When it comes to nutrition for muscle gain, most athletes’ minds go straight to protein. Though protein is essential for muscle gain, there are some other things to consider.
This article covers the three key ingredients for muscle gain, plus how to use nutrition to maximize your strength training.
Training. Unfortunately, you can’t build muscle through nutrition alone. To build your muscles, you have to work your muscles.
Adequate energy. It’s very difficult to build muscle if you’re not consuming enough energy — also known as calories.
Adequate protein. One of protein’s main functions is to build and repair muscle.
Assuming you’re incorporating strength training in your exercise routine, let’s talk more in depth about the nutrition-related ingredients for muscle gain.
Athletes' energy needs are extremely high. They vary based on a number of different factors, including height, weight, muscle mass, and more.
Enough energy — or calories — are needed to support basic body functions, regular daily activities, and high amounts of exercise. Additionally, youth athletes need significantly more energy for proper growth and development.
If you’re not getting enough calories from food to support your extremely active lifestyle, your body will begin dipping into stored energy — this includes energy from fat and muscle protein.
In other words, if you’re not meeting your daily calorie needs, your body will pull from your muscles for energy. When the calorie deficit is extreme, it can lead to significant losses in muscle mass.
To help meet your daily calorie needs, avoid skipping meals. Each meal and snack is an opportunity to fuel your body and skipping a meal or snack makes it much harder to hit those high energy targets.
Instead, eat regularly throughout the day. This looks like 5-6 eating periods per day — or eating breakfast, a morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner, and an optional nighttime snack.
Protein is the main nutrient involved in muscle building. It’s also involved in muscle repair after a workout and almost all regular body functions.
While protein needs vary, most athletes need between .5-1 gram of protein per pound per day. For example, the average 120lb athlete would need between 60-120 grams of protein per day.
Studies suggest that spreading your protein out throughout the day can help with muscle maintenance. This also helps ensure you’re hitting your total daily targets. As a rule of thumb, aim for a protein-rich food at each main meal and most snacks — especially your post-workout snacks.
Here are some examples of protein sources and how many grams of protein they contain per portion:
Meat, fish, and poultry. These animal based foods are packed with protein with around 20 grams of protein per 3 ounces. Visually, this is about the size of a deck of cards
Eggs. An egg contains roughly 7 grams of protein.
Greek yogurt. Though it depends on the brand, Greek yogurt contains around 15 grams of protein per single-serve container.
Nuts and seeds. One ounce — or a small handful — of nuts or seeds contain around 6 grams of protein.
Beans and legumes. A cup of beans or legumes contains around 15 grams of protein. Visually, one cup is about the size of a baseball.
Most athletes meet their daily protein needs with no issue. In fact, many athletes far exceed their daily protein needs. Keep in mind, the “more is better” approach is not effective when it comes to muscle building. If you’re surpassing your daily protein needs, it will not necessarily lead to bigger muscles — your muscles can only utilize so much protein per day.
Additionally, overconsuming protein can lead to underconsumption of other important nutrients. When building your plate, aim for ~¼ of the plate as a nutritious, protein-rich food. For a refresher on how to build properly balanced performance plates, revisit the article Nutrition Foundations for Winter Athlete Performance.
There are three key ingredients to building muscle: resistance training, adequate energy (i.e. calories), and adequate protein.
As athletes' energy needs are very high, it’s important to eat regularly throughout the day and avoid skipping meals. When it comes to protein, aim to fill ¼ of your plate with a nutritious protein source at each meal. Also include a protein source at snacks when you can — especially your post-workout snacks.