How Much Should You Eat To Grow Muscle?

How Much Should You Eat To Grow Muscle?

While some of us are experts at gaining weight accidentally, what do you do if you want to put on weight intentionally? Weight gain sounds easy, but when it comes to packing on usable muscle mass, it requires a strategic approach to training and nutrition.

Just like with losing fat, muscle gain starts with getting the right amount of calories each day. Other factors like protein intake, food quality, and nutrient timing are also important, and may be the difference between adding fat versus muscle. Here is everything you need to figure out exactly how much to eat to put on maximal muscle.

How Many Calories To Gain Muscle?

The gold standard for gaining muscle is to increase calories so that you achieve a lasting energy surplus over a set period of time. Pairing extra calories with the right training program is the most potent anabolic stimulus available to you besides using illegal steroids.

How big should your calorie surplus be?

Common recommendations are to increase calories by 20 percent over current daily intake, or to eat 20 calories per pound of bodyweight. But these guidelines may overshoot the ideal calorie surplus and lead to unnecessary fat gain, especially if they are employed over the long term.

With any weight gain, the goal is to increase lean mass while limiting gains in body fat. One study found that for every 1 kg of lean mass, lean male volunteers gained 2 kg of fat mass in response to an 843 calorie surplus over 100 days (1). Shifting the curve more towards muscle gains is important because muscle provides numerous health benefits, is aesthetically pleasing, and supports performance, whereas excess fat has the opposite effect. Not only is fat harmful for health, many people find it very difficult to lose once they gain it. Although it’s certainly possible to alternate bulking and cutting phases, a lot of people are perpetually stuck in bulking and never have success with cutting.

Plus, cutting phases in which you ratchet down calories lead to muscle loss. For example, a calorie deficit of 20 percent—a typical amount for many body builders trying to lose fat—led to a 16 percent reduction in protein synthesis in young healthy volunteers despite a protein intake of 1.5 g/kg (2). In lean, resistance-trained volunteers, energy restriction at a calorie intake of 30 calories/kg of lean mass resulted in a 30 percent reduction in protein synthesis (3).

The takeaway is that it’s worth the effort to minimize fat gain when putting on weight. A recent review recommends a surplus of 360 to 480 calories per day as a general guideline (4). But this figure won’t be ideal for everyone. The less trained you are, the more quickly you can gain muscle mass and a smaller surplus will be necessary. In fact, overweight, minimally trained individuals can build muscle in response to a training program even if they are in a calorie deficit.

For instance, overweight women doing resistance training for 24 weeks while dieting lost 2.2 percent of body mass while increasing cross sectional area of the quadriceps muscle by 7 cm (5). A 4-week study took recreationally active, overweight young men, put them on a serious diet that reduced calories by 40 percent and enrolled them in a 6-day a week training program. They had a high protein intake of 2.4 g/kg. Results showed that they lost 4.8 kg and gained 1.2 kg of muscle (6).

How Much Protein To Maximize Muscle?

Consuming sufficient high-quality protein is the holy grail for maximizing muscle gains. The body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain, which means that the more often you trigger protein synthesis, it is a good thing.

Eating protein is one way to stimulate protein synthesis. The other is by lifting weights, which is why putting the two together is the best way to optimize body composition. Although lower protein intakes are required when you are in a calorie surplus than a calorie deficit, you still need more than the U.S. RDA recommendation of 0.8 g/kg.

Scientists recommend a minimum of 1.6 g/kg for maximal muscle gains for recreational trainees. For more serious trainees, such as competitive athletes or trained body builders, 1.7 g/kg was identified as the baseline protein intake to sustain muscle and offset protein breakdown when in energy balance, whereas maximal muscle building occurs at 2.2 g/kg (6).

How Many Carbs To Fuel Workouts?

Although there is some fascinating research coming out regarding low-carb keto diets for athletes, adequate carbs are important when you want to maximize muscle with training.

Stored carbohydrates fuel muscle contractions and allow for the highest rates of ATP energy production during intense exercise. Carbs also improve hormone balance for a faster recovery. When carbs are consumed, insulin is elevated, leading to a rapid decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and a more anabolic environment. In addition, the increase in insulin helps suppress inflammatory products that you produce during training.

For most individuals involved in strength training or sports, a carb intake within the range of 4 to 7 g/kg day is recommended, with upper ranges being appropriate for competitive athletes.

How Much Fat For Muscle Growth?

Adequate fat intake from a variety of sources is critical for packing on muscle. Not only does fat provide ample calories to help you reach your surplus goal, it provides the fat-soluble vitamins that play a vital role in immunity and your ability to pack on mass. Fat is also necessary for hormone synthesis and low-fat diets are linked with decreased testosterone.

Therefore, fat intake should not go below 15 to 20 percent of calories, even when cutting. Fat should come from a variety of sources, including saturated animal fats and monounsaturated fats from seeds, nuts, and other plant foods like olives and avocados. A small intake of polyunsaturated fats is ideal, particularly the omega-3 fats from fish oil, because they have been shown to increase muscle mass in adults of all ages, including the elderly who have a harder time putting on muscle (4).

Whole Food Or Junk Foods For Building Muscle?

A classic mistake when bulking is to gorge on high calorie junk food. While it’s easy on the tastebuds and supplies ample calories, junk food is an abysmally bad choice when it comes to building muscle. Foods in their most natural whole food form have been shown to positively stimulate protein synthesis compared to processed proteins, particularly post workout. For example, a study that compared the effect of whole eggs or egg whites on muscle building after a training session found that protein synthesis rates in muscle were 40 percent higher after eating whole eggs (8). The same has been shown with whole versus skim milk.

How Often Should You Eat For Muscle?

It used to be that small, frequent meals were the dieters go-to meal strategy, but emerging evidence shows frequent eating actually increases hunger and desire to eat, leading to an overall higher energy intake. So, while eating every 2 hours is a bad choice for fat loss, it’s just the ticket when you want to pack on muscle

Aligning food intake with when energy is being expended is a key strategy for maximizing muscle: Taking a protein/carbohydrate/creatine supplement immediately before and after strength training resulted in greater muscle and strength gains than when the same supplement is ingested away from training (4).

A common question is if you should eat an energy surplus on both training and rest days. The answer will come down to whether you find yourself more prone to put on fat or muscle. For lean individuals who have a hard time putting on muscle, eating a surplus every day is recommended. And given that muscle protein synthesis is elevated for upwards of 48 hours following a single resistance training session, it’s worthwhile having a positive energy balance on both training and non-training days.

Take Aways

The rate at which you can gain muscle depends on how much muscle you've already gained and how effectively you are applying the right nutrition and training aspects. Beginners can expect to gain muscle much faster, sometimes as much as 1 percent of body weight per week. Advanced lifters in contrast may only gain a pound or two of muscle each year.

The current recommendation is to eat in a surplus of 360 to 480 calories daily. If you are an endomorph and gain fat easily, opt for the lower end of the range. For mesomorphs and ectomorphs who tend to be leaner, the higher end of the range may be most anabolic.

Nailing protein intake may be as important as total calories for putting on muscle. Shoot for 1.6 to 2.4 g/kg of protein daily. In addition to hitting your protein goal daily, it’s also important to spread intake out over the course of the day, eating a large dose (30 grams of high-quality animal protein) every 2 to 3 hours.

Opting for whole foods in their most natural form is associated with increased protein synthesis, especially in regards to protein foods, such as milk or eggs.

During mass muscle gaining phases, a higher meal frequency may stimulate hunger and lead to higher total calorie goals.

Be patient. Everyone wants fast results. The reality is that changes take time. Accept that the successful people are the ones who are consistent with their nutrition and training. If you’re missing workouts or only hitting your calorie goals half the time, you’ll never come close to your genetic potential.



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