Part 1 of the “How to Build Muscle” series
In Part 1 of our “How to Build Muscle” series, we talked about how you should set up up your training in order to maximize muscle building. Specifically, we discussed:
- exercise selection and order,
- training intensity and reps-in-reserve,
- training volume and frequency,
- lifting tempo and inter-set rest intervals and
- training progression.
Moreover, at the end of the article, we included a sample workout plan for beginners looking to build muscle.
Part 2 of our “How to Build Muscle” series
In part 2 of the “How to Build Muscle” series (which is this one), we will talk about nutrition for building muscle. More specifically, we will cover:
- energy balance,
- protein intake, frequency and timing,
- carbohydrate and fat intakes and
- food quality and fluid intake.
So, how and what should you be eating to fuel muscle growth? Read on to find out!
How to build muscle: Nutritional priorities and order of importance
If you ask anyone who’s been training with the goal of building muscle about proper nutrition, you will most certainly be told about the basics of eating for muscle growth: getting in enough food, consuming sufficient protein, having several meals per day and so on.
What you are less likely to hear about is the relative importance of each of the above, as well as what you should be prioritizing in your pursuit of building muscle as fast as possible.
However, having some order of importance of these nutritional priorities is critical to your success, since it serves as a constant reminder of what matters the most and what matters the least in your pursuit of muscle gains.
So here are what we believe to be the top nutritional priorities for muscle growth and their relative order of importance, from most to least important.
As we’ve discussed in “The Secret to Fat Loss“, in order to lose weight, we have to be in a sustained negative energy balance (i.e. a caloric deficit), which means that we have to consistently eat fewer calories than we burn. This is not a theory or hypothesis. This is the First Law of Thermodynamics and it’s called a “law” for a pretty good reason.
Similarly, muscle gain also (usually) requires energy imbalance, albeit a positive one.
This is because, when trying to build muscle, we are essentially trying to increase our muscles’ energy stores. And since protein (which makes up the contractile part of our muscles) contains 4 calories per gram, gaining muscle means that we are actually increasing our body’s stores of energy.
You may have noticed that, above, we said that muscle gain “usually” requires a positive energy balance. This is because you don’t always have to be in an energy surplus to gain appreciable amounts of muscle.
As we’ve talked about here and here, under certain circumstances, it’s possible to re-partition energy from your body’s fat stores to fuel muscle growth. Simply put, if you can take the energy from your body fat and use it to provide the energy necessary for muscle growth to occur, it means that you have managed to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
Unfortunately, building an appreciable amount of muscle while losing an appreciable amount of fat only happens when one, or more, of the following applies:
Bottom line: If none of the above applies to you, then increasing your caloric intake sufficiently to be in a small energy surplus of around 200-300 calories per day is important for building muscle at a good rate.
Protein intake, frequency and timing
If you’ve done any research on how to build muscle, you should already know that protein is an essential dietary nutrient, the primary function of which is to build and repair the body’s tissues, including the muscle tissues. Moreover, two proteins (actin and myosin) are what mainly make up the contractile part of muscle, i.e. the part that actually produces force and moves your body.
This means that your muscles are, literally, made of protein!
As you can understand, protein is critically important for people who are training for the goal of building muscle and definitely deserves a place in your list of top nutritional priorities.
With regards to the amount of protein you need in order to maximize muscle growth when in a caloric surplus, research is pretty clear that around 1 gram per pound of lean body mass is right around what you should be aiming for.
We know; you’ve heard people recommend up to twice as much protein, but scientific research doesn’t show any benefits to more than around a gram per pound of lean body mass when bulking. On the contrary, eating much more protein than that could be detrimental to muscle growth, since the increased satiety you’ll get from the protein may cause you to under-eat on calories which, as stated above, should be higher on your list of nutritional priorities.
With regards to protein frequency, there are two opposing schools of thought:
- The “eat every 2 hours or else you’ll lose your gains” school of thought
- The new (supposedly, science-based) “frequency is irrelevant as long as you hit your daily intake” school of thought
As with most extremist stances, of course, both of the above approaches to protein frequency are wrong.
You see, a normal meal with a moderate amount of protein will increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) for around 5 hours. Eating protein much more frequently than that doesn’t seem to increase MPS more (something called “the refractory period“) and eating protein much later than that means that you’ve lost an opportunity to spike MPS again.
This is why we recommend splitting up your daily protein intake into 3-5 feedings of equal size, evenly distributed throughout the day (i.e. every 3-5 hours), since your meals will be frequent enough to spike MPS as often as possible every day without being so frequent that they fall within the refractory period.
Moreover, since your protein feedings will be spaced around 3-5 hours apart, amino acids from the protein will be available to your muscles during and shortly after training, which means that you will be taking advantage of any theoretical benefits to peri-workout protein intake.
Of course, using protein shakes around your workouts and having protein before bed may be a good idea as we’ve mentioned in this article on some of the best muscle building supplements.
Bottom line: set your protein intake at around 1 gram per pound of lean body mass and split your daily intake into 3-5 protein feedings of equal size, distributed evenly throughout the day.
Carbohydrate and fat intake
Few topics in the fitness industry have created as much discussion as has the matter of high carb, low fat vs low carb, high fat diets. To this day, proponents of each of these diets are still arguing over the superiority of their approach.
The truly “science-based” experts, however, realize that neither a higher-fat nor a higher-carb approach is always best. On the contrary, the approach that is usually best for most people, most of the time, is a middle-of-the-road approach, where moderate amounts of both carbs and fats are eaten.
“Booooo! Non-extremist stances don’t appeal to anyone’s feelings and aren’t popular!”
Well, it sucks for us and we’re willing to pay the price. You see, we refuse to “sell-out” and start giving out bad information just for the sake of popularity. Being objective, unbiased and science-based is what we’re good at, so that’s what we’ll stick to.
Back to the point!
When trying to build muscle, a sensible approach to setting your intake of carbs and fats is this:
- Set your dietary fat intake. Although using percentages for setting macronutrient intakes isn’t our preferred method (we’ll talk about this another time), we like to set fat intakes at around 30% of total calories.
- Fill the remainder of your calories with carbs.
Here’s an example of how a male at 150 lbs and 10% body fat who is trying to gain muscle on 2500 calories would set up his macros:
- Protein: 150 lbs – (150 lbs x 10%) = 135 grams of protein per day, evenly split into 3-5 protein feedings spaced evenly apart
- Fats: (2500 calories x 30%) / 9 calories per gram = 83 grams of fats per day
- Carbohydrates: (2500 calories per day – (135g of protein x 4 calories per gram) – (83g of fat x 9 calories per gram)) / 4 calories per gram = 303 grams of carbohydrates per day
That wasn’t too complicated now, was it?
Bottom line: Don’t worry too much about exact amounts of carbs and fats. Just eat a moderate amount of both of them. A sensible and commonly employed approach is to set fat intake at around 30% of your total calories and fill the remainder of your calories with carbs.
Food quality and fluid intake
Food quality includes things such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids and dietary fiber, while fluid intake refers to your intake of fluids from foods and drinks.
Despite being at the bottom of our priorities list, these are still important for health, training performance and muscle growth – they are just less important (in our opinion and experience) than are the priorities we listed above.
Unfortunately, If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) – which, by the way, started out as an “inside joke” on a thread in the bodybuilding.com forums back in 2010 – has led to lots of people blindly following their macros and completely forgetting about the importance of micronutrition.
And, although most “clean eaters” completely dismiss the importance of caloric intake and energy balance while most IIFYMers completely dismiss the importance of micronutrients, we prefer to, again, adopt a middle-of-the-road approach, where we acknowledge the energy balance equation and its relative significance, but we also recognize that it’s important to get sufficient amounts of all micronutrients.
Bottom line: We recommend that you get the majority of your calories from a variety of minimally-processed, micronutrient-dense foods, while allowing yourself to enjoy “less clean” foods and treats that you like in moderation. This will ensure that you get adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients, as well as sufficient amounts of dietary fiber.
With regards to fluid intake, we like to use Lyle McDonald’s recommendation of drinking enough fluids so that you have five clear urinations per day, with two of them being after your workout.
Infographic with our nutritional recommendations for how to build muscle
Here is an infographic with our recommendations for how to build muscle.
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Also, if you haven’t already done so, check out Part 1 of the “How to Build Muscle” series to learn how to train for maximum muscle growth!