Intra-uterine growth restriction (IUGR) impairs postnatal growth and skeletal muscle development in neonatal infants. This study evaluated whether dietary β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate Ca (HMB-Ca) supplementation during the early postnatal period could improve muscle growth in IUGR neonates using piglets as a model. A total of twelve pairs of IUGR and normal-birth-weight (NBW) male piglets with average initial weights (1·85 (sem 0·36) and 2·51 (sem 0·39) kg, respectively) were randomly allotted to groups that received milk-based diets (CON) or milk-based diets supplemented with 800 mg/kg HMB-Ca (HMB) during days 7–28 after birth. Blood and longissimus dorsi (LD) samples were collected and analysed for plasma amino acid content, fibre morphology and the expression of genes related to muscle development. The results indicate that, regardless of diet, IUGR piglets had a significantly decreased average daily weight gain (ADG) compared with that of NBW piglets (P<0·05). However, IUGR piglets fed HMB-Ca had a net weight and ADG similar to that of NBW piglets fed the CON diet. Irrespective of body weight (BW), HMB-Ca supplementation markedly increased the type II fibre cross-sectional area and the mRNA expression of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), insulin-like growth factor-1 and myosin heavy-chain isoform IIb in the LD of piglets (P<0·05). Moreover, there was a significant interaction between the effects of BW and HMB on mTOR expression in the LD (P<0·05). In conclusion, HMB-Ca supplementation during the early postnatal period could improve skeletal muscle growth and maturity by accelerating fast-twitch glycolytic fibre development in piglets.