Muscle-building nutrition can be overwhelming at first. How much should you eat? What foods are considered “clean”? Why are paleo and vegetarian women both healthier than average despite having seemingly contradictory dietary restrictions? What supplements should you be taking? When should you be taking them? Do you even need supplements at all?
Luckily, nutrition can also be pretty simple if you focus on the fundamentals. There are just two factors that make the difference between gaining nothing or gaining half a pound of muscle over the course of the next week. But there are hundreds of things that make the oh-so-small difference between gaining 0.50 or 0.55 pounds of muscle. If you focus on the hundreds of small details you risk struggling very hard for progress that your scale won’t even notice.
This article is designed to help you go from gaining nothing each week to gaining half a pound each week. Keep in mind that building muscle becomes harder and harder as you become more and more advanced, so we recommend learning everything eventually, but there’s plenty of time for that later—once you’re already building muscle!
So. What are those two important factors? And how can you use them to consistently gain weight on the scale, get stronger, and build lean muscle?
Right now you just need to worry about those two important factors: calories and protein.
Why is protein important? Weightlifting will get your body trying to build muscle, getting into a calorie surplus will give you enough energy to gain weight, and consuming enough protein will give your body the building blocks that it needs to construct new muscle tissue. (Muscle is made out of protein.) This is the trifecta of muscle growth: lift enough weight, eat enough calories, and eat enough protein.
How much protein? There are some experimental new studies showing a potential muscle-building benefit to consuming as much as 1.5 grams per pound bodyweight (3.3 grams per kilo), but most research shows that muscle is built optimally with around .8 grams 1 gram per pound of projected lean body mass (1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilo). Probably more than you eat right now, but actually a pretty modest protein intake compared to what most fitness models eat.
Keep in mind that this is how much protein it takes to build muscle. Muscle doesn’t take much protein to maintain, and in addition to that, over time we become better at digesting and using protein. This is why you’ll sometimes see very muscular people eating far less protein than this. This means that in the future you can reduce your protein intake by quite a bit as well.
However, right now you’re going to be building muscle at a rapid pace while also being rather inefficient at turning that protein into muscle mass. So I would try to stay above that gram per pound.
What are good protein sources? There are lots of great protein sources: chicken, fish, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, eggs, beans, peas, red meat, grains, soy, etc. This makes eating enough protein pretty easy if your diet has no restrictions. If your diet does have restrictions though, or eating enough protein is still a struggle, we’d recommend getting some protein powder.
Whey protein is cheaper than chicken, fantastic for building muscle, and quite nutritious. However, there are many great types of protein powders. For example, pea + rice protein powder is great for people who have problems with dairy or prefer avoiding animal products.
Is this healthy? Absolutely! Diets higher in protein are just as healthy as diets that are lower in protein. The only difference is that a diet higher in protein supports a more athletic physique, whereas a diet higher in fruits, grains, veggies and healthy fats supports a more sedentary physique. Even vegan athletes and lifters eat plenty of protein.
Does it matter how I divide up my protein intake? Hitting your overall daily protein goal is the most important thing, but splitting up your protein intake somewhat evenly over the course of the day can help too in regards to being easier to hit the goal as well as sustain.
Having 30+ grams with breakfast, lunch and dinner is pretty great. If you weigh, say, 130 pounds, then that could be 30 grams with breakfast + 30 grams with lunch + 40 grams with dinner + a whey protein shake as a snack. That would give you 130 grams total. That’s a pretty normal way to take in enough protein to grow.
If you have fewer than three meals… consider eating more meals! When trying to build muscle it’s very important that you don’t accidentally skip meals (or deliberately start intermittent fasting). Not only will that make it harder to hit your calorie/protein goals for the day, but it will also mean that your body will spend less time being in “muscle-building mode.”
It’s a myth that you need to eat every three hours to stoke your metabolic fire, but it is much easier to hit your calorie goal and protein goal especially as someone who has struggled to gain weight by adding meal frequency.
We will cover the other half of this topic in a later post so stay tuned.
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