Building muscle is becoming increasingly popular for males of all ages. However, for many progress is slow to non existent simply because many people are under the impression that all you need to do is lift heavy weights. Just focusing on weight training will result in slow progress or injury, and many people will get disheartened and give up. This is simply because gaining muscle is as much about diet (or probably more so) than actual work in the gym. Ensuring your body is healthy and nourished is essential, and this article will outline the conventional methods for gaining muscle mass efficiently.


Bulking, cutting & lean gains

Typically there are 2 schools of thought for gaining muscle – bulking/ cutting cycles and lean gains.

Bulking/cutting – The idea of this is to consume calories in great excess (500+kcals excess) above the maintenance calorie requirements of your body. This ensures that the maximum amount of muscle can be built and energy is not a limiting factor. As calories are consumed in excess it is inevitable that body fat will also by made. A period of bulking is usually followed by a period of cutting, which is intended to remove the excess fat body fat produced during bulking, yet maintaining as much muscle mass as possible. For a cutting phase, most people will follow a 300kcal deficit from their maintenance calorie requirements, often with more calories from protein and healthy fats than during bulking. Some people also include cardio exercise into their training routine to increase the rate of fat loss.

The benefits of this method is the maximum amount of muscle is made, and during bulking, you do not need to pay as much attention to your diet. However, if you are trying to build muscle for a physique instead of strength, you will go through a phase of having excess body fat, which many people find undesirable. Also, during the cutting phase, it is very likely that you will lose some muscle mass.

Lean gains – The idea of lean gains is to build muscle with gaining as little body fat as possible. A typical diet for this method is 300kals above your maintenance. This ensures there is excess calories in your diet to build muscle mass, yet not too much which can cause body fat to be made. As calories are not consumed in excess, the amount of muscle mass gained will be less that that of someone who is bulking.

The benefits of this method is that if done properly, doesn’t require a cutting phase, so muscle gain can be a continuous (but slower) process. Also, through this method you shouldn’t gain any undesirable body fat. However, following the strict diet plan that this method requires can be difficult for many.


Diet outline

Calorie counting is most important during cutting and lean gaining, as you are working within strict calorie parameters to try and create specific biological conditions. If you are bulking, calorie counting isn’t as important, but you still need to ensure you are consuming excess calories, protein and healthy fats.

This is typically what you should be aiming to achieve from your diet through conventional body building methods. This can be tailored to suit your personal requirements, but your diet should try and revolve around these guidelines.


protein is the most strongly associated nutrient with muscle gain. In order to gain muscle efficiently you need to be consuming between 1.6g-2.2g of protein for every kg of body weight a day. This means for a typical 75kg male you would need to consume between 120g and 165g of protein as day, which equates to approximately 480kcals – 660kcals. This amount of dietary protein is suitable for lean gains, bulking and cutting. Consuming excess protein to this will cause no ill effects to healthy individuals, but will not cause increase protein synthesis.


Salmon meal

Fish is a great source of healthy fats

The type of fat is more important than the quantity. The focus should be on essential fatty acids (EFA), which are found in fish, nuts and seeds. Other fats which are considered healthy are extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), coconut oil and animal fats. Fats from highly processed foods, such as chocolate and pastries should be avoided. As a general rule, you should be looking to consume about 1g of high quality fats for every kg of body weight. For our 75kg male, this means about 75g of health fats. This is approximately 675kcals. This guideline is suitable for bulking, cutting and lean gains, but in order to increase the calorie total for bulking, you may want to add more fats.


The rest of the calories you need to consume can be from carbohydrates. Ideally you would be wanting to consume primarily complex carbohydrates such as rice, and simple carbohydrates are often only recommended to be taken before and possibly after training. Bulking will have a much higher calorie target than lean gaining or cutting, so the amounts will vary for your target.

Fruit  & vegetables

Regularly exercising will increase the demand for micro-nutrients on your body, and to ensure growth and develop continues optimally it is essential to be consuming fruits and vegetables. It is recommended that you eat a minimum of 6 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. For the majority of vegetables (such as broccoli or peppers), you will not need to count the calories in them. However, some vegetables (such as sweet potato) and many fruits (such as bananas) are quite high in carbohydrates, and so their calorific value must be included.

Nutritional Supplements

Achieving these dietary goals can be quite hard, particularly if you cutting or trying to get lean gains. Consuming 165g of protein a day, but no more than 2500kcals a day can be difficult from food alone, as protein is almost always accompanied by fats which will increase total calories. This is why protein supplements are so popular, particularly whey (learn more here), as it makes achieving the correct macro-nutrients much easier. In addition to this, cod liver oil and multivitamins are also popular. It is important to remember that supplements are just supplements to your diet. You will only benefit from them if you are consuming a clean and health diet already.


Quality of protein

Proteins are made up of small units called amino acids, and the human body requires a specific ratio of these amino acids for optimal growth. Protein quality of our food is measured by how accurately the ratio of amino acids found in the food represents our requirements. Protein quality is given a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAA), and values range from 0-1. A score of 1 is perfect, and lower scores indicate a lower quality protein. Foods which score 1 are quite rare, with egg protein being one of the only few. Generally, food from animals (meat, milk etc) has a score of approximately 0.8, where as vegetable source protein can vary from 0.3-0.8. This shows that as a general rule, animal protein is a higher quality than vegetables, and so is much more biologically valuable.

As some amino acids can be made from others in the body, obtaining the specific ratios of all the amino acids is not essential. However, there are some which our body cannot make, these are called essential amino acids (EAAs), and our body must obtain them from diet, these are:

  • Histidine
  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Valine
  • Tryptophan
  • Phenylalanine
  • Methionine
  • Lycine

These amino acids must be obtained from diet. There is also evidence that some (especially laucine) have anabolic properties, and so may further help muscle growth. This makes EAA’s a popular supplement for body builders.


How much muscle can I expect to gain?

There are a number of factors which affect how much muscle you gain (or perceive to gain) such as water retention, glycogen storage and genetics, so it is difficult to be accurate. However, as a general rule, with near perfect diet and conditions, you can expect to gain in the region of 8kg a year of muscle (180g a week). During the start of training this may apear to be more, as your muscles will retain lots of water and more glycogen, but the amount of actual muscle increase you can expect is roughly 180g a week. It is important to understand that muscle gain is a slow and steady process, and not to expect miracles in a short period of time.



Attention to diet is essential if you are trying to gain weight. There are a number of potential approaches to muscle gain, and this article outlines the conventional methods through either lean gains or bulking/cutting cycles. Ensuring a high quality and nutritious diet will ensure optimum conditions for muscle growth, and with dedication you can expect to achieve approximately 180g of muscle growth a week.

Images courtesy of Garen M and

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