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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, 10 Pro Meal Prep Tips for Muscle Gain

How to Meal Prep for Muscle Gain

Reading Time: 6 minutes


DATE: 2024-05-09

Building muscle is a common goal clients bring to personal trainers. Adding muscle to your frame requires more than a solid strength training plan. You also need a diet that supplies all the right nutrients and adequate calories to ensure you build rather than lose muscles during training. 

It can be a tricky balance to achieve, whether you’re looking to make minor body composition changes or are bulking up for bodybuilding competitions. Meal prepping is a great tool for ensuring you stay on track and get the right nutrient balance to meet your goals. 

What Role Does Diet Play in Gaining Muscle? 

Building muscle requires strength training, which breaks down and rebuilds muscle tissue bigger and stronger. But working out alone, no matter how hard you go at it, isn’t enough. To build muscle, lose fat, and shift your body composition, you need the right amount and balance of nutrients in your diet. 

All three macronutrients are important when building muscle: 

  • Protein. The most essential is protein. This is the nutrient that your muscles use to build new tissue through muscle protein synthesis. Working out without adequate protein intake limits muscle growth. It can even cause muscle loss as you break down tissue without replacing it. 

  • Carbohydrates. Carbs are the primary energy source of the body. You need to fuel up with healthy carbohydrates to be able to do the tough workouts that lead to muscle gain. 

  • Fat. Fats are not as directly related to muscle building as protein and carbs, but you still need them. Healthy fats maintain hormone levels, boost immunity, and provide energy. Too little fat can impede muscle growth. 

Total calorie intake is important too. If you don’t eat enough, you can actually lose muscle mass while doing vigorous workouts. 

Men and women are not the same when it comes to building muscle. Here’s a quick guide for women who want to gain.

How to Meal Prep for Muscle Gain

Before you start prepping, make sure you know your nutrient, macro, and calorie needs. The ratios for bodybuilding meal prep may look different for the average client just trying to increase their gains a bit. Consider talking to a dietician to help you get started. 

1. Understand Your Calorie Needs

This can be a tough pill to swallow for some people, but when building muscle, you’re generally looking to gain weight. If you don’t prep enough food, your workouts will backfire. You could experience weight loss and lose muscle mass rather than gain it. 

It’s in these details that a dietician can be a big help, but generally, a 500-calorie surplus is a good benchmark. Determine how many calories you burn in a day and add 500 to that number. You can adjust as needed. 

2. Understand Your Macro Needs

In addition to total calories, you need to find the right balance between calories from carbs, protein, and fats. A good general rule for muscle gain is 40% to 45% carbs, 30% protein, and 25% to 30% fat. If fat loss is not a concern, you can up the carb amount to better fuel your workouts. Adjust in the opposite direction if you're focused on lean muscle. Again, a dietician can provide you with the best personalized macro ratio for your body and your goals. 

3. Know What a Muscle Building Meal Looks Like

Before you can plan your shopping trip, you need to have meal prep ideas in mind. You can use a fairly simple formula, altering it a little to match your specific nutrient and calorie needs. Here is a good general plan for lunch or dinner: 

  • Seven to nine ounces of protein, like a chicken breast or piece of salmon

  • One large sweet potato or one to two cups of a whole grain, like brown rice

  • One cup of broccoli or salad greens with a drizzle of olive oil 

A meal like this provides 600 to 700 calories, about 70 grams of protein, 60 grams of carbs, and 10 to 20 grams of fat.

A healthy weight gain breakfast might be 5 to 6 egg whites with one or two whole eggs, a serving of oatmeal, and one piece of fruit. For a snack during the day, a protein shake or smoothie with your choice of protein powder, or a piece of whole grain toast with yogurt or cottage cheese are smart options. 

Rest days are different from active days. Here’s what to eat when recovering

4. Create a Simple Meal Plan for the Week 

With a general guideline for what a meal or snack should look like, get planning. This is the tedious part, but by writing out every meal and meal prep recipe, you’ll be able to buy and prep what you need. 

To make it a little easier and less wasteful, plan for foods that stretch a few meals or days. For example, a big pack of baby spinach is inexpensive and can be your lunch vegetable all week. A big bag of sweet potatoes is similarly cost-effective and provides a healthy carb that will last all week and beyond.

Just because you’re planning to use the same few foods all week doesn’t mean meals have to be boring. That spinach can be a salad one day. Steam it with garlic another day or add it to your omelet. 

5. Invest in Good Meal Prep Containers

A set of glass containers in different sizes are an excellent investment if you’re serious about healthy meal planning and prep. You’ll use these to store your chopped ingredients, portioned proteins, measured snacks, and packed breakfasts and lunches. 

6. Write a Specific Shopping List – And Never Shop Hungry. 

Meal prepping is all about discipline. With a meal plan in hand, create a shopping list with no wiggle room for snacks you don’t need or processed foods. You might think you have it all in your head, but a list is the only way to be sure you can create your week of carefully planned meals. 

Shopping while hungry is a big meal planning mistake. You will undoubtedly reach for something that’s not in your plan. This being said, there is nothing wrong with a cheat meal or snack, but put it in your plan and on your list so you don’t run wild in the snack aisle. 

7. Choose Budget-Friendly Foods

If you have a lot of money to spend, that’s great. You have less to worry about when meal planning. Even with a tight budget, you can eat well and meet your goals. It just takes some planning and smart choices. In general, whole foods that are minimally processed are the least costly. They also tend to be more nutrient-dense. These are some good options: 

  • Chicken

  • Eggs

  • Canned tuna

  • Whey protein

  • Peanut butter

  • Dry or canned beans

  • Produce in season or frozen

  • Whole, uncooked grains, like brown rice, oats, and quinoa

Pre-made meals and bars designed for weight gain, muscle building, and bodybuilding meal prep are useful but can destroy a budget. If you have a limited amount to spend on food, you’ll have to do more work at home to prepare foods. It’s healthier, though, because you control every ingredient that goes into your meals. 

8. Introduce Some Variety

It’s easy to get burned out on carefully prepped meals and snacks if you only ever eat the same five foods. You can eat healthy, whole, cost-effective foods with a lot of variety. Choose different produce every week. Vary your protein. Don’t eat tuna every single day for lunch. Try new spices and herbs in your recipes. 

9. Make Sunday Night Prep Night

A couple of hours on Sunday night prepping food might not be the most exciting time of the week but it will save you time later. Spend an hour or two cutting vegetables, portioning ingredients, and packing lunches. You won’t regret it later when all you have to do is reach for a healthy meal. 

The more you have prepped, the easier it is to stick with your meal plan when you’re hungry. And that means getting closer to your goals. How much you prep is up to you. Some people just prep ingredients, while others cook meals, portion them into containers, and reheat later. 

10. Make Your Own Meal Prep Tips for Muscle Gains

Ultimately, what works best is what works for you. If you need more spontaneity in your eating, lighten up on prepping and planning. Prep dinners but leave lunches free for more variety, for instance. If you do best with rigid rules, plan each meal of the week down to each serving. You’ll only stick with a muscle-gain diet if it works for you. 

Expand Your Nutrition Training

Meal prepping can help with a variety of diet and fitness goals. For building muscle, meal prep helps you ensure adequate calorie and protein intake and a good balance of nutrients. Yes, you can make gains without planning and prepping, but this is a tool that increases your odds of success. 

If you love to provide clients with diet advice, consider earning your ISSA Nutritionist Certification. This credential positions you to be able to offer clients an additional, valuable service. 

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By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.

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