Building Lean Muscle, Part 4: When, How, and How Much to Eat

If you’re looking for the fastest way to gain lean muscle mass in a hurry, getting your nutrition locked down is a MUST. There’s no doubt about it: when it comes to achieving safe muscle gain that sticks, you simply can’t do it without eating properly. If you don’t provide your body with the right raw materials at the right times, you may get stronger, but you definitely are not going to be getting any larger.

In my previous three articles, we went over how to figure out your target caloric intake, as well as how to assess your bioenergetics needs (carbohydrate, protein, and fat needs) and finding the best sources of those macronutrients. In this article, I want to talk about timing: how long should it take you to gain muscle, how much muscle can you expect to gain, and how frequently to time your meals for optimal muscle growth. Then, I’ll take you through an entire performance needs nutritional profile for a fictional athlete, to help you put into practice what we’ve learned so far about building lean muscle.



The very first thing that you’ll need to do is get your calorie intake set for growth. You need to supply the body with a surplus of calories, which is the additional fuel that the body will then use to generate that new lean muscle mass tissue. Most average male athletes will maintain their body weight at around 17-19 calories per pound of body weight, so you’ll need to add an additional number calories to this intake to spark new growth.

First, understand body composition (% body fat vs. % lean muscle) remains constant when you burn the same number of calories eaten. Conversely, a pound of muscle equals 3500 calories. So, in order to safely and effectively gain muscle, you need to increase your total calorie intake by a minimum of 3500 calories per week. That works out to about 500 extra calories per day in addition with the total calories needs you determined from one of my previous posts.

As much as you may dislike calorie counting, it’s what needs to be done if you want to guarantee success. Targeting muscle gain this way ensures you gain lean muscle and minimize fat accumulation in a way the body can effectively manage. The result is about a pound of muscle gained every 6-7 days. If you gain weight at a rate greater than two pounds per week, you risk acquiring a greater percentage of body fat than lean muscledefinitely not what an athlete wants.

It’s important to understand that when adopting a muscle-gain diet, you are going to acquire some fatthis is normal. A one-to-two-pound a week weight gain goal should average 75% muscle and 25% fat. How do you make sure you're hitting that target? By testing your body composition regularly.



It’s important to recognize that just because the scale says you gained weight, that does not mean you gained muscle weight. A good rule of thumb is to have your body fat percentage measured every 4-6 weeks, in addition to body-girth measurements (e.g., chest, arms, waist, etc.). By adopting this practice, you will know if the experienced weight gain is truly an increase in lean muscle, or adipose tissue (fat).

Let me offer a word of advice when testing body fat. Fat tests vary widely and some claim to be better than others. Do not get caught up in which test is better than the other. Instead, make certain the test you choose is the same test throughout your performance nutrition plan. Furthermore, have the same practitioner administer your body fat test each time. Varying test-type and tester can disrupt the reliability of the body-fat test, resulting in inaccurate measurements.

Finally, muscle-gain goals should occur during the off-season so that performance is not sacrificed. You should aim to reach your target weight 6-8 weeks before the beginning of the season. This way, your body has enough time to adjust to your new weight and composition before you begin competing.



Now that you know how much food to eat, and what kinds of food are the best choices, let’s talk about timing. When it comes to how often you should be eating, since you are going to have a much higher calorie intake, you’ll find you do best eating every 3-4 hours. If you are aiming to eat just three times per day and have a calorie intake of closer to 3500 or 4000 calories, this can be extremely difficult to get in and you’ll end up feeling bloated and sluggish after each meal.

Instead, divide it up into six meals per day so you feel energized after each one and your muscles get a steady stream of nutrients to kick-start the growth process.

In addition to this, make sure that you are eating a minimum of 20-30 grams of protein at each of these meals, and simple carbohydrates right before as well as after your training and workout sessions. This is the prime time when the body is in muscle growth mode, so you want to maximize it by feeding your body the nourishment that it needs. Then, 4-5 hours after an intense workout make sure that you take in plenty of unprocessed complex carbs.

Here’s a bulleted list of these key nutrient timing tips:

  • Eat frequently, every 3-4 hours, and aim for 6 small meals during the day

  • Try not to lump your calories into 3 big meals, as it will make you feel sluggish

  • Eat a minimum of 20-30 grams of protein at each meal

  • Eat simple carbohydrates directly before/after training ssessions

  • Eat unprocessed complex carbs 4-5 hours after an intense workout



Finally, the last piece of advice to remember so that you can learn the best way to build muscles is to use liquid calories.

Trying to eat whole foods with such a high-calorie intake can cause some digestive strain for a number of people, so blend up a high-calorie shake with added protein every so often.

Mix together some milk, protein powder, Greek yogurt, frozen or fresh fruit, flaxseeds or nut butter, and, if you want, some ground-up oatmeal to boost the calorie intake.

This is a fast and easy way to get more calories in without feeling like you’re eatingyet again. Some people who want to gain muscle as fast as possible will start to feel like they never stop eating, so using smoothies and shakes can help out with this issue.



Johnny, a 17-year-old, 6’ 2”, 190-pound football player with 10% body fat wants to gain 15 pounds of muscle for his senior season. According to his calorie needs (BMR x the Harris-Benedict equation for determining daily calorie expenditure + bioenergetic needs) his calorie maintenance needs are 3,576 calories per day just to maintain current body weight. How can he safely gain 15 pounds, and how long will it take?


To reach his performance goal, Johnny must:

• Eat a minimum of 6 meals daily at a frequency of one meal every 3-4 hours.

• Increase estimated daily calorie maintenance by 500 calories per day (3500 calories per week).

• Add liquid calories in the form of shakes and smoothies to assist with increased calorie intake.


In addition to proper eating, Johnny must:

• Strength train a minimum of 3-4 days per week in order to maintain and/or increase lean muscle.

• Perform aerobic conditioning work for a minimum of 30 minutes 1-3 times per week, to minimize fat mass accumulation due to increase calorie intake.

• Have body fat tested once every 4-6 weeks to ensure appropriate muscle gain.


Adding it all up: 3576 calorie maintenance + 500 muscle gain goal = 4076 daily calorie goal

If Johnny follows his plan, he can realistically expect to attain his muscle gain goal of 15-pounds somewhere between 7.5 weeks (at 2 pounds per week weight gain) and 15 weeks (at 1 pound per week weight gain). So, about 2-4 months. Remember, if you gain weight at a rate greater than two pounds per week, you risk acquiring a greater percentage of body fat than lean muscle.



So there you have the top points to remember as you construct your diet for muscle gaining. If you take the time to plan out your daily meals and snacks, making sure all nutrients are covered and your calorie intake is met, it will pay off dramatically in the results that you see. It is a lot of workbut well worth it!

Check back for my next installment in this series on building muscle, where I'll discuss the different factors that can speed up or slow down muscle growth. Or, to refresh your memory, go back to Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 of my 10-part series.


Join over 100,000 coaches and athletes using Volt's intelligent training app. For more information, click here.


Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Clemson University, a specalist in sports nutrition, and the founder of online nutrition platform NutraCarina.