Lean Muscle Diet Plan

How to Eat to Gain & Maintain Lean Muscle

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: April 25, 2024

Most bulking diets add inches to your waist instead of your arms because they prioritize weight gain instead of lean muscle gain. But if you want a muscular yet aesthetic physique, you need a diet plan designed to build lean muscle while maintaining or even losing body fat.

I’ve spent the last ten years as a nutrition coach dialing in a lean muscle diet to help my clients transform their bodies. With the simple framework, I’m about to show you, you can add lean muscle mass to look and feel your best.

lean muscle diet

What is Lean Muscle?

Technically, all muscle is lean muscle. The term lean mass refers to all body mass that is not fat, including bones, organs, and skeletal muscle.

However, in bodybuilding, we think of it as muscle gain without the associated fat gain. Another term for gaining lean muscle is a lean bulk or clean bulk.

Why Is Building Lean Muscle Important

Building and maintaining muscle mass is vital to everyone’s overall health, not just bodybuilders. Strong muscles have health benefits such as increased insulin sensitivity and a higher basal metabolic rate, which makes weight loss easier.

However, increasing body fat along with adding muscle negates these benefits. On top of that, you won’t have the lean muscular physique you desire if you have excess body fat. And it will take you longer to get lean when you decide to lose weight or cut.

How to Build Lean Muscle

Lean muscle gain requires a combination of resistance training and proper nutrition. The strength training breaks down muscles, causing an adaptive response by the body to rebuild muscles bigger and stronger.

However, muscle cannot grow larger unless you give your body proper nutrients in the right amounts and within a given timeframe. That’s where the lean muscle diet comes in.

How to Build Lean Muscle Diet

5-Part Lean Muscle Diet Framework

  1. Consume more calories than you burn, but don’t go overboard
  2. Eat enough protein to support muscle
  3. Choose mostly clean foods while limiting junk
  4. Time your meals around your workout to facilitate growth
  5. Strengthen your diet with proven muscle-building supplements

Each piece of the framework plays a role in building lean muscle, but they’re not all equal. To understand their relative importance, I created a bodybuilding nutrition pyramid.

This chart illustrates that calorie balance is the foundation of any diet for muscle gain or fat loss. Macronutrients and food choices have the next biggest impact. Meal timing can provide a slight boost when the other nutrition aspects are optimized.

lean muscle diet framework

Dietary supplements also have a place in a muscle-building diet. However, you won’t get much return on your investment if you don’t dial in your nutrition first.

1. Create a Small Calorie Surplus

Increasing your calorie intake to ensure you consume slightly more energy than you burn is the first step in building lean muscle. This calorie surplus is crucial, but if you consume too many calories, you will gain unwanted fat instead.

A recent study showed that your body requires about 2,100 calories to build one pound of new muscle tissue1. So, gaining one pound of muscle a week would only require 300 calories above your maintenance number each day, representing a 10-15% calorie surplus.

A good approach is to find the minimum number of calories you need to gain weight. Stick to that daily calorie target until you stop gaining weight, then bump it up by 100-200 more calories.

Try my free lean bulk calorie surplus calculator for a more precise calorie target.

lean muscle diet calorie surplus

2. Macros for Muscle Growth

For those not familiar with macronutrients, they are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. The most important of these for building muscle is protein. However, carbohydrates and fat also have their place in a balanced diet.

Here are my recommendations for each macronutrient in the lean muscle diet plan.

Protein Intake for Lean Mass

Building muscle requires more protein than the dietary guidelines for average individuals. This nutritional need comes from the intense demands of breaking down muscles and building them back up.

The general rule of thumb is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, but it isn’t always accurate. Instead, your ideal protein intake depends on how much muscle you have, not just how much you weigh.

So, I prescribe protein as a percentage of calories (which is based on lean mass). Generally, getting 25-30% of your calories from protein provides more than enough for building muscle.

Carbohydrates For Energy

Carbohydrates have a bad reputation when it comes to building a lean body. However, they are an excellent energy source fueling intense training sessions needed to build muscle and strength.

However, it’s vital to understand the supply and demand for this high-octane fuel because the amount you need depends on your activity level.

Carb cycling is alternating your carb intake based on your activity level. It can also be a valuable tool for gaining lean muscle while minimizing excess fat gain.

lean muscle diet carb cycling

Fat For Function

Dietary fat plays a vital role in the proper functioning of your brain and nervous system. Additionally, it acts as a long-term source of energy stored as adipose tissue (body fat), which can be utilized when other energy sources are unavailable.

After calculating the necessary amounts of protein and carbs, the remaining balance of your calorie intake should come from fat. This balance could range from 20% to 50%, depending on your activity level.

It is essential to consider the type of fat you consume and the time you consume it, as these factors play a significant role in ensuring your body can use nutrients effectively.

3. Eat Clean to Stay Lean

Dirty bulking with processed foods adds excess calories with very little nutritional value. The lean muscle diet involves returning to the basics with healthy whole foods.

When shopping, stick to the outer areas of the grocery store with the least processed foods. Prioritize vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats. Below are some examples of the best nutrient-dense foods to include in your diet.

Lean Muscle Diet Food List

  • Leafy greens
  • Colorful veggies
  • Fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Chicken breasts
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Egg whites and whole eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • White or brown rice
  • Russet or sweet potatoes
  • Olive oil or coconut oil

If you need more ideas, check out my free healthy grocery list.

4. Anabolic Meal Timing

Planning meals around your daily sleep and activity cycle is known as nutrient timing. While it won’t make or break your results, it can provide an added edge for building lean muscle.

The best advice is to consume smaller meals every few hours, consisting of 20-30 grams of protein. Spreading out your protein intake helps maintain higher levels of muscle protein synthesis.

In addition, meals combining carbs and protein are beneficial before resistance training to provide energy and prevent muscle loss. Consuming protein and carbs shortly after workouts replenish glycogen stores, promoting recovery and lean muscle growth.

lean muscle diet meal timing

5. Muscle Building Supplements

It’s important to understand that supplements should serve only as an extension of your diet, not a replacement. Most supplements are a waste of money, so try not to get caught up in marketing campaigns or social media claims.

However, several tried-and-tested supplements have been scientifically proven to help you gain muscle. Here are the best supplements for adding muscle strength and size.

  • Whey Protein is essentially powdered milk and acts more like a food than a supplement. Protein shakes are a convenient way to get this essential nutrient. Just don’t let powders replace protein-rich foods in your diet.
  • Creatine Monohydrate has over 30 years of solid science backing its effectiveness as a muscle builder. Supplement companies charge more for fancy new variants like creatine HCl, but plain old monohydrate is still king.
  • Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) are the building blocks of protein and can prevent muscle breakdown. However, I recommend focusing on lean protein in your diet first and only using BCAAs or EAAs to bolster protein synthesis.

Sample Meal Plan

The lean muscle diet framework is a great start, but you still have to fill it in with actual meals that fit your macros. An example might help.

I set up a sample meal plan for a 175-pound male trying to build lean muscle without adding excess fat. Based on his body size and activity level, I set his target at 3,000 calories for workout days, a modest 220-calorie surplus.

The table below shows his daily meal plan, which is scheduled around a morning workout. You’ll notice I’ve front-loaded most of his carbs in the morning with lower-carb meals in the evening. But all meals contain at least 20 grams of high-quality protein.

  1. Pre-Workout Meal: Proats – 1 scoop whey protein powder, 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  2. Post-Workout Meal: Honey Berry Smoothie – 1 scoop whey protein powder, 1-1/2 cup frozen berries, 1 banana, 2 tbsp honey
  3. Lunch (can split into two meals): Chicken, Rice, and Broccoli – 8 oz chicken breast, 1 cup rice cooked in bone broth, 2 cups cooked broccoli, 1 tbsp olive oil
  4. Afternoon Snack: Avocado Tuna Salad Sandwich – 1/2 avocado, 2 oz tuna in water, 1 tbsp chopped onions, 2 slices whole wheat bread
  5. Dinner: Ground Beef and Brussels Sprouts Bowl – 4 oz 85% lean ground beef, 1 cup sauteed Brussels sprouts, 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  6. Bedtime Snack: Cottage Cheese – 1 cup 4% cottage cheese with black pepper

Lean Muscle Diet Results

Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to take my advice without proof. So below is an example of how I gained 20 pounds while maintaining a 6-pack.

In addition to my results, I’ve achieved similar transformations with clients. But keep in mind your individual results may vary.

Once you build lean muscle, the last thing you want to do is lose it all during a cutting phase. So check out my full guide on how to get shredded while maintaining your hard-earned muscle mass.

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lean muscle diet example
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