There’s more to building muscle than just lifting weights at the gym. After a heavy training session muscles need to recover, and it’s during that recovery period - not the workout - that the muscles repair and grow. As with any chemical reaction, you need to have all the right ingredients available to maximise repair at the cellular level. Most athletes know that the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates are essential for energy, but few realise that certain micronutrients are also essential to help the body release and use this energy. That’s not to say that fat, protein, and carbohydrates aren’t important. Fat is an abundant and important fuel for the body at rest and during low intensity exercise. Carbohydrates are also important because they provide a rapid supply of energy without the use of energy, and we all know that protein is important for muscle growth.
Having enough carbohydrates in your diet is essential for that initial energy boost when you first start your workout as well as maintaining energy levels during a high intensity workout. Unlike fat stores, which are plentiful even in lean athletes, the body’s carbohydrates are limited, so it’s important to keep replenishing them.
It goes without saying that protein is essential for muscle growth, but getting enough protein isn’t usually the biggest problem for Australian athletes wanting to build muscle. Most athletes need twice the amount of protein than the amounts recommended for sedentary people, but the average Australian consumes far more than the daily recommended intake of protein. If you’ve had trouble putting on muscle in the past, while sticking to a protein rich diet, then the problem is likely in your carbohydrate intake.
When carbohydrate stores are low the body will drain on protein, including muscle mass, for energy. When you’re trying to grow, the last thing you want is for your body to start drawing on lean body mass for energy. Liquid meals and shakes are a practical and convenient way to provide your body that much needed energy for growth, and keep it from drawing on your muscle stores. Look for preparations that are low in fat and have a balance of both carbs and proteins. Research indicates that consuming preparations containing 1g of carbohydrate per kilo of body weight immediately after training, and again in another two hours, are the best way to restore muscle energy post training. Further studies show that adding protein to this preparation will result in muscle gain. So what else is important for growth?
We take water for granted, but being just a little dehydrated adversely affects your performance in the gym and slows down your recovery. Weigh yourself before and after a workout to see how much water you’ve lost. One kilo of weight loss represents one litre of sweat. Weight training is an easy sport to take water breaks in, so make the water bottle your new training buddy.
The Vitamin C you get from fruit and vegetables helps the blood vessels that your muscles rely on for a supply of nutrients. Keeping that fuel line healthy helps you train harder and recover faster. Vitamin C is also the building block for collagen, which your body uses to build muscle and bones.
Fish oil increases blood flow to the muscles, reduces muscle protein breakdown, decreases inflammation, and improves insulin sensitivity. Fish is a great protein food as it is, just two serves of fatty fish such as salmon or trout per week will meet your fish oil requirements.
Every time you pick up a dumbbell, your muscle relies on calcium to perform a contraction. Aim for at least 1200 mg per day, which you’ll find in dairy products, green leafy vegetables, and fortified soy milk. Your body needs Vitamin D to absorb calcium, so make sure you get a bit of sunlight too.
Magnesium deficiencies are rare, but the demands of weight training can make women more susceptible. Magnesium keeps your muscle pumping, including your cardiac muscles, so it’s important to keep dietary levels at 320 to 400 mg per day. Magnesium is helpful for relieving muscle cramps and soreness, so upping your intake of spinach, nuts, legumes, and whole grains can make muscle growth more comfortable.
Thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), and cobalamin (B12) are all vitamins that are essential for good health, but their role in metabolism and recovery make them especially important if you want to grow muscle. A diet rich in whole grains, leafy meats, legumes, nuts, and fortified cereals will ensure that you have enough B vitamins to maximise recovery. Excess vitamin B (other than B12) is readily excreted from the body, and signs of vitamin deficiency can show up within a few days, so maintain a B rich diet at all times. Your body can store excess vitamin B12, though vegetarians should consider supplements since it’s difficult to reach the B12 levels you need for heavy training and recovery while on a vegetarian diet.
Lying around in the sun doesn’t sound like a secret formula for bulking, but you need to get a bit of sun. Vitamin D is essential for muscular contractions, strength, and growth. It’s also essential for keeping your bones strong and helping you absorb calcium.
Vitamin E is a crucial antioxidant which helps your cell membranes recover from stress. Olive, corn, canola, and sunflower oils are all good sources of vitamin E, but not something you want to carry around in your gym bag for a post-workout snack. A handful of almonds provides protein, healthy fats, fibre, and is a great source of vitamin E. Don’t go overboard, though, as you only need about 15 mg of vitamin E a day.