Eating to gain muscle

Achieving the optimum percentage of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat) for muscle gain varies greatly between individuals. This can be for many reasons including age, gender and genetics. Be prepared to experiment until you get it right.

As a general rule, in order to build muscle you will need to consume a surplus of calories. A balance needs to be found between sufficient calories for muscle growth without storing excess fat. Therefore, make your calories count with a balanced whole food diet which is nutrient dense.

Protein: amino acids provide the building blocks of skeletal muscle, of which there are two categories: essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids must be obtained from foods in our diet as the body cannot manufacture them. In order to build muscle, you need to be in a positive protein balance, where synthesis exceeds degradation. Protein recommendations for strength/power exercise typically range from 1.6-2.0g/kg/day (Campbell et al, 2007). Fresh meat and fish, eggs, nuts and seeds are good sources of protein. With regards to meat, head to your local butcher or look online for reputable sources and consider wild and/or organic if budget allows. Supplements (whey, casein, essential amino acids and plant proteins) are a convenient way of increasing protein content of the diet, especially after training, and worth a separate discussion.

Carbohydrate: resistance training utilises glycogen (stored carbohydrate) as its main fuel source. Inadequate carbohydrate intake can impair strength training. Adequate carbohydrate pre-training can decrease glycogen depletion and therefore may enhance performance. Nutrient dense foods such as vegetables, fruit and wholegrains provide micronutrients (including antioxidants), and fibre which lowers glycaemic load and promotes satiety.

Fat: fats are essential nutrients which play a vital role in many bodily functions, including the production of steroid hormones such as testosterone. Optimal fat intake is dependent on your carbohydrate intake as they are inversely related, whilst protein is relatively constant. Healthy fats include: olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish, butter and ghee.

Nutrient timing:

Pre-workout: a pre-workout meal 2-3 hours before training should contain protein for anabolic and anti-catabolic effects, and complex carbohydrate. Research is mixed on the effects of coffee on strength/power performance, but if you enjoy coffee, this is the time to have one, for best results containing 2-3mg/kg caffeine (Beck et al, 2006). If pre workout meal is longer than this before the workout, have a protein/carbohydrate snack 30-60 minutes before training.

During workout: the most important nutrient during training is water. Sweat loss decreases blood volume and flow to the muscles which may cause fatigue. The amount you need to drink depends on your sweat rate, activity level, temperature and humidity.

Post workout: ingesting a protein and carbohydrate supplement shortly after exercise increases protein accretion and glycogen storage, and can attenuate muscle damage (Antonio et al, 2008). After intense exercise, most individuals prefer liquids such as a protein shake or protein smoothie, as whole foods may be harder to digest. They are also easy to consume, rapidly digested and convenient.

Avoid alcohol post training as it can suppress the anabolic response which could impair recovery, adaptation to training and subsequent performance (Parr et al, 2014).

Be accountable: for best results, use a training diary and a food diary. Set goals and a time limit in which to achieve them, track your progress.


Antonio J, Kalman D, Stout J, Greenwood M, Willoughby D and Haff G (2008) Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements

Beck T, Housh T, Schmidt R, Johnson G, Housh D, Coburn J and Malek (2006) The acute effects of a caffeine-containing supplement on strength,muscular endurance, and anaerobic capabilities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20:506-510

Campbell B, Kreider R, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H and Antonio J (2007) International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4:8

Parr E, Camera D, Areta J, Burke L, Phillips S, Hawley J and Coffey V (2014) Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLos One, 12:9

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