Athletes and especially bodybuilders and strength athletes have long believed that large amounts of protein is the surest way to build both muscle and strength. Today I’d like to specifically dive into the science of protein and weight training as well athletic performance. As the title of this series suggests, there is an overstated importance given to protein in general and this is especially true when it comes to sports performance and muscle-building. This is what I imagine most of you are interested in and I’ll be looking at this in great detail in this and the follow-up articles so that you can best make up your own mind regarding what will work best for you.
There is no argument here about the importance of pre and post protein ingestion in order to stimulate positive muscle anabolism. Proteins in general, but particularly myofibrillar proteins accumulate over time in response to each training session and the associated protein intake, which of course results in increased muscle mass. The amount of protein needed to accomplish this is shockingly small. A serving of essential amino acids as small as six grams ingested either before or after exercise has been shown to result in a positive net balance(2).
Data presented by the American College of Sports Medicine showed that there is a maximum amount of ingested protein and that consumption of more than 10 grams of protein results in diminishing increases of muscle anabolism following exercise. With that information, it appears that large amounts of protein are unnecessary and will just be oxidized for energy use and will have no impact on muscle-building. This means that by consuming unnecessary proteins you are forgoing other nutrients in order to keep your level of protein high. By lowering the amount of protein you ingest it then becomes that much easier to consume more of what your body needs without consuming excess calories.
Part of the reason why protein requirements are somewhat of a controversial topic as far as science is concerned(3) is due to the method that protein requirements are measured. By measuring nitrogen balance, because protein contains nitrogen, science has come up with a flawed method to as to how much protein is needed to build muscle. There are numerous studies that show that a positive nitrogen balance is easily maintained in highly trained athletes at between 1.2 and 1.6 kgBW/d(I,2,3). Even with this inaccurate method we then would only need a maximum of .7 grams per pound in order to remain in a positive nitrogen and therefore anabolic state.
This same method of measurement is also likely why there is so much emphasis put on protein ingestion. This is because the greater the protein intake, the greater the nitrogen balance, and this is where the whole lift big, eat big, sleep big formula comes from. It doesn’t quite work out that way, however, as even athletes with very high nitrogen balances fail to build any lean body mass(1,3), clearly demonstrating that unnecessarily large protein intakes simply do not work for building muscle.
Two studies out of McMaster University in Canada show that ingesting large amounts of protein is not needed in order to build muscle (4,5). The athletes in these studies consumed between 1.2 and 1.6/kgBW/d of protein for 12 weeks. Both muscle mass and strength increased on what is considered by many to be a relatively low protein diet.
What these studies showed was that the anabolic nature of weight training decreases the need for protein. Because the body has been stimulated to build muscle through resistance training does not mean that the need for protein is greater but actually the need for protein does not increase. The body has become more inclined to build muscle because of the training, not because of the increased amount of protein that so many ingest without any proof whatsoever that there is a benefit.
There is still much, much more to discuss in this series, but that’s as far as I need to go regarding protein and muscle-building. Even using what we have learned so far, anything from .5 to .7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight a day is enough to remain in a positive anabolic state, meaning any more than that is totally unnecessary in order to grow muscle.
Also, I’m all for having what I’m saying questioned by anyone at all who don’t believe me, but one question I would put forth to anyone who doubts me up to this point is – can you find me any evidence whatsoever that proves that larger amounts of protein produce larger muscles? Until next time,
- Protein – The Big Lie
- Protein – The Big Lie 3
- Protein – The Big Lie 4
- Protein – The Big Lie 5
- Protein Calculator: Calculate Your Daily Protein Intake
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism 2006; 31:647-654
- Clin Sports Med 2007; 26(1):17-36
- Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2007; in press
- Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2006; 31(5):557-564
- J Nutr 2007; 137(4):985-991