Finding the right balance of nutrition, exercise, and rest is key to gaining muscle. To build muscle without gaining extra fat, you need to eat about 10 – 20% more calories than your daily calorie requirement. This should allow you to gain about 0.25 – 0.5% of your body weight every week.
Let’s take a closer look at how much you should be eating, what you should eat, and how to track your progress.
How many calories should you be eating a day?
How many calories you should eat per day greatly depends on your current weight, fitness goals, height, and activity throughout the day.
As a general guideline, according to health providers, women should eat about 2,000 calories and men 2,500 calories a day.
If you are wanting to lose weight, a safe calorie deficit is about 500 calories a day. This will allow you to lose weight without feeling too hungry. For more on this read: How much fat per day to lose weight.
The easiest way to work out how many calories you need a day to maintain your weight or lose weight is to use this calories-per-day calculator.
How many calories do I need to gain muscle?
On average, it’s recommended that an additional 10 – 20% of your daily calorie requirement will help you gain muscle especially if you are eating lean proteins and training. This should allow you to add about 0.25 – 0.5% of your body weight every week.
On a 2,500-calorie diet, this is approximately 250 extra calories a day.
How many calories do I need to gain muscle but lose fat?
In general, gaining muscle requires an increase in calories while burning fat requires a calorie deficit. Finding a balance to do both at the same time can be very challenging. But if you’re meticulous with your diet and wise with your training, it’s not impossible.
Most bodybuilders achieve the balance of gaining muscle and losing fat by having two phases: bulking and cutting.
Bulking is exactly as it sounds — you eat more so that you can add bulk to your muscles. But “bulking” is not an excuse to go off your diet and eat whatever you want. This will only result in excess fat which is bad for your health and will need to be burned off during the cutting phase.
Instead, when bulking, focus on adding the extra 10 – 20% calories a day by eating healthy, whole, protein-rich foods that will give your body the nutritional building blocks it needs to build muscle. Of course, during this time you’ll also want to train and lift heavy so that you can build muscle.
To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. The recommended calorie deficit for general weight loss is 500 calories a day.
However, to keep your muscle, it might be better to lose fat gradually and set your deficit at less than 500 calories. Don’t take this deficit from your protein sources as protein is key for building muscle. During cutting, it’s very important that you keep lifting weights and training hard so that you get stronger.
If you’re serious about getting into competitive shape, then we recommend working with a nutritionist to help you achieve your goals.
What to eat to gain muscle and not fat
In general, you should eat a well-balanced, high-protein diet to gain muscle. The key to ensuring your excess calorie intake goes into building muscle and not fat lies primarily in working out and lifting weights regularly.
Macronutrients to gain muscle
Typically, you will want to consume a 40% protein, 30% carb, and 30% fat diet to build muscle. Stick to healthy proteins, carbs, and fats. While both candy and blueberries are carbs, blueberries are more likely to contain the nutrients your body needs to build muscle.
Micronutrients to build muscle
A balanced diet is key to help ensure you get in the micronutrients that your body needs to stay healthy and strong. Once more, focus on healthy, whole foods and stay away from processed food.
The most important micronutrients for muscle building are:
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D plays a vital role in muscle building. Pay close attention to vitamin D in your diet, as studies suggest that vitamin D deficiencies may be present in more than 40% of people.
- Vitamin E: When you build muscle, you are tearing and putting muscle cells back together. Vitamin E is an important part of the cell re-building process.
- Zinc: The effects of athletes not getting enough zinc can include significant health consequences.
- Potassium: Potassium is essential for your body’s communication pathways, including those for muscle contractions.
Foods to eat to gain muscle
To bulk up, you should be eating high-protein foods that are rich in vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and potassium.
Eating healthy proteins, such as salmon and nuts, should cover your fat intake. Many protein-heavy diets provide enough fat for your needs.
Here are a few examples of great foods that can help you gain muscle:
- Salmon: Salmon is a high-protein meal rich in vitamins, including vitamin D. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon are also essential for muscle growth.
- Nuts/seeds: Many nuts and seeds, such as almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds, are rich in vitamin E, which is essential for cell repair after a hard workout.
- Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes are a great source of fast energy before a workout. They are full of vitamin E and potassium.
Foods to limit
Here are two key foods to avoid when you’re trying to gain muscle:
- Alcohol: Alcohol can reduce muscle growth and is terrible for keeping up hydration. Additionally, alcohol contains very few valuable nutrients, so any alcohol you consume is essentially wasted calories.
- Simple sugars and simple carbs: Sugary drinks and other foods with added sugars will not help you achieve your fitness goals. The sugar will act as fast energy for your workout but will not give you the micronutrients you need to build muscle.
Remember that all foods are okay in moderation. A sugary treat every once in a while will not reverse your progress and, in fact, it might help you stick to your diet if you can splash out every now and then.
Don’t forget to drink water
Water is vital to gaining proper muscle and staying healthy, especially if you are an athlete. Drinking enough water can help ensure well-hydrated, healthy-looking skin, flexible and fluid joints, and stronger teeth. It can even improve your mental health. Make a conscious effort to drink more water throughout the day, especially if you’re training.
Best exercises to build muscle
Strength exercises are the core of building muscle. It’s important to know how to work out to get the kinds of gains you want and how many calories you burn while weightlifting.
Best weight lifting exercises to build muscle
- Squats: Squatting with weights can build up your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and abs.
- Deadlifts: Deadlifts primarily work your glues and lower back. They can also help strengthen your quads, hamstrings, adductors, traps, and forearm flexors to a lesser extent.
- Bench presses: Doing bench presses will help work your pecs, deltoids, triceps, and biceps
- Pull-ups: Pull-ups will help you build muscle in your lats, traps, and back. They can also strengthen your shoulders and grip strength.
- Shoulder presses: Shoulder presses primarily work your deltoids, triceps, traps, and pecs.
Performing all of these exercises in a rotation will help you build muscle equally across your body. Remember to incorporate rest days to promote muscle repair.
Not only will calisthenics build muscle but they will also help you to lose weight as they will get your heart pumping.
The following exercises will challenge both beginner and advanced athletes when you increase the number of sets or reps.
Resistance bands are a great way to exercise to build muscle if you don’t have access to a gym or weights. You can use resistance bands to do squats, lateral raises, chest presses, leg presses, and bicep curls.
Doing these exercises in a rotation and incorporating rest days will help you build a balanced body.
How fast should you gain muscle?
How fast you gain muscle is dependent on how much muscle you already have, how much you weigh, and how often is healthy for you to work out.
As a general guideline, most people looking to bulk up can safely gain muscle at a rate of a half pound to two pounds per month.
Best ways to measure muscle gain
There are four key ways to measure muscle gain. You can track the percentage of fat on your body along with your weight, the size of your muscles, and your strength gains. You can also take progress pictures.
Track your body fat percentage and weight
Tracking your body fat percentage will give precise information about your muscle journey, but it is also the most involved process. You will need to know your fitness level, weight, height, and skinfold measurements to calculate your fat percentage.
It’s a good idea to monitor your weight as well. Remember, muscle tends to weigh more than fat, so you might not see a big difference on the scale. However, you’ll see a difference in your physique, and measuring your body fat percentage can help monitor fat loss more accurately.
Measure the circumference of your muscles
One of the easiest ways to check your muscle gain is to measure the circumference of your muscles with a tailor’s tape measure. You can note the size of different parts of your arms and legs over a few weeks to ensure you are making progress. Be sure to measure in the same place because if you’re out by a few inches, the measurements might change.
Track your strength gains
A simple and classic way to track your muscle gains is to note how much you can lift, or how long you can lift for. As you gain muscle, you will notice that you can safely lift heavier weights or hold the same weights for longer periods. The Wilks Score Strength Level Calculator is one way to measure your strength gains.
Take regular progress photographs
Progress pictures are the way to go if you don’t want to measure yourself all the time but want to track your shifting appearance. This is particularly useful if you don’t see the scale budging.
You can take a photo of yourself at the beginning of your fitness journey and continue photographing yourself once per week or month. It’s best to do this at the same time on the same day, in the same mirror. It can also be very motivating to see the change as you persevere.
Remember, building muscle takes time and it’s best to lose fat gradually. Changing a “diet” into a healthy lifestyle and doing activities that you love to build strength will go a long way to keeping you on track.
Eating about 10-20% more calories a day will help you build muscle without gaining too much fat.
This amounts to about 250 extra calories a day if you’re on a 2,500-calorie diet.
Consume a well-balanced, healthy, whole-food diet that’s rich in protein.
When reducing calories, don’t take them from your protein sources.
Engage in strength-building exercises to build muscle and grow stronger.