To build muscle, you have to be in a calorie surplus.
There’s no two ways about it.
Want to get bigger and grow new lean tissue? Then you need to be eating more than you’re burning off.
That’s rule number one when it comes to bulking, but there is a little more to it than that.
For one, you need ample protein.
Protein is the “building block” macronutrient, and the one that has the responsibility of repairing damaged cells.
Then you also need to ensure you’re eating enough carbohydrate to drive performance, improve recovery and give you energy, as well as consuming adequate fat to aid with hormone production.
A little further down the list of importance is another factor – the individual meals that you eat.
Flexible dieters often neglect this aspect, and while your total daily macros are far more crucial than individual meals, the composition of your plate every time you eat DOES matter.
The most critical factor in making sure every single meal will result in muscle gain is getting enough protein in.
Studies have shown that to maximise anabolism, you need around 2 to 3 grams of leucine per meal.
Leucine is an amino acid (you’ve probably heard of it if you’ve ever taken a BCAA supplement, as it makes up 50% of this) and is responsible for driving up muscle protein synthesis – i.e. growth.
If you don’t get enough leucine, you won’t grow – it’s that simple.
The amount of leucine in a protein source differs depending on the food, but most lean meats, fish, protein supplements, dairy, and the like are contain between 7 and 12% of their total protein content from leucine.
Isolated proteins, along with meats tend to be highest, whereas plant-based proteins are lower. (1)
This is where vegetarians should take note – if you’re not consuming any animal sources, you may need to increase your protein intake over the course of the day, and at each meal.
To make sure you’re getting enough leucine, you need between 25 and 45g of a protein supplement, or 125 to 200g of meat or fish.
Want to put those carbs to good use and stop them from being stored as fat?
Then you need to time them properly.
Carb timing isn’t THAT important in the grand scheme of things, but it is a factor to consider if you want to step up to the next level and really build some muscle without gaining fat tissue.
Before a workout, carbs are more likely to be used for energy (as well as aiding with post-workout recovery) and after you train, you’re a little more insulin sensitive, so those carbs will be put to good use in delivering nutrients to the muscles you just worked.
You don’t need to only eat carbs around workouts, but a good strategy is to consume roughly 30 to 50% of your total daily carb intake either side of the workout.
That could mean that if you’re looking to pack on mass and eating 400g of carbs a day, your daily schedule could look something like –
Breakfast – 50g carbs
Lunch – 75g carbs
Pre-Workout – 100g carbs
Post-Workout – 100g carbs
Dinner – 75g carbs
I want to refer back to leucine for a moment.
If you’re thinking –
“But I’m a vegetarian – I thought I was just fine getting my protein from beans, nuts and soy?”
“I quite like the odd veggie meal, and don’t feel like eating protein when I wake up.”
That’s okay, but there is something you need to do to maximise your meals in these cases – add a BCAA supplement.
You’ll be getting some leucine with your food, but you’re probably not hitting that 3g threshold, so add 4-5g of a BCAA powder to a glass of water, and drink that alongside your meal.
Don’t Go Too Often
We’re often told that more meals speed up the metabolism and boost fat loss, but if you read my nutrition myth-busting articles, you’ll know this isn’t true.
And in fact, eating too often can be detrimental for muscle gain.
If you constantly eat protein every few hours, your body develops an immunity to the rises in muscle protein synthesis, and doesn’t build muscle as well.
It really goes to show you can have too much of a good thing.
Space each meal by around 4 to 6 hours, rather than the 2 to 3 that muscle mags suggest.
Try to keep your meals roughly the same size.
You don’t want a huge meal that makes you feel bloated, sluggish and gassy. Likewise, a small meal that barely touches the sides as it goes down isn’t going to be much good for packing on mass.
By keeping your meals around about the same volume, you’ll digest them much better too.
The Wrap Up
This shouldn’t be too complicated.
- Get protein at every meal (ensuring you hit the 2-3g leucine limit.)
- Eat carbs whenever, but get a higher percentage around your workouts
- Distribute fat and calories fairly evenly
- Don’t have huge feasts or measly snacks.
Overall, take a balanced approach to mixing up your meals, and you’ll maximise the muscle-building potential of each one. No dramas.