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What to Eat When You’re Trying to Get Stronger

by Amanda Capritto
April 21, 2021
Photo Credit: Ivan Ozerov

This past year, it’s sometimes felt like just making it through the day is a fitness win. Maybe it still feels like that — and that’s totally okay! But if you’ve been thinking about new exercise goals, like getting stronger, we’re here to help! First of all, know that it takes time to build muscle. You should also know that your diet is key. 

Many fitness enthusiasts find it tough to increase their strength because their diets don’t support that goal. Knowing what to eat — and when — can make all the difference. 

1. Eat more.

The most common nutritional mistake people make when trying to build muscle is failing to support their physical activity level. To put it simply, you must eat more calories than you burn to build muscle. 

Your body can’t make new muscle tissue out of nothing. Think about it like this: If you’re building a sand castle, you need more sand to make a big sand castle versus a small one. If you run out of sand, well, your sand castle won’t get any bigger no matter how you rearrange it. This same concept applies to muscle tissue. Calories are to muscle as sand particles are to sand castle. 

Yes, this extended metaphor is an oversimplification of the physiology of muscle growth, but it’s really all you need to know if you want to start getting stronger. Eat more; get stronger. Simple! (And who doesn’t love a reason to eat more snacks?). 

Try this

In general, to build muscle and get stronger, you want to eat about 5 percent more than your maintenance calories. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day to maintain your current weight, bump that number up to 2100 to encourage strength gains. 

Looking for a quick way to boost your calories? Try string cheese, turkey or beef jerky sticks, hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese and fruit, banana slices and nut butter, or any variety of fruit and grain bars. If volume is an issue — you feel like you’re getting too full — try high-fat snacks such as nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and guacamole. These options provide ample calories with less volume. 

2. Prioritize protein.

Second only to overall calories is protein. Protein is the hypothetical king of macronutrients when it comes to getting stronger. It’s what muscles are made of — literally. 

When you exercise, your muscles endure tiny injuries called micro-traumas. Then, when you rest, your body repairs muscle tissue and builds it back bigger and stronger (that’s why it’s important to take rest days). Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are largely responsible for repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue after micro-traumas that occur during exercise. 

Try this

Aim for 20 grams of protein with every meal and 10 grams of protein with every snack. This should help you create a focus on protein so that it becomes habit to incorporate it into your day

Once you feel comfortable eating protein multiple times a day, you can start getting a little more nuanced. Expert opinions vary, but the general consensus is that 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight best supports strength and muscle growthIf you weigh 150 pounds, for instance, aim for 75 to 120 grams of protein each day. 

Healthy sources of protein include poultry, pork, and beef, as well as many cheeses and yogurts. For on-the-go protein, try jerky snacks, tuna packs, hard-boiled eggs or protein powder (plant-based or whey).

3. Eat carbs before and after exercise.

Your body can turn carbohydrates into fuel quicker than any other nutrient, so it’s important to supply your body with carbs before and after exercise. Carbs help your body make the most of short, intense bursts of exercise, such as sprints of heavy lifts at one to three reps. 

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Eat carbs 30 to 45 minutes before a workout to get off to a good start. Your body will utilize the carbohydrates in your system before resorting to glycogen, the form of carbs stored in your muscle cells. 

Eat some form of quick-digesting carbohydrates within an hour of your workout. Your body is most responsive to sugar in your bloodstream right after a workout, so it’ll gobble up those carbs and replenish the glycogen stores you just depleted. 

Healthy sources of quick-digesting carbs include quick oats, pasta, white rice and fruit. 

4. Fuel up on fats for extra energy.

Fats take longer to digest than the other two macronutrients, so they’re great for keeping your energy levels up during the day and for fueling workouts. When you eat fats, your body gradually breaks them down into fatty acids, which ultimately provide fuel to your cells

Your body uses carbs for energy first, resorting only to fats after blood sugar and glycogen (carbs stored in your muscles and liver) are depleted. So when you have fats as backup, you’re less likely to hit a metaphorical wall during a tough workout. 

There is one caveat, though: Because the body takes a while to digest fats, eating them too close to a workout may not provide that benefit.

Try this

Eat fats one to two hours before your workout to prolong your energy levels during exercise. This time frame allows your body to partially metabolize fats so you’ll have plenty of backup energy for long and intense workouts, allowing you to work out harder for longer, thus giving you more opportunity to build muscle and increase strength. 

Nuts and seeds are a popular source of healthy fats, but there are plenty of other options: Cheese, full-fat yogurt, hummus with olive oil, and butter or ghee on toast make for great high-fat snacks. 

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