Want bigger muscles? Don’t reach for a heavier dumbbell, but into your pantry. Your shelves can supply all the essential ingredients you need to fuel high-intensity workouts, build more mass, and speed up recovery.
If you’re serious about your training, here are the 10 items you should always have on hand.
One of the best, budget-friendly sources of protein and B vitamins for building muscle, canned salmon is also rich in omega 3s, which have a positive effect on the metabolism of muscle protein, says a 2011 study in Clinical Science. And just half a can provides 290 mg of bone-building calcium, the same amount in a 6 oz. glass of milk. “Make sure to purchase a brand packaged in non-BPA cans to avoid potential interference with your hormonal system,” says Jim White, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist.
They are a solid source of vitamin B6, which the body requires to properly digest dietary protein and build muscle. Sweet potatoes are often the preferred carbohydrate for bodybuilders because of their low moisture and sodium content and their ability to stave off the frequent hunger pains that come with cutting carbs.
Fortified cereal is a great way to “break the fast” in the morning and jump-start your energy and metabolism for workouts. Many are calcium-fortified, which when combined with milk, help maintain a strong skeletal structure. Choose one with at least 3 grams of fiber and no more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. “Fiber keeps hunger at bay and lowering added sugar cuts down on empty calories, which can lead to weight gain,” says White.
Walnuts are a “manly nut” packed with essential fatty acids for muscle cell growth, immune function, and healthy bone density. Swedish scientists found that people who consumed polyunsaturated fat, which are abundant in walnuts (1 cup equals 39 grams), gain more muscle and less fat compared to those who ate a similar amount of saturated fat. Walnuts also contain a type of vitamin E especially beneficial to male cardiovascular health, says White. And you only need 1 oz. (about ¼ cup or 12-14 halves) to meet all your daily needs.
Rice is a high-quality complex carb, which is excellent for fueling muscles and storing energy. A half-cup of brown rice equals a full serving of whole grain and has more magnesium for strong bones, and selenium for healthy thyroid function, than white rice. Bonus: It is also loaded with fiber that can keep you sated longer between meals and help fight off cravings.
This hearty breakfast food has a great balance of slow-digesting carbs and muscle-building protein needed for your morning workouts. A cup of cooked steel-cut oats packs 54 grams of carbs to fuel heavy lifting like squats and dead lifts, and 10 grams of protein to feed muscles. “Steel-cut are the least processed,” says White. “Avoid the simple sugars in the flavored instant varieties. You don’t need a sugar crash sabotaging your workout.”
Beans are a near perfect muscle food. They’re a great source of protein (1 cup equals almost 40 grams), and a low-fat alternative to typical protein sources like chicken, fish or steak. Beans also are high in antioxidants, which help fight inflammation and ease post-workout soreness. Best of all, they are easy on the budget—you often can get multiple servings for less than a buck. Combine with rice or corn to get all the amino acids of a complete protein.
Some studies suggest that coconut oil supports thyroid function, improves energy levels and endurance, and increases metabolism. The oil is made up of 60 percent medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), and Japanese researchers found MCTs can help extend the duration of high intense exercise. Coconut oil is more heat resistant than butter and some other oils, which makes it a healthier choice for cooking. “The body tends to use coconut oil’s MCTs as energy rather than storing it as fat,” says White.
This ancient grain is quite new to the fitness world. Unlike other grains, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids required for the complete, high-quality protein needed for building muscle. It’s also rich source of iron and B vitamins for metabolizing energy.
Although pricier than peanut butter, this lower-fat option can help you stay lean. It also has more calcium than peanut butter (for stronger bones) and more magnesium (for proper muscle function.) Almond butter contains 50% more monounsaturated fat than the peanut variety, which can help lower LDL cholesterol. “Less LDL means improved blood circulation for better nutrient and oxygen delivery to all your cells,” says White.
BY MATTHEW SOLAN