Whether wanting to increase your lean (muscle) mass to improve strength, performance or physique, the core principles can be focused within three main strategies. It is about training and, what can sometimes get forgotten: complementing that training with nutrition that maximises adaptations and results.
#1 Provide the Stimulus
As a Sports Dietitian, I’m going to stay in my professional lane, so I won’t delve too deeply into this. However, providing stimulus to the muscles is the number one tip.
Even if you do the next two tips perfectly, without a training stimulus to the muscle you are unlikely to see much progress. To build an effective and functional weight increase, your training program should reflect the progressive load and resistance needed to give the signal to the muscle that it needs to breakdown to be able to rebuild.
#2 Consider Your Goals, then Adjust Your Energy Intake to Match
If you are aiming for an increase in your overall weight, then an increase in your overall energy intake will be needed as well. This can be achieved in a number of ways, and it is about finding the options that suit you best. This is a very individual thing. It could be increasing carbohydrate at meals and snacks, it could be adding in snacks or eating more frequently, or it could be adding in fats (such as dressings, nuts, seeds, avocado, etc.) to meals, or turning to supplements for convenience or to ‘supplement’ your current intake.
Although ‘energy in’ and ‘energy out’ is something often said, rarely is it simple! If you are finding it difficult to increase your weight despite feeling like you are eating non-stop, there are other things that may be happening –
You may not be eating as much as you think:
- Particularly when your focus is also on overall nutrition quality, you may not be achieving the energy excess you thought. This is the difference between nutrient density and energy density. Nutrient dense foods are high in nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals and fibre) but often lead you to fill up without meeting your energy needs.
- Does this mean you need to switch to a highly processed intake without any quality? Not at all! But you may need to consider ways to bump up the energy density of your meals, your snacks and utilise supplements where necessary for convenience. Like what?
Increase in your NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis):
- NEAT is something we all do daily – fidgeting, walking, basic daily movement. This adds a significant amount to your daily energy needs and for some, when increasing energy intake, NEAT automatically increases to compensate!
- As it is often done subconsciously, it can be tough to manage or change or even realise it is happening – so your energy intake may need to be increased further.
#3 Protein – the nutrient that everyone loves talking about!
The protein we eat is made up of a range of amino acids – the building blocks of our muscle. So, of course it makes sense that these are important when aiming to build and rebuild our lean mass. This is where I like to bring in the three T’s of protein – Total, Type & Timing.
For those who have increasing muscle mass as the goal, aiming for 1.6-2g/kg per day is ideal. This protein, ideally, will be coming from a range of different sources to help with overall nutrition quality and to ensure a range of amino acids are consumed. For those on plant-based diets, this total goal should be increased slightly to allow for the lower bioavailability of plant proteins, however it is still doable!
As well as ensuring variety in your protein sources, focusing on your protein quality is also important. This can be ensuring quality for both plant and animal sources of protein, while also getting the building blocks needed to maximise Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS). One of those MPS triggers is an amino acid you may have heard of – leucine. Including a high-quality protein will also help meet the goal of 2-3g of leucine to initially maximise the MPS process after a workout and then to continue the recovery and rebuild process for the next 24-48hrs.
Leucine is naturally lower in plant-based proteins, so aim for a variety of different protein sources and ensure a well-planned intake to help meet your needs and maximise your results.
Rarely do we tell an athlete that their intake of protein is inadequate. Instead, the intake needs to be manipulated so that it is better quality and is better spread throughout the day. By spreading your protein intake well over the day – ideally in 4-6 different meals/snacks – will help your body utilise the amino acid building blocks effectively compared to having all of your protein in one meal such as dinner.
With the three main strategies of training stimulus, energy adequacy and protein, you will be well on your way to meeting your muscle mass goals. There is no need for perfection in grams or timing, but rather aiming for progress for improvement. Once feeling really confident with these ‘big rocks’ in increasing muscle mass, we can start moving toward other periodisation options and supplement opportunities.
Advanced Sports Dietitian and co-founder of the performance focused athlete dashboard, Compeat Nutrition
Alicia Edge is an Advanced Sports Dietitian and co-founder of the performance focused athlete dashboard, Compeat Nutrition. When she isn’t wrangling her 3 young kids, she is supporting a range of athletes, from everyday active to professional, achieve their definition of performance.
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