How to diet to gain muscle so you don’t waste your time.

how to diet to gain muscle

As a personal trainer, I have first-hand experience seeing the misconceptions about what it takes to build muscle. The problems are usually pretty similar, so I have developed some pretty solid basic guidelines. In this article, we’ll go over how to diet to gain muscle.

The simple answer for how to diet to gain muscle isn’t overly complicated. You need to be in a calorie surplus, eat sufficient protein, and exercise. That alone will go a long way toward muscle growth. 

That answer is pretty common knowledge, but the confusion comes with the finer details. Keep reading about exactly how you should be hitting each of those mentioned areas effectively. 

How much should you eat to gain muscle? How many calories

Being in a calorie surplus is essential to muscle growth. But what exactly does that look like? What pace should you aim for in weekly weight gain? How many calories per day? 

Answering those more specific questions will help us learn how to diet to gain muscle.

(Read: How Many Calories On a Cheat Day. All You Should Know. )


When it comes to the pace of your weight gain, you want to find a nice medium that lets you pack some muscle mass without too much fat. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be a crap shoot. Aim for a very small weight gain each week, between .25% and .5% of your own body weight

So if you are someone weighing 150 pounds, that means gaining between about .4 and .8 pounds per week. 

That might sound like a slower pace than you’d like, but remember that having patience for this can help you avoid pitfalls. Imagine you choose a much faster pace, you put on significant weight in a shorter period of time. You are probably holding a much higher fat percentage now. 

So now, depending on your goals, you might have to spend extra time anyway in a training phase for cutting weight. 

Get an accurate body weight scale here to help with tracking your pace.


How many calories should you be eating per day to attain that weight gain we mentioned? Well, a pound of body weight is around 3500 calories. 

That means to gain 1 pound you need to consume 3500 calories ABOVE your minimum daily needs to maintain your current weight referred to as your maintenance calorie level. 

So of course the first step is to find what your personal maintenance calorie level is. You can use a calorie calculator online to give you a rough estimate of what that is. I also have a tool I designed for this for a more personalized approach. 

You can check that out here.

Next, decide how much weight you want to gain each week. 

Follow this simple formula. Weight gain goal in pounds x 3500/7 = Calories needed above maintenance level. 

So if you want to gain half a  pound per week you need to eat 250 calories above your own maintenance calories each day. 

Food Choices/Macros

Now we know how much we need to eat. Let’s dive deeper into food choices. What should you be eating to fuel your muscle-gaining goal? 

Here is a secret, whether you want to learn how to diet to gain muscle or lose fat, a lot of the magic happens in the kitchen.

(Read: Meal Prep Guide For Beginners. Step By Step. )

Protein is vital for gaining muscle

Let’s start with protein. If you aren’t eating protein, you just will not build muscle. Most of my clients think they are eating enough, but in reality, they are probably consuming far less than they should. 

Before we move on, take a second and think about how much protein you eat each day. Do you know that number? 

Well for active individuals, the recommended amount is between .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight all the way to 1 gram per pound. 

It is far too common for example to see someone who weighs 120 pounds to be only eating 40 grams of protein each day when they should be eating 84 grams MINIMUM. 

Don’t be that person. You could be robbing yourself of well-deserved gains. 

What to eat to gain muscle

In this small section, let’s go over a simple framework you can use to make sure you get enough protein in your diet. 

First, track your calories. There are several FREE tools out there like MyFitnessPal for example. Tracking how many calories (and protein) gives you a real picture of what you eat each day. Because reality and what we think of our diet usually are very different. 

Even a handy fitness watch could be helpful here. Personally, I like Fitbits, check them out here.

(Read: Are fitness watches accurate for calories? Are fitness watches accurate in general? )

Next, let’s go over the meal by meal. 

For each meal, make the main focus a protein source. 

For breakfast, that could be eggs and a portion of lean breakfast food like turkey bacon, or ham. 

For Lunch, things like chicken breast are loaded with protein. 

Dinner will probably see similar options as lunch like poultry, or seafood. 

Next, plan on snacking on some protein-rich snacks. You have things like greek yogurts, cottage cheese, meat snacks, etc. Thankfully, the protein snack market has expanded greatly. I like the Lenny and Larry stuff because it’s dairy-free and pretty good too. 

Finally, the last thing is to supplement your diet with protein powder if you need to. This is an easy way to get an extra 30 grams of protein. Back when I could have milk, Gold Standard protein was my favorite, as it tasted more like a milkshake than a healthy drink. 

Have the right kind of workout for building muscle

Your diet is important for whatever gym goal you have. But actually getting to the gym and working out will point you in the right direction. That’s why having the right kind of program is vital. 

( Read: Resistance training exercises: Beginners Guide )

Exercise selection, reps, and sets for muscle gain

Typically, just working out is better than nothing at all. But there are some specific details that help put your body in a state primed for muscle building. 

First is exercise selection, unless you have a very specific goal, taking the balanced body approach is best for most people. Working on each muscle group equally helps you eliminate the potential mistake of creating or strengthening imbalances in your body. 

That means not skipping leg day!

Second reps and sets. For the most optimal results, aim for between 12 and 20 sets of each muscle each week. That doesn’t mean doing them all in one day. Split them up throughout the week. 

As for reps, between 6 – 12 at a slow controlled pace is what we are looking for. 

Make sure to plan enough recovery for your muscles

Be careful that you don’t punish your muscles too hard. Remember that you are creating micro-tears in the muscle fibers that need sufficient time to recover. 

Ignoring that could lead to burnout, stalled progress, or even injury. 

So whatever training split you choose, a good rule of thumb is to wait 48 hours before hitting the same muscle group. 

Contact me here if you need help with your own training and diet. Working out can be challenging and confusing. 

I’ve worked with many different types of clients and seen many problems that reoccur from person to person. I can help you get past them!

If you think you could use the help, don’t hesitate, let’s work on your journey together.