Gone are the days where women are mistakenly told to chase after the thin ideal. More and more women are ditching the 2 pound dumbbells for heavier weights, and female athletes are gracing magazine covers. It’s 2021, and by now we all can agree that strong is the new skinny. In this article, we’ll briefly review why building muscle is so incredible from a health perspective, and then dive into some nutrition tips to help you go about doing so.
Why build muscle?
From an aesthetic perspective, muscle is what gives your body shape and a “toned” look. However, it also comes with numerous health benefits that extend far beyond the bikini, including:
Muscle improves insulin response.
Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the body in response to food and acts to shuttle glucose (or sugar) from the blood and into cells. Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s response to insulin is altered and it is no longer able to do its job properly, resulting in oversecretion of insulin and a rise in blood sugar. This problem is commonly associated with various conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, PCOS, and more.
There is research to suggest that muscle improves insulin response (known as insulin sensitivity). For example, a large-scale study of over thirteen thousand participants found that for every 10% increase in skeletal muscle mass, there was an 11% decrease in insulin resistance (1). The effect might be even more pronounced in people with diabetes.
Muscle helps you maintain strong bones.
Osteoporosis, or thinning and weakening of the bones, is a serious public health issue. In the US alone, 54 million Americans aged 50 and over either already have or are at risk for osteoporosis (2). Osteoporosis can lead to life-threatening fractures that leave many people immobile.
Peak bone mass is achieved in your early thirties, and it rapidly declines after menopause. So, clearly it is important to set your bones up for success. Luckily, researchers have found that increasing skeletal mass builds up greater bone strength and density (3).
Muscle bolsters your body’s defense system.
Ever wonder why critically ill patients are encouraged to do physical activity if possible? Preserving muscle is a key aspect of recovery because it aids the body’s immune system response and provides nutrients to parts of the body when needs are higher.
One review looked at the role of muscle in defense against inflammation (4). The researchers found that preservation of muscle was a key determinant of survival and ability to recover. Since building muscle is nearly impossible when your health is already compromised, it’s important to work on it while you can.
Tips for building muscle:
Tip #1: Determine if you’re a candidate for body recomposition; if yes, skip tip #2.
Body recomposition is when you build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it’s not always possible since one process is anabolic (building muscle) while the other is catabolic (losing fat). Body recomposition has mainly been shown to occur under three scenarios (5):
- Overweight or obese people who have excess body fat.
- People who are brand new to strength training (“newbie gains”).
- Resistance-trained individuals who have taken a long time off due to injury.
Do keep in mind that more research is needed in this area. As one review pointed out, body recomposition might occur in some individuals who do not meet this criteria if all other variables (i.e. sleep, hormones, etc.) are optimized (6).
Tip #2: Be in a calorie surplus.
If you don’t fit in the criteria above, you’ll need to eat in a calorie surplus in order to build muscle. A calorie surplus is when you consume more calories than you burn. Exercise is only a small percentage of your total energy expenditure; according to one study, physical activity accounted for only 7-9 percent of variation in total calories burned (7). (Not sure how to determine the amount of calories you need to eat? Work with a dietitian to figure it out!)
There are two common mistakes that people make here:
(1) Eating in too large of a surplus. Most people only need a conservative calorie surplus, such as 200-300 calories or a 5-10% increase in total calories in order to put on muscle (8).
(2) Getting too many extra calories from protein. An increase in protein up to a certain amount can promote muscle gain (as we’ll discuss next). However, the beneficial effects attenuate after a certain point. According to a large meta-analysis, diminishing returns on muscle building occur with intake beyond 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight (9).
Tip #3: Eat enough protein throughout the day.
Protein is important for building muscle. You don’t want too little, but you don’t want too much… So what’s the goldilocks amount? While there is still disagreement among the scientific community about the optimal amount of protein to support muscle building, recent research supports eating at least 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (10). The amount might be more or less depending on your energy balance, body composition, genetics, and other factors. Note that if you have kidney disease or other conditions that require you to restrict your protein intake, you should consult with your doctor or dietitian before altering your protein intake.
In addition to eating the appropriate amount of protein each day, it is important to evenly distribute your intake throughout the day. There is plenty of research to suggest that dividing your protein among at least three meals might help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is a key factor involved in building muscle (11). Bonus points: distributing your protein intake might also help regulate your appetite and blood sugar. Win-win!
Tip #4: Fuel the process with carbs.
One big reason to consume adequate carbs when you’re trying to build muscle is that it will fuel progress with your strength training. There is overwhelming evidence to support the notion that carbohydrate availability positively influences sports performance (12). That is because glucose, the sugar found in carbohydrates, is the body’s preferred fuel source for physical activity. Progressive overload (AKA improving performance over time in the gym) is an essential component for building muscle (13). So, eating carbohydrates helps you achieve progressive overload, which in turn triggers muscle growth.
Another reason to eat plenty of carbs during a muscle-building phase is that it will help you recover from your training sessions (14). Muscle is actually built when you’re recovering from strength training, so ensuring proper recovery is necessary. Additionally, there is some evidence that the quality of carbohydrates that you consume might influence both your recovery and performance (15). That’s part of why we generally recommend getting your carbohydrates from whole foods. However, there are certainly exceptions for athletes and/or people with higher energy needs; some circumstances do merit use of sports drinks and refined carbohydrates. For the average recreational exerciser, these products are likely not necessary.
Women building muscle isn’t a trend; it’s a much-needed paradigm shift in the wellness industry. It goes beyond looks; there are plenty of important health benefits that come with lean body mass gains. While proper strength training is absolutely critical to building muscle, nutrition plays a (potentially more) important role throughout the process. One last tip: be patient! Building muscle takes time. One study says that women might expect to increase muscle mass by about one-half pound per month, but results are highly variable and depend on many factors (16). Stay consistent, trust the process, and enjoy the extra food.