7 Rules for a Foolproof Muscle-Building Diet

When you’re trying to build more muscle and burn body fat, results come down to a lot more than the hours you’re clocking at the gym and the reps you’re performing with the free weights. Just like most health and body goals, a lot of the hard work happens outside of the gym altogether, and inside the kitchen. So when you’re goal is to boost your muscle gain, follow these simple dietary guidelines that will help keep you on track, beyond the workout.

Nutrition fact label on a carton of food or milk.

1. Increase your daily calorie intake.

Whether you’re trying to bulk up or just looking to get a little stronger, cutting calories too much when you’re looking to build muscle can be a major setback. The fact is, when you’re trying to build muscle, not only do you need enough calories to keep you energized and to feed your muscles, but you need enough to balance out the metabolic boost that comes with more muscle. So what does that actually mean? Instead of just tacking on an additional couple hundred calories to your usual intake, you’ll want to calculate your BMR and add about 500 calories to that number for the best results.

Girl eating salad in break room while looking out the window at work.

2. Eat as frequently – or infrequently – as you like.

A lot of people, when they make recommendations about the best way to eat for maximum muscle gains, will champion the benefits of eating frequently throughout the day. But the reality is that your muscle-building diet won’t matter as much on when you eat as it will on what you’re eating. So instead of stressing about having six meals a day when you prefer to have four, or about snacking frequently throughout the day when you’re not really in the mood for a snack, focus on hitting your calorie and macronutrient targets.

Woman spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast with milk and coffee.

3. Don’t shy away from fats.

Sure, fats in your diet may not always be the best news if you’re not really moving around that much. But when you’re being super active and sticking to a strict muscle-building workout regimen, fats are not just okay – they’re crucial. For starters, having a healthy level of fat intake helps your body absorb vitamins more readily and it helps with general growth. Beyond that, though, fat can boost natural testosterone levels in your system, which is major since the hormone is crucial in building muscle. So if you don’t have enough fat in your diet, you might seriously be limiting your gain potential.

Steak, spinach, and pomegranate on a plate for lunch with man cutting in with fork and knife.

4. Make protein a major priority.

Even if you know that protein is one of the biggest building blocks of muscle, it’s important to have a good idea of just how much protein it actually takes to get you on a good muscle-building diet regimen. For athletes or active exercisers who are looking to kick their muscle-building into high gear, that means going for about 1 gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight. And you don’t want to settle for just any kind of protein, either. Try to rely as often as possible on animal protein sources like chicken, fish, beef, dairy, and eggs, since these tend to be the most complete proteins.

Man serving up pasta with bolognese sauce and a piece of basil on top.

5. Be smart about carbs.

Like fats, carbs often get a bad rap, but they’re definitely not the enemy, and when you’re trying to stick to a healthy muscle-building diet, the trick is to time your carbs correctly for maximum gains. For the most part, there are two primary times that it’s best to have your carb-heavy meals: at breakfast, and right after a workout. For breakfast, you’re just waking up and your body is just starting up after a long fast, so it’s safe to say that the carbs you eat early in the morning will give you healthy energy that you can burn off throughout the day. As for right after a workout, post-workout carbs play an important role in initiating recovery, so it’s always a good idea to take advantage of that fact when a carb craving hits.

Woman cooking before the gym with peppers and other vegetables around her.

6. Think hard about pre- and post-workout snacks and meals.

Speaking of eating for post-workout recovery, just being mindful of what you’re eating before and after a workout in general is important to maximizing your muscle gains. Again, carbs after a workout – and even before – can be great at aiding in muscle building and post-training recovery (which is also essential to gains). But the other ingredient that it’s important to have around your workout time is, not surprisingly, protein. After all, proteins are the primary building blocks of muscle, so being sure to consume the nutrient when your muscles are undergoing a bulk – no pun intended – of change is a huge plus.

Late night snacks for muscle-building with cottage cheese.

7. Eat before bed.

There is no better time to enjoy a late night snack than when you’re trying to build muscle, since the pre-bed fuel – specifically when it’s high in protein – helps slow down the breakdown of muscle tissue that typically happens in your sleep. Some of the best pre-bedtime snacks? Things like cottage cheese that offer slow-to-digest proteins and are sure to keep your body in the best state for maintaining muscle growth all night long.

About Tamara Rahoumi

Tamara Rahoumi is a writer on The Path Editorial Team. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in magazine journalism at NYU. Her passion for wellness always has her researching the latest fitness trends, experimenting with recipes from superfood cookbooks, and working towards an overall healthier and happier lifestyle. In addition to reading her articles on The Path, you can follow her adventures on her lifestyle blog, The Curly Nomad.