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Whether you’re a pro or novice weightlifter, chances are you’ve heard about the benefits of a high protein diet for muscle building. It’s true that protein plays an important role in our ability to pack on muscle mass, but recommendations can vary significantly in terms of how much you should be taking in.
Some recommendations are as low as 50 grams of protein per day, while others go as high as several hundred grams per day. So how much protein do you really need to be eating on a daily basis to build muscle?
To answer this question, we’re going over everything you need to know about protein and the muscle-building process.
What is Protein and Why Do You Need It to Build Muscle?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients we consume in our diets. It's our bodies’ central tool for repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. An ample daily supply of protein is needed to maintain and especially to build muscle.
Our muscles are made up of proteins, which in turn are made up of amino acids. Our bodies are constantly going through a state of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Activities such as exercising and even walking can place stress on our muscles, causing some of the tissue within them to break down.
In order to repair the damaged muscle tissue, our bodies require a variety of different amino acids. Some of the amino acids needed to rebuild muscle proteins cannot be produced by our bodies and therefore, must be obtained through our diet -- these are known as essential amino acids.
When we consume protein, whether it’s a protein shake or a piece of chicken, our bodies break it down into amino acids. These amino acids are then used to build new proteins within our bodies. Some of these new proteins are ultimately used to repair damaged muscle tissue.
How proteins help to build muscle
Even if you don’t work out, your body still needs a steady supply of protein. It doesn't take strenuous exercise to break down muscle tissue. The simple activities we perform in our daily lives also strain our muscles, creating the need for our bodies to regularly repair damaged tissue.
If we don’t consume enough protein on a daily basis, our bodies will not have enough amino acids to adequately repair damaged muscle fibers. This is especially important when it comes to building muscle - if our bodies don’t have enough protein, we won’t be able to build bigger and stronger muscles.
Exercise places strain on the muscles, causing serious damage to the fibers within them. As a result, increased amino acids are needed to repair and rebuild muscle tissue in individuals that train regularly.
This makes high-protein diets essential for everyone from the elite athlete to the casual gym-goer looking to lose fat and build muscle.
How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle?
In general, 1 gram (g) of protein for every pound (lb) of body weight has been a daily dietary staple in the bodybuilding community for over 50 years. Athletes and those looking to lose fat have commonly claimed even greater success with higher protein intakes, oftentimes between 1.2 - 1.5g of protein for every lb of body weight per day.
What do scientists say?
An almost universally accepted recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g per kg (0.36g per lb) for the average adult. The number is the same for both males and females. However, males on average weigh more and thus, require more grams of protein on average per day to maintain muscle mass.
So is the old bodybuilding staple of 1g of protein per 1 lb of bodyweight just a tall tale? Not so fast.
The RDA mainly pertains to people who don't work out and aren't looking to build muscle. Numerous studies have found that athletes and individuals who frequently exercise require higher doses of protein to build muscle.
For instance, a 2007 article published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism (IJSNEM) concludes that somewhere around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight was an ideal intake for resistance and endurance-trained athletes.
A 2018 study also published in the IJSNEM found that a daily protein intake of around 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight was the ideal range for athletes looking to improve their body composition.
So then, how much protein do you need to build muscle?
The table below will give you a rough idea of how much protein you’ll need per day to meet your training goals based on your level of activity. It is important to point out however that protein needs may vary slightly from person to person.
If your primary goal is to build muscle, it's a good idea to start around 1g per pound of bodyweight and then adjust your protein intake as necessary.
How Much Protein is Too Much?
We’ve seen that an ample supply of protein is needed both to build muscle and to burn fat. But is there such a thing as too much protein? The healthy range of protein recommended by the NIH is between 10 and 35%, so what happens if you go beyond that?
Increasing your protein intake without increasing your overall calorie intake won’t help you pack on more muscle mass. Instead, it can place your body under additional stress, especially in instances when carbs are dramatically reduced.
If you increase your protein intake by reducing carbs, much of the protein you consume may be used for energy rather than for rebuilding damaged muscle tissue. This inhibits your ability to build lean muscle mass.
You don’t need to go crazy with your daily protein intake; between 1g -1.5g of protein per pound of body weight is more than enough to build lean muscle.
Best Sources of Protein For Building Muscle
Ultimately, protein comes in many different forms and some are better than others when it comes to supporting the muscle-building process.
Different forms of proteins digest at different rates and have different bioavailabilities. On top of that, not all protein sources contain all 9 essential amino acids, so which one you chose is certainly important when it comes to gaining size and strength.
- Whey protein is an excellent protein source because it digests quickly, is rich in essential amino acids, and has a high bioavailability (over 100). This makes it an ideal supplement for anyone interested in maximizing their muscle-building potential.
- Beef is also a good choice for muscle building. Like whey, it also digests quickly and is packed full of essential amino acids. It has a slightly lower net protein utilization (NPU) however, with only around 73% of its protein content being utilized by the body.
- Eggs are an excellent source of protein as well. They have a bioavailability of about 90, meaning more than much of the protein in an egg is effectively utilized by the body during digestion. Unlike beef and whey, however, they have a much slower rate of digestion.
Are Plant-based Proteins Good For building muscle?
Proteins from plants can certainly help you meet your daily protein needs. However, there are some limitations. Many plant-based proteins have lower bioavailabilities in comparison to proteins from meat sources. For example, soy protein has a bioavailability of around 60, meaning that it's used up less efficiently by the body.
Additionally, different plant-based protein sources may be low or lacking in certain types of essential amino acids, meaning that you will need to consume a wider variety of plant-based proteins to assure that you are getting a balanced supply of all 9 essential amino acids.
How Does Protein Powder Fit Into the Picture?
When it comes to a high-protein diet, consuming large quantities of solid protein sources throughout the day can be a challenge. That’s why many people rely on protein powder supplements to get in a portion of their daily protein. But what type of protein powder is best?
The best protein for you depends on which results you are looking for.
- Whey protein has a greater bioavailability and absorption rate in comparison to casein which means a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis. But because whey is absorbed more quickly, its effects on MPS are also shorter.
- Casein is absorbed at a slower rate, it increases muscle protein synthesis for a longer duration of time.
- Plant protein supplements are typically going to have lower bioavailabilities in comparison to whey and casein. They may be lacking in certain types of essential amino acids, making them less beneficial when it comes to building muscle. However, some of these limitations can potentially be circumvented by consuming a protein powder that contains several different plant-based proteins.
How much protein should you eat in each meal?
Researchers have found no significant differences in muscle and strength gains between individuals who partook in intermittent fasting versus people who ate a number of small meals throughout the day. So what exactly does this mean?
Well, ultimately, your ability to build muscle will likely not change if your protein intake is concentrated into a few larger meals or spread out across a number of smaller meals.
If you’re consuming a variety of protein sources in your daily diet, you shouldn’t be worried about eating too much protein per meal. If your macro split and daily protein intake are on point, splitting your protein across the traditional 3 meals is sufficient for the average person to build muscle.
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Does Protein Timing Matter When it Comes to Building Muscle?
Several studies have found that consuming protein in a short time frame following training may be better for muscle growth in comparison to a delayed dose of protein hours after a workout.
In a review of research on protein timing, Aragon and Schoenfeld found that a dose of somewhere around 30 grams of protein immediately following exercise helped to stimulate more muscle growth in comparison to delayed doses.
While numerous studies have suggested that consuming protein immediately after a workout can be advantageous for muscle growth, there has not been any consensus on an exact window of time. The general belief, however, is the sooner, the better.
There also is not a unanimous consensus amongst researchers that consuming protein directly after a workout is more beneficial for building muscle. Hoffman et al. for example, found in their 2009 study that protein timing had no effect on body mass composition. In other words, they argue that it doesn’t really matter all that much if you eat protein directly after a workout or not.
Other research, such as a 2017 position stand published by the International Society of Sports, has also argued that consuming protein right before a workout may also be advantageous for building muscle and reducing recovery time.
So what should you make of all this?
There is a considerable amount of research that seems to suggest consuming protein immediately after exercise can be beneficial for muscle growth. At the very least it couldn’t hurt.
On the flip side, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t always get your protein intake directly before or after training. Your body is still more than capable of building muscle and burning fat without an immediate pre or post-exercise dose of protein.
The amount of protein you need to build muscle is dependant on your body weight. Most people are able to sufficiently build muscle with a protein intake of around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Athletes and those looking to shed fat may find greater benefits with a daily protein intake of closer to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Too much protein can negatively impact your ability to lose muscle. You don’t need to overdo your protein intake. In fact, if more than 35% of your calories are coming from protein, it could actually hinder your ability to build muscle.
Meal timing doesn't appear to play a huge role in your ability to build muscle. Whether you’re intermittent fasting or consuming 6-8 small meals throughout the day, you should be able to build muscle as long as you are taking in a variety of quality protein.
Supplementing protein directly after a workout appears to be advantageous for building muscle. Somewhere between 20 and 40 grams seems to be the ideal range of protein post-workout for maximal muscle increase.