How do I build more lean muscle? What protein supplements are best post workout?

Professor Don MacLaren from Nutrition X answers some common health and fitness questions to help you achieve your gym goals

gym workout supplements
Do you know which protein supplements can help you achieve your gym goals? Photo: TerryGeorge/Flickr

Can I build lean muscle and burn fat together? Do you have any nutritional/exercise tips for achieving this?

The simple answer is yes you can BUT not normally in the same training session. Furthermore, it is usual practice to focus on a key area for change during a periodised training plan over a few weeks/months i.e. focus on reducing body fat or increasing lean muscle or improving stamina or improving power and speed as separate entities rather than trying to achieve more than one in a training session.

However, if you wish to burn fat and build lean muscle in one periodised training PERIOD then I suggest you undertake the fat burning in the morning before breakfast and then perform your resistance training early afternoon (maybe lunchtime) or in the evening.

The reason for the fat burning before breakfast is so that you perform this activity in an overnight fasted mode (i.e. nothing to have been eaten since the night before) when the body is already mainly burning fat. Remember that eating or drinking any form of carbohydrates will stop fat burning, and so the best time to undertake fat burning training (in effect aerobic exercise) is when you have not eaten carbohydrates for some hours. Having said that, if you feel you need some food before training then I recommend a couple of eggs (NO toast) or some plain yoghurt or a protein drink containing no carbohydrates (such as Nutrition X BCAA+).

The sessions for building lean muscle can be done later in the day and ideally should be preceded by eating/drinking some protein an hour or so before, as well as within 45-60 minutes after the session. Remember that a protein ‘hit’ should be provided both before and after the training session in order to stimulate muscle synthesis and slow down or prevent muscle breakdown. If carbohydrate is in the meal/snack/supplement during this time it is not an issue since the focus is on muscle protein synthesis and not fat burning. Eating a meal before the session (lunch or dinner – depending on the timing of the session) is fine as long as a protein ‘hit’ is provided after the session or vice versa. Quite often the protein taken outside from a meal or snack will be in the form of a protein supplement – in this case a good whey protein source is desirable e.g. Nutrition X Big Whey.

Should I eat the same amount and the same foods on a rest day as training days?

This depends on whether you wish to increase body weight or not. If you wish to increase body weight then the answer is yes eat as much as on a training day, but not if the requirement is to reduce body weight or keep it constant. In most cases it would seem appropriate to eat the same proportions of food types (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) but in lower (or higher if you want to bulk up) quantities on a rest day. Remember, that undertaking exercise can result in an extra 300-1500 kcals of energy being expended (depending on the duration and intensity of the exercise) compared with a rest day.

I should qualify my position by stating that it may be pertinent to reduce the carbohydrate intake on a rest day IF the need is to reduce body fat or keep it low. Under these circumstances I would suggest low carbohydrate meals and snacks with high protein and reasonable amounts of fat on rest days.

Do I really need an insulin spike after workouts? What would be you recommended post-workout meal?

Insulin is an anabolic hormone secreted when there is an increase in blood sugar and its purpose is to help reduce the sugar concentration by enabling the glucose to get into muscle and liver for storage as well as to promote conversion of glucose to fat for storage. Additionally, (being an anabolic hormone) insulin stimulates protein synthesis.

After strenuous matches or training when muscle glycogen stores have been reduced it may be pertinent to replenish these stores as quickly as possible – especially if more strenuous sessions or matches are to take place within a day or two. Under these circumstances it is wise to eat and drink carbohydrates to produce an insulin spike and help ‘push’ the glucose into muscle for storage as glycogen.

However, producing an insulin spike following resistance training for the purpose of stimulating muscle protein synthesis is not necessary since the amino acids (in particular leucine) will stimulate muscle protein synthesis more readily. This is particularly important if the need is to get body fat stores reduced, since glucose-stimulated insulin promotes carbohydrate and fat storage.

In terms of best post-workout meals for stimulating muscle glycogen recovery, I would suggest potatoes (particularly mashed potato) or white rice with some meat or fish, or cereals with milk or yoghurt. These types of foods (potato, rice, cereal) stimulate insulin production and have the necessary carbohydrates for glycogen storage. Of course, drinking fruit juice or a fruit smoothie can also help.

In terms of post-workout meals for muscle protein stimulation without carbohydrate recovery, I would suggest egg-based meals with no carbohydrate i.e. chicken or ham omelette or fish/meat with vegetables/salad or even a plain yoghurt.

What supplements are best post workout? Should I also have them on rest days?

The answer depends on whether your priority is to recover muscle glycogen or stimulate muscle synthesis. If it is to replenish depleted muscle carbohydrate stores then take carbohydrate supplements with some additional protein for muscle recovery (such as Nutrition X MRM). If on the other hand the requirement is to stimulate muscle protein synthesis but to keep body fat stores low then I suggest merely taking a good quality protein drink i.e. one with at least 5-6g of leucine in a serving (such as Nutrition X Big Whey or BCAA+).

I would recommend that a protein supplement could be advantageous as a snack (mid-morning or afternoon) on a rest day as drinking this alone will help stimulate some muscle protein synthesis – especially if the workout day has been particularly strenuous.

I would recommend a carbohydrate-protein drink as a snack on a rest day IF there is a competition or very strenuous session the following day but not otherwise.

How important is it to spread my protein intake out over the course of the day?

This really is a good idea since (a) protein synthesis in muscle is stimulated by eating/drinking protein, and (b) that there is a finite amount of protein that can be ‘handled’ by the gut and body at any one time (normally about 20-30g for a 75kg person).

I suggest you consider having protein snacks/meals at 3-4 hour intervals through the day in order to promote muscle protein synthesis, and that the quantity of protein is the equivalent of a chicken breast or fish fillet (say a 100g portion which is likely to contain around 25g protein). For larger individuals there is a need for larger portions.

How important is it to time my carbohydrate intake for after a workout? (When should I eat carbs?)

Timing of any nutrient should be an important part of your overall strategy. In relation to carbohydrates I will say that get the carbs into your body within 30-45 minutes after a session in drink or food form IF you want to rapidly restore muscle glycogen. This is important for players who have matches within 24 or 48 hours after the session – in effect you are carb-loading. However, if your priority is to reduce body fat and you have just undertaken a ‘fat burning’ session then try and avoid carbohydrate for 1-2 hours after the session so that your body continues to use fat as a prime source of energy. Of course you should consume protein in this time.

If I don’t want to take protein supplements, what other natural sources of protein would you recommend?

Good sources of natural protein-containing foods include eggs, meat, fish, milk, cheese, yoghurt, nuts and seeds, and legumes. Other good sources include quorn and soya products.

I’m a naturally skinny guy looking to build more muscle. What changes should I make to my diet?

Remember that in order to build muscle you MUST train appropriately. Nutrition only helps when the correct training is undertaken. So let’s assume you are doing the right training for building muscle. Make sure that what you are eating/drinking contains more energy than you are using up – so you will need to eat more through the day. Having 5-6 meals/snacks through the day is a sound way to get more energy into your body. Each of these meals must have a good proportion of protein together with some sensible (not too much) carbohydrates and reasonable quantities of good fats (normally from vegetable or fish sources). Additionally, I would suggest you consider taking about 5-10g of creatine a day for an initial 2-3 month training cycle and see how you do. The creatine will aid muscle during training and enable more work to be done in a session and thereby help boost muscle size. When taking creatine, remember to drink plenty of fluids since creatine causes muscle to take up water and so help stimulate muscle synthesis.

What foods should I avoid when looking to lose fat from around the lower abs?

In my view, high Glycaemic Index carbohydrates are the most likely problem for fat storage in the body and this includes the abdominal area. Another is alcohol consumption! I suggest you consider significantly cutting down on potato, rice, bread, and pasta; cutting out altogether sugary drinks, alcohol, cakes, sweets and biscuits. Then of course you do need to do the correct training and this does not mean just doing sit-ups and abdominal exercises – which will no doubt provide you with good muscles (although you may not see them if covered by fat!) – but means you should engage in exercises that stimulate fat use such as aerobic exercise or high intensity interval training (HIIT).

What are the best snacks for slow releasing energy?

I guess you are (in effect) asking about slow release carbohydrate foods. Remember that fast digesting and absorbed carbohydrates will provide quick bursts of energy that may not last long – so in this case avoid sugary products. Increasing the fat or protein content of a carbohydrate will slow down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrate and so provide slow release of energy. Granola or oat or nutty/seedy bars which have a small fat content would be suitable as would a handful of nuts and raisins.

Content from leading Nutritionist Professor Don MacLaren, one of the expert team at Informed Sport approved sports nutrition brand Nutrition X, find out more at

The information on this website is intended for entertainment purposes only and does not constitute professional, medical or healthcare advice or diagnosis, and may not be used as such.


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↺ Article History
• Last updated on February 20, 2018
• First published on October 31, 2016
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