If you think that gorging on protein alone will produce bigger and stronger muscles, think again! It's frequently over-consumed, over-rated and over-promoted. When it comes to gaining muscle mass (building strength and size) you need to look at other areas of your diet too.
How can I gain muscle?
To gain muscle, you must combine consistent progressive resistance training, adequate recovery and an optimal diet. The training breaks down the muscle, stimulating it to adapt during recovery by becoming bigger and stronger. During this process, the body requires additional nutrients.
Why do some people gain muscle more easily than others?
The amount of muscle weight you can expect to gain depends on a range of factors. These include genetic factors like body type, muscle fibre mix, the arrangement of motor units and hormonal balance. Additionally, your training program and diet will be major contributors to your success.
Naturally slim build with long lean limbs, narrow shoulders and hips. Will tend to find it hard to gain muscle mass.
Muscular, athletic build with wide shoulders and narrow hips. Will gain muscle mass fairly easily.
Stocky, rounded build with wide shoulders and hips. Even distribution of fat. Will gain both fat and muscle mass readily.
Muscle Fibre Mix
People who are able to gain muscle mass easily will typically have a higher-than-average proportion of fast-twitch fibres relative to slow-twitch fibres.
Motor Unit Arrangement
People who tend to gain strength and size rapidly may have an above-average number of muscle fibres in each motor unit. For the same effort, they generate a higher force output than the average person. This creates a bigger stimulus for muscle growth.
People with a higher natural level of the male (anabolic) sex hormones, such as testosterone, will also gain muscle faster. That is why women cannot achieve the same muscle mass or size of men unless they take additional hormones.
How fast can I expect to gain weight?
Mass gains of 20% of starting body weight are common after the first year of training. But, the rate of weight gain will gradually drop off over the years as you approach your genetic potential.
Men can expect to gain 0.5 to 1kg per month. Women usually experience about 50-75% of the gains of men. That is to say around 0.25 to 0.75kg per month. This is partly due to their smaller initial body weight and lower muscle mass. It's also partly due to lower levels of anabolic hormones.
To gain lean weight at the optimal rate you need to ensure that you are consuming more calories than you are using each day. The consensus is around 20% more calories.
How many calories?
Interestingly, total calorie intake appears to be more important than protein intake when it comes to building muscle mass. To gain lean weight at the optimal rate, you need to ensure that you are consuming more calories than you are using each day. The consensus is around 20% more.
This cannot be overemphasised.
These additional calories should come from a balanced ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat. Protein supplements aren't always necessary.
If you normally consume 2700kcal daily without gaining weight, you'd need to eat 3240kcal (2700 x 1.2) to gain muscle.
How much carbohydrate to gain muscle mass?
You must consume enough carbohydrate to achieve high muscle glycogen levels - the main fuel for resistance training. If you train with low levels of muscle glycogen, you risk excessive protein (muscle) breakdown.
You should aim to consume 5-7g carbohydrate per kg of body weight each day.
For someone weighing 70kg, this would be between 350 and 490g of carbohydrate daily.
How much protein?
Lifting weights breaks down muscle tissue and so creates a demand for additional protein. But as this demand is satisfied, a longer-term effect of resistance training is increased protein retention. In other words, consistent resistance training reduces the relative amount of protein lost through the urine. In effect, conditioned strength athletes actually need less protein pound for pound than novices.
Strength athletes should aim for 1.4 - 1.7g per kg body weight per day. That's 98 to 119g daily for the person weighing 70kg. Most people eat more protein than they actually need. Protein deficiencies are rare and protein supplements aren't strictly necessary. You can still get adequate levels of protein from a balanced diet.
You can get enough protein from 3 - 4 daily portions of chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs and pulses. Even vegetarians can meet their protein needs by eating a variety of plant proteins - tofu, Quorn, beans, lentils and nuts each day.
What should I eat post-workout to build strength?
Speed up glycogen recovery and promote muscle repair after training by consuming carbohydrate and protein in the ratio 4:1. This combination promotes the release of insulin, which stimulates muscle glycogen replenishment. Additionally, it encourages the transport of amino acids into muscle cells, thereby promoting protein synthesis. It also blunts the rise in cortisol that would otherwise follow exercise. Cortisol suppresses the rate of protein synthesis and encourages protein breakdown.
Suitable post-workout snacks
- 150g fresh fruit with 250ml milk
- 2 cartons (2 x 150g) yoghurt
- Homemade smoothie (milk with fresh fruit or yoghurt)
- A yoghurt drink
- A sandwich, bagel, roll or wrap filled with lean protein
- A handful (60 - 100g) of dried fruit and nuts
- Baked potato with tuna, baked beans or cottage cheese
Will supplements help me gain muscle mass?
There are dozens of supplements on the market that claim to help you gain muscle mass. Many of the claims are not supported by scientific research, lack safety data and some may even contain illegal substances. Supplements that may be worth considering include:
May help increase performance, strength and gain muscle mass. On balance, many studies show significant increases in lean mass and total mass. Typically between 1-3% lean body weight after a 5-day loading dose, compared with controls. It's important to note not all studies show positive results. The observed gains in weight are due partly to an increase in cell fluid volume, and partly to muscle synthesis.
Meal replacement supplements
Shakes and bars provide a convenient calorie and nutrient-dense alternative to 'real' food. Although expensive, regard them as an addition rather than a replacement to your diet. If you struggle to eat enough to satisfy your calorie requirements, they can help.
Muscle Mass Gaining Tips
Put more total eating time into your daily routine. This may mean rescheduling other activities. Plan your meal and snack times in advance. Never skip or rush them - no matter how busy you are.
Increase your meal frequency. Eat at least three meals and three (or more) snacks daily.
Eat regularly - every 2 or 3 hours. Avoid longer gaps between meals.
Plan nutritious, high-calorie low-bulk snacks. Things like yoghurt, nuts, dried fruit and cereal bars work well.
Eat larger meals, but avoid overfilling!
If you are finding it hard to fit in enough food, try nutritious drinks. Milk-based shakes, smoothies and juices to help bring up your calorie, carbohydrate and protein intake.
Boost the calorie and nutritional content of your meals. Add extra dried fruit, bananas, honey, chopped nuts or seeds. This is more nutritious than adding 'empty' calories like sugar or jam.