Fitness, Strength

Nutrition for muscle gain – a primer for beginners

As important as the hard work in the gym is, it will all be for nothing if you don’t work equally as hard on your nutrition. The amount you eat and what you eat matters.
fruit and veg

As important as the hard work in the gym is, it will all be for nothing if you don’t work equally as hard on your nutrition. 

The amount you eat and what you eat are important.

But how much should you be eating each day? How much protein do you really need and what the hell is a macro anyway?!

Read on for the answers to these questions and others, and to ensure you are fuelling your workouts and muscle growth effectively.

You need energy to live and extra energy to fuel your workouts and build muscle

Before we get into how much and what you need to eat, it’s important to understand the following basic principle.

You need a base level of energy to live and additional energy to fuel your workouts and muscle growth. 

This energy comes from the food you consume and is measured in calories.

A calorie is a unit of energy. When you hear something described as containing 100 calories it’s a way of describing how much energy your body obtains from you eating or drinking it.

Our bodies need a minimum amount of energy (calories) each day to keep up our core functions – breathing, moving, thinking, repairing cells, keeping warm – and a whole host of other essential activities that keep us alive and well. 

The amount of calories needed each day to sustain these core basic bodily functions is referred to as your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Importantly, your BMR is the minimum you need to keep your body running. If you want to do more, for example, lift weights and grow muscle, you need additional energy to facilitate this. 

In really simple terms the amount of calories you need to be consuming each day to build muscle is a total of your BMR PLUS the calories required to fuel your workouts PLUS the calories required to repair and build new muscle tissue.

This total figure is often referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or, TDEE.

Strictly speaking, your TDEE is a maintenance figure. That is, consuming calories equal to your TDEE would maintain your current weight. 

To increase your weight, or build muscle, you need to consume calories above your TDEE. 

Conversely, if you want to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than your TDEE figure.

So, yes, you need excess energy to build muscle (that is, you need to be in a caloric surplus), but the amount is relatively small in terms of extra daily calories.

Despite this there are countless articles online promoting mega high calorie diets. For the vast majority of us, however, these diets are neither necessary nor sustainable and often end in excessive fat gain. 

High calorie bulks are followed by weeks of ‘cutting’ to try and get rid of this excess fat, usually to end up back where you started with minimal actual muscle gain!

Similar myths and over complications surround weight loss. Numerous articles claim magic weight loss results and/or that carbohydrates are evil and must be eliminated. There’s also an equal number saying the same about fats. 

The truth is both have their place in a healthy diet and the number one rule for losing weight is to ensure you are in a caloric deficit. That is, you are burning more calories than you are consuming.

We’ll get into how much energy/how many calories you need to consume to grow bigger and stronger below. But, first, it’s also handy to understand the principle macronutrients you get your energy/calories from.

What is a macro and why do they matter?

Nutritionally speaking, macronutrients (macros) are the nutrients we need in larger quantities and that provide us with the energy our body needs to function. 

Macronutrients are proteins, fats and carbohydrates

You will also come across the term micronutrients. These include the many vitamins and minerals (calcium, iron, vitamin C, B-12 etc.) you find in whole foods and are part of the broader macronutrients you consume. 

Micronutrients are also super important but tracking how much you consume accurately isn’t practical. 

Most nutrition plans, therefore, focus on the macro level but with an eye to eating natural whole foods that are rich in beneficial micronutrients, e.g. fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish etc.

Below you’ll find more detail on the 3 key macronutrients, proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

- Protein -

The protein you consume provides the amino acids that are used as the building blocks of muscle protein and needs to become an essential cornerstone of your diet.

As with your total calories, however, the amount of protein you need to help build lean muscle mass can be overstated. 

This well publicised systematic review and meta analysis of the effects of protein supplementation on resistance training induced muscle gains concluded that 1.6g of protein per kg of bodyweight was sufficient for effective muscle growth, when combined with regular resistance training. 

So if you weigh in at 80kg you want to be consuming approximately 128g of protein per day to maximise muscle growth. 

That said, the 1.6g per kg target should not be viewed as an ironclad or universal limit beyond which protein intake will be wasted. As the meta-analysis also concludes, there is some evidence to support a higher intake of up to 2.2 g/kg/day. 

Conversely you wouldn’t necessarily be worse off, muscle gain wise, from consuming slightly less than 1.6g, provided you are undertaking regular resistance training.

It is best, therefore, to look at protein intake as a recommended range and consume between 1.6 – 2g per kg of bodyweight per day depending on your individual circumstances, training goals and routine. 

E.g, as an experienced lifter trying to reduce body fat while maintaining as much lean muscle mass as possible, it may be sensible to consume a higher amount of protein in place of some of your carbohydrate and fats. 

On the flip side, as a muscle building beginner, you will be absolutely fine working at the 1.6g target.

Also of note, the research suggests that age may impact protein intake requirements, with older trainees (40’s plus) being advised to aim towards the higher end of the range.

Keep in mind that while it initially seems there is no drawback to consuming higher levels of protein there is no clear benefit. And if it begins to eat into your carbohydrate and fat requirements (which are both also essential) it may become detrimental to your training and muscle gain.

In terms of what to eat to hit your protein target, lean animal proteins such as chicken, turkey, beef, fish, eggs and dairy are some of the most complete protein sources, meaning they provide your body with every essential amino acid it cannot manufacture on its own.

For the vegans amongst you, excellent sources of protein are nuts like almonds and pistachios (which have the added benefit of being high in calcium which is key for maintaining strong bones), all bean varieties (black, kidney etc.), legumes and leafy greens.

Supping a protein shake is totally fine if you need a bit of help to hit your target. But try to get the bulk of your protein from whole foods and consume your protein along with other macronutrients. 

For more protein info, take a look at our dedicated post here.

- Carbohydrates and Fats -

After accounting for your daily protein intake the rest of your calories will come from carbohydrates and fats.

Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fibres found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products. They provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles.

Fats are also an essential part of your diet and key for cell building and hormone balance, among many other functions. Plus they are calorie dense so an easy source of calories.

There is no ideal carb/fat ratio and different people will respond and feel better to either high carb/low fat or vice versa. 

Generally, however, higher carbohydrate intake is deemed more beneficial for muscle gain and regular training as carbs have an anabolic effect, that is they have a muscle building effect. 

As a muscle building beginner it is sensible to get the majority of your daily calories (40-50%) from healthy carbohydrate sources so you have the energy required for regular intense training.

Healthy sources of carbohydrates are whole grains, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, beans, fruits and vegetables.

Don’t fear fat as you still want and need a healthy intake each day. 

A sensible ball park figure to aim for is 1g of fat per kg of body weight. This will likely equate to around 25-30% of your daily calories.

As with your carbs, focus on natural fat sources to hit your daily intake. Healthy sources are avocados, fatty fish, olive oils, nuts and dairy.

And eat your damn vegetables.

- A note on hydration -

Getting enough H2O in to fuel your workouts, your muscle growth and general wellbeing is vital.

Rather than waiting until you are thirsty, drink at regular intervals throughout the day and aim for at least 6-8 glasses (1.2 – 1.5 litres) total and make sure you drink during your workouts.

How many extra calories do you need to build muscle?

With the basics covered we now understand calories and macros and how they contribute to weight gain/loss and muscle growth. 

We can now begin to determine how many calories you need and what your macro split should be. 

First up, you need a ballpark figure for your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). 

As discussed this is the amount of calories needed throughout the day to cover our basic bodily functions (breathing, keeping warm etc.) and our daily activity (your job, exercise etc.).

Use one of the many online TDEE calculators, such as this, to get a ballpark figure of the amount of calories you are burning each day and thus need to be consuming. 

The calculator linked above will give you a range of totals and you should pick the one that best reflects your current activity level. 

The figure the tool spits out will be personal to you. But you’ll likely see a number anywhere from 1800-2800, dependent on your sex, physical size and current activity levels.

Again, this figure is the amount of calories you should be aiming to consume, each day, to maintain your current weight.

It is worth stressing here that the figure you are given will invariably be wrong! 

The variation in how we metabolise what we eat and how our bodies use energy is too broad for there to be an exact formula.

This is fine, however, as we just want a ballpark starting point for us to build from.

As covered above, we need additional energy to build new muscle. So, we take our TDEE figure and add on 200-300. The theory being that this new target not only sustains our current activity level but also provides the additional energy needed for the development of new muscle. 

You will see that the TDEE tool linked above already provides a ‘bulking’ suggestion in line with the principle above. In our view, however, the 500 additional daily calories it suggests is too high for the vast majority of trainees. You will be better served starting at a lower amount than this and building up, if required.

Trying to bulk too fast and with too high a calorie count will result in excess fat gain and no more lean muscle.

What should your macro split be?

After sorting your daily calorie intake you need to look at your macro split.

Many online guides and nutritional plans will recommend percentage based macro splits to achieve your daily calorie target. 

For example, 30% protein / 20% fat / 50% carbohydrate. 

This simply means that you aim to get 30% of your daily calories from protein, 20% from fats and so on. 

Of course, you don’t eat these macros in isolation, i.e. just consume protein or fat, and rather you eat whole foods that contain a balance of the 3.

While using a percentage split isn’t necessarily wrong, it is better to start with more of a ‘checklist’ approach which makes sure you hit a minimum recommended amount for each of your macros, as follows:

  1. Ensure you are consuming 1.6g – 2g of protein per kg of body weight (this will likely be 20-25% of you total daily calories)
  2. Ensure you are consuming 1g of fat per kg of bodyweight (this will likely be 25-30% of you total daily calories)
  3. Make up the rest of your calories from carbohydrates (this will likely be 40-50% of your total daily calories)

You will never get a 100% accurate calorie / macro count for everything you eat so don’t sweat being off by small margins. Just make sure to log everything and get as close as you can.

Again, there is no ideal carb/fat ratio and different people will respond and feel better to either high carb/low fat or vice versa. 

You may want to experiment with different ratios over a few weeks/months and see how you look and feel. 

It isn’t recommended you drop below 1g of fat per kg of bodyweight , however.

How to track what you eat

Now you have your daily calorie total and your macro split you need to make sure you are actually hitting it. 

Use a food/calorie tracking app (MyFitnessPal is the free go to, but many others are available) to log what you are eating each day and aim to get to your suggested TDEE figure and macro make up.

A set of kitchen scales is also essential to ensure you are accurate with your portion sizes. 

Tracking everything you eat is a key habit you need to form.

Look at hitting your calorie and macro targets as a game and a challenge, the same as trying to hit a rep or weight target in the gym. 

It may seem a slog at first but will soon become second nature. Plus as you become more accustomed to the various nutritional values of the foods you consume you will become less reliant on the app as you’ll have a feel for what and how much you are consuming.

How to track your weight, strength and appearance

To know if you are packing on muscle you will need to regularly measure your weight. 

Invest in a set of scales and aim to take the measurements at the same time each day (e.g. first thing in the morning before breakfast) and in the same condition (e.g. in your undies after you’ve been to the toilet).

You will find that your bodyweight can naturally fluctuate day to day by a kg or more. 

To counter this take 2-3 weight measurements throughout the week and calculate an average. This will help smooth out the daily fluctuations enabling a better comparison week to week. 

As well as tracking your weight make sure you are recording your workouts and noting increases or decreases in your performance. You should be training with progressive overload in mind, thus seeing performance increases over time. 

Finally, take regular body measurements and photos each week/month and track how you look. Yes, shirt off selfies are a good thing in this instance!

How much weight gain should you expect to see?

When building muscle a safe level of weight gain is 0.25 – 0.5% of your total body weight per week. 

For an average male, this is likely to be approximately 0.5 – 1.0 lb per week.

If you are gaining weight quicker than this there is a good chance that a higher proportion of it is fat, rather than lean muscle. 

That said, you need to accept that when gaining weight ⅓ to ⅔ of it will likely be from fat and water retention, with the remainder being the lean muscle we are aiming for.

This is expected and normal and the fat can be reduced once we return to a ‘maintenance’ or deficient caloric level, provided we keep up the resistance training and sufficient protein intake.

Fortunately fat loss is a far easier and a far quicker process than building lean muscle.

Your weight and workout performance are the gold standard indicators of how many calories you really need

Changes in these 2 measures are the gold standard for indicating how many calories you need to be consuming. 

If you find the scales aren’t shifting, and you’re seeing no change in your strength levels, increase the amount of calories you are eating by a modest amount, e.g. 200-300 per day.

Conversely, if you are putting on weight at a fast rate (above 0.5% of your total bodyweight per week) and the shirt of selfies are revealing a growing waistline only, rather than a more impressive, chiseled physique, then lower your daily calories by 200-300 per day.

Keep tracking your weight, strength and appearance week to week and make further, smaller, calorie adjustments as required. 

As a muscle building beginner you may achieve the holy grail of building muscle while also losing fat. In this instance your weight may actually drop. 

This, again, is where the programme tracking and selfies come in. You’ll have a log showing that you are lifting more weight and the selfies and glances in the mirror will reveal never before seen lumps of lean muscle. 

This is the best indication that you are on the right track.

How much lean muscle will you build?

Now, to bust another online fitness myth, it is very unlikely that you will be packing on numerous pounds of muscle anytime soon.

Body recomposition and the building of lean muscle mass is a months long marathon, not a 4 week sprint.

If your fitness journey is to be successful and rewarding you need to understand this and accept that gaining lean muscle, and not just increasing your weight, is a long and slow process.

Everybody’s genetic potential is different, thus there is no exact answer. But, as a ballpark and assuming correct training and nutrition, you can expect to put on 8-12lbs of lean muscle in your first year of training (with much of this front loaded in the first 3-4 months – hurray for noob gains!).

Subsequent years growth will be lower as the gains become far harder as you get nearer to your genetic potential.

So, years 2 & 3 may see something like 4-6lbs of new lean muscle, each year. Once you have 4-5+ years of efficient training under your belt the gains become really hard fought. 1-2lbs per year, on average, is good going at this stage, especially as you get  closer and closer to your genetic ceiling. 

Generally women will have a harder time than males due to being naturally smaller and having lower levels of testosterone. Women should expect to see approximately half to 2 thirds of the rough ballpark numbers suggested above.

And, regardless of sex, your age will also play a role. Most people will have a harder time building muscle in their 40’s than in their 20’s, for example.

There are of course exceptions to all the above, and some of you may well see 20lb increases in a year. If this is you, congratulations, you won the genetics lottery and are 1 in a million. But for the other 999,999 of you, don’t expect to see 12lbs plus of muscle gain every year.

The above isn’t meant to be negative, just realistic. 

Building muscles takes time and dedication. 

But on the plus side you will be amazed at how much difference packing on just a few pounds of muscle can make to your appearance and strength. 

So, try not to stress about how many pounds you pack on. Just focus on consistent training and good nutrition and you will see an incredible body transformation.

Final thoughts

Hard work in the gym is wasted if not paired with smart decisions in the kitchen.

To build lean muscle you must look at your nutrition as an essential part of your wider training plan and put in as much thought and care as you would with your exercise programming. 

Having said that, nutrition for muscle gain isn’t complicated and by following a few key fundamentals you will see profound positive changes in your physique – 

  • Use an online TDEE calculator to get a ballpark daily calorie requirement
  • If looking to gain weight/muscle, add 200-300 onto your TDEE figure.
  • Log and track everything you eat and make sure you hit your TDEE and macro figures*
  • For your macros**:
    • Make sure you are getting at least 1.6g of protein in per kg of bodyweight (this will likely be around 20-25% of your daily calories)
    • Make sure you are getting 1g of fat in per kg of bodyweight (this will likely be 25-30% of your daily calories)
    • Fill the rest of your calories from carbohydrates (likely 45-55% of your calories)
  • Track your weight consistently and, if looking to gain weight, aim to add around 0.25 – 0.5% of your bodyweight per week
  • If the scales aren’t shifting increase your daily calorie intake by 200-300. If you are gaining weight faster than this decrease your calorie intake by 200-300. Repeat and alter these adjustments in smaller increments, as necessary
  • Remember, your weight, strength gain and appearance are the best indicators of how many calories you need

*you will never get a 100% accurate calorie count for everything you eat so don’t sweat being off by small margins. Just make sure to log everything and get as close as you can. The regular weigh-ins will tell you if you are eating too much/too little.

**There is no ideal carb/fat ratio and different people will respond and feel better to either high carb/low fat or vice versa. Use this as a starting point and experiment over several weeks to find a ratio that works best for you. 

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Size Guide

Measure around the fullest part of your chest – keep the tape measure close under the arms

Size

Chest – Inches

Chest – CM

Small

31 – 34

78.7 – 86.4

Medium

35 – 38

88.9 – 96.5

Large

39 – 41

99.1 – 104.1

X-Large

42 – 45

106.7 – 114.3

2X-Large

46-48

116.8 – 121.9

Size

Chest – Inches

Small

31 – 34

Medium

35 – 38

Large

39 – 41

X-Large

42 – 45

2X-Large

46-48

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