how much protein to build muscle

How Much Protein do I Need to Build Muscle?

Protein is esentially the most abundant macronutrient in our organism. Carrying out a wide variety of functions, a proper dietary intake ensures enough aminoacids to synthesize all needed proteins. When it comes building muscle, protein intake also plays an important role. It ensures that new tissue is being constructed and the old one is being repaired. But now you may be wondering, how much protein do I need to build muscle?

In this post we'll take you through a brief introduction of what proteins are and what they are made of, to then be able to understand how they can affect and potentiate muscle building.

WHAT ARE PROTEINS?

Before understanding their importance on muscle builing you need to understand what they are and their metabolic functions.

Proteins are large biomolecules composed of one or more chains of aminoacids (Aa). These aminoacids act as building blocks, joined together by a peptide bond. This bond made between the -COOH of one Aa and the NH2 of the following is Aa is what gives robusticity and stability to the peptide chain.

Besides peptide bond, there are many other interactions between the different elements that gives the ultimate conformation of the protein. Among these we encounter hydrogen bonds, ionic interactions and week noncovalent interactions. These will establish the tertiary structure of proteins, totally essential for its function and activity.

Protein Structure

High metabolic importance

Proteins are the most abundant biomolecules in our organism. And here are some examples that might convince you:

  1. Antibodies? - Proteins
  2. Enzymes? - Proteins
  3. Muscle fibres? - Proteins
  4. Membrane transporters? - Proteins
  5. Receptors? - Proteins
  6. Final product of gene expression? - Proteins

The wide variety of proteins present in our metabolisms make these molecules really important for our health and wellness. And if you are not convinced yet (I hope you are), I'll do it with this. Muscle tissue is primarly made of connective proteins, mainly myosin, actin and titin. To create more muscle fibres, in the process known as muscle hypertrophy, more connective tissue is created. This process is what we call muscle protein synthesis (MPS), an important term to understand further concepts.

Proteins are involved in many metabolic process, in where we find inmune response (study), transport of molecules (study), enzymatic catalysis (study), connective tissue (study), and source of energy (study)

PROTEIN TO BUILD MUSCLE

Muscle is primarly made of proteins added in parallel to create the connective tissue. These proteins, mainly actin and myosin, will create the called 'actin-myosin bridges' when we are lifting a weight to contract the muscle.

If we want to build more muscle mass we require two things:

  1. Resistance or strenght training
  2. Dietary protein intake

Resistance training will induce 'catabolism' during the session itself, increasing muscle protein degradation (MPD) and decreasing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) (study). Dietary protein intake, on the other hand, is used as a source of Aa to refill and create new muscle tissue, so as to repair the damaged one (study). Not only directly, but it promotes muscle growth by enhacing production of anabolic hormones and regulating different metabolic pathways associated with MPS and MPD (study)

In other words, dietary protein is required to promote growth, repair damaged cells and tissue, synthesize hormones, and for a variety of metabolic activities.

PROTEIN BALANCE

So far we have discussed two different terms; muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein degradation (MPD). The balance of these two will determine the extent of new muscle tissue created and/or repaired. Here we can evaluate different scenarios

MPS>MPD

When dietary protein intake is enough to overcome the catabolism and degradation taking place, muscle tissue will be repaired and formed. The outcome will be gains on muscle mass, although changes overnight are insignificant to be visible. In order to see visible changes you'll have to keep this status over prolonged times of at least 2-3 monts if novice and more if more advanced.

MPS<MPD

When it comes the opposite, muscle recovery is affected and we don't have enough energy and aminoacids to create new muscle tissue. While this usually happens on very restricted diets (study), it's not likely to happen to you if you are an average 'fitness lover' enjoying your healthy habits and sports. But if you've been in a pronuntiated caloric deficit for a long time and your performance is going lower and lower, you may still think about increasing your caloric and protein intake.

MPS = MPD

In this special case, nothing should happen regarding new muscle mass created or destroyed (in theory). But we cannot look at our metabolism as an steady state process (when in=out and concentration doesn't change over time), and fluctiations will lead to disturbed MPS and MPD. But in theory, if both terms are equal, we would be able to mantain our muscle mass without building any additional one.

Protein to build muscle

HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO I NEED TO BUILD MUSCLE?

We have two terms that determine our protein balance. In result of this, we'll gain muscle overtime, lose it, or just mantain it. Now the question is, how much is needed to put ourselves in the MPS>MPD and build musle overtime?

Classic recommendations of protein intake to build muscle

According to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) and Health Organizations, the recommended protein intake for the general populationis 0.8-1.1 g/kg of body weight (study). But we know that quantity is not enough for subjects tryingto build muscle. The RDA was set based on a statistical model to include approximately 98 per cent of the population accounting for differences in age, pregnancy and lactation. This data was based on nitrogen balance studies (study). However, new techniques suggest that for most people those recommendations are far low from the recommended intake.

Luckily, general population (and you) is starting to realize that we need more protein than what they tell us, even with more reason if you are trying to build muscle or are physically active. And here is some evidence backing up this:

  • A revision in the Journal of Sports and Science suggests 1.3-1.8g/kg for athletes, going to higher intakes of 1.8-2.0 g/kg if your energy demands and exercise are too intense or if you are in a caloric deficit
  • This study reveals that low protein intakes leads to a higher muscle loss when compared to higher intakes to 1.4-2.4g/kg
  • On this meta-analysis it was concluded that protein intakes above RDA provide more benefits on muscle mass and body composition. They refer to RDA as the "preventive protein intake for osteoporosis and several health issues"
  • In this study with atheletes, it was found that higher intakes of protein of 2.5g/kg lead to a more pronounced loss in fat mass and increased muscle mass when compared to RDA

Actual recommendations of protein to build muscle

Recommended protein intake varies slightly within subjects. To give a final assesment we must consider age, health records, physical activity, lifestyle, sex,... However, we can still get some conclusions from the evidence known to date.

We have seen how RDA is simply a preventive dose to avoid health consequences related to protein deficiencies. In fact, when it comes to bone healt, cardiovascular events,... higher protein intakes provide more benefits than RDA (study).

Doses of 2-3g/kg have been used in many of the studies known to date, suggesting that range to be a good start for our protein intake. But here are some cases in where protein intake should be consulted with your doctor:

  • In case of having renal dysfunction (study)
  • Pregnant women (study)
  • Cancer patients or an other severe disease (systematic review)
  • Children and new-borns (study)
  • Elderly and subjects with risk of sarcopenia (study)

For the sake of simplicity and because is an easy range to remember, we'll stick to 2-3g/kg of protein intake to optimize metabolic health and muscle building. New studies come suggesting that higher protein intakes could benefit slightly more, although the benefits are not worthy different to increase the dose up to 4-5 g/kg. Although shown to be safe on the short-term, we have no evidence when it comes to the long-term, and high doses of 4-5g/kg could bring health problems over time.

TAKE-HOME MESSAGES:


  • Protein is the most abundant macronutrient, with a wide variety of metabolic functions

  • Protein balance between MPS and MPD will determine the creation/destruction of muscle mass over time

  • Classical recommended doses of protein are based on a preventive measure to avoid health issues

  • Intakes of 2-3g/kg show more benefits in relation to health and muscle building

PROTEIN INTAKE TO BUILD MUSCLE

We stated general recommendations to be 2-3g/kg. But that's still a wide range. For a 80kg man that would mean his intake is around 160-240g of protein per day. Different cases require different protein intakes, and the same person can also benefit from different protein intakes depending on the season and the context.

In this post we'll cover the two main scenarios for our concern, both when following a calorie deficit and surplus.

How much protein on a calorie surplus

During moderate caloric surplus, our environment is more likely to function properly due to the presence and excess of energy (study). If you want to build muscle, caloric surplus is definitely your priority #1, and research has shown us how muscle building is potentiated and optimized when the surplus is prolonged (study)(study).

Due to the anabolic environment created during the caloric surplus, muscle loss is not at risk (study). High protein intakes would also displace the other two macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats), which have several benefits when it comes to eating high calorie diets:

  1. Carbohydrates are the main metabolic fuel (energy) and with a low satiety index. They are key for enhancing your training quality and performance
  2. Fats are the macronutrient with the highest density index. Providing 9kcal/g (the other two macronutrients provide 4kcal), fats are interesting to create more adherence to high calorie diets and avoid eating high food volumes.

Because of this, we recommend protein intake sitting on the low range on the one mentioned above. This means that 2-2.3g/kg should be optimal for your muscle gains and preservation of muscle mass. And we have some evidence to back it up:

  • In bodybuilders on their off-season, 1.6-2.2g/kg was enough and optimal to build muscle mass (study)
  • In this review, 1.8-2.2g/kg showed better results for body composition and muscle mass when comapred to the subjects following the RDA recommendations (study)
  • This study recommends 1.6-2.0g/kg for athletes to consume if the goal is muscle building (study)

Because I like round numbers (they are easy to remember), an I believe that future recommendations will point towards even higher protein intakes, I recommend taking 2-2.3g/kg of daily protein. This is if you are physically active, follow resistance or strength training and a caloric surplus.

Protein intake for boydbuilders

How much protein during a calorie deficit

Caloric deficit -as it happens with caloric surplus and muscle building- is the requirement #1 if you want to lose fat.

Showing a linear relation between extent of deficit and weight loss, (study) you should also be aware of the risks and consequences restricted diets may have in our muscle mass.

Research shows how the higher the caloric deficit, the higher the risk of muscle loss (study). Only providing a few calories to our organism, our metabolism will have to go autophagy (eating its own body tissues) to get the required energy for survival and essential living. First, it will get it from fat mass and other tissues, but later muscle will come and muscle loss will increase.

To avoid muscle loss during your dieting and preserve the max. muscle mass while getting rid of all the fat mass possible, protein intake should be consider. As we saw before, protein balanced is determined by MPS and MPD. Due to the calorie deficit, MPD is accentuated. To counteract this, we'll have to increase MPS to balance our muscle loss rate.

For subjects following a calorie deficit and resistance training, I recommend protein intakes of 2.5-3g/kg. Again, it's easy to remember and it shows a lot of evidence modulating the MPS and lowering the rate of muscle loss when dieting for long periods of time.

  1. Higher protein intakes showed increased fat loss and decreased muscle loss (study)
  2. Recommendations for bodybuilder in 'prep' point out 2.3-3g/kg to be optimal for preserving muscle mass (study)
  3. Protein intake ranging from 1.8 to 3.7 g/kg have succeedded in responding to muscle loss preservation in amateur male bodybuilders (study)

If I haven't convinced you yet, there are two reasons why you should consider higher protein intakes of 2.5-3g/kg per day. First, the satiety that proteins provide. Being the most satiating macronutrient of all three (study), it can make the process way easier. Second, the thermogenic effect of proteins. Higher intakes of proteins elevate our total energy expenditure (TEE) slightly (study). Those few calories won't make a difference in 1-2 days, but when we talk about the long term, those calories extra will be noticeable.

DISTRIBUTION OF THE PROTEIN INTAKE

Reaching the recommended protein intake will make and provide 90% of the benefits of dietary protein intake. But if you are really into and want to make the best out of it, timing and distribution also plays a role in MPS and muscle hypertrophy (study).

Role of leucine on protein synthesis

Leucine is a essential branched amino acid (BCAA), found to be the most important amino acid for muscle protein synthesis (study). Leucine itself has the ability to trigger and activate anabolic pathways related to muscle protein synthesis such as the complex mTORC1 (study). Leucine could also regulate muscle protein synthesis by activating insulin secretion (study). It serves as fuel and allosteric activator for glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH). Insulin secretion leads to an improved glycemic control and higher anabolic response (study).

Doses of 0.045-0.05g/kg of leucine per meal have been proved to be optimal for muscle protein synthesis. But this recommendation is only important when it comes to low protein intakes. When following high protein diets, leucine is always provided by dietary protein sources. In the famous study of Chuward-Venne (study), 2.25g leucine added to 6.25g whey protein didn't show any added effect. This suggest that although leucine seems to be important for MPS, the ingestion of the other essential amino acids (EAAS) and sufficient protein is at the top of our priorities to optimize MPS.

Leucine and Protein Synthesis

Minimum dose per meal

There has been a lot of controversy regarding how much protein per meal you should eat. First of all, let me tell you that there's no such thing as "the protein that is not used for MPS will be wasted and excreted in the form of urea". Our metabolism is intelligent, and it won't throw to waste valuable sources that can be used for metabolic work. The excess amino acids will be used for energy, storage, or simply as a nitrogen sources for building other biomolecules (study).

With this being said, we know (after years of research) the protein dose at which MPS seems to be optimized. A minimum of 20g protein seems to be sufficient and optimal for muscle protein synthesis (study). However, higher doses up to 40g post-workout seem to have higher benefits on protein synthesis, although the difference when compared to 20-25g is negligible (study). In fact, this difference is only important in older adults with higher MPD than younger subjects. In cases of increased protein degradation, 40g could be a feasible solution to improve MPS.

If you want to go for the 100%, I recommend you reaching the higher range of protein and go for 40g. But remember that in the long term 20g might be more viable, cheaper, and will boost MPS enough to create muscle adaptations and keep building muscle.

Minimum Protein Dose to build muscle

How often should you eat?

If we know the optimal protein dose per meal (20-25g) and the overall recommended protein intake (2-3g/kg), this question is answered by simple math.

Meal timing and how often you eat could make a difference on body composition, although is just the 'cherry on the top', and it's for sure not the most important fact.

Meals every 2-3h is believed to be the best protocol for muscle building. But far from reality, that highly depends on the composition of your meal. Protein is absorbed at different rates depending on the nutritional matrix of your meal (study). And making another high-protein meal while the last meal is still being digested doesn't seem to potentiate MPS to any extent.

If you want to optimize your results, you could follow the frame of protein intake every 3-4h. This is based on the fact that muscle building diets often involve high calorie intakes, which are easier to reach as we make more meals. But in terms of MPS and protein intake, the overall intake is what matters the most.

For the ease of your understanding, we'll go through a case study. Let's say a man weights 80kg and is bulking at the moment, following a diet of 2g/kg protein. That'll make a total of 160g protein. In terms of adherence and lifestyle, he does 4 meals per day. If we divide protein intake equally, that'd give us 40g protein per meal, which is more than sufficient to optimize muscle protein synthesis (study).

How much protein do i need to build muscle

TAKE-HOME MESSAGES:


  • Overall protein intake quantity is the most important fact for MPS

  • Leucine plays an important role initiating and triggering MPS, but it needs of the other amino acids to build muscle tissue and synthesize proteins

  • Protein doses of 20-40g are optimal for MPS.

  • Meal timing and protein distribution is not significant when it comes to the 'basis'. To get the most out of it, seek for a linear protein distribution and 3-4 high-protein meals

CONCLUSION

Protein balance is important when it comes to building muscle and/or preventing muscle loss. How much protein do I need to build muscle?

Depending on your calorie intake, sex, age,... protein intake may differ, but general recommendations of 2-3g/kg seem to be a feasible guide to optimize MPS.

Being overall protein intake at the bottom of the pyramid, other factors such as leucine content, minimum dose or quality of the protein have an impact on MPS. In summary, go for 3-4 meals of 20-40g protein and 0.045-0.05g/kg leucine. Animal source protein are usually high in leucine, thus this last recommendation loses importance

In this post you have learned the importance of protein for muscle tissue and body composition. In future posts we'll discuss the timing of protein and when it'd more interesting to add protein.

If you still have doubts, leave your question below in the comment section.

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