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You Are What You Eat

Nutrition and Supplementation for Strength and Size Gains

The exercises and content expressed in this column are for illustrative purposes only. Consult your physician before trying any physical activity or nutritional plan. RECOIL and its contributors are not responsible for any harm or injuries sustained while attempting these techniques.

Admit it, you want to be big and strong. We all do. And with all of the hype around strength training supplements and diets, it seems like it’d be the easiest thing, right? Take this colorful drink or only eat protein, and you’re well on your way to becoming the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’ve been training for any appreciable length of time, you know that it’s much harder than it appears. Those quick fixes never work. So, with all of this misinformation on the Internet, where do you start? Let’s talk about nutrition and supplementation to start seeing some huge gains in the gym.

How Does a Muscle Grow?
At the end of the day, a muscle will respond to demands. When we ask our muscles to lift weights, their response in the longer term is to get stronger. And the opposite is also true — place no demands on them, and they’ll get weaker and smaller. These demands we place on muscle tissue causes damage, and while repairing this damage, the result is getting stronger and bigger. In other words, the muscle adapts to the stressor.

When looking to add muscle strength and size, look no further than heavy movements involving multiple joints and muscle groups.

When looking to add muscle strength and size, look no further than heavy movements involving multiple joints and muscle groups.

It’s important to vary this stressor, and the simplest way is through progressive overload. This equates to incrementally putting more weight on the bar, increasing the amount of reps, or increasing the amount of sets over time. Of course, a combination of these three will also work.

Because this is a nutrition-centered article, let’s discuss what it has to do with muscle growth and strength. Muscles respond to calories. In addition to proper training, it takes an extra 3,000 calories (above and beyond your normal daily requirement) to build one pound of muscle. Muscle tissue is constantly being broken down and rebuilt every 7 to 15 days. More activity alters this process. So when you hit the gym and start lifting weights, you’re breaking down muscle tissues. Without adequate nutrition (and recovery in general), you’re going to have a hard time getting bigger and stronger.

How Does a Muscle Get Stronger?
There’s a correlation between a muscle’s cross-sectional size and strength. Generally, the stronger a muscle gets, the bigger it gets. When the muscle is put through a strength-training workout, and it recovers adequately, an adaptation is for it to get stronger. Now, there are definitely some differences between training for one versus the other, but know they’re correlated. So one way of getting stronger is to build more muscle and vice versa.

One of the differences between muscle growth and strength is that strength also has a pretty substantial neurological component. It’s not just about the muscle, but also your brain and the connections between brain and muscle. One of the adaptations to strength training is increased neural drive to the muscle, meaning there’s greater activation of that muscle leading to more strength. Especially when lifting heavy weight with lower repetitions, such as in training for strength, the neuromuscular aspect of training becomes more important. In our case, however, we’re focusing on eating right for the muscle’s ability to get stronger and bigger.

Nutritional Basics for Muscle Growth and Strength
As discussed earlier, proper nutrition is paramount if you’re going to be seeing progress in the gym. This is non-negotiable and requires an understanding of your caloric needs, including a breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.


When we exercise, our body’s hormones are affected, and how they affect muscle growth and strength are heavily dependent on our nutritional status. It’s likely you’ve heard you need more protein when you start lifting weights. The main reason is to increase the amount of protein synthesis relative to the amount of protein breakdown. We want our bodies to be making more proteins than breaking them down if we’re going to build more muscle. But you need to eat enough protein for this to happen.

How much? Twelve to 15 percent of calories from protein is the minimum, which would equate to about 1g per kilogram of bodyweight. From there, you can increase that to about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. There are so many different choices when it comes to proteins, but a lot of that will depend on your personal preference. Meat is easily the most common, but if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, there are other choices like beans, legumes, or soy, as well as some protein supplements discussed later. To make this measurement of protein easier, think about it as two to three palm-sized portions of protein per day for men, and one to two per day for women.

Carbs are very important for strength and size goals. Make sure to get the recommended amount. If you notice you’re gaining too much fat, start reducing carbs before anything else.

Carbs are very important for strength and size goals. Make sure to get the recommended amount. If you notice you’re gaining too much fat, start reducing carbs before anything else.

Recently, carbohydrates have become the enemy of many diet programs, but don’t shy away from them quite yet, especially if you’re looking to get big and strong. Carbs are primarily a source of energy for the cells in your body. Not to mention, they cause a release of a hormone called insulin, which is the most anabolic (building tissues) hormone in the body. Insulin is responsible for taking nutrients like amino acids (protein building blocks) and carbs and putting them into muscle cells to allow growth. You can get carried away, though, as insulin also stores nutrients in fat cells too. So, too much in the carb department can lead to some fat gain as well.

How much is too much? Well, that depends on numerous factors such as: how big you are, how much lean mass you have, how active you are, intake levels of protein and fat, genetics, and what foods you prefer to eat. Men should start with roughly two to three cupped-handfuls of healthy carbs per meal, and women should start with one to two. You then would adjust from there. As for choices, there are many. So stick to healthy options like fruits, legumes, root vegetables, quinoa, brown rice, and whole grains to name a few.

Both creatine and protein powder are inexpensive ways to get an extra edge in the gym. Just understand they’re supplements meant to complement a healthy diet. You’ll get more from nutritious food than you will from any supplement.

Both creatine and protein powder are inexpensive ways to get an extra edge in the gym. Just understand they’re supplements meant to complement a healthy diet. You’ll get more from nutritious food than you will from any supplement.

Fat is a major fuel for low- to moderate-intensity exercise, and for most people, it’s the most readily available form of stored energy. The better you are at using, the more you’re able to spare stored carbs. This is a great thing for longer-duration activities that require a ton of energy use like a marathon.

Because fat goes through a more complex process to break down, it’s not typically an immediate source of energy for the body, and, therefore, it’s not an energy source we’re concerned with for strength-based exercise. It’ll take a few hours for fat to enter the bloodstream. While fat takes a while to breakdown, it easily makes up for it in the much larger amount of energy it produces as compared to proteins or carbs.

So how much fat should you have? For men, two thumb-sized portions per meal is a great start, while one thumb per meal is good for women. You’ll be looking to get your healthy fats from nutritious sources like avocados, raw nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and healthy oils like avocado, olive, or coconut.

Strength training

Two Key Supplements for Strength and Size
Protein Powder
We all know about protein being a great food that should make up a substantial amount of your total caloric intake, but there’s another option besides regular food: whey protein. Why use a protein powder? Here are a few reasons.

> Eating more protein in your diet without the bulk of food
> You don’t like meat or animal products.
> Convenience of transportation
> Ease of preparation

When considering a protein powder, you’ve several sources including whey, rice, egg, pea, hemp, and soy. Which source is right for you? It’s tough to say, and it really depends on your personal preference, allergies, your stance on food, and several others. For most people, a milk-derived protein powder called whey is a great choice as it may improve immunity, is very well-researched, and is a great source of branched-chain amino acids, which help with muscle growth and preservation.

> 25-50g per serving is a good place to start depending on your needs.
> Check the nutrition labels and avoid artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and aspartame.
> Experiment with different forms and brands to determine which you tolerate best.
> Mix with fruit, avocado, and spinach for a very simple and very nutritious breakfast.

When you’re performing bouts of high-power outputs (lasting less than 15 seconds) separated by 20 to 60 seconds of rest, you’re predominantly using something called the ATP-PC system of energy. An example could be a short sprint up a hill. This system replenishes the stores of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides energy to working cells. Since your muscles have a small amount of ATP for muscle contractions, it needs to be replenished regularly and quickly. In order to use this ATP, one phosphate is removed to create energy, which will make it adenosine diphosphate (ADP) as there are only two phosphates now. We use a creatine supplement to give ADP an extra phosphate, making it ATP once again. And the cycle continues.

Creatine is an amino acid that naturally occurs in the body in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas, but you can also get it from food. In supplement form, creatine is typically taken as creatine monohydrate because it’s more able to pass through cell membranes, making it more usable. Typical improvements as a result of creatine supplementation range from about 2 percent in increased muscle mass, about 11 percent in muscle strength, and roughly 8 percent in high-intensity exercise.

Man doing battle ropes exercise during gym training at gym

> Use the monohydrate form of creatine.
> Drink plenty of fluids when taking creatine.
> Don’t ingest during exercise.
> After an initial five-day loading phase of 10g per day, consume 3-5g of creatine per day.
> Drink creatine in a warm beverage, preferably combined with carbs and protein to possibly increase the muscles’ retention of it.
> Occasionally, cycle off creatine for three to four months.
> Don’t take this if you have a preexisting kidney dysfunction or are at a high risk for kidney disease.

Now that you’ve got the basics of nutrition and supplementation covered, it’s time to hit the gym and start seeing some serious progress. You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.

About the Author
Ryne Gioviano is the owner of Achieve Personal Training & Lifestyle Design located in Aurora, Illinois. He holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology, a NSCA Certified Personal Trainer, and Precision Nutrition Certified Nutritional Coach. Ryne is also an avid firearms enthusiast. For more information, please visit or find him on Instagram and Twitter at @rgioviano.

Berardi, J., Andrews, R., St. Pierre, B., Scott-Dixon, K., Kollias, H., & DePutter, C. (2016).
The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition, Inc.
Plowman, S. & Smith, D. (2017).
Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance (5th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.

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