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How to Build Muscle Effectively: The Role of Protein, Meal Plan, and Exercise

Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training July 23, 2023

If you were to ask most people what it takes to build muscle, they’d probably say that you just need to eat protein, protein, and more protein. Protein is important, to be sure. After all, your muscles are made of protein, and your body requires adequate protein in your meal plan in order to have the building blocks it needs to build up muscle mass. But protein alone won’t do. You need to pay attention to the rest of your meal plan and exercise routine as well..

​Why It Takes More Than Just Protein to Build Muscle

​A lot of people who are trying to bulk up are also trying to lose body fat at the same time. But, sometimes, the approaches they use to meet those goals are at odds with each other. They’ll take in plenty of protein, which, when coupled with a strength training routine, should lead to more lean mass. But they may also cut their total calories back too far in an effort to get “shredded.”

​That can be a problem. If you cut your calories too much, some of the protein that you eat is going to be burned for fuel rather than being used to support muscle development. So to effectively build muscle mass, you want to ensure that you have enough calories to support your activity and the right balance of nutrients, too.

​1. Fuel up with carbohydrates

​Many people see carbs as the enemy, and that can be a mistake. Yes, highly refined carbohydrates and sweets hardly do the body good. But the right carbohydrates help to fuel activity, including working muscles.

​Good sources of carbs can be found in:

  • ​Whole grains
  • ​Beans
  • ​Fruits
  • ​Vegetables

​Without adequate carbohydrates to fuel your exercise, some of the protein you’re eating might get burned for fuel. So to avoid “burning the candle at both ends,” make sure to include enough high-quality carbs in your meal plan.

​2. Get some healthy fats

​Dietary fat is sometimes underappreciated by some people. Like carbs, fats may have an undeserved bad reputation. Small amounts of the right kinds of fats are very important. That’s because certain fatty acids, the building blocks of dietary fats, are essential, and the body can’t make them. Fatty acids are a vital structural component of every cell membrane, including muscle cells. The body relies on fat to fuel moderate intensity, longer-term exercise. That’s just the type of exercise that might be coupled with a strength training regimen to build mass and lose body fat. 

​Good sources of fatty acids:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fatty fish
  • Olive oil
  • Avocado

​3. Protein intake and timing are key

​Protein is crucial for muscle development, but instead of simply focusing on the amount of protein you take in, you should also pay attention to the timing of your intake.

​The process of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is stimulated by strength training activity, but it’s also stimulated when you eat protein. This is one reason why those looking to bulk up should aim to spread their protein intake evenly over meals and snacks throughout the day. MPS is greater under these conditions than it is under a more typical pattern in which little protein is consumed in the morning, a bit more at lunch and then a large amount at dinner. And a bedtime snack containing about 25 grams of protein can help to stimulate MPS during the night.

​Both plant-based and animal-based protein sources provide the necessary building blocks for MPS, but different proteins are digested and absorbed at different rates, so taking in a variety of protein sources could allow a prolonged release of amino acids into the system. For example, dairy products contain two proteins: whey and casein. Whey is considered a “fast-acting” protein, while casein takes longer for the body to process – and is the reason why many athletes turn to dairy proteins, since they provide a sustained release of amino acids over a longer period of time.

​However, animal proteins aren’t necessary in order to build muscle. With careful planning and attention to total intake, even vegetarians or vegans can consume enough protein to support muscle development.

​Best Meal Plan and Nutrition Tips for Building Muscle

​1. How to spread your protein intake and how often should you eat?

​Ideally, you’ll want to time your eating so that it works with your workout but also aim for three regular meals and a couple of snacks – making sure that they are balanced with both carbohydrates and protein. That way, you can provide your body with the fuel it needs from the carbohydrate, as well as a steady supply of protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

​2. What to eat before a workout?

​You want to start your workout well hydrated and well fueled. For fluids, drink about two cups of water two to three hours beforehand, then have another cup about 15 to 20 minutes before. The length of time between the time you eat your meal and the time you work out will dictate the type of meal you have:

  • ​If you have a few hours to digest, then a “regular” breakfast that might include foods like protein shake, eggs, yogurt, whole-grain toast, whole-grain cereals, milk/soy milk and fruit would be appropriate. 
  • ​If you’ll be eating fairly close to the time you work out, then something like a dates, honey, or biscuits will take less time to digest. Just be sure your food includes not just protein but a source of carbohydrates, too. So in addition to a protein, include foods such as fruits or nuts.

​​3. What to eat after a workout?

​​After you exercise, your muscles need some healthy carbohydrates and about 10 to 20 grams of high-quality protein to help them repair and recover. A carton of yogurt, a turkey or nut butter sandwich, a smoothie made with fruit and milk or soy milk, or a bowl of cereal and fruit are all good recovery foods after a session of strength training.

​4. What are good snacks in between meals?

​Snacks should include the same healthy balance of protein and carbs. Some snack bars have a good balance of protein and carbohydrates and are convenient to carry with you. Other quick snacks include a hard-boiled egg with some whole-grain crackers, some yogurt or cheese with fruit, or some raw vegetables and hummus.

​5. How to gain muscle without putting on fat?

​In order to build muscle, your body does require additional nutrients and calories, but that doesn’t give you license to eat as much as you want. If you take in more calories than you burn – whether from unhealthy, fatty, sugary foods or from a healthy well-balanced meal – those calories will get stored as body fat.

​Choosing lean proteins, such as fish, poultry, low-fat dairy products, beans and tofu, will help ensure that your body gets the protein it needs without excess calories. Similarly, choose healthy carbohydrates – fruits, vegetables, whole grains – over sugars and refined starches so you can reap the benefits without the extra calories.​