Looking to build biceps and achieve a muscular physique? Keen to squat 320lbs without shaking like an anxious chihuahua? No matter your goal, nutrition will be an important driver in getting there.
Read on for some practical advice and our thoughts on a healthy diet for muscle gain.
Bodybuilding vs Weightlifting Goals
Before we speak to a healthy diet for muscle gain, we need to clarify the difference between bodybuilding and weightlifting. While the average gym-goer may not see themself in either camp, it’s important to understand the potential goals someone just starting may be interested in.
Bodybuilders are competitive athletes judged on their muscular physique. A bodybuilder aims to build large muscles while simultaneously lowering their BMI (Body Mass Index). Getting ‘lean’ is of great interest to them.
On the other side of the squat rack are weightlifters and Olympians. A successful weightlifter is judged solely on their performance and how much they can lift or throw. In contrast to bodybuilders, a ‘lean’ body is not of great importance.
The reason we’re outlining these two paths is that they reflect two competing fitness outcomes, each with unique nutritional advice and strategies behind them. While there is plenty of overlap, ultimately a bodybuilder needs to be aware of their calorie intake far more than a weightlifter.
Before beginning your fitness journey, you should set clear goals for yourself. Most importantly, are you trying to achieve that lean beach bod with washboard abs? Or are you more drawn to performance-related goals, like benching 250+ lbs?
When you have a clear goal in mind you can begin eating for success.
The Health Benefits of Resistance Training
Resistance and strength training has numerous benefits, most notably overall muscular strength. But beyond the obvious, other benefits of resistance training include denser muscle growth, lower blood glucose, weight maintenance, improved bone strength, improved joint movement, and even a more balanced and positive state of mind.
When it comes to performance nutrition advice, the majority rightfully falls in the world of macronutrients.
Why? Macronutrients are the body’s main source of energy and the primary pillars of an individual’s strength, speed, and endurance.
A thoughtful emphasis on the energy entering (or not entering) your body will have the greatest nutritional impact on your specific goals. Whether those be aesthetic or performance.
Carbs are your primary source of energy. And while most people associate carbohydrates with endurance sports like swimming, cycling, and running, both weightlifters and bodybuilders alike should pay special attention to this energy source as well.
When your body is taxed and needs to pull from its energy stores, the first place it’ll turn to is blood glucose. As we explain in our post Should Carbs Be Part of Your Diet?, during digestion, carbs are converted into blood glucose which is a fast-acting energy source. If your body doesn’t have carbs to create blood glucose, then it will turn to protein and muscle fiber as fuel, eating away at all of the ‘gains’ you’ve been so diligently grooming.
Depending on your genetic makeup, you may find including a higher ratio of carbs in your diet results in better lifting performance. Others may find a high-protein diet does the job. The best way to know how your body will respond to these specific macronutrients is a DNA nutrition test.
By shipping us a non-intrusive mouth swab, we can extract your genetic code and identify which macros and micros you should eat more of. In other words, your nutritional DNA analysis will help you understand what combination of fuel your body responds best to for optimal performance.
No other nutritional source is associated with muscle growth more than protein. And for good reason: proteins are the construction workers of your body. They repair damaged muscles, arteries, and bones. They also are the primary triggers for new muscle growth—the amino acid leucine (commonly found in whey) is of particular note in this function.
Beyond building and repairing your body, protein can also be used as an efficient fuel source. As previously mentioned, if your body is low on blood glucose from a lack of carbohydrates in your diet, it’ll turn to your protein and muscle stores (aka glycogen) to pick up the slack.
Protein is obviously important in a diet for muscle gain. However, there’s a shocking amount of misinformation about the amount of protein the average strength trainer requires to see results.
Historically, big supplement brands and sports companies have pumped millions into a misinformation campaign claiming the human body requires a shocking amount of protein to recover from a good pump. So much protein, no one could possibly consume it without the assistance of expensive protein shakes, protein bars, protein balls, etc.
One study on the perception of protein intake by athletes concluded about two-thirds of strength-training athletes didn’t know how much protein they required and those that thought they did, far exceeded the maximum beneficial protein intakes.
To clarify, the average healthy adult only requires 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d) and a strength-focused athlete requires a maximum of 2.0 g/kg/d. In layman’s terms, a single 8oz chicken breast contains enough protein for the average human, while approximately two chicken breasts would be sufficient for an elite athlete.
According to a May 2020 BBC article on the subject, overconsumption of protein ultimately won’t harm an individual. However, intake levels above the maximum recommendation are all for not, and most of the nutrients will go down the literal drain the next time you excuse yourself to go to the toilet. Not to mention, the money spent on those expensive protein shakes.
Easily the most misunderstood macronutrient for athletes, fats play an important role in energy output, nutrient absorption, and even injury prevention.
For an individual performing high-resistance training, some monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are essential. In general, around 15–30% of overall energy intake should come from fat—though this may change depending on your genetic makeup. As we explain in Demystifying Fat: Should Fat Be Part of Your Diet?, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can be found in avocados, nuts, seeds, and oils.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are also of great importance to weightlifters. These fats can be easily sourced in fish and shellfish and help with blood flow and suppress hunger (a great assist if you’re trying to drop weight classes).
No matter your fitness goals, monitoring your intake of saturated and trans fats is important. High amounts of these “bad” fats increase LDL cholesterol levels, block arteries, and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated and trans fats are found in chips, chocolate bars, baked goods, and butter.
While all micronutrients play an important role in overall health, some may be of special interest to strength-focused athletes.
Calcium:Calcium is one of the most important nutrients for building/maintaining dense bones. A muscular body with weak bones would be the equivalent of a brick house with rusting and old foundational beams. The chance of injury would be higher, and ultimately the amount an athlete could lift and hold would be lower.
Biotin: Another micronutrient is biotin. This common nutrient found in nuts plays a supporting but important role in turning your macronutrients into the actual energy you expel during a workout.
Iron:Commonly found in animal proteins but also in some grains and produce, this nutrient helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. Low iron may result in faster fatigue.
Vitamin C:While most individuals have no problem consuming enough vitamin c (a single orange contains almost your entire day’s requirement), it’s an important micronutrient for weightlifters nonetheless. Vitamin C helps metabolize carbs for fuel and aids in the absorption of iron, both indirectly affecting performance.
Notable Nutrition Strategies for Muscle Growth
Bulking & Cutting
A common bodybuilding nutrition strategy is bulking & cutting.
Essentially, this strategy involves two cyclical eating patterns. First, a season of bulking (eating excess calories) and then a season of cutting (eating minimal calories).
In theory, during the off-season, a bodybuilder eats an excess of calories to gain overall size. By maximizing calories, they’re maximizing their energy output. At this stage, they will reach their peak performance potential but also their highest BMI.
Then, in the months or weeks leading up to competition, the athlete will severely reduce the number of calories they’re ingesting, creating a deficit of caloric input to energy output. The intended effect is to greatly lower the BMI while still having the muscular growth of the bulking period remain.
The results of this nutritional strategy can be mixed. Primarily because while the body loves burning fat, it also loves burning muscle. So during the cutting stage, many gains are often lost.
Another common bodybuilding nutrition strategy is to rely on supplements to meet daily micronutrient requirements.
While most strength-focused athletes have little issue reaching their maximum beneficial protein intake, achieving a balanced intake of micronutrients is another story.
At GenoPalate, we know micronutrient consumption varies from DNA strand to DNA strand. That’s why we’ve created a personalized supplement program based on your genes. After conducting our safe at-home DNA nutrition test, we’ll whisk together a personalized formula of 21 ingredients to ensure you’re getting exactly the right amount of each for your genetic makeup.
Personalized supplements can have a noticeably positive effect on strength and endurance performance, as well as injury prevention.
The food you eat will play an important role in your fitness journey.
For strength-focused training, macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) are of the greatest importance. Weightlifters should place a special focus on consuming whole & complex carbs, lean proteins, and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
The exact intake of each macro will depend on your desired outcome and your unique genetic code. By clarifying your strength and resistance goals as well as conducting a DNA nutrition test, you can better understand how much to eat for maximum performance results.
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1. Health Line. Bodybuilding Meal Plan: What to Eat, What to Avoid, November 19, 2018. Gavin Van De Walle
2. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation, May 12, 2014. Eric R Helms, Alan A Aragon, and Peter J Fitschen
3. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Perceived protein needs and measured protein intake in collegiate male athletes: an observational study, June 21, 2011. Elizabeth A Fox, Jennifer L McDaniel, Anthony P Breitbach & Edward P Weiss