Building muscle is at the top of many peoples’ lists of health & fitness goals… and for good reason.
Not only does building muscle have physical benefits for athletes in their sport or for building one’s self-confidence… building muscle is health-protective and can help with managing chronic health conditions too.
So, what are the key principles required for building muscle?
How To Build Muscle
A good strength training program is a non-negotiable for muscle growth. It is the necessary stimulus for the process to start.
However, training for muscle growth without focusing on nutrition is like a job half done.
Nutrition acts as the facilitator to help you perform well in training and recover from the session optimally so that training adaptations can occur. Without the proper nutrition in place, muscle growth can be compromised, even to the point of muscle loss.
It’s common for people to underestimate the power of nutrition in optimising muscle growth. Yet, it plays a crucial role in the process.
This blog post will cover 7 common nutrition mistakes that people make when trying to build muscle:
1. Not Eating Enough Calories
Muscle growth is optimised with an energy surplus from your diet. Not eating enough total calories in the day from either struggling to eat enough or aiming for fat loss at the same time can compromise this process.
It is possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. However, there are few situations where I would recommend this strategy.
This is because muscle growth is optimised with an energy surplus, which involves eating more calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. Alternatively, fat loss generally requires an energy deficit, whereby you would need to eat fewer calories than you expend.
Exceptions to this rule where gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time, also known as body recomposition, are more likely to happen:
- Strength-training beginners
- People who have a significant amount of fat to lose
Aiming for these conflicting goals at the same time for most other people is a suboptimal approach to gaining muscle. This makes the process slower and more inefficient than it needs to be if that is your main goal.
In some cases, only a small calorie surplus is required for building muscle. To build lean muscle without gaining excess body fat at the same time, the following targets in the below visual are a good starting point.
2. Not Eating Enough Protein
Protein is essential for muscle growth.
Post-resistance training, muscle fibres have been broken down and need to be rebuilt. Protein provides the essential amino acids for the growth and repair process to occur after this muscle damage has been done.
The gold standard amount is 1.6-2.2g protein/kg body weight per day to optimise the muscle growth and repair process. When it comes to protein, nailing this total daily intake is the most important thing.
If you want to optimise the process further, spread your protein intake evenly across 3-6 meals over the day. This is referred to as protein distribution.
Spreading your protein intake across the day, referred to as protein distribution, is another strategy for optimising your muscle mass.
Think of it as trying to optimise how many opportunities you have during the day to facilitate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). The process of muscle growth. MPS starts after a training stimulus is provided alongside adequate amounts of protein.
For protein intake timing around training, try to get a good serving of protein ~30g within the 4-hour period around your training session, i.e. within 2 hours pre-workout or 2 hours post-workout.
3. Not Eating Enough Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the best fuel source for supporting training.
During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the bloodstream, which is then stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver. During exercise, muscle contraction utilises this readily available energy from the muscle.
A lack of carbohydrates in your diet, particularly pre-workout can lead to suboptimal training sessions. Optimising your performance in training sessions by incorporating carbohydrates, however, means working harder and getting better results.
Having whole grain sources of carbohydrates in each meal as well as carbohydrate-rich snacks pre-workout are easy wins when it comes to optimising your performance and ultimately, gains.
4. You Are Taking the Wrong Supplements
Supplements can be a great tool for enhancing your muscle-gain game. However, differentiating the effective, evidence-based supplements from the non-effective ones can save you money and lead to more muscle growth.
For example, supplements like greens powders, collagen, fat-burners or non-stim pre-workouts aren’t effective for muscle growth.
Evidence-based supplements that will assist muscle growth include:
…among some other supplements that have more indirect effects on muscle growth.
5. You Are Only Relying on Supplements
Some people like to think that supplements can “make up for” their lack of effort with their diet.
Supplements can be great, but they won’t do all the work for you. What you do day in and day out with your diet, training and recovery will have the greatest impact on your overall ability to grow muscle.
You can gain muscle with a “bad diet” if you are eating enough protein and total calories, just like you can still lose weight with a “bad diet” if you are in a calorie deficit. However, the process won’t be optimised and you won’t feel as good as you could throughout the process or in the long term.
As a Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist, I like to say that performance and health go hand-in-hand. Great health underlies great performance, and great performance in the gym can lead to more muscle growth.
Therefore, dialling in your nutrition to support your health, in general, can have invaluable impacts on how you feel, train and recover during a muscle growth phase.
Focus on eating a nutritious diet most of the time, with a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, legumes, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats.
6. Disregarding Meal Timing
For most people without a muscle gain goal, meal timing isn’t the be-all and end-all. Some people, for instance, use intermittent fasting as a tool for weight loss.
However, when it comes to building muscle, or any sort of performance goal for that matter, the process can be optimised by spreading your food intake across the day. This is something to think about if you regularly skip breakfast or go for long periods of time without eating.
Spreading meals and food volume can help to regulate energy levels and reduce gut upset when energy requirements are high. It can also help with nailing protein distribution as discussed earlier.
7. Not Meeting Minimum Fat Requirements
Consuming a minimum amount of fats each day is necessary for regular hormonal function. It is recommended to eat at least 0.3g/kg/day of fats or to have 20% of your total energy intake come from fats. This is a minimum target, however, aiming slightly higher than that can be beneficial.
Not meeting minimum fat requirements can negatively impact the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Compromised testosterone levels can impact your ability to gain muscle.
Opting for healthier sources such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and oily fish will also provide other beneficial vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) along the way.
Putting a few key nutritional strategies in place can be the difference between muscle growth and stagnated progress. Next time you enter a phase of muscle growth, consider the following:
- Eat enough overall calories
- Eat enough total protein
- Eat enough carbohydrates
- Use evidence-based supplements
- Don’t rely on supplements
- Consider meal-timing
- Meet your minimum fat requirements