How to increase energy intake to build muscle

Building muscle tissue is a common goal for many gym members. While resistance training and well-timed, quality protein intake are essential for building strength, research suggests that to build muscle mass, extra dietary energy is required.

The right amount of energy

It should be first said, that it is impossible to provide a blanket recommendation for energy intake. How much energy you need depends on many factors, including your current body composition, your dietary and exercise history, your activity levels in and outside of the gym, as well as many, many other factors.

In general, however, if you have been undertaking resistance exercise for a while, and your weight is stable, adding an additional 1500kJ to 2000kJ of energy to your daily diet is a good starting point to promote increases in muscle mass. 

Any of the food groups can help you reach this goal. One strategy that works well is to consume the additional energy in your post-workout snack, or to split the energy across a pre-workout snack and a post-workout snack. Post-workout snacks should be high in protein, so when designing meals for after your workout, consider selecting from the dairy, grain and nut food groups. 

In general, 1 serve of dairy, grain, nut or protein foods provides around 500-600kJ of energy: 

  • 1 serve of grain foods provides approximately 500kJ

    • Examples: 1 slice of bread, 1 medium flat bread, 1/2 cup cooked rice or quinoa, 35g crispbreads (around 3)

  • 1 serve of dairy provides around 500-600kJ (note that the fat content can alter this value significantly, so always check the label)

    • Examples: 1 cup of milk, 3/4 cup yoghurt, 40g cheese

  • 1 serve of nuts provides around 500-600kJ

    • Examples: 30g of nuts or nut paste 

  • 1 serve of protein provides around 500-600kJ

    • Examples: 2 large eggs, 100g cooked fish, 80g cooked poultry 

If you prefer lighter meals after your workout, you can reduce the amount of food you need to eat by adding extra energy before your workout. Protein is not a focus of the pre-workout snack, so a serve of fruit is a good choice: 

  • 1 serve of fruit provides approximately 350kJ

    • Examples: 1 medium apple or banana, 2 small apricots, 30g dried fruit

Of course, the best bet is always to read the food labels where available to understand exactly how much energy and protein each food provides.

Below, I have provided some example meals to show how you could combine these food groups.

Example Meals

Lighter meal option 1 

  • 1 serve regular fat dairy, 1 serve nuts 

  • Mix 30g (about a handful) of pumpkin seeds into 1 tub (200g) regular fat, natural Greek yoghurt. 

  • Contains: 1727.2kJ, 19.3g Protein 

Lighter meal option 2 

Before your workout: 

  • 1 serve fruit 

  • 1 medium apple 

  After your workout: 

  • 1 serve grain and 1 serve protein

  • Spread 1 can of tuna (approximately 100g) onto 3 crispbreads (approximately 3 crispbreads).  

  • Contains: 1663.1kJ, 29.9g Protein (29.4g Protein in the post-workout meal) 

 Heavier meal option

  • 2 serves grain, 1 serve fruit, 1 serve nuts 

  • Spread 1 large banana and 1 tablespoon peanut butter onto two slices of wholegrain bread. 

  • Contains: 1861.7kJ, 16g Protein

Trial and error

Building muscle, as with most body composition and performance goals, is a bit of trial and error until you find what works for you.

When eating an energy surplus to build muscle, you might notice that your body fat starts to increase. Although some increase in weight while building muscle is normal, it might be an indicator that you need to adjust your energy intake downwards to a point where you are still building muscle, but not eating so much that you are gaining weight.

Conversely, you might notice that you are not putting on any or enough weight. Professionals can expect to see increases in lean muscle tissue of around 250g - 500g per week with the right training and diet. While non-professionals who are not training as regularly or as hard should set a lower goal, if you feel that you are not putting on sufficient muscle, it might be time to look at your energy intake.

Ideally, weigh yourself at least once per month to check in on your progress. If you are putting on weight, and it looks like this is due to an increase in body fat, try removing 1 of your additional serves of grains, dairy, nuts or protein and then weigh yourself again in another month to see whether your weight stabilises. If you are not building muscle quick enough, try adding an additional serve of grain, dairy, nuts or protein, and then weighing yourself again in another month to see if this helps.

Keep trialling different strategies, and eventually you will find the balance that works for you.