Imperfect eating habits and illogical workouts which cause an energy deficit will obstruct progress and translate to disappointing gains or sometimes no gains at all. If your goal is to bulk up this winter or pack on the muscle mass for next year then the nutrition advice below will help get you on the right track. After all, the work you do in the gym is wasted if you are putting the wrong fuel in the tank.
When you think of a diet which will help increase muscle gains, there is one word which will enter your mind first. Protein. While protein is essential if you want to increase muscle strength and size, your body also needs all of the other macro and micronutrients as well and you shouldn’t neglect these in a bid to stock up on protein. As you are training at high intensity in a bid to build muscle, your requirements for all nutrients will rise.
For the general person, a protein consumption of 0.8-1g per kg of body weight is usually sufficient. Anything above 1.35g per kg body weight arguably has no further effect on muscle mass gains, although it is acknowledged that athletes looking to bulk up or perform high levels of activity may actually need between 2-3g protein per kg body weight (intakes this high should be accompanied by a minimum of 35ml of fluid per kg body weight). You do not need excessive amounts of any nutrient because it will lead to weight gain in a negative way (ie you will pile on pounds of fat). It only takes a few extra calories above maintenance to ensure you are in positive energy balance and promote lean muscle growth. Eating a ridiculous amount of food or doubling your calorie intake will help you gain weight, but it will also make it increasingly difficult for you to strip back the layers of fat and show off the muscular physique you are working hard to achieve. If solid muscle mass gains are what you aim for then your ab definition needs to be visible. If it isn’t, you need to cut back on calorie intake.
Advice varies depending on research, but a diet which is 50-55% carbohydrate, 25-30% protein and 20-25% fat appears to be optimal for body building. You need to eat frequently (every 2-3 hours) throughout the day in order to maximise recovery and encourage rapid muscle growth. Each meal needs to contain protein and carbohydrate, ideally in line with the percentages stated above.
Your pre-workout meal should be consumed 1-1 ½ hours prior to training. It should consist of protein and a few low-glycaemic carbohydrates that won’t cause an insulin surge. If you choose a high-fat snack like peanut butter (which helps slow digestion and prevent carbohydrate ingestion from causing peaks and crashes in energy during the workout) then you may want to allow a little more time so that digestion will be in full swing by training time. If you eat a meal right before you train, you will feel lethargic and unable to sustain a muscle pump. This happens because blood is directed to the digestive system leaving less for your working muscles.
Post-workout feeding should be within 30 minutes after you finish training, ideally as soon as possible. Your body is primed for supercompensation following your workout as you will have created a nutrient deficit as well as muscle fibre damage. If you eat after this time, you have missed an important anabolic window of opportunity. A high protein, high-glycaemic carbohydrate meal is ideal post-workout as it will shunt glycogen and nutrients into the depleted muscle cells at a rapid rate.
Your food choices should be on a par with any complete healthy diet, with only the percentage of macronutrients being adapted according to your training goals. Below are a few food choices which are beneficial to lean muscle gains:
Eggs – The protein in eggs has the highest protein efficiency ratio of any source. It also has a very high biological value (how readily absorbable it is) second only to whey protein.
Beef – As well as being a source of protein, beef also contains high levels of zinc and iron both of which are crucial to muscle growth and repair. It also contains traces of creatine which is the power house energy supply you need to pump iron.
Almonds – These nuts are a great source of polyunsaturated fats but they also contain high levels of vitamin E which is linked with reducing free radical damage post-workout.
Quinoa – This is a great alternative to rice, oats or wheat as it is actually a seed and not a grain. Quinoa is a complete protein containing all of the essential amino acids as well as boosting your carbohydrate intake making it an ideal side to any meal.
Olive Oil – No, this is not to oil up your pecs and do some flexing in the mirror. The monounsaturated fat in olive oil is great for the body builder in order to support nutrient uptake, immunity and skeletal strength as you gain weight. It has also been associated with having anti-catabolic properties which help to prevent muscle breakdown.
Water – It is vital for chemical processes in the body and makes up a large portion of your muscle. Water is so important and even being slightly dehydrated can hinder your training. So while you may look more shredded if you are dehydrated, you will not be in for a very effective workout if you head to the gym in that state.
It is difficult for anyone trying to achieve muscle mass gains to consume sufficient nutrients in terms of quantity and quality of food. This is where supplements come into play. There are a number of various supplement choices you can make in order to maximise and speed up progression rate.
A mass gainer or all in one supplement is a good place to start. They are a nutrient-rich alternative to a meal which makes it easier to ingest the nutrients you require every 2-3 hours without having to actually sit down and try to eat something when you feel quite full from your last meal. Shakes are also a great alternative when you are on the go. In order to be eating every 2-3 hours you need to consume more nutrients between each of the standard breakfast, lunch and dinner meals and time your eating habits to accommodate your pre and post-workout meals.
Whey protein supplements are the most popular supplement on the market and they are ideal for pre and post-workout shakes. What is equally important to those trying to build muscle is to maintain high levels of protein during sleep in order to prevent muscle catabolism. Casein protein is a slow digesting protein source which produces a stable elevation of amino acids that lasts up to 7 hours after ingestion. You can also use casein protein if for some reason you will have to miss the next meal in 2-3 hours time.
Nitric oxide (NO) based pre-workout formulas provide a physical and mental boost enabling you to train harder and for longer to achieve your dream physique. NO is an important cellular signalling molecule and powerful vasodilator which increases blood flow to the muscles and gives you that ‘pumped’ feeling. Pre-workout formulas also usually contain creatine and caffeine. Caffeine encourages physical alertness and creatine is the necessary energy source required for power exercises.
Other supplements which are useful to those building muscle mass include ZMA, branched chain amino acids and multivitamins.
Llewellyn W, Sport Supplement Reference Guide, 2009.
Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA, Protein Requirements and Muscle Mass/Strength Changes During Intensive Training in Novice Bodybuilders, Journal of Applied Physiology, 1992, 73(2):767-75.
Lambert CP, Frank LL, Evans WJ, Macronutrient Considerations for the Sport of Bodybuilding, Sports Medicine, 2004, 34(5):317-27.