7 Key Principles of Eating for Muscle Growth (Beginner's Guide)

Crucial Tips for an Effective, Healthy, High Protein Diet to Gain Muscle

It's true - your muscle building diet will make or break your success in gaining weight, building muscle, and achieving the body of your dreams. You can train as hard as you want in the gym and do all the right things...but if you're not eating properly to support lean muscle gain then it's all in vain. Literally. Here you will learn the important guidelines to eating properly to encourage maximum muscle growth. Performing effective workouts is half of the equation - nutrition is the other.

Proper nutrition and rest is just as important if not more important. Many people overlook how important your nutrition is in gaining muscle. They go to the gym and train hard, but they don't feed their body the right nutrients to build muscle. So they never see any decent results from their training and wonder what they're doing wrong. You don't want to fall into that trap, so let's take a look at what needs to be done in terms of eating to encourage your body to put on more muscle mass.

See Also: Why You Should Avoid Dirty Bulking

1. Eat Slightly More Calories Than You Burn Each Day

The most basic science-backed rule you need to follow if you want success with a muscle gain diet in order is to consume more calories than you burn in any given day. Without doing this, you aren't physically able to put on any weight at all, meaning no possibility for gains in muscle size.

But it's not about stuffing your face with everything in sight to reach high levels of calories (called a dirty bulk) as that is a surefire road to a ton of excess fat gain. You want the far majority (if not the entirety) of your diet to be from healthy, non-processed foods, and not from processed, sugary, and/or fatty foods (unless it's healthy fats but we'll get to that).

You can't completely avoid gaining a little extra fat when putting on muscle size, as gaining a little fat is inevitable on a bulk, but you can greatly reduce it by eating nutrient-rich foods that your body will actually use (instead of simply storing it as fat) and avoiding junk, as well as limiting your overall caloric intake to a certain degree.

There's no hard rule on how many calories you need to bulk up and gain muscular weight, but generally speaking a good baseline recommendation is to calculate the amount of calories you need to eat per day in order to maintain your current weight by multiplying your bodyweight in pounds by 15x (or by slightly less/more depending on your daily activity levels).

Then take that number and add an extra 300 to 500 calories on top, and that's your total daily target in terms of calories to consume to put yourself in a position to gain muscle mass. The other piece of puzzle is to get what's called your macros right, which is basically eating a good ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and (healthy) fat, with a decent chunk of that being protein (eg 40% protein, 35% carbs, 25% fat).

2. Eat Enough Protein Daily to Support Muscle Growth

Eating enough protein each day is important to any human, regardless of their daily activity or fitness related goals. But when it comes to building muscle, it's absolutely imperative to be getting enough of it each day since it's the literal building blocks required by the body to repair and grow muscle tissue. Proteins are made of chemicals called amino acids, which the body needs not only for muscle growth, but for healthy bone, hormone, and enzyme development.

If you don't eat enough protein, it doesn't matter what you do in the gym as your body won't physically be able to grow muscle. Besides, if you don't eat enough protein you will likely be too weak to lift heavy enough weights to stimulate muscle growth in the first place. If you are regularly lifting heavy weights - as you should be if your goal is gaining muscle - your protein requirements are also a little higher than the average person who does not lift. 

The general recommendation for daily protein intake to build muscle is to consume at least 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein for each pound of bodyweight, or over 1 gram if you want to leave nothing to chance and maximize muscle gains.

In terms of kilograms, aim for at least 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, or 1.7 grams if you want to go a little higher.

Aim to spread your protein intake throughout the day if possible to help keep your body in an anabolic state at all times - this is why you often hear people recommending the eating of smaller, more frequent meals (ie 4-7) when on a muscle gain diet as opposed to the traditional 3 meals per day. However, so long as you meet your daily protein requirements (or thereabouts), there's no reason that you cannot build muscle effectively as there are endless examples of those who have built significant amounts of muscle mass with varying meal timing strategies such as eating less frequently (ie when incorporating intermittent fasting). 

If you find it difficult to eat so much protein in a day, adding the occasional protein shake or protein bar can be very convenient in helping to reach your protein goal, but avoid going too overboard with protein shakes and aim to get most of your protein from solid/whole food. Protein shakes are great as a post workout shake though, when the body benefits from the generally faster absorption of a liquid meal.

The protein you eat should also ideally come from high quality protein sources known as complete proteins, which provide your body all the necessary amino acids it needs. Some of your protein intake can be from non complete protein sources like nuts, seeds, vegetables, and so on, but make sure the majority of your daily protein intake comes from complete sources.

Best Sources of Protein for Muscle Gain:

  • Red Meat (Beef, Steak, Lamb)
  • Poultry (Chicken, Turkey)
  • Fish (Salmon, Tuna, Sardines, Prawns, etc)
  • Eggs (Including the yolk)
  • Whey (Isolate or Concentrate)
  • Cheese (Cottage is especially good)
  • Milk (Whole or Skim)

3. Eat Plenty of Good Carbohydrates to Fuel Training

When it comes to building muscle mass, it's not all about protein, and you want a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Carbohydrates will fuel your training, and not getting enough in will lower your energy output (not just in the gym but in your day to day life too).

The ideal is to eat carbs that are lower on the glycemic index scale, since they won't promote fat storage as much as higher-glycemic carbs might. Some examples of quality carbs to build muscle are brown rice, oatmeal, wholegrain bread and pasta, and of vegetables are great and necessary too (especially for fiber and important nutrients).

Whatever you do, do not neglect your vegetables no matter how cringe or lame that sounds; if you don't like the taste, force yourself to take more and more of them daily and eventually you will get used to it and then eventually even enjoy them (happened to me; used to hate them as a kid, now I genuinely love them). Seriously; don't get lazy and make yourself eat at least some vegetables with your meals as they are crucial to help get your fiber and nutrients in.

Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates

Carbs come in two different types; simple carbs which consist of sugar, and complex carbs which are either starches or fiber. When your body digest carbs, they are all converted into glucose (except fibrous carbs). Glucose is a simple sugar that the body uses for energy. So when the glucose is formed from the carbohydrate source, it enters the bloodstream and causes your pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin is used to stabilize the amount of glucose in your blood. 

Simple carbs are digested the fastest, meaning that the level of glucose in your blood will increase fairly dramatically over a short period of time. With this comes a large spike of insulin. The problem with simple carbs is that eating too much can promote fat storage in the body, because when your body has too much glucose it turns it into extra body fat.

There are certain times when simple carbs are a source of good carbohydrates for building muscle. As an example, directly after your weight training workouts your glycogen levels have been depleted and they need replenishing. At this time all the extra carbs won't be stored as fat because your body needs it. Insulin is also needed immediately following a workout to promote protein synthesis. 

Complex carbs are digested much slower than simple carbs. The insulin release that you get from these carbs are slow and gradual, therefore giving your body a steady supply of energy to work with. Complex carbohydrates should be the focus of your diet, whether you are trying to gain muscle or lose fat.

Here's the confusing part though; not all simple carbs cause a large insulin spike, and not all complex carbs are digested slowly. For example, potatoes are a complex carbohydrate and so you would think that they are slowly digested. Nope. They can cause a large insulin spike like a simple carb would. That's why the Glycemic Index (GI) was created. This index rates different carb sources based on how fast they cause a rise in blood glucose levels. The higher the GI of a carb, the faster that carb enters the bloodstream and the higher the insulin spike.

Good Low GI Carbohydrates

For a muscle building diet you can eat most types of carbs, but the majority of your carbs should come from lower GI sources for best results. You can eat higher GI carbs but just try to limit your intake of them, unless it's part of your post workout meal. On the other hand if you're trying to lose fat, then you need to be a bit more restricting of your carb intake.

Aim for plenty of fibrous carbs and all other carbs with a GI of less than 60. Some great sources of carbohydrates are whole grains, brown rice, potatoes, oats, and pasta. Some excellent fibrous carbs are broccoli, sweet corn, and black beans.

4. Eat Enough Healthy Fat (& Avoid Bad Fat)

Fats are essential to any eating plan, and with a muscle building diet it's obviously no exception. They may not directly contribute to building muscle tissue, but they are crucial to general health and also to healthy testosterone levels which is a crucial aspect of building muscle (without normal testosterone levels you will find it harder to build muscle). Fats are of course calorie dense though, so you must be careful not to overconsume them. 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, which is more than double the amount of calories per gram of protein and carbohydrates.

There are two main types of fat, saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fat is the healthiest, and what you should focus on. Good, healthy sources of fat include olive oil, avocados, salmon, and nuts like walnuts, macadamias, and brazil nuts (three of the best nuts out there). Avoid eating too much saturated fat (a little is fine and healthy), but stay completely away from trans fats which is the worst kind of fat you can consume.

5. Eat Enough Fiber and Vegetables

As mentioned in my mini lecture about vegetables, fiber is an essential nutrient and without enough you'll have issues with digestion among other things. So always make sure to include enough of it in your muscle gain diet plan by including plenty of greens and other vegetables, legumes, and/or beans (but don't go overboard with those beans). Strive for around 25-30 grams a day from natural sources, which won't be difficult to do at all if you're eating healthy anyway.

6. Drink Enough Water

How Much Water to Drink?

Everyone knows drinking water is important in general, but when on a muscle gain diet it is even more so. It doesn't matter what your fitness goals are, whether you're trying to gain weight and build muscle, or burn fat and get leaner, you must drink a lot of water. Your body weight is made up of approximately 60-70 percent water (your muscles are made up of 70-75 percent water). Water is used by the body to help extract the goodness from nutrients and minerals, as well as many other important functions. It is vital to general health and well-being, but it also plays a vital role in gaining muscle.

Drinking enough water before, during, and after your muscle gain workouts is important too, because if you're not properly hydrated it can lead to quicker lactic acid build-up and also increase the chances of cramping or even suffering an injury. It may also increase production of cortisol in your body, which is not good because this hormone can eat up your muscle tissue. So how much water should you be drinking? In short, a lot!

In general it is recommended you drink at least 64 ounces of water per day. These guidelines are for your average, everyday person. For those of us who train hard at the gym and consume a muscle gain diet, we need more water. I would suggest drinking at least one 8 ounce glass of water (roughly 235ml) per 10-12 pounds of your own body weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds you should drink at least 16-20 glasses of water everyday. These guidelines are not set in stone at all, and everyone is different so some people may need more or less.

A good indicator of whether you're drinking enough water is to check your urine. Don't worry about checking it when you first wake up in the morning because it is natural that your body is dehydrated at this time. Instead, check the color of your urine later on in the day. It should be mostly clear if you are properly hydrated and drinking enough water. If there is a yellow color to it, and especially if it is dark, then you aren't drinking enough water! Keep in mind that being thirsty is definitely not a good indicator of being dehydrated. You could be dehydrated and you won't get any symptoms whatsoever, so drink water even when you're not thirsty!

So in conclusion, make sure when you are on a muscle gain diet that you increase your water intake. There's nothing worse than being dehydrated when trying to gain muscle mass. And stick to plain mineral or tap water, not flavored water. At first you may have to force yourself to drink more water to break out of old habits, but eventually it will become second nature to occasionally take sips of water throughout the day and you will be reaching your water intake goals without even thinking about it.

7. Avoid or Limit Alcohol Consumption

Does alcohol prevent or ruin your muscle gains? It may be fun to get drunk every now and again, or to have the casual drink or two, but it's always interesting to research how muscles and alcohol play together and finding out how bad drinking really is for your results. Drinking alcohol definitely has negative effects on your muscle gains, which isn't hard to really guess even if you were from Mars, but the real question is how much of a negative affect are we talking here?

If you're serious about getting the best results and as quickly as possible you should limit your alcohol consumption as much as you humanly can, if not completely. The more serious you are towards your goals, the more this applies. Especially don't drink too much on a night before a workout day, or on a night after a workout day when your body is really recovering from the intense workout. And if you go out and have some drinks, try to limit it to only 1 or two drinks if you can, and no more than 3-4 if you absolutely have to go bonkers.

Also, if you're really keen on binge drinking nights, limit your sprees to only once a month or so if you really have to get down like that. A huge hangover may very well affect your strength levels over a period of a few days. Yikes, right. Now you understand that building muscle and alcohol consumption aren't really the best of friends, let's take a look at some of the reasons WHY drinking is a no-no for serious lifters:

  • Alcohol dehydrates your body. Your muscles are made of approximately 70% water, and water is a prime factor in your body being able to build muscle. So being dehydrated is not a good thing for those looking to gain muscle.
  • Alcohol depletes your body of vitamins and minerals. Drinking alcohol causes a depletion of vitamins A, B, C, calcium, phosphorus and zinc in your body. These vitamins and minerals are vital to the muscle building process.
  • Alcohol increases estrogen and lowers testosterone. Testosterone is the most important hormone for muscle growth, but alcohol lowers testosterone and to top it off, can even increase estrogen which is not a good thing for your muscle gains.
  • Alcohol slows down protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is what building muscle is all about. Drinking alcohol can slow this process down by up to 20%. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know this is not a good thing!
  • Alcohol increases fat storage. Alcohol contains 7 empty calories per gram, which have no value at all. This can be quite fattening. It also disrupts what's known as the "Krebs Cycle", which helps fat burning.

As you can see, alcohol has quite a few significant negative effects on your efforts to build muscle. If you do decide to go out and party, then make sure to drink plenty of water afterwards and have a protein-rich meal. Focusing your whole life on your muscle building program isn't a healthy thing to do, as you ideally need to have a balance. So of course in the end it's totally up to you how often and how much you drink, and do what feels right for your current goals and situation. But if you're going all-in 100% with a full training program to get maximum results in a burst of 1-3 months (for a bulk or cut phase) then make sure to avoid alcohol almost completely if you can to ensure you're at 100%.

See Also: Best Muscle Gain Supplements That Actually Work