The Best Nutrition Strategy For Building Muscle

One of the biggest mistakes intermediate to advanced trainees like you make, stopping you from achieving your best body composition ever… is following the same nutrition hierarchy you used to follow for fat loss. 

(Hierarchy - a system that ranks things in order of importance.) 

 You know...

1. Calories 

2. Macros 

3. Micronutrients 

4. Nutrient Timing 

5. Supplements 

This is what we use for our online clients focused on fat loss, and you should as well… when fat loss is the focus

But as an intermediate to advanced female or male trainee, you’ve realized that achieving your best body composition requires not just losing fat, but also periods of time devoted to building muscle (the Building Phase, as we call it within online coaching). 

And to get the most out of your Building Phase, your nutrition hierarchy needs to look much different than it would in a fat loss phase. 

Per usual, we do things a bit different here, but that's exactly why our online clients get such superior results. 

Without further ado, The Nutrition Hierarchy For Building Muscle:

The goal of this article is to help you take this from information to application, so gear up for a deep dive into each level of the hierarchy, working our way from the most important nutritional factors we consider for online clients, to the least.

#1: Adequate Nitrogen

No matter how hard you train, you won’t be able to build muscle without adequate protein. 

If you have no protein, you can’t build muscle. Protein is the only macronutrient that has nitrogen, which is essential to building muscle. So no matter how many carbs and fats you eat, without adequate nitrogen/protein, your body won’t have the raw materials it needs to build muscle. 

 We also know you can build muscle in a calorie deficit. The topic of body recomposition (building muscle and losing fat at the same time) is a hot one. We have many real world examples, and an increasing number of studies showing people losing fat (which requires being in a calorie deficit) and building muscle simultaneously. 

 We know that to build muscle, you must store energy/protein. To lose fat, you must burn energy... but while you must be in an energy deficit (eating fewer calories than you’re burning) to lose fat, this doesn't mean you must be in an energy surplus (eating more calories than you’re burning) to build muscle. 

To quote my friend Chris Barakat, one of the leading researchers in the field of body recomposition: 

 “...our skeletal muscle and fat tissue are two different functioning compartments of your body which signal different metabolic processes that require different amounts of energy, totally independent of one another.  

Although we have pretty good understanding of the energy cost of fat tissue (i.e. ~3500kcal = 1lbs of Fat Mass), we do not fully know the involved energy cost to build skeletal muscle.” 

We have endless examples of this process happening with online clients. To show just a few examples of impressive body recompostions we've seen… 

But don't just trust our anecdote. The current research also seems to show that building muscle in a calorie deficit is very possible. 

→ In this study, men ~ 23 years old were in a 40% calorie deficit (a.k.a. a big ass deficit), followed a high protein diet and lifted weights, and were actually able to build muscle. 

This study showed female college volleyball athletes losing 5+ lbs fat mass, while gaining ~6lbs lean mass in just 7 weeks. 

→ The study Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program looked at what difference a high vs. low protein intake would have on body composition in female figure competitors. The high protein group lost ~2.42lbs fat mass, and added ~4.62lbs of lean mass. 

Point is, building muscle in a calorie deficit is very possible, but adequate protein is a must.

#2: Protein Frequency

We know that to build muscle, your protein needs are going to be somewhere between .8-1g/lb body weight daily.

You’ll hear a lot of people saying… 

“Total protein intake across the day is all that matters, NOT how often you’re getting protein feedings.” 

 ... but let’s use the example of a 150 lb woman pushing to eat 150g protein/day. 

Is she really going to eat all 150g of that in one sitting? Nope. 

Two? Very unlikely. 

So we know that in all of these studies that seem to show the optimal dose of protein, the participants who got great results from these intakes were very likely having to split their protein intake into at least 3+ meals. 

To understand why protein frequency is so important for building muscle, you also need to understand muscle protein balance.

→ Your body turns the protein you eat into muscle through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS). 

→ Your body breaks down protein through muscle protein breakdown (MPB).  

The rate of muscle protein synthesis to muscle protein breakdown determines your protein balance. 

If more MPS than MPB is occurring (MPS > MPB), you have positive protein balance. You’re building muscle. 

If more MPB than MPS is occurring (MPB > MPS), you have negative protein balance. You’re losing muscle protein. 

To build muscle, you need more time in a positive protein balance than negative, or MPS > MPB. 

Pretty easy to understand why this is important for building muscle, right?

So this really ties into something called “The Muscle Full Effect”...

Basically, eating protein triggers an anabolic response (it stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which will potentially lead to muscle growth). 

Upon consuming protein, once enough protein is taken in to saturate the muscle, the “muscle full” effect happens:

1. ~30 mins after consuming an adequate bolus of protein, rate of MPS ~triples.

2. At ~90 mins, rate of MPS peaks, before returning to baseline levels at ~2 hours. 

This return to MPS baseline occurs regardless of how much protein is still available in your bloodstream. 

So even if you ate all of your protein in one big meal, you would only nutritionally be spiking muscle protein synthesis once in the day... even though you still hit your protein target.

This is because the amino acid leucine is essentially the "trigger" for MPS. Even though you can have plenty of amino acids circulating in your bloodstream, you need a bolus of leucine (a.k.a. a 25g+ dose of quality protein) as the “trigger” to stimulate MPS again. 

To prove this point, a study from 2011 had 8 men consume 25g of whey protein. 

→ One group consumed their 25g shake immediately. 

→ The other group consumed their shake in ten 2.5g doses over 3 hours.

The group that consumed all their shake at once saw a 95% increase in MPS, whereas the constant dose group only saw a 42% increase, despite total protein intake being the same.

This seems to show there is a benefit to hitting your leucine threshold (spikes), rather than just eating one (or a few) big meal(s) when it comes to building muscle.

Lots of credit goes to Martin MacDonald & the team at MNU for many of these concepts.

#3: MACROS/Total Calories

“Once individual protein requirements are met, energy content of the diet has the largest effect on body composition.”

-Rozenak et. al (2002) 

You now understand that eating in a calorie surplus isn’t essential. That said, it is more optimal to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle. 

This is because… 

→ Less muscle protein breakdown occurs when more overall calories are available. 

→ Eating more calories allows more room for carbohydrates. To understand why this is important, you need to gain a quick understanding of your energy systems...

If you look closely at the energy system that creates energy for the majority of intense activity from ~15-60 seconds (the anaerobic-lactic system), you'll see that it's fueled by carbs. 

If your goal is to build your leanest, strongest body composition, a good amount of your training will be fueled by this energy system. A lower carb approach means that this energy system will essentially be "short on fuel" - your ability to train intensely will suffer. As a result, you'll struggle achieving the levels of performance & adding the lean muscle needed for the physique you want. 

This is a common mistake made by both women and men, and is exactly why most of our online clients undergoing the body recomposition process are typically following a higher carb approach. 

Not only are carbs are your body's preferred fuel source for training, but they also aids your recovery and ability to build more lean muscle. 

Carbs stimulate the release of the hormone insulin in your body. Insulin has an inverse relationship with cortisol (the stress hormone), meaning that as insulin increases, cortisol decreases. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone - it's primary role is breaking things down for energy. 

Now, while cortisol isn't "bad" (like all things, it's very context dependent), spending too much time in a catabolic state will of course hinder your ability to build lean muscle. 

 Due to the insulin and cortisol relationship, adding more carbs to your diet can help get your body out of a catabolic state, and recovering better/quicker. 

→ Eating more food ensures you have adequate dietary fat - for key hormones like testosterone to be produced at their optimal levels, your body needs ~.3-.4g/lb of body weight. 

#4: NUTrient timing

Nutrient timing is something that's been looked down upon in the fitness industry as "unimportant". And look, it's straight up not as important for changing your body composition as the above factors.  

But, how you time your nutrients does have a big impact on your training performance and recovery. Over the course of a few months, a lot of poorly fueled training + sub-optimal recovery VS. a lot of well-fueled training + optimal recovery = a big difference in your body composition. 

So, for online clients like you with the above factors on lock, here are my recommendations: 

→ Protein Timing Across The Day - We’ve already talked a lot about protein frequency, but I want to be sure to hammer this point home here. Consuming protein (with the most optimal amount being 25-50g) increases muscle protein synthesis for ~3-6 hours. 

 So, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis through your day, it's most optimal to spread your protein (and meals) across 4-6 meals, with 25-50g protein at each.

→ Pre-Workout Meal - What you eat pre-workout is key for kick-starting the recovery process, and helps fuel your body through intense training. 

To prevent as much muscle protein breakdown as possible, and create optimal circumstances for recovery/growth, you should consume ~25-50g of protein in this meal. If you don't have the option to eat a pre-workout meal (e.g. you workout super early), I'd recommend at least drinking a protein shake before hand. This will digest very quickly, and shouldn't give you issues. 

If you have time to allow the meal to digest pre-workout (>1 hour), adding ~25-50 grams carbs to the mix is smart. A mix of carbs from starch and fruit gives you a combo of faster and slower releasing carbs to fuel you through the workout. 

You want to avoid too much fat in this meal, because it will slow digestion, and have you feeling sluggish during your training. 

A solid pre-workout meal could look something like: 

- Greek yogurt (slow digesting protein) 

 - Whey protein (fast digesting protein) 

- Oatmeal (starchy carb) 

- Berries (carb from fruit) 

Typically, you'll feel best eating this 1-2 hours before you workout. I like to split the difference here and go with 1.5 hours pre-workout. Eating this meal too close to your workout will have you lifting with food still digesting in your belly, making you feel sluggish.

→ Post-Workout Meal - As far as protein, aim to eat another ~25-50g of protein within an hour post-workout (as it will have been about 3 hours from your previous bolus of protein at this point). 

With carbs, insulin sensitivity is highest post-workout. (Basically, your body will most efficiently use carbs for muscle-building purposes at this time.) So it makes sense to time lots of fast-digesting carbs post workout (e.g. white rice, spotted bananas).  

Also, remember the inverse relationship between insulin & cortisol mentioned above. Carbs post-work reduce cortisol, and likely create a more anabolic environment. 

Similar to the pre-workout meal, we want to keep fat low here. Fat would slow your body's ability to digest the nutrients you just took in.

→ Pre-Bed Meal - Sleep is a crucial part of your body actually being able to build muscle & burn fat, and ideally your body will have some protein available throughout the night. Pre-bed, eat your final bolus of protein from a slow digesting source (casein powder, greek yogurt, cottage cheese).

#5: FOOD QUALITY

If you’re not hitting your micronutrient needs (which is common in a diet void of whole foods), you’ll feel & train much worse, and progress will be slower. So this is still important. 

Our online clients aim for at least 80% of their diet from whole foods. So your diet doesn't need to be strictly salmon and spinach... but making 80-90%of your diet whole foods will make the process much easier, and you'll feel better throughout. 

From there, you're free to enjoy the other 10-20% of your calorie intake from whatever your heart desires (as long as you work it into your food intake goals) without any negative effects on your results or your health. 

Now, I get it... talking about food quality is far from the most exciting thing for our clients. So I want to keep this section brief. But you do need to be aware that food quality is also important for preventing micronutrient deficiencies, which can be detrimental to client's health. 

The five most common micronutrient deficiencies: 

→ Vitamin D 

→ Calcium

→ Zinc 

→ Magnesium 

→ Iron 

Ideally, a diet with a good variety of whole foods will cover all your bases here, with you consuming dairy, red meat, and getting regular sun exposure, along with eating one serving of fruits and veggies for every 500 calories you consume.

#6: Supplements

You can absolutely build a great physique without ever taking a supplement. That said, there are a science-backed supplements that can be slightly helpful (just remember their position in the hierarchy)

→ Creatine Monohydrate - Creatine is an extremely well researched supplement, with the most effective form being creatine monohydrate. Our bodies use creatine phosphate for as a fuel source for the first few seconds of intense or explosive movement/exercise. 

Think of supplementing with creatine as “topping off the tank”... it allows you to maintain high-intensity exercise for slightly longer. This means an increase in strength, and overall workload you’re able to handle in the gym, equating to building more muscle. 

3-5 grams/day is the general recommended dose. 

→ Caffeine - Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. Although considered a psychoactive drug, its use is extremely common and mostly unregulated. Of all the supplements on this list, caffeine has by far the most noticeable effects. Not only does caffeine boost mood, alertness and mental clarity, it also has some real benefits to your workouts. 

Research shows that caffeine decreases perceived effort, increases power output, and improves endurance. Not that you needed an excuse for more caffeine, but it’s a real performance booster. Just keep your intake reasonable. Ideally less than 400mg per day. 

→ Protein Powders - If you’re struggling to meet your daily protein requirements, supplementing with a protein powder can be helpful. Whey protein and casein proteins have the best amino acid profiles of available protein powders. They're the easiest for your body to absorb and use. 

It’s debatable which is superior. The body digests whey protein quicker than casein protein. 

→ Multi-Vitamin - Getting all of your micronutrients from whole foods is ideal. Ideal, but not always realistic. Taking a multivitamin is a good way to ensure your daily micronutrient needs are met. 

→ Vitamin D - We obtain vitamin D naturally through food and sunlight. The issue? Most of us don’t get enough time in the sun, and the amount of vitamin D is negligible in most foods outside of fatty fish. As a result, vitamin D deficiency is extremely common Taking a vitamin D or Cod liver oil supplement can be extremely helpful in preventing this deficiency. 

The typical recommended dose is 1,000-2,000 IU per day 

→  EPA And DHA (Fish Oil) - EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids. Now, if you eat fatty fish 2+ times per week, you're good on these. If not, a fish oil supplement can help. 

Typically, 1-2g EPA + DHA per day is advised. 

Again, supplements are the LEAST important factor. You'll rarely see any noticeable difference from taking a supplement. So don’t get caught up in the minutiae of things like supplements, and forget to focus on the things that really make a difference when it comes to changing your body.

And that is the nutrition hierarchy we use to help our online clients achieve superior results during their building phases.

If you're ready to fully commit to a customized training & nutrition protocol, and finally take your physique to the next level, click here now to apply for online coaching with us.


About The  aUthor

Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram  for more educational content.

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