The three cornerstones of building muscle are training, rest, and diet. And genetics, of course. However, you can’t do much about those. Let’s ignore genetics and focus on what you can improve, mainly eating for muscle growth.
Everyone likes to eat. This article is about what you should eat to give your muscles what they need to grow bigger and stronger. Let’s assume that you already follow a good training program tailored to your individual needs and that you get enough high-quality sleep and recovery from your workouts. What are the best foods, and how much should you put into your mouth to ensure massive muscle gain? Read on!
Strength Training + Enough Food = Muscle Growth
Strength training makes you bigger and stronger. You start complicated signaling mechanisms in your muscle cells when you lift weights. These signals tell your body to start building muscle mass. After every workout, your muscle protein synthesis increases to the point where it exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Over time, this translates into a noticeably larger muscle mass and improved muscle strength.
While your training makes your muscles bigger, it can’t do so on its own. You can’t build muscle from thin air. If you don’t provide enough energy and nutrients from your food, your efforts will be for naught.
You might have come across claims that the result of your efforts in the gym is 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. That is, of course, nonsense, at least if we’re talking about building muscle. Your diet is the most critical factor if you are trying to lose weight and body fat. In that case, changing your diet, as in eating less, is much more effective than trying to lose weight through exercise alone. However, you’ll gain muscle as long as you train hard, even if your diet is so-so, as long as you eat enough.
What you can’t do is eat yourself to a muscular physique without putting in the effort in the gym.
Forgaining muscle mass, your training is the most crucial factor, at least of the ones you can control. Diet plays a significant role, but the most important thing is eating enough. As long as your diet is reasonably well put together, details like grams and minutes play a minor role.
Fortunately, things aren’t as complicated as they might seem at first glance. There are only a few essential things to keep in mind that will make or break your progress. For the most part, details are just that: details. Minor details that you don’t need to micro-manage, at least not until you have reached advanced levels in your training.
Eating for Muscle Growth: Calories and Protein
Calories and protein: the two most important dietary factors if you want to gain muscle. Everything else pales in comparison.
Why You Need to Eat Enough Calories
Protein might be the first thing that comes to mind when you rank dietary components for muscle growth. Protein is essential, but your daily calorie intake is at least as important. Your body is staunchly against adding muscle mass during an energy deficit. You can trick it by training hard and timing your protein intake correctly. However, there is little doubt that a caloric surplus, or at least a balance between the calories you eat and the calories you expend, provides a superior potential to add muscle. All the anabolic processes in your body improve with plentiful access to energy. In addition, you perform better in the gym if you have enough energy to fuel your workouts.
More than 100 years ago, scientists demonstrated that athletes could increase their strength and muscle mass with a relatively low protein intake as long as they ate enough calories.1
Following a workout, your body adds muscle faster than usual for around 24 hours. 2 3 4 That increase is not dependent on calories. Instead, all that’s required to build muscle after a workout is amino acids, the building blocks for muscle growth you get from eating protein.
But wait! I thought you said calorie intake was crucial for building muscle? It is. You constantly synthesize new muscle protein, 24/7, day in and day out, around the clock, whether you train or not. When you reach adulthood, you build and break down similar amounts of muscle tissue, as long as your body weight is stable.
This basal muscle protein synthesis depends at least as much on your calorie intake as your protein intake. If you eat too little, you build less muscle throughout the day. Even a moderate energy deficit reduces your muscle protein synthesis in as little as ten days.5 In other words, even if it is possible to gain muscle mass during an energy deficit, you want to eat at least as many calories as you expend to optimize your potential for muscle growth.
A Big Energy Surplus is More Suited for Beginners
Eating many more calories than you burn might be a great option if you are naturally skinny and new to resistance training. Doing so gives you the best possible conditions for adding muscle. If you are thin with naturally low body fat levels, overfeeding this way adds primarily fat-free mass, not fat, even without weight training. If you add weight training to the equation, you create a powerfully anabolic environment for your muscles to grow.
Of course, you can’t continue to overeat a lot forever. Your body can’t grow at an unlimited rate. There is a limit to how much muscle protein your body can synthesize per day, week, or whatever measuring period you use. The longer you have trained and the more muscle mass you have already acquired, the lower that limit is. As a beginner with decent genes, you can add a pound of muscle, or more, per month. If you are already an advanced athlete with plenty of muscle mass, adding that amount in a year is a reason to celebrate.
Because you can’t add muscle very fast after years of training, there is no reason for a massive energy surplus. The only thing synthesized under such conditions is excess body fat.
It’s not always easy to guesstimate how many total calories you need. Some methods can accurately measure it, but they are elaborate, expensive, and not intended for home use.
The best way for most people is probably to let an online calculator do the work for you, as long as the calculator is accurate. Our calorie calculator is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor formula, which is one of the most reliable.6 All you have to do is enter your sex, weight, height, and age, in addition to your estimated activity level, and it will crunch the numbers for you.
Keep in mind that even though the Mifflin-St Jeor formula is considered reliable enough to use in a clinical setting, it’s still an estimate. No equation gives you an exact number from the get-go. It’s a good starting point, but be prepared to adjust it on the fly.
Eating for Muscle Growth: Protein
The protein you eat gives you the building materials you need to gain muscle. If you eat too little protein, you will have more difficulty increasing your muscle mass.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein ranges from 0.8 to 0.83 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for both men and women in the EU and the US.7 8 These recommendations ensure enough protein for good health for most people, including those who exercise. However, they aren’t optimal for building massive amounts of muscle. If you want to get bigger and stronger, eating more protein is a good idea.
Studies and meta-analyses show that you reach a limit at 1.6 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day. Adding even more protein-rich foods does not result in more muscle growth or better muscle recovery.9 You can calculate your daily protein need using our protein calculator below.
If you eat more protein than this amount, nothing terrible will happen, but don’t expect any extra muscle mass from doing so. You will still absorb and use the additional protein, but not for building muscle. Instead, your body will use it primarily for energy. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s an expensive energy source and not the most efficient.
Even More Protein: Useful for a Few
How efficiently you can utilize the protein you eat varies from person to person. That means some can use more than 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day for muscle-building purposes. We are probably talking about just a few percent of the population. Even for those genetically gifted individuals, it’s a matter of diminishing returns. However, if you want to ensure you eat enough protein to maximize your potential for muscle growth, you can aim for 2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day.10
However, the chances are that you are simply adding calories that you could have spent on better or better-tasting energy sources.
You Need More Protein During a Calorie Deficit
Everything mentioned above applies to energy balance or above. During an energy deficit, the rules change. Eating fewer calories than you take in like during weight loss, your protein requirements increase. You no longer enjoy the anabolic effects of an energy surplus. The bigger the deficit, the more protein you need to be able to maintain or increase your lean muscle mass.
During periods of calorie restriction, you might need up to 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day.11 That is just to maintain your fat-free mass. A recent review found that athletes like bodybuilders need 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram (1 to 1.4 grams per pound) of lean body mass per day while cutting.12
Of course, a calorie deficit for fat loss is not optimal for muscle growth in the first place. You can gain muscle mass and lose fat simultaneously, but it is quite a bit more challenging. You don’t have as much energy, your anabolic hormones aren’t at peak levels, and your basal muscle protein synthesis decreases. It’s still doable but takes some planning and work.
How Much Protein from a Single Meal Can Your Body Use to Build Muscle Mass?
Is there an upper limit to how much protein you can absorb or utilize for muscle-building purposes per meal? Or can you pound your daily protein intake in one meal and expect the same results?
There is no practical limit to how much you can absorb. You just won’t use all of it to build muscle. There is a limit where more protein in one sitting does not equal any further increase in muscle protein synthesis. This limit is, in fact, not that hard to reach. At rest, it is between 30 and 40 grams of protein per meal.13
Do you need less protein after working out to maximize muscle growth? Yes, probably. Your muscles become more sensitive to amino acids after strength training, which allows them to utilize the protein you provide more efficiently.
If you train a single muscle group, 20 grams of high-quality protein maximize muscle protein synthesis. If you train several muscle groups or do a whole-body workout, you get 20–25% higher muscle protein synthesis rates if you double that amount.16
To maximize the potential for muscle growth, you should, according to current recommendations, spread your protein intake out over the day and eat every third hour or so.17
However, any differences such minutiae might offer probably won’t be significant. Don’t feel that you must keep nibbling all day long to build muscle mass. It might offer some slight advantages, but won’t be the factor that determines if you gain muscle or not. If you prefer to eat fewer but larger meals, it’s not like your efforts in the gym are wasted. Even if muscle protein synthesis does not increase proportionately after a larger meal, you reduce protein breakdown more and for a longer time.18 This means that larger meals improve the balance between protein synthesis and breakdown longer.
A meta-analysis could not find any differences in body composition depending on meal frequency.19 In addition, there are many real-life examples of athletes building muscle and improving body composition using an intermittent fasting diet plan. As we said earlier, your training is the most important thing for muscle growth.
Best: a high protein intake spread out over multiple meals.
Good: a high protein intake divided into a few meals. Your total protein intake is more important than your meal frequency.
All Protein Counts
It’s easy to assume that you should only count protein from “clean” sources like lean meat, fish, poultry, protein powders, and so on to build muscle mass. That is not the case.
When you see recommendations like “two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day”, they include all the protein you eat and drink daily. This means that you should include the protein from foods you might not think of as protein sources, like bread, grains, and so on, in your total protein count. It also means that you will have a much easier time reaching your daily protein goal than you might think. For example, if you aim for 180 grams of protein per day, it is not all that hard to reach that amount if you count the protein in everything you eat, not just the pure protein sources in your diet.
Do You Need More Protein as You Get Older?
When you reach a certain age, your muscles start responding less to a protein-rich feeding. This phenomenon is called amino acid resistance. Your muscles no longer react as strongly to amino acids in your blood.20 The signals for muscle protein synthesis diminish, and you need more protein than before to elicit the same response. When this reduced response to protein feeding occurs is not clear, and it probably happens at a very individual rate. In the beginning, it’s likely not noticeable. Somewhere around the 60-year mark, maybe. A qualified guess.
Instead of the regular 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day, older individuals need 1 to 1.3 grams per kilogram daily for health and performance.21 However, nothing indicates that older athletes who engage in strength training need a higher total protein intake than their younger counterparts. The previously mentioned amounts of 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight and day should cover the requirements for maximal muscle growth, regardless of age.
The age-related amino acid resistance happens both in the general population and veteran athletes who drink a protein shake after a training session.
After a workout, older individuals should consume 40 grams of protein for a maximal anabolic response, regardless of the number of muscle groups trained. Younger athletes don’t need more than 20 grams of protein after training a single muscle group, but older athletes should aim for 40 grams of post-exercise protein every workout.22
Protein Quality: Do Your Protein Sources Matter?
Protein quality indicates how well a food protein contributes to the amino acid requirements for growth or maintenance. In other words, how efficiently you can use it to build muscle and other tissues. Protein quality highly depends on the essential amino acids the food protein contains. Essential amino acids are the amino acids your body can’t make on its own, which you must provide through your diet. Only the essential amino acids are necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.23 24
There are nine essential amino acids, and they all have complicated names. They are, in alphabetical order:
Too little of one or more essential amino acids results in sub-optimal muscle protein synthesis the hours after a meal. If a protein provides enough essential amino acids, it is considered a complete protein.
Proteins from animal sources are complete and provide you with all the essential amino acids, in the proper ratios, that you need for muscle protein synthesis. The exceptions are collagen and gelatin protein, which provide limiting amounts of several amino acids required for muscle protein synthesis.
Theoretically, you could pick a single animal protein and meet your entire protein requirement with that single source.
If you eat a mixed diet containing protein from animal and vegetable sources, you don’t have to keep track of the protein quality of your meals. It takes care of itself. And you don’t have to include meat in your diet. Eggs or dairy work just as well or even better in this regard.
A diet without any animal products, a vegan diet, does not provide the same amount of high-quality protein if you look at individual protein sources. Vegetable proteins also provide all essential amino acids, but a little less of those used to build muscle. That means you either have to eat more vegetable foods to get the same amount of amino acids or combine different vegetable protein sources for a complete amino acid profile.
Fortunately, your body know how to combine amino acids from different proteins. It can use a protein that has an excess of a specific amino acid and combine it with another protein deficient in said amino acid. This way, the anabolic effect of the combined vegetable protein sources becomes comparable to any animal protein source like meat or eggs.
In the past, a widely held belief said that you must combine vegetable protein sources in the same meal to get a complete and fully usable protein source. Today, we know that our protein metabolism is efficient enough to make this practice unnecessary. It is enough to vary vegetable protein sources throughout the day. Your body can combine amino acids from different meals throughout the day.25
However, this has only been measured in untrained individuals. Whether or not the same is true for a strength athlete looking to gain maximum muscle is unknown. To ensure you get enough high-quality protein, you might want to combine several vegetable protein sources in the same meal or at least shoot for the high end of the recommended protein intake, 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.26
In summary, you most likely don’t have to calculate protein quality on a spreadsheet before preparing your meal plan, even if your diet contains little or no animal protein.27 If you follow a vegan diet, consider using more than a single protein source in each meal, preferably something like legumes and grains, which complement each other, or eat more protein. If you eat a mixed diet containing at least some animal protein, whether we’re talking about eggs, dairy products, chicken breast, or lean beef now and then, your body will take care of things on its own.
Do You Need Protein Immediately Following a Training Session?
No, but consuming some form of protein within a reasonable time following a workout might be beneficial.
The hours after a training session, muscle protein synthesis is elevated above normal levels to the point where you build more muscle than you break down. For this to happen, you must make the necessary amino acids available for your muscles. If the amino acid levels in your blood aren’t high enough after a workout, muscle protein synthesis can’t exceed muscle protein breakdown. It’s up to you to make sure you provide the building blocks your muscles need by eating (or drinking) a high-protein meal before or after working out.
Eating protein immediately before a strength training session is as effective as a protein-rich post-workout meal.28 29 If you eat or drink protein right before a strength training session, you get the same muscle-building effect as from chugging a shake after the workout. It doesn’t seem to make any difference in muscle growth in the long run, either.30
The important thing is that you have sufficient amounts of amino acids in your blood when muscle protein synthesis starts to take off into the stratosphere, which happens around an hour after a workout.31
However, you can’t chow down a can of tuna as an evening snack and utilize that protein after your morning workout the next day. By that time, your plasma amino acid levels have dropped back to normal.
Following a workout, your amino acid sensitivity increases above normal levels for up to 24 hours.32 Any protein you eat or drink during this time will be used more efficiently to build muscle than if you hadn’t trained. It also means you don’t need to grab your shaker the second you finish your last set. Your amino-acid sensitivity is likely the highest in the hours following the workout, after which it slowly returns to normal. However, studies show that you get the same anabolic effect of ingesting amino acids or protein for at least three hours after a training session.33
The fact that it is not super-important to drink a protein shake the minute you’re done with your workout doesn’t mean that protein timing after strength training is irrelevant. If you train completely fasted and neglect your protein intake for many hours after the workout, you will lose out on time you could have been building muscle. In the fasted state, muscle protein breakdown always exceeds muscle protein synthesis.34
Fasted strength training improves the balance between synthesis and breakdown, but it can’t turn positive until you provide the building blocks. So, if you haven’t eaten any form of protein before working out, it’s a good idea to make sure you do so afterward. If you did provide the building blocks your muscles need before your workout, you are in much less of a hurry to do so again when you are done training.35
Good Protein Sources, Loosely Ranked for Muscle Building Potential
- Milk and dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, quark, casein- and whey protein powder)
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, game, ostrich)
- White meat (chicken, turkey)
- Fish and seafood
- Soy-based foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein powder)
- Beans, lentils
- Nuts, almonds, seeds
Most of the foods you eat, besides those listed above, also contain protein, albeit in smaller amounts. That protein might not always be of the highest quality. However, it contributes to your daily protein intake and can be utilized to build muscle, and you should count it.
Carbohydrates and Fats: Do They Build Muscle?
Carbohydrates and fats do not offer any immedite benefits for muscle growth right after eating them. They don’t stimulate muscle protein synthesis. On the other hand, they are important sources of energy for everything from essential processes in your body to your daily activities and training.
Fat is essential. Carbohydrates are not. You need at least some fat to live and be healthy, but you can go your entire life without eating a single gram of carbs. That does not mean that carbs are bad. On the contrary, especially if you train hard. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in your muscles and can fuel your intense workouts.
How you allocate the fat and carbohydrates you take in is almost entirely up to you. All kinds of diets, from low-fat diets with a lot of carbohydrates to ketogenic diets almost devoid of carbohydrates, work fine for muscle-building purposes. That means that you have great flexibility in how you eat. You can base your choice of foods on the way you like to eat. There is no convincing evidence that one or the other, high carb or low carb, high fat or low fat, or anything in between, is superior to any other choice.37 Not as long as your protein and total calorie intake are the same.
How Much Fat and How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
An easy way to figure out how much fat and carbohydrate you should eat is to start with your total calorie intake and subtract the number of calories your protein intake provides from that. Whatever number you come up with is how many calories you have left to spend on fat and carbohydrate.
This is how you do it:
- Estimate the number of calories you need every day. You can use our calorie calculator above to do so.
- Calculate how much protein you need per day. A good, scientifically accurate number is 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, if you weigh 80 kilograms, you need 160 grams of protein daily, counting the protein in everything you eat and drink.
- Subtract the protein calories from your daily calorie intake. It’s a simple equation. Each gram of protein provides four calories, rounded off. If you eat those 160 grams of protein, you get 640 calories. Let’s assume you found out that you need 2,500 calories per day to be in caloric balance. Add 200 calories to that number to ensure you have a slight energy surplus for optimal hypertrophic potential. 2,700 minus 640 is 2,060 calories. There you have it! The number of calories you have left to play with and spend on carbohydrates and fats.
Carbohydrates provide four calories per gram, just like protein. Fat, however, provides a whopping nine calories per gram. How you allocate these calories is almost entirely up to you and your preferences. You cannot and should not eliminate fat, but a fat intake as low as 20% of your total calorie intake is not a problem for a bodybuilder, according to a recent study.38 A lower fat intake than that might not be the best of ideas, as it could compromise your health and your testosterone levels in the long run.
An excellent interval for your daily fat intake is 0.5 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. After that, you fill up with carbohydrate energy until you reach your intended daily calorie intake. This leaves a lot of room for flexibility. You can adjust your balance between fat and carbs in other ways, too, but these are great guidelines for anyone wanting to build muscle while eating a balanced diet.
You don’t have to compose your meals in any particular way or measure your carbs and fats on a meal-to-meal basis. The important thing is getting enough over a more extended period. The only firm guideline for each meal is that it should provide enough protein in the amounts discussed earlier in the article. You don’t need to eat X grams of carbs or Y grams of fat each meal. You can mix and match to your heart’s content as long you end up in the ballpark of your intended total daily intake. In the end, that’s the important thing.
Fat and Carbohydrate Quality
Unlike protein, fats and carbs don’t have different anabolic properties depending on their source the hours after you eat them. In addition, there is no immediate difference between fat- and carbohydrate-rich foods generally considered “healthy” or “unhealthy.” You won’t build less muscle after a meal consisting of gingerbread cookies compared to a meal of rice and olive oil if they both provide the same amount of fat, carbohydrate, and calories.
Does this mean that you can base your diet on junk food without adversely affecting your training results and muscle growth? No, not in the long run.
Different types of carbohydrates, like starch and sugars, and foods with different fatty acid compositions, do not have the same effect on your body. We’re not talking about dramatic differences in the hours after you eat. But a diet based on “junk,” mainly consisting of sugary foods and an unfavorable fatty acid composition, will negatively affect your health in the long run. Things like inflammations and blood lipids eventually turn for the worse, at least on a calorie surplus. Sooner or later, this will, in turn, negatively affect your training and your results. In addition, you will struggle to get all the vitamins, minerals, and trace elements you need on a junk food diet.
If you want the best results and the health benefits from your efforts in the gym, you need to give your muscles good nutrients and fuel. You should base your diet on unrefined foods, not refined and processed so-called “junk.”
That being said, you don’t have to follow a pre-contest diet during the off-season. You don’t have to exclude anything. You can eat anything, but not all the time. This saying is particularly useful when you want to lose weight, but it also applies here. The difference is that you have much more room to eat what you want when you are not dieting to lose weight.
The important thing to remember is to base your diet on unrefined carbs and healthy fats. A limited amount of “junk” can be a part of any diet, including the one you use to fuel your gym sessions and build muscle. It won’t harm anything. If you are a “hardgainer,” someone who finds it challenging to eat enough to gain weight and muscle, or if you have a physically demanding job, it might even be beneficial to include a certain amount of refined foods that are easier to eat.
In summary, you don’t have to exclude treats like ice cream and candy or fast food like pizza and burgers. The last two examples aren’t even as bad as people often think. They provide pretty much everything your muscles need to grow after an intense workout, although you probably shouldn’t plan your entire diet around them.
Here is a list of excellent basic, staple foods, and carbohydrate sources:
- Grains, preferably whole grains
- White and brown rice
- Potatoes, both regular and sweet potatoes
The optimal fatty acid composition for health and performance is up for debate. Literally up for discussion all the time. What are good fats, how much unsaturated fat should you eat, and is saturated fat the devil? If you base your diet on natural, unrefined foods rather than refined and processed choices, you probably don’t have to give it a lot of thought.
Saturated fat has a bad reputation, but if you are healthy and exercise regularly, you likely don’t have to worry too much about it or try to avoid things like butter or red meat, foods that contain a lot of saturated fatty acids. A high intake of processed meats is correlated with health issues, and limiting your intake of those is prudent, but not because of the fat content.
Omega-3 fatty acids help you control your blood pressure, keep inflammation in your body in check, and maintain your cell structure. Of the three omega-3s, ALA, EPA, and DHA, the last two are the crucial ones regarding health effects, and you mainly get those from fatty fish like salmon. If you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish, a quality omega-3 supplement might be a good idea to ensure you get enough of these vital nutrients.
What About Vitamins, Minerals, and Trace Elements?
Unlike protein, fat, and carbohydrates, these nutrients do not provide calories. On the other hand, they are essential for your health and physical function. Many of them directly or indirectly affect your muscles, strength, and potential for muscle growth.
However, they do not possess any acute anabolic effects following ingestion. You just need to eat a reasonably varied diet to cover your general vitamin, mineral, and trace element needs. Timing your micronutrient intake before or after your workouts isn’t important at all. You don’t have to optimize your intake of every nutrient every day for health or hypertrophy reasons. The important thing is to make sure you get enough of them over time, so you don’t develop any deficiencies.
A reasonably varied diet that covers your energy needs also covers your vitamin and mineral requirements, as a general rule, regardless of whether you engage in strength training or not. A few exceptions can be vitamin D during the winter half of the year and vitamin B12 if you don’t eat any animal products.
A common belief is that fruits and vegetables are the richest sources of vitamins and minerals. Contrary to this belief, foods from animal sources are often the most micronutrient-dense foods you can eat, with the exception of vitamin C. Still, a varied and plentiful intake of fruits and vegetables is a good idea if your goal is gaining muscle mass. Even if you could cover your vitamin requirements entirely without them, they also provide phytochemicals and other chemicals that have many functions in your body. We don’t even know exactly how these chemicals work in conjunction with each other. It is not far-fetched to imagine that they are also involved in processes regulating muscle mass.
Supplements for Muscle Growth
You don’t need dietary supplements to build muscle. However, a select few stand out as beneficial when used in addition to a balanced diet.
- Creatine is the only legal supplement scientifically proven to boost strength and muscle growth beyond what you can achieve with regular foods.
- Protein supplements don’t build more muscle than the same amount of protein from food, but they are convenient and often relatively inexpensive. If you’re struggling to reach your target protein intake, protein shakes can be life-savers.
- Caffeine boosts performance and allows you to lift heavier in the gym, one of the most important things for muscle growth.
- Weight gainers are concentrated food, often from milk protein and complex carbohydrates. They can help you pack on the pounds if you’re struggling to gain weight.
Training for Muscle Growth
Without a sound diet, your lifting efforts can more or less go to waste. However, make no mistake: what you do in the gym is the most important factor in growing bigger and stronger.
There is no one-size-fits-all protocol for strength training and bodybuilding, but the following guidelines make for an approach that fits most lifters:
- Perform 10–20 total sets per muscle group per week. That’s the optimal training volume to maximize muscle hypertrophy, according to up-to-date research.39 40 The greater your training experience, the more training volume you need, while beginners and intermediates will likely thrive on the lower end of that rep range.
- Include both compound exercises and isolation movements in your workouts. Compound exercises like the bench press and the squat are time-effective and make for a good foundation in any workout split, while isolation work lets you focus on individual muscle groups.
- Perform 6–15 reps per set. While you build muscle with both lower and higher reps, a moderate rep range is the perfect balance for most lifters. You avoid the injury potential of very heavy weights and the discomfort of high-rep training to failure.
You can, of course, follow any training program you like. But if you prefer a pre-programmed and highly effective workout split for building muscle, we offer an expensive selection for different experience levels in our StrengthLog workout tracker:
- Beginner Barbell Program: Our most time-effective training program for the beginner to get started. Three workouts per week with three exercises per workout provide a solid foundation of training for your whole body. This program suits those new to strength training who want to start an effective routine that doesn’t take too much time since it is wholly based on compound movements.
- StrengthLog’s Full Body Hypertrophy: In this program, things get a little more serious. You still train three times per week, but you train all muscles more thoroughly each workout, using a combination of compound and isolation movements. This is an excellent three day-routine for building muscle!
- StrengthLog’s Upper/Lower Program: The number of workouts has increased to four per week in this program, with the training split between two upper body workouts and two lower body workouts. This program is more minimalistic than the one above and only contains compound movements. But if you want to, you can complement it with additional isolation exercises.
- Bodybuilding Ballet: Our most popular training program for bodybuilding, designed as a classic “bro-split.” It’s a premium program for intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, available in four- five- or six-day training versions.
- Bodybuilding Blitz: a 5-day workout split that combines training for muscle growth and strength. The training sessions are short, which can be beneficial if you’re on a tight schedule, but highly effective nonetheless.
These programs, and many more, are available exclusively in our workout app StrengthLog.
Some programs, like Bodybuilding Blitz and Bodybuilding Ballet, require a premium subscription, but StrengthLog itself is entirely free. You can download it and use it as a workout tracker and general strength training app – and all basic functionality is free forever.
Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.
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- Eat enough calories. Building muscle during an energy deficit is possible but far from optimal. Aiming for at least calorie balance is a good idea, and a slight surplus can offer additional benefits. Also, if you don’t meet your calorie needs, you won’t have the high energy levels you need to perform your best in the gym. However, there is no need to go overboard with the calories, or you’ll be looking at fat gain instead of muscle gain.
- Eat enough protein. An adequate protein intake means eating at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day. You can increase that amount to 2–2.2 grams per kilogram if you want to be 100% on the safe side. During a cut, if you’re already relatively lean, you might want to go even higher to ensure you maintain your lean body mass.
- When you have ensured that you get enough protein, you can allocate your fat and carbohydrate calories according to your personal preferences. You can gain muscle mass with all kinds of diets, including high-carbohydrate plans with low to moderate amounts of fat, and ketogenic diets without carbohydrates, to mention the two extremes.
- Spreading your protein intake out over the day is most likely beneficial. Thirty to forty grams of protein every third or fourth hour during your waking time seems optimal for muscle growth. However, it is not essential. If you prefer a more infrequent meal plan, eating larger but less frequent meals will also work fine.
- You don’t have to eat super healthy all the time. When you are on a contest diet, you rarely have the luxury of indulging just because you crave something. However, “junk food” does not build less muscle than “clean” whole foods, as long as you cover your calorie- and protein requirements. You should base your diet on healthy and mostly unrefined foods for your long-term health and get the micronutrients you need. When that’s taken care of, your results won’t suffer if you have a bowl of ice cream instead of even more broccoli and tilapia.
- You don’t have to count and measure everything you eat to the smallest detail, as long as you keep a decent track of your calories and protein intake. Eating enough and well enough to build muscle is neither difficult nor time-consuming. A few easy choices and a little planning are all you need to give your muscles what they need. Hopefully, this article has provided you with the information you need to make informed choices in the kitchen that offer optimal muscle development and the results you want in the gym.
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