If one were to poll strength trainees nearly all of them would tell you that testosterone is the most important hormone for size and strength. Testosterone’s importance cannot be argued, but insulin rivals it in terms of results in the gym and plays an even more crucial role in overall health.
Insulin’s association with blood sugar is generally well known, but what is less known is its ability to mediate protein synthesis and thus skeletal muscle recovery and potential growth.
Insulin sensitivity, or the body’s receptiveness to its effects, is key to optimal health and results in the gym. While insulin can be taken exogenously (from outside of the body), its management via dietary manipulation is the method of choice for optimal long term results (in healthy individuals). Insulin management to maximize protein synthesis and thus potential and actual muscular growth will be the focus of this article.
Eating Specifically for Hypertrophy
Whether you are trying to gain body mass for athletic or aesthetic purposes, the end goal of eating for size is to add as much lean muscle mass as possible while mitigating increases in body fat. Make no mistake; optimization of lean muscle accruement necessitates the addition of some body fat.
In order to foster optimum growth, the body must have the nutrients necessary to do the job when needed. This translates to essentially a continuous need. Why? Muscle growth does not follow any exact timeframe. It is nigh impossible to assure the correct nutrients are in abundant supply at all times without consuming an excess of calories. Interestingly enough, even without training, a percentage of excess caloric intake will be stored as lean muscle tissue. The addition of resistance training can greatly increase this percentage, and the combination of an excess caloric intake and resistance training is the only way to truly optimize the addition of lean muscle mass.
Eating a lot is important, but there is a limit to the benefit derived from excess caloric intake. Too many calories for too long of a period of time results in an unacceptably high increase in body fat and the potential health problems associated with it (depressed testosterone, insulin resistance etc.). How does one consume a surplus of calories in order to foster optimal muscular hypertrophy, but avoid excess deposition of body fat? The key is nutrient control and timing.
Carbohydrate Control and Nutrient Timing
Insulin has a tremendous effect on hypertrophy, but is also a potent promoter of fat storage. It is released in response to any foods consumed, but sugars and starches (complex carbohydrates) generally elicit a greater insulin response than other foodstuffs. Timing, quantity, and form of carbohydrate ingestion are very important when one is trying to optimize the addition of lean body mass.
Carbohydrate consumption should be limited to roughly 25-30% of total caloric intake. Fibrous carbs in the form of vegetables (corn, lettuce, broccoli, carrots etc.) and legumes (dried peas, baked beans, lentils, lima beans etc.) should constitute roughly 20-30% of total carb intake.
Studies have demonstrated that insulin has both an active and permissive effect on protein synthesis, but this effect is only optimized in the presence of amino acids (1). Nutrient intake should thus both spike insulin release and provide ample amino acids. This means that simple or complex carbs should be consumed with quality sources of protein.
Spiking insulin allows for enhanced muscle protein synthesis (MPS), but chronically high levels of insulin and excess caloric intake can lead to insulin insensitivity and this should be avoided at all costs. Insulin spikes should therefore be deliberately induced a controlled number of times daily. This is where it gets really interesting, and is the basis of my current theory relative to proper eating for athletes. Studies have shown that postprandial (after a meal) MPS remains elevated for roughly 2-3 hours (longer with a high fat meal) (2). Ingestion of more amino acids, or another protein containing meal within 4-6 hours will not renew or further enhance MPS (this blows the traditional bodybuilding idea of eating protein every 2 hours out of the water) (2). Of extreme interest to me (perhaps kind of a unifying theory of nutrition) is that the 2-3 hour period of postprandial MPS elevation closely mimics the timeline for postprandial insulin elevation (2)! Ahhhh, now we are getting somewhere! We know that optimized protein synthesis is only possible in the presence of insulin and ample amino acids. We also know that spiking insulin too often is counterproductive and potentially harmful to one’s health.
Finally, we know that MPS can only effectively be stimulated once every 4-6 hours… Soooo, what to do? The answer is deceptively simple. Consume meals with simple or complex carbs and quality protein every 4-6 waking hours, or 3-4 times per day. This allows for maximized protein synthesis throughout the day with a controlled limit on insulin release.
Pre and Post-Workout Nutrition
As with everything relative to human physiology, nutrient timing is not quite as simple as stated above for those looking to optimize performance. The primary exceptions are pre and post-workout nutrition.
Recent studies have demonstrated that pre-workout (PW) nutrition may have an even greater effect on post-workout (PWO) MPS than PWO nutrition (3). The theory behind the potential increased benefit of PW nutrition is that the muscular contractions during exercise may drive a greater amount of amino acids into the muscle cells thus providing for a greater availability of said amino acids for MPS (amino acid availability is considered a rate limiting factor in MPS) (3).
PW and PWO nutrition are unique in that they do not follow the rules of standard nutrition. Nutrients consumed at these times, within reasonable limits, are used almost exclusively for anabolic or performance related purposes. The insulin spike elicited by PW & PWO nutrition is essentially only anabolic in nature as the likelihood of fat deposition is slim to nil.
With the above said, on training days when one is incorporating both PW and PWO nutrition, care should be taken to limit spiking of insulin to 2-3 other times during the day.
Calculating Your Caloric Needs and a Sample Diet
Many authors and gurus provide exacting formulas which they purport everyone can use to calculate their caloric needs. This is pure bunk. The unique physiology and life circumstance of each individual preclude such formulas. With that said, it is possible for me to provide you a framework with which you can calculate an initial caloric intake geared to maximizing size and strength.
Assuming your body weight is currently relatively constant, the best way to come up with a starting intake for your new diet is to keep a food and beverage log for a period of one week. Be sure to record ALL calorie containing foods and beverages and do your best to record accurate serving sizes. I recommend www.fitday.com to then calculate the total number of calories you consumed in the 7 day period. Once the total is obtained, divide it by 7 to come up with your average daily intake. Take this number and add 500 calories per day. This will be your initial daily intake.
Adjustments to this figure should be made in 300 caloric blocks (either 300 more, or less, calories daily) every 2 weeks depending on progress in the gym, body weight, and body fat deposition. In other words, if you find you are gaining too much body fat too quickly, reduce your daily intake by 300 calories for a period of 2 weeks and then revaluate your needs. Conversely, if you feel that you are not adding excessive body fat and your total body weight is not climbing, adjust your daily intake upwards by 300 calories. Continue this process until you have reached your goal, and or decide to pursue other physical goals.
I just stated it is folly to provide specific cookie-cutter caloric intake recommendations, but I also realize there will be many readers who do not wish to go through the complete process outlined above. For those people, I am going to provide specific calorie counts for them to calculate an initial daily intake. Due to the less exacting nature of this method, the first couple of bi-weekly adjustments take on an even greater importance.
Initial Daily Intake Formulation
- Teen + (17-22 years old): 25+ calories per pound of body weight (ex: 170 lbs trainee = 170 x 25 = 4,250 + calories)
- Adult (23-35 years old): 23 calories per pound of body weight
- Mature Adult (36-49 years old): 21 calories per pound of body weight
- Older Adult (50+ years of age): For this group I recommend that caloric intake is maintained at a more moderate level. Follow the other tenets laid forth in this article, but keep caloric intake in the 16-18 calories per pound of body weight range.
Below is a sample approximately 3,700 calorie per day diet. It includes both solid foods and nutritional supplements and incorporates the tenets laid out in this article. The right nutritional supplements, while not necessary to gaining size and strength, are necessary to maximizing said gains.
Sample diet – approx 3,700 calories
Meal 1 (controlled high insulin spike):
5 fried eggs (whole)
453 calories – 34g fat, 3g carb, 31g prot
RESULTS (1 serving in water)
320 calories – 80g carb
ETS (4 capsules)
<10 calories – 2g prot
Total: 783 calories – 34g fat, 83g carb, 33g prot
Note: The 80g of dextrose in RESULTS stimulates a powerful insulin response. Combined with the high quality egg protein, it is a perfect first meal of the day to jumpstart MPS.
Meal 2 (controlled high insulin spike):
Turkey breast sandwich (10 Oscar Myer cold cut slices, 2 x 1 oz. slices American cheese, 2 slices rye bread, 1 teaspoon mustard)
463 calories – 17g fat, 40g carb, 35g prot
Broccoli (cooked – 2cups)
181 calories – 10g fat, 19g carb, 11g prot
Total: 644 calories – 27g fat, 59g carb, 46g prot
Note: The carbs from the bread stimulate a potent insulin response, and the turkey breast and cheese provide the amino acids necessary to spike MPS.
Meal 3 (controlled high insulin spike):
Opticen (with 2 servings in water)
Total: 744 calories – 16g fat, 70g carb, 80g prot
Note: Simple carbs and high quality protein with a liquid delivery, another recipe for peak MPS.
Meal 4 (controlled, but more moderate insulin spike):
Chicken breasts (2 large – roasted)
867 calories – 34g fat, 131g prot
Green beans (string – cooked – 2 cups)
166 calories – 9g fat, 21g carbs, 5g prot
Black beans (cooked – 1 cup)
293 calories – 12g fat, 34g carbs, 13g prot
Total: 1326 calories – 55g fat, 55g carb, 149g prot
Note: Superior quality protein combined with complex carbs for a sufficient insulin response to promote enhanced MPS.
Meal 5 – Pre-bed Snack (carb free, relatively low insulin response):
Nitrean (2 servings in water)
220 calories- 2g fat, <4g carbs, 48g prot
ETS (4 capsules)
<10 calories - 2g prot
Total: 230calories – 4g fat, <4g carb, 50g prot
Note: High quality protein with virtually no carbs in order to minimize the insulin response. This snack will provide a more muted MPS stimulus.
- Calories – ~3717
- Fat grams – 135 – 33% of calories
- Carb grams – 271 – 29% of calories
- Protein – 358 – 38% of calories
On training days, meal 3 should be split in two and used for PW and PWO shakes.
You need insulin to optimize protein synthesis and thus potential growth. Too much insulin too often results in insulin insensitivity and a host of potential health problems. Controlled daily insulin releases are the solution. On non-training days a mix of simple and complex carbs should be consumed with a high quality protein for a total of 3-4 meals per day consumed every 4-6 hours. Training days should include 2-3 simple and complex carb containing meals along with a pre and post workout shake which contains both protein and carbs.
Written by Chris Mason
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Eating Optimally for Massive Size and Strength discussion thread.
1. Roy, B.D., J.R. Fowles, R. Hill, and M.A. Tarnopolsky. Macronutrient intake and whole body protein metabolism following resistance exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No.8, pp. 1412-1418, 2000.
2. Norton, L. Optimal protein intake and meal frequency to support maximal protein synthesis and muscle mass. Available online.