build muscle more quickly, and you should consider if that is the best option based on your goals.

For men, a moderate caloric surplus means eating 300-500 calories above your TDEE, or roughly 15-25% above your TDEE. You can also expect to gain about a pound each week, or 4 pounds per month.

For women, a moderate caloric surplus means eating 50-150 calories above your TDEE, or roughly 7.5-12.5% above your TDEE. You can also expect to gain about a half a pound each week, or 2 pounds per month.

Aggressive Caloric Surplus

The idea with an aggressive caloric surplus is to ensure that your body has as much fuel as it needs to build the maximum amount of muscle. This sometimes is referred to as a dirty bulk.

For men, an aggressive caloric surplus means eating more than 500 calories above your TDEE, or more than 25% above your TDEE. 

For women, an aggressive caloric surplus means eating more than 250 calories above your TDEE, or more than 12.5% above your TDEE.

Studies have shown that an aggressive surplus is not an efficient way to build muscle, as your body can only gain a certain amount of muscle each month. You can likely build muscle as quickly as possible with a moderate caloric surplus, and going above that range will just mean extra fat gain without any more muscle gain.

For example, 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 will be mostly all 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 and gain muscle efficiently. If you are just trying to put as much weight on as possible, though, an aggressive surplus may be right for you!

Deciding Your Macronutrient Intake 

Once you’ve chosen how much a caloric surplus is right for you, you then have to decide what kinds of calories will make up your diet. That means deciding the right balance of macronutrients.

We explain macronutrients in greater detail in our Basics of Nutrition article, but here’s the idea: while all food is broken down into calories for energy, different foods are made up of different types of calories. These types are labeled as macronutrients. The three macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and each macronutrient has a different effect on your body. 

In essence, while calories will decide if you gain or lose weight, macronutrients will decide what kind of weight you gain or lose (muscle or fat).

So, if you want to design a nutrition plan to build as much lean muscle as possible, you need the right balance of macronutrients. You’ll want to stick to the following guidelines while in a caloric surplus in order to gain muscle:

  • Multiply your bodyweight by 0.8-1.0. That is how many grams of protein you want to take in each day to build muscle.
  • Multiply the total calories you plan to take in each day by 0.15-0.25. That is how many grams of fat you want to take in each day to build muscle. 
  • The rest of your calories can go to carbohydrates, which will help fuel your workouts and aid the muscle growth process.

We’ve illustrated these guidelines in the figure below!

These are the macronutrients for optimal muscle growth!

Take a moment to figure out what your optimal macronutrient intake is for muscle growth and write it down! If you stick to these guidelines on a daily basis, you will set your body up to gain as much muscle as possible- simple as that!

If you want more information on each macronutrient, we’ve broken down each one into more detail as it concerns muscle growth. 

Protein Intake for Muscle Growth

Your body builds muscle with protein, so it is a critical macronutrient for a muscle growth diet.

Studies have shown that while aiming to gain muscle, it is generally recommended to stay within the range of 0.8g – 1g of protein per pound of body weight

Going above that amount is not harmful, but it typically isn't necessary while in a caloric surplus. That's because your body isn’t going to break down materials within your body for energy- you’re already taking in more energy than you need! 

Fat Intake for Muscle Growth

Fat is a macronutrient essential for maintaining hormonal balance in your body. Studies show that fat helps to regulate testosterone, which is the critical hormone for helping your muscles to grow.

Research suggests that while working to gain muscle, you should aim to consume between 15-25% of your calories from fats

While going above this amount isn’t harmful, you should never reduce fat intake to below 15% of your total caloric intake for general health.

Carbohydrate Intake for Muscle Growth

Carbohydrates are also an important macronutrient for muscle growth training. 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. Studies show that carbohydrates provide your muscles with glycogen, which is the fuel your body uses as its primary source of energy when exercising.

You may find that there isn’t enough room for that amount of carbohydrates in your diet if you are taking in the recommended amount of protein and fat for muscle growth. Because of that, it’s common practice to just use whatever remaining space you have in your diet for carbohydrates after calculating your ideal protein and fat intake.

An Example Muscle Growth Diet

With the above information, you should be able to construct your own muscle growth diet! To be safe, though, we’ll walk through an example of constructing a muscle growth diet here.

Step 1: Calculate Caloric Intake

This example diet will be for a woman 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 this TDEE Calculator gives an estimated TDEE of roughly 2000 calories. Since the goal is to gain muscle, she’ll aim for 125 more calories than this for a moderate surplus. This means she will aim to consume 2125 calories a day. 

Step 2: Calculate Protein Intake

Now she’ll figure out the macronutrients in her 2125 calorie diet. First she will need to find how much protein is needed:

She wants 0.8-1 grams of protein per lb of body weight, so she can just multiply her weight by 1. That means she’ll take in 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 every day.

Step 3: Calculate Fat Intake

Next, she’ll need to figure out how much fat is needed:

We know she needs 15-25% of her calories from fat. To leave some room for carbohydrates and minimize calories, she’ll aim for 20%. 

20% of her 2125 calorie diet would mean 425 calories from fat.

There are 9 calories in each gram of fat. So dividing 450 by 9 will show that she should aim to consume roughly 47g of fat daily.

Step 4: Calculate Carbohydrate Intake

Now that she knows she needs 160g or 640 calories of protein per day, and 47g or 425 calories of fat every day, she 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 she needs in her diet to build muscle.  

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 (640 calories)
  • 47g of fat (450 calories)
  • 425g of carbs (1070 calories)
  • 2125 calories in total

This caloric surplus and macronutrient balance will ensure this woman gains lean muscle, fuels her workouts, and maintains her hormonal health!

Putting Your Nutritional Plan Into Action

Once you know your daily caloric and macronutrient intake for optimal muscle growth, it’s time to put your plan into action.

You can track your calories and your macronutrients on myfitnesspal.com for free. Using their tracker you can track foods and tally your way up to your ideal caloric and macronutrient goal each day.

Tracking your every meal and trying to hit your caloric and macronutrient goals each day can be cumbersome to just about anyone, though, which is why many people turn to meal prep when they focus on building muscle. 

Meal prepping is taking 1-2 days per week to prepare all of your meals in bulk. You can save time in the kitchen, and you don’t have to record your food every time you eat. Just figure one or two ideal daily meal plans, build your grocery list based on your plan, and then buy, prepare, and store your food for the week. From here, you can just pop your pre-prepared meals in the microwave come meal time without having to worry about tracking! 

For the inexperienced meal preppers, here is a great video of Remington James demonstrating a simple, effective, and delicious weekly meal plan! 

Conclusion

That wraps up our muscle growth nutrition article! In this article, we covered:

  • Optimal muscle growth requires taking in more calories than you burn, also known as a caloric surplus. 
  • There are 3 types of surpluses to choose from:
    • Conservative caloric surplus – eating 100-300 more calories per day, or 50-150 calories for women, will translate to gaining weight slowly and more of that weight being muscle and less of it being fat.
    • Moderate caloric surplus – eating 300-500 more calories per day, or 150-250 calories for women, means faster weight gain but more of that weight being fat when compared to a conservative surplus.
    • Aggressive caloric surplus – eating more than 500 calories surplus per day, or 250 calories for women, will lead to more fat gain but ensure maximum muscle growth.
  • Eating the right balance of macronutrients is also key for building muscle:
    • Eating 0.8g-1g of protein per lb of body weight 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.
    • Getting the rest of your calories from carbs will help you perform at your best during your workouts.
  • Meal prepping makes sticking to your nutrition plan much easier, and can save you a ton of time in the kitchen each week. 

With this information, you should have everything you need to build your ideal muscle growth diet

For the next step in your muscle growth journey, be sure to visit our Muscle Growth Journey page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about muscle growth nutrition!

Do I ever have to adjust my 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 may 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 diet. If your weight stalls, you should aim to do this on a weekly or bi-weekly basis until you see your weight once again increasing.

Why does the rate of muscle growth differ between men and women?

You may be wondering why our recommended surpluses differ between men and women.

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

On average, research shows men can build at most about 2 pounds of muscle per month. Anything 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.

Can you walk through another muscle growth diet?  

Sure thing! Here is another example, this time for a man.

Step 1: Calculate Caloric Intake

This example will be for a man 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, gives an estimated TDEE of roughly 2000 calories. Since he wants to gain muscle, he’ll aim for 250 more calories than this for a moderate surplus. This means he’s aiming to consume 2250 calories a day. 

Step 2: Calculate Protein Intake

Now he’ll figure out the macronutrients in our 2250 calorie diet. First he’ll figure out how much protein he needs:

Assuming he wants 0.8-1 grams of protein per lb of body weight, he will need to multiply his weight by 1. That means he wants 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 his 2250 calorie diet will be dedicated to protein daily.

Step 3: Calculate Fat Intake

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

He needs 15-25% of his calories from fat. To leave some room for carbohydrates and minimize calories, he’ll aim for 20%. 

20% of his 2250 calorie diet would mean 450 calories from fat.

There are 9 calories in each gram of fat. So, dividing 450 by 9 will show that he should aim to consume roughly 50g of fat daily.

Step 4: Calculate Carbohydrate Intake

Now that he knows he needs 160g or 640 calories of protein per day, and 50g or 450 calories of fat every day, he can dedicate the remaining calories to carbohydrates.

This leaves 1160 calories worth of carbohydrates in his 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 he needs to build muscle.

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 (640 calories)
  • 50g of fat (450 calories)
  • 290 g of carbs (1160 calories)
  • 2250 calories in total

This caloric surplus and macronutrient breakdown will ensure this man gains lean mass, fuels his workouts, and maintains proper hormonal health!

References and Useful Research

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Date Created: March 1, 2020

Last Updated: July 11, 2021

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