Muscle-building nutrition can be overwhelming at first. How much should you eat? What foods are considered “clean”? Why are paleo and vegetarian women both healthier than average despite having seemingly contradictory dietary restrictions? What supplements should you be taking? When should you be taking them? Do you even need supplements at all?
Luckily, nutrition can also be pretty simple if you focus on the fundamentals. There are just two factors that make the difference between gaining nothing or gaining half a pound of muscle over the course of the next week. But there are hundreds of things that make the oh-so-small difference between gaining 0.50 or 0.55 pounds of muscle. If you focus on the hundreds of small details you risk struggling very hard for progress that your scale won’t even notice.
This article is designed to help you go from gaining nothing each week to gaining half a pound each week. Keep in mind that building muscle becomes harder and harder as you become more and more advanced, so we recommend learning everything eventually, but there’s plenty of time for that later—once you’re already building muscle!
So. What are those two important factors? And how can you use them to consistently gain weight on the scale, get stronger, and build lean muscle?
Right now you just need to worry about those two important factors: calories and protein.
Calories: How to Gain Weight
Food contains energy—calories. When you consume fewer calories than your body needs, you lose weight because your body is forced to burn fat/muscle to get the missing energy. When you consume more calories than your body needs, you gain weight because you store the extra energy as fat/muscle.
Calorie surplus = weight gain
Calorie balance = no change in weight
Calorie deficit = weight loss
So “being in a caloric surplus” simply means “eating enough to gain weight.” This makes weight gain simple. Not easy, but simple: if you’re not gaining weight as quickly as you’d like, you need to increase your calorie intake.
When gaining weight under normal conditions people generally gain around 60–70% of that weight as fat. So if you gain 20 pounds while eating a regular diet and doing regular exercise (e.g. jogging) you’ll gain something like 7 pounds of muscle and 13 pounds of fat. Not great.
You can do better. Way better. In fact, if you’re new to lifting and dieting scientifically, you may even be able to lose fat while you build muscle. You won’t be able to do this forever, and you may not even be able to do it now, but at the very least the vast majority of your gains will be lean. The goal here is to gain so little fat that you don’t even notice it—all you notice is the new muscle mass.
So how do we do this?
First, to prime your body for muscle growth you need to be lifting heavy weights. If you don’t want to sign up at a gym you can lift at home with some adjustable dumbbells (and maybe an adjustable lifting bench). Nothing fancy required, but you do need to lift. No other type of exercise even comes close to weightlifting when it comes to building muscle.
We have a beginner’s weightlifting guide here.
With that out of the way, you need to consider the degree of your calorie surplus. We want to give your body enough extra nutrients to build muscle, but not so much that the extra, extra nutrients are stored as fat.
If your goal were fat loss, the goal would be similar—to keep the calorie deficit small enough that your body can get all the energy it needs from your fat stores without needing to cannibalize any muscle mass. A reasonable calorie deficit will also keep your hormones functioning well, your period arriving on the regular, your appetite under control, your digestive system functioning well, and your energy levels high.
There are two ways to calculate how many calories you need. The first is by taking your diet as it is now and adding in enough calories to grow. The second is by starting from scratch and calculating your body’s calorie needs from the ground up.
Option #1: Adding Enough Calories to Grow
Gaining half a pound of muscle per week requires approximately—very roughly—1,750 extra calories per week. So if you’re aiming to gain half a pound per week, you’ll need to add 200–300 calories per day. After a week step on the scale, see how you did, and adjust your calorie surplus as needed (usually in increments of around 200 additional calories per day).
This option is simple and effective, but it only works if you already have a very consistent nutrition routine. If you wake up in the morning and have breakfast, bring a packed lunch to work, and then come home and eat dinner with your family, for example. In this case, since you know exactly what you normally do, it’s very easy to strategically add in extra calories without changing your regular routine.
Here are some strategies:
Increase three meals by 100 calories each. Perhaps you do that by adding a small glass of milk to your meals. Liquid calories are fairly easy on the appetite, so this should be fairly achievable.
Adding in a couple 150 calorie snacks. Snacks have been shown to instinctively cause people to eat more, and they will allow you to keep your main meals reasonably sized. These snacks could be as simple as a homemade protein bar split in half, a whey protein shake, a handful of trail mix, or a couple pieces of fruit.
Adding in a fourth meal. Maybe a small fruit/protein smoothie, or some muesli cereal with milk and frozen berries, a homemade protein bar, or a store bought one—like a Quest bar. All of these options are quick to prepare and consume, rich in fibre, contain a fruit or vegetable (except for the Quest bar), and contain enough protein to spike muscle protein synthesis.
Dessert. If you already eat a pretty healthy diet that’s rich in protein and made up mostly of whole foods, perhaps you could just have a 500 calorie dessert after dinner. Bonus points if you make the dessert yourself.
Nothing fancy, expensive or time consuming required.
This method relies on your schedule being consistent though, otherwise you may add 200–300 calories in somewhere, feel fuller than normal, and then accidentally subtract calories out elsewhere.
If, for example, you make a sugary Starbuck’s run twice a week to satisfy some cravings… maybe those cravings are gone, you forget to go to Starbucks, and you eliminate the calorie surplus you so diligently worked to create.
Since your appetite will naturally cue you to eat enough to maintain your weight, these subconsciously caloric adjustments are very common.
So if your diet is sporadic, option number two is better.
Option #2: Using an Algorithm to Guesstimate your Ideal Calorie Intake
This option is best if you want to rebuild your diet from the ground up. The goal here is to develop a good, consistent routine though so that you can eventually switch back to option #1. Counting calories every day is not a realistically sustainable practice for most of us. That’s more something that people do when fitness is their day job.
Sometimes though, we have to do it in the shorter term order to accomplish our physique goals. We turn fitness into a passion hobby for a while, get things under control, and then resume our other hobbies while leaving fitness to simmer pleasantly on the back burner.
After all, once you gain the weight you’re after, you’ll go back to maintaining your (new) bodyweight, i.e., you’ll go back to doing what your appetite wants you to do.
Anyway, calorie algorithms are incredibly complicated because so many factors need to be considered. Fortunately, we write to a particular niche of people with very specific goals. (We also want to credit Alan Aragon, a respected sports nutritionist, for this algorithm. We were dubious at first that such a simple algorithm could actually work, but after years of testing it in the Bombshell community it has proven itself surprisingly accurate!)
For a decently fit woman eating a balanced diet with a moderate protein intake and doing around 3 hours of strength training per week, this should get you very close to your maintenance calorie needs.
Maintenance Calories = weight (pounds) x 13
Then adjust a little based on your lifestyle:
- If you wake up, drive to work and sit at a desk all day, decrease the multiplier (13) by 1, making it 12.
- For every extra hour of relatively intense exercise that you do during the week in addition to your three weekly workouts add an extra 1 to the multiplier. This includes sports and other activities, but not low intensity stuff like yoga or casually biking to work. For example, if during the week you play two soccer games that each last an hour, your multiplier would be 15.
This should roughly reflect what you’re currently eating. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a good, educated guess. If the number seems way off, feel free to adjust it up or down a further 10%. Metabolisms vary from person to person, and chances are that you already know whether yours is larger or smaller than average. My metabolism is hellish furnace, so I need to eat a little more than your average dude. As a naturally skinny gal, you may be in the same bony boat.
Now we just need to add in the calorie surplus. Just like with option #1, this means adding 200–300 calories per day on top of your maintenance needs.
Adjust Your Calories Each Week (if Needed)
Either method will give you a rough starting point, but everyone is a little different. To absolutely guarantee that you’re consistently building muscle you’ll need to track your results and adjust as you go. (This will also correct for calorie tracking errors or too-loose guesstimations.)
Weigh yourself each week and see how much your weight has changed. We recommend waking up on Sunday morning, peeing, and then stepping on the scale. This will keep your stomach contents, hydration, etc. as consistent as possible each week. Then, if you aren’t seeing the weight-gain results that you want, simply adjust your daily calorie goals up by 200 calories. If you are gaining weight too fast, you can adjust your daily calorie goals down by 200 calories.
If you’re trying to build muscle you’ll probably want to gain 0.3–0.5 pounds per week, so you’d adjust your calories up or down to get closer to that pace. 0.3 pounds per week is good if you’re more afraid of gaining fat, 0.5 pounds per week is good if you’re more eager to gain muscle.
This is how you absolutely guarantee progress. If something isn’t working, you strategically adjust it until it does. When it comes to bodyweight change, calorie intake is the variable that you want to adjust. If you finish up a few weeks of weightlifting, you still weigh the same amount, and you’re thinking “Damn, where’s all my muscle at? Why isn’t this working?” Well you’re just looking for the problem in the wrong place. The recipe is fine, you just need more ingredients—more calories.
Why is protein important? Weightlifting will get your body trying to build muscle, getting into a calorie surplus will give you enough energy to gain weight, and consuming enough protein will give your body the building blocks that it needs to construct new muscle tissue. (Muscle is made out of protein.) This is the trifecta of muscle growth: lift enough weight, eat enough calories, and eat enough protein.
How much protein? There are some experimental new studies showing a potential muscle-building benefit to consuming as much as 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight (3.3 grams per kilo), but most research shows that muscle is built optimally with around 1 gram per pound bodyweight (2.2 grams per kilo). Probably more than you eat right now, but actually a pretty modest protein intake compared to what most fitness models eat.
Keep in mind that this is how much protein it takes to build muscle. Muscle doesn’t take much protein to maintain, and in addition to that, over time we become better at digesting and using protein. This is why you’ll sometimes see very muscular people eating far less protein than this. This means that in the future you can reduce your protein intake by quite a bit as well.
However, right now you’re going to be building muscle at a rapid pace while also being rather inefficient at turning that protein into muscle mass. So I would try to stay above that gram per pound.
What are good protein sources? There are lots of great protein sources: chicken, fish, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, eggs, beans, peas, red meat, grains, soy, etc. This makes eating enough protein pretty easy if your diet has no restrictions. If your diet does have restrictions though, or eating enough protein is still a struggle, we’d recommend getting some protein powder.
Whey protein is cheaper than chicken, fantastic for building muscle, and quite nutritious. However, there are many great types of protein powders. For example, pea + rice protein powder is great for people who have problems with dairy or prefer avoiding animal products.
Is this healthy? Absolutely! Diets higher in protein are just as healthy as diets that are lower in protein. The only difference is that a diet higher in protein supports a more athletic physique, whereas a diet higher in fruits, grains, veggies and healthy fats supports a more sedentary physique. Even vegan athletes and lifters eat plenty of protein.
Does it matter how I divide up my protein intake? Hitting your overall daily protein goal is the most important thing, but splitting up your protein intake somewhat evenly over the course of the day can help too.
Having 30+ grams with breakfast, lunch and dinner is pretty great. If you weigh, say, 130 pounds, then that could be 30 grams with breakfast + 30 grams with lunch + 40 grams with dinner + a whey protein shake as a snack. That would give you 130 grams total. That’s a pretty normal way to take in enough protein to grow.
If you have fewer than three meals… consider eating more meals! When trying to build muscle it’s very important that you don’t accidentally skip meals (or deliberately start intermittent fasting). Not only will that make it harder to hit your calorie/protein goals for the day, but it will also mean that your body will spend less time being in “muscle-building mode.”
It’s a myth that you need to eat every three hours to stoke your metabolic fire, but you do need to spike protein synthesis several times per day if you want to build muscle leanly at a reasonable pace.
Make Eating Achievable, Lazy (MEAL)
This is the muscle-building variant to the KISS acronym that I’ve just now invented. When you’re trying to eat more calories don’t go complicating things. Your diet doesn’t need to be simple—the more variety and fun you have with it the better—but it does need to be achievable. If you aren’t already paleo, low carb, intermittent fasting, avoiding gluten, eating “clean”, etc—don’t go starting now.
I know these approaches to nutrition provide simple rules—eat everything except for meat, or everything except for gluten, or everything that a caveman would eat. That’s simple, and when faced with the overwhelming task of creating a muscle-building diet, simple can be so, so alluring.
But also keep in mind that most of these food group avoidance things are designed for overweight people who need to restrict their calories in order to get down to a healthy bodyweight. As someone who is trying to gain weight you need to do the opposite: keep your diet open, keep your diet indulgent, and keep your diet fun.
Yes, you should be trying to get most of your calories from whole foods, having some fruit or veggies with most meals, having protein with most meals—all of which are great for your health—but you should also be having dessert like you always do, cooking those richly flavoured meals that you love, having a drink here and there, and not ordering the garden salad at restaurants as your main meal.
You’re trying to gain weight, you’re trying to build muscle, and you’re trying to get strong. This is not a situation where you need to remove easy, delicious sources of calories. This is a situation where you need to expand what you eat. This is about adding nutritious, delicious things into a routine that’s already easy, not time to overhaul everything and start eating totally “clean.”
If you normally wake up and have coffee and a muffin at Starbucks for breakfast, switch that to having a latte, a muffin, and a fruit at Starbucks for breakfast. Your routine is the same, it won’t require a ton of willpower… but the milk in the latte adds protein and calories, the fruit adds calories, fibre, phytonutrients and vitamins. This is how you get started bulking—by keeping things realistically achievable. So realistically achievable that even when you’re lazy you can still succeed.
Now you know why both vegan and paleo diets are healthier than average: they help the average, overweight person consume fewer calories and fewer processed foods. This causes some weight loss (which is healthy for them), gives them more fibre and helps to fix up nutrient deficiencies.
While this guide provides a simple how-to for a beginner looking to build muscle, I know that it’s not actually simple to do. It’s hard to eat enough calories to gain weight, and it’s hard to eat enough protein.
We’ll be writing about how to make eating enough to gain weight easier in the future, but if you want to get started now, The Bony to Bombshell Program is packed full of evidence based appetite hacks, recipes, and sample meal plans that are highly customizable. It also includes all the advanced nutrition techniques that will further accelerate your gains, 5 months of muscle-building workouts, and a yearlong membership of coaching from us inside the Bombshell member community.
Alright, now here are the main takeaways:
- Make sure you’re lifting before going gung-ho with calories.
- 0.3–0.5 pounds per week is a good pace to be gaining weight as a naturally skinny woman who’s trying to build muscle leanly and healthfully.
- If your diet is already made up mostly of whole whole foods, is fairly consistent, and your weight stays about the same each week, then you don’t need to start from scratch. Adding 200–300 calories to what you’re already eating is a simple way to get into a calorie surplus.
- If your diet needs a total overhaul, 13x your bodyweight (in pounds) is probably how much you need to eat to maintain your weight. To begin gaining weight at a good pace, add 20% to that.
- Weigh yourself each week and adjust up/down in 200 calories increments until you’re consistently gaining 0.3–0.5 pounds per week.
- Your weekly caloric surplus is what will determine how much weight you gain that week, but the leanest gains are from small, consistent daily surpluses. Do not under eat by 500 calories one day and then try and make up for it by overeating by 1,000 calories the next day.
- Eat 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight (2.2 grams per kilo).
- Eat the foods you already love—just add more calories & protein.
- Don’t fret about advanced nutrition techniques until this is easy!
And remember, your appetite is no fool, and your body will always be trying to keep your weight the same. This means that if you hit your calorie goal one day, you may forget to eat breakfast the next. This is your body’s attempt to restore balance—to eradicate the surplus you worked so hard to create. Don’t let this happen. Be mindful of how much you’re eating all week long, and make sure to carry around some emergency calories (like trail mix or protein bars).