In the world of strength training and weight loss, protein is essentially the powdered equivalent of solid gold. We put it in nearly everything these days. You can find it in granola bars, pancakes, chips, cereal, waffles, and the list goes on and on.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that marketing has caught onto the protein popularity. So, remember that not all protein is created equal. Lifters should be aware of the science behind it if they want to truly maximize their body composition and performance.
Protein: The LEGO Bricks of the Human Body
In a nutshell, protein is essentially the human equivalent of LEGO bricks. When you consume something like a protein shake, that liquid makes its way down your throat and into your stomach. There it comes in contact with hydrochloric acid (HCL) and an enzyme known as pepsin, which assists with protein digestion.
Pepsin and HCL help break down the protein into individual parts, better known as amino acids. These amino acids head out of the stomach and into the small intestine. There they are further broken down before heading into the bloodstream and circulating to working muscle.
Think about cars on a highway as the protein in your bloodstream. There are endless routes you could take to arrive at different destinations. Some people need to take one exit while others need to go to another.
Protein functions in a similar manner. Once amino acids enter your bloodstream (aka the highway), they can be used for a variety of functions at different locations (aka exit ramps). Most importantly, they are shuttled to working muscles to help repair microtrauma that occurs during exercise.
Microtrauma is where our LEGO analogy comes into play. When LEGOs are broken apart, they’re pretty small, weak, and unusable (the same with amino acids). However, when you combine the right LEGOs in the right combination, they become strong, form a structure, and serve a purpose.
Amino acids function on all the same principles. You need specific types of amino acids and certain amounts to build muscle and help repair damage from your training session.
We’ll get into more of the specifics later, but these simple LEGO and superhighway analogies will help you see how protein gets disassembled (via digestion) and then reassembled (via enzymes) into muscle.
How Much Is Too Much?
Now that you have a very basic understanding of protein digestion and assimilation (aka transport from the intestines into the bloodstream where it can be used), we need to dive into some specifics on dosages.
If you sit down and chat with anyone who’s interested in adding muscle or losing fat, they’ll likely mention one of the following:
“I know I need to eat more protein and workout.”
“I have to have a protein shake after I workout or else I’ll lose muscle.”
While they are not wrong, we need to discuss both those statements and the general understanding that most of the public has.
When it comes to exact recommendations, let’s examine the research and look at the current science when it comes to specifics. Many people have their own opinion on the subject, but let’s look at the data and examine the facts.
The ISSN (International Society of Sports Nutrition) is a fantastic resource, and they have a great paper on protein. However, if you don’t want to read the entire paper, I’ll piece together a quick excerpt of points that gets to what I want to discuss:
“For building muscle mass and for maintaining muscle mass through a positive muscle protein balance, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most exercising individuals.<
Recommendations regarding the optimal protein intake per serving for athletes to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS) are mixed but general recommendations are 0.25 g of a high-quality protein per kg of body weight, or an absolute dose of 20–40 g per meal.
These protein doses should ideally be evenly distributed, every 3–4 hours, across the day.”
That may sound like a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, so let’s break it down a bit. Most people need to eat 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to build and/or maintain muscle mass. Spread it between multiple meals spaced 3-4 hours apart, with each meal containing 20-40 grams.
If you’re not familiar with kilograms, use this conversion:
Current bodyweight (in LBS) / 2.2 = Weight in KG
So if you’re a 180lb male, your daily protein intake based on the above recommendations would look like this:
180lbs / 2.2 = ~82kgs
82kg * 1.4 = ~115g of protein, the lower end of the range
82kg * 2 = ~164g of protein, the upper end of the range
Thus, a 180lb person needs to eat between 115-164 grams of protein over the course of 3-5 meals, depending on their schedule and preferences. That breaks down to:
115g / 3 meals = ~38g/meal
115g / 5 meals = ~23g/meal
164g / 3 meals = ~55g/meal
164g / 5 meals = ~33g/meal
Now, how do you decide whether you want 1.4g/kg or 2.0g/kg?
That comes down to a few different factors, but it isn’t as complicated as you might think…
Can you keep this up? If 164 grams of daily protein sounds like too much, then opt for an amount closer to 1.4g/kg and slowly walk your way up. But if you prefer protein over carbs or fat (who doesn’t love a good steak?), opt for an amount closer to 2.0g/kg and enjoy some extra meat. For ideas on high-protein foods, read this post.
Protein tends to help you stay full (aka satiated) because it takes a while to digest. When trying to put on muscle and take in a lot of calories, eating above the 2.0g/kg recommendation is actually counterproductive. It will likely keep you full longer and lower your caloric intake. If your appetite is great and you can easily eat above the 2.0g/kg, then that’s good.
But keep in mind that it’s much more difficult for the body to convert protein into energy compared to carbs and fat. You’re essentially making your body work harder to produce the energy you need to train. Not only that, carbs and fat are tasty, so don’t make this harder than it has to be.
Usually when you’re working through an exceedingly tough block of training, most people cover their bases. Thus, they’ll probably increase protein intake to the top end of the range to ensure they have enough amino acids to support recovery and growth from training.
However, it’s not a guarantee that they will build more muscle with 2.0g/kg as opposed to 1.4g/kg. On the contrary, it largely depends on the total number of calories consumed throughout the day rather than the total amount of protein.
Some people have a harder time breaking down protein during the initial phases of digestion. In this case, they may want to stay closer to the 1.4g/kg recommendation. This discussion is somewhat outside the scope of this article. However, it’s something coaches should consider for clients who prefer a low(er) meat diet. Or for those who have a distaste for large amounts of meat due to digestive issues accompanied by protein consumption.
Live or Die By the Numbers…
That’s everything you could possibly need to know to determine your baseline intake. Protein receives the largest amount of press from a marketing standpoint, so hopefully this guide helped dispel some myths and formulate a nutritional plan of action. Stay tuned for part II where we discuss all your FAQs!