The 13 Most Important Nutrients Needed for Muscle Growth

Did you know that together with exercise, there are also important nutrients needed for muscle growth? Here Hunter, our resident exercise scientist, breaks them all down for you!

When it comes to exercise goals, you would be hard-pressed to find one more common than building muscle.  And I mean, really, why the heck not? Better muscle health means better metabolic health, stronger joints, and a more functional body.

Oh, plus you know, looking good naked?

Yep, that’s pretty nice, too.

With this in mind, I have had the pleasure of training a pretty large number of people — many of whom had the main goal of increasing muscle mass.  

Now, the first thing I want to say is that these sorts of clients are right up my alley.  I mean, for one, I love this type of training. And for two, these same types of clients are always willing to work hard, which makes training with them lots of fun.

But something I have learned over the last few years is that training hard is only half the battle.  In fact, it may even be less than that. See, in my experience, it is actually diet that is the most important factor for muscle growth.

And when I say “diet”, I am not strictly talking about protein, fats, and carbohydrates.  

Yes, these are important, but I am also talking about micronutrients (you know, those vitamins and minerals that literally control how your body functions?) 

And that is exactly why in this article I want to touch on all the most important nutrients needed for muscle growth.

Is Nutrition Really Important for Muscle Growth?

Fresh salad with chickpeas and sweet potatoes

Before I go into the specific nutrients needed for muscle growth, I want to take a step back and explain why nutrition is important for muscle growth — and yes, to be clear, it is important.

In fact, as I alluded to above, it is damn important.

It’s nutrition that provides the:

  • energy
  • macronutrients
  • micronutrients

that your muscles need to thrive and grow!

Related Reading: Vitamins Guide: What are the Main Vitamins Your Body Needs?

Energy Intake and Muscle Growth

If I were to outline the muscle building process as simply as possible, it would like something like this:

  1. Working out stresses your muscle tissue.
  2. This stress tells your muscles they need to adapt to be able to better handle that same stress in the future.
  3. You build new muscle tissue.

See, simple.

But what this simple explanation doesn’t tell you is that building muscle is not an easy process for your body.  In fact, your body actually has to use energy to grow this new muscle tissue.

This means that for muscle growth to occur, you need to consume enough energy to support the growth of new tissue.  

Additionally, you also need to make sure that you have enough energy to fuel your training sessions themselves.  If you don’t have enough energy available, then your training intensity is going to be limited.  This means less stress on your body and less muscle growth.

Since your diet is, ultimately, your only source of energy, it is absolutely critical for making sure you actually build the muscle you’re after. 

You simply have to get the calories in (especially on training days)! 

Macronutrients and Muscle Growth

Fresh salad with grilled chicken

Building on the above point in just a little more detail, your body doesn’t just build muscle out of thin air or straight “energy”.  It makes them out of one very specific macronutrient, protein.  

While I will touch on this in a little bit more detail below, this is what you really need to know — you need to eat enough protein to maximize muscle growth!

And just to be clear, enough is around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

Additionally, given that carbohydrates are the main source of fuel in the human body, you need to make sure that you eat enough of them to keep your energy levels high.  It is this that really ensures you can train hard enough to build some serious muscle (see my point above!)

Micronutrients and Muscle Growth

The term “micronutrients” describes all the vitamins and minerals you get in your diet — and these little guys are super important for muscle growth.

See, it is these compounds that effectively control your entire body.  They help you:

  • make and secrete important hormones
  • breakdown carbohydrates for energy
  • use that all-important protein to build new muscle

To be completely honest, if you don’t eat enough of them, then your ability to function goes straight down the toilet… right along with your physical and mental health.

Now, as I have already alluded to, some of the micronutrients are more important for muscle growth and others (which is why I am really writing this article).  I will obviously go into these in a lot more detail below. 

Weirdly, when most people think of vitamins and minerals, they tend to think of supplements — pills and tablets that we take to help us meet all of our nutritional needs.  

But you need to realize that these guys are best obtained from food.

As in real, tasty, grown-in-the-ground food!

So, I’ll also give you some insight into what foods you can eat to get each nutrient you need for muscle growth!

Learn More About Supplements and Your Health: Dietary Supplement Side Effects: Dinky or Dangerous?

Which Nutrients are Needed for Muscle Growth?

I have given you a bit of insight into why nutrition is important for muscle growth.  Now I want to take a deep dive into what the best nutrients needed for muscle growth actually are and where you can find them!

The 13 Most Important Nutrients Needed for Muscle Growth

1. Protein

Fresh steaks and thyme

After the above section you couldn’t guess what my first nutrient was going to be?

Yep, protein.

Protein is the building block of every single one of your body’s cells.  Obviously, within this, it is what is used to make new muscle cells. As a result, it is absolutely integral to muscle growth.

Best Food Sources of Protein

Some of the best sources of protein include:

  • poultry
  • red meat
  • seafood
  • eggs
  • seitan
  • tofu
  • tempeh

2. Magnesium

When it comes to muscle function, magnesium is super important.  See, it actually helps your muscles contract and relax. This means that during exercise, they work more efficiently, which can increase how much you can do during your workout.

This has obvious implications for muscle growth.

Additionally, magnesium has also been shown to help you sleep.  While this may not sound all that important for muscle growth, I should note that you don’t build muscle during your workout.  

You build it after, while you are in a state of recovery.

And the ultimate form of recovery?  Sleep.

With this in mind, magnesium can indirectly increase muscle growth by improving your ability to recover with healthy sleep.

Best Food Sources of Magnesium

Some of my favorite sources of magnesium are:

  • spinach
  • quinoa
  • nuts
  • black beans
  • avocado

3. Calcium

Like magnesium, calcium plays an important role in your muscles’ ability to contract.  In fact, without enough calcium available within your muscle tissue, they would not be able to contract at all!

Additionally, calcium literally tells your body that it needs to grow muscle tissue — it acts as a signal for your cells to stimulate muscle growth.

So no calcium means no muscle — no matter how much you train!

Best Food Sources of Calcium

Some of the best sources of calcium include:

  • milk
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • sardines
  • lentils
  • white beans

4. Iron

Fresh iron-rich spinach in a metal strainer

Iron is used to help create the part of your red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body (called hemoglobin).  As a result, iron helps you carry oxygen to your muscle tissue, which is imperative for energy production and muscle growth.

Without iron your workouts would be lacking and your muscle growth would be seriously limited.

Best Food Sources of Iron

Some great sources of iron are:

  • red meat
  • chicken
  • duck
  • pork
  • spinach
  • chard
  • broccoli

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is most famous for the important role it plays on the growth of new bone.  However, it is also important to the growth of new muscle tissue.

See, there is a receptor found on your muscle cells that specifically reacts to vitamin D (called vitamin D receptor (VCD) …I know, very original) that boosts many muscle cell functions.  

With this in mind, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that vitamin D has been shown to help improve both exercise performance and muscle recovery

It literally enhances muscle growth from both ends of the spectrum!

Best Food Sources of Vitamin D

My favorite sources of vitamin D include:

  • tuna
  • salmon
  • mackerel
  • cheese
  • eggs (the yolk, specifically)
  • mushrooms

6. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Whole salted fish

For some reason, people hear the word “fat” and they start getting pretty damn worried.

But they shouldn’t.

Every single one of your cells is surrounded by a membrane that is made up of fats!  This membrane lets nutrients come in and out and keeps your cells alive!

Importantly, how well your cell membranes let nutrients flow depends a lot on one type of fat, specifically — omega 3 fatty acids.

If you have a diet that is rich in these amazing fatty compounds, then your cell membranes become more fluid.  This means that they take up the nutrients and signals required for muscle growth easier than they would otherwise.

And the result?  More muscle growth!

Best Food Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Some of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids are:

  • mackerel
  • salmon
  • herrings
  • flaxseeds
  • chia seeds
  • walnuts

7. Zinc

Zinc is an important mineral that plays a key role in the production of the muscle-building hormone, testosterone.  As a result, if you are deficient in zinc, then it is highly likely that you will also be low in testosterone.

And low testosterone can directly impact your ability to build muscle tissue.

I should also note that while testosterone levels are traditionally higher in men than they are in women, they are absolutely important for both gendersespecially when it comes to muscle growth.

Best Food Sources of Zinc

Zinc can be found in high amounts in:

  • seafood
  • red meat
  • chickpeas
  • lentils
  • milk
  • yogurt
  • cheese

Related Article: Best Zinc Supplements for Leaky Gut Relief

8. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is another micronutrient that is used to produce healthy red blood cells.  Since these cells carry oxygen to your working muscles, they allow you to get the most out of your workout.  In this manner, vitamin B12 directly influences your capacity to work hard and build muscle.

Interestingly, vitamin B12 also regulates your energy metabolism.  This means that it boosts the energy production required to build new muscle.  So, B12 helps you build muscle indirectly, too!

Best Food Sources of Vitamin B12

Some great sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • organ meats
  • beef
  • poultry
  • sardines
  • tuna 
  • milk
  • eggs

9. Potassium

Potassium-rich bananas and papayas on newspapers

When it comes to cell function, potassium is arguably one of the most important minerals we have.  See, potassium helps maintain optimal cellular hydration.  If you don’t have enough potassium, then your cells can become dehydrated, which impairs their ability to function.

Importantly, potassium is also required to stimulate muscular contractions.  Without it, your muscles will literally be unable to contract — which means that your ability to exercise will take a serious hit!

Through both of these effects, potassium plays a key role in helping you build muscle.

Best Food Sources of Potassium

Potassium can be found in:

  • bananas
  • avocados
  • yams
  • watermelon
  • white beans
  • black beans

10. Iodine

Iodine is an important mineral that is used to produce your thyroid hormones.  If you don’t have enough iodine in your diet, then you are going to be much more likely to have low levels of thyroid hormones.

And low thyroid hormones, when it comes to muscle building, isn’t a good thing.

See, your thyroid hormones stimulate the growth of new muscle cells after exercise.  Without the signal from your thyroid hormones, your ability to grow muscle is impaired.

Best Food Sources of Iodine

My favorite sources of iodine include:

  • seaweed
  • cod
  • milk
  • shrimp 
  • tuna

11. Vitamin C

Close up of lemons and limes

Now, the way in which vitamin C impacts muscle growth is somewhat indirect but that doesn’t make it any less important.  Vitamin C both reduces inflammation and improves the function of your immune system.

Both of these effects enhance your ability to exercise and recover which, ultimately, leads to increased muscle growth!

Best Food Sources of Vitamin C

Vitamin C can be found in high amounts in the following foods:

  • oranges
  • lemons
  • limes
  • berries
  • kiwi fruit
  • broccoli
  • sprouts

12. Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a bit of a “Mr. Fix-It” in the human body.  It helps repair any damaged cells throughout your entire body.

Yep, including muscle cells.

And, as a result, it is integral to the muscle building process.  

Vitamin A helps heal muscles cells damaged during your workout, boosting your recovery.  This, in turn, means you can train more often. And that’s only going to help you build even more muscle.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin A

Some great food sources of vitamin A include:

  • beef liver
  • sweet potato
  • carrots
  • peas
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • red peppers

13. Creatine

Creatine is an amazing nutrient that lives in your muscle tissue.  It is broken down and used for energy for short powerful muscular contractions — exactly like those seen when lifting weights, for example.

With this in mind, the more creatine you have available in muscles, the more weight you can lift in the weight room and the more effective your workouts will be.  

As a result, creatine could be considered to be the most powerful muscle-building nutrient on the planet!

Best Food Sources of Creatine

  • beef
  • chicken
  • lamb
  • tuna
  • herring
  • pork
  • salmon

Take Home Message

Eating a healthy diet full to the brim of vitamins and minerals is arguably the best thing you can do to help you build muscle.  Which is exactly why I put together this article!

By making sure your diet includes foods rich in the nutrients outlined above, you can guarantee muscle growth and take the results of your training to the next level!

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