It is important to understand that the primary driver of increased muscle mass (hypertrophy) is the work done in the weights room. Nutrition, with an emphasis on protein intake, does play a role in enhancing the anabolic (muscle building) effect of weight training and acts as a substrate to help build new muscle tissue. Unlike fat loss, muscle building is a slow and inefficient process – patience and consistency are key.
If you are looking to build new muscle tissue, consider the points below to help maximise this process.
Eating in an energy surplus is likely optimal to promote a muscle building environment and to support progressive training demands. Eating below maintenance calories (ie, being in an energy deficit) decreases muscle protein synthesis and is therefore not optimal if you're looking to gain muscle.
The size of the energy (calorie) surplus depends upon the individual – trial and error works best. A few hundred calories above maintenance is the ‘sweet spot’ for many - unless you classify as a ‘hard-gainer’, whereby fidgeting and unconscious movement (NEAT) reduces the surplus.
A more individualised recommendation is based on changes in total body weight. A 1-1.5% increase in total body weight per month is a reasonable target for most. This, however, can vary depending on training age, genetics and body fat levels. Note – you cannot force feed gains in muscle tissue!
Total Protein – How Much?
In a review published last year, it was concluded that, for the vast majority, a total daily protein intake beyond ~1.6g/kg of body weight per day did not provide further benefit of gains in strength and muscle mass during resistance training. However, to quote the authors ‘it may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg per day for those seeking to maximise resistance training-induced gains’. It is worth pointing out that the analysis did not include those in a calorie deficit.
Greater than ~1.6 g/kg of protein per day may be beneficial for those looking to control hunger and minimise fat gain as protein is more satiating than carbohydrate and fat. With regards to a protein target to maximise muscle mass, I typically recommend ~2g per kilogram of body weight for most as a nice round figure to aim for.
Based on mechanistic research, 4-6 evenly spread (no more than ~4 hours apart) protein feedings is optimal for the goal of maximising rates of muscle gain.
A sample meal distribution to maximise the muscle protein synthetic response could look as follows. '/kg' means 'per kilogram of total body weight'.
From a pragmatic standpoint, particularly when consuming mixed meals, there is no need to focus too much on precise meal timing – the anabolic window has been shown to last 24-48 hours post-training. With that in mind, ensure ample protein in each meal.
A well-designed weight training program will provide a powerful anabolic stimulus for muscle growth and is by far and away the greatest contributor to gains in muscle mass. Nutrition will merely augment the adaptive response. Do both consistently and you’re golden!
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