You must understand that eating and sleeping are as important as working out when building muscle.
Not getting enough calories or sleep will completely cancel your muscle gains.
In fact, if you do just the following things correctly on a workout day, you should successfully see muscle gains by the next day:
- Eat enough calories to give your body the resources to build muscle. This page will teach that.
- Get enough sleep for your muscles to recover from workouts (study). To be safe, aim for the AASM and SRS recommendation for adults, which is 7 hours (study).
- Complete all reps using proper form with heavier weights than your last workout.
To repeat: If, on a given day, you nail a workout but don’t eat enough calories, you risk gaining ZERO muscle mass by the next morning. (You may still gain strength.)
Here’s the implication: If you suspect you’ll be unable to eat or sleep enough on a workout day, reschedule the workout to a day where think you will. And, on the days before workout days, get a good night’s sleep so you have enough energy to lift heavy weights by the next morning.
Meal calorie counts
On workout days, you have to eat enough calories to build new muscle. On non-workout days, you have to eat enough calories to avoid losing existing muscle.
If you don’t reach your bodybuilding diet’s daily calorie target, your body converts existing muscle and fat into energy. That means you lose the muscle you gained.
In fact, if you measure the circumference of your arm the day after only eating half your daily calorie count, you’ll notice you’ve lost a full workout’s worth of muscle growth. That’s the annoying part of building muscle: dieting consistency.
Your own daily calorie target is calculated from what’s called your your basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR is the amount of calories you burn just by being awake for a day; your body uses a lot of energy to perform its basic functions like pumping blood and powering your brain.
This means if you eat precisely your BMR’s worth of calories in a day, and you perform no physical activity (e.g. walking, running, weightlifting) to burn calories, you will get enough calories to prevent your body from breaking down your existing muscle.
However, since most of us aren’t sedentary, plus we’re regularly going to the gym, which itself burns calories, we must eat calories beyond our BMR to avoid being in a calorie deficit by the time we go to sleep.
Use the calculator below to estimate your daily target. The numbers outputted are how many calories you must eat on your workout and non-workout days. Again, workout days require extra calories to make up for what you burn while exercising.
For the weight field, select what your scale says upon waking up (before eating). For the walking and non-weightlifting exercise fields (e.g. running, biking, swimming), enter how many hours of exercise you perform on average each week.
Saving your calorie targets to a text file is not good enough to remember them. They must be in your face. Write them on a post-it note and stick it on your laptop.
In the next section, we develop a critical bodybuilding diet framework for consistently achieving your calorie targets and muscle growth
Bodybuilding diet meals
There is no special “bodybuilding diet.” There’s just common sense nutrition and daily calorie targets. You can follow any diet you want: ketogenic, paleo, whatever. So long as you hit your protein and calorie targets, you’re fine.
To consistently reach your daily calorie target, it’s critical to develop a reliable muscle building meal plan based off what I call “core foods.” These are healthy, high-calorie foods you should stock in your kitchen to form the basis of every meal:
- 1 packet of plain instant oatmeal — 125 calories (easiest and tastiest choice)
- 1 5″ sweet potato — 115 calories (cooks quickly in the microwave)
- 1 cup of cooked brown rice — 200 calories (this is the least healthy option)
- 1 can of black beans — 350 calories (easiest to buy canned)
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa — 220 calories (hard to find pre-cooked for a low price)
- 1 can of lentils — 350 calories (easiest to buy canned from the supermarket)
- 1/4 bag of Soylent powder — 500 calories (a well-rounded meal substitute)
If your day’s target is 2,000 calories, and you’ve chosen to eat the majority of your calories from brown rice (200 calories per can), that’s 10 cups of brown rice to eat.
In practice, I’d vary it up a bit so you balance your nutrients. For most people, the intersection of ease, price, and taste makes brown rice, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal the go-to muscle building core foods.
Every day for as long as you want to build or maintain muscle, you must eat enough to reach your calorie target.
Decide which of the core foods you’re willing to eat. Then buy a ton of them. Don’t overlook the convenience of having these simple go-to foods on-hand. Otherwise you’ll cave and eat out more than you should. When you eat out, it’s tough to know how many calories you’re getting. There’s a lot of hidden oil and sugar.
Of course, you can also eat other foods beyond these core foods. You have a life to live, and who doesn’t like dining out and making home cooked meals! That’s no problem. But you’ll need to develop a rough idea of the calories in the non-core meals you eat so you know how much of your core to avoid eating that day.
Now let’s walk through an example.
If you eat a 500 calorie restaurant lunch and a 1000 calorie restaurant dinner, subtract 1,500 from your 2,000 daily target to determine how many calories you must get from core foods. 500 remaining calories is 1.5 cans of beans or lentils we must eat. Hopefully we add some spice and veggies to keep it interesting!
To keep your calculations simple, make these assumptions when dining out:
- A small meal (e.g. chicken breast, vegetables, lettuce): 250 calories.
- A medium meal (e.g. small portion of turkey, heavy oil and sauce): 500 calories.
- A large meal (e.g. 8oz steak, sweet potatoes, beer): 750 calories.
These numbers are low-balled by 25-35% because we can’t risk undereating. Failing to hit your calorie target will hinder or completely prevent your muscle growth from that day’s workout.
(Yes, slightly overeating on workout days means you might gain a couple pounds of fat by the end of this program. But you can burn that off when you’re done gaining muscle.)
If you’re ever in doubt about hitting your daily calorie target, follow this:
- On workout days, eat a bit more than you think you need to.
- On non-workout days, eat a bit less than you think you need to. In my experimentation, I’ve found that as long as you don’t run a calorie deficit greater than 20% of your non-workout day target, you don’t lose muscle. The page before this has a technique for measuring muscle gains. Try it and experiment.
If there are certain foods or meals you regularly eat, take the time to jot down the calorie counts listed on their nutritional labels. If you’re eating a prepared meal that doesn’t have a label, you can use MyFitnessPal to tally up the calorie counts for the meal’s individual food items (e.g. steak, potatoes, gravy).
You don’t have to constantly do this. The goal is just to have a rough idea of how many calories you’re getting from non-core meals so you instinctively know how many cups/cans of core foods you don’t have to eat that day.
As a reference, here’s a sample meal plan for building muscle. Note how most of the calories come from beans and oatmeal (the “core foods”):
- 4 packets of plain instant oatmeal: 500 calories
- 2.5 cans of lentils/black beans (I can already smell the farts!): 900 calories
- 4 teaspoons of any oil: 160 calories
- 4 tablespoons of flaxseed: 160 calories
- 1 spinach + berry smoothie: 150 calories
- 1 4oz serving of salmon: 250 calories
- 8 tablespoons of protein: 320 calories
- 2,440 calories total
You don’t have to eat that healthy, and you don’t actually need to overthink how much oil you eat per day. Just consider sauces as uncounted excess calories that you’ll burn off at the end of this program.
Below is an incomplete list of healthy foods. If you care about eating well — beyond what’s necessary for bodybuilding — consider these too:
- Core — Lentils, black beans, quinoa, oatmeal. These should be your primary foods.
- Meat — Most are fine, but doctors recommend limiting saturated meats (e.g. salmon and steak) to a few meals per week (study). Are you vegan? Don’t worry. You don’t need meat to build muscle.
- Nuts and seeds — Almonds, walnuts, flaxseed
- Fruit — Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, avocado
- Vegetables — All are acceptable except for white potatoes. Broccoli is great.
- Oils — Coconut in particular is great, and olive oil is good
- Leafs — Spinach, kale
- Beverage — Plain or sparkling water, green tea
While we’re on the subject of eating healthy, keep in mind alcohol is a common sources of sneaky calories. They add up quicker than everyone realizes, especially if you drink frequently.
For example, a typical 250 ml bottle of fruit juice is 120 calories, and 1 can of coke or beer is 150 calories.