Finding the Optimal Protein Requirement for Muscular Size and Strength
Quantity, Quality, and Timing
Installment FOUR of the FIVE THAT WORK Series Lanny Littlejohn, MD
There is a general belief among resistance training athletes and bodybuilders seeking larger and stronger muscles that increased protein intake over that recommended for the general populace is needed in order to enhance lean mass gains. Is there any evidence for this at all, particularly since the current RDA (recommended daily allowance) for the US and Canada, as well as the Australian RDI (recommended intake) is about 0.8 g or protein per kg of body weight?
By the way, do not miss the picture of my pup Ragnar at the very end!!!
I weigh about 190 pounds (86kg). The US RDA recommendations translate to 69 grams per day for me. That’s RIDICULOUS. The most recent American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) stand on dietary protein recommends 1.2-1.7 g/kg of body weight per day for athletes. That would mean 130 grams of protein a day. Better. But I currently take in around 180 grams. Who is correct here?
Further, I normally consume half of my protein in the form of whey and ready to drink shakes with the remainder coming from animal sources [particularly eggs and the venison steak you see pictured above… delish ;)]. For timing I am adamant about whey protein post workout, and meat or dairy sources right before bed. With the massive amount of information on nutrition, dieting, protein intake and sources, and with differing and seemingly contradictory ideas about intermittent fasting, the warrior diet, going and entire day without eating in order to splurge the next, and in general having all these pleading and insistent voices coming from people with more of a commercial background than a scientific one –
This has required me to start over and question the foundations on which we stand.
The RDA recommendations are based on the minimum amount necessary of ALL nutrients in order to prevent disease. So we can dispense with THAT as garbage since #1 political motivations are certainly involved, and #2 we are after optimal performance from our foods to maximize health and performance – not stave off disease. The attempt to avoid a negative is not equivalent to the desire to achieve a positive. The focus is back asswards. The ACSM recommendations are based on older data on nitrogen balance (where protein intake is equal to protein loss). However, newer data and fresh paradigms have emerged.
The maintenance of muscle mass is well described and is a balance between muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). The sum of this is net protein balance (NPB). When your MPS is more prominent than your MPB you are in the positive on your net protein balance and you are gaining muscle. This is the main effect on muscle size and strength from anabolic steroid use – they push the balance further than anything else you could take. Current studies now point to the idea that protein requirements might be best looked at from a functional perspective and that “optimal” protein intake may not be predicated at all on consuming a minimum amount that would keep an athlete in nitrogen balance.
This is all the more important for me to understand since I am 44 years old now. Muscle mass is constant during adult life up until about the 4th and 5th decades when the slow process of sarcopenia begins.
I am going to crush sarcopenia.
What quantity should athletes consume?
A study overflowing with awesomeness looked at low, medium, and high protein intakes (0.86, 1.4, and 2.4 g/kg/day) and noted that the low protein group had reduced whole body protein synthesis while there was no difference between the medium and high protein groups. Amino acid oxidation was elevated in the high protein group. This shows that there was utilization of dietary protein for things besides protein synthesis. Thus, moderate intake is the goal but it is ok to err on the side of high rather than low. After all, protein is utilized for many things besides making skeletal muscle. Of particular note is the use of protein to make most of the enzymes in our bodies and nearly all of the neurotransmitters in your nervous system – they make our mind and body work.
When differing amounts of egg protein (Albumin) was examined it was found that there was a dose-response relationship for MPS (muscle protein synthesis). The more you took, the more MPS occurred…. Up to 25 g (in an average 85 kg male). After 25 grams of protein was consumed, no further increase in MPS occurred. Another paper describes the optimal dosing of protein to be 20-40 g per meal. This is where the “your body can only use about 30 g of protein per meal, the rest you’re just pissing away” came from. Not so fast though. The question is the optimal protein requirement, and for losing fat and preserving or gaining muscle, it should be noted that protein costs the most in terms of energy (calories) and is therefore the most thermogenic of the macronutrients. If you are attempting to go low carb, then going higher on your protein than said 30 grams per sitting is certainly a favorable situation.
The Bottom line is that it appears that an individual needs about 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass and we can probably use the value of 0.5 g/kg per meal as the bottom limit for most meals.
Timing of Protein supplementation
So now that we have established the protein requirements per day and per meal, how do we plan our day with respect to protein intake?
Exercise induced increases in MPS are limited to about 4 hours in the fasted state with protein intake being an absolute requirement to extend the duration of the MPS response.  This means that at a minimum you must consume protein about every 4 hours (every 3 hours works best for me, actually). So much for the fasting crowd, and their concern over hormone optimization, they are putting the cart well before the horse.
The studies are mixed with respect to resistance training and protein consumption prior to exercise (except in the case of HMB, see the link below) with some in favor of enhanced MPS and some showing no improvement.
Protein intake during exercise does enhance MPS both during exercise and early recovery but it does not extend into the overnight rest/fasting period. Perhaps this is why Dan Duchenne’s Ultimate Orange preworkout drink worked so well for me 10 years ago. Or maybe it was what ever got it pulled from the market. There may be some advantage if all you’re after is net muscle and strength accrual –but if you are looking to stay lean, best be working out on an empty stomach….
Immediate post-exercise consumption of protein resulted in greater improvements in peak oxygen uptake and the consumption of protein in this manner is the best practice currently known for timing of protein intake. This should come as a resounding DUH…
Thus, I will continue to consume about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (not just lean mass) and eat about 30 grams per sitting every 3 hours while awake. To get leaner I will increase my protein intake, decrease my carb intake, and spread those meals out to no more than every four hours while awake. I will consume whey post workout and a meat or egg source before bed.
To rate protein quality there is an index. This index is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). A score of 1.0 is perfect. Milk (Casein and Whey), egg, and most meats are high quality and rank high on this score.
There is evidence that milk protein results in greater MPS after resistance training and, when compared to soy protein, this results in greater hypertrophy. Whey protein appears to be better than either soy or casein. Pure casein is actually worse than soy because this protein congeals in the stomach and delays the absorption of the protein, particularly the leucine content of the protein.
This was true even with the same degree of nitrogen present in each protein sample (isonitrogenous quantities) and appeared to hinge on the presence of leucine and high levels of BCAAs present in whey. You’ll hear a lot about leucine from me. It is a branched chain amino acid (BCAA) that can activate signaling proteins that enhance translation initiation (tells the muscle cell to start getting bigger). HMB is a leucine metabolite. But do you need BCAA’s like the supplement stores and companies say? Tons of it are in whey protein. If you are taking whey the BCAA’s are redundant – but HMB is still important.
Yep, you guessed it, I am going to devour meat from quality sources like my Brother-in-law’s grass fed cows, my self-obtained venison stores, eggs, and my beloved sushi. I’ll use whey post workout and usually have a protein shake “snack” when I can’t get whole food sources. And I guess I’ll have to learn how to prepare Duck on occasion (my boy Ragnar below is currently in hunting bootcamp).
Other Random thoughts on Protein from the literature..
When smaller amounts of CHO were added to whey and compared to larger amounts (20-40g vs 90-120 g) there was no addition to net MPS or inhibition of MPB.
Thus, post workout shakes should contain 25g of whey but the amount of carbs can remain low
A 60/30/10 diet means that 60% of your calories come from carbs, 30% from protein, and 10% from fat. For this type of nutrition strategy (my favorite for gaining mass and strength) the weight lost is about 75% fat and 25% muscle. Do not use this strategy for weight loss. You need to up the protein intake to avoid losing hard earned muscle. Increasing protein to values higher has a beneficial effect on retention of lean mass during calorie restricted dieting. Meta-analyses support this contention as well. Protein’s appetite suppressing effect is greater than carb or fat and the thermogenic effect of protein is higher than that of the other two.
When you start to try to shift your body to fat burning mode, decrease carbs and up your protein to avoid losing hard-won muscle.
In the end, I feel somewhat validated. I tweaked a few things but the overall result of this venture into the scientific basis of protein requirements tells me that the principles of the Dynamorphic Training System work. Training, Nutrition, Supplementation, Mind-set.
Go crush your week my friend, Lanny
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