The 500-Calorie Strategy for Clean Gains

One Shake a Day for Muscle

Build muscle at the optimal rate and avoid excess fat gain. Here’s a simple way to do it.

Let’s play a quick game of Would You Rather.

You decide to increase your calories and eat for gains. Would you rather…

A. Gain 10 pounds: 8 pounds body fat and 2 pounds muscle?
B. Gain 5 pounds: 1 pound body fat and 4 pounds muscle?

Yes, body water and muscle glycogen play their parts, too, but let’s keep it simple.

Choice B is the smart option, right? After all, you gain twice as much muscle as choice A, and when your bulking cycle is finished, you only have a pound of fat to lose to show off those new gains.

But when most lifters decide to eat for muscle gains, they choose A. Why? Probably because it’s more fun to just eat a lot. Most don’t bother counting calories and logging their macros. It’s easier to just eat ALL the food instead of just the right amount of extra food.

Also, the scale is deceptive. A 10-pound gain looks like a more successful mass phase than a 5-pound difference on the bathroom scale. The mirror, that brutally honest bastard, tells a different story, however.

Unfortunately, we can’t grossly overeat to increase the rate of muscle gain. There’s a built-in speed limit. Try to exceed it and we just gain fat. All we can do is optimize the rate of growth with the right amount of extra calories.

Okay, What’s the “Right Amount” of Extra Food?

It’s somewhere around 500 calories over your maintenance intake (the number of calories you generally eat that doesn’t lead to weight loss or weight gain). Maybe 200 calories less or 200 calories more, depending on dozens of individual factors, like genetics, age, activity levels inside and outside the gym, how healthy you are, and more.

I chose 500 calories after running my own numbers through various formulas and averaging out the recommendations of dozens of coaches. You can do that too, but your results will be 300 to 700 calories more than your maintenance intake.

So, let’s call it 500. You can always adjust up or down from there based on your results. Your goal? Gain muscle at a realistic but optimal rate while keeping fat gain to a minimum – what many call “clean” gains.

Fantastic 500

Skinny guys and guys who gain fat very easily have kinda the same problem: either through habit, lifestyle, or some genetic element, they always “regress to mean.”

  • The skinny guy doesn’t eat enough because he gets full easily or has little appetite. That’s his mean.

  • The easy-fat-gainer loves to eat until he’s stuffed and is always ready for the next meal. That’s his mean.

Both benefit from the 500-calorie surplus guideline: The skinny fella has a number to shoot for, encouraging him to eat more. And the hungry-hungry hippo has a number to follow that keeps him in check so he doesn’t overdo it.

The Easiest Way to Add Around 500 Calories

Add one protein-based shake per day to your normal diet. Choose a protein powder containing both whey protein isolate and micellar casein. Remember, the goal is clean muscle gains. Whey protein isolate contains fast-acting essential amino acids and jumpstarts protein synthesis. Micellar casein is the superior protein for sustaining protein synthesis and building muscle. MD protein (on Amazon) is the ideal choice.

The simple guidelines:

  • Make sure you’ve maintained your current weight for at least 6 months or so. (If you’ve been slowly gaining weight, you’re already bulking, big boy.)
  • If you normally skip breakfast or any other meal, have a shake instead.
  • If you’re eating regular meals, have the shake between meals or before bed.
  • After 4 weeks or so, adjust calories by around 200 per day.

The 500-Calorie (ish) Shake

Here’s my favorite recipe, already calculated for you.

Peanut Butter Cup Shake

Blend with 16 ounces of water and a few ice cubes. Use more or less water to get the consistency you enjoy most. Pro tip: Skip the ice and use a sliced frozen banana. This prevents the ice from watering down the flavor.

Calories & Macros

Calories 520
Protein 53g
Carbs 46g
Fat 17g

Other Things to Add Calories to MD Protein

  • Whole milk, if you tolerate it well
  • Oats (blend, allow to sit a few minutes to soften the oats, blend again, drink)
  • Yogurt or kefir
  • Other fruits and berries (frozen is best for a milkshake texture)
  • Avocado (really, you won’t even taste it… much)
  • Other nut butters, like almond butter
  • MCT or coconut oil

The Non-Linear Bulking Approach

Non-linear dieting for fat loss involves eating in a caloric deficit on weekdays, then bumping up to maintenance on weekends. This helps prevent muscle loss and fat-loss plateaus. We could also do non-linear bulking: eat a 500-calorie surplus on weekdays and return to maintenance on weekends. This could help prevent any negative adaptations from bulking too long.

Simply do this:

Weekdays: Drink the shake (caloric surplus)
Weekends: Skip the shake (maintenance calories)

Make It Easy

The 500-calorie guideline isn’t the fastest way to gain weight, but it is the fastest and healthiest way to gain muscle. And that’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Our MD protein kit contains everything you need for several mass-gain cycles, even a portable blender.



Here’s another fun way to get in a bonus 500 cals with lots of protein and no sugar:


Per slice (have two per day):

  • Calories 250
  • Protein 30g
  • Carbs 14g
  • Fat 9g

Far too simple…. Which is probably why it will work. I use a version of this and it’s helped a great deal. BTW I like the shake recipe. I use 250 ml of coconut water in addition to ice mostly for taste but also for extra the nutrients. I make them for people and they cannot believe it is a healthy alternative to their choices. Thanks for the article/info!