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Eating For Gaining Muscle Mass

Your ability to gain muscle mass is influenced by many factors. It comes down to genetics (thanks mum and dad), age, training programme and history, as well as what you eat.

Tailoring your nutrition to your training sessions can optimise muscle mass gain. Photo: Derek Morrison

Gaining muscle mass is a performance or aesthetic goal for many athletes. Unfortunately the desire for quick results often leads to unrealistic targets. Trying to bulk up too quickly can result in unwanted gains in body fat. To achieve the best results you need to be realistic. Aiming for 0.25 to 0.5 kilograms (around 0.5 to 1 pound) of muscle mass a week is a good starting point. This is achievable with the right training programme and a well-planned diet.

So how should you eat to bulk up? Fuel My Potential has put together these nutrition tips to support your training and help you gain muscle mass and strength.

Eat Sufficient Energy And Carbohydrate

Your muscles need fuel to grow. Therefore to gain muscle mass extra energy is needed. How much varies person to person but between 1500 to 2000 kilojoules (around 350 to 500 calories) a day is a good starting point. A gradual increase in energy intake is best to avoid unwanted gains in body fat.

Do not treat this as an opportunity to overindulge on junk foods though. Instead choose nutritious energy dense foods to help meet your higher fueling needs. Think nuts, seeds, avocado, oily fish, olive oil, dried fruit and dairy products. If you struggle with eating large volumes of food try include some high energy liquid options like our Nutty Banana Smoothie

Eating enough carbohydrate is also important for gaining muscle mass. Carbs are your muscles preferred fuel source for the training that will stimulate muscle growth. Carbs are also required during recovery to reduce muscle protein breakdown and prevent protein being used as fuel. Meals and snacks should mostly be based on quality carbohydrate foods such as grains (oats, rice, quinoa, pasta, buckwheat etc.), starchy vegetables (potato, kumara, parsnip etc), fruit, legumes and dairy.

Healthy, nutritious, tasty and full of protein. Photo: Deborah MacLeod
Time Your Protein Intake Well

There is more to protein than the total amount that you eat in a day. To provide the best support for muscle growth aim to spread your protein intake out evenly across all meals and snacks. Quality sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, nut butters, seeds and dairy products.

Eat Frequently Across The Day

A missed meal or snack could be as detrimental as a missed training session when it comes to gaining muscle mass. Aim to have a meal or snack roughly every 3 hours. Not only does this help with protein supply but it also allows you to increase your total food (and energy) intake without feeling stuffed. Being organised is key to nailing this out so get meal planning. To help with this check out our recipe section for some inspiration as well as the snack ideas below.

Fuel Well Around Your Training Sessions

Before and after your training sessions is the first place I recommend adding in extra kilojoules (or calories) as this is typically where you are using the most energy in your day. Think of it like sandwiching your training session with food. Fuel the session and your recovery with a carbohydrate and protein rich snack 1 to 2 hours before and again within 30 minutes of finishing training. When trying to gain muscle that “window of opportunity” we often hear about for recovery is really important. This is the initial period after exercise where your muscles are primed to take up nutrients that stimulate muscle repair and growth.

Protein and Carbohydrate Snacks

Fruit smoothie

Lean meat or egg sandwich

Salmon, tuna or chicken sushi

Can of fish or chicken and grainy crackers

Greek yoghurt and fruit

Fruit & nut mix

Glass of milk and nut butter on toast

Cottage cheese on rice cakes

Prioritise Sleep

Majority of our growth hormone is released when we are asleep. To cash in on this optimal hormonal environment for muscle growth aim for 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. If you cannot manage to get it all in one go add in a well timed nap during the day. Having a protein containing snack before bed is also recommended as it supplies those important building blocks for our muscles as they repair and grow overnight. Click here for sleep expert Dr Richard Swinbourne’s tactics on how to optimise sleep for athletes.

Supplement Don’t Substitute

There are hoards of supplements that claim to build muscle mass, but very few actually stack up when it comes to the research. Protein powder, creatine and beta-alanine may offer some benefit when trying to improve muscle mass and strength. Think of these as the sprinkles on the icing on the cake though. The last piece to add to the puzzle when an athlete has reached their genetic maturity, is doing the right training and following a well planned diet. To learn more about supplements, and whether they are safe for you, check out our other videos and articles.

Be aware of the pitfalls of some supplements when trying to gain muscle mass as an athlete. Photo: Derek Morrison

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