In the world of health and nutrition, we often talk about weight loss. More often than not, shedding extra pounds is the ultimate goal. However, for those wondering how to put on muscle, it’s important to know how to go about it in a healthy manner.
There are endless benefits that come with making healthy dietary changes — increased micronutrient levels (vitamins and minerals); adequate protein and fat intake to support proper muscle growth, cell maintenance, and repair; detoxifying potentially harmful environmental and food toxins from the body; preventing illness; and many others. However, people often find that when they make certain healthy dietary modifications, weight loss is the result.
So, let’s dig into the best ways to modify both your diet and exercise plan and how to put on muscle, while still following healthy eating principles.
Am I Underweight?
Studies suggest that being underweight might pose greater health risks than being overweight, for some people. Being underweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) under 18.5, whereas obesity is considered a BMI over 25. However, keep in mind that BMI calculations do not take into account muscle versus fat density, so it’s not always the best measurement.
First and foremost, let’s look at the reasons you might be underweight. The simplest and least problematic reason (and the one we will focus on primarily here) is being genetically predisposed to a fast metabolic rate, making weight gain difficult and being naturally very lean. More problematic reasons should also be considered — particularly if being underweight is a new phenomenon — such as a GI infection or malabsorption of food and nutrients. These should be discussed with a qualified healthcare professional, if suspected. But again, for intents and purposes of this article, we will not focus on these possible contributors.
Assuming you fit into the first category of a fast metabolizer (or simply want to support muscle gain without gaining more body fat), here are five tips to follow.
Eat From Every Micronutrient Group
Often with weight loss efforts, it becomes important to adjust certain macronutrient intakes depending on the individual. Remember, the three macronutrient groups include protein, carbohydrate, and fat. For someone wanting to gain muscle and weight (or maintain current weight), making sure to eat amply from all groups is essential, in every meal.
Don’t Skimp on Carbohydrates
Studies have shown that a low-carb diet model is great for weight loss. However, for muscle and weight gain, this might not be the right approach. Unfortunately, many commonly consumed carbohydrates do not fit into a healthy diet. So, just because you have total liberty to eat starchier foods does not mean that processed breads, baked goods, and pastries should be the focus.
Excellent sources of healthy carbohydrates include sweet potatoes, yams, regular potatoes, winter squash, fruit, plantains, yucca, whole grains, and legumes. Include a healthy portion of one of these carbohydrates in each meal and snack. Also, including fruit (especially starchier options such as bananas) in between meals can help. Lastly, mixing each serving of carbohydrates with substantial protein and healthy fat can go a long way in supporting muscle mass.
Get Plenty of Healthy Fats
Thankfully, the myth of the low-fat/non-fat diet model has been largely debunked (although many dieters still opt for this model out of habit and misinformation); but it is certainly true that those wanting to lose weight should not eat excessive calories from fat.
Fat offers the most calories per serving than the other two macronutrients (120 calories per tablespoon). Even for weight loss efforts, fat is essential, as without it, our metabolism senses starvation and slows down, amongst other reasons.
Including servings of healthy fats with all meals and snacks is important for gaining muscle. Focus on sources such as olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, flax oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, and naturally occurring fats in good quality protein sources such as grass-fed beef, pasture raised pork, and wild fish. Also, coconut in other forms such as coconut cream and milk can be a nutritious and calorie-dense source.
Protein is King
Our muscles are largely made of protein, and there is no macronutrient more important to muscle gain than this one. In order to gain muscle, your body must synthesize (take in) more protein than it breaks down. Research solidly shows that eating plenty of protein is key to gaining muscle — at least one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
To most effectively gain muscle, diet and exercise must work together, hand in hand. Consider the following for adapting your fitness plan accordingly.
Focus on Compound Movements
Compound movements are exercises that call on multiple muscle groups and joints to work simultaneously. They burn the most calories and are the most effective in achieving body composition change (more muscle and less fat). Great ones to include in your workouts are squats, deadlifts, bench press, bent over rows, and dips.
Progress to Heavier Weights
You’ll need to make sure you are progressing your workouts accordingly, as this is how you are sure to see change. Depending on your current level of fitness, you might start with bodyweight exercises (a squat without added weight, for example), and then add five-pound dumbbells, slowly working your way up.
If you’re more advanced, perhaps you’re already using a barbell on that squat, and need to slowly but surely increase the load to ensure muscle gain. Barbell training is optimal for muscle gain, but be sure you know what you’re doing or have a professional to help walk you through things (at least in the beginning).
Track Your Workouts
Whether your goal is muscle gain, fat loss, or something else entirely, tracking your workouts is key to success. The body needs constant change and challenge to adapt and become stronger, so those three sets of 10 push-ups you did the last three workouts aren’t going to cut it for too long if your goal is gaining muscle. Tracking every workout will enable you to progress appropriately.
By following these rules, you can be sure that you are meeting your body’s nutritional needs while also laying the groundwork for muscle gain.