As a sports dietitian, I have worked with countless student athletes who are looking to build lean muscle for increased strength, speed, and overall performance. I commonly hear from young athletes that they lift weights and eat a lot of protein but are not seeing their desired results.
Lifting weights and eating enough protein are certainly part of the equation for building lean muscle, but other key factors, both inside and outside of the gym, must be taken into consideration for young athletes to achieve their desired results.
So I teamed up with our own Ashley Acornley, a sports dietitian and AFAA certified personal trainer, to give you a recipe for successful muscle building INSIDE and OUTSIDE the gym.
Keep in mind that your young athlete must consistently put ALL of the following recommendations into play in order to see any real change and to avoid potentially harmful effects.
Key Factors for Building Lean Muscle OUTSIDE of the Gym
Eat Enough Calories Each Day
Athletes who want to add more lean muscle to their frame must consume enough calories every single day! Without these added calories, the body simply cannot make more muscle.
The number of daily calories needed is different for each athlete and is dependent on age, gender, activity level, height, and weight. A sports dietitian can develop an individualized meal plan based on these factors.
As a general guideline for athletes to build lean muscle, they must consistently eat enough calories for daily activities and then an additional 500-1000 calories per day for muscle growth.
Many young athletes don’t even consume enough calories to supply their daily fuel requirements! You can use this Total Daily Energy Expenditure Calculator to help determine how many calories your young athlete needs to maintain their current weight. Then, add 500-1000 calories to that number for a target.
Eat the Right Amount of Protein and Carbs
One nutrient everyone equates to building lean muscle is protein. However, consuming too much protein and not enough carbohydrates can leave your young athlete without enough energy to make it through their demanding day.
Best rule of thumb? Consume one gram of protein per pound of body weight. So, if you’re 160 lbs., you should consume 160 grams of protein every day if you’re looking to add lean muscle.
Some athletes think that their entire daily food intake should be nothing but protein, but that is a big mistake. Why? Carbohydrate is what provides energy to working muscles. YOU might be limiting carbs, but your young athlete needs these healthy sources of carbohydrates for optimal energy.
Your young athlete is practicing, competing, AND hitting the gym, so optimizing their energy level is critical. Their diet must include carbohydrates for energy, protein for recovery and repair, and plenty of fruits and vegetables to boost immunity.
Pay Attention to Food Quality
Can an athlete consume more calories and get protein and carbs by eating pizza and nachos? Yeah, sure. But it’s nutrient dense foods that provide optimal energy and build lean muscle.
Let’s look at some of the most high-quality sources for protein, carbs, and fats that you can add to your young athlete’s daily intake:
- Protein: chicken, fish, beef, pork, eggs, cottage cheese, whey protein, and yogurtHigh-quality protein contains branched-chain amino acids that ‘pull the trigger’ to signal muscle growth.
- Dairy products are a great source of natural whey protein and leucine, one of the branched-chain amino acids. This is why chocolate milk is one of the best post workout recovery aids for athletes. And it has healthy carbs to replenish energy stores!
- Carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, potatoes, quinoa, rice, oatmeal, and beans
- Fats: avocado, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, coconut oil, olives
Understand Nutrient Timing
After practice, competition, or a hard workout at the gym, your young athlete’s body is craving the proper nutrients to start the repair and rebuilding process. Nutrient timing is critical to restoring energy levels and giving their body what it needs to build lean muscle.
Your young athlete should consume high-quality protein and carbs within 30 minutes after activity to start the muscle repair process. This is the “window of opportunity” to really maximize their muscle building efforts.
To ensure your young athlete properly refuels during this “window of opportunity,” I recommend packing an energy bag with healthy snacks they can get their hands on immediately after activity.
Get Enough Rest
When it comes to priorities, getting enough rest is probably at the bottom of the list for most young athletes. But to reach those muscle-gain goals, rest must be at the top.
When athletes have a mindset of “more is better,” they end up working the same muscle groups day after day and never give their damaged muscles a chance to heal. But it’s in the healing process where growth and change really take place!
So, what kind of rest are we talking about?
- Allow 48 hours of rest before working the same muscle group again. If Monday was “legs” day, then legs shouldn’t be worked again until Wednesday or Thursday.
- Sleep tight. Sleep is an element that young athletes tend to short-change, particularly in the teenage years, but sleep provides the optimal time for the body to repair, heal, and grow.
Key Factors for Building Lean Muscle INSIDE the Gym
We all know that lifting weights is imperative for muscle gain. But we’ve got some tips and tricks to maximize your results when paired with proper nutrition, nutrient timing, and rest.
Consistency is Key
Change does not happen overnight. Establish a routine and just keep at it. Consistency matters with your strength training routines, pre/post workout nutrition, and rest and recovery schedule — so stick to it!
Keep Your Workouts Intense and Challenging
This is probably obvious, but sometimes it’s helpful to know how muscle growth actually happens.
In order for a muscle to grow, it has to be put under “stress” so that the muscle fibers can tear down. Keep your workouts intense and challenging, while building in those all-important rest days.
And add variety to your workout. Vary the exercises for each major muscle group to “shock” the muscles into growth.
Choose Compound Movements Over Isolated Movements
Performing compound weight lifting movements during your routine requires the body to use major muscle groups, increasing the rate of muscle growth.
For example, using a leg press machine or performing squats will recruit more major muscles than just using a calf raise or leg extension machine. Bench presses will recruit more muscles than a triceps pushdown.
Bottom line: If building lean muscle is your goal, make sure you are covering the bases: strength training, rest, and eating the right foods at the right time. You’ll increase your strength and speed safely, and with confidence!
As a former sports mom of four young athletes, I know the challenges you face with consistently providing healthy snacks and meals – In what ways are you helping your young athlete eat enough healthy, nutrient-dense foods for growth?
About Tracy OwensTracy Owens (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN) is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She has worked in private practice, providing clinical and sports nutrition for over 20 years. Her two sons and two daughters have played AAU baseball, USSSA baseball, Legion baseball, Challenge, United, Premier, Elite and ECNL soccer at Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), USTA tennis, summer swim teams, and high school football, swimming, baseball and soccer. Two of her children played Division 1 soccer at North Carolina State University.
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