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Nutrition for Optimal Muscle Growth

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

It’s the summer, which means that it’s the off-season for footballers. This is a good time to add muscle size and strength, so let’s discuss how to eat for optimal muscle and strength gains.

The busy in-season schedule of weekly training sessions and matches makes it tough to prioritise making gains in the gym. However, the off-season gives you a short period of time to target muscle growth and strength improvements. In this article, we present the important nutritional considerations for maximising the muscle and strength building process.

Eat Enough Calories

If you read The Big Picture in Sports Nutrition, you will know that the first thing athletes need to think about when it comes to their diet is eating enough. This is, unsurprisingly, also important if your goal is to gain muscle and strength. When bodybuilders are in their off-season—looking to maximise muscle and strength gains—they are advised to eat ~10–20% more calories than they need (1). Because footballers are not bodybuilders, a 10% calorie surplus is a good goal. This means that if you usually eat ~2,500 calories per day to maintain your weight, now you would eat ~2,750 calories per day. You want your weight gain to be mostly muscle gain, so avoid cranking the calories up massively as this will cause unnecessary fat gain. A good rule-of-thumb is to monitor your weight and ensure you gain no more than ~0.5–1 kilogram of body weight per week.

Sports Nutrition Pyramid.

Eat Enough Protein

Protein is the building block for all of our bodily tissues, including muscle. Thus, it is essential to eat enough of it if you want to maximise muscle and strength gains. Aim to eat ~1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight. Any more is likely unnecessary, and both plant and animal protein sources can support optimal muscle and strength gains when eaten at this level.

Eat Enough Carbohydrates

While protein gets all of the attention when it comes to muscle growth, carbohydrates also play an important role. This is because carbohydrates help you to perform better in the gym. Indeed, a 2018 study found that people who ate a low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet did not gain any muscle mass after 8 weeks of a resistance training programme, whereas those who ate a higher carbohydrate diet gained ~1 kilogram of lean mass (2).

What About Supplements?

Once you eat enough calories, protein, and carbohydrates, certain supplements may give you a slight edge. Caffeine and creatine are the most effective supplements for improving performance in the gym, which can help you to build muscle and strength as they help you to lift more weight for more reps. Protein powders and sports drinks can help you meet your calorie, protein, and carbohydrate requirements, but are not essential.

Pros and Cons of Protein Powders.

Thumbnail for our article: Pros & Cons of Protein Powders

Putting Things Into Practice

To achieve these goals:

  • Click here and hit “Advanced Mode” to input your typical activity level and estimate your calorie needs. This calculator will give you a target for daily calorie intake based on your age, height, weight, and activity level. You can add ~10% to this to create your caloric surplus. However, these calculators are not 100% accurate, so watch your weight and make necessary adjustments

  • Eat a good source of protein with each meal. Try to eat healthier protein sources like lentils, tofu, fish, and leaner cuts of meat

  • Eat a good source of carbohydrates with each meal. Try to eat healthier sources like oats, fruit, brown pastas/rice, and whole grain breads

  • Supplement with caffeine and creatine if you want an edge

That’s it for this week. If you hit these recommendations, you will be giving yourself the best chance at gaining muscle and strength this off-season, assuming you’re also lifting!

If you want supplemental football training to improve as a footballer, reach out to our team of expert coaches at [email protected] to get started.

All the best this bank holiday weekend!

Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.


(1) Iraki J, Fitschen P, Espinar S, Helms E. Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(7):154. Available at:

(2) Vargas S, Romance R, Petro JL, et al. Efficacy of ketogenic diet on body composition during resistance training in trained men: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):31. Available at:

Technical Terms

Ketogenic Diet: This is a very high fat and low carbohydrate diet. It was originally used as a treatment for children with epilepsy—particularly for those who could not tolerate epilepsy drugs. This diet is not optimal for exercise performance.

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