I’ve talked to many younger athletes interested in building muscle mass over the years. Almost all of them don’t want to lose their precious abs to build more muscle.
Unfortunately for these kids, they don’t listen when I share what they need to do to get stronger and pack on muscle in the gym.
This begs the question, can you gain muscle without eating a lot of food?
No, no, you can’t.
You need to eat more calories than you’re burning off every day to build muscle mass. You need to gain weight. That is all. If you aren’t gaining any weight, you’re not eating enough to build muscle.
The biggest problem is everybody wants to lose weight, but nobody wants to gain weight.
The type of weight you’re trying to gain, lean muscle tissue, is much harder to build than fat is to lose. So with that in mind, how much do we have to eat to build muscle?
Is it a lot more than you think like 10,000 calories? Or is it more reasonable?
Let’s dive in!
How To Gain Muscle Without Getting Fat
In general, gaining more than 0.5% of your body weight per week is too fast. For our 200 lb male, 1 lb per week is plenty to ensure we’re building mostly muscle.
If you pay attention to your bodyweight and ensuring you’re gaining at this rate, you’ll have a much higher chance to gain muscle without gaining fat.
I hear this question all the time from people that haven’t done a muscle gaining phase correctly.
To build muscle without fat you have to take your time and train hard.
Like losing body fat, we don’t want to gain more than 10% of our body weight for the entire muscle gain phase. This gives us a cap of 20 lbs of body weight to build muscle and prevent excessive fat gain.
The other thing to realize is the leaner you are, the more weight you gain will be muscle mass. As you gain excess body fat, the more resistant your body will be to muscle growth. Not a great situation to be in!
This is not the time to eat a ton of food without paying attention to your calories. You will get fat and wish you took your time with it. I’ve seen it too many times to be a coincidence.
As with all things in life, slow and steady wins the race.
Increasing Calorie Intake To Gain More Muscle
Even though we started off in a calorie surplus, there will come a time when you stop gaining. When this happens, you need to increase your calories again to keep moving forward. As long as you do this slowly, you should be hitting PRs in the gym and gaining muscle.
A simple 5-10% increase in calories will suffice for this—no need to overdo it. Keep track of your weight and train hard!
Potentially more important than any other factor is consistency.
Eating more food over time is what you need to do to build more muscle over the long haul.
If you don’t do this, it isn’t going to happen. I know tons of smaller athletes that I’ve trained that just eyeballed what they ate and never made much progress. All because they refused to break out a food scale and track their food intake in an app such as MyFitnessPal.
So for this, I recommend a food scale similar to this one. I’m a massive fan of this food scale because it has a pull-out display. Most scales are small in diameter, and you can’t even read what it says because it’s blocked while weighing food out.
Isn’t Weight Training More Important?
Many people out there are definitely under the mindset that they only need to work out hard to gain muscle. This is absolutely not true whatsoever.
Without a calorie surplus to give your body the proper nutrients, muscle growth cannot occur. The only time it can is to be overweight and have a lot of fatty tissue to support muscle growth.
Focusing on lifting weights is necessary to build muscle mass, but if you’re just training hard and not eating for muscle growth, it’s NEVER going to happen.
So many guys out there say they EAT SO MUCH, and they can’t gain weight. Of course, so much isn’t a quantifiable number, and they aren’t doing it consistently, so of course, they can’t gain weight.
If you aren’t tracking your calories and body weight each week, all the weight training in the world isn’t going to build the muscle for you.
It’s just like building a house, it’ll never be made unless you have the right building materials to get it done.
You need to eat more to build muscle, that’s all there is to it.
Proper Macronutrients For Muscle Growth
On top of the proper calorie intake, there’s a lot you can do to optimize your diet intake to build the most muscle.
A lot of people wonder how much protein to build muscle, how many carbs they need, how much fat is too much, and how many calories they need to eat to gain the most muscle.
They also tend to look for specific muscle building diet plans that will give them an edge in their goal of muscle hypertrophy.
Well with this guide you’ll wonder no longer!
Here are a couple of guidelines to consider!
- 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. When your calories and carb intake are higher, they’re much more muscle sparing, which allows you to eat less protein. By eating less protein, you can consume more carbs and fats.
- 0.3 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight. To ensure proper hormone production, we don’t want our fats to go lower than 30% of our total body weight.
- The remainder of your calories goes toward carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential for muscle gain and proper energy levels; the more you can eat, the better! It gives you a considerable advantage over any other type of diet by far!
Now that we have these guidelines out of the way let’s calculate the proper macros for our 200 lb male athlete.
Calculating Macronutrients For Optimal Muscle Building
Eating lots of carbohydrates with vegetables, proteins, and fruits thrown in is a great way to fuel heavy training and get bigger.
For our above example, we started our 200 lb athlete with 3,000 calories to begin his weight gaining phase.
All we have to do is plug in his bodyweight to get his protein and fat requirements.
- 200×0.8=160 grams of protein
- 200×0.3=60 grams of fat
Then we multiply each of these by their calories per gram, 4 and 9, respectively.
- 160×4=640 Calories From Protein
- 60×9=540 Calories From Fat
From here, we add them together and subtract them from his total calorie intake.
Finally, divide our remaining calories by 4 to get his starting carbohydrate intake.
- 1,820/4=455 Calories From Carbohydrates
So starting out we get:
- 3,000 Calories
- 160 Protein
- 60 Fat
- 455 Carbohydrates
If you find you tolerate fats better than carbs, you can lower your carbs and increase your fats as you see fit. This is simply an example of the best possible macronutrients to build muscle mass.
As you progress through the diet, you can keep protein and fats relatively the same and increase your carbs to continue pushing calories higher.
What To Eat To Gain Muscle?
I mentioned before that some people claim they can’t gain weight no matter what they eat. This is due to being inconsistent and not tracking their calorie intake/bodyweight.
If you have a hard time eating enough calories due to a fast metabolism, you can throw a couple of foods into your diet to make this a simple task. And while there aren’t any specific foods to gain muscle, simply eating more micronutrient dense foods will do the trick.
- Peanut butter and honey sandwiches
- Protein shakes in whole fat milk.
- Gatorade during workouts
- Cereal Post-Workout
- Dried Fruit: Raisins, dates, prunes, etc.
- Fats and oils: Olive oil and avocado oil
- Nuts: almonds, cashews, peanuts, macadamia nuts, etc.
- High-Fat Dairy Products: milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.
- Eggs, white rice, and ground beef!
- And even possibly “JUNK FOOD.”
As you can see, there are a ton of options to increase your calorie intake without getting super full. If you have trouble downing the calories needed to build muscle, try increasing the energy-dense foods you’re consuming.
Goku is one of the biggest and strongest characters in the entire multiverse. He trains hard, fights hard, and eats enough to fuel his heavy workload. If you need it, sometimes calorie-dense foods are necessary to get it done.
As crazy as it sounds, some people need to eat junk food to gain weight and build muscle. Suppose you’re hitting your protein intake and getting all of your essential micronutrients from fruits and vegetables. In that case, you can eat junkier foods to get your calorie intake up.
Obviously, you won’t be trying to eat in a calorie surplus forever, so the detriments to your health are nowhere near as bad as those that lead sedentary lives.
Eat healthy foods the majority of the time, train hard, and if you need it, consume less healthy foods to get in the calories needed to build muscle.
Can You Still Gain Muscle Without Eating Healthy?
I’ve noticed many people seem to think that just eating healthy will magically make them gain muscle and stay lean.
Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that, and it’s something that has many myths surrounding it.
For muscle growth to occur, the main thing that needs to happen is being in a calorie surplus. As long as you do that and train hard to signal your body that you want it to change, you’re good to go.
If you want to further optimize this, so you gain more muscle than fat, your protein, carbs, and fat intake tend to matter a lot more.
Then finally, the last priority is to focus on food composition.
This means eating more lean proteins, rice, and fruit/vegetables over Taco Bell, McDonald’s, & Chinese Takeout.
You can eat like Kevin McCallister occasionally and still build muscle. Seriously I promise.
It’s still important for overall progress but do you actually have to eat healthy to gain muscle?
No, you definitely don’t.
All you need to do are these 3 things:
- Eat in a calorie surplus – This is the fuel that’s necessary to reconstruct and remodel your body’s tissues into muscle mass.
- Consume enough protein – Make sure you’re eating at minimum, 0.8 grams per lb of bodyweight. Proteins are the building blocks of life and are absolutely required to recover from hard training. Without consuming enough protein, your weight gain will be a higher percentage of fat than muscle mass.
- Hard training is required to force your muscles to grow – If you aren’t training hard, all of the increased protein and calorie intake will go to waste. You’ll gain more body fat without any meaningful muscle gain at all.
As you can see, nowhere did I say it was absolutely necessary to eat healthy for hypertrophy to occur. Sure, it’ll lead to more muscle mass than body fat, but that difference is going to be negligible at best.
If you’re more predisposed to fat gain, try to eat most of your calories from healthier food sources.
It’s 2020, I shouldn’t have to go over what healthy foods are, but it’s easy. Real, healthy food doesn’t have any ingredients.
Lean proteins are animal products. No ingredients.
Fresh or frozen fruit that doesn’t have any syrups or added sugar in them. No ingredients.
Rice, potatoes, oatmeal, etc.
Pretty easy to figure out. If you want to build more muscle, even if it’s the slightest percentage, more will require more food, hard training, and focusing on healthier food choices.
But you can still eat junk as part of a healthy diet and gain just as much muscle as you would eating only healthy foods. Pretty simple!
Can You Build Muscle While Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting is one of the most powerful tools you can use to learn body fat. It’s pretty easy to understand why!
It allows you to spend a large portion of the day abstaining from eating, and then after that fast is over, you can eat much bigger meals for the same amount of calories you normally would not fasting.
Let’s say you need 1800 calories to lose body fat.
Instead of eating six small meals at 300 calories each in a 12 hour period, you can eat three big meals in an 8 hour period at 600 calories per meal.
That is all the “magic” that Intermittent Fasting provides. People state that it increases HGH, Human Growth Hormone, and other hormones such as testosterone. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. Just another myth that the fitness industry wants to perpetuate.
If this were the case, every bodybuilder and strength athlete in the world would be fasting to get that massive boost in free hormones instead of just eating more.
If you want to build more muscle, you should be consuming protein every 3-4 hours to ensure protein synthesis elevates continuously, and muscle building occurs.
RP Strength says it perfectly here, if you keep your daily macronutrients consistent, maintaining muscle and losing fat is fine. However, for muscle gain, your fatigue levels will increase, and your muscle gaining efforts will not be optimal.
If you want to build the most muscle possible, don’t do it while Intermittent Fasting. Instead, I would do something known as a protein-sparing modified fast.
Basically, instead of fasting throughout the morning with zero food, consume protein every couple of hours throughout the “fast” to have a consistent level of amino acids in the bloodstream.
That way, you still get some of the main benefits of fasting while also sparing muscle mass.
I would not recommend a standard intermittent fasting diet if your main goal is building muscle mass.
Instead, consume around 25 grams of protein every couple of hours during your fast in the form of protein shakes. Using a blend of whey and casein will give you a nice “blend” of fast and slow-digesting proteins to spare muscle mass.
Try it out and let me know how it works for you!
What Happens If I Lift Weights But Don’t Eat Protein?
Protein intake is incredibly vital for muscle growth to occur. If you don’t consume enough, your body will have a hard time recovering and growing.
If you’re lifting weights, and still in a calorie surplus, you can definitely still build muscle and strength over time.
However, I’ve trained many people that kept making excuses about why they can’t eat enough protein, and no matter what strategies we use, they simply refused to make the changes necessary.
What happened with these people is that their progress is always slower, their recovery is slower, they can’t train as much, and they don’t build as much muscle mass.
The clients I’ve trained that have consistently hit their calorie and protein goals have always improved their body composition and performance much faster than those that don’t.
I’m not the only one out there that knows just how big of a difference proper protein intakes can make. Guys like the Rock and every bodybuilder in the world knows how important protein is as well.
It’s really not that difficult either, during a muscle building diet, you really only need 0.8 grams per lb of bodyweight.
If you’re 200 lbs and trying to gain, this is only 160 grams of protein.
That’s 1-2 protein shakes and 4-8 ounces of chicken, and you’re halfway there. If you can’t make this happen, you’re going to have to live with sub-optimal performance in the gym and slower progress overall.
Diet is the most crucial factor, no matter what your goal is. Fat loss, muscle gain, building strength; they all depend on the diet to fuel these processes in the body.
Eat your protein!
Why Am I Not Gaining Muscle?
This is one of the most asked questions I see when it comes to building muscle.
If you’re making this face wondering why you’re not gaining muscle, read on!
You need to ask yourself a couple of questions and see if you’re going all you can to optimize muscle growth.
- Are you training hard enough?
- Are you doing too much volume?
- Are you recovering?
- How many calories are you eating?
- Are you gaining weight on the scale?
- How much protein are you consuming?
- Are you stronger now than when you started?
These questions might seem pretty basic, but in the grand scheme of things, they matter much more than you could possibly imagine.
I’ll give you a basic answer for each of them so you can find out exactly what you need to improve on to get progress going again.
Are you training hard enough?
Training hard enough for muscle growth to occur is pretty hard. If you’re a beginner, it’s relatively easy to build muscle since you’ll grow from any stimulus.
For everybody else, progressive overload and training close to failure are necessary.
You don’t build muscle by doing tons of volume; it’s about getting stronger in the 8-20 rep range with high intensities.
Adding another rep or another 5 lbs to each of your exercises forever is all that’s necessary.
You need to train harder than last time to build more muscle—bottom line.
If you find you’re not gaining like you think you should be, make sure your training intensity is high enough to warrant muscle gain.
Are you doing too much volume?
There are many coaches out there that are in the high volume camp.
The main problem with high training volume is that its not an actual method of progressive overload.
The only thing you need to add more reps is more time.
You rest another 2-3 minutes and do another set.
In theory, you could do as many sets as you want to and then simply drop the weight once you aren’t in your target rep range.
That’s why it’s not a form of progressive overload. The only way to force a muscle to grow is by doing more weight or more reps.
Going from a hard set of 8 at 200 lbs to a set or 12 over a couple of weeks requires muscle growth to occur.
You can’t just rest longer to make this happen; muscle has to be gained to progress.
That’s why doing high volume training programs, 10-20 sets per body part per week, will probably cause recovery issues for most people out there.
If you do too much volume, you’re only doing more work and burning through more calories that could be used to synthesize muscle tissue.
That’s why 5-10 HARD sets taken close to failure are actually less fatiguing and grow you more.
You actually get to spend more time recovering and building muscle rather than doing 6 workouts per week with increasingly higher volumes forever.
Try a lower volume program and push yourself harder. Let me know how it works for you and your goals!
Are you recovering?
Recovery is pretty easy to figure out.
If you’re fully recovered by the time you train the same muscle group again, you’re on the right track.
If your performance is still increasing week after week and don’t feel super beat up, you’re probably recovering perfectly.
If you’re super sore all week, your joints hurt, and you just feel weak all the time; odds are you’re doing too much work, aren’t eating enough calories or protein, or not sleeping well.
Regardless of what the issue is, if you aren’t recovering, you aren’t growing. It’s as simple as that.
How many calories are you eating?
I’ve gone over this extensively in this post, but if you aren’t eating enough calories, YOU WILL NOT BUILD MUSCLE.
It’s like building a house; if you don’t have the right materials, the house won’t be made. You have to give the workers the right tools to work with, or nothing gets done.
That’s why training hard without eating more food is worthless.
Supplements aren’t enough; training isn’t enough. You need food plain and simple.
Eat 10-20% more calories and monitor your weight for two weeks. If you arent gaining on the scale and your reps/weight on major movements aren’t going up, you need to eat more.
Bump it another 10-20%, keep working, and monitor your progress.
Easy as that.
Are you gaining weight on the scale?
I just explained this like five seconds ago. Are you gaining weight on the scale?
There should be a noticeable difference as the weeks go by.
If you weighed 200 lbs at the beginning of the month and at the end of the month, your average bodyweight is 201 lbs; you can probably afford to eat a little more.
0.5-1% of your bodyweight per week is perfect. 1-2 lbs for somebody that weighs 200 lbs. Incredibly simple and effective.
How much protein are you consuming?
Your protein intake needs to be at least 0.8 grams per lb of bodyweight. If you’re 100 lbs, 80 grams, 200 lbs 160 grams, 300 lbs 240 grams, etc.
If you arent hitting at least that, get your protein up. It has to be done.
Are you stronger now than when you started?
This is the most important thing other than calories and protein.
If you’re lifting the same weights for the same reps 6 months from now, how the hell are you supposed to grow?
You need to get stronger in the 5-20 rep range over time if you ever hope to reach your muscular potential.
That’s why you see the same guys year after year lifting the same weights and looking the exact same.
Get stronger, eat more, get bigger. Rinse and repeat forever. Done.
As you can see, just working out more isn’t going to improve your ability to gain muscle mass.
The opposite actually!
If you work out more and don’t increase your calories with it, you’re going to lose bodyweight instead of gaining.
The only way to gain muscle is to follow these 3 simple steps:
- Increase your calorie intake by 5-10% to gain weight.
- Get stronger in the 5-20 rep range through weight training.
- Remain consistent
You can’t do only one of these things and be successful. You have to eat more to grow, you have to train hard to give your body the correct signals for muscle growth, and you have to be consistent!
If you eat more food all the time, you’re going to get fat. If you only weight train without increasing calories, you will remain the same or even lose weight.
When was the last time you tried to gain muscle mass? What did you have to do to continue making progress? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time,