Stronger than Yesterday: Diet and Exercise Tips for Building Muscle

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By Dennis Buckley, nutrition student at George Mason University and IFIC Foundation intern

For those who are trying to build muscle, you are likely familiar with the deluge of muscle-building information on the internet, a staggering amount of which is conflicting, contradictory, or just plain wrong. It’s easy to get caught up in the claims of immediate results, workout gimmicks, and extreme dieting strategies, but there is actually a “science” to building muscle, as many scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals in recent years have shown. Using those studies, we are able to clear up some of the confusion. Here are a few science-based tips to set you on a clear path to building muscle and getting stronger.

1. Get Enough Protein
From a muscle-building perspective, protein can be considered the king of nutrients.  Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which your body uses (along with other nutrients) to rebuild, strengthen, and thicken your muscle fibers.  Your body requires a mixture of amino acids to repair and synthesize muscle tissue, but branched-chain amino acids – leucine in particular – kick start the muscle building process. As low as 3-4 grams of leucine, an amount easily found in a various protein sources, has been shown to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. (Churchward-Venne, et al., 2012)  This is how muscle is built after a workout. 

For sample meals and information on protein requirements for various activity levels, click here.

2. Use Carbs as Fuel
If protein is the king of all nutrients, then carbohydrate is the queen. Low-carb diets are still popular today, much to the detriment of recreational and professional athletes.  The simple truth is that carbohydrates are essential to building muscle.  Without adequate carbohydrate intake, performance and muscle growth are bound to be impaired. (Churchley, et al., 2007)

Dietary carbohydrate is broken down into compounds that are stored as glycogen in your muscle and liver.  Glycogen is the primary fuel used to power your muscles during strength training exercises, serving as a constant source of energy. If you don’t take in enough carbs, your glycogen levels will be depleted. 

Muscle-Building Tip:  According to a study by Lambert et al., those wishing to build muscle should consume 1½-3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. (Lambert, et al., 2012) Choices ranging from complex and refined carbs – including whole grains (e.g. whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, etc.) – to other foods that are high in nutritional value – like fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and oatmeal – can be part of a healthful diet for muscle building. 

3. Eat More (But Not Too Much)
It might seem counter-intuitive to someone who is health-conscious and likely watches their weight, but taking in more of certain types of calories will encourage your body to develop more muscle and burn fat more efficiently.

By establishing just a modest calorie surplus, which is stored by the body in the form of fat, glycogen, or muscle, you will help minimize fat gain while continuing to add lean muscle. In general, one should choose foods that are high in nutrients relative to the calories they provide.

Muscle-Building Tip: Studies have pinpointed an ideal calorie range for building muscle of 18-20 calories per pound of body weight. (Schoenfeld, 2012)

4. Lift Weights
Nutrition is a huge part of the equation, but to build muscle requires incorporating strength training workouts – not just aerobic exercise – into your regimen. Progressively challenging your muscles and increasing the amount of tension over time – a process called progressive overload – is the main tenet of muscle-building.  Progressive overload involves manipulating or increasing one or more of the following variables over time:

  • Frequency of training (e.g. number of days per week)
  • Volume (e.g. number of sets, repetitions, rest, etc.)
  • Intensity, or load (e.g. pounds of weight lifted)
  • Form (e.g. how strictly you perform a given exercise)
  • Cadence (e.g. seconds taken to lift and lower the weight)

Simply put, the goal in building muscle is to improve over time. (Schoenfeld, 2010)

Muscle-Building Tip: Plan your workouts before you go to the gym and record them in a journal or a mobile fitness app (such as Argus). By recording the weights you used, how many reps, and what exercises you did, you are setting a baseline to which you can compare subsequent workouts.

5. Track Your Progress
To ensure you are making progress toward your goal, perform regular “check-ins” to see how you’re doing. It is easy to lose patience or motivation when you aren’t seeing immediate results; however, correctly building muscle and maintaining the results over the long-term takes time. Here are some realistic expectations for building muscle with minimal fat gain (Schuler and Aragon, 2014):

  • 2-3 pounds per month in novices and advanced beginners (i.e. those with less than two years of consistent strength training)
  • 1-2 pounds per month in intermediates (i.e. those with 2-4 years of consistent training)
  • ½ pound per month in advanced lifters

Extra Credit:  Tracking calories is the most accurate way to stay the course in building muscle.  Download the USDA SuperTracker app on your mobile device to track your food intake and set your individual calorie targets.