If you want to bulk up, then you’ve probably already started strength training. That makes sense, since lifting weights is one of the best ways to make your muscles grow.
But all food isn’t created equal, and you have to make certain adjustments to your diet if lean muscle is what you’re after. So if you’re ready to see some gains, consider making the following changes.
Protein is known as a muscle-building macronutrient for a reason: It contains essential amino acids, like leucine, which are critical in repairing and rebuilding the tiny tears strength training creates in your muscle tissue, helping them grow bigger, faster.
But to maximize the benefits of protein, you need to be smart about how much you eat.
“There is likely an individual optimal level of protein needed for each person, but we can give some general guidelines,” says obesity specialist Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., author of The Fat Loss Prescription.
To back up his point, Nadolsky referred to a recent meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. After researchers looked at 49 studies that included more than 1,800 people, they concluded that consuming up to 1.6 grams (g) of protein per kilogram of body weight, or .73 g per pound, is ideal for building muscle. So if you weigh 180 pounds, a day’s worth would be about 130 grams of protein.
To put that in perspective, 3 ounces of bottom round beef will get your roughly 30 grams of protein.
You should aim to get the bulk of this through whole foods, like lean meat, fish, and eggs, says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab and advisor to Promix Nutrition. Fueling up with a supplemental protein shake can also be helpful. They’re easy to make and your body tends to break shakes down quickly.
Your body is primed to respond to protein after your workout, which is why Schuler recommends aiming for at least 20 grams of it from a high-quality source—like 1 cup of Greek yogurt, 3 eggs, or 2 ounces of lean meat or fish—to take advantage of the hormonal changes triggered by strength training.
This is important, because resistance training breaks your muscles down, so you need a surge of amino acids to help repair and build them. Don’t fret if you don’t have a snack handy right after you leave the gym. You have roughly two hours to get your protein fix post-workout if you want to see results, Dr. Nadolsky says.
Pre-workout meals make a difference, too, so eating a protein-rich meal two to three hours before training will help you reap the most benefits.
Since you’ll be amping up your intake, it’s easy to think that you should eat large amounts at once, says Matheny, but that’s not very efficient. That’s why he recommends planning out your protein consumption in advance, so you spread it out evenly throughout your day.
In fact, one University of Texas study found that muscle protein synthesis—the driving force behind your gains—increased by 25 percent in people who ate protein throughout the day (30 g of protein per meal) compared to those who ate most of their protein at dinner (65 g) and very little at breakfast.
To gain muscle, you have to gain weight. “You need an overall caloric surplus to give your body permission to store some of that protein in the form of muscle tissue,” explains Schuler.
Plus, he adds, those extra calories help fuel your workouts, which can be beneficial because the more energy you have, the harder you can go at the gym.
The average active guy needs a minimum of 2,800 calories per day, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, but you’ll likely need to eat more than if you’re looking to gain muscle. (This calculator can help you personalize that number.)
If you want to keep it simple, you can also take your current caloric intake and add in a shake containing roughly 30 grams of protein to start, says Dr. Nadolsky. (We love this organic whey protein from the Men’s Health store.)
Overeating can quickly put you at risk for gaining body fat if you’re not careful, so be smart about where your macronutrients are coming from. “It’s hard to gain fat eating excess protein,” Dr. Nadolsky says.
Other macronutrients will come into play, though. And as you can imagine, loading up on not-so-healthy options, like fast food, to meet your caloric surplus might do more harm than good.
“Whether someone’s bulking up or leaning out or maintaining, the goal is always to eat healthy food,” says Schuler.
So to start, avoid these worst foods for building muscle. Then get a rough estimate of how many calories you’re currently eating, figure out where you could stand to eliminate junk, and then account for how many more additional calories you’d need to eat to reach your total, explains Matheny.
If you find you have a hard time gaining muscle, shoot for up to 20 calories per pound of bodyweight per day, Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D, C.S.C.S., told us previously.
That said, you can only eat so much protein. For instance, your muscles can really only absorb up to 35 grams of protein at one time. If you down more than that in one go, it can go to other parts of your body to serve as fuel or even get flushed from your system completely.
So that means you’re going to need to get that surplus of calories from somewhere else. Your options are carbs and fat, explains Dr. Nadolsky.
“It’s easy to store fat calories as fat, so ideally, you would want to optimize the carbohydrates after protein, and then get in sufficient fat to prevent deficiencies,” Dr. Nadolsky says.
Just make sure you’re eating the right kind of carbs, like squash, sweet potatoes, and brown rice, Matheny adds.
You don’t necessarily need carbs to stimulate muscle growth, but they can be helpful in training. “Carbohydrates help you refill your glycogen stores, which fuel working muscles,” Matheny says. “If they’re not full, you will not be able to train for growth effectively.”