This is something I’ve wanted to get into for some time but now I finally have all of the information I need to back up all of what I’m about to say. We’ve all been told how important protein is to building and maintaining muscle mass and on the surface the equation seems sound. Muscle is made of protein and lifting heavy weights breaks muscle down and in order for muscles to grow bigger protein synthesis needs to occur. Therefore, eat lots of protein and you will grow big muscles. Makes perfect sense, but it’s not only incorrect, it’s a lie.
This isn’t a conspiracy article about the protein powder companies that literally own the muscle magazines and ram the need for excess protein down your throat on a daily basis, nor is it about how the meat and dairy board decide what it is that you should eat and place a self serving value on protein that is way out of whack with what our physiological needs are. This article will only be dealing with the facts about protein nutrition and what you need to know in order to grow the largest muscles possible.
In this first part I’m going to be looking at the basics. Eventually I’ll get to what you need to do regarding your protein intake so that you can see the greatest results. First off, let’s look at protein in a general sense with regards to muscle-building.
The metabolic basis for changes in muscle mass is net protein balance (NBAL). All body proteins including muscle are in a constant state of being either degraded or synthesized and this happens simultaneously and independently of each other.
When it comes to talking about muscle specifically, the changes in muscle mass are due to the balance of the synthesis of muscle contractile proteins, meaning myofibrillar proteins. The quantity of muscle that you have accumulated over time has to do with muscle hypertrophy during periods of positive NBAL and fewer periods of muscle lost during periods of negative NBAL. Both your nutrition and weight training have a tremendous impact to which side those periods of NBAL will be leaning.
Genetics will determine how much muscle mass is possible for any one individual to build. Secondly, environmental influences such as training and nutrition will have a profound impact on your results and will determine how much mass will be built within your genetic limit at any one time. The type of training that you undertake as well as the volume, intensity and duration will have the largest impact on the total amount of muscle that you are able to build. It doesn’t matter how great your nutrition is, you will gain next to nothing without the proper stimulation given to your muscles so that they will send the correct signal to rebuild larger and stronger.
Training and nutrition will influence muscle mass through changes in muscle protein synthesis and breakdown that will either increase or decrease NBAL. NBAL can either be positive or negative on a daily or even hourly basis depending on nutritional intake and training. The duration of the periods of feeding/fasting and training will decide the net gain or loss of muscle mass(1). In those who are mass stable, the periods of positive and negative NBAL will be equal. For those of you who are continually year in and year out in more or less the same condition, then you need to look at what you need to do to in order to spend more time with a positive NBAL.
Even though it is the stimulus that is needed in order for any form of hypertrophy to occur the emphasis if you speak to those at the gym is always on protein and nutrition. Protein and amino acids are thought to be the most important factor in muscle-building and as such the casual gym attendee and high performance athlete alike consume huge amounts of protein. McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada determined that strength athletes consume somewhere between two to four grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For many this means more than 400 grams per day(2).
Is it necessary to consume that much protein in order to grow muscle and furthermore is it even a good idea to do so? Is there a better way of achieving the results that we all train for? This is the entire point of this series and eventually there will be a conclusion reached to help answer the above questions.
It IS a fact that protein is required for both muscle-building and strength. Weight training increases muscle protein synthesis as well as muscle protein balance(3). The muscle still requires a source of amino acids in order for protein balance to reach optimal levels, meaning muscle anabolism(4).
If you understood what was written in the above paragraph and don’t get distracted by the photo on the right, resistance exercise increases muscle protein balance, meaning the need for protein actually decreases. This means that if you regularly weight train you require LESS protein than someone who does no exercise at all. Did you ever think that if your body learns to adapt to the weights by growing bigger and stronger that it also will adapt to the demands put on it nutritionally and become more efficient? Until next time,
1. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism 2006; 31:647-654
2. Nutrition 2004; 20(7-8):689-695
3. Am J Physiol (Endocrinol Metab) 1997; 273(36):E99-E107
4. Am J Physiol 1999; 276(4 Pt 1):E628-E634