Let's get one thing out of the way right now: It is possible to prioritize protein and strength training without transforming into The Hulk.
The second week of our January Fuel-Your-Fit Challenge will show you how a solid strength-training routine and a protein-packed diet plan go hand-in-hand. We'll couple the best protein sources with the most effective strength-training workouts so you can make the most of your muscles in 2020.
Your Goals for Week 2
Psst — new to the challenge? Click here to get all the details on the four-week program, which pairs different types of workouts with the optimal nutrients to "fuel your fit."
Click here for a printer-friendly version of this week's plan!
How to Join the Fuel-Your-Fit Challenge
- Step 1: Download the MyPlate App. Meal and activity tracking is linked to successful weight loss and is an effective way to stay on top of your goals, which is why we'll be using MyPlate to log our progress throughout the challenge.
- Step 2: Join Our Challenge Facebook Group. A supportive community of fellow Fuel-Your-Fit challengers, the LIVESTRONG.com Challenge Group is where you'll find tips, motivation, expert Q&As and enter to win prizes throughout the month.
- Step 3: Fuel Your Fit! Follow the food and fitness plans each week, being sure to log your food intake and fitness activity in MyPlate. At the end of each week, comment in the Challenge Facebook Group with a screenshot of your MyPlate Food Diary to be entered for a chance to win MyPlate’s premium Gold membership or a $250 gift card! (Get more details on the prizes and sweepstakes here.)
Get Fuel: What Are the Best Protein Sources?
Don't expect to see strength gains if you're not filling your plate with enough protein. When we lift weights, we damage muscle fibers, says personal trainer and dietitian Jim White, RD, CPT. "In order to help recover and grow those muscles, you need to eat enough protein."
When you eat protein — regardless of whether it comes from an animal or the ground — your body breaks it down into amino acids, which are responsible for many different functions, including building muscle, absorbing nutrients and keeping your immune system strong.
There are nine (out of about 20 total) amino acids that our bodies can't make themselves and we can only get from our food, which is why they're called the "essential" amino acids. When you eat enough protein and get all nine via your diet, your body is equipped to build and repair muscle.
Animal-based proteins naturally contain all nine essential amino acids, but not all plant-based proteins do. "Some proteins from plants may be low in certain essential amino acids versus others, so eating foods with all nine essential amino acids each day is important," White explains.
That's easily done by either making sure you eat "complete" plant proteins that contain all nine amino acids, such as quinoa and soy, or by combining multiple plant proteins to make sure you get the full batch each day.
All of the plant proteins and plant-based combos in the list below contain a full amino acid profile, according to White.
Complete Proteins to Eat This Week
Whole-grain bread + peanut butter
Rice + beans, lentils, or chickpeas
Soybeans and soy products like tofu and seitan
High-Protein Recipe Ideas We Love
Protein-Rich Snacks for When You're On-the-Go
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
In order to give your muscles the protein they need to rebuild and repair after a strength workout, make sure to eat a snack or meal with about 30 grams of protein within 40 minutes to an hour after finishing training, White says.
You should have your protein with some healthy carbs in order to replenish stores of glycogen, which your body uses to make energy, he adds. "This is like filling up your gas tank once it's depleted."
Animal-based proteins contain the most of the macro ounce for ounce, and all of the options in the table above contain about 20 to 30 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving. Each of the plant proteins and combos in the table above contain between 8 and 20 grams per serving.
Timing matters: Make sure to eat your protein within an hour of finishing your workout.
Keep an eye on your protein intake throughout the rest of the week, too. "It is important to supply the body with protein throughout the day before and well after your workout," White says.
How to Calculate Your Daily Protein Needs
You should aim to get 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to get you on track to gaining muscle. Not sure what that actually means? Let's break it down.
Convert your weight in pounds to kilograms by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2. Then, multiply that number by 1.2 to get the minimum grams of protein you need; to get the maximum grams of protein you should eat each day, multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.6.
For example, a 150-pound person (or 68-kilogram person) would need between 82 and 109 grams of protein a day.
That's the amount an April 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found most effective in keeping your whole body healthy — and it's in line with 2011 findings from the Journal of Sports Sciences pinpointing roughly the same amount of protein as the ideal for building muscle.
Not a Fan of All That Math?
Get Fit: Choosing the Strength-Training Workout That's Best for You
Strength training is good for more than just building your biceps. It can help you manage chronic conditions such as obesity, arthritis, back pain and heart disease, per the Mayo Clinic. And it can help you shed a few inches: Combining weight training with a calorie-restricted diet helped older adults lose more weight and preserve more lean muscle mass than walking and a low-calorie diet in an October 2017 Obesity study.
Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women's Strength Nation, recommends strength training at least two times per week (and ideally, three to four times a week). Aim to hit each major muscle group — legs, back, chest, shoulders and arms — twice in those workouts.
"Don't train more than four days a week because your body needs time to recover," Perkins says.
If you're thinking, What about my abs? rest assured that heavy exercises, like the ones you'll be doing this week, work the core, too.
To avoid overtraining, Perkins suggests focusing on two major muscle groups per workout. For any given workout, pick one pairing from the following:
- Legs and back
- Back and shoulders
- Chest and arms
- Legs and shoulders
Once you've chosen which pairing you'd like to start with, it's time to choose your equipment:
Body-weight workouts are great for people who are starting out and older adults. Using just the weight of your body means you can perform a workout anywhere, but it also means your muscle-building potential is lower than workouts with added weight. If you're new to strength training, start with body-weight workouts to practice good form and build a solid foundation before moving on to weighted exercises. Here are a few body-weight workouts we love:
Dumbbells are both accessible and versatile enough to use in a variety of workouts to challenge all your muscles. They're great for people of all fitness levels because you can easily switch to a different weight for a different exercise; however, they usually only go up to around 90 to 100 pounds each, so if you want or need to lift heavier, you'll have to opt for a barbell. Grab a pair at the gym or invest in some to keep at home. Then give these workouts a try:
The trusty barbell is the best for gaining maximum muscle. You can load a virtually unlimited amount of weight on a barbell using weight plates, which makes it ideal for progressive overload, aka gradually increasing the stress you put on your muscles. People of all fitness levels can use a barbell (as long as you're comfortable lifting at least the bar itself, which is usually about 30 to 40 pounds on its own), because the amount of weight you load is customizable. But barbell workouts are especially good for heavy lifters who want or need to really pack on the weight. Here are a few barbell workouts we like:
Kettlebells were designed for explosive workouts that require fewer and faster reps. While they're good for building some muscle, you'll get more endurance-boosting and fat-burning benefits from using these weights. Here are a few of our favorite kettlebell workouts:
Try a Sample Strength-Training Workout From Perkins
She hand-picked 15 exercises that use all of the different equipment above to provide plenty of options for people who are new to strength training or coming back after taking time off.
Tips for Making the Most of Your Strength-Training Workouts
- Perfect your form before starting any exercise. Doubling down on your form will protect you from getting injured and ensure you're activating all the right muscles. "The best way to know your form is good is to watch a video tutorial and then mimic the movements, and to watch yourself in a mirror," Perkins says.
- Aim for 35 to 40 minutes. Regardless of how many times a week you train, your strength workout should be about 35 to 40 minutes long when you're lifting heavy weights and not doing high reps, Perkins says.
- Go heavy — but not too heavy. If you're using added weight, choose one that is heavy enough that the last rep is difficult to complete but not impossible, and make sure you can still maintain good form.
For more information on the MyPlate + LIVESTRONG.com January Fuel-Your-Fit Challenge Sweepstakes, click here.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance"
- The Journal of Sports Sciences: "Dietary Protein for Athletes: From Requirements to Optimum Adaptation"
- Obesity: "Effect of Exercise Type During Intentional Weight Loss on Body Composition in Older Adults with Obesity"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Amino Acids"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"