Protein for gaining muscle: There’s more to it than just hitting a daily target

How to get every last drop of benefit from your strength training



Donuts
 

Contents


1. Overview

2. Protein and hypertrophy

3. Starting point

4. Protein

5. Steps to sweet gains

6. References






The gist

  1. Muscle synthesis and muscle breakdown are ALWAYS occurring. However, in order to gain muscle, synthesis rates need to be greater than breakdown rates.

  2. If you are not active and not eating enough protein you will be in a state of muscle loss.

  3. Add in exercise (particularly resistance exercise) and you will preserve more muscle, but will not gain if you are not eating enough protein.

  4. Consuming dietary protein plus resistance training will lead to the largest step up in your ability to gain muscle, but this is not the only step you can take.

  5. Having a total of 4 to 6 meals and snacks per day allows you to spike muscle gains more often. Constant munching/grazing or 1 to 2 larger meals is less optimal for muscle gains.

  6. Spreading out your protein intake evenly into 0.3g/kg body weight at meals and snacks will enhance your rates of muscle gain.

  7. Choosing high quality protein frequently is the cherry on top to achieve the highest spikes in muscle gain at a time.

  8. MAXimizing gainz = properly periodized resistance training + eating enough protein + 4-6 feedings per day + 0.3 g protein/kg body weight per feeding + high quality protein sources.


Found yourself wanting more from your workouts? Do you want every rep to count and not be wasted by your food choices?

There’s no doubt that hard work and consistent training are essential for gaining muscle and strength. But how can you get the MOST out of your training by what you do away from the gym? In this article we are going to talk about your daily dietary protein and squeezing out every last drop of muscle gains from your workouts.




Protein and hypertrophy 101


Let’s start with a lesson on some of the basics of protein metabolism. There are 2 processes affecting whether you are in a net gain or loss of muscle: muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein breakdown breaks down (go figure) and removes proteins from your muscle. Muscle protein synthesis builds and adds protein to your muscle.


BOTH processes are ALWAYS occurring. In fact, every three months or so you have a completely new muscle due to old proteins being replaced with new ones (pretty neat, huh?). However, in order to gain size (and also strength) you need to be adding more often than taking away. In other words, the rate of synthesis needs to outweigh the rate of breakdown. When breakdown outweighs synthesis you are losing muscle. Or as the “bros” in the gym put it: “you’re losing those sweet gainz”.



A chart describing protein breakdown equates to muscle wasting, and protein synthesis leads to the much more optimal muscle growth
Class dismissed.



Starting point


We are going to use the simplified graph below to depict how certain components related particularly to nutrition can affect your TOTAL net protein balance. REMEMBER only when synthesis exceeds breakdown will you be in a positive balance to make your sweet gainz. This starting graph would be you fasted with no resistance training. As you can see you are breaking down muscle in order to use it for energy. Thus, breakdown is outweighing synthesis and you are losing muscle.



Fasted, No prior exercise equates to a negative balance and losing muscle

Note: The graphs in this blog post are hypothetical and in no way depict the true magnitude of difference in the effects of these practices. They are merely a visual representation to show that there is a difference and the direction.


Resistance training


Before we get too far into the nutrition component, I want to clear up a major misconception that many people (even some very experienced professionals in the field) have - 'exercise will result in muscle loss if you don't eat protein.' The reality is...

Exercise does not have a net catabolic effect on your muscles over the course of the day (i.e. it does not cause you to lose muscle even if you are fasted).

I say “over the course of the day” because although remaining fasted after exercise leads to an enhancement in protein breakdown, there is also an enhancement in protein synthesis [1]. This results in an overall less negative balance of muscle protein (i.e. resulting in better muscle retention) comparatively to if you had not exercised (particularly for resistance based activity).

Although exercise alone will not cause you to gain any muscle, it will certainly prevent you from losing as much muscle as you would if you were not working out.



Fasted, after exercise shows increased breakdown, but also increased synthesis

Let this be our first variable to our equation. The scale has now tipped slightly towards a more positive balance, but without nutrition, you won’t be gaining anything yet, just losing less.




Protein


Now let’s get into the meat (but not yet the potatoes) of this topic. What is needed to break through into a positive balance you ask? Protein!

This step of consuming essential amino acids - no matter when, where, how or what - will make the largest difference in bringing you into a positive balance when coupled with training. However, notice I said essential amino acids.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and the 9 essential blocks are the ones your body cannot make on its own. Therefore, you must consume these through your diet as your body needs ALL of them to build muscle.

Different foods have different amounts of essential amino acids; vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and grains have a different array of amino acids, so consuming a wide variety of these will give you adequate amounts of all of them. Or, any meat, dairy, eggs or soy are all able to provide an adequate amount of amino acids. These are termed complete proteins and this is particularly important for those who do not regularly consume dairy or meat to pay attention to, such as vegans.

Ok, now we’re talking. We’re finally building some muscle size. However, this article is about MAXIMIZING gains from training and not just settling for good, but going for great.




Timing of protein intake


It may be tempting to think that constantly grazing on protein will result in constant increased synthesis. However, unfortunately, not only will your body not let you do this, but it could actually end up making gains more challenging! By having a constant intake of protein, it signals to your body that it needs to start using more protein as an energy source rather than use it to build muscle[2].

In fact, it seems the maximal number of times muscle protein synthesis can be spiked is 4-6. In other words, about every 3-5 hours[3].

What does this mean to you? If you want to optimize gainz, eat 4-6 meals/snacks per day. An example schedule could be: Breakfast, Lunch, Afternoon Snack, (workout after work) Dinner, Bedtime Snack.



Protein amount


I talked a little about the importance of receiving adequate protein, but what is adequate? There is the standard 1.5 to 2.2 g/kg for those who resistance train regularly, which many of us have heard before, but that’s so 2000’s. We’re in the 2020's now and it’s time to incorporate the most advanced science we have. To stimulate maximum muscle protein synthesis at a time you want to shoot for at least 0.3g/kg per meal and snack [4].

For an 80 kg male that is about 35g of protein or 1 cup cottage cheese with a ¼ cup of almonds, 1 can of tuna with 10 crackers or 5 oz. of pork tenderloin. For a 60 kg female that is about 25g of protein or a ¾ cup of Greek yogurt with 2 Tbsp hemp seeds, 1 cup of edamame with a ¼ cup of hummus or a 4 oz. steak.

This means getting away from the typical north American protein schedule of not enough (or any) at breakfast, almost enough at lunch and overkill at dinner.


Optimal protein distribution vs Skewed protein distribution

[5]


Massive doses of protein above what can be used for synthesis will result in your body using protein for fuel rather than fat or carbohydrates, which if coupled with caloric excess, will ultimately lead to fat gain.

Thus, we want to even out our protein intake into at least 0.3g/kg doses over our 4-6 meals/snacks.