While many of us are experts at gaining weight accidentally, what about intentional and healthy weight gain? I'm talking about putting on some lean muscle mass. At first, it might sound easy, but promoting muscle growth can be tricky for a lot of people. It requires an optimal balance of diet, training, rest, and consideration of a number of individual factors. It's not as simple as eating more food and lifting weights.
So regardless of where you are with your muscle-building goals, here is key information, backed by the latest science and experts, to help you get the most gains possible.
Reach your full muscle-building potential with this free meal prep toolkit. Save time and money on your meal prep, and maximize gains with this simple step-by-step guide.
Introduction: Muscle Growth 101
Muscle growth is the act of increasing the physical size of your lean tissue. This can be accomplished by adding mass and changing your body composition through a combination of training, diet, and lifestyle. Muscle growth always involves a form of weight gain, because you are adding additional muscle tissue.
Even when fat loss occurs simultaneously and overall body weight decreases, increasing the size of your muscles will automatically mean increasing the weight of your lean mass.
Why is Muscle Important?
Maintaining your muscle mass is one of the best things you can do for your health. A higher amount of lean tissue has a number of benefits including:
- Reduced risk of injury
- Reduced risk of chronic disease
- Improved health
- You can look more lean and toned
- You can eat more calories
- You process your food more efficiently
- Your fitness improves
More muscle typically equals more strength and being strong often equates to improved bone and joint health, which can reduce the risk of injury from falls and brittle bones. A higher lean body mass may also have protective health benefits against various chronic diseases, including obesity. More muscle also supports wound healing and recovery (1,2,3).
Muscle does wonders for maintaining your weight and body composition for the long haul. The more lean tissue you have, the easier it is to stay active and maintain a healthy weight. This is because a higher percent lean body mass (LBM) often means a higher body weight— but you will often look more lean, toned, and smaller than someone at the same weight with less muscle mass and more body fat. And a higher body weight means you can eat more calories and stay the same size.
You store key nutrients in your muscles, including glycogen (primarily from carbs). And having more muscle often means you can process more dietary carbs efficiently and utilize your calories better.
And lastly, increased muscle mass may make you a better athlete, or at the very least support your overall fitness goals. People tend to think that losing weight alone is going to get them that six pack they've always wanted, but you can only reveal what you've already got, meaning you won't look shredded or ripped unless you've built up some muscle definition underneath.
Muscle Quality Matters
It is important to distinguish between muscle mass and muscle quality in some individuals. Just having more muscle does not always lead to the health benefits noted above. It is possible to have a large amount of muscle without having improved strength and body composition, such as in the case of obesity.
Obese individuals are capable of having more muscle than others but often suffer from poor muscle quality due to lack of exercise and lifestyle factors (4). Thus, it is key to focus on overall body composition and a healthy lifestyle overall, including strength training, not just gaining muscle mass alone.
This is also why emphasis should be on gaining healthy weight. Any weight gain in a calorie surplus will involve some amount of muscle and some increases in body fat. The key is to tip the odds in favor of more muscle mass than fat. This results in better body composition and fitness outcomes.
How to Build Muscle
Muscles respond to calories, protein, exercise, and rest, and the balance of these key components can determine how efficiently you can gain muscle. In short, to promote muscle growth you need to eat more calories and protein, train your muscles, and allow time for recovery and rebuilding of tissue—eat, lift and rest.
But this explanation is drastically simplified and muscle growth tends to be fairly complex. The amount of muscle you can actually gain and how quickly is determined by many factors including genetics, food choices, training level, and hormones. And your starting body composition may also be an important factor to consider.
Building muscle typically requires total body weight gain, but not always - it is possible to gain muscle in a calorie deficit. However, this option may only exist for some people. The most efficient way to gain mass for most people is through increased calories and weight gain overall.
Muscle Growth Hormones
The key hormones that regulate muscle growth include:
- Growth Hormone (GH)
- Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1)
Resistance training stimulates the release of growth hormone. GH then stimulates the release of IGF-1 from the liver, which promotes the use of fat for energy in the growth process, also preserving stored glucose in muscles, and stimulates the absorption of amino acids for use. Sleep can also help release GH (5,6).
Testosterone works to further enhance this process and stimulate more muscle fiber engagement to promote growth.
Cortisol is also released after training to promote recovery. But too much cortisol can negatively affect muscle growth since it promotes the breakdown of protein to preserve glycogen stores (7).
How Much Muscle Can I Gain?
The amount of muscle growth you are able to obtain depends on the following:
- How well trained you are
- Your starting body composition
- Your genetic predisposition
- How well you stick to a muscle gain diet and training program
Those who are new to weight training and strength training in general, assuming they are not starting with a large amount of lean tissue, often have the ability to gain muscle more quickly than those who have been at it for some time (8,9). This makes sense because well-trained individuals have well-trained muscles that are more adapted to stress and biologically have less of a need to repair/build bigger stronger muscles than those that have little lean tissue, to begin with.
In addition, leaner individuals may be more likely to put on muscle over fat in a calorie surplus compared to those with a higher starting body fat percentage (10,11,12,13,14,15).
Those with higher amounts of existing mass might also find themselves adding excess body fat more so than muscle if their calorie intake is too high - this is primarily because they are nearly tapped out in their capability to add lean mass quickly and it is much easier for their body to store additional calories as body fat.
Some people are just genetically able to gain more muscle than others. This could be due to the number and proportion of their muscle fibers, hormonal differences or other individual factors.
How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle?
Similar to the amount of muscle you can gain, how quickly you can add mass is highly dependent on individual factors.
In reality, there is only so much food your body can process and turn into muscle, and gaining multiple pounds of muscle a week is not realistic for most, especially long term. Not to mention the faster you are trying to gain, the more likely you are going to see gains from water retention and increases in body fat, not just muscle.
For most, gaining one-half to one pound of weight per week, or a couple pounds per month, represents a fairly quick rate of healthy weight gain - with anywhere from one-third or more of this weight resulting in muscle gains (16). For some, especially women and seasoned lifters, the rate of muscle gain may be much slower (17).
Fitness for Muscle Growth
Years of fitness expertise coupled with research have shown us that strength training works to promote muscle growth. Although we aren't 100% clear on how—there are a large number of variables and individual differences to account for. And this lack of clarity has led to a lot of "Bro Science" and misinformation in the fitness world.
We do know that a key component of increasing muscle size is the act of wearing them down in the first place. Strength training exercise puts stress on your muscles and causes micro-tears, which your body then works to repair and rebuild stronger and bigger, leading to muscle growth (18). But it is also technically possible to gain some muscle without strength training, in some studies, higher protein intakes in a calorie excess lead to increases in lean mass in addition to increases in body fat, this approach is not nearly as efficient as including muscle building workouts in your plan and typically results in poor quality muscle gains (19).
Regardless, without some sort of strength training, you likely won't be successful with your gains. But what type of training is best?
To help you get the most out of your workouts, we dug through the existing research and asked expert trainers for their advice on how to promote muscle growth through evidence-based hypertrophy training.
What is Hypertrophy Training?
Hypertrophy training is training for the goal of increasing the size of your muscles, by expanding the cross-sectional size of the tissue (20).
Two factors contribute to hypertrophy:
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy relates to increases in fluid, giving you the appearance of larger, puffier muscles. This fluid portion contains water, minerals, glycogen, and phosphates and comprises nearly 80% of total muscle mass.
“Myo” is from the term Greek mys, and refers to muscle. Myofibrillar hypertrophy relates to increasing myofibril size, or the size of your muscle fibers - this is the type of hypertrophy many strive for when looking to gain strength and size.
Types of Muscle Fibers
There are two main types of muscle fibers:
- Slow twitch (type I)
- Fast twitch (type II)
Slow-twitch are used to support endurance training like jogging or cycling, and fast-twitch are used in more explosive and quick burst exercise (21,22). Fast-twitch fibers are more likely to increase in size compared to slow-twitch fibers because fast-twitch fibers fatigue more quickly, leading to an increased need for repair and strengthening. This is also why strength training and CrossFit style workouts lead to muscle size growth more than running or swimming.
Large vs. Small Muscles
There are also large muscles and small muscles. Larger muscle groups include your upper legs, back, chest and glutes, and smaller muscles include your arms, shoulders, and calves. The distinction is important because larger muscles are easier to increase in size, and these muscles tend to be more foundation, support full-body training, and lifts.
What are the Best Workouts to Gain Muscle?
As it turns out, just about any type of strength training can lead to muscle growth, since hypertrophy is the result of mechanical tension. However, your focus should be on training volume or "time under tension" rather than how heavy you are lifting. The longer and more often you can stress your muscles, the more effective your hypertrophy training is. You can build muscle using bodyweight, light weight, or heavy weight; it all depends on your personal strength and fitness level.
So if you are just getting started, don't feel like you need to jump right into Olympic lifts and heavy squats. Instead, take time to build your foundation and find a muscle building workout plan that meets your personal needs.
Building a Good Foundation
If you are new to lifting, you probably don't want to go into and gym and start throwing around weights until you know what you are doing. Even many advanced lifters can benefit from taking it back to basics every now and then by focusing on their range of movement and flexibility.
Building a good foundation is essentially establishing fundamentals that you can build on, which results in improved training. Focusing on fundamentals can help reduce pain, future injuries, and other issues associated with poor form or incorrect technique during exercise.
When looking to train for muscle growth, make sure you've mastered the basics of core movements and can perform each movement correctly and fully before increasing the weight. Establishing these big core competencies will allow you to train harder and more often- which can support more muscle growth in the long run. In addition, being able to train with a full range of motion (ROM) engages more muscle tissue and may support better hypertrophy training (23,24).
"Do not add external resistance or weight until you’ve perfected motor recruitment required to move through a full range of motion." - Dane Bolte, CrossFit Trainer
Muscle balance and recovery are also important. You should not be training one side of your body more than the other.
Establishing a Mind-Body Connection
There is also growing research looking at the mind-body connection when it comes to weight training. By learning to focus your intensity throughout each movement, research suggests you can increase muscle activity and support more muscle growth (25).
You can establish a better mind-body connection by learning where you should "feel" each movement. If you are squatting to increase glute size or bench pressing to grow your chest muscles, make sure you can feel these specific muscles working before adding weight. It's not about how fast you can lift, how many reps you can do, or even how heavy you can lift if you aren't targeting and engaging the muscles you want.
"Make sure you can feel your exercises where you want. Learn how to isolate certain muscle to establish a good mind body connection." - Christian Ampania, NASM-CPT, NASM-BCS, PN-1, OTA
Focus on Compound Lifts
Compound lifts are multi-joint movements that engage more than one large muscle group at a time. Examples of popular compound lifts include squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pull-ups. Compared to isolation exercises, like a dumbbell hammer curl, compound lifts are an efficient way to engage your full body and build more muscle, faster.
There is also some evidence suggesting that compound lifting leads to a slightly higher release of muscle building hormones - testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1, but this increase in hormones hasn't been shown to positively affect or increase MPS (26,27).
You can use multi joint movements at any fitness level. And working on big core competencies will add overall strength and muscle building capabilities.
Don't Just Focus Heavy Lifts
Building strength and building muscle mass are often thought of as the same thing, but actually, they may require different training techniques. Muscle contraction is the result of motor neurons activated by your central nervous system—your brain sends an electrical signal to your muscles to excite muscle fibers and cause them to contract. And some research suggests that heavier lifting may engage your central nervous system more, resulting in increases in strength and power with training (28).
Heavier lifting relies on quick, powerful lifts (within a 3 to 5 rep range), with a focus on the external force you can exert on an external weight. Hypertrophy training, on the other hand, relies more on time under tension to stress the muscle for longer.
It is well documented that mechanical tension is a major proponent of muscle growth, so it would make sense the more longer you can create mechanical tension on your muscle (AKA the number of reps), the more muscle you will be able to build (29,30).
Increasing muscle size can often result in increased strength - mainly because you have more muscle fibers to engage in lifting heavier weights. But for muscle gain purposes, aiming to lift as heavy as possible or using max weight often is likely not be an effective approach to hypertrophy.
Increase Your Reps but Not Your Intensity
According to research the sweet spot for focusing on growth may lie somewhere in the range of 60 to 85% of max effort, and roughly 8 to 12 reps per set (31,32,33,34). Because this is based on a percent of effort, the amount of weight can look drastically different from one individual to the next. Beginners may be able to build muscle using just bodyweight, but the more advanced you become, you'll need to adjust the weight accordingly.
Your body cant handle 85% and above for long periods of time, and lifting too heavy gives you less time under tension. However, many still argue that heavier weight, close to 85% max at 5 to 8 reps can still produce significant gains, and the research supports this (35,36,37,38). The reality is there may not be an exact rep amount to strive for across all styles of lifts and individuals differences will always be at play.
"Don't just go for high intensity and high volume, instead focus on high volume, low intensity to increase time under tension. Then play within that range to make it more challenging with pauses, slowed reps, decreased rest, etc". - Dane Bolte, CrossFit Trainer
Decrease Your Cardio
High-intensity training and conditioning with light weight can work against your muscle building efforts. Since a calorie surplus is ideal for gaining mass, increasing your calorie burn with too much conditioning can make it harder to gain weight. Consider opting out of high-intensity training for a few months and allow yourself to focus solely on gaining muscle first. Then add conditioning back in later to help burn any body fat gained in the process.
Allow Time for Rest
When it comes to weight lifting frequency, more is not always better. Training the same muscles every day or even twice a day has not been shown to result in more muscle gains overall, especially in newbies (39). How quickly you can build mass is more dependent on how quickly you can recover - since MPS occurs after training.
In one study, training once a week was adequate in supporting muscle growth (40). But for more seasoned lifters, training more frequently might be more beneficial for growth, since they are able to recover quickly and can stimulate more MPS with more frequent training (41).
Overtraining doesn't really exist, but under recovering does. Recovery is more than just sleep and time off the gym; you should also be massaging your muscle and working out the tissue to keep it healthy. You can train all day every day if you can recover just as much. A good rule of thumb is: the time you put in working should equal your recovery.
“Experienced lifters can train more frequently than beginners. Give yourself a day or two rest if you’re a beginner. If advanced, rest every other day”. - Christian Ampania, NASM-CPT, NASM-BCS, PN-1, OTA
Keep it Challenging
Over time you'll want to increase the stimulus by the number of reps, amount of weight, or a decrease in rest time. The more seasoned of a lifter you become, the more your muscles will adapt to the type of training you are doing. Just as bodyweight won't cut it forever, you'll need to keep challenging your muscles and switching things up to keep seeing progress. Aim to work a little harder each time you hit the gym and consider switching up your routine entirely every four to six weeks.
Muscle Building Diets
When it comes to gaining weight, the amount of food you eat is the most important thing to consider. Eating more calories than you burn will lead to weight gain. But the type of weight you gain—muscle vs. fat—can be heavily influenced by the quality of your calories.
Gaining muscle isn't a license to eat whatever you want.
How to Gain Weight: Muscle vs. Fat
With any weight gain, you can expect to add a combination of body fat and lean tissue. But with a strategic dietary approach, you can increase the amount of potential muscle gain and limit excess body fat where possible.
Gaining fat only requires calories, but gaining muscle requires more. To promote muscle growth you'll need:
- Excess calories
- Good nutrition
- Nutrient timing
Starting Body Composition
Step one before heading into any goal around changing your body composition should involve assessing your starting body fat percentage. This metric can also influence how successful you may be in gaining more muscle over fat.
|Ideal Body Fat Percentage|
If you are lean from the start, you may be more likely to put on muscle than those who are less lean. Also, if you have excess body fat, to begin with, it might be worth starting with a cut to lose some body fat before thinking about going on any bulking diet.
For newbies, a higher starting body fat percentage might not be as detrimental, since they might be able to lose fat and gain mass at the same time. However, this process would ultimately require a calorie deficit or weight loss diet and not a traditional muscle gain diet.
How to Tell if You’re Gaining Muscle or Fat
The scale alone won't help you decipher between fat and muscle, so the best way to assess how much muscle you are gaining is through body composition testing. This can be through an at-home device like a handheld reader or body fat scale, or through a paid service using skin-fold calipers, BodPod, hydrostatic weighing, or DXA scans.
Each method varies slightly in terms of accuracy, but the most important thing to remember is to use the same method of testing initially and when interpreting results. This will ensure you have the most accurate assessment of any changes in your body over time.
DXA scans are thought to be the most accurate measurement of body composition and many companies will provide multi-location testing options. DXA scans provide detailed imaging for muscle and fat storage throughout your body, showing you exactly how much muscle and fat you have and where. They also assess bone density.
How Many Calories Should I Eat to Gain Muscle?
You might have heard the common saying that it takes cutting 3,500 calories from your diet to lose a pound of fat. Many see this and assume eating the same amount will result in one pound of muscle gain, but calorie control for weight gain is not the same as cutting calories for weight loss. While it is easy to simplify the calorie equation and assume excess calories automatically turn into weight gain, it's not a clear-cut as you'd think.
When you don't get enough calories from food, your body is able to release stored calories for energy (typically in the form of body fat) and this process does not require a ton of energy. Weight gain on the other hand does require energy, and gaining muscle requires more energy than fat. Turning food into muscle requires more metabolic processes than just releasing body fat stores for fuel. In addition, protein provides less than half as many calories per gram as fat - fat provides nine calories per gram, compared to protein which provides only four calories per gram.
It has been documented in numerous research studies that somewhere between 2,500 to 2,800 excess calories are needed to produce one pound of lean mass. However, this amount can vary depending on your fitness level, body composition, and diet. For most adding 100 to 300 calories per day is sufficient in promoting healthy weight gain, but others may require much higher intakes.
Learn more about how many calories you need each day to gain weight.
|Lean, Untrained||Add +300 to 1,000 calories|
|Lean, Trained||Add +100 to 300 calories|
|Higher Body Fat %, Untrained||Consider cutting 15% to 20% of your calories and eat at least 1g of protein/pound of bodyweight|
|Higher Body Fat %, Trained||Consider cutting 15% of your calories and eat at least 1.2g of protein/pound of bodyweight|
How Much Protein to Build Muscle?
In addition to higher calories and strength training, protein intake is also essential for muscle growth. Protein supplies the essential amino acids needed to create muscle through muscle protein synthesis (MPS), and cannot be replaced by any other nutrient for this purpose.
Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of MPS is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown. Muscle protein breakdown occurs during strength training and when protein intake is not high enough to support daily needs. Protein is crucial for a large number of bodily functions and your body will break down lean muscle to get access to more amino acids if you aren’t getting enough through diet. MPS occurs during periods of rest when excess protein is available.
There is a lot of argument and misinformation in the diet and fitness world surrounding how much protein is necessary to support lean mass, but here is what we know so far:
Your protein needs are most closely related to how much lean mass you have and how much you use your muscles. Protein is not just for building mass; it also helps maintain existing muscle, so the more muscle you have and the more you put wear and tear on them, the more protein you need.
Common bodybuilder advice recommends you eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound of total body weight, but the research varies on this topic depending on age, fitness level, and overall body composition goals (42,43,44,45,46).
This suggestion is supported by recent studies indicating at least 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight is needed (47).
Based on the existing research and nutrition practices, you need roughly one gram of protein per pound of lean mass for maintenance.
Excess protein is needed to support muscle protein synthesis. If there isn't enough protein available, muscle growth is severely limited. Thus, additional protein intakes are needed to gain muscle.
A narrative review of the research and some smaller studies suggest that higher protein intakes between 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight during a large calorie surplus results in less body fat gain and more muscle gain overall (48,49).
Based on cumulative research and expert recommendations, as high as 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound may be necessary when looking to add lean mass using a calorie surplus.
How to Gain Healthy Weight
Good nutrition can support your muscle-building efforts in a number of ways. By balancing your bulking macros correctly, you can limit the amount of body fat you gain and promote more muscle mass. In addition, many vitamins and minerals play a direct or supportive role in muscle gain.
Lean Bulk vs. Dirty Bulk
There are two main types of muscle-building diets, clean bulk/lean bulk and dirty bulk. A dirty bulk typically involves eating a lot of extra calories from high-calorie foods to promote quick weight gain. A clean bulk uses a more moderate increase in calories in addition to healthier food choices.
A dirty bulk can seem more appealing to many because of the less restricted dietary choices and potential ability to gain weight more quickly. However, research suggests that a lean bulk may lead to better body composition, in the end, resulting in less body fat gain (50). A lean bulk also supports more nutritious food choices which can benefit muscle growth in other ways.
Interestingly, lean individuals who are new to weight training may be able to grab the benefits of a dirty bulk without the potential fat gain.
See the full comparison of dirty bulk vs. clean bulk diets.
Best Muscle-Building Foods
The best foods for muscle growth are not drastically different from the foods that make up a generally healthy diet, with the exception of higher calories and protein. Thus any diet high in lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and nutrient-dense fruits and veggies is a great start. However, some foods may offer unique muscle-building benefits like animal proteins and dairy.
Animal sources of protein tend to be more protein-dense than plant-based proteins— providing more protein per calorie. They also rank higher in terms of bioavailability and digestibility, meaning you absorb this type of protein more efficiently (51,52,53).
Also, all animal proteins are also complete proteins, supplying all the essential amino acids needed at once, and many plant proteins are considered incomplete or lacking in key amino acids. While there is no research to suggest that plant-based diets are deficient in amino acids overall, consuming more complete proteins and adequate protein in the hours following a strength training workout may have positive muscle building benefits (54).
Dairy is also a great match for muscle growth since it is a natural source of the hormone, IGF-1 (55,56). So opting for protein-rich dairy options like cottage cheese, greek yogurt and milk might offer some advantages.
Macros for Building Muscle
It is well established that higher protein intakes are needed to gain mass, but what about fat and carbs?
Fat is a beneficial addition to higher calorie diets because it is the most energy-dense macro - providing more than twice as many calories per gram as the other macros. This also means that fat provides calories for less volume of food, which can also benefit those who have a hard time eating enough healthy food in a bulking diet. In addition, fat plays a key role in hormone production.
However, excess fat, beyond your recommended amount (30% of your calories) may not provide any additional advantages. Fat is easily stored as body fat in a calorie surplus, and according to research, some individuals may be more prone to fat storage (57). The type of fat you choose also matters, with some research suggesting unsaturated fat may be less likely to promote fat storage and offers health benefits (58).
Carbs, on the other hand, are slightly more difficult to convert to body fat than dietary fat and contribute to muscle gain in unique ways. Higher carb intake promotes increases in glycogen storage, which supports your training and may also help with muscle recovery (59). Moreover, carbs (in addition to protein) generate an insulin response which is beneficial to weight gain (60).
Calculate your Macros using this calculator:
For a general macro recommendation, once you establish your daily protein needs, based on your body weight, keep fat intake around 25 to 30% of your calories and fill the remaining calories with high-quality carbs.
Want even more nutrition support? Get personalized muscle gain macros and daily macro tracking with the Trifecta app.
When you eat and what you eat can also impact muscle gain. Research doesn't show any major differences in metabolism or blood sugar control, whether you are eating three meals or six small meals a day, but getting enough calories can be a challenge for some and skipping meals creates a missed opportunity for calories and nutrients you need.
Also, some eating windows are more essential than others for gains—the most notable time period for this is pre-workout meals and post-workout meals.
Pre and Post Workout Meals
Pre and post-workout nutrition is dependent on when you are training. If you tend to workout first thing in the morning, not having anything before a workout means you are in a fairly fasted state—since the last meal you had was probably dinner the night before. For some, this can negatively impact your output and endurance, for others, they have no issue. However, some research indicates pre-workout meals might also help curve some muscle damage by supplying additional protein (64).
What to Eat Before a Workout to Build Muscle?
So if you are training in the morning, consider playing with a couple of pre-workout meal options. Most probably don't have a few hours to eat and digest a full meal, and the closer you consume something before training, the more quick-acting you'll want.
Try a combination of simple carbs and protein and see if it impacts your training for the better.
Great options include a sports drink with protein powder, chocolate milk, peanut butter toast, and yogurt with honey. If you're finding eating too close to training causes nausea, try juice, sports gels and gummies, and other simple sugars.
What to Eat After a Workout to Build Muscle?
If you choose to work out fasted, especially in the morning, your post-workout recovery becomes even more important. While the supposed "anabolic window" may not be as tight as we once assumed (most can benefit from adequate recovery eating within a few hours of training and throughout the day), prolonging a fasted state even further likely won't do you any favors for muscle gains.
Aim to get about 30 grams of quality protein after a strength training workout to supply your muscles with the amino acids they need to promote MPS. Great options include protein shakes and bars, greek yogurt, and full meals.
If you aren't training in the morning, the timing of your last and next meal will help you determine pre and post-nutrition.
What about protein absorption? For years there has been much debate around how much protein you can absorb and utilize from one meal—with some research suggesting that no more than 25 to 30g of protein can be absorbed in one sitting (65,66).
However, this is dependent on the type of protein and individual factors. Not to mention, they are numerous benefits of protein consumption beyond just MPS, so you should not feel limited to that amount.
A more recent review suggests that to maximize anabolism, 0.4 grams of protein/kg body weight/meal is recommended, four times per day to reach the minimum suggested protein intake for muscle growth (1.5g of protein/kg) (67). So a 200-pound adult (91kg) should eat 36 grams of protein per meal or at least 145 grams of protein per day.
What we can learn from this research, is that spreading out your protein intake throughout the day, and timing it around training needs, is likely an effective approach to supporting more MPS. And if you are only eating a few times a day or less, you might be limiting yourself.
Carb timing might also have advantages. Carb cycling is a fairly new concept that has limited but promising research. Simply put, carbohydrate cycling is the act of timing your carbs around the days and hours your body needs them most. This nutrient timing approach is thought to better support training and recovery and optimize your nutrition intake (68,69).
Essentially, eating more carbs around the time you lift and fewer carbs when you're at rest. High carb days can also be used to replenish muscle glycogen stores - leading to improved performance and decreased muscle breakdown (70,71).
Moreover, lower carb days may help improve insulin sensitivity and promote more fat utilization, which could, in turn, reduce potential fat gain overall (72,73,74).
Muscle Gain Supplements
Supplement use is common on many muscle-building diets but is not required. More importantly, not all supplements are worth their weight or price tag, or 100% safe for that matter. Here is the breakdown of common muscle gain supplements and what the research supports.
Whey is a quick-acting protein, derived from milk, that is absorbed and used quickly. Whey protein powders can also help supplement protein intake throughout the day to help you hit your daily macro goal or be used for muscle recovery after training.
Mix into your favorite fruit drink or smoothie, used in baked goods, puddings, etc., or mix directly with milk or water. Some studies suggest that milk protein is better than soy-based options in promoting muscle growth, but this is all relative to your overall training, diet, and nutrient timing (75,76,77).
Casein, another dairy-based protein, is gaining a lot of popularity in the fitness industry because of its supposed ability to promote muscle growth and better recovery. Casein, unlike whey, is a long-acting protein, meaning it is absorbed more slowly over time.
This effect can help extend your post-workout nutrient absorption. But the benefits of casein may be most notable during sleep. When you go to bed, your body releases growth hormone, and when protein is available, MPS may be stimulated.
Taking casein at night before bed is thought to support this mechanism throughout the night by supplying long-lasting protein for MPS and some research does support this theory (78,79). It has also long been used as a recovery protein for athletes in foods like low-fat dairy.
Creatine, a substance found naturally in muscle cells, is also available in supplement form. Taking creatine can help draw more water and nutrients into your muscles acting as a beneficial post-workout supplement for muscle building.
While the mechanism is not well understood, some research suggests that creatine supplementation might lead to increases muscular strength and muscle fiber size (80).
Creatine can also work as a PH buffer in your muscles to help relieve some of the burn you feel during training and allow you to grab a few more reps. It is also thought to enhance performance in short burst, high-intensity activities like weight lifting (< 30-sec bouts), but has not been shown to improve overall endurance (81).
Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
There are also some studies suggesting that including branch chain amino acids in post-workout nutrition might support more muscle growth because of the immediate availability of key amino acids used in muscle repair and protein synthesis (82,83,84).
However, BCAAs are not complete proteins and may not offer as significant of a benefit as including food-based options or whey protein instead.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that is thought to serve as a PH buffer by helping you produce more carnosine and helping to prevent acid build-up that often leads to loss of strength and stamina. Some limited research suggests that taking beta-alanine before lifting might help you get a few more reps in and potentially improve your endurance and performance during training (85).
Beta-alanine is also responsible for that tingly feeling you get when taking pre-workout.
Caffeine might make you feel more energetic and ready to take on your workout, which has benefits in itself, but it won't necessarily give you any extra physical endurance. Regardless, caffeine might help improve stamina by positively altering your mind (86).
Caffeine can be found in a number of supplements, taken in pill form, or found in common foods like coffee, tea, and chocolate.
L-Arginine, an amino acid often marketed as nitric oxide, has limited research but may act as an ergogenic aid. Taking arginine is thought to boost feelings of endurance and improve stamina by helping to deliver nutrients to muscles (87).
It is commonly found in pre-workouts, coupled with some other ingredients, or as a single supplement. It has limited research to back up claims but remains popular in the fitness world.
Importance of Rest and Recovery
Fitness and diet aside, physical recovery is also a key part of muscle growth, especially since most MPS occurs during periods of rest. Taking time off in between training, getting adequate sleep, and controlling daily stress are all important in establishing good recovery habits. Adding in stretching, foam rolling and recovery workouts might also be worthwhile.
Muscle recovery involves the removal of lactic acid and hydrogen, and re-balancing of intramuscular nutrients and electrolytes. Taking time to rest and restore is a crucial step in building muscle. It can also help improve mobility, ROM, improve muscle health and reduce the risk of injury.
Also, incorporating low-intensity recovery workouts like stretching, foam rolling, and yoga teaches your nervous system how to relax and can also benefit from building a strong foundation. Any mobility training may also allow you to train harder, by achieving a deeper range of motion and get more out of your exercise.
What Causes Sore Muscles?
Muscle soreness is a good sign that you have pushed your muscles to a new limit, which can be of benefit to muscle gains. During training, micro-tears occur in your muscles, which leads to inflammation and soreness. The repair and healing process following this is where MPS occurs.
Soreness can last up to multiple days after training but is not necessarily a reason to stop training altogether. Some rest and recovery are needed, but training on sore muscles will not cause any additional harm - in some cases, continued training can help relieve muscle pain, especially using active recovery.
How to Get Rid of Sore Muscles
Recovering from sore muscles can involve some light activity, stretching, foam rolling, and proper nutrition. But more so, it just takes time for the soreness to go away.
Summary and Evidence-Based Recommendations
Based on existing science and evidence-based practices, here are the key components you should be focusing on when it comes to curating your muscle building game plan.
- Fine-tune your calories and macros to supply adequate energy and protein.
- Eat a generally healthy diet, that includes 4 or more balanced meals each day.
- Include strength training 2 to 3 days a week, with moderate weight (60 to 85% of your max) and at least 5 to 6 reps per set.
- Include at least one recovery day, or include light stretching and foam rolling after your workouts.
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
Still have questions? Leave a comment below and let us know! We'll add it to our FAQs below:
What are Signs of Muscle Growth?
If you’re following a strategic diet and fitness routine, but not sure if your gains are the result of muscle, there are a few things that may help tip you off. A combination of the following is typically a good indicator of muscle growth:
- Weight gain
- Increased strength and performance
- Noticeable size differences
- Your clothes fit differently
To be entirely sure, you can measure you're muscle directly with a tape measure and uses body composition testing every few months.
How to Build Muscle for Skinny Guys?
If you are naturally lean and having a hard time putting on weight, you will need to continually increase your calories until you can gain weight. This may require eating until you are uncomfortably full on a regular basis. You can also cut back on calories burned during aerobic training or daily movements and focus more on moderate weight training.
How to Build Muscle for Women?
According to science, it seems men and women have a fairly similar response to resistance training. However, gender differences in hormones, size, and body composition do exist - men tend to be larger and naturally contain more lean mass, and women have higher amounts of estrogen and lower testosterone. These differences may affect what level of hypertrophy one can naturally obtain and how quickly.
Women tend to gain muscle very quickly initially but can then slow to a lower rate of gains than men. They are also less likely to achieve a high muscle mass overall.
Interestingly, women may recover faster than men since estrogen is thought to play a role in recovering from sore muscles (88).
How to Build Muscle Without Weights?
It is entirely possible to gain muscle without weights, especially for beginners. Bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, air squats, and walking lunges, can be an effective approach to building and maintaining lean muscle. However, once these workouts become too easy, you may want to consider increasing the resistance with exercise bands or light weight.
How to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?
While this concept at first seems physically impossible, there have been some studies suggesting that with high protein intake and regular strategic training, you may be able to gain muscle while simultaneously losing body fat (89).
However, this approach seems to only work well in beginners with a higher body fat percentage to start. And this type of diet requires cutting calories, not increasing them. So realistically, you would need to go on a low-calorie diet, increase your protein, and lift weights to achieve these results - not exactly the right approach for seasoned lifters looking to gain some extra mass.
Can You Spot Train Certain Muscles for Growth?
Unlike fat loss, where you cannot spot reduce when it comes to hypertrophy training, it is possible to spot train and target only certain muscles. Although you will automatically train surrounding muscles and this approach is not the most efficient or recommended way to add mass.
Why am I not Gaining Muscle?
If you're having trouble gaining muscle, you could be having trouble staying consistent. Take a look at how many calories you are actually eating. Are you tracking your daily calorie and protein intake? Using a macro-friendly app can be a great way to ensure you are hitting your nutrition goals on a consistent basis.
You can also take a look at your training schedule. Are you lifting heavy enough and often enough? Are you taking time for adequate rest and recovery?
How to Lose Muscle Mass?
Losing mass requires decreased calories and training. If you cut your calories low and stop working the muscles you are looking to decrease in size; you can promote more muscle breakdown for energy. You will also want to scale back some on your protein intake and avoid having too much excess protein in your diet.
How to Cut Without Losing Muscle Mass?
If looking to do a cut and maintain as much of your existing mass as possible, you'll want to keep your protein intake high and continue to include consistent weight training. The research suggests that about one gram of protein per pound of body weight can help protect lean mass in a calorie deficit (90). You can also increase your calorie burn with more high-intensity training that includes some bodyweight exercises -helping to promote fat loss while maintaining your strength.
What is Muscle Atrophy?
Muscle atrophy is the technical term for the re-absorption and breakdown of lean tissue. Atrophy can occur when injuries happen, and movement is restricted, or when training stops altogether. Some muscle atrophy can occur in a matter of weeks, but it typically takes months to see significant decreases in lean tissue.
Can Muscle Turn Into Fat and Vice Versa?
No. It is not possible for existing mass, either fatty tissue or muscle, to transform into another type of mass. Muscle can be lost through activity, decreased protein intake, and decreased calories, and fat can be lost through cutting calories alone. But lost mass is used as energy or broken down into usable amino acids, it is not automatically rebuilt and restored as something else.
Need help getting your nutrition dialed in? Or just not a big fan of meal prepping all of your food? Get your bulking diet down to a science with this free meal prep toolkit for muscle gain.
Pair this with our a la carte plan to fully customize your macros and food choices, and make the dieting side of muscle gain feel like a breeze.