When it comes to building lean muscle mass, clients will often ask questions, such as "I want to gain muscle mass, so should I start using a protein supplement?" or "I'm trying to gain some muscle weight, so I've been eating more protein. I'm not seeing any changes, so what should I do?" If you're just as confused about the role of protein in building muscle, then you've come to the right place as I prepare to set the record straight on this hot topic.
First things first: any plan to build muscle mass must involve progressive strength or resistance training. Without this foundation, you will not gain muscle mass no matter how much protein you consume. Also, keep in mind that if you're interested in increasing muscle size, it takes up to 8-12 weeks of practicing a progressive strength training routine before you'll see these muscle gains. To optimize your workouts, I would suggest investing in a certified personal trainer or exercise physiologist who can create an individualized plan to help you accomplish your muscle-gaining goals.
So how much protein do you need? Because you do need protein, and more specifically essential amino acids, to achieve muscle growth, you'll need up to two times more protein than the average Joe or Jane Schmoe, which is between 1.6-1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. Keep in mind that someone who's just getting started on his muscle-building regimen (first 3-6 months) actually needs more protein per kilogram of body weight than someone who's been training for a while since the trained individual's body actually becomes more efficient at utilizing protein.
Do you need a protein supplement? Don't reach for that supplement just yet! Most healthy individuals have no problem consuming this amount of protein through food intake alone, so supplements aren't really necessary and could just put a dent in your wallet. Research suggests that consuming high quality sources of protein from food is just as effective, if not more effective, at helping people achieve their muscle-building needs. In fact, an individual who consumes too much protein could run into a few problems. One is that the breakdown of protein that's not used to replenish and build new tissue produces metabolic waste products (nitrogen) that must be excreted from the body. Without adequate fluid consumption, taking in excessive amounts of protein could elevate the risk of dehydration. Even mild dehydration can hinder one's athletic performance leading to a less effective workout. The second major problem is that an overabundance of protein could lead to excess calorie consumption, which could result in more than just muscle gain. If the protein is not used for muscle building or other functions in the body, then an individual could find himself packing on a few more pounds than intended.
What are good sources of protein for muscle building? Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, soybeans, and low-fat milk, cheese, or yogurt are high quality sources of protein that will support muscle building. Keep in mind that whole grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetables are also quality sources of protein. Eating protein from a variety of food sources is key because this will maintain a more balanced and adequate intake of a many nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
Time it just right. Did you know that timing may actually be more important than amount when it comes to protein intake for muscle building? Consuming a little high-quality protein (~10 grams) before strength training provides a good dose of essential amino acids to the muscles and helps decrease the breakdown of protein. Consuming a little high-quality protein after the training session is also helpful since the muscles are primed and protein synthesis is enhanced at that time. To give you an idea of what this looks like in terms of food, you can find about 10 grams of protein in: 1 1/2 oz of meat, fish, or poultry, 2 small eggs or egg whites, 1 1/2 oz cheese, 1 oz nuts like cashews, 2 1/2 T peanut butter, 8 oz yogurt or 1 1/4 c low-fat milk.
Don't forget the two C's: carbohydrate and calories! Quality sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, or milk, provide an important foundation for your muscle-building plan. Why? Carbohydrates fuel the muscles during physical activity and getting enough will help maximize your workout. Consumption of both carbohydrate and protein also generate an insulin response, and insulin is an anabolic hormone, which enhances muscle protein synthesis and decreases protein breakdown. If we don't consume enough carbohydrate and calories, our body relies more heavily on protein for energy. When protein is used for energy, less of it is available for muscle building and repair, which is not optimal for someone trying to gain lean muscle tissue.
If you're interested in receiving professional guidance in this area, then I'd highly recommend that you invest in the services of an experienced Registered Dietitian (RD) or a RD who is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD).
For more on this topic, you may consider the following resources:
- Power Eating, Third Edition - A useful tool for those looking to build muscle and improve body composition.
- Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook - A helpful tool for any active individual with a specific section on nutrition for muscle gain.
- The Powerfood Nutrition Plan: The Guy's Guide to Getting Stronger, Leaner, Smarter, Healthier, Better Looking, Better Sex Food! Geared toward men, this is the ultimate guide for achieving a variety of nutrition-related goals, including muscle gain.