Muscle hypertrophy, the process of increasing muscle size, requires a combination of strength training and nutrition. Too often, people focus too much on training techniques and how they lift and too little on gaining muscle’s nutritional aspects. Lifting weights or working your body against resistance is the stimulus that causes muscles to adapt and grow, but without proper nutrition, muscle gains will be limited. In this article, David Regan – Atlanta-based fitness expert – shares his insights on how adequate nutrition impacts muscle growth.
When it comes down to eating to build muscle, there are two vital nutritional components that you need to get right most of the time. Skimping on either could limit your gains.
Energy balance refers to the calories you take in versus the calories you burn off during the day. If you take in fewer calories than you expend, you’re in an energy deficit. To make muscle gains, you can’t be in an energy deficit or negative energy balance. The reason? When your body is in a negative energy balance, it turns off the signals that tell your muscles to grow. Your body downregulates these pathways to conserve energy. In contrast, being in a positive energy balance, where there’s an energy surplus, turns on anabolic pathways that support muscle growth.
The combination of a positive energy balance and resistance training is a potent stimulus for muscle hypertrophy. In one study, researchers asked subjects who were new to strength training to participate in an 8-week strength training program. One group consumed an additional 2,000 kilocalories per day over baseline requirements during the 8-week study combined with strength training. The other group ate enough calories to stay in caloric balance. The results? The group that upped their calorie intake gained 6.6 pounds of body mass, and all of the gains were muscle. In contrast, the group who didn’t up their calorie intake didn’t significantly gain weight or muscle size.
It’s not necessary to consume 2,000 calories per day to gain muscle size. Other studies show boosting calorie intake by 500 kilocalories per day combined with strength training supports muscle gains. What’s clear is you don’t want to be in a calorie deficit if you’re trying to build muscle, and you should be in at least a slight calorie surplus. Make sure the calories you take in are high quality, not ultra-processed junk food. Don’t go overboard, though. If you consume too many calories, especially if you’re not training consistently, your body can become insulin resistant, leading to weight gain. An additional 500 to 1,000 calories per day, as long as you’re training, is optimal. If you’re female or have a smaller body size, stick to the lower end of this range.
Protein is made up of long strands of amino acids. Some of these amino acids that your body can make are deemed non-essential. The others that your body can’t make must come from the diet. These are called essential amino acids. All amino acids play a crucial role in muscle repair and muscle hypertrophy since they serve as building blocks for increasing the size and thickness of skeletal muscle fibers. That’s how your muscles grow.
Some amino acids also play a crucial role in turning on pathways that stimulate muscle protein synthesis. These include the branched-chain amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine also helps reduce muscle protein breakdown. So, this trio of amino acids is quite essential for maximizing muscle growth.
Although you can get branched-chain amino acids from what you eat, you have to eat a lot of food to get the amounts you need to maximize muscle protein synthesis. The best sources are animal-based and include beef, poultry, fish, milk, and eggs. Plant-based sources include lentils, brown rice, chickpeas, nuts, and seeds.
To ensure they’re getting enough branched-chain amino acids to boost muscle protein synthesis, some bodybuilders take a branched-chain amino acid supplement that usually comes in the form of a shake. The best time to take these amino acids is 45 minutes before a workout, which gives the amino acids a chance to reach a high level in the bloodstream. Some studies show they also may aid in muscle recovery after training.
Even if you don’t take a branched-chain amino acid supplement, be sure you’re consuming enough protein. Recommendations for sedentary people is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, you may need up to twice this amount if you strength train or do endurance exercise.
The Bottom Line
What can you take away from this? You need enough calories to maintain a positive energy balance and enough quality protein, including branched-chain amino acids to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Of course, you need to strength train too. Make sure you’re training correctly but also ensure that you’re eating to support muscle growth. Besides protein, you need healthy fats and unprocessed carbohydrates; the primary energy source muscles use during the strength training.
About David Reagan
David Reagan is a NASM Certified personal trainer from Atlanta, GA, who specializes in weight loss, personalized workout plans, bodybuilding, and nutrition. He caters to high-end clients and executives, helping them achieve their fitness goals by accommodating their busy schedules. The client’s needs come first, and David’s fitness plan will set you up on the path to success.