You’ve heard the saying “you are what you eat?” Well, that’s doubly true for your muscles.
The way you eat can majorly affect your ability to build and maintain muscle (or… not so much). So if you’re looking to maximize your strength gains, here are some foolproof tips for putting your diet to work for you.
1) Eat More Nutrient-Dense Foods
A lot of guides to strength-gaining nutrition will tell you to pack on the protein to the exclusion of all other food groups. It’s definitely true that you should be loading up on protein to effectively gain strength, but the dead cow is not the end-all-be-all of eating for muscle.
Instead, focus on eating some protein at every meal along with a well-rounded diet comprised of whole foods—think lots of veggies, lean meats and other protein sources (e.g. eggs and dairy), healthy fats, and (gasp!) even carbs.
Why whole foods? Because processed foods tend to contain nasty additives such as corn syrup, nitrates, sugars, trans fats, and so on—all of which can wreak havoc on your body. Whole foods, on the other hand, are loaded with the vitamins and minerals your body needs to perform at its best.
There’s a lot of controversy about carbs, but here’s why you still need to eat them when you’re trying to gain muscle: Carbs provide fuel for workouts (enabling you to train harder) and they stimulate the production of insulin after a workout, which helps ensure that amino acids (the building blocks of muscle) make it into your muscle cells.
That doesn’t mean you should down six bagels after every workout (eat too many carbs, and they’re still likely to be stored as fat), but it does mean carbs aren’t just the devil.
In many ways, a strength-building diet is pretty similar to a generally healthy diet. The key difference is that when you’re training hard, you’ll need to eat more calories to supply your body with enough fuel to facilitate the building of new muscle.
Of course, you don’t want to go overboard—eat more calories than your body needs to build muscle, and it’s likely to store them as fat. The key is to find that sweet spot where you’re fueling your muscles’ growth without eating more than you need.
This may require some experimentation with different calorie limits before you dial in on what works for you.
2) On Rest Days, Scale Back on Carbs
Here’s the exception to the “It’s okay to eat some unrefined carbs” rule. On the days that you aren’t training, go ahead and reduce or skip your carb consumption. Here’s why: While carbs have value for pre-workout fuel and post-workout recovery, they’re likely to be stored as fat on days when they aren’t needed for these purposes.
Keep this in mind on rest days so you don’t give your body more carbs than it needs.
3) Snack Before And After Workouts
Eating a healthy pre-workout snack provides your body with the fuel it needs to power through a tough workout so you can train hard, which is essential for muscle growth. For best results, opt for a snack that pairs protein with unrefined carbs.
It’s also smart to consume a post-workout snack. Here’s why: While you’re training, your body enters a catabolic state that involves breaking down muscle. If your goal is to build muscle, then you can speed up the process by stimulating your body to switch to an anabolic (aka muscle-building) state as soon as you’ve finished working out.
The best way to do that is by consuming a post-workout snack that contains plenty of protein combined with some carbohydrates to increase the protein’s absorption. Whey protein powders are a popular option because they’re affordable and convenient and because whey is a complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids required for building muscle.
Another benefit of consuming pre- and post-workout snacks? They allow you to split up your meals. So if you’re struggling to eat large meals in order to consume the calories necessary to facilitate muscle growth, you can split them into several smaller meals timed around your workouts.
4) Stay Hydrated
Training hard means sweating hard—and that results in water loss. If you don’t counteract this dehydration by consuming plenty of water, your body won’t have the fluids it needs to adequately perform various functions, including muscle recovery.
Water is a major component of protein and glycogen, both of which are involved in the process of building muscle. It also enables proper functioning of the muscle nerves that enable strength and control. Make a habit of drinking plenty of water every day to ensure your body can function at its best.
Here’s the key to making changes to your diet in the pursuit of more muscle: They have to be sustainable. If you feel like crap or are tired all the time, that’s a good sign that you need to keep experimenting with different meal plans.
Identifying a dietary approach that helps you both look and feel good is an evolving process. When you find that sweet spot of solid training and great nutrition, that’s when you’ll start to enjoy some serious muscle gains.