Bulking up is equal parts how many reps you get done in the gym and what nutritional choices you make to refuel your body and your muscles. "In order to build muscle, you need to strength train, including body weight, weights or resistance training exercise. The foods we eat help to promote the growth and recovery of muscles, but won't immediately cause muscles to grow," Mandy Enright, RDN, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Here are some dietitian-approved foods that'll make your sweat sessions worth it.
1. Whole Eggs
Whole eggs provide a quick, easy source of protein at 6 to 8 grams per egg, which is essential for building and repairing muscles post-workout. In a small October 2017 study of 10 athletes, researchers found that athletes who ate whole eggs in place of just egg whites had higher levels of the essential amino acid leucine (a muscle-building amino acid that can't be produced by the body alone and can only be found in food sources) in their bloodstream, per research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Eggs are also rich in vitamins, zinc, iron and calcium, making them one of the most quality proteins out there.
2. Chicken Breast
Lean protein from animal sources may actually offer you more grams of protein per serving than plant-based protein. "Any animal protein offers high-quality amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), so choose whatever suits your value system," says Nancy Clark, RD, CSSD and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. For example, in every 3.5 ounces of chicken breast, you get about 28 grams of protein with very little fat. Chicken breast is relatively inexpensive, easy to cook and can be served in many different styles and as part of a variety of dishes, so it's an all-around win.
While water isn't technically a food, hydration is an important part of building muscle — in fact, your muscle tissue is around 75-percent water, according to the USDA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) affirms that keeping your body hydrated will also aid in proper digestion by detoxifying your organs and will protect your joints, too. Women should aim to drink 11.5 cups while men 15.5 cups a day.
4. Fish Oil
Because it's packed with omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil has anti-inflammatory benefits that point to allowing your muscles to recover faster from an intense workout and are linked to preventing your body from losing muscle, according to a November 2015 study published in the journal Marine Drugs. What's more, the omega-3s in a fish oil supplement are associated with speeding up your metabolism, which could allow you to not only build muscle but also eliminate more fat to reveal more muscle definition.
5. Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed beef is another food that's higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed meat, which contains unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids (found typically in processed foods), March 2010 research published in Nutrition Journal states. It doesn't necessarily contain more protein than grain-fed beef, but may be better for your health, Enright explains.
"Grass-fed beef can be a leaner source of meat, and contains some nutritional benefits like higher content of omega-3s, antioxidants and vitamins A and E. It can also be lower in calories," Enright adds.
Turkey isn't just for Thanksgiving. It happens to be one of the most under-appreciated muscle-building foods. According to a June 2015 study published in the journal Food and Nutrition Research, white poultry meat is a fantastic source of protein, a good source of energy-producing B-vitamins and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Turkey also packs selenium, which, according to the National Institutes of Health, is linked to preventing some types of cancer.
If you want a solid plant-based protein source that helps build muscle, look no further. "Quinoa is one of the only plant foods that provides all nine essential amino acids; this means that our bodies need to consume these proteins because we cannot make the amino acids ourselves. One 3.5-ounce serving of quinoa provides over 4 grams of protein," says Carissa Galloway, RDN. "It is also high in magnesium and iron, which help promote protein synthesis," Galloway adds.
8. Steel-Cut Oats
Oatmeal is a healthy, filling grain, and the steel-cut variety adds more benefits to the mix. "You can find 7 grams of protein in a quarter cup of steel-cut oats," Galloway says. Oats also contain potentially cancer-fighting antioxidants and are great for gut health, according to February 2015 research published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology.
The body digests steel-cut oats slowly, meaning you stay fuller for longer and maintain consistent blood sugar levels. "Steel-cut oats are also a source of carbohydrates and fiber, making them a great food to help with muscle recovery after a workout. It's best to consume steel-cut oats after a workout to help repair muscles and promote healthy muscle growth," Enright says.
Fruit might not be the first thing you think of when you think of building muscle, but pineapple should definitely be included. "Not only is pineapple delicious, even more importantly, it contains bromelain, which helps fight muscle soreness and helps your body absorb protein," Galloway says. "The more protein absorbed by your body, the more your muscles can grow," she adds.
In addition to reducing muscle inflammation, a September 2016 study published in the journal Biomedical Reports states that bromelain can also help with blood circulation and wound healing, making it a great addition to your post-workout meal.
Read more: 5 Tricky Fruits and How to Eat Them
There might've been a reason why Popeye ate so much spinach. "Spinach has been found to contain a phytosteroid called ecdysteroids which can increase the creation of protein and muscle in the body," Enright says. July 2019 research published in the journal Archives of Toxicology supports that these naturally-occurring steroids might help build muscle mass.
"Spinach also contains nitrates, which in small doses have been found to be beneficial to the body, Enright says. "The nitrates found in spinach stimulate two proteins in the body that help release calcium. When these proteins in the body increase, more calcium is released, which helps with muscle contraction and ultimately more strength and toning for the muscle."
But don't stop doing your push-ups just yet — you'd have to eat over 2 pounds a spinach a day to build up those muscles just from spinach," Enright adds. And while you're unlikely to eat that much, it shouldn't stop you from using it in salads, smoothies, stir-fries and more.
11. Sweet Potato
Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient for your body, and sweet potatoes are one of the tastier and more convenient options to replenish energy stores and fuel the muscle-building process. They won't necessarily help you build muscle directly because they don't contain much protein, but the energy you can obtain from sweet potatoes prior to a workout can help you train with more intensity, Enright explains.
"Sweet potatoes are also high in fiber, making them a great food to slow absorption of sugars from food, curb hunger and promote use of fat for energy. It's best to eat sweet potatoes after a workout to refuel," Enright adds. Plus, they're packed with anythocyanins, a group of antioxidants that are linked to preventing inflammation, heart disease and certain cancers, according to an October 2016 study published in the journal Critical Reviews of Food Science and Nutrition.
12. Wild Salmon
Wild salmon is a high quality source of protein that also packs a punch of omega-3 fatty acids, according to May 2012 research published in the Global Journal of Health Science. "Any type of seafood is great for building muscle. Seafood is a lean source of protein that contains omega-3s, which are great for helping to promote the building and growth of muscles," Enright says.
13. Whey Protein
Whey protein is a fast-absorbing protein that's best served post-workout because it contains amino acids that are critical to building and maintaining muscle. Luckily, you can easily find it in just about any protein powder or shake. "Dairy sources that have whey protein can be good for building muscle as whey protein quickly boosts protein synthesis and spikes muscle recovery," Galloway says.
A small 2013 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that whey protein is higher in the amino acid leucine than soy protein, and therefore was able to help more with muscle-building protein synthesis.
14. Cottage Cheese
You may not think to load up on cottage cheese after a workout, but it's one of the best muscle-building foods you'll find. Just one cup of low-fat cottage cheese contains over 24 grams of protein.
"The protein found in dairy (including milk, cottage cheese, yogurt and all cheeses) is high-quality protein. Not only does it contain all essential amino acids that the body needs, but it also contains calcium, which helps increase muscle contraction and strengthening the muscles," Enright says.
Read more: 10 Convenient Low-Carb Snacks
15. Chocolate Milk
It seems too good to be true, but chocolate milk can actually help you build more muscle. In fact, chocolate milk was shown to be more effective than sports drinks or water in exercise recovery, according to a June 2019 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Another February 2019 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science proved that cow's milk can help with rehydration, muscle protein synthesis, and managing muscle soreness.
And it's dietitian-recommended, too. "I encourage more of my clients to consume a glass of low-fat or nonfat chocolate milk, which has been found to contain the perfect ratio of carbs to protein after a workout. Not to mention, the cost is significantly lower than protein supplements," Enright says.
16. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is another powerhouse muscle-building food that you can eat at any time of the day. "Six ounces of Greek yogurt may contain up to 20 grams protein," says Leah Kaufman RD.
Eating dairy may be a dietary restriction for some people, so if you choose a plant-based alternative, it's important to find one with as much protein as possible. "Look at all food labels to determine quantity of protein in these alternatives; for example, there are some dairy-free yogurts that may contain 10 grams of protein, but others that may only have about 1 to 2 grams of protein," Kaufman adds.
17. Lentils and Chickpeas
Who says you need to eat meat to fill up on protein? These vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods offer the protein your muscles need, without the high-impact carbohydrate rush that affects your insulin levels. "Lentils pack about 18 grams of protein per cup, while chickpeas pack about 14 grams of protein per cup. They are also a great source of fiber, which will help to keep you full and provide you with a source of energy," Galloway says.
Plus, legumes like chickpeas and lentils are a healthy, protein-filled part of the Mediterranean diet; they also offer B vitamins and magnesium, which are crucial to having enough energy for your next workout, per an October 2015 study published in the journal Clinical Diabetes.
Big things can come in small packages. Almonds provide an amazing source of protein and fat, but it's their vitamin E that's most beneficial to your muscles. "While almonds are traditionally considered a source of healthy fats, they do contain 6 grams of protein per serving. They also contains an incredible amount of vitamin E that helps prevent oxidative damage in the muscles," Galloway says.
Read more: 9 Healthy Nuts That May Help You Live Longer
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Consumption of Whole Eggs Promotes Greater Stimulation of Postexercise Muscle Protein Synthesis Than Consumption of Isonitrogenous Amounts of Egg Whites in Young Men"
- USDA: "Whole Eggs, Raw"
- USDA: "Chicken Breast, Stewed"
- USDA: "Water in Meat and Poultry"
- CDC: "Water and Nutrition"
- Marine Drugs: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Skeletal Muscle Health"
- Food Nutrition Research: "Role Of Poultry Meat in a Balanced Diet Aimed at Maintaining Health and Wellbeing: an Italian Consensus Document"
- National Institutes of Health: "Selenium"
- USDA: "Quinoa, Cooked"
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: "Nutritional Advantages of Oats and Opportunities for Its Processing as Value Added Foods - a Review"
- Biomedical Reports: "Potential Role of Bromelain in Clinical and Therapeutic Applications"
- Archives of Toxicology:"Ecdysteroids As Non-conventional Anabolic Agent: Performance Enhancement by Ecdysterone Supplementation in Humans"
- Critical Reviews of Food Science and Nutrition: "Health Benefits of Anthocyanins and Their Encapsulation for Potential Use in Food Systems: A Review"
- Global Journal of Health Science: "Seafood Consumption and Components for Health"
- Journal of the American College of Nutrition: "Whey Protein Supplementation During Resistance Training Augments Lean Body Mass"
- USDA: "Cottage Cheese, Lowfat, 2% Milkfat"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Chocolate Milk for Recovery From Exercise: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Controlled Clinical Trials"
- European Journal of Sport Science: "Cow's Milk as a Post-exercise Recovery Drink: Implications for Performance and Health"
- Clinical Diabetes: "Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake"