Protein — the most beloved macronutrient for any bodybuilder. Walk into any gym or supplement store and you’ll be bombarded by endless talks from “experts” on just how crucial protein is to your progress in the gym and how much you should be eating for maximum muscle growth.
While protein is essential to repairing damaged muscles and building new muscle tissue, there’s a great deal of debate about how much you should be consuming on a daily basis to ensure you’re providing your body with the required amount to recover and grow bigger, badder, and bolder.
You’ll hear all sorts of recommendations about the “optimal” intake for making gains, and most of them are wrong. We’re here to give you the real answer about how much protein you really need for muscle growth!
Protein and Muscle Growth
Most of you reading this probably know the exact what, why, and how of protein and muscle growth, but for those of you new to the lifting life (and those who may have forgotten the basics), let’s take a second to briefly recap protein’s role in helping you build the body of a Greek god (or goddess).
Protein is comprised of smaller molecules known as amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks of protein, and without the right amount (or type) of amino acids, your body can’t construct protein structures.
Now, there are multiple types of proteins in the body, each performing a variety of tasks including DNA replication and repair, cell signaling, tissue construction (like muscle), and providing the foundation for things such as your hair, nails, and skin.
The protein used for building muscle, require a very specific set of amino acids, known as essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from food, hence their being called “essential” as the body cannot survive without them.
When you eat any food that contains protein, the body breaks down the protein molecules in the food into individual amino acids which are then used to build proteins needed by the body. In the case of building and repairing muscle tissue, the body uses the nine essential amino acids (EAAs) to construct these “muscle” proteins, and links several of these proteins together to create new muscle tissue.
If you don’t eat enough protein during the day, your body will become deficient in the amino acids it needs to repair and build muscle tissue, which means your ability to increase your lean mass is severely impaired. This is one of the primary reasons coaches, nutritionists, and personal trainers advocate high protein diets. Under normal circumstances, your body requires a certain amount of protein for day to day tissue repair and grow, but when engaged in high intensity exercise (i.e. weightlifting) your amino acid needs are substantially increased as your body is subjected to significantly more wear and tear than a sedentary individual.
Here is where you start to get into the “optimal” amount of protein intake for making gains, which leads into the question on every lifter’s mind…
The question of how much protein bodybuilders should be eating has been one that’s been debated for quite some time. There are those in the lifting community who maintain you need at least 1.5-2g per pound of bodyweight to make gains, while others say you can build lean mass on as little as 0.8g per pound of bodyweight, so what’s the truth?
Fortunately, more and more research is being done in the field of sports nutrition, particularly in regards to total protein intake and nutrient timing. A recent meta-analysis led by industry experts Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon, and Eric Helms sought to answer this very question.
Pooling data from 49 different studies with 1,863 participants, Schoenfeld and his team determined that the optimal intake of protein for resistance trained individuals (i.e. weightlifters) is ~1.6g/kg body weight.
In the study, the team of researchers stated:
“Protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further RET-induced gains in FFM.”
For those of you not used to working in the metric system, 1.62g/kg/day comes out to around
~0.74g/lb/day, which is extremely close to the oft-recommended 0.8g/lb bodyweight per day.
We know what some of you are thinking, “my coach says I need 2g per pound if I’m bulking.” Well, folks, that’s what we call bro-science. While you’re certainly not hurting yourself by eating over 0.74-0.8g/lb/day of protein, you’re not going to build muscle any faster or greater.
So, if you choose to eat more protein because you enjoy it and find it more satisfying than carbs or fats, that’s fine. However, you could also use extra calories more towards carbs (which can further enhance performance) or fat (which are flat out delicious and satiating).
At the end of the day consuming over the 0.74-0.8g/lb of protein per day won’t hurt your gains, but it’s not going to significantly enhance your muscle-building ability either.
A Word on Nutrient Timing
While we’re discussing protein, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention protein and its relation to nutrient timing. Much like the daily protein intake, another myth perpetuated throughout the fitness industry is that of the “anabolic window.” Far too often you’ll hear coaches and trainers saying you must have some sort of protein shake within 30 minutes of your workout to capitalize on your enhanced anabolic state following a workout. While this philosophy has been followed by the masses for a long time, research from Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld and Co. has shed some light on just how long this “anabolic window” lasts.
In their paper Nutrient Timing Re-visited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window, the team sought to determine if the concept of nutrient timing is in fact relevant and just how long the window for extra gains lasts. As you would expect, the team did find that nutrient timing did enhance muscular gains, but the “window” of opportunity for getting in that post workout meal lasts significantly longer than the 30 minutes immediately after your workout.
While much of the focus is on the post workout meal, Schoenfeld and Co. determined that what you eat and when you eat before your workout determines when you should get that crucial post-workout meal in. According to the team, an individual has roughly a 4 to 6 hour window in and around their workout. In other words, if you’re looking to maximize gains, it would be prudent to consume protein pre- and post-exercise within about 4-6 hours of each other.
One last bit from that study is that crushing a ton of carbs post workout isn’t entirely necessary for maximizing anabolism. Unless you’re a high-level athlete performing two-a-day practices or competitions, glycogen replenishment is not a limiting factor as your body will refill its glycogen stores over the next 24 hours provided you consume sufficient carbohydrates the rest of the day.
Protein is essential for muscle growth and you need to consume sufficient amounts of it in order to grow and repair muscle following intense training. However, the amount you need to consume is probably far less than what you’ve been told, which harkens back to knowing your daily caloric needs and calculating your macros appropriately.
Additionally, nutrient timing is important (moreso if you’re a high level athlete), but for the average guy hitting the gym 3-5x per week, it’s far more important to focus on hitting your daily macro goals than just focusing on the few hours surrounding your workouts.
- Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 11 July 2017. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2017/08/08/bjsports-2017-097608
- Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):5. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-5.