You can crank out heavy squats and curls until your quads and biceps scream for mercy, and still you can’t seem to build the muscle you want.
What’s going on?
If you’re struggling to grow muscle despite your dedication in the gym, your problem most likely isn’t your workout, but rather your diet and lifestyle.
Building muscle is a complex science. It’s a coalescence of your lifting, your nutrition, your hormones, and your rest. So, let’s assume you’re doing everything right in the gym—following a good program and pushing yourself hard. Keep it up.
But now let’s focus on the other stuff. Are you getting enough protein and calories? Are you supporting your endocrine system properly? Are you getting quality sleep? Tweaking these crucial variables will result in the kind of muscle that fills out a T-shirt—and then some.
“Nutrition is the cornerstone in building lean muscle,” says nutritionist and exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D. “If the protein isn’t there, it’s not going to help your muscles grow. If the carbs aren’t there, you’re going to feel sluggish. If the fat isn’t there, it’s going to affect energy levels and overall health.”
In short, it’s time to master the soft art of building hard muscle—meal time. Your diet needs to be strategically choreographed to accelerate the repair-and-grow process that follows that strenuous workout session you’re so proud of.
White knows the right formula. A former skinny athlete, he was a self-described “hard gainer,” frustrated by his inability to grow bigger and stronger and run faster. Then he took a hard look at his crappy diet: He ate like a bird. Rarely touched fruits and vegetables. He gravitated toward sugary processed junk.
His nutrition training opened his eyes to his problem, and he changed his body and his life. He started eating six meals a day, increasing his daily calories to 3,500 and began experimenting with different percentages of macronutrients until he found the sweet spot.
Suddenly, his energy skyrocketed, making his time in the gym more productive. Now he’s jacked—he added 30kg of lean muscle and saw huge strength gains. The guy who struggled to bench 30kg can now press 130kg.
White shares his story of total body transformation and the plan that got him there in the new book Men’s Health Best Meals for Muscle. Here’s a sample of White’s muscle-building plan, below. To finesse your own massive growth spurt, grab a copy of Best Meals for Muscle; it’s full of White’s expert advice and tasty, easy-to-cook meals with the right macronutrient mix to fuel your transition.
1. Eat More Protein
The actual process of growing muscle, when cells rush in to rebuild your torn-down muscle fibres, happens not in the gym but after your workout, when you rest. And the composition of what you eat before and after you stress that muscle can mean the difference between building up the muscle or destroying it.
Making sure you’re eating enough protein is of paramount importance for two reasons:
1. Proteins deliver the amino acids that form the building blocks of muscle. When intense weightlifting breaks down muscle protein synthesis provides the proteins needed to repair that muscle and spur it to grow bigger.
2. Your body also looks to proteins to supply amino acids for producing hormones like insulin and human growth hormone, which can further drain protein reserves. A higher protein diet ensures you have more than enough to go around and shifts your body into an anabolic mode, one that builds tissues rather than breaking them down.
While the recommended daily allowance for protein is around 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight, you should double that to build muscle. That’s the maximum amount your body can use in a day, according to a landmark study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
So, for example, a 72kg man should try to consume 160 grams of protein a day in order to fuel muscle growth. One hundred sixty grams of protein looks like this: 225 grams of chicken breast, 1 cup of cottage cheese, a roast beef sandwich, two eggs, a glass of milk, and 50 grams of peanuts.
2. Consume More Calories
If you’re weight training to bulk up, don’t eat like a guy who’s trying to lose weight. Growing a kg of muscle requires about 2,800 calories. That means you may have to overeat to consume enough calories to build size.
In fact, in some studies, researchers found that lifters with the greatest gains in muscle were the men who were the biggest eaters. White’s plan calls for boosting your calories to 3,000 a day. That’s a lot of food to consume in three squares, so White recommends you . . .
Eat Every 3 Hours (roughly)
By spreading your calories out over, say, six meals spaced about 3 hours apart, you’ll avoid that full-belly feeling that can make you sluggish, and you’ll ensure your muscles get consistently stoked with protein and carbs. Your body needs a constant supply of macronutrients and micronutrients to operate properly, especially when it is being taxed by intense exercise.
Shoot for about 30 grams of protein per meal. That’ll get most people into the proper range for muscle growth.
Get the Right Mix of Macros
Protein is critical, but it shouldn’t be a soloist when you’re orchestrating a plan for building mass. The other macronutrients, namely carbohydrates and healthy fats, influence muscle growth, too. By getting your macro ratio right, you can expect to see your gains skyrocket and avoid adding body fat even with the increase in calories, says White. Best Meals for Muscle makes hitting that holy grail ratio of 50 percent carbs, 25 percent protein, and 25 percent fat easy by translating it into ideal meal examples (and recipes) you can use to fuel your day.
Hydrate for More T
Exercise-induced dehydration slows your motor neurons. Not only will you feel fatigue sooner during a workout than you otherwise would, but your performance slips as well.
What’s more, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that dehydrated weight lifters produced more of the stress hormone cortisol, while reducing the release of testosterone, the body’s best muscle builder.
Find Your Whey
Right after your workout, drink a whey protein shake that delivers about 25 grams of protein per serving. Whey digests more quickly than other types of protein, so it hits your muscles faster. Whey protein also has the highest concentration of the branched-chain amino acid leucine, which is required for protein synthesis.
Have a Banana Before a Workout
Or some Greek yoghurt. Or a low-sugar sports drink. All are rich in electrolytes, which help your muscles contract. Exercise depletes electrolytes fast. Be sure you don’t run short and cramp up.
Time Your Meals
If you’re serious about packing on more muscle, get serious about being more disciplined about when you eat. You can start by creating a meal plan and sticking to strict meal times. Begin refuelling shortly after you wake up and stop eating three hours before going to bed. Remember, your body repairs and builds muscles as you sleep. Eating just before bed can disrupt your sleep and throw a monkey wrench into that crucial repair process.
This article originally appeared on Men’s Health US.