Young athletes, particularly males, at the middle and high school levels often seek answers for how to pack on serious size in the shortest amount of time humanly possible. While there may be various explanations for this, some more reasonable than others, these young individuals are often misinformed about what a few extra pounds of muscle does to one's athletic performance. While I'd love to take a deep dive into the actual benefits versus myths of increased muscle mass for athletic performance in this article, I will save that for another day. Instead, I'll enlighten you, the reader, on misinformation surrounding nutrition for muscle gain. And tips for eating so that if you decide greater muscle mass is what you need, you will acquire it appropriately.
A Little Science First
Before I dispel some of the myths about nutrition for muscle gain, it is important to first have a rudimentary understanding of how muscle gain actually occurs. So here it goes:
First, stress (i.e., strength training workout) is applied to the body, which damages the muscle fibers.
Once this stress is done, the body begins to repair the muscle fibers by increasing the thickness and number of what's called myofibrils. This is a complicated process that involves satellite cells and several hormones. For simplicity, just remember that muscle fibers are being rebuilt and repaired when we rest after the stress is applied.
When the body encounters another stressor similar to what it saw before but slightly greater, the same process occurs. The muscle fibers repair to a greater thickness and number again. Over time, this process is repeated, and we are left with muscle gain.
This all seems pretty simple, right? Break the body down. It builds itself back up, easy! Well, it gets a bit more complicated than that. If one does not rest an adequate amount of time, then no adaptation will occur. Muscle growth only occurs when the rate of muscle protein synthesis (repair) is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown. This is why you cannot do the same workout day after day or week after week and hope to see results. The body never gets a chance to recover and allows for a greater stressor to be added. With this all a bit clearer, you're probably left wondering how nutrition plays into this, right? Read on!
Importance of Nutrition:
Eat big to get big. We've all heard this phrase echoed across the gym or locker room at one point or another. What does that even mean, though? Most individuals take it as, 'eat as much as I possibly can so I can put on as much weight as possible. While you may indeed gain some weight, even stole with this approach, your body can only repair at a specific rate. Excess calories after a certain point will simply turn into stored body fat, not the weight you were looking for. How slow of a process, you may ask? Well, 1-2 lbs. per month is considered a lot which equates to 12-24 lbs. a year. This may be obtainable for a newbie, but progress slows to a crawl as one becomes more advanced and well-trained. Professional bodybuilders and physique athletes fight for sometimes as little as an extra lb. of muscle gain a year! It is important to follow a properly organized training program that provides the optimal stimulus and recovery for muscle growth.
As it pertains to nutrition for muscle growth, here are some fundamental principles:
A caloric surplus of approximately 200-330kcal per day is recommended for optimal muscle gain without non-functional mass gain (fat) alongside it. It is easy to estimate your caloric needs through apps like MyFitnessPal. This allows you to track your meals and provide baseline recommendations based on the information you provide.
Adequate protein intake is non-negotiable for building muscle. Our bodies must maintain positive nitrogen balance or have greater muscle protein synthesis rates over muscle protein breakdown throughout the day to gain muscle, as previously mentioned. Aiming to eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass or a bit more is not a wrong starting place. This can be tailored to an individual depending on how they respond, but taking in much less than this will not yield optimal results.
Eat whole, minimally processed foods. Plain and simple. Most individuals become obsessed with the macronutrient breakdowns of their diet (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) without considering the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) and how they affect the body. Eating whole foods that provide an array of nutrients will give the body a better chance for absorption, recovery, and repair while leaving you feeling better overall.
Eat enough to fuel your performance. It is not enough to simply hit your food intake for the day by shoving everything in your mouth before you go to bed each night. You must eat according to your training so that you can get the most from it. One of the biggest mistakes I see young athletes make is failing to eat something good before a session. You must look at food as fuel when you are an athlete. You wouldn't drive a car when it's on empty. Therefore you shouldn't train on an empty stomach (with some exceptions). It doesn't have to be a five-star meal. Eat a piece of fruit and a few eggs an hour or two before training, and watch your performance levels increase.
In summary, eating to increase muscle mass is an area of discussion littered with misinformation. Individuals often believe that they must turn into a human garbage disposal or only eat weight gainer protein powders if they wish to pack on some size. The basic tenants of muscle gain are simple and not so flashy. They always have been and always will be. Prioritize eating well, training hard, and sleeping like a baby for a long consistent period, and watch your results come in.