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 the diet 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 diet 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 bodybuilders 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 can be found in:

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 diet.

 

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2. Get some healthy fats.

Dietary fat is sometimes underappreciated by some athletes. 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 because 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:

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 that 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 g 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 Diet 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.

  1. What to eat before a workout?

You want to start your workout well-hydrated and well-fueled. For fluids, drink about 2 cups of water 2-3 hours beforehand, then have another cup about 15-20 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:

  1. What to eat after a workout?

After you exercise, your muscles need some healthy carbohydrates and about 10-20 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.

  1. 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 cottage cheese with fruit, or some raw vegetables and hummus.

  1. 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 diet – 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.

muscle building workout with kettlebell

How to Design the Best Workout Plan for Muscle Building

You need more than just protein in your diet to get the nutrients you need to build muscle. The same applies to your exercise routine – doing the right workouts will help you reach this goal faster and more effectively.

We invited our Sports Performance and Fitness Specialist, Denise Cervantes, to share her best tips for strength training:

How do you build physical strength?

Strength training, also known as resistance training, is the main form of exercise you want to focus on to build muscle. These exercises include weightlifting or bodyweight training (without weights) to improve your strength and strength endurance. When you are training to increase strength or gain muscle, however, there are two things you need to make sure you are doing in your training to initiate the physiological change for hypertrophy (muscle growth in size):

  1. You need to make sure you are creating mechanical tension, meaning you are using a heavy enough weight to challenge the muscle through a full range of motion.
  2. Your training must also cause metabolic stress. You will know you have done so when your muscle becomes fatigued, because it has used all of its stored energy to fuel its contractions to complete the reps.

This is a good thing! These stresses you apply to the muscle will cause damage to the muscle fibers, causing “micro-tears,” which send signals for the cells to regrow back stronger and bigger!

And remember, growth happens with rest, so make sure to follow a well-designed program that gives you a day to rest the muscle you just worked so it has a chance to recover and grow. To see continual improvements from strength training, you should gradually increase the weight and reps.

What is the best gym equipment for muscle building?

I suggest starting with machines since they initially put you in a safe position during the movement as you get to understand the process of applying stress on the muscles.

When starting your weightlifting journey, you want your body to understand the necessary stress the muscles need to grow:

How long does it take to build muscle? Can I build muscle quickly?

Muscle building takes time, and you’ll need a proper program tailored to your lifestyle and fitness level. Remember that rest and good nutrition will affect your results.

If done right, you will feel stronger in the 6th to 8th week of your lifting program. These are neuro-muscular gains you are feeling: your body will adapt to the movements and the feeling of the weights, and your muscles become more coordinated. Although you might not see physical gains, your brain-to-muscle signals are becoming more efficient!

Then, around the 12th week of your training, if you are resting and eating well, you will start to notice your muscles growing. This is when you may feel your clothes fitting differently.

How often should you work out to build muscle?

To stimulate muscle gain, you will need to give each body part a rest after working it out at the gym. Therefore, you do what is called “training splits,” where you split your training week by body part.

Each day of the week focuses on a certain body part. For example, the “primary focus” can be the big muscles like the back, legs, and chest, while the “secondary focus” can be your accessory muscles or smaller muscles such as the abs, triceps, and biceps.

Here’s a template of a training splits schedule:

How many sets and reps are needed to build muscle?

When training, you will want a program that challenges your strength, so you will need to assess what your maximum repetition (rep) is. A good coach will make sure you are working at specific percentages of your 1 rep max.

If you don’t know your 1 rep max, you can work at your perceived exertion. This means you will be choosing weights based on how you feel. The rule of thumb when working at your perceived exertion is that the last 3 to 4 reps of your set should feel somewhat of a challenge.

You can customize your set and rep ranges depending on your goal:

Let’s say you want to grow your chest and arms. Your Monday Split for hypertrophy for the chest and triceps will go like the following:

  1. Warm-up: get the body warm and prime for movement. This will help with avoiding injury and help the muscle fire better for stronger lifts.
  2. Start with 2 to 3 warm-up sets to prepare for the working set. This helps avoid injury, warming up your muscles and joints for the heavier sets.
  3. Bench press light-weight load for 10 reps.
  4. For the next set, load weight at 40-50% of your max for up to 10 reps.
  5. Working set
  6. Bench press at 67%-85% of one-rep max or moderate to heavy 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
  7. Dumbbell incline press at moderate to heavy for 3 sets of 12
  8. Cable machine chest flies at a challenging weight for 3 sets of 12
  9. Triceps machine rope extensions – choose a challenging weight you can do for 12 reps and 3 sets
  10. Single arm triceps kickbacks with a light dumbbell for 3 sets of 12 reps each arm

How do rest, recovery, and sleep affect your progress?

Sleep is another thing to think about when trying to gain muscle. Our energy levels are impacted by sleep, which also aids in physical recovery and healing. It’s recommended that you get 7-9 hours of sleep.

Gaining muscle is one thing, but maintaining it is another. To keep the results you’ve worked so hard to achieve, it is essential to stick to a routine including a diet rich in muscle-building foods and effective exercises.

Could you share a success story from an employee who completed one of your strength training programs?

At Herbalife Nutrition, I have the privilege of working with the Sport Performance and Fitness team to keep our employees engaged and excited about fitness. Aside from programming competitions and leading group fitness sessions, I also work one-on-one with employees.

 

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There was an employee who loved to run and play soccer, and he wanted to learn how to lift, especially the deadlift. I developed a 6-week training program for him, making sure to leave time for both running and soccer. But I told him he might need to take a few days off for rest, meaning he may have to give up running or playing soccer on certain days.

He remained determined and completed the following plan:

His program consisted of rep ranges of 3 sets of 10 at his 75% on the barbell, and we also threw in lat pulls of 3 sets of 10 to strengthen his back on his pull for deadlifts.

On technique days, we accessorized with dumbbell lunges to target strengthening glutes and introduced new movements with weights to the body.

Training Split Schedule, Week 1-2:

When I tested him in the first week, he was able to deadlift 155 pounds with excellent form.

Training Split Schedule, Week 3-6:

When I tested him on week 3, he increased his deadlift to 225 pounds!

On the last week of the 6-week program, he got 285 pounds up! And now, after 12 weeks of starting his program, he can now pull 315 pounds off the floor for one-rep max.

It was truly amazing to see and be a part of his growth. I am so glad he trusted me to be his coach, even on days when he was tired or wanted to skip the gym. He felt his best when he saw his progress.

We worked together on a program that fits his schedule, without having to sacrifice running or soccer completely. He is continuing with his lifting journey, and he let me know that his running and soccer have improved because of it.

Susan Bowerman

Susan BowermanM.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman is the senior director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition. She also serves as a chairwoman of the Dietetic Advisory Board (DAB). As a registered dietitian, she educates distributors about our global nutrition philosophy and is responsible for developing nutrition education and training materials.

Bowerman earned a B.S. in Biology with distinction from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and holds two board certifications as a specialist in Sports Dietetics and in Obesity and Weight Management. When she is not busy teaching and writing, Susan enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and gardening. Her favorite Herbalife Nutrition products include Simply Probiotic and Herbalife Nutrition Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix Banana Caramel.