The three T's of using nutrition to maximise muscle growth

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Beth Cragg Cover Portrait

Hi, I’m Beth Cragg, a Performance Nutritionist studying an MSc in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Oxford Brookes University. I live a very active lifestyle and I am always looking for a new challenge - the next one to climb Ben Nevis! I am also a gym enthusiast and spend a lot of time strength training at Brookes gym. Be sure to come say hi if you see me around there!

Food is a really important part of any exercise regime, as not only does it fuel our performance but it also aids recovery (and this is crucial when it comes to being stronger and fitter). Being a massive foodie, I have always held an appreciation for the power of nutrition in both the clinical and sporting environment and love trying new recipes and sharing my knowledge with others! Please enjoy my first blog post … aimed at all those who want to increase muscle mass.. and I promise you, if you get this right, you will be well on your way to achieving that goal!

How to use nutrition to maximize muscle growth - the three T's

The protein in our bodies is incredibly dynamic and is continually being broken down and rebuilt during the day. To maintain muscle mass, these two processes must reach equilibrium, and the typical western diet will generally provide enough protein in a day to achieve this. However, gaining muscle mass requires the body to achieve a net positive muscle protein balance where protein synthesis rates are greater than protein breakdown. Imagine building a wall where the men placing the bricks in the wall represent muscle protein synthesis, and the men who are removing the bricks from the wall represent muscle protein breakdown. When more bricks are being put in to the wall than taken out, the wall grows; and this is analogous to building muscle.

After we exercise, remodelling of the muscle occurs where protein synthesis is stimulated to drive adaptation, repair and accrue muscle mass. However, to enhance this process and achieve positive protein balance we need to combine exercise with the provision of dietary protein, as the two work synergistically to augment muscle recovery and hypertrophy. However, the metabolic response to protein intake will depend on a variety of factors and to achieve maximal gains, you have to consider the total, the type, and the timing of protein intake – i.e. the three T’s … so let’s take a look at what this is all about!

  1. Total

  2. Timing

  3. Type

Total protein intake

As most gym goers will know, it is essential to meet the increased protein needs of resistance training to encourage muscle growth! The optimal protein intake is around 0.25g/kg of body mass per meal, and this equates to around 20g of high quality protein for the typical weighted athlete but may be more or less depending on your weight! Since protein breakdown is greatest during the night, we should also be looking to consume a larger dose just before bed, so this might be 30-40g of high quality protein – I find the easiest way to achieve this is by making a protein packed smoothie with frozen fruit, chia seeds, peanut butter, milk, yoghurt and fruit juice.

Timing of protein intake

But, it’s not all about the total, because the timing of protein intake is just as important! Typically, large amounts of protein are consumed in one meal, usually at dinner, and the consequence of this is that the metabolic pathway in the muscles that stimulates its growth becomes saturated quickly, making the excess protein negligible! Essentially, we overload the poor men building the wall with bricks to the point they tire and have a lie down!

Eggs are a good source of protein
Eggs are a good source of protein

To augment muscle growth and maintain constant stimulation of these metabolic pathways, the protein should therefore be consumed at regular intervals throughout the day. For example, 15-25g of high quality protein consumed four times a day as either a snack or a meal! You should also make sure you time your protein intake around your resistance training, since the muscles are more sensitive to provision of protein within the first 30 minutes - 2 hours post training!

Type of Protein Ingestion

Amino acids form the structural building blocks of proteins and the human body needs all 20 amino acids to be healthy and fully functional. However, 9 of these amino acids cannot be synthesised in the body and must be obtained from the diet. These are called essential amino acids because an inadequate supply will encourage inefficient synthesis of new proteins and the breakdown of existing protein stores in the muscles! Imagine building the wall again… it requires 20 different bricks to build, 11 of these bricks are always present but 9 must be sourced externally for the wall to be built efficiently! Muscle growth will therefore be optimized when all the 20 amino acids are supplied at one time. There are some foods in the diet that provide us with the complete protein package and examples of these include most animal products such as meat, eggs and milk, and some plant products such as quinoa, buckwheat and hemp. But it’s not all doom and gloom for those foods that don’t possess all the essential amino acids, as the limiting amino acids can often be found in other foods that, when combined, complement to make a complete protein. For example, grains such as rice and bread should always be combined with legumes such as beans, peanuts and lentils! 

The human body needs all 20 amino acids to be healthy and fully functional. However, 9 of these amino acids cannot be synthesised in the body and must be obtained from the diet

Muscle growth will therefore be optimized when all the 20 amino acids are supplied at one time

In addition to consuming complete proteins, there is one essential amino acid, Leucine, that stimulates muscles protein synthesis to a greater degree than any of the others and is particularly effective when combined with resistance training to augment the signal for muscle growth. Essentially, it gives the men building the wall a kick in to action! Therefore, the guidelines to maximize muscle growth recommend that at least 3g of Leucine should be provided for every 20g of protein consumed during the day! This is the equivalent of 4 eggs, 70g of cheese, 120g meat or fish, 600ml milk, 350g plain Greek yogurt, 350g kidney beans or lentils, 170g peanuts or 400g tofu……

But remember, you can reduce the quantities of these by combing them, a veggie chilli made with kidney beans and lentils for example, or an omelette made with eggs, cheese, bacon. But don’t forget to add your veggies too, as these will provide the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants required to help create an optimal environment for our bodies and muscles to function!

Yes, it’s a lot of food and yes, it’s a license to eat!

Energy balance

Lastly, don’t forget that an energy surplus is required to support muscle growth in order to prevent your body using the protein in your muscles for energy. The increment will vary based on your current training load, diet and genetic profile but a good starting point is to increase daily energy intake by ~360-480 kcal and this should be increased this if the training load is particularly high!

This piece was written by Beth Cragg, Brookes University Masters Student in Sports Nutrition and Brookes Sport Ambassador. You can find Beth on Instagram

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