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Nutrition to Optimise Muscle Building

​It is important to understand that the primary driver of increased muscle mass (hypertrophy) is the work done in the weights room. Nutrition, with an emphasis on protein intake, does play a role in enhancing the anabolic (muscle building) effect of weight training and acts as a substrate to help build new muscle tissue. Unlike fat loss, muscle building is a slow and inefficient process – patience and consistency are key.

If you are looking to build new muscle tissue, consider the points below to help maximise this process.

Setting Calories 
Eating in an energy surplus is likely optimal to promote a muscle building environment and to support progressive training demands. Eating below maintenance calories (ie, being in an energy deficit) decreases muscle protein synthesis and is therefore not optimal if you’re looking to gain muscle.

The size of the energy (calorie) surplus depends upon the individual – trial and error works best. A few hundred calories above maintenance is the ‘sweet spot’ for many – unless you classify as a ‘hard-gainer’, whereby fidgeting and unconscious movement (NEAT) reduces the surplus.

A more individualised recommendation is based on changes in total body weight. A 1-1.5% increase in total body weight per month is a reasonable target for most. This, however, can vary depending on training age, genetics and body fat levels. Note – you cannot force feed gains in muscle tissue!

Total Protein – How Much?
In a review published last year, it was concluded that, for the vast majority, a total daily protein intake beyond ~1.6g/kg of body weight per day did not provide further benefit of gains in strength and muscle mass during resistance training. However, to quote the authors ‘it may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg per day for those seeking to maximise resistance training-induced gains’. It is worth pointing out that the analysis did not include those in a calorie deficit.

Greater than ~1.6 g/kg of protein per day may be beneficial for those looking to control hunger and minimise fat gain as protein is more satiating than carbohydrate and fat. With regards to a protein target to maximise muscle mass, I typically recommend ~2g per kilogram of body weight for most as a nice round figure to aim for. 

Protein Distribution
Based on mechanistic research, four to six evenly spread (no more than ~4 hours apart) protein feedings is optimal for the goal of maximising rates of muscle gain. 

A sample meal distribution to maximise the muscle protein synthetic response could look as follows. ‘/kg’ means ‘per kilogram of total body weight’.

  • 0.4-0.5g/kg – within a mixed meal 
  • 0.3g/kg in a post-workout shake or 40g absolute protein following a full body workout
  • 40g protein pre-bed

Protein Timing
From a pragmatic standpoint, particularly when consuming mixed meals, there is no need to focus too much on precise meal timing – the anabolic window has been shown to last 24-48 hours post-training. With that in mind, ensure ample protein in each meal.

Key takeaway 
A well-designed weight training programme will provide a powerful anabolic stimulus for muscle growth and is by far and away the greatest contributor to gains in muscle mass. To see what makes a great muscle-building programme, download our free e-book here. Nutrition will merely augment the adaptive response. Do both consistently and you’re golden!

Kevin Garde
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant
​PRISM Nutrition

DEXA and Muscle-Building – setting expectations

A conversation that Bodyscan consultants have with customers more and more often is, as outlined above, re-setting expectations about how much (or how little) muscle a client can expect to build in a given time. Men especially believe they can (to use the men’s mag lingo) “pack on slabs of muscle” without much effort or with a ‘bog-standard’ regimen of three hours a week in the gym, doing three sets of ten reps for a few exercises.

Countless DEXA scans undertaken by Bodyscan reveal that is not so. On unremarkable programmes, it is usually only customers who admit to being on steroids or prescribed testosterone supplementation who see noticeable gains in lean mass in under six months. And even with steroids some of that “lean gain” will actually be body water.

A DEXA scan is a three-compartment model, meaning that, like most other methods of measuring body composition, lean mass is affected by water. Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Body claims to have put on huge amounts of muscle in a short period of time, and for this to have been verified by a DEXA scan, but we rebuff that claim here.

If you don’t want to take steroids or testosterone, then expect your lean gains to be slow and steady. You will make your biggest gains when you first start, as your muscles will be newly and highly responsive to the stimulus of resistance. You’ll also make faster gains the younger you are and if you’re male (men have higher levels of testosterone). A series of body composition scans every three months over the course of a year will prove that muscle growth is slow and unpredictable and, as we describe in this DEXA information video, there are stark contrasts between what’s needed to grow muscle tissue and what’s required for fat loss.

Some DEXA customers are occasionally perplexed by a result that shows no lean/muscle gain even though they say they are lifting heavier weights and look more muscly or defined.

When we investigate, Bodyscan’s DEXA team discover that their rep range is too low and optimised for strength, not size (mass). Aim for 12-15 reps on each set and make it four sets (or even five) instead of three. Four sets of twelve (48 reps) has 60% more volume than three sets of ten (30). Here’s a blog post on rep ranges. Muscle building (hypertrophy) is dependent on the volume and intensity of your weights sessions. We regularly see power lifters whose repeat DEXA scans show no increase in lean mass, while their lifts and personal bests have increased significantly.

The other reason for the confusion about DEXA’s lean results (showing no increase in lean mass whilst looking more defined or “toned”) is that muscle definition is far more a product of low fat than it is of high muscle. Very low fat on moderate muscle will look far more “ripped” and worthy of a cover model than average fat on high muscle.

If you want to track your own muscle growth over an extended period (and we urge you to accept that it will not be a short time), then book a DEXA scan package such as the VF4 and save money at the same time. You will soon appreciate that lean gains in 3-4 months are usually minimal. (Once you’ve purchased your pre-paid credits, make your first (Baseline) booking here.)