How to Eat When Building Muscle

Bulking up is a bit of an art form, but it's not as complicated as you might think. Here are a few simple rules to follow when building muscle.

If you want to gain weight and build muscle, you need to pay attention to your nutrition – without proper nutritional support, all those hours spent breaking a sweat can easily go to waste.

Essentially, you need to be eating well – getting the right amount of quality calories – while also putting your body through its paces in the gym. As the expression goes:

Having the right nutrition will never win you a gold medal, but the wrong nutrition can cost you one

Even if your goals are not quite as lofty as an Olympic gold medal, the principle still applies. Here are some rules to stick to when building muscle:

Don't be afraid of the F-word

First things first – we need to talk about fat. People often make the misconception that 'all fat is bad', and therefore if you consume it, you’ll end up fat yourself, jeopardising your efforts to build muscle or tone up in the process.

… it doesn’t quite work that way. Fat needs to be part of your diet for it to be truly balanced, and the good news is not all fats are bad for you.

Here’s a brief reality check: if you’re gaining weight, then you’ll have to accept that you’ll gain both muscle and fat. It is theoretically possible to gain muscle without adding any fat, but it’s incredibly difficult and involves being meticulous with training and nutrition – which most of us aren’t

And that’s fine. There's a reason why people make use of 'bulking' (intense weight-lifting and a high-calorie diet to build muscle) and 'cutting' (losing fat whilst maintaining muscle mass) phases, and it's because doing both at the same time is very difficult.

Eat more calories

What is hypertrophy? No, it’s not an award they give you for smashing your last workout (although that would be nice, wouldn’t it?) – hypertrophy is simply the increase and growth of muscle cells.

When we say your body has achieved hypertrophy, we mean that your muscles are getting bigger, and lifting something heavy is the most popular way to achieve this.

To get in a state of hypertrophy, you need to eat a lot (those muscle cells need to recover somehow!) as well as lift weights – it takes a lot of calories, but they all need to count. Any calories that end up in your body after a workout need to come from high-quality, nutrient-dense foods.

Take an elite rugby player, for example. They are – for the most part – massive, incredibly fit individuals. Their day job involves crashing into and throwing other massive rugby players around a pitch for 80 minutes, doing the same in training, and lifting weights in the gym. To maintain their size, the average rugby player will eat almost double the number of calories that we do in a day.

The recommended daily caloric intake for the average adult male and female is around 2500 or 2000, respectively – a top-level rugby player will easily consume around 4000 a day.

But the chances are that you’re not a professional rugby player, so the good news is you don't need to eat the farm to bulk up. A good rule of thumb for achieving hypertrophy is to eat an extra 500kcal/day, every day, to achieve an added 0.5kg per week.

Consume more protein

But rugby player or not, you’ll both be eating along the same lines, and it starts and ends with protein.

If you’re trying to build muscle, protein is your best friend. Why? Because roughly 50% of the protein in your body right now is muscle protein, and most of it is being used for maintaining muscle structure.

The two are inextricably linked, which is why they’re the ideal ‘food’ for your muscles. During a heavy weights session, your muscles become damaged due to the strain of the exercise. You need to give them the substrate (for example, amino acids from protein) to adapt (for example, build more muscle) to that increased workload.

But while protein might be your best friend for post-workout recovery, it is most definitely not your only friend – incorporate carbohydrates into your post-gym meals because they also contribute towards:

  • Improved glycogen storage – giving you more available energy to lift weights in your next session.
  • Decreasing DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) – which theoretically means that if you get super-sore after a workout, you may train to a lower intensity the next time around.
  • Muscle protein synthesis – better known as 'making new muscle'. An intake of carbs with protein can help your muscles grow after a period of fatigue.

The average sedentary person needs around 50g of protein per day, but more active people would need more – as a guideline, an 85kg (around 13 stone) person would need around 128-196g of protein per day.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s far more manageable if you break it down per meal. Five portions of 25-40g of protein per day will see you hit that target, and it gets even more manageable if you use Huel to help out – one portion, or two scoops, of Huel Black Edition contains 40g of protein, while Huel Complete Protein contains 20g (and only 105 Kcal).

Eat at the right time

Knowing what to eat before and after a workout is one thing, but knowing when to eat after hitting the gym should also be part of your muscle-building plan.

Consuming protein after the gym to replenish your tired muscles sounds easy enough, but you’ll need to maintain that habit to see the best results. 

Going to the gym every so often and ‘rewarding’ yourself with a takeaway afterwards isn’t going to cut it. Squeezing a run in before going to the pub won’t either.

You need to exercise regularly and time your protein intake around it. Aim to eat a protein-rich meal two-to-three hours before a workout, and another less than two hours once you’ve finished.

Eat the right foods to build muscle mass

So you need a lot of calories… and you need a lot of protein… but you’re probably wondering where exactly you can find all of that.

What, specifically, should you be eating to build muscle and sustain your muscle growth?

Some of the best foods to help you on your bulking journey:

  • Whole grains – oats, in particular, are a do-it-all hero
  • White meat – if you’re a meat-eater, chicken and turkey are especially high in protein and perfect for helping your muscles grow
  • Oily fish – salmon, tuna, and sardines (among others) are all high in quality omega-3 fatty acids
  • Roasted veg – good news for vegans and veggies! Vegetables contain a bunch of good stuff that help your body recover and contribute to a well-rounded diet. In the context of building muscle, they're extremely handy as good sources of carbohydrates
  • Huel – fun fact: Huel Black Edition contains 50% fewer carbs and 33% more protein than regular Huel

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