By Danielle Johnson RDN, CDN, CPT, RYT

A common health goal is “to build muscle” – which is a great goal! Muscle is lean and dense (a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat), increases our strength, and increases our calorie burn to help promote a healthy body weight. The thing about building muscle is that it does not happen overnight or over a week, leaving people feeling frustrated and giving up on their goal. Building muscle takes patience, consistency, and good nutrition.

Let’s discuss patience, because this tends to be overlooked or serves as a roadblock to achieving the goal of building muscle. It can take about three to four weeks to see a visible change in muscle growth, but it may take 12 weeks or more to really see differences. This is where consistency comes into play because you also want to have a good training routine (you cannot build muscle without muscle building activity). The best way to build muscle is through some form of resistance training. On average it is recommended three to four days per week for at least 30 minutes training all parts of the body. Missing a few days here and there isn’t detrimental, but to build muscle you must repeatedly cause “damage” through training. Once you build the muscle you still must continue your consistent training to maintain the new muscle you built.

Most importantly, the body needs to recover from the “damage of training” through good nutrition and rest. Before we dive into the nutrition let’s highlight rest. There is a saying floating around society “no days off” or “train insane” or “no rest days” – these are quite foolish unless you are a highly trained athlete. For the average person it is essential to have rest days and get adequate sleep (about seven to eight hours per night). Regardless of your goal, if you don’t allow your body to rest appropriately you won’t be able to achieve the goal due to developing an injury or burnout.

When it comes to good nutrition, all the macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) play an essential role in developing and maintaining muscle mass. Despite the bad reputation in society, carbohydrates are vital for muscle mass. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the muscles (and brain) and is the most important aspect of sustaining moderate to high intensity exercise and duration. Carbs are also involved in the process of energy production, regulating metabolism, maintaining electrolyte balance, stimulating post exercise recovery, improving muscle protein synthesis and the utilization of fat.

Protein is well known to be an important part of muscle mass as it aids in building muscle during recovery. Protein is also responsible for providing energy, regulating metabolism, creating hormones and balancing fluid in the body.

Dietary fat can sometimes be forgotten about or viewed negatively but it’s also important in order to build muscle mass. Dietary fat provides most of our energy at rest or low intensity activity, absorbs and stores vitamins needed for metabolism and muscle recovery, and takes over as the main source of energy when carbohydrate levels start to deplete during exercise. Dietary fat also provides structure in the human body and makes up most of the body’s stored energy (important for survival and function).

Another important part of nutrition and muscle mass is the thermic effect of food (TEF). Having three large meals with long gaps between them promotes higher release of insulin, promoting higher fat storage compared to three smaller meals and two to three snacks with a lower release of insulin to utilize nutrients appropriately. This also helps optimize absorption of nutrients and allows for more TEF opportunity (you burn more calories eating five-six times per day compared to two-three times). Protein has the highest TEF out of the 3 macro nutrients, making it important to include at all eating events.

Overall, building and maintaining muscle mass is a great health goal but requires patience, consistency, and good nutrition. Don’t give up if you don’t see immediate results! Keep in mind that you don’t need to be perfect to achieve this goal and that you need to include all the macronutrients to optimize your results. Working with a registered dietitian (RD/RDN) can help you strategize and individualize your calorie intake, macro intake, and eating pattern custom to your goals.

Danielle Johnson RDN, CDN, CPT, RYT is a registered dietitian who works in the Department of Bariatrics and the Bariatric Center of Excellence at Mather Hospital, where she specializes in surgical weight loss and medical weight management. She is completing her Master of Science degree in Integrative Nutrition at Stony Brook University.