How to Eat to Build Stronger Muscles

What you eat before and after your workout can help you build muscle faster

A young ethnic woman drinking a sports drink outdoors
Protein drinks are one way to help build muscle after a workout.

If you want to change your body composition so you have more lean muscle mass, look at your diet. To do so, requires a combination of adequate calorie and nutrient intake with a solid muscle strengthening program. Here are the nutritional building blocks to encourage muscle gain


Carbohydrate is the predominant energy source used during a strength training workout. Stored as glycogen in the muscles, it is the fuel used to supply energy for short, intense bursts of power.

The harder and longer you work out, the more glycogen your muscles require. Once these stores of glycogen are gone your energy level will drop and you will run out of fuel to power muscle contractions. For this reason, athletes doing strength training exercise in the hopes of building lean muscle need to have an adequate carbohydrates intake to fuel the workout.

Carbohydrate needs vary depending upon the intensity and length of your training sessions. For those doing moderate workouts of less than an hour, you may only require 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body per day. Those doing long, intense training two hours or more, may require 3-4 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight each day. This may seem like a lot but, if you don't consume enough carbs, your body will build muscle to fuel your workout efforts (and that is just the opposite of what you want to do, right?)

Sports nutrition experts recommend up to 400-600 grams of carbohydrate per day for the average male performing regular intense exercise and strength training workouts in order to keep the muscle glycogen stores high.

Personal carbohydrate requirements vary based upon the intensity and length of workouts as well as you body size.


All athletes need protein after vigorous exercise. Protein helps repair and rebuild muscle tissue that is broken down during hard exercise. Because protein is the basic building material for muscle tissue, if you strength train, or want to increase muscle size, you need to consume more protein than sedentary individuals or non-athletes.

However, most strength athletes may overestimate their protein needs.

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), recommends that the average person requires about 0.4 grams per pound per day. Sports nutritionists recommend that strength athletes consume about 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, not to exceed 2 g/pound/day. For a athlete weighing 90 kg (200 pounds) that is a total of 108 to154 grams of protein a day. 

According to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, doubling protein intake to 2.20 grams per pound of bodyweight daily had no effect on body composition in resistance-trained individuals who otherwise maintain the same training regimen. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that your body can only absorb so much protein at one time — no more than 30 grams of protein to be exact. So instead of trying to pound your daily protein intake into one meal, it is best to spread it out across five or six feedings.

You can get adequate protein by eating a healthy diet that includes low-fat dairy, eggs, lean meats such as fish and chicken, and a variety of fruits, nuts, and legumes. Some athletes find that a protein drink, or bar is another convenient way to increase daily protein intake.


Fat is an essential nutrient and you require a certain amount of it to remain healthy. About 30% of your total daily calories can come from healthy fats, such as olive oil, lean meats and fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados.


In addition to the regular eight glasses of water every day, you need to drink to replace fluids that are lost during exercise. To be confident that you are well hydrated before workouts, drink 2 cups of fluid 2 hours before exercise. During your workout, drink 4 to 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes. After exercise, replace any further fluid losses with 16 ounces of water. If you want to be precise, you can weigh yourself before and after workouts. For each pound lost during exercise, you should be drink 16 ounces of fluid.

Eating After Exercise

To some extent your post-exercise meal depends on your goals and the type of exercise you are doing. There is nothing in the scientific literature that says what your proportions and amount should be. Sorry, there is no magical formula. This is where your common sense comes to play.

Think about it: by going long and hard on the treadmill, say for over an hour, recovery or post-exercise nutrition needs to concentrate on replenishing the muscles’ energy reserves. In this case, your recovery nutrition would contain a large amount of carbohydrates, but you don’t want to ignore the protein.

On the other hand, going long and strong in the weight room, is a recipe for a protein-rich post-exercise meal since those glycogen energy stores are not being taxed and the calorie burn is less. The goal is to eat for muscle repair. Basically, eating protein to stimulates protein synthesis, which helps build and repair muscles. But it is important to have a bit of carbohydrate, to stimulate an insulin response. Insulin is the hormone that prepares the muscle cells to absorb the protein. This is one reason why chocolate milk has gain some popularity as a post-workout snack, it is a great mixture of carbohydrates and protein in one package.

Consult a registered nutritionist, physician or other health care provider for personal nutritional counseling. This information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.


Antonio J, Peacock CA, Ellerbroek A, Fromhoff B, Silver T. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014 11:19. DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-19.

Lambert CP, Frank LL, Evans WJ. Macronutrient considerations for the sport of bodybuilding. Sports Med. 2004;34(5):317-27. Review.

Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D.A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Sep;109(9):1582-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.06.369.

USDA, DRI Tables. Dietary Reference Intakes: Recommended Intakes for Individuals[] last accessed Jan, 2011.

Nutrition for Sport and Exercise, 2005, Jacqueline R. Berning, Suzanne Nelson Steen, ISBN 0763737755.

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