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 shares the complete science of how to eat. It's your master reference.

I cover:

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:

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.

Geek note: Research shows that, given the same duration of sleep, your performance in the gym is more affected by waking abnormally early than going to bed abnormally late (study).

What’s the story behind this handbook?+

Since college, I've wanted to be muscular. But, despite working out consistently and eating well, I never got big.

I concluded it was my genetics and I naively 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.

I then 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 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.

Strange. There are great, free guides for everything online except bodybuilding?

I mean, sure, I understand that I should go to the gym and do benchpresses. But I need someone to tell me exactly how much weight I'm supposed to lift, what to do when I can’t lift heavier, how I'm supposed to design meal plans, whether I should take supplements, and whether I should switch up my exercises on a regular basis.

There was too much uncertainty for my taste. And I was reluctant to go to the gym unless I knew the scientific answers — so I could avoid wasting my time again.

So I committed to spending a year geeking out on the muscle building research and self-experimenting. I read a thousand pages worth of weightlifting studies. And many friends began enrolling in my experiment.

I wanted to know, If I followed all the scientific recommendations, could I build muscle quicker than most people? 

Yup. So then I wrote this handbook. Today, many thousands have followed it.

Read more about me 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 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.

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!
  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
The numbers above reflect the calories you must eat including those you're getting from daily protein supplementation. (Each gram of protein is 4 cals.)

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

By the way, if you're coming here straight from Google, know that this is page four of a complete How to Build Muscle guide. Start with page one if you want to learn how realistic it is to build muscle, and want science-backed workouts to follow.

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:

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.

Meal size portions references

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:

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 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:

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”):

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:

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.

How much water should I drink?+

The common workout advice is that you should drink 2.5-3 liters per day, but the research shows there's actually no 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're required to get 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 dehydration. 

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.

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 fiction, think critically, and play piano. I only email once every three months.

You're good to go  ⚡ Say hello on Twitter.

Meal timing

On the Prep Week page, we concluded protein timing is not important. Meal timing, however, can be important: 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 proper meal timing convenient for you schedule, try to schedule your workouts near breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

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). So, err on the side of safety and eat a post-workout meal.

It doesn't have to be big — a snack is fine. In fact, 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, one 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: 

Commit to the program

You now have what you need to know to build muscle.

(If you landed on this page from Google, start at Page one.)

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

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 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 write fiction, get excited because I'm releasing those next. You can get them a couple months early via email. (Read my existing handbooks here.)

You're good to go  ⚡ Say hello on Twitter.

Four principles of gaining muscle

Workout plans

How to work out



Overcoming plateaus

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