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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



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.


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


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.

And so our layers continue to build.

Protein quality

How many more toppings can you pile onto this muscle building sandwich using protein nutrition strategies? One more, and it’s high in a particular amino acid.

For stimulating protein synthesis, there’s one particular amino acid that seems to trump the rest when it comes to adding some weight to the tipping scale towards synthesis. That amino acid is leucine. Although some other amino acids also have the ability to boost synthesis, leucine is the strongest trigger[6].

Not only is consuming enough of this amino acid at a time important for spiking synthesis and driving anabolism but attaining rapid entry into the blood stream after a meal or snack (termed hyperleucinemia) may also have positive effects[7]. This is another reason for breaks between feeding as discussed in the timing section, so that you can attain this spike with your meals and snacks rather than a blunted absorption by grazing.

Ok, so how do you get you some leucine? Luckily, leucine is typically high in complete protein sources being meat, eggs, dairy and soy; with dairy and eggs coming out on top. These 2 sources are considered highly anabolic, both for the reason of being high in leucine and being able to trigger hyperleucemia. This could especially have implications for those attempting to lose fat while trying to gain (or preserve) muscle at the same time. Because this amino acid is the strongest driver of protein synthesis, you may be able to get away with consuming less of these sources (and therefore less calories) while still achieving maximal synthesis rather than consuming food items lower in leucine. Studies using whey protein powder which is among the highest sources in leucine and most rapidly absorbed available source have shown maximal synthesis rates at 0.3g/kg[8].

Note: If you don't consume animal products or are trying to cut back, don't worry, you can still hit this threshold with plant-based options. The only caveat is you need to consume a bit more to make up for the lesser amount of essential amino acids and leucine in these options. In this case, aim for at least 0.4g/kg at each meal/snack instead[8].

High quality protein, 5-6 meals, .3g/kg of protein, and exercise equals to the best gains scenario

Yup, that is one nice looking protein cake topped with high quality protein options and cut into 4-6 slices weighing at least 0.3g/kg of your body weight.

Your steps for making sweet gains

Steps to gains chart

All or nothing?

When writing articles like this I can’t help but be a bit concerned that I risk pushing human nature’s “all or nothing” button. It comes natural to want to either do something to the max so that we can achieve optimal results in the shortest period of time possible OR, if we can’t, do nothing at all.

Notice that the largest step you can take towards gaining muscle and strength is consistent resistance training. This step could be more difficult for some than for others. If you don't have this solidified into your routine, it can be broken down into even smaller steps. Start with 20 minutes of lifting weights 3x per week or less, then work your way up.

Realize that despite how you may feel right now – possibly filled with ample amounts of motivation to jump into training 5 days per week and scheduling out your meals and snacks - tomorrow, when you’re tired and worn down from work and juggling other areas of your life, could be a different story.

To guarantee your success, these strategies need to become habits, or the point where they become automatic and no longer require mental energy. Until then err on the side of caution, sparing only the smallest amount of energy necessary to take the next step forward. Once that becomes mindless, take the next step.

If you’re having trouble with taking steps then consistently falling back to where you started, I recommend getting yourself a coach. Contact Unlocked and we can help you incorporate the right strategies that are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck in a way that uniquely fits your lifestyle. We'll not only guide you through protein and resistance training, but all the ways you can maximize making those sweet gainz.



  1. Rennie MJ, Edwards RH, Krywawych S, Davies CT, Halliday D, Waterlow JC, et al. Effect of exercise on protein turnover in man. Clin Sci (Lond) 1981 Nov;61(5):627-639.

  2. Bohe J, Low JF, Wolfe RR, Rennie MJ. Latency and duration of stimulation of human muscle protein synthesis during continuous infusion of amino acids. J Physiol 2001 Apr 15;532(Pt 2):575-579.

  3. Moore DR, Areta J, Coffey VG, Stellingwerff T, Phillips SM, Burke LM, et al. Daytime pattern of post-exercise protein intake affects whole-body protein turnover in resistance-trained males. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2012 Oct 16;9(1):91-7075-9-91.

  4. Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Front Physiol 2015 Sep 3;6:245.

  5. Layman DK. Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needs. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2009 Mar 13;6:12-7075-6-12.

  6. Phillips SM. A brief review of critical processes in exercise-induced muscular hypertrophy. Sports Med 2014 May;44 Suppl 1:S71-7.

  7. West DW, Burd NA, Coffey VG, Baker SK, Burke LM, Hawley JA, et al. Rapid aminoacidemia enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis and anabolic intramuscular signaling responses after resistance exercise. Am J Clin Nutr 2011 Sep;94(3):795-803.

  8. Moore DR. Maximizing Post-exercise Anabolism: The Case for Relative Protein Intakes. Front Nutr. 2019 Sep 10;6:147.


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