Food Rules to Live by If You're Trying to Gain Muscle

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

I have a lot of friends who would describe themselves as dedicated lifters: committed to the gym, they spend hours every single day working out and pumping iron. But for 80% of them, you wouldn’t be able to tell. 

The sad truth is, these guys still look like shit. And they look like shit because they eat like shit. But it’s easy to avoid the same traps by following these simple food rules.

Flickr/Bobbi Bowers

Rule 1: Don’t skimp on carbohydrates or calories

American dieters seem to have a mortal fear of carbs. If cutting fat is the goal, more often than not we avoid carbs like the 49ers avoid touchdowns.

And wrongly so.

If you’re trying to build muscle, you need carbs. Carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source -- they're (relatively) quickly and easily broken down into glucose to be used for energy. In absence of carbs, your body struggles to do the same with protein, and has to go a completely different metabolic route for fats. Eating carbs also makes your body secrete insulin, an anabolic hormone (aka encourages muscle growth). So you’re essentially trying to fill a bucket with holes.

So you now have my blessing to shove some delicious, delicious carbs down your gullet (not too much, of course). But if putting on muscle is top priority, this still isn’t enough. Building muscle is an energetically expensive process, so to optimize muscle growth you need to consume more calories than you expend every day (you can calculate how much you need here).

Where should these calories come from? Not fat -- at a caloric surplus, extra fat is more likely to be stored. Not protein, either. While you need it to build muscle, any more than 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight per day probably won’t do anything (although it probably won’t hurt, either), and it doesn’t have the same benefits that carbs do. For those reasons, you should turn to carbs for the bulk of your calories. 

Flickr/Yasmina Haryono

Rule 2: Get most of your calories after your workout

There are two reasons for this.

1) Resistance training (i.e. lifting things up and putting them down) improves something known as “insulin sensitivity.” 

As explained above, insulin is an anabolic hormone. So with increased sensitivity, more of the calories you consume will be used for building muscle, rather than storing fat. Because of this, you’ll get the most bang for your proverbial buck by saving your food for after your workout.

2) Lifting while your body is in a “fed” state may decrease your workout performance. 

Digestion, like any other body process, takes a bunch of energy. Think about how you felt immediately after Thanksgiving dinner: tired, gluggy, or comatose are all probably apt descriptors. That’s because your body was diverting energy to the digestion process, thereby reducing available energy for your other body functions.

Sure, not every meal is as extreme as this. But a similar competition for energy goes on all the time. Because of that, saving more of your eating for after your workout may actually leave you with more energy than if you had a preworkout meal, and it may even be better for building muscle.


Rule 3: Always end your day with protein

There’s a misconception that muscle is built in the gym. In fact, the opposite happens. When you lift weights, you’re actually breaking down your muscle by creating micro-tears. The actual grunt work happens at rest, when your body gets to work in fixing these tears. Much like repairing damaged skin with a callus, your body overcompensates by building additional muscle to better cope with the physical stress.

Sleep is the prime time for a lot of this recovery to occur. The catch, however, is that it’s also the only time you can’t eat to provide it with the nutrients it needs to do so. Unless you sleep eat, in which case you have other problems to deal with.

Short of hooking yourself up on an IV drip every night, you can’t really fix this. But you can still help your body along by eating a protein-rich meal at the end of the day.

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Dick Talens is an entrepreneur, fitness writer, and growth hacker (both users and muscles). Follow his gibberish tweets: @DickTalens.