Why Nutrition Is Essential for Building Muscle — and How to Fuel Up the Right Way

Knowing what to eat to gain muscle will help you make gains after your strength-training workout.
Image Credit: luza studios/iStock/GettyImages

There are many reasons gaining muscle mass may be one of your goals. Whether you want to gain strength to help you run around the park with your kids, bulk up for a fitness competition or simply maintain a healthy body and muscle mass as you age, the process for achieving that toned, lean look is the same.

You probably already know that gaining muscle mass requires a combination of proper nutrition and strength training — but not all diet and exercise programs will provide those increased gains you're looking for. Fueling your muscles with the necessary macronutrients in the right amounts is one of the most important factors to achieving your muscle-building goals.

Read more: How to Read a Nutrition Label — and Finally Get Your Macros Right

When people are ready to start their diet and wonder what to eat to gain muscle, lean sources of protein is the first thing that comes to mind. But protein alone won't get you to your goal. You also need quality carbohydrates to spur muscle recovery and repair as well as healthy fats such as omega-3s, which might reduce muscle loss in older people, an October 2014 study in Nutrients found. Ready to revamp your diet and exercise routine? Find out exactly what it takes to build lean muscle below.

Yes, You Have to Eat Enough Protein

Protein is the building block of muscle tissue and contains both essential and non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are produced by our bodies naturally while essential amino acids must be obtained via our diets.

Amino acids and proteins help our bodies synthesize hormones that help us to build muscle, Jim White, RD, certified personal trainer and owner of Jim White Fit, tells us. Amino acids also aid energy that helps us fuel our workouts as well as regulate our sleep — which is when our muscles recover and rebuild themsevles, White says.

Specifically, the essential amino acid leucine is critical for muscle repair and growth. Immediately following a workout, our muscles develop tiny tears that allow for new muscle growth — and leucine stimulates that growth and repair. Making sure your protein sources provide enough leucine is essential for seeing gains in muscle growth. Since animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, you'll get your leucine from eating meats, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish. But if you're vegan or vegetarian, it's best to combine plant proteins to get a complete amino acid profile. Plant-based sources of leucine (and protein) include:

  • Firm tofu
  • Navy beans
  • Squash and pumpkin seeds
  • Peanuts

When it comes down to how much protein you should get from your diet, everyone's needs will vary. "Total daily protein intake should be about double the recommended daily amount (RDA), so about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight," Christy Alexon, PhD, RD, associate professor at Arizona State University and sport nutrition coach for Renaissance Periodization, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

And science agrees: A July 2017 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine evaluated a total of over 1,800 study participants and concluded that the ideal protein intake for building muscle is up to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

So, a 150-pound person would need to eat about 109 grams of protein a day to support muscle growth. However, loading your plate with even more protein won't do you any good: The study also found that eating protein beyond this magic number didn't result in any additional gains!

For reference, a three-ounce portion (about the size of a deck of cards) of lean chicken breast contains 27 grams of protein and a three-ounce portion of salmon contains 21 grams of protein. Robert Santana, RD, Starting Strength Coach and owner of Weights & Plates in Phoenix, Arizona offers more delicious ways to get your protein in:

  • Meat jerky or vegan jerky
  • Greek yogurt and Icelandic yogurt (skyr)
  • String cheese
  • Protein shakes
  • Protein chips
  • Protein bars
  • Salads topped with meat and low-fat dressing or mustard
  • Milk

Timing Your Meals Is Essential for Muscle Gains

So now that you know what to eat, is meal timing important too? You bet.

Since your total daily protein intake should be about double the RDA, this amount should be spread out during the day by eating small protein-rich meals every three to four hours, Alexon says. "This is going to keep a steady supply of amino acids in your bloodstream during the day and reduce the amount of muscle protein breakdown that may occur."

Alexon recommends mixing a 100-percent whey isolate protein shake before the gym for longer and more intense strength-training sessions. A whey isolate protein shake is quickly digested and provides a complete protein source with all the essential amino acids needed for muscle building.

Read more: Collagen vs. Whey Protein: Which Is Best for You?

Planning to hit the weight room before heading to work? "If you are working out first thing in the morning, drink about a third of the shake upon waking up and then sip on the remaining two-thirds between exercises during your strength workout," Alexon tells us. "Then, have a post-workout meal with carbs and protein about 20 minutes after you finish strength training."

If you're working out later in the day after you've had a few meals, you'll want to sip on about half the shake during your strength workout and drink the other half immediately after your workout.

Have a post-workout meal with carbs and protein ideally within 20 to 30 minutes after you finish strength training, but your body will be in the muscle-building more for at least the next 24 hours, Alexon says. "Building muscle occurs after training, during recovery. So to build muscle, you need to not only train well but you also need to recover well from those workouts — which is where nutrition comes into play."

In fact, muscle protein synthesis increased by an impressive 25 percent when research participants spread their protein intake throughout the day versus eating the majority of their daily protein at dinner, a January 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found. Researchers suggest aiming for 30 grams of protein per meal.

Afraid of Carbs? You Actually Need More to Fuel Your Workouts

Sure, you need more protein when building muscle but protein isn't the only macronutrient you need to get shredded. Carbs play a key role in muscle-building and maintaining endurance during workouts. That's because muscle uses glycogen, which is glucose (a carb) that's stored in the liver, as fuel for your workouts.

Carbs are important for sustaining your strength training sessions and focusing on carbs coming from whole foods is key to meeting your nutrition needs, says Santana. Foods like sweet potato, whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice, beans and fruit will provide a steady stream of healthy carbohydrates along with other vitamins and minerals that the body needs to adequately recover from workouts.

"Your post-workout meal should contain carbohydrates because they stimulate insulin release and insulin promotes amino acid uptake and muscle protein synthesis," Alexon tells us. "The ideal carb-to-protein ratio for your post-workout meal is debated in research, but most studies recommend between a 1:1 to 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio to get the most muscle-building benefits from your post-workout meal."

If gaining body fat while building muscle is something you want to avoid, then keep your fat intake at a moderate level — about 20 percent of your daily calories. "In short, the best diet for the strength trainee is one that is higher in protein and carbohydrates and moderate in fat," Santana says.

Read more: How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle

Building Muscle Will Require You to Eat More

Gaining muscle is a process where the body is building additional tissue — which creates a need for additional calories each day. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, adult women need 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day and adult men need 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day. If your weight is currently stable, a good place to start to increase your daily calorie needs is to add an additional 30 grams of protein to your current calorie level.

While you need more calories to gain muscle mass, you want to make sure you're adding those via whole, nutritious foods like lean meat, fish, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Increasing your calories with fried or fast foods will greatly increase your daily intake of fat and can easily lead to gaining more fat than muscle — not to mention metabolic diseases.

Now, What About Progressive Overload?

The most important aspect of building muscle mass is understanding that you must lift heavy weights and continue increasing the weight to see results — also known as progressive overload.

"One must strength train progressively to build muscle. The loads must get heavier, the sets must increase and the reps for a given weight must increase. In other words, more than what was previously possible must be accomplished to break down the existing muscle and stimulate growth of new muscle," Santana says. A muscle-building diet won't help you build muscle if you're not strength training!

What's more, strength training can help turn back the clock on our muscle mass as we age. "After age 30, we can expect to lose about three to five percent of our muscle mass per decade, unless we are actively strength training" says Alexon. A good way to counteract Mother Nature? Progressive overload! So, even if your goals do not include gaining muscle mass right now, strength training is required to simply maintain the muscle mass you had prior to your thirties.


Challenge muscles by increasing weight or resistance slowly. The right weight for you will differ depending on the exercise and your current strength level. When exercises feel too easy, add weight (about one to two pounds for upper body and two to five pounds for lower body), or you can add additional repetitions to your workout. When adding weight, you should focus on completing the exercise with good form. If your form is compromised, you should decrease your weight.

Giving time for recovery is also important and it is recommended to take 48 hours of down time between working a muscle group. So, if Monday was leg day, don't train legs again until Wednesday!

Consistency is Key — Building Muscle Takes Time

Being consistent with your nutrition and strength-training program is the ultimate recipe for building muscle and maintaining it for the long run. That's exactly why developing a long-term plan that you can stick to is so important.

Harvard Health recommends working all the major muscles of your body two or three times a week. Choose to do one full-body strength workout involving the legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms two or three times a week. You can also work your upper and lower body separately — and if you decide to go this route, it's recommended to work each group two to three times per week.

When it comes to nutrition and gaining lean muscle mass, making sure you're hitting your protein and calorie goals consistently will help you to see the gains you're looking for. Most strength-training programs focused on gaining muscle mass require about twelve to sixteen weeks to see significant results, so hang tight and have hope that your efforts will be fruitful!

Read more: 7 Recipes to Add More Protein to Your Breakfast

As with any new nutrition or exercise program, be sure to consult with your physician and a registered dietitian before making any changes to your normal routine.