Muscling Down On Energy Intake

Many athletes have a goal of increasing muscle mass to increase strength and power. Marketing by the sports supplements industry would have you believe that protein is the be-all and end-all in bulking up, but what if we told you this was just the icing on the cake…

Academy Triangle - The Youth Academy

At The Academy, we like to explain the process of gaining muscle mass as a pyramid of priorities. Today, we present a case for why we believe energy intake should be the basis of any program seeking to develop muscle mass.

The Foundation: Energy Intake

All bodily processes, down to life sustaining breathing and heartbeat, require energy to take place. On top of this energy for basic processes, extra energy is required to for growth, as well as to fuel activity. In Australia, we measure the energy content of a food in kilojoules (kJ). The energy (kilojoules) provided by a food comes from fat, protein and carbohydrate, which all provide energy in varying amounts. On a per gram basis, these macronutrients provide:

  • Fat: 37kJ (~9kcal)
  • Protein: 17kJ (~4kcal)
  • Carbohydrate: 16kJ (~4kcal)

To understand how energy intake helps us to achieve an increase in body mass, its useful to have an understanding of the concept of energy balance. Our body weight will stay the same when the 'energy in' from foods is equal to the 'energy out' from bodily processes and activity. To support the growth of muscles, we need to supply the body with more energy than it needs to maintain its current body weight

Increasing energy intake boils down to one key strategy: eating more food! Though in reality there are a few ways we can go about this. A consistent schedule of 3 main meals and 3 snacks per day is a good place to start, as is the introduction of a pre-training carbohydrate snack and post-training snack with protein and carbohydrate for recovery. If there is a need to further increase energy intake without adding bulk to the diet, high fat foods such as full fat dairy, nuts/seeds and oils can be useful, as can nourishing liquids such as milk-based drinks and yoghurt

Leg Press - The Youth Academy

The Second Tier: Strength Training

Most athletes are less interested in the general concept of gaining weight, as they are in achieving this through an increase in muscle mass. This is where a good strength-training program comes into play. Muscles require stimulation to grow, and essentially, strength training “tells” the body to direct energy into developing the strength and power of the muscles so they can adapt to the training load. Noticed you've been able to lift more weight over time? This is why

Now, placing strength-training second may be slightly controversial because in the absence of strength training extra energy will be directed to storage as fat mass rather than utilised to develop muscle mass. If we undertake strength training without adequate energy however, we can end up in a position where 'energy out' is greater than 'energy in', and as the body must obtain fuel for activity from somewhere existing muscle stores may be broken down to supply energy. Though, we do concede, strength training takes a close second, and in reality the two best work hand-in-hand

Steak - The Youth Academy

The Icing On The Cake: Protein

Protein is the building material of muscles, so why then is this the last, smallest tier of our pyramid? There are two principal reasons for this:

  1. Most athletes have more than enough protein in their diets to support muscle growth. Although we think of protein foods as meat and dairy products, protein can be found in small amounts in most foods. Additionally, any protein consumed above requirements does not result in increased muscle mass but is instead broken down to be used for energy
  2. Energy is required to use protein to build muscle. We can think of protein as the bricks composing muscle and energy as the laborers required to build the muscle. There's no use having loads of bricks around if there are no laborers to lay them

As consumption of large amounts of protein at one time means that excess is broken down for fuel, we instead encourage athletes to include a quality source of protein at all meals as a strategy to enhance muscle growth. In this way, we are less interested in the absolute amount of protein eaten and more interested in the spread of protein across the day

There we have it folks! That's why for Academy athletes seeking to increase muscle mass, we first turn to increasing energy intake to support their strength training before considering the manipulation of protein intake. Happy eating :p

Nick Maier