Eat Like a Champion, Part 1: How to Build Muscle in the Kitchen

Learn the important role protein plays in the quest to gain muscle. And enjoy this healthy smoothie recipe that will help you get more protein.

Welcome to the STACK Eat Like a Champion article series, where we'll talk to nutrition experts about how to eat to beat the competition and how to build positive dietary habits to turn you into a lean, mean eating machine. Our first installment teaches you how to build muscle with the right food choices and amounts.

Winter is upon us, which means many athletes are in the heart of their off-season. But rather than hibernate like most large mammals, this is the perfect time of year to turn yourself into a beast and get stronger for the upcoming season. With all the hard work you're grinding out in the weight room, you'd better learn how to build muscle in the kitchen with a proper diet. Check out the video player above to see an example of what your plate should look like if you're trying to build muscle.

The Golden Rule for Gaining Muscle

Building muscle hinges on one golden rule: Eat more calories than you burn. This means that if you want to get huge, you have to eat huge by consuming more meals per day and more food at each meal.

Chris Howard, a strength coach and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts, says the number one mistake athletes make when training to gain muscle is simply not eating enough.

"Usually it comes down to not eating enough meals, so you have to eat more frequently," Howard says.

You've probably heard that eating several small meals throughout the day will "stoke the furnace" and fire up your metabolism, which studies have shown isn't true;  but eating more often makes it easier to pack in lots of calories compared to eating a few gigantic meals.

RELATED: Build Muscle With This Diet for Young Athletes

Push the Protein

Muscle is largely made up of protein. When you eat protein, it breaks down into amino acids, which are then called upon to build new muscle tissue. If you are what you eat, you'd better eat plenty of protein to build muscle.

A positive nitrogen balance (i.e., the intake of nitrogen into the body greater than nitrogen being lost) is necessary for muscle growth, and studies show that consuming dietary protein promotes a positive nitrogen balance. In other words, without enough protein coming in, muscles won't be primed to grow.

What's the first food recommendation Howard makes when asked how to build muscle? "Lots of protein," he says. Eggs, beef, chicken and turkey are his top choices.

How much is enough? Most research suggests that consuming 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body mass (or about 0.5 grams per pound) is enough to build muscle, so a 200-pound athlete should eat about 100 grams of protein per day. An average chicken breast has about 30 grams of protein, so three chicken breasts would do the job.

But what if you don't want to weigh your food? Or feel weird looking up the protein content of your burger when dining out with friends? Try the palm-sized portion trick: if you're trying to build muscle, eat two palm-sized portions of protein at every meal. You'll be eating plenty of protein without having to measure down to the last gram.

Crush Your Carbs

Low-carbohydrate diets might be all the rage in some sets, but avoiding carbs is the last thing you want to do when trying to gain muscle. Along with protein, carbs are essential for adding muscle mass and should be a staple in your diet.

First, carbs fuel intense workouts, and building muscle requires lots of hard work in the gym. Second, eating carbs triggers the release of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar and tells the body to store what you eat instead of burning it for fuel.

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