The Nutrition of Building Muscles from NYC Registered Dietitian

push ups

There’s a growing popularity in strength training across the country – for every gender, ever age.

Strength is the new black.

Basically, strength training is the kind of exercise that uses resistance to build muscle mass, anaerobic endurance, and, in turn, strength. For top athletes, it’s critical to improve performance. But it’s not just for the elite. Strength training is one of the four pillars of a senior fitness program – to help prevent the loss of bone mass and density (and keep them independent). Everyone should participate in muscle-strengthening activities at least twice/week. And you don’t even need a gym! You can do squats, lunges, push-ups, crunches, planks and get a pull-up bar at home. Gardening, playing with kids, and carrying groceries are just a few everyday activities that build muscle.
Yoga Class

This begets the question: How strong should an individual be? There’s no right answer to the question, as it all depends on age, weight, gender, history of physical health, needs, ability and even interest level. To understand strength, professionals discuss the Strength-to-Weight Ratio (SWR). Utmost is a great blog to follow to understand more details about SWR, where athletes fall in on the spectrum, and what we should better understand about strength and building muscle.

As always, though, there’s a critical component to successful strength training that has nothing to do with the gym and everything to do with your kitchen. The nutrition of building muscles depends on getting the right number of calories, the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats. Building and maintaining strength, successfully, is an inside job as well. Today, I’m going to focus on proteins.


Proteins provides the amino acids that our bodies need every single day. The amino acids provided by eating protein are imperative for almost all biological processes. While strength training, we create tiny micro-tears in our muscles. Our body uses the amino acids surround to and repair the tears. This process of breaking down and repairing makes the muscle bigger. A critical part of strength training and muscle building is getting enough protein.

Put down the Balboa-style breakfast of champions. The iconic scene of Rocky drinking a glass of raw eggs has inspired many a bodybuilder to chug the eggs. Ick.

Americans, on average, eat more protein than they need (in fact two times as much.). With the inundation of protein ads — shakes, bars, and powders – you’d think we were deprived. So how much is enough or too much?

To build muscle mass, the body needs its total protein intake to be between 10 and 35% of its total calories – preferably lean protein. Keeping muscle mass requires a lot less protein than building muscle mass. Let’s break down the numbers for a 2000 calorie/day diet.

  • To build muscles, 200 – 700 calories must come from protein (50 – 175 grams)
  • A sedentary adult needs .8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight – which translates to 60 grams of protein for an adult that weighs 165 pounds.
  • The middle-age muscle dive … Once we hit our 40s or 50s, we start losing muscle mass as we age. To help maintain muscle mass, you’ll want to increase protein intake to 1 gram per kilo of body weight.Chickpeas
  • What does this look like on the plate?
    • 3 ounces of skinless, baked chicken, lean ground beef, grilled salmon have 26, 22, and 21 grams of protein, respectively.
    • 1 cup of yogurt, ½ cup of cottage cheese, 1 cup of low-fat milk have 12, 14, and 8 grams, respectively.
    • ½ cup of cooked lentils, ½ cup of cooked black beans, 1 cup of cooked quinoa and 100 grams of firm tofu have 9, 7, 8 and 9 grams, respectively.
    • That egg? Has 6 grams!

So, for most adults, with the exception of high-performing athletes, those wanting to build muscle, vegans or those with specific dietary needs, choosing 6 servings from the protein foods listed above will provide sufficient protein. Most will never need supplements to build muscle.

Beware of portion distortion because a body is an amazing machine that will only use what it needs. The rest gets used as energy or stored as fat.

This is just a start. Next week, I’ll discuss the other nutritional needs for strength training – what our bodies need to build healthier muscles.