Want to look buff in your swimsuit this summer? Building abs and sculpting muscles starts in the kitchen before you ever hit the gym. Achieving muscle growth is a formula based on adequate calories, fluids, protein, and muscle-fatiguing strength training.
Drinking plenty of fluids, eating the right energy-rich foods along with weight lifting -- all timed to fuel workouts and repair muscle tissue -- will help you sculpt your muscles.
Nutrition Game Plan
A balanced dietary intake as recommended by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines is a good foundation for meal planning. In general, eating a well-balanced diet with enough calories to support exercise is the prescription, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) position paper on nutrition and athletic performance.
The ADA and ACSM recommend getting enough calories including adequate fat and protein, with an emphasis on five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables, plenty of whole grains, cereals, beans, legumes, and enough fluid for optimal hydration.
Muscle and Food
Fueling your workouts takes a combination of healthy carbs and protein.
Protein is important to build and repair muscles. Carbs provide the energy to fuel fitness.
You can’t eat protein and expect it turn to muscle. "Pull protein into muscles with exercise,” says Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RD and editor of ADA’s Sports Nutrition Manual, due out later this year.
Experts recommend these muscle-friendly foods:
- Fruit and vegetables - are the foundation of all healthy diets, providing fiber, vitamins, minerals, and fluids. Vegetables contain small amounts of protein.
- Low-fat dairy - provides high-quality protein, carbs, and essential vitamins such as vitamin D, potassium, and calcium. Rosenbloom and Clark recommend chocolate milk as a good workout recovery beverage. If you are lactose intolerant, you may tolerate yogurt with active cultures.
- Lean meat - This is a great source of protein, iron for oxygen transport to muscles, and amino acids including leucine, which Rosenbloom says is thought to be a trigger for muscle growth.
- Dark-meat chicken - Boneless skinless chicken is good, but go dark and increase iron by 25% and three times the zinc for a healthy immune system.
- Eggs - The 2010 Dietary Guidelines says an egg a day is OK but don’t throw out the yolk. “Eggs contain all of the essential amino acids and half the protein is in the yolk with other import nutrients like lutein for eye health,” Rosenbloom says.
- Nuts - Unsalted raw or roasted are a good source of protein that also contain vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats.
- Beans and whole grains - These quality carbs contain small amounts of protein for energy and muscle repair, along with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Timing Is Everything
Timing is critical in muscle development because you need carbs and protein to perform strength training and protein and carbs for muscle recovery. The best plan is to eat a diet containing both nutrients and small amounts of healthy fats throughout the day.
“Consuming a protein beverage like chocolate milk within an hour after exercise will give muscles the building blocks it needs when it is most receptive for repair” says Rosenbloom, Georgia State University nutrition professor emerita.
If you will be eating a meal within 1-2 hours after a strenuous workout, Rosenbloom says you don’t need a snack and can wait for the meal to provide the recovery nutrition.
More than half your calories should come from healthy carbs, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD. “Carbs supply fuel for energy and prevent protein from being broken down and used as an energy source so always fuel up before working out.”
But be careful: It is a delicate balance of eating enough calories to build muscle but not too many calories, which can lead to gaining body fat.
Protein has a role to build and repair muscle tissue in addition to other functions, like producing hormones and immunity factors. The ADA suggests male endurance athletes get 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, whereas male body builders may need 1.6-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
“Two cups of milk contain about 20 grams of protein, which is the amount recommended to stimulate muscle protein synthesis," Rosenbloom says.
But most people don’t eat by the numbers. So Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, recommends meal suggestions. “The foundation of each meal is based on healthy carbs, with additional protein like oatmeal with nuts and yogurt; turkey and cheese sandwich with veggies or spaghetti with meat sauce, and a salad. These are all great for body building,” Clark says.
She advises her athletes to divide their food into four equally sized meals and choose three out of these four options: fruit or vegetable, grains, healthy fats, and calcium-rich or lean protein at each meal.
For a food plan designed just for you, consult a registered dietitian.
Get Muscle-Building Results by Fatiguing Muscles
The only way to build bigger, more defined muscles is with progressive resistance training - gradually increasing weights and endurance. Use a weight heavy enough to cause muscle fatigue after 9-12 repetitions. If you can easily do 13 repetitions with good form, you need to increase the weight.
“It is the act of pushing the muscles past the comfort zone that promotes muscle growth and see more definition," Clark says.
Strength training results show up quicker than aerobic exercise. “It’s encouraging to start seeing enhanced definition fairly soon after working out at least twice a week for 30-45 minutes," Rosenbloom says.
The exact length of time it takes to start seeing enhanced definition in your muscles also depends on your percentage of body fat. An extra fat layer around your muscles will not let the newly toned muscle show through without weight loss. Clark says gaining 2 pounds of muscle per month is a reasonable expectation.
Strength training is vital to building muscles but it is also an important part of any fitness program and should be done 2-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes. “It is a great investment in your future well-being because you need to use your muscles or you will lose them," Clark says.
As we age, strength training helps maintain muscle strength, prevent osteoporosis, and decrease muscle and joint injuries.
Rosenbloom recommends going to a gym where you can work with a trainer to understand how to properly perform muscle building exercises to challenge but not injure your muscles.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.