Even the most casual of lifters knows that protein supplies the building blocks (amino acids) necessary to add new lean mass, and muscle magazines would have us believe that only superhuman intakes of protein lead to superhuman physiques. But how much protein do you really need to get big?
Gym lore puts the ideal daily intake anywhere between one and three (or more) grams per pound of bodyweight daily, and many guys go beyond even those levels.
Fortunately, scientists are interested in this topic, too, and they’re beginning to zero in on the answers to how much protein we need to build muscle. Let’s take a look at what they’ve found.
Hard Training Requires More Protein
The US Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, or about 0.4 grams per pound. That number is based on average, mostly sedentary people and represents the amount required to maintain body functions and existing (minimal) muscle mass.
For a 150-pound man, that works out to just 60 grams of protein per day.
When you add exercise to the mix, though, the picture changes dramatically.
For example, a 2000 study by PW Lemon found that people who engage in regular exercise need between 1.6 and 1.8 grams of protein per kg per day, or about 0.75 grams per pound. That’s just for body maintenance, though, and bodybuilders want to GROW, so it’s safe to assume we need a bit more. In fact, Lemon theorizes that intense training does, indeed require an uptick in the levels that he reported.
Researchers from New Zealand supported that idea with a 2014 review showing that athletes following a calorie-restricted diet need up to 3.1 grams of protein per kilo of non-fat bodyweight to maintain their workout intensity. That works out to about 1.5 grams per bodyweight per day for lean subjects.
Optimal Protein “Dose”
Adding to the bread-crumb trail of clues about protein intake for muscle growth are a couple of studies that looked at how much you should take in per sitting.
In particular, research from the University of Texas in 2009 found that consuming 30 grams of protein at one time produced the same rate of muscle synthesis as eating 90 grams.
Meanwhile, a 2012 study found that 35 grams of protein per meal leads to enhanced protein synthesis when compared to consuming either 10 grams or 20 grams at a time.
Taken together, these studies point to an optimal per-meal intake of 30-40 grams of protein if muscle growth is your primary target. If you consider that most people, bodybuilders or not, will eat between three and five times per day, we’re looking at a range of 90-200 grams of protein over those meals.
So How Much Do You Need?
While there is a clear need for further and more definitive research to find the ideal daily protein intake for hypertrophy (muscle growth), available evidence from the lab and from the gym gives us a pretty good idea of where to start.
In particular, the studies mentioned above indicate that a protein intake of 0.7-1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight per day is a reasonable range for hard-training athletes, with those interested in adding mass falling higher in the range.
This fits well with the traditional rule of thumb from the gym culture, which places protein requirements at 1 g/pound/day as a minimum. For most healthy lifters who are trying to add mass, that’s a great place to start, as it’s fairly manageable, yet gives you a strong foundation from which to build.
If you’re gaining well, you can try reducing by a bit (but not too much!). If you’re NOT gaining and have everything else in place — calories, clean diet, training, rest and sleep — then try bumping up that protein intake.
Of course, excess protein CAN be stressful to your body, especially you kidneys, so you need to talk to your doctor before undertaking any high-protein regimen. Once you’re clear, these guidelines will give you a starting point to find your own ideal protein intake.
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