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By: Paul Hovan Jr.
When your goal is to build muscle, protein is key. That’s why a muscle building diet often includes foods high in this macronutrient. Eating cottage cheese, egg whites, and Greek yogurt are often recommended to help clients increase protein intake.
If clients engage in strenuous exercise, adding a protein powder shake after their workout can help muscle fibers recover and repair. The ISSA’s Guide to Protein reveals that whey protein isolate is one of the best for this purpose. Protein powder is also beneficial to those on a plant-based diet.
But building muscle isn’t just about eating more protein or consuming only high-quality protein sources. There are other factors to consider as well. This is where it is common for confusion to set in.
Part of this confusion is because many health experts seem to have different ideas of how to best support lean muscle gain. In some cases, one person’s advice on how to build lean muscle contradicts another. How do you begin to decide what works and what doesn’t?
Whether you want to create a diet that helps build muscle, aids in fat loss, or both, it’s important to go back to the basics. Sometimes we need to rewind, to reconnect with the principles learned from day one. Especially is someone wants to build muscle and nutrition wasn’t originally in their plan.
Yes, new advances in science may change some of the advice we give clients over the years. But the foundation of that advice will largely remain the same.
Of course, each client is different and you must always pay attention to individual needs and desires. That said, there are a few simple, time-tested pieces of advice to consider. This advice has been proven by science, as well as by trainers who have witnessed it help clients reach their muscle building and nutrition goals.
Most dietary advice revolves around helping people lose weight. Not just any kind of weight, but body fat specifically. Getting rid of excess body fat enables you to better see the toned muscles underneath. A lower body fat percentage also makes it easier to engage in a muscle building exercise routine.
Fat loss requires eating fewer calories than you spend each day. On the other hand, to gain muscle mass you need to consume more calories than you use. These additional calories help regrow damaged muscle tissue after a tough workout session.
If your client is not meeting their caloric needs for growth and repair, they will not get bigger, stronger muscles. What do you say when a client asks how many extra calories should they consume to help them gain muscle without also gaining fat?
The bad news is that there is not a definite, one-size-fits-all answer. Everyone is different, from their genetics to their metabolic rate and current muscle mass.
The general rule is that consuming an excess of at least 2,500 calories per week can help increase lean tissue by one pound of gained mass. This number is derived from several published studies, but it is generalized for the ‘average exerciser.’
For muscle hypertrophy, your client may need even more excess calories. One study says an extra 44 to 50 calories per kilogram of body weight is a good target.
Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are key! Muscle tissue is made up of mostly protein and amino acids, so the extra calories could come from protein. They can also come from healthy fat or carbohydrates, assuming that protein macros have been met.
Fat has gotten a bad rap, but there are many types of fat. Some types of fat do have the ability to harm your health. Other fats can actually make you healthier. Fats that fall into this latter category are unsaturated fats.
Harvard University explains that unsaturated fat helps with proper brain and nervous system function. Eating healthy fat also helps bolster immunity and aids in heart rhythm and blood flow. All these factors can affect your workout, making fat important to a healthy muscle building diet.
Carbs play a role in muscle growth as well. Your body needs enough energy to sustain a workout that results in muscle gain. This energy comes from your glycogen stores. Carbs are the primary source of glycogen to the body.
Like with fat, some carbohydrates can help enhance your health and some carbohydrates can detract from it. The best carbs are those that are closest to their natural form. This includes:
fruit (apples, bananas, pears)
vegetables (leafy greens, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage)
whole grains (barley, oats, quinoa)
Carbs to avoid—or at least limit—include the more processed versions. This includes baked goods, chips, and crackers. These items contain higher amounts of salt and sugar while also lowering their nutritional value during the manufacturing process.
Also helpful when trying to build muscle is leucine. A branched-chain amino acid, leucine is known as the anabolic trigger for muscle protein synthesis. Put simply, it is “the light switch that turns on muscle growth.”
The problem with this is that research has found that our levels of leucine decrease after engaging in exercise. What can you do to increase your levels of leucine, therefore increasing your muscle mass?
Because it is an essential amino acid, your body cannot just make more leucine. But you can find it in a number of food sources. Leucine-rich foods include chicken legs, skirt steak, pork chops, and tuna. You can also find a fair amount of leucine in firm tofu, canned navy beans, milk, low-fat ricotta, squash and pumpkin seeds, and eggs.
In addition to containing leucine, these foods also contain a high level of protein. This helps even more with building muscle. For instance, one pork chop contains about 22 grams of protein according to the USDA. Grade A large egg supply roughly 12.4 grams of protein. This protein is found both in the egg yolks and egg whites.
Another way to increase leucine levels is to with supplementation. One study noted that power-trained athletes who supplemented with 50 mg per kilogram of body weight per day were able to prevent post-exercise leucine level decreases.
Your supplement-savvy clients may ask whether a BCAA (branched-chain amino acid) supplement will do the same thing as just leucine. The answer? An isolated leucine supplement activates anabolic pathways much more efficiently.
If the client prefers a supplement that offers multiple BCAAs, the study just mentioned found that a BCAA supplement that is 30-35 percent leucine helps decrease protein degradation and depletion of glycogen stores. It may even improve mental and physical performance.
A high quality, fast-digesting whey protein that contains leucine can help jump-start the recovery process after intense bouts of exercise. If a client has a textbook perfect diet and is still struggling while trying to figure out how to build lean muscle, it’s important to look at their workout program. Specifically, consider the intensity with which they do their resistance training routines.
As personal trainers, we know that resistance training is the Holy Grail for improving strength and building muscle mass. While research shows that for beginners, taking sets to muscular failure to achieve muscle hypertrophy isn’t necessary, if you’ve been training with weights for at least a year, other studies have found the opposite.
You can’t go to the gym, perform a few exercises with 50 percent effort, and expect mega muscle gain. When it comes to trained individuals, you will see greater increases in muscle strength by working to muscle failure.
Muscle failure is the point at which you can no longer move a specific load beyond a sticking point. You can’t do one more rep because you have no more strength left in that muscle group.
The research can’t tell us exactly how many sets are needed to get to muscle failure because everyone is different. One to two sets per exercise is a good starting point. Any more than that and you risk overtraining.
Help your clients understand when they have reached muscle failure by focusing more on how they feel than a certain number of reps. Teach them to go until they hit that point of muscle failure, and then stop.
When teaching a client how to build muscle, it’s also important to consider volume. Progressively increasing the load and stress on the targeted muscles will lead to mass gains. This is the progressive overload principle and involves increasing the amount you lift.
You can’t keep increasing volume forever, though. Your client will reach a plateau. Additionally, if the muscles don’t get adequate recovery time, this can result in lost muscle mass. Make sure your client doesn’t overdo it and makes time for recovery.
Recovery can come in the form of an extra day of rest per week, deep tissue massage, sauna, cryotherapy, additional calories to aid in the rebuilding of damaged muscle tissue, de-load weeks, and other avenues that explore rest/recovery from sports performance.
Help clients develop a training program to meet their muscle building and nutrition goals with ISSA's Personal Training Certification course. This program teaches students about anatomy and how the body responds to various types of exercise. You also learn how to create a workout program that helps clients meet their goals safely and effectively..
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