By now, most people know that protein builds muscle and when it comes to achieving that lean, defined look, protein is a major player. In fact, it’s so critical that those who strenuously workout need up to twice as much as their sedentary counterparts. The reason? Protein is essentially the raw material used to manufacture muscle. While strength training shreds and breaks down (catabolism) muscle fibers, muscle growth doesn’t occur until after exercise. That’s when protein comes in. Made of amino acids, protein repairs and rebuilds torn, stressed tissues. This process gets underway before exercise even begins, when amino acids roaming the bloodstream are pulled into the muscle, priming it to heal and repair after a hard bout at the gym.
Putting this all together can be tedious and frustrating. Where most people fall short is how to maximize training days by timing your protein intake and consuming adequate amounts so that the best results can be achieved in and out of the gym.
Measuring Protein Requirements
Protein makes up approximately 45% of a muscle and the National Academy of Science initially recommended that the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of protein for most people was approximately 45 grams per day. Upon further research and continuing studies, it has now been discovered that protein needs vary depending upon body weight, amount of exercise and goals. So how much do you need? For the novice gym-goer or slightly active male or female, the standard measure of 0.8 – 1.0 grams per body weight (in kg) will do. For those who like to step the intensity up a bit aiming for 1.4-1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight is more in the range to work with. The higher end of the scale is more appropriate and relatable for those who are trying seriously to add muscle, or for someone who is dieting to lose weight. In order to meet these requirements, it is important to choose a variety of high-quality proteins such as chicken, fish, tuna, egg whites and good fats such as almonds and avocados.
With anything, just because some is good, doesn’t mean more is better. Because the body can only produce a limited amount of muscle at a time, there’s little benefit (if any) in eating more protein than you need. Unlike fat and carbohydrate, the body can’t store protein and the excess will either be burned for energy or, if calorie requirements are already fulfilled, broken down with the excess calories and stored as body fat.
Working the Clock to Enhance Your Gains
Timing your protein is critical.
Since the body doesn’t “store” protein, it makes sense to feed it to your muscles when they need it most. Although muscle is not rebuilt until after training, there is mounting evidence that eating this nutrient before a workout can enhance lean tissue growth.
Many sports nutritionists believe the optimal time to eat protein is as close to training as possible. There’s a window of opportunity and you’ve turned on the machinery, so provide the fuel for that machine while it’s active. That means some careful planning can make your protein intake go a long way–by consuming small amounts of high-quality protein, ideally divided among six small meals throughout the day. Although muscle is remodeled for up to 48 hours, it can best utilize protein directly after training. To make the most of this window of opportunity, researchers recommend not only protein, but also carbohydrate in order to stimulate insulin release. After exercise, insulin encourages muscle growth by decreasing the rate at which protein breaks down, while simultaneously promoting lean tissue re-synthesis. Despite its bad reputation, insulin is not all bad, at least not when it comes to building muscle as it’s [insulin] is a very potent anabolic [muscle growing] hormone.
Burke, L & Deakin., V (2002) “Clinical Sports Nutrition”
United States America: The McGraw Hill Companies Inc.
Wahlqvist, W., et al (2003) “Food and Nutrition”
London: ASU Publishers