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The Ultimate Muscle Growth Nutrition Guide

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calendar-iconMarch 1, 2020

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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 transform the shape of your body, adding lean muscle is key. Nutrition is a huge part of the equation for building muscle.

In this article, we’ll show you exactly what you should consider in building a diet perfect for optimal muscle growth. 

In this article, we’ll cover how many calories to consume, what macronutrients to consume, and even walk you through the construction of two example diets. 

Welcome to the Ultimate Muscle Growth Nutrition Guide!

How Many Calories Should I Consume to Gain Muscle?

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, so you’ll be in a caloric surplus.

Your 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 you can use an online TDEE calculator to get a good estimate.

With an estimate of your TDEE, you’ll then need to decide how many calories above your TDEE you want to consume. 

You could choose anything from a conservative to an aggressive caloric surplus. We’ll describe your options here!

A Conservative Caloric Surplus

You should go with a conservative caloric surplus if you are trying to gain weight slowly to build muscle while gaining a minimal amount of fat. This type of surplus is commonly referred to as a lean bulk.

For men, a conservative caloric surplus means eating 100-300 calories above your TDEE, or roughly a 10-15% above your TDEE. 

For women, a conservative caloric surplus means eating 50-150 calories above your TDEE, or roughly a 5-7.5% above your TDEE.

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.

While on a conservative surplus, men can expect to gain about half a pound of weight each week, or about 2 pounds per month.

A conservative surplus for women generally leads to a quarter pound per week, or about a 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. 

For men, a moderate caloric surplus means eating 300-500 calories above your TDEE, or roughly a 15-25% above your TDEE. 

For women, a moderate caloric surplus means eating 50-150 calories above your TDEE, or roughly a 7.5-12.5% above your TDEE.

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.

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.

A moderate surplus for women generally leads to gaining roughly a half a pound each week, or about 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.

Unfortunately, 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

What’s the Best Macronutrient Split to Build Muscle?

Once you’ve chosen how many calories you want your muscle growth diet to be, you then have to decide what macronutrients will make up your diet. 

We explain macronutrients in greater detail in our Basics of Nutrition article, but essentially that means you want to construct a diet with the right amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

We’ll explain what ranges of those macronutrients are best right here!

Protein 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

While going above that amount is not harmful, it typically isn't necessary unless you are in a caloric deficit and losing weight, since you are risking a breakdown of muscle for energy. 

When you are trying to gain weight, your body is less likely to use your muscle mass for fuel, and 0.8 – 1g of protein should be more than enough.

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.

Carbohydrates Intake for Muscle Growth

Carbohydrates are also an important macronutrient for muscle growth.

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

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 fats 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.

You’ll want to take in as many carbohydrates as possible to fuel your workouts. Studies show that carbohydrates provide your muscles with glycogen, which is the fuel your body uses as its primary source of energy when exercising.

Example Muscle Growth Diets for Men and Women

With the above information, you should be able to construct your own muscle growth diet! To be safe, though, we’ll walk through two examples of constructing a muscle growth diet – one for men, and one for women. 

Example Muscle Growth Diet for Men

First, 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. 

Next, 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 pound of body weight, 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.

Then, 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.

Finally, Calculate Your Carbohydrate Intake:

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!

Example Muscle Growth Diet for Women

First, 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 this 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. 

Next, 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 body weight, 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.

Then, 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.

Finally, Calculate Your Carbohydrate Intake:

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!

Conclusion

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

  • 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, or 50-150 calories for women, will translate to gaining weight slowly, with more of that weight will be muscle and less of it will be 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.
    • 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.
    • Using the rest of your calories on carbs will help you perform at its best while exercising
  • Following these guidelines will help to create the perfect conditions for your body to build muscle 

With this information, you should have everything you need to build your ideal muscle growth diet! For the next step, be sure to visit our Muscle Growth Journey page!

Frequently Asked Questions

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 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.

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. This means that it takes a woman twice as long to gain 5 pounds of muscle as it does for a man.

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!

References and Useful Research

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Date Created: March 1, 2020

Last Updated: April 17, 2021

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