How much protein do we need to build muscle and get stronger?
This is a question that has such a large array of opinions – depending on where you are getting your info.
We live in a world where we can get a lot of info by simply switching on a computer or mobile phone. I believe this ability to access knowledge has enabled us as humans to be savvy and empowered to want the best, and strive to get the edge – especially when it comes to fitness and exercise!
There is a big problem with this information overload and that comes from wanting to “look” a certain way, or be competitive with your peers – especially with the abundant images of the top 1% who have low body fat, lots of muscle, look great in a bikini or have the legendary 6 pack (and probably are taking unhealthy substances!) – that is driving us to want more, improve more, and look different.
At the same time there has been an increase in the science of sports nutrition – with research findings then spread around the world easily in the info-tech world.
The new findings and drive for people to “want change/improvements” has led to the development of the protein market – where businesses are developing products so you can get fitter, bigger, stronger, faster – and ultimately extracting every gain that is possible from your training.
The sports and health nutrition world is huge – and it has been estimated that the Whey protein market is worth $10 billion (US dollars) in 2018, and will grow by almost 1 billion each and every year (whey protein stats). They have done well to sell the belief that supplements will dramatically improve your results – I too have been pulled into this belief!
The science is simple.
You cannot build muscles without protein in your diet. They are the building blocks of muscle.
You cannot build muscle without exercise. You need resistance stimulus to turn protein into muscle.
Common sense would then lead us to believe that having extra protein in your diet will add extra muscle and strength gains. This is the big driver for Protein sales.
I have heard so many different findings about protein use:
- perfect timing windows for greatest protein synthesis or absorption
- different types of protein and when they are best
- how much can the body absorb in one meal*
*this one has heaps of conflicting evidence – however I believe the consensus is that the body can only absorb approx 25g at one go – If you look at most protein powders on the market, you will likely find that per serving – the amount of protein would be a lot higher than that (I’ve seen up to 50g / serve) – so that means you will literally be secreting half of the consumed protein down the drain!
How do we know what to believe?
I have recently researched this topic and have come across a systematic review (a review that looks at a large range of studies to come up with a summary of the results) published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that paints a true picture of what happens in the real world to strength and muscle building.
, 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
This particular review is useful as often studies will look at only aspects – like protein nitrogen balance post ingestion after training etc. Find it here
The study compared people with an average protein intake with those whom supplemented an extra 35g/day.
- Total strength gains were 27kg for those whom completed resistance training.
- The average strength gains were 2.49kg extra for people whom had protein supplements and lifted weights.
ONLY 2.49kg extra – WTF!! (but the little protein loving voice in my head is telling me that’s its still 9% better – so totally worth it!!)
- The average fat free mass gain was 1.1kg (27% more gains) in weight trained individuals, with 0.3kg attributed in those with the additional supplements.
ONLY 0.3kg better!
- The increase in size of the femur improved by 7.2mm2 with added protein
Geeze, that doesn’t sound like a lot!
- Post workout intake didn’t enhance muscle or strength growth more that general intake alone.
- General daily intake of protein had most significant results up to 1.6g/kg/day (with low/no intake having poor results) – and majority of studies with higher intake didn’t show further changes **but some studies up to 2.2g/kg did have further changes
- Trained individuals (people whom are already resistance training) find it harder to improve muscle, and therefore require more protein than untrained individuals.
- Older adults also need more than younger people, and had the most change with increased protein (however the baseline protein was possibly too low for older adults – therefore exaggerating the results)
One factor which is worth noting is that the average daily intake of protein was 1.4g/kg/day – which is actually quite a high intake (Recommended for healthy adults is 0.75kg/day women, and 0.84g/kg men – likely not high enough for resistance training).
In this study perhaps some of the benefits of protein supplements were hidden by the already high intake? or it highlights that the nutritional habits of normal food intake in the western world is already high protein – therefore supplements may not be necessary!
The take home message is:
Protein in the diet as normal nutrition is important.
Supplementing protein can be useful, especially if you are having difficulty consuming via meals alone.
Your normal food habits may be high enough in protein to not warrant supplements.
We only need up to 1.6g/kg/day – any more does not always lead to further gains (in my view the needs for pro bodybuilding athletes may be higher tho – but for the rest of us mere mortals – 1.6kg is as good as we need!
Timing of protein ingestion doesn’t really matter
Halving the serving size of your protein shakes will not be detrimental as you can only absorb so much – and will save you money (making your powder last a lot longer!)
Actually doing resistance training is far more important than protein.
By all means, use protein supplements if you need/want – but just remember the added benefits may not really live up to the cost.
Doing this post has really got me thinking about my own supplement use – and I possibly may not bother with protein shakes anymore (as long as I can get all I need in my normal food diet).