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4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass

Contributors: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: January 21, 2021

Reviewed: May 10, 2024

4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass
Antonio_Diaz/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Muscle is harder to build and maintain as we age. In fact, most of us start losing muscle between ages 30 to 35. Physically inactive people are at particular risk and can experience anywhere from a 3% to 8% loss of lean muscle mass every decade after that.

This is due to lower testosterone levels in men and lower estrogen levels in women — both hormones that help build muscle. Changes in nerve and blood cells and how the body converts proteins into muscle tissue are other factors. Muscle loss doesn't have to be inevitable, though. For adult men and women, regular resistance training exercises are key to building and keeping muscle.

Muscle Strengthening Activities and Health

Men and women should participate in muscle strengthening activities that work the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms) at least two times each week. Examples of muscle strengthening activities include lifting weights, using resistance bands and doing push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and some types of yoga. Even everyday activities such as carrying groceries, yardwork and gardening can strengthen muscles.

An important way to support strength building is with good nutrition. Foods that provide protein, carbohydrates and fat play a major role, as does getting enough calories throughout the day. Read on to find out how each macronutrient can help you — and an estimate of how much to eat every day.

Protein and Muscle Building

When building muscle, the more protein the better, right? Not necessarily. Protein should make up 10% to 35% of total calories for adults. While you're working to build muscle with physical activity, your needs may be on the higher end of this range. Keeping muscle mass, on the other hand, requires less protein than building new muscle.

Aim for three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy and 3-ounce equivalents of protein foods (such as fish, beans, poultry or lean meat) each day, to provide quality sources of protein to help reach that goal. Grains, especially whole grains, also provide some protein but are typically not enough to meet protein needs on their own.

Carbohydrates and Muscle Building

Carbohydrates are another important group of foods for fueling your muscles. That's because carbs are partially converted to glycogen, which is a form of energy stored in muscles. This energy helps to power your workouts. Men and women need about half of their calories from carbohydrates per day. Try focusing on good quality carbohydrates that provide dietary fiber, such as whole-grain breads and cereals. Many dairy products, including milk and yogurt, also provide carbohydrates. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy foods and beverages in order to limit sources of saturated fat. Fruits and vegetables also are good options. When timing your meals and snacks, you may wish to avoid foods high in dietary fiber immediately before or during physical activity.

Fat and Muscle Building

Your body relies on fat to supply energy to muscles during some types of activity. How much fat a person needs can vary. As a general guideline, fat should make up 20% to 35% of your total calories.

For overall health and muscle strength, focus on sources of heart-healthy fats, including vegetable oils, such as olive oil and canola oil and avocados. Nuts and fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and trout, are all good sources of protein that also provide heart-healthy unsaturated fat.

Eating a variety of healthful foods each day can help you meet your nutrient needs. For a customized eating plan, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area.

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