Eat to Gain Muscle-The Role Food Plays in Strength Training
Building muscle—both increasing strength and hypertrophy—requires more than just lifting weights and working out.
The truth is that any type of body composition change, like losing fat or gaining muscle, depends as much, if not more so, on diet as it does on a regular workout routine.
Your clients looking to bulk up or just get stronger muscles or lean muscles may be gung-ho to get in the gym and lift, and that’s great.
But make sure those dedicated clients are focusing just as much on what they eat. Educate them about macronutrients, calorie intake, and specific foods to choose and to avoid.
Muscle gains happen slowly, but with the right diet, your clients will hit strength goals sooner.
How Knowing What to Eat to Gain Muscle Leads to Better Results
If you’re trying to get muscles that are bigger and stronger, working out is key. Strength training breaks down muscle tissue. During recovery that tissue rebuilds stronger and bigger.
But, your body can’t create that new muscle tissue out of nothing. To make gains you have to have the right nutrients in your body to construct muscle.
This means that what you eat, and how much, is essential in making muscle gains. Lifting and doing strength training without adequate nutrition, especially without enough protein, can actually lead to loss of muscle tissue.
Furthermore, if you aren’t eating right you won’t have the energy to do the workouts that lead to muscle gain.
To make the most gains in muscle mass and strength you need:
- Enough calories total, each day,
- And adequate protein to actually rebuild more muscle tissue.
If you eat a lot of protein but not enough overall calories, you’ll struggle to be able to workout to build more muscle.
If you eat enough calories but too much junk and not enough protein, your body won’t be able to build up muscle tissue and will gain fat instead.
How Much to Eat When Building Muscle
When building muscle, your body needs more fuel than when it’s maintaining body composition. This can be a difficult concept for some clients to grasp. They may resist, especially those worried about gaining fat or weighing more.
Help them understand that the extra calories will go into muscle development, not fat, as long as they are working out in the right way.
Exactly how many calories an individual needs per day when working out and gaining muscle varies. You’ll need to look at each client separately to recommend calorie intake during a muscle-building period, but generally, adding 20 to 30 grams of added protein per day is a good rule.
Protein—The Dietary Building Block for Muscle Growth
To be fit and healthy during any kind of workout plan, your clients should be eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. But, to focus on muscle gains, getting adequate protein is most important.
Muscle tissue is made up largely of proteins, which is why this macronutrient is essential. Very few people in the U.S. have a hard time getting enough protein in their diet.
This is because the typical western diet is rich in protein. Also, protein turnover in the body is pretty slow for sedentary individuals.
For active people, especially those looking to add muscle mass, it is important to look closely at actual protein intake and make adjustments if necessary. Here are some general guidelines from research and sports science and nutrition organizations:
- For sedentary individuals, about 0.81 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass is enough. That means a 150-pound person would eat about 55.5 grams of protein per day.
- The American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics both recommend 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of mass for active individuals. This translates to 95 to 136 grams of protein daily for someone who weighs 150 pounds.
- A recent study that analyzed 49 other studies determined that the ideal amount of protein per day for gaining muscle is 1.6 grams per kilogram of body mass. For the 150-pound client, this is 109 grams of protein per day. (1)
For a more detailed discussion of protein needs check out this ISSA blog post.
Don’t Forget Carbohydrates
While focusing on protein intake, it can be easy to overlook the other macronutrients. A balance is important, and carbohydrates are especially necessary for fueling the tough workouts that help build muscle.
The body will struggle to absorb more than 35 grams in one sitting, so every meal and snack should include protein along with carbs and a little bit of fat.
Fat is important but it’s not as necessary to track. If you are eating enough protein and carbs, you likely have adequate fat in your diet. Plus, fat is easier to store in the body, so it’s hard to be deficient.
Choosing Foods for Muscle Gain
Help your clients fuel their muscle gains with the right foods. They’ll need lean proteins, foods that are high in protein as well as micronutrients, and complex carbohydrates.
15 of the Best Protein-Rich Foods and Complex Carbs
Choose high-quality protein-rich foods, those that also contain other nutrients. It’s also important to eat a variety of protein sources:
- Eggs. One egg has about six grams of protein along with healthy fats and B vitamins.
- Chicken. Choose chicken breast for a lean source of protein, about 26 grams per three ounces.
- Lean beef. Beef is a good protein choice as long as you stick with lean cuts. In addition to protein, it contains creatine, known to improve athletic performance and have other health benefits.
- Cottage cheese. Depending on the type, cottage cheese can have as much as 25 grams of protein per serving, plus calcium.
- Salmon. This fatty fish is rich in both protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which may contribute to muscle growth.
- Beans. Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and other varieties are a great lean protein source with 15 grams per cup. They also contain a lot of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Tofu. Made from soybeans, tofu is an important source of protein for vegetarians and vegans and is also rich in calcium.
- Tempeh. This fermented soybean product is less processed than tofu and so retains more micronutrient while also providing vegan protein.
Check out this ISSA post on plant-based proteins to help guide your vegetarian and vegan clients.
- Greek yogurt. Yogurt is a great snack and smoothie ingredient, but choose Greek yogurt for more protein.
- Tuna. This is an easy protein to reach for as part of a meal or snack. It offers a lot of vitamins and 20 grams of protein in three ounces.
- Protein powders. While whole foods are always best, protein powders can be a good way to add in extra grams per day. Whey-based powder is a great choice, as is pea protein powder for vegans.
- Quinoa. This ancient grain contains about eight grams of protein per cup as well as 40 grams of complex carbs.
- Brown rice. Brown rice has not been refined like white rice, so it contains more nutrients and protein.
- Peanuts. This nut-like legume has 17 grams of protein in a half-cup.
- Nuts and seeds. Add a variety of nuts and seeds, including almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and others, for protein, carbs, and micronutrients.
Knowing What to Eat to Gain Muscle Also Means Avoiding Junk
When trying to build muscle and not add fat, getting the right balance of nutrients and calories is essential. Your clients will have little room for so-called empty calories. In other words, they need to avoid junk food.
In addition to the protein-rich foods and complex carbs, like brown rice and quinoa, have your clients fill out the rest of the day’s calories with mostly vegetables. Some fruit is good too, especially before a workout. The kinds of foods that won’t help with muscle gain and that should be avoided include:
- Alcohol. These are truly empty calories with almost no nutritional value. Also, drinking can make it hard to work out the next day.
- Added sugars. Natural sugars from fruits and vegetables help fuel workouts. Added sugars in processed foods only promote fat gains.
- Fried and processed foods. These kinds of junk foods may have protein, but the fats and additives can increase inflammation and support putting on fat, not muscle.
Gaining muscle is a long-term goal. If you have clients interested in putting on muscle, help them get there more efficiently and effectively with a great workout plan and a healthy, protein-rich diet.
Interested in nutrition and coaching? Check out the ISSA’s course for Nutrition.
1. Morton, R.W., Murphy, K.T., McKellar, S.R., Schoenfeld, B.J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., Aragon, A.A., Devries, M.C., Banfield, L., Krieger, J.W., and Phillips, S.M. (2018). British Journal of Sports Medicine. 52(6), 376-84. Retrieved from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/6/376
Clients often need a fusion of both nutrition and exercise programming in order to achieve the results they desire. Whether your client wants to gain muscle, lose fat, or live healthily, their limiting factor usually lies beyond their exercise training program. Poor nutrition is what holds clients back. Good nutrition will feed muscle and shed fat. It's what will improve nearly every measurable health marker. Good nutrition is what will get your clients the bodies they never thought they could have.
Please note: The information provided in this course is for general educational purposes only. The material is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider regarding particular medical conditions and needs. Be sure to check the statutes in your state regarding the nutrition information that non-licensed individuals are able to dispense.