Training and putting in the work are the most important aspects of a successful exercise program. But your nutrition plan and consuming the appropriate amount of protein to maintain and build muscle mass, is just as important. Without adequate protein intake, your body will lack the vital nutrients it needs to stimulate the muscle building process. But how much protein do you need to build more muscle? With gym bros and Instagram influencers constantly tossing out “evidence-based” facts, the facts can get lost pretty quickly.
Consuming the proper amount of protein can depend on several different variables, such as age, height, weight, training program intensity, and overall health and fitness goals. Simply eating more protein and living a sedentary lifestyle, will not help you get bigger and stronger. If it did, we’d all be slamming protein shakes, and look like superman. But first let’s talk about what protein is.
What Is Protein
Protein is a macronutrient comprised of essential and non-essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins in the human body. Essential amino acids are those that the human body does not naturally produce, therefore you must obtain them from the foods you eat or supplements.
Complete proteins, or proteins that contain all the essential amino acids required to build, rebuild, and repair muscle tissue in adequate amounts are usually derived from animal-based proteins found in foods like beef, chicken, fish, and turkey. Plant based sources of protein such as pea, rice, tofu, soy, quinoa, beans, and legumes also great sources of protein, but some may not be considered complete sources of protein, due to low levels of certain amino acids. Combining two or more incomplete protein sources can help create a complete source with all essential amino acids for optimal muscle growth and recovery.
Protein sources from animal protein as opposed to plant-based sources tend to have better absorption rates. Often times this is why you find bodybuilders, or fellow gym goers drinking a protein shake with whey, or whey protein isolate immediately after their workout.
How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle
Assuming you’re already working out and have a training program, the recommended daily intake of protein for an active individual trying to build more muscle is quite different than someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that an average person, should consume 0.8g of protein per kilogram or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for general health.
Muscle mass is built when you’re in a positive net protein or amino acid balance, meaning that muscle protein synthesis (the muscle building process) exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Your body needs to synthesize more muscle protein, than it breaks down. In order to build maintain and increase muscle mass while training its recommended to consume 0.5-1g conservatively per pound of body weight. If you want to build more muscle, then an increase from the lower to the upper limit near 1g per pound of body weight is recommended.
Eating a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight can be challenging to get from diet alone. That’s where supplementation with a pure form of protein such as whey protein isolate with 26g of protein per serving becomes necessary.
As we age, protein intake does need to increase over time. Around 50 years of age, you have a higher “anabolic resistance” meaning muscle protein synthesis is lower when consuming protein. With this resistance an increase to the upper limit of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight of protein per day, is necessary to maintain muscle mass. If you exercise regularly, then you’ll need to eat more protein than the recommended daily intake, in order to remain anabolic and build more muscle mass.
A systematic review published in the British Journal Of Sports Medicine showed that protein intake up to 1g per day, induces greater changes in strength, muscle mass and in conjunction with a resistance training program [R].
When Should You Consume Or Take Your Protein?
It’s important to flood your muscles with amino acids, prior to training providing the fuel you need to maximize performance. Research suggests that the process of protein turnover is increased with resistance training and can remain elevated up to 48 hours. Drinking a protein shake pre-workout will help elevate amino acid levels in your bloodstream at a much faster rate, than food alone. The short rush of amino acids is known as hyperaminoacidemia and increases stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Supplementing a protein shake post-workout is just as important, and also has a profound impact on the muscle building and muscle recovery process. Research suggests that there may be an “anabolic window” such that protein intake within an hour of resistance training or exercise has the greatest effect on muscle building adaptations.
How Much Protein To Build Muscle: Takeaway
If the goal is to gain muscle mass, then aim for at least 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day. This means eating quality lean protein sources such as chicken, beef, fish, turkey, and bison. If your goal is to remain in a constant anabolic state, and to maintain and increase some lean muscle mass, take it down to 0.5-0.8g per pound per day. Endurance athletes especially, need to supplement with more protein, to constantly maintain a positive protein balance and avoid muscle protein breakdown. Supplementing a protein shake pre and post workout during your anabolic window is the best time to increase muscle protein synthesis and build more mass. If you're not sure how to get there, hire a nutrition coach.
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Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, Schoenfeld BJ, Henselmans M, Helms E, Aragon AA, Devries MC, Banfield L, Krieger JW, Phillips SM. 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. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608. Epub 2017 Jul 11. Erratum in: Br J Sports Med. 2020 Oct;54(19):e7. PMID: 28698222; PMCID: PMC5867436.