Build muscle for your sport with a simple formula: strength training + sleep + proper nutrition = success.
If you’re like most athletes, you probably have the first two elements of that equation down cold. Hit the weight room? Heck, you practically live there. Sleep? Eight hours every night. (See Build Muscle: Get a Good Night's Sleep.)
But nutrition? That’s the tricky part.
See, choosing the right foods—and eating them consistently—can be tough, because although coaches can tell you what to do on the field, or teach you how to get stronger in the gym, only you can control what foods go into your body. You are the head coach of your diet. Call the right plays and you’ll fuel your cells with disease-fighting, energy-boosting nutrients that support muscle growth. Botch the call and you’ll hinder muscle recovery; and when your muscles can’t recover, they can’t grow bigger and stronger.
Making matters worse, your grocery store is a minefield of misinformation. Plenty of foods labeled “healthy” are anything but. So when you go shopping, how can you tell which foods are "in-bounds" (good) and which one are "out-of-bounds" (bad)?
Thankfully, there’s an answer—and it’s simpler than you think. Broadly speaking, you want to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The areas around the edges of most supermarkets tend to be home to healthy foods like fresh produce, meats and other natural items that pack more nutrition per calorie. The middle aisles tend to house all of that heavily processed junk you’re better off avoiding.
But to simplify the process even more, we’ve developed a four-step game plan—for a four-quarter game—that you can use to quickly track down all the foods you need and avoid the ones you don’t. If you’re serious about maximizing muscle gains, here’s your winning strategy.
Ready? Let’s play ball! (Saving dough? Check out our Grocery List for Eating Healthy on a Budget.)
First Quarter: Head to the produce section. Stock up on fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. All are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help improve recovery after workouts and reduce muscle soreness. But farm-fresh foods aren’t just helpful after your gym session. Consuming fruit with protein an hour before hitting the weight room will provide you with a natural source of energizing carbohydrates.
Second Quarter: Go hunting. Protein is essential for muscle growth. Some of the best sources of this mighty nutrient are lean cuts of red meat like beef, pork or lamb. Poultry options like chicken and turkey or freshly caught fish also provide high-quality protein in low-calorie packages.
Third Quarter: Head to the dairy aisle. Besides meats and poultry, dairy items like eggs, cheese, yogurt and milk are all excellent sources of protein. And they come with an added bonus: most dairy products are high in calcium, which supports bone health. Oh, and if you want a fast recovery drink to help you bounce back from your next gym session, don’t forget to grab chocolate milk. Its blend of protein and carbs replenishes glycogen stores and rebuilds muscle tissue.
Fourth Quarter: Head inside for grains. OK, by this point in the game, your cart is getting full and your will to shop is draining fast. But don’t give up. Head into the aisles, but don’t get distracted by those highly-processed snack foods. Instead, chase down arginine-rich oatmeal, brown rice and other whole grains that are sources of quality carbohydrates. Snag a few cans or packages of protein-rich beans while you're there. Now, you’re ready to make one last drive for the goal line—or rather, the checkout line.
Overtime: As you’re making a beeline to the cashier, finish strong by purchasing a case of bottled water. Water keeps you hydrated, helps transport the carbohydrates and proteins you eat to the muscles that need them, and assists in clearing your body of free radicals and waste. (Read Hydration Facts Athletes Need to Know.)
Like in any good game against a strong opponent, there may be setbacks in your search for the right muscle foods. So try to steer clear of fouls and penalties: sugary processed cereals, cookies, cake, candy, chips, crackers, soda and “fruit drinks” (buy only fruit juices with “100% pure juice” on the label). Finally, dietary infractions don’t just happen in carb-heavy foods. Protein sources like lunchmeat, hot dogs and sausages should also be avoided. These tend to pack a lot of sodium, nitrates, fat or other processed junk that you just don’t need.