Some of the practices of eating to build muscle are, at best, unnecessary. Some are unhealthy. There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet, perpetuated by the bodybuilding fraternity and protein manufacturers. But even if you’re not influenced by the pseudo-science, you’re unlikely to be eating in the best way. A typical Western diet, both in content and eating patterns, is far from an ideal way of eating to build muscle.
Building muscle isn’t just an aspiration of bodybuilders and fitness models. In most sports, the goal is to be as strong and muscular as possible while maintaining a certain weight or body fat level. In that way, the power to weight ratio is optimised, giving the athlete a competitive advantage.
The importance of muscle
But muscle, and the process of building muscle, is also important for every citizen. Muscle
- Makes you less likely to get injured or to fall.
- Improves your posture.
- Increases your self-esteem.
- Helps you burn calories to prevent obesity.
- Improves your hormones and energy systems.
- Helps you fight infection or recover from illness.
- Improves longevity.
- Helps to prevents loss of independence caused by age-related muscle loss.
And the process of building muscle improves mental strength and self-confidence.
So, the building of muscle and the associated know-how should be of interest to almost everyone. In a previous post, we covered the best way to train to build muscle.
In this post, we discuss the best approach for eating to building muscle.
Muscle creation and breakdown
First, we need to define and explain a couple of essential terms.
To build muscle, you need to accumulate muscle tissue over time. Two competing processes determine whether you gain muscle in the long run or lose it.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the creation of new muscle tissue (muscle protein). Muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is the breakdown of muscle tissue for use elsewhere in your body.
The two processes ebb and flow throughout the day. MPB is at its greatest when you’re fasted and is inhibited when you’ve just had a meal, especially one containing carbohydrate. MPS is greatest after resistance training and after a meal, especially one containing protein.
To gain muscle, MPS must, on average, exceed MPB over time. Both the training stimulus and the nutritional approach are essential in influencing this balance. It’s not so much MPB that we control, as this doesn’t change much. But MPS can increase up to sixfold if the training and nutrition are optimised. So, your best strategy for increasing muscle is to use all the ways available to you to increase MPS.
How much protein do you need?
Eating protein stimulates MPS. Your body breaks down dietary protein into its amino acids, and these are digested and absorbed, ultimately finding their way to your muscle cells, where they promote MPS. One amino acid in particular – leucine – is thought to be the main stimulator of MPS. A protein is high quality if it has a higher leucine content.
Studies show that 20-25g of high-quality protein is sufficient to stimulate MPS maximally. In other words, you don’t need any more protein than 20-25g to maximise muscle growth from a feed. If you take in any more than that, it’s wasted; it gets used for fuel or stored as fat.
Research also shows that the leucine content in muscle cells rises after a meal and then returns to normal after around 3 hours. Whilst the leucine content is elevated, further intakes of protein will not stimulate any more MPS. But once the leucine content has returned to normal, an additional intake of 20-25g of protein will once again stimulate MPS.
What is a sufficient amount of protein?
There are clear implications of these findings.
- You can maximally stimulate MPS several times a day by taking in protein every 3-4 hours.
- There’s no need to take in any more than 20-25g of protein with each feed.
- Excessive protein intake, as practised by some athletes, is unnecessary.
- Spreading your protein intake out over six feeds would imply 120-150g protein per day.
The current recommendation for strength athletes is around 130g per day. That’s at the low end of the range we proposed by feeding six times a day. It makes sense because strength athletes may need less protein than is implied by that calculation. That’s because strength training sensitises the muscle cells to the effects of amino acids. That means more of the amino acids are put to good use, so less of it is needed.
Consuming excessive amounts of protein may not just be a waste of amino acids; it may be counterproductive. Constantly high amino acid levels can lead to insulin resistance. If your muscle cells are less sensitive to insulin, then the inhibiting effect of insulin on MPB will be reduced. That means MPB will rise. With an increase in MPB comes a loss of muscle.
Another problem with excess protein is that protein catabolism – or breakdown – is increased. That’s because anything over 20-25g per feed is simply broken down and used for fuel. Your body will get quite good at protein breakdown and accustomed to a higher level of catabolism. So, if you discontinued the increased protein intake, you’d experience a loss of muscle due to continued high levels of protein breakdown. To avoid this, you’d have to continue high protein intakes. Effectively, you’d be stuck at those high levels.
When is the best time to consume protein?
Resistance training increases MPS for up to 36 hours, and your muscles are sensitised to amino acids for up to 24 hours after exercise. In particular, the muscle cell membrane permeability to amino acids increases immediately following resistance training. To take advantage of this, ingestion of a fast-digesting high-quality protein directly post-exercise will maximise the uptake of amino acids into muscle cells. This, in turn, will maximise MPS.
One study found that if the post-training protein feed was delayed for just two hours, no gains were seen in muscle size or strength Although this study is at odds with the finding that muscles are sensitised for 24 hours after training, it does draw attention to the importance of the post-exercise protein feed. Indeed, the most significant gains have been observed when protein is consumed immediately after exercise.
Studies have also been conducted on pre-exercise and intra-workout protein feeding. The evidence is mixed, and the results are ambiguous. Although there are products on the market promoting both pre-workout and intra-workout amino acid ingestion, according to the science, you’d be better off saving your money and focusing on the post-workout protein feed.
A typical pattern
Traditional feeding patterns of the average citizen are far from optimal for maximising muscle growth. A typical pattern may look like this:
- Low protein breakfast (cereal, toast, for example)
- Low protein snack (cereal bar, crisps, chocolate)
- Adequate protein lunch (sandwich with poultry or fish filling)
- Low protein snack (fruit)
- Excessive protein dinner (excessive portions)
In three of those meals, MPS is not being switched on fully, if at all. At dinner, there is excess protein leading to protein oxidation, or breakdown, of the surplus protein. MPS is being maximally stimulated twice only – at lunch and dinner.
A better approach
Contrast that with an approach that maximises MPS:
- 08:00 Breakfast with 20-25g protein
- 11:00 Snack with 20-25g protein
- 14:00 Post-workout shake with 20-25g fast-digesting protein
- 16:00 Post-workout meal with 20-25g protein
- 19:00 Dinner with 20-25g protein
- 22:00 Bedtime shake or snack with 20-25g slow-digesting protein
With this feeding pattern, you would maximally stimulate MPS six times during the day versus two for the typical feeding pattern above.
Notice that we’ve spread the meals, mainly 3 hours apart. This is about as short a gap as you can allow if you want the muscle to be fully primed for another round of MPS.
Also, notice that we recommend a fast-digesting protein post-workout to ramp up MPS. But then we shorten the gap to the next meal because of the anticipated faster digestion and processing of that post-workout protein.
Finally, notice the slow-digesting protein at bedtime. This is to provide a trickle of amino acids for a sustained period when the body is most active undertaking repair. Research has shown this to be an effective strategy.
Why might you wait until 8 am for the first feed? Because the fasted period before breakfast is useful for other activities such as fasted cardio – more on that later.
What protein sources should you choose?
As mentioned earlier, leucine is a crucial amino acid for promoting MPS. It would be intuitive to think that the more leucine is in a protein, the more you stimulate MPS. But this turns out not to be the case.
Scientists looked at the MPS response to whey, casein and soy proteins, all of which have a similar leucine content. They found that whey was superior for stimulating MPS. That’s because whey is a fast-digesting protein and raises blood leucine levels more quickly and higher than the other two proteins. MPS increases in line with the level of leucine in the blood rather than the overall leucine load over several hours.
That’s not to say casein and soy don’t promote MPS; they do. They are still very much superior to a protein that has a low leucine content. It’s just that the MPS response to those proteins is not as strong as with whey.
Whey should be your choice immediately post-workout. This is the time when muscle cell permeability to amino acids is increased, and you have a ‘window of opportunity’ to drive up MPS. Avoid other slow-digesting nutrients in this post-workout shake, such as starchy carbohydrate or fat. These will slow the digestion of the protein and lower the blood leucine levels that can be achieved.
At all other times, you should consume various high-quality whole food sources of animal and plant protein. These proteins come with other health-giving nutrients and are more filling, helping to keep you feeling full and satisfied, with sustained energy. Stick to predominantly lean sources to avoid body fat accumulation.
There is one other time when you might give particular consideration to your protein choice, and that’s at bedtime. Research shows that you’ll benefit from consuming a slow-digesting protein at this time, so your body can make use of the amino acids for repair and recovery. Casein is an ideal slow-digesting protein at this time. You can buy casein powder or choose a casein-rich protein source such as 0% Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese.
Does creatine help you to build muscle?
Creatine is an important supplement to help you build muscle. Creatine does not stimulate MPS, but it does help in other ways.
- First, creatine is a vital component of the energy pathway most used in heavy resistance training, helping to provide energy for the most fast-acting and powerful fibres. A lot of research has confirmed that creatine boosts performance in most people. It’ll help you get more reps in your lifting, for example.
- Creatine also increases cell hydration. Cell hydration is better for promoting the accumulation of muscle tissue and the breakdown of fat. Cell dehydration will do the opposite and tend to lead to muscle break down and fat accumulation.
- Finally, creatine improves the testosterone and growth hormone response to weight lifting.
Not everyone responds to creatine. This is thought to be due to naturally diverse levels of creatine in different people. If your creatine levels are already saturated due to genetic or dietary factors, you may not respond to creatine. Creatine is far more abundant in animal proteins so, if you’re a vegetarian, you may respond well to creatine.
The best time to take creatine is immediately post-workout, when you can take advantage of increased cell permeability in that window of opportunity.
How much carbohydrate should you have?
If you’ve read that you can build muscle and strip body fat on a keto diet, then be aware that the science does not back this idea. Research consistently shows that a higher carb diet leads to many benefits for sports and body composition change.
Carbohydrate doesn’t stimulate MPS itself, but it does have a role in supporting better muscle growth:
- Carbs stimulate insulin secretion, which, in turn, suppresses MPB. If you can suppress MPB but keep stimulating MPS, then the net effect is going to be more muscle growth. So, you can think of carbs as being anabolic in that sense.
- Carbs replace your carbohydrate stores – glycogen – so that you have the fuel to exercise. Resistance exercise can deplete your muscle glycogen by up to 40%, so taking in carbs post-workout will help immediately to negate the issues caused by lowered muscle glycogen. Carbs will reduce your sense of fatigue and increase the intensity with which you can lift in your next workout. That’s going to be good for your overall progress.
- Another benefit of replenishing muscle glycogen stores is to improve the energy status of your muscle cells. A reduced energy status will impair MPS, so you will benefit your overall muscle growth by keeping glycogen topped up.
- Carbs can also increase amino acid availability and reduce exercise-induced cortisol, preventing any suppression of MPS.
So, if you want to maximise your body composition changes, keep your carbs up.
And what about fat intake?
Dietary fat does not have a role in body composition change in the same way that protein and carbohydrate do. You’ll do better if you keep fat intake low so you can leave more room for protein and, particularly, carbohydrate. Carbohydrate sources contain a lot of health-giving nutrients, so a plentiful intake is going to help you feel well, energetic and resilient.
You need some fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, for essential fatty acids, especially omega 3, and for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. But that’s it. You don’t need fat for energy unless you’re an endurance athlete.
The World Health Organisation’s recommendation for fat intake is between 15-30%. Your best bet is to keep your fat intake on the low side of this. If you keep it at 20% during the off-season, then you have some scope to reduce it gradually to 15% leading up to competition season.
You should avoid excess saturated fat and focus on getting sufficient essential fats and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
How much overall energy do you need to build muscle?
It’s generally accepted that you need to take in more calories than you burn to gain muscle. How many more calories? That may depend on your genetic sensitivity to carbohydrates, your tendency to gain body fat, your own concerns about gaining body fat and how quickly you want to change your body composition. There’s no doubt that if you overeat, you’ll gain a lot of fat as well as muscle.
Your best bet is to start by establishing your baseline calorie burn: how many calories you burn daily at the start of your programme. From there, increase your intake above your baseline calorie burn by 250 calories. This amount should stop you from accumulating body fat but allow increases in strength and size. It also gives you some scope to increase it further if you start to plateau, which you will as your lean body mass increases.
If you consume too many calories straight away, you’ll just gain fat.
Keep it moderate and keep an eye on your weight, appearance and, if you have access to a device, your body composition. If you’re not gaining quickly enough, then take it up by another 250 calories and settle on that while observing the effects. Keep adjusting and monitoring. Take it down if you’re gaining too much fat; take it up if you’re not gaining muscle. Of course, all this assumes you are training with sufficient intensity.
Do you need a calorie surplus?
Can you build muscle without maintaining a calorie surplus? Yes, you can, but you’ll need to get everything right. You’ll need to regularly consume high-quality protein as outlined previously, keep your fat intake low and train with intensity, going to failure to stimulate MPS.
It’s even been shown that you can gain muscle while losing weight, as long as your calorie deficit is small. But note that if you’re a seasoned lifter and already at your genetic potential, then you may not be able to achieve this holy grail of body composition change.
How to figure out your macronutrient ratios
What’s your ideal ratio of protein, carbohydrate and fat?
We’ve already provided all the information you need to work it out. Here are the steps:
Step 1: Decide your calorie intake
First, figure out your daily calorie burn. This is a lot easier if you have an activity tracker. If you want to lose weight, maintain an intake of around 500 calories below your daily burn. Any more than that, and you risk losing muscle. If you want to gain muscle, start with 250 calories above your daily burn and adjust depending on the effect of that initial calorie level. If you’re going to stay the same weight, you can still gain muscle and lose some fat, albeit more slowly. Set your intake equal to your daily burn.
Step2: Set your protein intake
Start by deciding how many meals a day you can fit in. In the previous example, we imagined six feeds. Aim to consume 20-25g of protein per feed. For clarity in this example, we’ll set it at 25g of protein per feed. So, with six feeds, each of 25g protein, you’ll get a total of 150g of protein. Note that this is independent of your calorie intake.
Step 3: Set your fat intake
In the offseason, set your calories from fat at 20%. If you were on a diet with a total of 2700 calories, you’d be consuming 540 calories from fat which, at nine calories per g, is 60g of fat.
As you approach competition season and want to get leaner, you can gradually reduce your fat intake from 20% to 15%. That will take your fat intake down to 45g.
Step 4: The rest is carbohydrate
Finally, consume the rest of your calorie allowance in carbohydrate. So far, in this example, we have 150g of protein taking up 600 calories, and we have 540 calories from fat. If we assume an energy intake of 2700 calories, that leaves 1560 calories for carbohydrate, or 390g.
So, in the example, the macronutrient ratios we have constructed are:
- 20% from fat
- 22% from protein
- 58% from carbohydrate
If you want to gain weight or lose weight, your primary variable is carbohydrate. When you’re losing weight, you can reduce dietary fat slightly as suggested, saving you 135 calories, but the rest of the deficit will come from carbohydrate. If you want to consume more protein as you lose weight, that will help you maintain muscle, but it will require you to cut even more carbs.
When you want to gain weight, don’t be tempted to increase your energy intake by consuming more fat – you will just add body fat. And it’s unnecessary to consume more protein. Instead, increase the carbohydrate.
Important training considerations
It might seem odd to have a section on training in the middle of an article on nutrition. But training is crucial if you want to gain muscle. And the combination of training and nutrition is a potent influence on MPS.
There are some critical aspects of training to bear in mind:
- Full muscle fibre recruitment sensitises your muscles to protein feeding. That means you need to train to complete muscle fatigue, use a full range of motion and a tempo that will maximise mechanical force on the fibres.
- Heavy and brief is better for stimulating MPS. If you train for too long and your training volume is too great, the metabolic stress can suppress MPS.
- Consistency is key. You have a limited time when the muscle builds back bigger and stronger to train it again and see further gains. Leave it too long, and you’ll lose your gains. Train it too early before it has recovered, and you’ll lose strength. Hit your muscles regularly with a few days between and be consistent, training the muscle week after week.
Steady-state cardio will inhibit MPS. This poses a problem because steady cardio is an excellent tool for getting rid of calories and body fat. If you’re getting ready for competition, it’s a must-do activity. Why not do HIIT instead? Because HIIT induces central fatigue of the nervous system. On top of regular weight training workouts, this is too much stress for the nervous system; you’ll find yourself lacking energy and oomph.
So, what’s the best strategy? If you do your cardio right after weight training, you’ll inhibit MPS. That’s precisely what you don’t want. If you’re training with weights almost daily and doing cardio almost daily, then the best thing to do is leave as big a gap as possible after your weights workout. Your best bet is to perform a weights workout late morning or lunchtime and then do your cardio fasted the next morning. That way, you’ll get around 18 hours of MPS and recovery before your cardio inhibits it.
Preparing for competition
In terms of body composition, competition readiness is similar in many sports.
My sport is bodybuilding. The aim is to get as lean as possible while remaining as muscular as possible. It’s not dissimilar in other sports. In general, the objective is to maximise power to weight ratio, which means being as strong as possible while being as light as possible. It’s more or less the same; lose the fat, keep the muscle.
Assume you’re going to need to lose weight from your off-season body. That means being in a calorie deficit. Here are some guidelines for best results
- Keep your calorie deficit moderate; no more than 500 calories a day. You’ll need to start in good time, so work out how long it will take. Then add a few more weeks because your weight loss will slow as you approach your target weight.
- Keep fat at 20% in the off-season and gradually reduce it to 15% as you proceed through weight loss.
- Consume 20-25g of high-quality protein at intervals throughout every day. Be consistent.
- If you’re losing weight at a sensible rate, you shouldn’t need to change your protein intake. But if you have to lose it faster, you can take your protein up to as much as 35% to protect your muscle.
- Keep carbohydrate as high as you can to maintain training intensity and reduce MPB. But use carbs as your primary variable to adjust your overall calorie intake.
- To maintain muscle, keep training intensely. Don’t take your weights down and do more volume unless that is specific to your sport. As long as you maintain your strength with safe form, keep the sessions heavy, hard and brief.
There’s a misconception that the total amount of dietary protein is the crucial determinant of your success in building muscle. Athletes will often consume huge amounts of protein in the belief that more is better.
But science has shown that little and often is the best way to build muscle. You can maximise muscle protein synthesis with a relatively small intake of around 20-25g of protein.
If you follow a typical Western eating pattern, you’ll be missing opportunities to build muscle tissue. You’ll hugely improve your muscle-building efforts if you consume several feeds a day, each with a moderate amount of protein.
You’ll also do better and achieve better overall health if you keep your carbohydrate intake high and your fat relatively low.
It requires a little practice to adjust your eating patterns to maximise MPS. But once you’ve built the routine and habits, eating to build muscle becomes second nature.
Do you want to build muscle? Then follow the guidance in this article, get the basics right and reap the rewards.