Bodybuilding Diet Plan
Header image featuring woman eating, sleeping, and working out

This is page four of a How to Build Muscle guide. Start with page one to understand how realistic it is to build more muscle.


How to diet for building muscle

This page explains the complete science of how to eat. It's your master reference.

I cover:

To start, I need you to know that eating and sleeping are as important as working out when building muscle. While tricks like timing your meals and taking supplements can improve your performance in the gym, they will not completely make or break your muscle growth like calories and sleep will. 

In other words, if you do everything else wrong on a given workout day but do the following things right, you will still gain muscle strength or size by the next morning:

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.) 

Further, if you nail your workout plus reach your calorie target but you only get a couple hours of sleep that night, you risk not getting stronger or delaying your muscle recovery.

Interestingly, after a year's worth of testing, I can conclude that how much you eat and sleep on non-workout days doesn’t affect your workout day muscle growth unless you’re consistently sleep or calorie deprived. With that said, you still want to get enough sleep on the night before a workout so you have energy to lift heavy weights.

So here's the takeaway: 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. On non-workout days, avoid being sleep and calorie deprived, but don’t stress about it too much.

That's why we have to adhere to a highly consistent bodybuilding diet plan.

And fix bad sleep if we're suffering from it.

Geek note: Research shows that, given the same total duration of sleep, your performance in the gym is more negatively affected by waking up earlier than usual than going to bed later than usual (study). So, if you’re unable to stick to your normal sleep schedule (if you don’t have one, now’s the time to start), try prioritizing sleeping a couple hours late rather than waking a couple hours early.

You're almost done with this handbook. This final page is short and sweet. But if you're coming here straight from Google, know that this is actually page four of a How to Build Muscle guide. Start with page one to understand how realistic it is to build muscle.

What’s the story behind this handbook?+

Since college, I wanted to be muscular. But, despite working out consistently and eating well, I never got big. I concluded it was my genetics and I assumed bigger guys were taking steroids (although some were, most weren’t). After a couple years of no progress, I stopped going to the gym.

Recently, I got the itch to work out again after a friend referred to me as "skinny." That actually came as a surprise as I hadn't realized how thin I'd gotten. Looking back, I'm embarrassed about it. I look like a 👻 in this interview I gave.

After being called skinny, I Googled, “What’s Chris Hemsworth’s workout program?” (I had just watched Thor and was amazed at his size.) Nothing useful came up, so I searched, “The science of weightlifting.” Nothing useful came up either.  

All I found were YouTube stars spouting non-scientific nonsense and magazine articles talking about how celebrities eat chicken to prepare for shirtless scenes.

How is this possible? In 2016, there are great, free guides for everything except bodybuilding? Doesn't everyone want to know how to get bigger?

I mean, sure, I get that I should go to the gym and do benchpresses. But reading that over and over isn't going to help me. I need something to tell me exactly how much weight I'm supposed to lift, what I should do when I can’t lift more, how I'm supposed to design meals, whether I should take supplements, and whether I should switch up my exercises on a regular basis. There was just too much uncertainty for my liking.

I was reluctant to start going to the gym unless I knew the answers so that I could avoid wasting my time again. So I committed to spending months geeking out over the research and self-experimenting. I read a thousand pages worth of weightlifting studies. I wanted to know, If I followed all the scientific recommendations, could I build muscle quicker than most people? 

It normally takes people over a year to see ~20-25lbs (9-11kg) of muscle gains. The speed boost I researched and distilled was incredibly important to me because had I been told that I had to go to the gym for a year in order to get where I wound up at the 3 month mark, I would have been overwhelmed by the commitment and likely wouldn’t have done it at all. I assumed other people felt the same way.

So I wrote this handbook.

My journey continues. Read more on my blog and say hello on Twitter.

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.

The Rock claims to eat nearly 5,000 calories per day. See his bodybuilding diet:

Your daily calorie count is derived from your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your 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) that burns calories, you will get enough calories to prevent your body from breaking down your existing muscle.

However, since most of us aren’t completely sedentary, plus we’re now going to the gym three times per week and that burns calories unto itself, 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. Workout days require extra calories to make up for what you burn while weightlifting.

For the weight field, select your weight upon waking up (before eating). For the walking and non-weightlifting exercise fields (e.g. running, biking, swimming), enter your average exercise hours performed weekly:

  Male     Female

Height — (move slider)
Age — (move slider)

Weight — (move slider)

Walking — (move slider)

Non-weightlifting exercise — (move slider)
Workout day target

Non-workout day target

The numbers above include
0 cals from 0g of protein powder

Saving your calorie targets to a text file is not good enough. You need to keep these numbers top of mind. They must always be in your face. Write them on a post-it note.

Note the numbers above reflect the calories you must eat including those you're getting from daily protein supplementation. Each gram of protein is 4 calories.

The Rock is 44 years old and weighs 260lbs (118kg). In an interview, he said he does 1 hour of cardio per day. We can input these numbers into the calculator above to estimate that he walks for 3 hours a day on average!

In the next section, we develop an important bodybuilding diet framework for consistently achieving calorie targets and muscle growth🍴

Off topic, to read handbooks (like the one you're reading now) a few months before I publish them, you can provide your email below. I'm releasing how to write well, think critically, and play piano. I only email once every three months.

I have another handbook that's already been released: Getting Customers.

Bodybuilding diet meals

There is no special "bodybuilding diet." There's just common sense nutrition and calorie targets. You can also be following any diet you want: vegan, ketogenic, whatever. So long as you hit your protein and calorie targets, you'll build muscle.

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 meals:

For most people, the intersection of ease, price, and taste makes brown rice, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal the go-to muscle building foods.

Meal size portions references

Every single day, you must eat enough to reach your calorie target.

Decide which of these foods you’re willing to eat. Then buy a ton of them. Because of the importance of consistently hitting your calorie target, don’t overlook the convenience of having these simple go-to foods on-hand.

If your 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.

Of course, you can also eat other foods beyond these core ones. 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. 

For 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:

Bodybuilding meal size references

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 I will show you how to quickly burn it off.)

If you’re ever in doubt about hitting your daily calorie target, follow this:

If there are certain foods or meals you regularly eat, take the time to note the calorie counts listed on their nutritional labels. If you’re eating a prepared meal that doesn't have a label, 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 can avoid 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”):

Don’t worry: You don’t have to eat this 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 with my fat loss advice.

Below is an incomplete list of healthy foods. If you want to go beyond what is necessary for bodybuilding and also optimize your diet, try eating these:

While we’re on the subject of eating healthy, keep in mind 🍸🍹🍺 are common sources of sneaky calories. They add up quickly, especially if you party frequently. A typical 250 ml bottle of fruit juice is 120 calories, and 1 can of coke or beer is 150 calories. Be sure to count these calories into your muscle building meal plan.

What if I have indigestion or other food sensitivities?

A potential culprit worth researching is gut health. Addressing bacterial overgrowth solved some of my health problems. Check out Woodpath's blog to orient yourself.

How much water should I drink?+

The common workout advice is that you should drink 2.5-3 liters per day, but there's actually no health benefit to chugging back water all day (study). 

Just like you get protein from the normal foods you eat, you also get water from your food (article, overview). So even if you required 2.5L daily, you wouldn't have to drink that entire amount. Research hasn’t reached a consensus on exactly how much water we need, but a rule of thumb is to drink two cups at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Two notable exceptions are if you live in a hot climate or sweat a lot, in which case you should be diligent about getting enough water to avoid becoming dehydrated. 

To repeat, for the purposes of bodybuilding, I have found no evidence that there’s a specific daily water intake that will benefit your gains. Just don't get dehydrated.

Off topic, to read handbooks (like the one you're reading now) a few months before I publish them, you can provide your email below. I'm releasing how to write well, think critically, and play piano. I only email once every three months.

✋🏼 Dope — you're good to go. If you don't see cheat sheets in your inbox, check your spam folder. And come say hello on Twitter.

Meal timing

In Prep Week, we concluded protein timing is not important. Meal timing, however, can be: While it won’t make or break your muscle building, eating before and after a workout increases workout endurance and decreases post-workout exhaustion. 

To make meal timing convenient for yourself, try to schedule your workouts near breakfast, lunch, or dinner so you only have to add a pre- or post-workout snack into your schedule. If you eat very light breakfasts or skip breakfast altogether, avoid working out in the morning. Wait until after you’ve had a big lunch or dinner.

As for post-workout meals, one study suggests it increases your rate of muscle gain (study). Another study suggests it makes you more mentally alert for the next few hours (study). This post-workout meal doesn't have to be big — it can just be a snack.

The study above suggests at least 50g (roughly 300 calories) for a person weighing 150 lbs (68kg). That equates to two packs of instant oatmeal, a can of beans, or 1.5 cups of brown rice. (To find a food's calorie count, read its label or see MyFitnessPal.)

Before we move on, let’s bust some myths:

If you’re not hungry enough throughout the day to hit your calorie targets, try this: 

Remember that you lose your muscle mass very quickly if you don’t get enough calories. Getting your calories isn't a bonus — it's a requirement!

Commit to the program

You now have absolutely everything you need to surprise your friends with a body transformation.

How much more information do I have to give you before you commit?

Let's do this.

Use this page as your reference for how to work out during those 90 days. Just refer to the Cheat Sheet below.

Find a friend

Having a workout program partner can help sustain your commitment.You can share your goals on Facebook to find someone who'll join you. For example:

"I'm starting a workout program. I want you to hold me responsible for finishing it. Who wants to join? Here's the guide I'm using:"

What's next

You're done. Next up is the cheat sheet. It recaps everything in this handbook.

Come say hello on Twitter and keep me updated on your muscle building journey.

Oh and if you liked how I wrote this handbook, you might like my other ones.

Cheat sheet: Full program

Below is the cheat sheet for this entire muscle building program. (If you missed the earlier pages of this guide, start at the beginning. There's a lot of critical info.)

If you enter your email below, the cheat sheet is automatically emailed to you so you can easily reference it in your inbox. You'll also be notified when my next guide is out.

If you liked the quality of this handbook and want to learn how to play piano or how to speak Chinese, get excited because I'm releasing those handbooks next. You can get them a couple months early via email:

✋🏼 Dope — you're good to go. If you don't see cheat sheets in your inbox, check your spam folder. And come say hello on Twitter.

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Four principles of gaining muscle

Workout plans

How to work out



Overcoming plateaus

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