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An introductory guide to increasing muscle mass in the developing athlete

Strength and power are important traits in many sports. For young athletes, increasing muscle mass represents an important part of their athletic development. There are three key components or ‘ingredients’ that are considered essential if an athlete is to achieve their ‘bulking up’ goals:

1. A well designed resistance training program
2. A high-energy diet that provides adequate protein
3. Consistency

A high-energy diet

Muscles need energy to grow, so it makes sense that an increase in overall dietary intake is required. The main focus of any muscle building meal plan should be on high energy, nutrient dense foods that also provide a good source of carbohydrate and protein. It is important that the need to increase total energy intake is not seen as an excuse to fill up on energy dense, nutrient poor foods (e.g. takeways, ‘junk food’). Doing so will only compromise the intake of more nutrient dense options, as well as increase the likelihood of gaining fat rather than muscle mass.

Tips for increasing energy intake

Eating and drinking must be a priority! Three main meals with snacks in between should be the aim – it’s easier to eat more often than it is to eat more in one sitting. Given the training, study and social commitments of many young athletes, it’s important that they learn to plan ahead so that they always have access to suitable food and drinks when they need them most. Practical examples that they can carry around in their school/training bag include cereal/muesli bars, dried fruit and nut packs, canned fruit/creamed rice, baked beans, tetra packs of UHT flavoured milk and/or liquid meal supplements (e.g. Sustagen Sport™ powder).

Energy-dense drinks are a great ‘top up’ snack for those with small appetites or who don’t like to eat before and/or after exercise. Good choices include: smoothies, milkshakes, liquid meal supplements and fruit juice.

Adequate protein intake – how much is enough?

It is essential for growing athletes to meet their increased protein needs to support normal growth and development, as well as help to achieve muscle development. This is of particular importance to those just starting a resistance training program (see Protein – How Much?; found under ‘Basics’ section). That said, eating a varied diet that meets their energy requirements should easily allow them to meet their increased protein needs. Given the impact that protein-rich foods have on satiety levels, consuming large amounts at any one meal will serve only to fill the athlete up and make it more difficult to consume the energy required to meet their bulking up goals.

It’s all in the timing

To optimise muscle size and strength, it is essential athletes support each training session with nutrients required to support muscle growth. Consuming a carbohydrate-rich snack that also provides 10-20 grams of protein (see suggestions below) within 30 minutes of finishing training will allow them to achieve optimal gains from each strength training session. The carbohydrate will help to re-fuel the muscle, as well as reduce the extent of muscle breakdown incurred during the session, while the protein will support the growth of new muscle tissue. A similar snack in the hour before a weights session may be just as effective as that consumed immediately after training.

Including a small serve of protein-rich food or fluid at each meal and snack over the day will further promote growth of new muscle tissue.

Growth snacks – Ideas for before and after training

  • Tub of yoghurt + piece of fruit
  • Glass of flavoured milk + cereal bar
  • Sandwich with lean meat and salad
  • Homemade smoothie (milk, yoghurt, honey, a scoop of skim milk powder and your favourite fruit)
  • Bowl of cereal with milk
  • Homemade fruit muffin + glass of milk
  • 1 serve of PowerBar Protein Plus™ powder (or liquid meal supplement) made with milk + cereal bar or piece of fruit

These examples provide at least 10 grams of protein and include good sources of carbohydrate.

Powders and potions

Many supplements that claim to increase muscle mass often have no scientific evidence to support them. Isolated protein powders and individual amino acid supplements are popular but often fail to meet the multiple nutrient profile required to maximise muscle growth. For the most part, athletes should be able to meet their increased energy requirements through the use of ‘real food’ options (e.g. yoghurt, bowl of cereal). For times when consuming real foods is not practical, liquid meal supplements that provide a good source of carbohydrate and moderate amounts of protein and other nutrients are the best choice (e.g. Powerbar Protein Plus™).

While the use of creatine is becoming increasingly popular among strength trained athletes (see the Supplements section of the website for more information on it’s uses in sport), it’s use in developing athletes has not been widely studied. For young athletes, it is likely that more significant gains in muscle mass can be achieved by undertaking a resistance training program that is supported by a well structured meal plan. If they decide to take supplements, athletes should seek expert advice before using them to assess their safety and legality.

Consistency is the key

Everyone wants results immediately. It’s important to remember however, that muscle development takes time and a commitment to a well structured training and meal plan is essential if the athlete is to achieve their strength gain goals. Just like missing a training session, skipping a meal and/or snack has the potential to slow down the their progress. Keep in mind that all athletes will respond differently to training and although body mass gains of 1-2 kg per month are considered achievable, this will vary among individuals. Therefore it’s important for athletes to monitor their progress regularly and adjust their training and/or meal plan accordingly. Assessment of body composition by an accredited anthropometrist, rather than body mass alone, is recommended.

For a developing athlete, it is important they consume a well-balanced and varied diet that not only meets their bulking up goals, but also allows them to meet their nutritional needs for health, as well as support other aspects of their training program.

AIS Sports Nutrition (2009)

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