I want to build muscle, and I know that protein is essential in making that happen. But, what type of protein is best? How much will I need? Are my protein requirements different to others?
If these questions apply to you then don’t worry! We have you covered!
In this article, we are going to go over the basics of protein, how to calculate your protein intake and a few other important factors you need to know when it comes to building muscle.
What is protein?
Protein is a large molecule made up of smaller molecules known as amino acids, often referred to as the building blocks of our body. Our bodies use over 20 amino acids which combine in various ways and ratios to form at least 10,000 different proteins. These proteins are found virtually everywhere in our body (muscle, bones, skin, organs and body tissue), and they essentially make us who/what we are today (1). However, of the 20+ amino acids that we use, only 9 of them are considered ‘essential’ and have to be obtained through our diet.
The 9 Essential amino acids are; Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. Each of these aminos have specific functions and help us regulate our metabolism, balance our fluid levels, create hormones, transport nutrients, repair, recover and grow our muscles.
What are the main protein sources?
We typically consume our protein from either animal or plant-based sources, but not all protein is nutritionally equal!
Animal proteins are referred to as ‘Complete Proteins’ because they contain all 9 of the essential amino acids that we need from food. Whereas most plant proteins are ‘incomplete’, meaning they are low in one or more of the essential amino acids and need to be paired with other foods to get the full essential amino acid profile.
Soy protein is the exception to this. It has all 9 essential aminos as well as a high quantity of protein per serving.
Animal protein foods:
• Fish and seafood
• Lean meat
• Poultry and game
• Dairy (Milk, yogurt and cheese)
• Protein powders (casein, whey, beef)
Plant protein foods:
• Chia Seeds
• Protein powders (pea, hemp, soy)
• + plenty more
How much protein do I need?
The current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is 0.8g of protein per 1kg of bodyweight. This is the suggested amount needed to meet your body’s basic requirements to prevent a protein deficiency (2). However, this number is too low and recent studies have confirmed that ageing adults have higher protein needs due to the risk of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). Post 30 years old, we begin to lose between 3-5% of our muscle mass per decade (3).
Increasing our protein intake helps to both restore and maintain a healthy amount of muscle mass.
So, now that we know the minimum requirements vary with factors like age, how much protein do we actually need?
When it comes to weight loss there is ample evidence that shows a high-protein diet alone gets results and is effective at increasing satiety, reducing appetite, slowing down muscle loss and speeding up metabolism. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests dieters should consume between 1.2-1.6g of protein per kg of bodyweight (4). However, muscle gain studies indicate that a high-protein diet when combined with strength training, facilitates muscle growth. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that a person training to increase muscle mass should consume between 1.2-1.7g of protein per kg of bodyweight (5).
The interesting thing to note here is that the suggested protein ranges both for weight loss and muscle gain are very similar. This further indicates that exercise, nutrition and optimal protein intake go hand in hand when it comes to your muscle growth!
Can you have too much protein?
As mentioned, protein is essential for several functions within the body, and so naturally it is easy to think that more protein is better, especially when it comes to muscle growth. However, research has found that there is a limit as to how much protein our bodies can use per meal – this is known as the ‘Muscle full effect’. A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that we can only use between 20-30g of protein per meal to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (6).
In short, beyond a certain amount more protein is NOT going to affect how much muscle you grow. However, more studies are needed to know if there are effects on the other benefits that come with an increase in protein.
How do I build muscle?
In a previous article, we gave 6 tips on how to build lean muscle, which goes into greater depth about all aspects of building muscle. However, here is a snapshot of how to build muscle through exercise:
There are 3 primary mechanisms involved in exercise-induced muscle growth:
1: Mechanical Tension
The force, load or stress that tries to stretch our muscle against contraction. For example, lifting a dumbbell to perform a bicep curl.
2: Muscle Damage
Exercise-induced muscle damage happens when we perform a new movement for the first time, do an exercise in an unfamiliar way, learn new techniques or increase the volume or intensity of an exercise. The greatest amount of mechanical tension typically happens in the eccentric (lengthening/stretching) phase of an exercise. For example, in the bicep curl, the eccentric phase of the exercise is when you lower the weight back down to starting position.
The muscle damage caused is typically small and is often referred to as micro-damage or micro-tears and is usually expressed post-workout in the form of muscle soreness.
3: Metabolic Stress
Metabolic stress during exercise refers to the build-up of metabolites in your muscle as it starts to fatigue. Many of us are familiar with the ‘burn’ or ‘pump’ sensation after repeating exercise reps with minimal rest or until failure.
These primary mechanisms signal our bodies to release anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone which help to increase muscle protein synthesis and limit muscle breakdown.
If you are new to training or consider yourself a beginner, we recommend doing 3-4 resistance/strength training sessions a week. Depending on the programming and exercise style these sessions can last anywhere between 30-60 minutes.
The biggest takeaway that we can offer from this article is to ensure that your protein intake prioritizes your age and activity levels over your physical end goals. Keeping within the 1.2-1.7g of protein per kg of bodyweight is ideal and if you are regularly active, especially with strength training then aim for the higher end of this range.
Once you have found a way to stay consistent within this range, pay close attention to your training program. A good program for muscle growth will include progression, variation and periodization.
Remember you are on a lifelong journey so take things one step at a time and learn from every single step.
Until the next post. Have a great day! x
Mike and Viv aka MrandMrsMuscle