Despite many people being afraid of 'getting bulky' from weight training, there are myriad health benefits associated with building muscle mass.
Having lean muscle boosts your metabolism and helps your body burn more calories more efficiently, increases your strength, reduces the risk of injury and can improve your quality of life.
So, how do we build muscle? Let's take a look at how gaining muscle works and what (and when) we need to eat to help muscle growth.
How does building muscle mass work?
The process of building muscle is called muscle protein synthesis.
"There are two important stages in muscle protein synthesis -- the breakdown phase, which occurs when you train, particularly with resistance training, and then the growth or synthesis phase, which is caused by ingesting food, in particular protein-based foods," Jessica Spendlove, accredited practising dietitian, sports dietitian and nutrition consultant, told HuffPost Australia.
"Protein is the key nutrient involved in muscle growth. However, it's not only about the amount of protein you eat (the total). It is also about the type of protein you consume and when you consume it."
Do you need to eat more to gain muscle mass?
Put simply: yes.
"You can gain muscle strength simply through exercising the muscles more, but usually to gain muscle mass, what you need to do is up your calorie intake," Chloe McLeod, accredited practising dietitian and sports dietitian, told HuffPost Australia.
Essentially, exercise like weight training is only half of the question when it comes to building lean muscle mass. If you are trying to gain or build muscle mass your body needs to be in an energy surplus, so you may need to eat more -- at the correct times.
"I usually look at around an extra 500 calories (approximately 2,000 kilojoules) per day, so there's an excess amount of energy available for the muscles to grow," McLeod said.
Meal ideas to help build muscle mass:
- Omelette with vegetables and cheese
- Poached eggs with smoked salmon, avocado and grainy sourdough
- 200g Greek yoghurt with muesli, nuts and berries
- Tin of tuna (optional with brown rice or grain-based rice cakes)
- Pot of Greek yoghurt with almonds
- Smoothie (milk of choice with Greek yoghurt and fruit)
- Rice cakes with cottage cheese and tomato
- Grainy crackers with ham off the bone, cheese and tomato
"I'd be looking at healthy protein and carbohydrate sources like milk, yoghurt, oats, muesli, eggs on toast, salmon with sweet potato and veggies, or a smoothie with fruit, which are all good choices.
"I try to use real food as much as possible. Protein shakes can be really useful and convenient, and it suits some people, but it's important to get the food right first."
It's important to remember that this extra energy intake isn't about chucking in an extra meal anytime during the day.
"It's actually really important that those extra calories are consumed around the physical activity -- so, fuelling the weight training session beforehand, but also having the energy availability right after so the nutrients are there to allow the muscles to recover and for the protein growth to occur."
How does this extra food not turn into fat?
According to Spendlove, the key to extra energy not turning into fat comes down to three main factors:
- What you are eating (meal composition)
- When you are eating it (the frequency and timing)
- The training you are doing (or not doing)
"To gain muscle or fat, a person needs to be eating more than what they require -- this is called being in an energy surplus," Spendlove said.
"To gain lean muscle mass, you need to be focusing on eating 4–6 well-portioned meals and snacks across the day which predominantly consist of good quality food and nutrition."
This includes lean protein, slow-release carbohydrates, lots of salad and vegetables, good fats and limited intake of refined sugar and junk food.
"If a person is an energy surplus because they are eating sporadically, generally making poor food choices and not training, or training infrequently, this is more likely to result in gaining body fat."
To get the timing right, McLeod recommends eating a meal or snack with a mix of protein and carbohydrates before and after training.
"The timing is a big part of it. You'd be looking specifically at a mix of protein and carbohydrates to allow the muscle to build," McLeod said.
To successfully build muscle mass, we also need to be doing the right type of training -- namely weight or resistance training.
"If the activity is using really light weight and high reps, this is more likely to tone you up. Whereas heavier weights with lower reps are more to help build muscle mass. Having a mix of both is important," McLeod said.
However, even if we get the three factors (quality of food, food timing and the training) right, many people will still gain fat at the same time as building muscle. And this is normal.
"It's quite difficult to build muscle and not gain some fat mass, as well," McLeod said. "Other things come into play, particularly genetics, frequency of training and what the diet is like at other times of the day.
"I would normally expect to see some fat gain when building muscle, which is why you'll often see people who build the muscle and then shred the fat in cycles, and why it's important not to eat crazy amounts more than the 500 calories."
Tips for building muscle mass
- Be consistent with meals and snacks -- don't skip meals, restrict or over-indulge;
- Eat 4-6 meals/snacks per day -- this helps your body become more efficient at building lean muscle mass;
- Make sure each meal and snack has approximately 20g of protein to optimise muscle protein synthesis;
- Don't forget protein at breakfast -- most people are eating enough (total) protein across the day, but are not distributing in the best way.
If you're struggling to build muscle or lose fat, get the support from a nutrition and exercise expert.
"[Building muscle] can be very difficult to do and I would strongly recommend seeing an accredited sports dietitian to help with this," Spendlove said.
"The overall process of determining how much food is required to build muscle mass generally involves comparing an individual's current eating patterns (which includes what they are currently eating, how much and when they are eating) with their current training regime, and then looking at what is happening with their body mass and composition."