Nutrition for Muscle Growth

by Nashville personal trainer Dan DeFigio

Sometimes hypertrophy (which is the technical term for muscle tissue growth) is difficult to achieve. Metabolically, muscle tissue is very expensive — it requires a lot of energy to maintain, and from a survival standpoint, extra muscle is unnecessary so our bodies are not eager to keep any extra! Proper nutrition is vital to muscular gains, so here is some basic information about nutrition for muscle growth:

1. Eat a combination of protein and carbohydrates every 3-4 hours.

Eating protein often enough is vital to muscular growth. The amino acid pool in the bloodstream only lasts 3-4 hours, after which time the body will start to cannibalize muscle tissue to replenish the amino acid pool. This is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. Plus, when you go too long without eating, you body will go into starvation mode and start holding on to body fat stores.

2. You must eat (or drink a quality recovery shake) within 30 minutes after your workout.

In order to refuel the body after a tough workout, and to avoid the muscle cannibalization discussed above, it is important to eat (or drink) a protein/carb combination within about 30 minutes of the end of your workout. This is also an ideal time for creatine monohydrate, glutamine, and/or branched-chain amino acid supplementation (see below).

For the number-crunchers and hair-splitters out there, the most anabolic way to do the post-workout meal is to mix a shake consisting of 25% of your daily protein requirement plus 4 times that many grams of carbs. Sip on it throughout your workout. This formula comes from one of my favorite nutrition scientists, Dr. Thomas Incledon.

3. Eat enough total protein, and don’t under-carb yourself.

Research supports protein utilization up to .8 or .9 grams per pound of body weight daily. You can round up to 1 gram per pound of body weight — a little extra won’t hurt an athlete in heavy training (assuming there are no kidney conditions you’re dealing with).

That means a 180 lb. athlete would aim for approximately 180 grams of protein each day. If you eat 6 times per day, 30 grams per meal works perfectly.

Don’t fall victim to the low-carb diets when you’re trying to gain muscle! A vital part of muscle is the stored carbohydrate, called glycogen. If you under-carb yourself, your muscles will be flat instead of full, and your gas tank for your workouts will never be at 100%. Plus your body will once again break down muscle tissue to make the required glucose (a process called deamination) which, in addition to breaking down lean tissue, adds an ammonia burden to the body which the kidneys and liver must filter.

4. Nutrition supplements

Most muscle-building nutrition supplements are junk. There are, however, a few substances that have solid research backing their use by strength athletes:

Creatine Monohydrate. For a thorough investigation into this inexpensive and well-researched supplement, read my article on creatine.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) and their important cousin, Glutamine.
Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. Three of these amino acids (leucine, iso-leucine, and valine) make up a third of total muscle protein. Exercise uses up a ton of BCAA, and when we become depleted of BCAA it is not possible to maintain muscle tissue. Supplementing with a couple grams of branched-chain amino acids each day can help spare muscle tissue, increase muscle protein synthesis, and increase recovery. Take your BCAA capsules along with a standard protein source. Whey protein is a superb source of BCAAs and glutamine.

Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body, and a critical component of the immune system. Adequate glutamine reserves are vital for muscle growth. Without boring you with a biochemisty lesson, glutamine powder is not very stable in solution, so use OKG (ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate, the carbon skeleton of glutamine) instead. 2-4 grams each day (with other protein) should make a noticeable improvement in your muscular gains and recovery time.


Any questions, feel free to phone me at 615-442-7700 or email.