Consider the body as a machine – a marvelous, organic machine, capable of incredible tasks, of developing great strength and size. Consider, too, that like any machine, it will run at maximum efficiency only under optimal operating conditions.
For the body to build muscle, it requires that two such conditions are met: That it is fed well; and that it is used at the right time.
Food must be seen as a source of both fuel and nourishment. The fuel powers the body; the nourishment allows the musculoskeletal system to recover and rebuild.
Food, broken down into its smallest biologically active components, is highly complex. In simple terms, it can be looked upon as fats, proteins and carbohydrates – the three macronutrients which fuel the body and allow it to build muscle. They also provide calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium – minerals necessary for the body to function.
Under normal circumstances, omitting any of the macronutrients – the trinity of our tissues – will make for a poor strength training diet.
Let’s Talk About fats
Once maligned as the cause of weight-gain and heart disease, is again basking in the light of acceptance. Despite the persistent popularity of low-and-no-fat foods, fat plays important roles in the body: It helps protect cell membranes; it provides cushioning for the organs; it is necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D and K). Some types of fat (such as coconut oil) may increase thermogenesis (heat and metabolism in the body).
Other types – essential fatty acids, such as those found in oily fish and fully-pastured meats – benefit the brain and fight inflammation. And, fat is calorically dense and can be used by the body as fuel.
Dietary fat benefits not only general health, but building muscle, for without proper cellular function, reduced inflammation, vitamin absorption and energy, a strength training program wouldn’t get one foot off of the ground. Regularly consume moderate amounts of fatty meat, olive oil, avocado, pastured butter and coconut oil.
Let’s Talk About Proteins
Is part of all the body’s tissues – flesh, muscle, bones and organs. Of the three macronutrients, protein plays the role of builder and rebuilder, and is often referred to as the “building blocks” of the muscles. Protein itself consists of amino acids – the building blocks of protein – and a “complete protein” contains all the essential amino acids which the body cannot produce itself.
Some of the best and most concentrated food sources of protein include fish, red meat, poultry and eggs. Vegetarian sources – legumes, grains, nuts and seeds – may require combining to ensure all the essential amino acids are consumed.
Protein-rich foods supply many other nutrients, including vitamin E, zinc, magnesium and iron. Protein, as mentioned previously, is necessary to build and maintain new tissue and repair damaged tissue. Though it is not an ideal fuel for the body, it
is a source of calories.
Without protein, building muscle would be, put lightly, a challenge. Not only does it form the foundation of muscle, the nutrients and vitamins it provides are essential for proper cellular and musculoskeletal function, energy, immune system function and testosterone production – without which, engaging in physical activity would prove very difficult.
Let’s Talk About Carbohydrates
Are probably the most consumed macronutrient in the world.
They are found in grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, and to a lesser extent in legumes, non-starchy vegetables and nuts and seeds.
The overconsumption of carbohydrate-rich food – prominent in Westernized countries where dietary recommendations still include more servings of carbohydrate than anything else, and where much of it is consumed in heavily processed, refined forms – may be largely responsible for weight gain and inflammation.
However, carbohydrates do have benefits. All dietary sources contain varying amounts of soluble and/or insoluble fiber, an important substance for regular elimination, and which may also aid in weight loss. They may increase a sense of wellbeing and improve cognitive function.
Some carbohydrates lower levels of “bad” cholesterol. And of great importance to building muscle, carbohydrates act as the primary and preferred source of fuel for the body.
Without fuel, muscles won’t “fire”; the body won’t coordinate; and muscle tissue can’t be built. Carbohydrates are also “protein-sparing” – if sufficient carbohydrates are consumed, then muscle tissue can be sustained and built.
If carbohydrates are absent and insufficient dietary fat is present as a fuel source, the body will convert protein into energy. Not only is this inefficient, in a worst-case scenario, the body can go into a catabolic state in which lean muscle mass is lost rather than gained.
Everyone’s body is different. Eating to build muscle should, however, follow a few basic tenets.
- Eat whole, real and naturally raised foods whenever possible. Supplementary foods such as protein powder and carbohydrate-rich pre or post-workout drinks can be beneficial but should not be the cornerstone of any diet. Real food provides all the major nutrients and calories necessary for gaining muscle, in addition to micronutrients and vitamins which work in tandem for maximum gain.
- It’s okay to experiment with macronutrient ratios, but not to entirely eliminate any one category. As discussed above, every macronutrient has benefits.
- Don’t exercise without fuel. Eating a protein-rich meal without any carbohydrates and/or fat is like delivering a pile of bricks to a construction site and expecting a single, tired worker to build a house alone.
Best Time to Train to Build Muscle
We’ve covered what to eat to build muscle. But when is the ideal time to engage in strength training?
The answer is that “it depends” – I know, everyone hates that answer.
Exercising at different times of the day means working with the state of the body and attaining particular goals.
Testosterone usually peaks in the morning. For maximum muscle building, working out early in the day may yield the best result, by taking advantage of testosterone’s role in protein synthesis and repairing damaged muscle fibers.
As well, concentration is greater in the morning, after a good night’s sleep and before the day’s tasks demand too much attention.
Exercising in the afternoon may be ideal for pushing hard and breaking past limiting plateaus.
The body has “warmed up” and become more limber, and pain thresholds are usually higher in the afternoon; an increased tolerance to pain may allow for new muscle growth by lifting heavier weights. It is still important, however, to listen to the body.
Avoid injury by discerning between muscle burn and ligament/tendon pain.
Exercising at night is, for most, not a preferable option to morning or afternoon workouts. Strenuous physical activity, paradoxically, can be stimulating when done too close to bed, causing one to feel “wound up”.
In addition, strength training increases nutrient requirements, and for most, sleep quality is not improved by consuming calories sufficient to rebuild after a heavy weightlifting session.
Of course, everyone is different.
As with dietary recommendations, there are basic guidelines which may suit some – perhaps even most – but not all.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to determine exactly how much fat, protein and carbohydrate their body demands, and to determine if they are, in fact a “morning person” who enjoys bench presses at 7:00 AM or are much better suited to doing so after digesting lunch and resting