How Much Protein You Really Need to Build Muscle

How much protein do you REALLY need per day to build muscle? Chances are that you may be actually overeating. But how much is enough to help maintain and build muscle?

Is there a limit per meal that the body can use? Lets get started with 2 more recent studies that currently have many high protein eating bodybuilding communities panicking…

Six healthy young men reported to the laboratory on 5 separate occasions to perform an intense bout of leg-based resistance exercise. After exercise, participants consumed, in a randomized order, drinks containing 0, 5, 10, 20, or 40g whole egg protein. Protein synthesis and whole-body leucine oxidation were measured over 4 h after exercise by a primed constant infusion of leucine.

APS increased in a dose-dependent manner and also reached a plateau at 20g ingested protein. Leucine oxidation was significantly increased after 20 and 40g protein were ingested.

Ingestion of 20 g intact protein is sufficient to maximally stimulate MPS and APS after resistance exercise. Phosphorylation of candidate signaling proteins was not enhanced with any dose of protein ingested, which suggested that the stimulation of MPS after resistance exercise may be related to amino acid availability. Finally, dietary protein consumed after exercise in excess of the rate at which it can be incorporated into tissue protein stimulates irreversible oxidation.

Source: Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin synthesis after resistance exercise in young men

and here’s another one

This study sought to compare changes in muscle protein synthesis and anabolic efficiency in response to a single moderate serving (113 g; 220 kcal; 30 g protein) or large serving (340 g; 660 kcal; 90 g protein) of 90% lean beef.

Mixed muscle fractional synthesis rate was calculated during a 3-hour postabsorptive period and for 5 hours after meal ingestion. A 113-g serving of lean beef increased muscle protein synthesis by approximately 50% in both young and older volunteers. Despite a threefold increase in protein and energy content, there was no further increase in protein synthesis after ingestion of 340 g lean beef in either age group. Ingestion of more than 30 g protein in a single meal does not further enhance the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly.

Source: A Moderate Serving of High-Quality Protein Maximally Stimulates Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis in Young and Elderly Subjects; Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 109, Issue 9, Pages 1582-1586

So according to the research above we are seeing that muscle protein synthesis maxes out after a meal at 20-30 grams and anything in over will actually not help stimulate more muscle protein synthesis, but rather just increase excess oxidation (burn for energy).

More Protein Does Not Mean More Muscle

While protein is of course essential to building up muscle, that doesn’t necessarily mean that just eating more and more guarantees bigger muscles. So how much do we really need in the first place? Well here’s some numbers for you:

*Note that most of these “body weights” for calculating protein are more based on “ideal” (or even “fat free”) weight.

These are interesting numbers and much lower than what you may hear out there. You can see that with more activity, then the recommended amount of protein will increase. What is also important to remember that the overall calorie intake is also increasing with activity level. So in essence, while the amount of protein may increase the % of protein per daily calories may actually be the same (or less). Just something to keep in mind, as calories also matter.

Intermittent Fasting and Protein Intake

Well if you look at the info above where only 20-30grams of protein are absorbed per meal, then what about many of us IF’ers who eat less number of but larger meals? Are we going to lose all our muscle when we fast and only eat 2-3x a day? Of course by now many who IF already know that is not true.

But it does call into question about “needing” 5-6 meals of 20-30grams of protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis. As much as every supplement company would love us all to believe that we need a 20gram whey protein shake every 2-3 hours (and fuel more supplement sales), in fact maybe the body works better when presented a randomized/stressed environment and not some set equally divided schedule day in and out.

Here’s a little outtake from Dr Eades on his blog comments (#2 to be precise) about protein turnover and IF that is very enlightening:

I don’t think IF would affect muscle mass much at all. If you go without food for a long period of time, say, several days, your metabolic system goes after your muscle mass to convert the protein stored there into the glucose you need to keep your blood glucose normal. This doesn’t happen in the short term. All the protein structures in the body draw from and add to the amino acid pool. When muscle breaks down the individual amino acids go into the pool from where they’re harvested by the system that converts them to glucose. When new muscle is made, the amino acids used to construct the muscle protein are drawn from the amino acid pool. One of the contributors to the AA pool is enzymes that are no longer needed and junk proteins that the body is cleansing from the cells. When one is fasting, one of the group of enzymes not really needed is the group of digestive enzymes that would otherwise be employed in digesting food. These enzymes break down and their amino acids enter the AA pool where the muscle can pick them up as needed. Also, during an IF, the body goes into ketosis. I posted a few months back on how ketosis stimulates the process of cellular cleansing by removing junk proteins from the cells. The amino acids from these proteins also enter the AA pool where they can be recycled by the muscle mass. So, even though new protein isn’t coming into the body minute by minute from the diet, there is plenty of substrate there in the AA pool to last until the next meal, which is, at most, only 24 hours away.

So by the looks of it, actually not eating all day long may help increase you ability to build more muscle on less dietary protein. By using IF and allowing the body to recycle old junk proteins (remember autophagy?) as well as enzymes, the demand for amino acids through diet could be less.

Protein Pulsing for Better Anabolic Responses?

Here’s another interesting outlook on how the body is actually able to use proteins in a larger meal vs several spread out ones.

After a controlled period, 15 elderly women (mean age: 68 y) were fed for 14 d either a pulse diet (n = 7), providing 80% of the daily protein intake at 1200, or a spread diet (n = 8), in which the same daily protein intake was spread over 4 meals. Both diets provided 1.7 g protein•kg fat-free mass (FFM). Protein accretion and daily protein turnover were determined by using the nitrogen balance method and the end product method (ammonia and urea) after an oral dose of glycine. Nitrogen balance was more positive with the pulse than with the spread diet. Protein turnover rates were also higher with the pulse than with the spread diet, mainly because of higher protein synthesis in the pulse group than in the spread group.

Source: Protein pulse feeding improves protein retention in elderly women; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 69, No. 6, 1202-1208, June 1999

So in this group it seems that when eating a “protein pulsing” style of having 80% of daily protein in one meal (and 20% later on), it actually increased nitrogen balance, protein turnover and protein synthesis…when compared to the equally spread out diet. In short…they became more anabolically responsive (for the muscle building nerds).

But to be fair, the same study was done on younger (mid 20s) women too, and this time the results were even between the pulse and spread diet. While there was no increases in the nitrogen balance or protein turnover/synthesis for the younger group, there was also no disadvantage from the pulsing pattern.

Lesson to be learned, eating protein in a pulsing style/larger meal (although through the studies up top would go against it) does not decrease the anabolic factors associated with muscle gain. In fact, as we get older and our anabolic sensitivities/responses start to decline (all downhill from 30 after all!), it may be more vital to use such strategies to help keep us more responsive (as the study for protein pulsing was initially done to try and help elderly people from losing muscle with age).

But Post Workout Protein Makes More Muscle … Right?

While eating protein is part of the building blocks for making more muscle, it is important to know that your body works in the long term and not minute by minute. With that in mind, how about the importance of the post workout shake (as we hear that eating right after a workout increases protein synthesis)? But that “microscience” ignores the overall bigger picture on whole body recovery that has us building muscle long after the “post workout” window. Here’s a study to help show that point:

Twenty healthy men were studied in the evening after consuming a standardized diet throughout the day. Subjects participated in a 2-h exercise session during which beverages containing both carbohydrate and a protein hydrolysate (C+P) or water only (W) were ingested.

During exercise, whole-body and muscle protein synthesis rates increased by 29 and 48% with protein and carbohydrate coingestion.

During subsequent overnight recovery, whole-body protein synthesis was 19% greater in the C+P group than in the W group. However, mean muscle protein synthesis rates during 9 h of overnight recovery did not differ between groups.

We conclude that, even in a fed state, protein and carbohydrate supplementation stimulates muscle protein synthesis during exercise. Ingestion of protein with carbohydrate during and immediately after exercise improves whole-body protein synthesis but does not further augment muscle protein synthesis rates during 9 h of subsequent overnight recovery.
Source: Coingestion of Carbohydrate and Protein Hydrolysate Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis during Exercise in Young Men, with No Further Increase during Subsequent Overnight Recovery; Journal of Nutrition, doi:10.3945/jn.108.092924

Confused? Well I’m going to let my buddy Brad Pilon and author of the new ebook “How Much Protein” answer that one:

What you are looking at is two different measurements of protein synthesis in the human body. “Whole body protein synthesis” is a measurement of the protein synthesis happening in your entire body. This includes things like your liver, heart, lungs, brain GI Track and your muscles. This measurement does not tell you WHICH part of your body the protein synthesis is happening in, just that it is happening. “Muscle protein synthesis” is specifically measuring the amount of protein synthesis that is happening IN your skeletal muscle.

So from the example you posted above, it is obvious that the post workout protein shake increased whole body protein synthesis, but did not increase skeletal muscle protein synthesis. Most likely this means that the extra protein increased protein synthesis in your liver and gastrointestinal tract, but had no measurable effect on your muscles.

So if the point of taking protein before, during, and after your workouts is to build muscle, then the research you quotes seems to say that there would be no additional muscle building effect.

When you have the right kind of recovery and still eat enough during the day, it seems the “hype” about the post workout window goes away. Honestly unless you are a hard training athlete who needs immediate glycogen replenishment to train again the next day, trying to intake protein (with carbs) during or right after a workout is not necessary.

If people are going to insist on something around workouts, then I would say only a small intake of BCAAs PRE-workout would be most the average person would need. Whether you eat or not immediately after a workout can be up to you, but I wouldn’t base it on some extra muscle building theory.

Higher Protein and Weight Loss

The other part of the equation when it comes to why you eat protein, is about your goals and how many calories you are intaking. Many people use the higher protein intakes when they are looking to lean out and minimize muscle loss. Protein being a harder macronutrient to convert to fat (than carbs or fat), makes it an easy choice to eat more of while keeping carbs/fat low.

Protein will also help you to feel fuller and less likely to overeat on any other macronutrient (fat/carbs). So even if you are intaking more than enough protein to maintain muscle, you are really doing it from another strategy that may include just trying to avoid excess calories and lean out.

Wrapping Up

So there you go. Did it make you rethink how much protein you really need? I wish someone had this talk with me when I was around 16 because I could have saved $1000s over the next 10+ years from not buying all sorts of protein powders/shakes/bars. When it comes to muscle building, having enough protein matters of course….but the amount is smaller than most would think (especially when you can get enough calories in from carbs/fats and have adequate training + recovery).

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