What To Eat To Build Lean Muscle

If you want to build some serious muscle but still keep your good looks you need make sure you gain as little fat as possible while you build that muscle.

In other words, you need to be doing what is popularly known as “lean bulking”.

For optimal muscle building, you need a calorie surplus (more on this below).

But, instead of eating a huge amount of food and a large number of extra calories (A.K.A. dirty bulking) which inevitably will result in a lot of excess fat gain, you need to be taking a more controlled and fine-tuned approach to your eating.

That is essentially what lean bulking is all about.

Naturally, most people are interested in gaining the maximum amount of muscle while keeping fat to a minimum, but still, some make the mistake of eating too much. I have made this mistake myself.

How To Do A Lean Bulk

First of all, doing a proper lean bulk is not necessarily about what specific foods you eat.

The focus is rather on 1) the macros and 2) the number of calories that make up your whole diet.

With that being said, there are of course certain kind of foods that are better to achieve your macros and calories goals.

E.g. if you are eating a lot of chocolate, cookies and ice cream it gets very difficult to achieve those goals.

Even if you succeed in hitting those numbers, it might put your health and long-term success at risk if your diet mainly consists of candy and fast food.

1) The Macros For Bulking

In general, eating for optimized strength and muscle gain is simple. You pretty much just have to eat a lot of everything: protein, carbs, and fat.

Described very briefly feeding your body enough protein will ensure you can gain strength and muscle. Carbs are great for providing the fuel for your body and especially performing your heavy lifting. Fats are crucial for optimal hormonal function.

Simply put including all the macros in your diet will ensure your body is running optimally and also very important it will make your life easier. It will ensure you can be flexible about eating the foods you want.

For me, the meals that have a good amount of all three macros are also the tastiest and most satisfying ones!

With that being said I recommend you distribute your calories in the following ranges:

2) The Calories For Lean Bulking

For optimal muscle building, you need a calorie surplus. That is a surplus in the energy balance of your body.

Keeping that in mind, your body can only use a limited amount of surplus calories with a correlation to the speed of which you are able to build muscle. Any more calories than that will get stored as fat.

So in order to gain lean muscle, you need to be eating just a bit more than your body needs to sustain itself.

It is possible to build muscle in a calorie deficit, however at a much slower rate. This occurs especially for beginners, but at a certain point in your muscular development, it won’t be possible at any meaningful rate.

Your Level Of Training Experience

How fast you are able to build muscle strictly depends on your training experience and muscular development. You can check out my article on how fast you can build muscle realistically for in-depth information.

Because of this, your surplus calories should be determined on the basis of your training experience.

Doing this will give you a much better result and will reduce the possibility that you either set calories too low and slow down muscle growth or set calories too high and gain unwanted fat.

Most experts agree that it takes approximately 2500 calories to build a pound of muscle / 5500 calories for 1 kg of muscle.

Considering both the calorie requirement and the speed of which you are able to build muscle, I recommend that your calorie surplus should be around 5 – 15 % of your maintenance calories being highest as a beginner and slowly decreasing as you become more and more advanced (I am talking about years of experience).

To make things more concrete, here are a few examples of what that would look like for men:

For beginner lifter, a good recommendation would be around 250-350 surplus calories per day.

For intermediates 200 – 300 calories surplus calories per day.

For advanced lifters 100 – 150 calories per day.

There are many ways to estimate your maintenance calories, for a simple way you can use the following equation:

Bodyweight x 15 (lbs) or bodyweight x 33 (kg)

However, everyone is different and you really need to find out for yourself how your body responds to the calorie surplus and then fine-tune according to your concrete results and data.

For fine-tuning your main considerations should be whether you are gaining weight too fast or if you are progressing in your lifts very slow or not at all.

If you are gaining a lot of weight and your waist is also expanding, then consider lowering your calories by 100-200 and see what happens.

If you are not progressing and not gaining weight add 100-200 calories and go from there.

Remember to always look at trends and weekly averages rather than from day-to-day measurements. For more information on tracking and how to do it, check out my article on keeping track of workouts, macros, and body measurements.

If you have experience with or strongly suspect that you gain fat easily you can start out at the lower end.

Also, if you are determined to keep fat gain to a minimum and accept that it may reduce strength and muscle gain by just a bit, then you can start with a smaller number.

However, in both cases make sure to keep track of progress and reevaluate your surplus calories after some time.

Why Some Fat Gain Is Optimal

In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that you need to ensure you gain as little fat when you are building muscle.

But, if you are a beginner or an intermediate some fat gain is actually optimal for your progress.

This is because you can’t maximize strength and muscle growth while preventing fat gain completely. Your body is not perfect in that way that it can funnel all surplus calories into strictly muscle gains (regretfully).

Experienced fitness coaches usually recommend beginners and intermediates to go for a muscle to fat gaining ratio in the range of 1:3/4 – 1:1.

I explain the problem with not maximizing muscle growth as a beginner and intermediate in greater detail in my article on how fast can you gain muscle.

The Awesome Nutrition Guide

If you are interested in learning more about getting your nutrition right, gaining strength and muscle and burning unwanted fat, then you should take a look at my top free resource.

I wrote it for both men and women!

It is a 50+ pages pdf that I have titled “The Awesome Nutrition Guide” because it is awesome. It also got an accompanying email course.

The main idea behind the guide is to serve as your blueprint to getting the body you want!

It also covers in-depth what I believe to be the biggest sticking point for people who can’t seem to control their weight.

It has everything you need to know and I am giving it away as a welcome bonus for joining my email list. Subscribe in the box below.

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My name is Marcus, I am a lawyer (LL.M.) and the founder of this website. Besides sometimes doing lawyer stuff, I like to write about fitness and health and share what I have found “works” for people like YOU. If you want to know more about me and my vision for this website then you can click here.

4 comments… add one
  • Nathan Huyser Aug 12, 2019 @ 11:00

    Hey Marcus,
    I’m glad I came across this information- ultimately through Quora, it’s very helpful as I’m an intermediate lifter who has begun to start seeing results and wanting to gain more lean muscle.
    I do have one question regarding the cardio – I do weights Mon/Wed/Fri following a body building program on the fitness app I use through my gym. I usually do a 10 mile bike ride and abs on Tue & Wed. Is this cardio on the in between days ultimately hurting my muscle gain potential?
    I appreciate any advice you may have.

    • Marcus Aug 14, 2019 @ 0:51

      Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for your kind words and for reaching out. If you lift weights three times per week you do need to manage your recovery, any strenuous activity that you do in between lifting days can potentially affect muscle growth negatively.

      Cycling is normally what you would call “low-impact” and is much better compared to running/sprinting. But ultimately it depends on the intensity of your bike ride. What is your pace like? If you take it nice a slow it should not be a problem.

  • Robb Sep 5, 2019 @ 2:42

    Hey Marcus, thanks for this informative article.

    I’ve never agreed with the “IIFYM” hype and this article has cemented my beliefs.

    • Marcus Sep 8, 2019 @ 12:03

      Thanks Robb!

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