We could all benefit from more muscle.

No, that isn’t just a statement from a weights-crazed gym bunny. Hear me out…

Muscle is metabolically active, protects joints from injury and gives women a ‘toned’, rather than bulky appearance. Strength training helps offset muscle loss as we age. After 35, we lose between 0.5-1% of our muscle mass annually. That process accelerates past 40. If you want to avoid a middle aged spread, bingo wings or a flat bottom, you need more muscle.

Building muscle isn’t just about lifting heavier weights. You have to eat right too. Firstly, that means eating enough food. To build muscle, you have to be in a calorie surplus. A good rule of thumb is 15-17 calories per pound of your body weight per day. You cannot build muscle if you aren’t eating enough food. Hence why physique athletes go through a phase of bulking and then cutting to get ultra lean.

This probably sounds like a scary idea. Who wants to be gorging on food 24/7 and risk looking like a tank? Thing is, if you do this right, you most definitely won’t.

I don’t count calories exactly, but I’m sure I’m always in a slight calorie surplus. However, I weigh 57kg and my body fat is about 15%. I lift heavy four times a week and do minimal cardio. I never cut (restrict calories) as I train for performance, not appearance and seem to stay pretty lean anyway. If you’re training hard in the gym and eating the right foods, you will gain muscle, not fat.

So what are the right foods?

Protein undoubtedly plays the most important role in muscle synthesis, but natural carbohydrates such as vegetables, potatoes and rice provide the fuel for heavy lifting. To perform well and increase your strength, protein and carbohydrate are essential. There’s no one size fits all, but a diet consisting of roughly 40-50% carbohydrate, 30-40% protein and 20% fat should serve you well.

Aim to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day if you want to build muscle. Complete protein sources that contain all nine amino acids are best. These include:

• Eggs (whites and whole eggs)
• Dairy products (semi skimmed or skimmed milk, cheese, and plain yoghurt)
• Lean beef
• Venison and other game meats
• Chicken breast
• Turkey breast
• Lean pork
• Fish
• Shellfish

Use protein shakes as supplements, but never to replace real food.

If you are vegan or vegetarian, it can be harder to hit your protein targets. In general, proteins from plant sources are lower in quality and digestibility. However, combining two incomplete sources of plant-based protein will give you all the amino acids you need to build muscle. The best vegan protein sources are:

• Tofu
• Leafy greens
• Lentils and beans
• Nuts
• Spelt
• Hempseed
• Spirulina
• Amaranth and quinoa

Spread your protein intake over 4 or 5 small meals throughout the day to optimise muscle growth.

Phew, a lot of info there…

In reality, it’s hard to keep an exact check on macros and calories. It’s not necessary to be too regimented, but focus on upping the weights in the gym and getting a little protein at every meal. Natural carbohydrates will energise your workouts rather than increase your waistline as long as intake isn’t excessive (over 50% of your daily calories). This may be an unfamiliar way of eating, but you’ll soon find you’re feeling more satisfied, energetic and your body fat/muscle ratios are moving in the right direction.