Sports Nutrition for Building Muscle

There are many sports where athletes need to build muscle, such as those participating in contact or power sports such as rugby, AFL or rowing. Some people want to build muscle for aesthetic reasons, such as bodybuilders. Whatever the reason, getting your nutrition right can make a big difference.

Muscle is obviously high in protein and protein is therefore an extremely important nutrient to consume if you want to pack on some muscle. There is a belief out there in some circles that more protein equals more muscle. However, studies have shown that there is a maximum intake of protein when it comes to muscle building. There is some debate about maximum daily protein needs of athletes, but it’s likely no more than 2.5 g/kg of body weight. Beyond this maximum amount, excess protein gets broken down for use as an energy source. The brain consumes a lot of energy and it’s preferred energy source is carbohydrates. Excessive protein intakes simply means that the body has to work harder to produce energy. This will have a negative effect on general health and therefore muscle growth. Therefore, it’s not just about getting as much protein as possible.

What is really important is that protein intake is consistent throughout the day. A good serve of protein should be consumed at each main meal and after exercise. Current evidence indicates that protein intake during exercise does not have a positive affect on muscle growth. Also, there is no need to constantly snack on protein throughout the day and this may actually be counterproductive. Leucine is an important amino acid for triggering muscle growth with 3-4 grams the recommended dose at each meal. However, a full complement of essential amino acids is required in the diet to actually build muscle. This is particularly important post-exercise. High biological value protein (HBV) intakes somewhere in the range of about 0.25 to 0.3 g/kg of body weight per meal is a good guide for most athletes wanting to build muscle. Therefore, an athlete weighing 100kg would need somewhere around 25 to 30 grams of HBV protein at each meal and after exercise. The addition of low biological value proteins in a balanced meal will result in a higher overall protein intake.

Another belief among many athletes is that carbohydrates (CHO) are bad. As I previously mentioned, CHO are our brain’s preferred energy source. CHO are also needed for high intensity exercise. Without CHO the body doesn’t have sufficient energy available to meet the demands of high intensity exercise. Anyone doing resistance training needs a good supply of CHO to fuel the training session. Therefore, CHO should be the focus pre-, during and post-training. CHO needs during training will depend on the duration and individual preference. Pre-training nutrition has been shown to enhance resistance training capacity. Post-exercise CHO replenishes glycogen stores that are depleted during the exercise session. Glycogen levels are more effectively replenished when CHO are consumed immediately following the exercise session.

Another nutritional strategy that may increase lean tissue mass is to eat more food overall. However, this will almost always lead to increases in fat mass too. The relative increase in lean tissue compared to fat depends on factors such as age, sex, genetics, diet composition, health, training and baseline body composition. Well-trained athletes that already have a higher lean body mass may increase fat mass more than recreational athletes. Conversely, calorie restriction leads to reductions in lean tissue as well as fat. Manipulating body composition while maintaining strength and performance is complex and very individualised.

A healthy balanced diet containing the right amount of energy is really important for athletes to maintain their desired goals. There may be times when an athlete needs to reduce some weight and other times when they want to put on weight. Weight loss and weight gain involves energy balance. However, it’s not only a matter of eating more or less. Timing of meals, the type of foods and changes in energy balance need to be carefully considered so as not to compromise performance. Eating a balanced meal after training will provide all the necessary nutrients and functional food components that an athlete needs for building muscle and recovery. Supplements, such as protein powders should only be used as supplements. They are not a meal replacement. Energy intake needs to match energy expenditure. Therefore, athletes need to adjust calorie intake so that they consume more on days when they use more energy and vice versa. Many athletes I see in clinic fail to adjust their diet for daily energy expenditure fluctuations. Often they eat too little on training days and too much on rest days. The only time this might not apply is in adolescents that have very large energy requirements.

So, there’s a lot more to putting on muscle than just chomping down loads of protein. It’s mostly about the timing of CHO and protein, sufficient leucine, a healthy diet and overall energy balance. Protein and carbohydrates post-training is particularly important for recovery from exercise. Athletes are all different so it takes a bit of trial and error to get the balance right. Sports nutrition is right up there alongside talent and hard work when it comes to getting results!

Rick carries out consultations at his office in Coffs Harbour or via Skype/email Australia wide.

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About the Author

Rick Hallion is a nutritionist with a keen interest in sports nutrition. Rick has worked with many athletes wanting to improve their sports nutrition, body composition and athletic performance. Rick provides both face to face and Skype consultations for athletes of all ages and abilities who are into any form of exercise. 

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