Eating to Build Muscle

Building muscle, whether young or old, keeps us able to do the things we want in life. That may be playing sports or carrying groceries. It also, being a more metabolically active tissue than fat, helps us keep fat off. The more muscle we have, the higher our resting metabolism, which means we burn more calories at rest than someone with less muscle. Now, to build muscle, we need to challenge them so they need to adapt and grow. This is most effectively done through resistance training (i.e. weight lifting). Most of us understand that. What a lot of people don’t know is that eating the right foods in the right portions is equally important.

Let’s start where everyone’s mind goes first, protein. Protein, by itself, does not build muscle! Resistance training stimulates muscle growth. However, if you don’t have adequate protein to help with tissue synthesis and repair you will not gain muscle and will likely even lose it.

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So, how much protein do we need? Often, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is looked at for guidance. You would think that would make sense, right. But, the RDA is about surviving, not thriving. They are minimal allowances. To build muscle, we need more. Alan Aragon, nutrition researcher and educator, in his book with co-author Lou Schuler, The Lean Muscle Diet, recommends 1 gram of protein per pound of Target Body Weight (TBW). So, say you weigh 240 pounds and wish to weigh 200, 200 lbs is your TBW. That means that you should eat 200 grams of protein per day. This is equivalent to 2.2 grams per kilogram, almost 3x the RDA which only recommends 0.8 grams per kilogram. Now, Aragon is not being age specific with his proposal. Yet, several studies that looked specifically at older adults, recommend increased protein intake from 0.8 to between 1.2-1.5 grams per kilogram, still less than Aragon’s. I believe (yes, this is me giving you a judgement call) that, from all of the research I have read and presentations that I have been to, the amount of protein for muscle gain (thriving, not surviving) lies on the higher end of the spectrum, probably between 1.8 and 2.2 grams per kilogram.

Now, muscle-building nutrition is also more than just about protein. We need adequate carbohydrates and healthy fats AND … enough total calories. If we are eating too few calories our bodies may turn to our muscle to break down into fuel. Obviously this is counter productive if we are trying to gain muscle. I’ve worked with many, so-called, hard gainers (those that can’t seem to gain muscle). More often their difficulty stems from one of two things or a combination of both. Either they are not challenging themselves appropriately with their weight lifting program or they are not eating enough to support muscle growth.

Quick approximation of Daily Caloric Needs (DCN): there are many formulas to determine DCN and all are ballpark guesses. I tend to start with the Harris-Benedict equation to determine the resting or basal metabolic rate (BMR) add in activity level and thermogenic effect of  food. Then I will tweak it up or down as we monitor results. You can use this link to get you started – Harris-Benedict calculator. Take your BMR number and multiply it by your activity level (1.2 for couch potato – 1.75 for high-end athlete). Now add in 10% of your BMR for the thermogenic effect of  food. This will give you an approximation of your DCN.

If you want to gain muscle at any age you need the growth stimulus (resistance training) and the support for growth by getting enough protein and total calories. Now go put on some muscle!

Building Muscle After 50

In a recent article in the New York Times, Can You Regain Muscle After 60, author Gretchen Reynolds discussed research done in which “men and women in their 60s and 70s who began supervised weight training developed muscles that were as large and strong as those of your average 40-year-old.” This is important because what keeps us able to do what we want as we age, is muscle. Strength, power, and your resting metabolism depend on gaining, or at least not losing, muscle. So, how do we do that?

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Metal sculptor, Karl Stirner at 82 years old

Let’s start with the idea of not losing what you have. In a previous post, How Many Years Do You Have Left?, I mentioned sarcopenia, or the physical declines that come with muscle loss. Sarcopenia is predominantly caused by a lessening of physical activity as we get older. One of my favorite examples of someone not slowing down as he got older, was my father-in-law, Karl Stirner. Karl was a metal sculptor (he passed early in 2016 at the age of 92). He hauled iron around on a daily basis until he was almost 90. His strength always amazed me. That continued physical activity kept him young and physically capable of living life on his terms. The same can be true for you. If you are physically active, stay that way. If you’ve had a physical job all of your life and you find yourself retiring or changing jobs, find other ways (maybe more fun ways) of staying active.

What if you’ve never been never been active or worked out or it’s just been a really long time since you have? You need to start to build muscle. The best way to do this is resistance training. This includes free weights, machines, tubing, body weight, etc. As long as the exercise is challenging to you within a general repetition range of 8 – 20 repetitions, it’s going to help you build strength and muscle. However, start small, start light. With the prospect of doing this for the rest of our lives, we can take our time building the intensity and the volume of the program. This will help minimize the risk of injuries. I will often only give 5 or 6 exercises to someone just starting out. One set of 12 repetitions for each of the exercises on day one and then see how they feel the next day. If they are not too sore and have no issues, we can start to progress the program. Ultimately, the program has to become very challenging or you won’t have enough stimulus to build muscle.

Finally, you need to support muscle growth by eating enough calories and enough of those calories coming from protein. That will be my next post. In the mean time, know that you can (and should) build strength and muscle no matter what your age.  If you’re doing it, keep doing it. If you’re not, get started. It’s never too late.

Please, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.