AIS Sports Nutrition

Increasing Muscle Mass

Most athletes are interested in increasing muscle mass to enhance their strength and power.  There is a lot of confusion as to how to go about increasing muscle size and function.  Here is a step-by-step guide to muscle growth.

Step 1: Start with a good training program

Muscles need stimulation to grow.  Seek expert advice from a reputable strength coach.  Look for someone with at least a Level 2 coaching qualification who is recommended by other health professionals.  Adjust your program as your strength develops.

Step 2: Set realistic goals

Everyone is after quick results when it comes to muscle development but the reality is that muscles take time to grow.  Everyone has a different genetic potential to develop muscle mass so your goals must be realistic for you.  Gains usually occur relatively quickly at the start of a training program then slow down as the body adjusts.  Most athletes want to increase muscle mass while simultaneously decreasing skinfolds.  This is difficult to do, as one goal is a product of a negative energy balance (intake that is less than requirements), while the other is best achieved in the face of a positive energy balance.  It is important to prioritise body composition goals.

Step 3: Support your training with a high-energy diet that provides adequate protein

To gain muscle mass effectively, a positive energy balance of at least 2000-4000 kilojoules per day is required.  This calls for a general increase in dietary intake.  However, carbohydrate is the first nutrient to focus on, since muscle must be fuelled to do the training to stimulate muscles to grow.  It is also important for athletes trying to gain muscle mass to meet their increased protein needs, but huge protein intakes are not required.  In most cases, a high-energy diet that provides 1.2-2g of protein per kilogram of body mass will ensure that protein needs are met.  These protein intakes are easily met by consuming a varied diet that meets your energy needs.  Consuming protein above this level does not have an anabolic effect.  Excess protein will be oxidised as an energy source and may contribute to gains in body fat.  Very high protein diets displace other important nutrients from the diet and can be a source of saturated fat.  Although it is important to achieve energy needs, a high-energy diet should not be seen as an excuse for gluttony.  Excess consumption of high-fat foods can lead to excessive energy intake, and a greater risk of gaining fat mass rather than muscle.

Step 4: Get organised

Increasing your energy intake is not always easy.  Many athletes with high-energy needs are surprised to find they consume less than they think.  It requires considerable organisation and commitment to consistently consume a high-energy intake.  This includes having a planned approach to shopping and cooking to ensure appropriate foods are available, and carrying snacks around during the day to avoid missing snacks or having to rely on less suitable options.

Step 5: Eat and drink frequently

Eating more frequently, rather than increasing the amount of food you consume at each meal, is a more effective way to ensure an increase in food and energy intake.  Athletes who try to cram their nutritional needs into three meals will often suffer stomach discomfort from the sheer size of meals and end up abandoning the plan.  Compact snacks and high-energy drinks offer an efficient way to top up between meals without filling up.  Good choices include milk shakes and fruit smoothies, liquid meal supplements, cereal and sports bars, and flavoured dairy foods such as yoghurt.

Step 6: Time meals and snacks appropriately

Including a small serve of protein with all meals and snacks will optimise amino acid levels in the blood and may facilitate muscle development. Remember that protein comes from a wide range of sources including bread, breakfast cereal, rice and dairy products - it is not just found in meat. Eating a carbohydrate-rich, moderate-protein snack or meal immediately after training may help to optimise gains in muscle mass by increasing production of anabolic hormones, reducing protein breakdown and supplying amino acids for protein synthesis. This snack may be even more effective when consumed before the session, in the case of weight training workouts. At the AIS, we encourage athletes to consume a snack providing 1g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight plus 10-20 g of protein within 30 minutes of finishing training.  Suitable snacks are shown below:

 60kg Athlete
 200g fruit yoghurt + cereal bar
 200g fruit yoghurt + 250ml juice
 200g fruit yoghurt + banana
 50g PowerBar Protein Plus Powder in 250ml water + cereal bar
 30g PowerBar Protein Plus Powder in 250ml milk + cereal bar
 200ml flavoured milk + cereal bar
 200ml flavoured milk + 200g fruit yoghurt
 200ml flavoured milk + banana

80kg Athlete
 200g fruit yoghurt + 2 cereal bars
 200g fruit yoghurt + cereal bar + 400ml sports drink
 200g fruit yoghurt + cereal bar + 250ml juice
 200g fruit yoghurt + cereal bar + banana
 75g PowerBar Protein Plus Powder in 250ml water + cereal bar
 60g PowerBar Protein Plus Powder in 250ml milk + cereal bar
 200ml flavoured milk + 2 cereal bars
 200ml flavoured milk + cereal bar + 200g fruit yoghurt
 200ml flavoured milk + cereal bar + banana 

Step 7: Be patient and consistent

Increases in body mass of 2-4 kg per month are generally considered achievable but individuals can respond differently to strength training.  It is important to be consistent with your training and your diet.  Some athletes fall into the trap of training and eating well for a couple of days then slacking off for a couple of days.  A spasmodic approach to training and nutrition will slow your progress down.

Step 8: Seek qualified advice before taking supplements

There are numerous supplements available on the market which promise to increase muscle mass and strength.  The majority of these products and their claims are not based on scientific evidence and are, therefore, a waste of money. Although protein powders are all the rage in muscle building circles, these products are generally too low in carbohydrate, excessive in protein - and too expensive.   However, there are a small number of supplements that may be useful for some athletes under specific circumstances.  For most people wanting to increase muscle mass, the most useful supplement is one that provides carbohydrate plus moderate levels of protein and other nutrients.  The AIS uses PowerBar Protein Plus powder for athletes needing to consume extra nutrients to bulk up. This has a good balance of protein and carbohydrate.

PowerBar Protein Plus Powder

Serve size 65 g
Energy per serve 1020 kJ
Carbohydrate per serve 43.7 g
Protein per serve 15 g

Before using any supplement seek expert advice regarding the efficacy, safety and legality of the product. Sports dietitians can provide qualified advice and information on the AIS Supplement Program can be found in the Supplements section of the AIS Sports Nutrition website. The Australian Sports Drug Agency is also a source of information.

Step 9: Monitor your progress and adjust when necessary

Individuals can respond very differently to training and nutrition programs.  Some degree of trial and error is always required. The meal plan below provides an example of the type of food intake required to support a strength training program for a 70kg athlete. However, the plan will not suit everyone.

  Quantity of food required to provide high carbohydrate and high protein needs for a 70 kg athlete Amount of carbohydrate (g) Amount of protein (g)
Breakfast 2 cups cereal
300 ml milk
2 slices toast
2 tablespoons jam
1 cup juice
Lunch 2 bread rolls each with 50 g chicken + salad
1 banana
1 fruit bun
250 ml flavoured low fat milk
Dinner Stir-fry with 2 cups pasta + 100 g meat + 1 cup vegetables
1 cup jelly + 1 cup custard
Snacks 750 ml sports drink
1 carton yoghurt
1 piece fruit
1 cereal bar
Analysis   594 g
(8 g/kg)
166 g
(2.3 g/kg)


A sports dietitian can help to develop an individualised plan to suit the specific needs and goals of each athlete. Sports dietitians can also help monitor changes in skinfolds, weight and girths using a reliable technique. These results will help the athlete to assess their real progress in changing body composition. The Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA) website provides details of qualified sports dietitians throughout Australia.

Written by AIS Sports Nutrition, last updated November 2009. © Australian Sports Commission

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