When it comes to getting a big upper chest, pushups, bench presses and chest dips can only take you so far. To get those bulging, defined pecs, you need to also focus on nutrition. While there's no one special food that can really make your chest muscles pop, a healthy, balanced diet with the right proportion of macronutrients can make a significant difference in your gains.
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It Starts With Calories
Muscle building is an anabolic process, which means your body is building complex molecules from simple molecules. This mass-building process requires energy, which comes from the calories in the food you eat. Whether your goal is to get a big upper chest or big, broad shoulders, in order to do so, you must up your daily calorie intake to meet your increased demands.
The number of calories you need depends on the intensity and length of your daily workout and ranges from 16 to 30 calories per pound.
For example, if you work out 60 minutes a day, five to six days a week, then you need about 16 calories per pound, but if you work out up to three hours a day, five to six days a week, you need 30 calories per pound. So, if you weigh 180 pounds, you may need anywhere from 2,880 to 5,400 calories a day, depending on the extent of your daily workouts.
While your calorie requirements to get a bigger chest may be high, that doesn't mean you should fill your diet with high-calorie, highly-processed food. In fact, when it comes to building your chest muscles, you need to do the exact opposite and create a diet filled with healthy, nutrient-rich foods, but in the right proportions.
Nutrition for Muscle Building
When you're trying to create a diet for chest growth, the quality of your nutrition matters. You don't need to fill your diet with mass gainers and protein shakes to create muscle growth. But you do need to eat a healthy, balanced diet filled with a variety of foods from all the food groups.
Even competitive bodybuilders eat a healthy balanced diet, averaging about 50 to 60 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent of calories from protein and 10 to 22 percent of calories from fat, according to a 2018 cohort study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Medicine. By comparison, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends 45 to 65 percent of calories from carbs, 10 to 35 percent of calories from protein and 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat.
To maximize gains and health, the foods you include should be nutrient-dense, which means a lot of nutritional bang for every calorie buck. Your body needs more than calories, carbs, protein and fat for chest growth — it also needs vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Eating more whole fresh foods, such as lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of fats, gives your body everything it needs to help you get the muscle gains you want.
Read more: The 6 Rules of Gaining Muscle Mass
The Power of Protein
Protein is an essential macronutrient your body needs for many important functions. It repairs tissue, makes hormones and enzymes and is necessary for a strong immune system. You also need protein to help maintain and build muscle mass. And when you're trying to increase muscle mass, you need more, almost twice the recommended dietary allowance (RDA).
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, you need 0.6 to 1.0 gram of protein per pound to maintain and build lean body mass, or 108 to 180 grams for a 180-pound person. In some cases, you may need as much as 1.3 grams per pound if you're lifting heavy and trying to lose fat mass. This is equal to 234 grams of protein a day for a 180-pound person. By comparison, the RDA for protein is 0.36 gram per pound, which translates into 65 grams of protein a day for a 180-pound person.
When it comes to selecting your protein food for chest muscles, you want to include healthy sources, such as:
- Eggs: 6 grams of protein per one large egg
- White meat chicken: 26 grams of protein per 3 ounces
- Salmon: 21 grams of protein per 3 ounces
- Greek yogurt: 17 grams of protein per 6-ounce container
- Firm tofu: 9 grams of protein per 3 ounces
- Lentils: 9 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
- Low-fat milk: 8 grams per cup
- Peanut butter: 8 grams per 2 tablespoons
Carbs for Muscle-Sparing
You shouldn't skimp on carbs when your goal is to get a big upper chest. Carbs are your friend when it comes to muscle building and should make up the bulk of your calories. Like protein, carbs are an essential nutrient your body needs to function at its best and serves as your body's preferred source of energy. If you don't get enough carbs from your diet, your body needs to get its energy from other sources, which may mean the protein you're eating to build muscle or your muscle itself. Instead, you want to spare your muscles and not use them up for needed energy.
To make the chest growth gains you're looking for, you should aim for 45 to 60 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. Essentially, about half your daily calories should come from healthy sources of carbs, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Healthy carb food for chest muscles includes:
- Brown rice
- Beans and lentils
- Low-fat milk and yogurt
- Broccoli and spinach
Some carb foods are also a source of protein — milk, yogurt and beans — so you get twice the nutrition. In addition to muscle-sparing energy, many of these healthy carbs also supply your body with essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber to support digestion.
Fat for Energy
While the competitive bodybuilders from the 2018 cohort study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Medicine seemed to follow a very low-fat diet, the participants in the study were providing information about their diet for competition, which usually involves strategies to promote fat loss to improve physique. That said, according to ISSN, you need to eat about the same amount of fat as is recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and maybe even a little more.
According to a 2018 nutrition review by ISSN published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Medicine, getting more fat in your diet may increase testosterone levels. Testosterone is the male sex hormone that supports muscle size and strength. The fat in your diet also acts as an additional source of energy and helps ensure you get essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.
For muscle growth and health, you should aim for about 30 percent of your calories from fat. Like your protein and carb choices, be sure to include nutrient-rich sources of fat to maximize your overall intake for health and muscle growth. Healthy fat food for chest muscles includes:
- Vegetable oils such as olive and canola oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Salmon, sardines and trout
Read more: Why You Need Fat to Burn Fat
Diet for Chest Growth
Now that you know about the best food for chest muscles, it's also important to understand how to put it all together so you make the most significant muscle gains, including developing a strategy regarding the timing and composition of your meals. To meet your increased calorie and nutrient needs, you may need to eat more frequently, up to six meals a day. For health and balance, try to include a mix of carbs, protein and fat at each meal.
About two to four hours before your workout, eat a meal or snack composed of carbohydrates and protein to fuel your body and improve your energy and strength. You should limit the fat in your pre-workout meal, however, because fat takes longer to digest and may cause abdominal discomfort during your workout. A good pre-workout meal may include:
- Turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread
- Hard-boiled eggs and a banana
- Peanut butter and whole-grain crackers
- Grilled chicken on mixed greens
While the pre-workout meal is important to make sure your body gets all the nutrition it needs so you can really push yourself, the post-workout meal may be even more important, whether you're trying to build a big upper chest or big, broad shoulders. Your post-workout meal should contain high-quality protein for muscle anabolism, as well as carbohydrates to restore muscle energy. You should consume your post-workout meal within two hours of your workout. A good post-workout meal may include:
- Protein shake with a banana
- Grilled salmon with a baked potato
- Tofu and veggie stir fry
Read more: The 9 Best Post-Workout Foods
What About Protein Supplements?
While your focus may be on foods for building your upper chest muscles, protein supplements may have their place, especially if you're having a difficult time meeting your protein needs. According to the 2018 nutrition review by ISSN published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Medicine, many popular protein powders, including those containing whey, casein or soy, can help improve your muscle growth. You can make a protein shake with these powders or add them to your cooked oats, yogurt or mashed potatoes to boost protein.
You may also want to consider adding an essential amino acid supplement. According to ISSN, free-form essential amino acids help promote muscle synthesis. For the record, chicken, beef, pork, seafood and soy are also a source of essential amino acids and can help your body get what it needs without a supplement. ISSN also suggests a casein supplement before you go to bed to support muscle synthesis while you sleep.
Chest Shape Workout at Home
When it comes to getting a big upper chest, you can do many exercises at home. You should, however, consult with a trainer to help you with form to make the most gains and reduce risk of injury.
Some chest shape workouts at home include:
- Regular and incline pushups
- Flying superman pushup
- Chair dips
- Chest press (with dumbbells)
- Flies, including bent over, decline and seated (with dumbbells)
Many of these exercises work various muscle groups and help you get big broad shoulders, too. Be sure to rest your chest muscles for at least 48 hours to make the most gains.
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- University of Nevada Las Vegas: Determining Calorie Needs
- ExRx.net: Dietary Tips and Rationale
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine: Nutritional Strategies of High Level Natural Bodybuilders During Competition Preparation
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine: ISSN Exercise & Sports Nutrition Review Update: Research & Recommendations
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass
- MyFoodData: Greek Yogurt
- ExRx.net: Chest Exercises
- McKinley Health Center: Macronutrients: The Importance of Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat
- Harvard Health Publishing: Testosterone: What It Does and Doesn't Do
- Colorado State University: Nutrition for the Athlete
- Better Health Channel: Resistance Training: Health Benefits