Meal Plan for Muscle Gain: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

If you are looking to gain muscle, you might find yourself asking, “How much muscle can I gain in a month?” and, “How much protein do I need to do that?” The short answer is that both of these numbers depend on a number of factors like weightlifting experience level and genetics. For example, a new lifter can expect to gain as much as 2-3 pounds in a month, an intermediate might gain 1-2 pounds in a month and an experienced lifter may be lucky to gain ½ a pound.

Assess where you are with weightlifting and strength training in order to set realistic goals around muscle gain. Understand that if you would like to gain 10 pounds of mostly muscle mass, it might take 6 months or more.

The body changes slowly

There is no get-rich-quick scheme for weight gain (muscle gain) or weight loss. In order to obtain a maintainable change, your body needs time to adjust. For muscle gain specifically, it’s best to think in years not months. It takes hard work and dedication to build muscle and maintain muscle mass. If it were easy, we’d see everyone rocking big biceps and 6-pack abs.

Why diet is so important

What you eat is just as important as exercise when it comes to muscle gain. Here at 8fit, we create customized meal plans based on your goals. If your goal is to gain muscle, your macronutrient amounts — specifically protein — are adjusted to help you get there.

Adding additional protein to your diet helps give your muscles the energy they need for weightlifting programs and muscle repair.

High protein foods for muscle gain

There are certain foods that help and hurt muscle gain. Foods to avoid include poor quality foods with low nutritional value like processed snacks, fast food meals or junk foods. Foods that help include nutrient-dense whole foods like:

  • Chicken: Full of high-quality complete proteins
  • Lean beef: Has muscle-building nutrients like high-quality protein, iron, zinc and plenty of B vitamins
  • Fish: High in proteins and omega-3 fatty acids; recent studies show that omega-3s help postabsorptive muscle protein synthesis and enhanced anabolic responses to exercise
  • Eggs: High-quality protein, amino acids and vitamins; don’t skip the yolks as they contain extra nutrition
  • Tofu: Great vegan option that is rich in iron and calcium
  • Legumes: Another high-protein option for vegans with a good balance of carbohydrates and dietary fiber
  • Milk: Great source of complete proteins, calcium, potassium and some B vitamins
  • Whole grain carbs: Reach for steel cut oats and brown rice; both have high magnesium content which is good for the heart
  • Water: Our bodies are made of water, hydration is key for building muscles mass
  • Nuts: Unsweetened, unsalted versions of nuts like almonds and walnuts have a great amount of proteins and healthy fats

How much protein do I need?

As mentioned above, 8fit calculates your protein needs automatically and I suggest getting this important macronutrient via healthy wholesome foods. Some great sources of protein include chicken, fish (e.g. salmon), pork, beef or, my personal favorite, wild game like venison or elk. If you aren’t able to get in a good meal pre- or post-workout, then I would recommend drinking a protein shake.

Don’t know what protein powder to go for? Recent studies have shown that whey protein is the most effective to increase hypertrophy over the others.

If you’re vegan, opt for something plant-based such as hemp or pea protein.

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Calorie count for muscle gain

The amount of calories needed is based on the number of calories your body burns in a day, so this figure will vary from person to person. In general, the consensus is that you’ll need to create a calorie surplus (i.e. consume more calories than your body burns) in order to successfully build muscle.

There is a great deal of debate going on within the scientific community as to how many extra calories you actually need to eat to really build muscle. Until there is a unified consensus, think of it this way: for a professional bodybuilder, eating is pretty much a part-time job. Eat up!

Meal frequency and timing

As part of your muscle gain program, eat at least 3 meals per day including a snack between each meal. When it comes to timing your meals, many studies show that it doesn’t matter if you have your protein-packed meal before or after a workout. What’s important is that you eat during your metabolic window 30-45 minutes after a workout to help your muscles recover and rebuild. Also, remember to maintain the correct daily macronutrient intake (use your 8fit meal plan for that) and get your nutrients from high-quality food sources.

If you want to maximize your protein synthesis and muscle gain, new research has uncovered a major breakthrough and indicates that if you have a generous serving of protein (minimum of 40 grams) just before you go to bed, that you will see significant increases in strength and muscular hypertrophy. Try eating a protein-packed meal for dinner to see big gains.

Common mistakes: Why you aren’t gaining muscle

There are a number of reasons why you might not be seeing noticeable muscle gain over time. Here are the most common reasons:

  • Not eating enough calories: If you don’t feed your muscles, they simply can’t grow! Like I said above, there is some debate in the field of sports science as to exactly how much your caloric surplus should be, but the consensus is that you need to eat more calories than you burn.
  • Not eating enough carbs: Carbs are often neglected in people’s diets when they are looking to gain muscle because there is such a big focus on protein. While protein is important, carbs play a huge role in muscle growth as well. Simply put, carbs are forms of sugar and sugar is needed to help your body absorb protein. They are also a major source of energy and help fuel your workouts.
  • Not enough recovery/sleep: You must rest your muscles at least 48 hours between strength training workouts if you want to see results. Skimping on this recovery time leads to overtraining and doesn’t allow your muscles to recuperate fully, stunting your gains. Sleep is often the most overlooked aspect of building muscle mass. As you sleep, your muscles work hard to repair and rebuild themselves. Think of it this way: the gym is where you work your muscles, the kitchen is where you feed your muscles and sleep is where you actually build your muscles.
  • Doing the wrong workouts/exercises: Let’s face it, there is no wrong kind of workout or exercise. When done correctly, any exercise will make you feel healthier. That said, if you have a specific goal in mind, some workouts can slow you down. Building strength and gaining muscle requires certain workouts focused on reps, sets and percentages of your 1RM.

Tor’s favorite meals for muscle gain

Let me start by saying that when you are trying to gain muscle, your meal might not always be pretty. It’s more important that they are nutritionally dense with protein and healthy carbs. If you’re serious about building muscles, I suggest getting into a meal prep routine. Cook foods like brown rice and chicken – every bodybuilder’s go-to – in large batches and portion it out for the week.

Here are some of my favorite meals that help with muscle gain:

  • Breakfast: I love steel cut oats with blueberries, nuts and seeds with hard-boiled eggs and a banana on the side. This is my favorite breakfast regardless of my current goals because it’s delicious and keeps me full until lunch. I adjust the portion size depending on what I’m working on at the moment.
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  • Lunch: For lunch, I often have chicken breast with brown rice and plenty of veggies like broccoli, brussel sprouts or green beans.
  • Snack: I always keep hard boiled eggs on hand for snacks. I’ll also reach for nuts – almonds or walnuts – and raw veggies with dip between meals.
  • Dinner: My dinner sometimes looks a lot like lunch. I love grilled salmon with brown rice and veggies. I often work out in the evenings if I’m looking to gain muscle mass. Following my workout, I try to eat dinner and get into bed ASAP so my muscles can start recuperating.

Interested in gaining muscle? Try my 16-week strength training plan.