How Much Protein Do You Really Need To Build Muscle? The Answer, Backed By Science.
Ah yes. The most controversial and debated topic in the fitness industry.
How much protein do you need to eat per day in order to gain muscle?
A few years back, when I used to train arms every other day and skip legs like it was some kind of disease, I always thought that protein was like an anabolic steroid. I believed it would magically make me pack on tons of muscle.
I thought that as long as I went to the gym and drowned myself in whey protein after my workout the muscle would stack up like pancakes.
At the time, I weighed around 175 pounds and was often eating upwards of 320 grams of protein per day.
I was logging every single food, drink, and crumb into MyFitnessPal, thinking that if I wasn’t getting an insane amount of protein, my hopes and dreams of having a fit body would be over.
After my morning workouts, I would return home to blend up 2 scoops of whey protein with olive oil, peanut butter, yogurt, oatmeal, and anything else that had a decent amount of protein and/or calories.
I would have another one of these shakes sometimes in the afternoon to boost my daily macro totals even more. I even followed this up by eating even more absurd amounts of protein during my meals.
I put some muscle on but not as much as I liked. At the same time, I wasn’t displeased either. I also started getting a gut, as well as a chubby face. My parents kept telling me how my face was starting to round, and how I looked so much better before with the definition in my face and bones.
Was all this protein worth it? Was I consuming too much or even too little?
Regardless, I was still making some gains which made me happy, but I felt like I couldn’t keep this up. I knew that consuming this amount of protein was absurd.
It wasn’t until much later in my fitness journey that I began to do research and found out there were other parts of nutrition and dieting that were also very important for building muscle.
Some of the knowledge I picked up was – eating enough foods to be in a slight caloric surplus, consuming a good amount of carbohydrates, avoiding sodium and processed foods, etc.
When conducting my research I found many articles and videos talking about protein. The one I recall the best is a program on bodybuilding.com created by Dr. Jim Stoppani, a well-known expert in the exercise science and fitness industry.
Not to mention he was an alumnus of my current university, UConn, so I took his expertise and knowledge pretty seriously.
In his 12 Week “Shortcut To Size” Program, he talks about exercise, nutrition, and rest. The nutrition part of the program was what I wanted to know about the most.
In his program, he talked about how much protein was needed to eat daily. I felt kind of lost. Dr. Stoppani stated on days that you didn’t work out you need to consume 1.5g/lb of bodyweight, and on days you did workout you needed to be consuming around 2g/lb of bodyweight. Yikes, my fears came to life. I thought I would have to keep consuming godlike amounts of protein to keep putting on tiny amounts of muscle.
I decided to continue my research and lone behold I continued to read articles written by bodybuilders arguing to eat the staple 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Was this the answer?
1 Gram Myth?
If you look at what most of the fitness industry, arguments are made that in order to build lean muscle, you need a minimum of 1 gram per pound of body weight per day.
For a 170 pound male, this means you need at least 170 grams of protein.
Very simple, the more you weigh, the more protein you need. A seasoned bodybuilder who has a ton of lean mass is going to need more protein than someone who has almost no muscle mass.
You may think that your body weight in protein is a lot to consume. As a 200 pound male myself, that would be the equivalent of eating 4 full blocks of tofu, or 10 cups of lentils every day.
That’s a lot of food!
Is it possible? Yes… but certainly not easy. That requires a lot of meal prepping and eating!
So what’s the deal? Is 1 g/lb the amount you actually need?
Not exactly… let’s take a look at what the science has to say…
What The Science Says
Protein is clearly an important part of our daily nutrition, whether we are an elite athlete or not. Everybody needs protein, it is an essential part of our body’s composition.
According to the Daily Reference Intake, the average person needs about .36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day.
This equates to around .8kg/lb per day. For a 150 pound male, this means eating 54 grams of protein a day.
But this is for average people.
What about lifters, bodybuilders, and athletes, whose sole goal is to improve performance and pack on muscle? We know that they certainly need more protein in order to repair their muscles, improve performance, and increase strength, but how much more do they need?
When looking at hard science and multiple research studies, the results do vary again, and arguments can be made for more or less protein.
But there is a consensus. The results are in.
The American College of Sports Medicine, a well-known and established center for researching everything about athletics, nutrition, physiology, and more; found great results.
“To increase muscle mass in combination with physical activity, you need to consume between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.”
For someone like myself who weighs about 200 pounds, this means consuming 100 – 160 grams of protein per day.
A much easier and more attainable number than the 300 grams of daily protein I was consuming years ago.
For the average 150 pound male, this means consuming between 75 grams and 120 grams per day.
But what about eating more than .8grams/lb/day? Does this mean more protein is useless or harmful to the body?
Not exactly, while protein synthesis may max out, eating more protein doesn’t necessarily put harm on your body. There are many skeptics out there who claim that eating crazy amounts of protein can harm your kidney, the organ responsible for breaking down the protein you ingest.
Once again this is another controversial topic, some saying that high protein intake contributes to a faster decline in your kidney health over time.
The American Sports College of Medicine did some of its own research and found that even healthy individuals who ate up to 3kg/lb of body weight (1.4g/lb) were totally fine and showed no signs of a decline in health.
Their research also found that spreading your protein out may be beneficial rather than eating all of it at once. Generally, eating 30 – 40 grams of protein per meal is a great place to start.
For someone who weighs 200 pounds, this is what a good breakup would look like.
- Breakfast: 40 grams
- Lunch: 30 grams
- Post Workout: 30 grams
- Dinner: 20 grams
Total: 130 grams of protein or .65 g/lb of bodyweight.
In the end, it’s important to make sure you are hitting your daily protein totals. As long as you meet your requirements and fulfill this daily and are consistent about it, you’ll make some serious strength and muscle gains.
More Is Not Always Better
Other studies have shown that eating more protein doesn’t equate to more muscle growth.
One study conducted by Lemon et al. (1992) took two groups of bodybuilders. The first group consumed roughly .6 g/lb (1.35 g/kg) of protein per day. The second group consumed over double that, about 1.2 g/lb (2.64 g/kg) per day. The data was conclusive and results showed that there was no muscle nor strength gain difference between the two groups after a 1 month period. Even though the second group consumed double the amount of protein, the gains were the same!
Well, what about long term?
According to Hoffman et al. a study conducted over the course of 3 months between athletes, there was “no differences found in body composition, strength or resting hormonal concentrations in strength athletes consuming either 0.77g/lb or >0.91g/lb.”
So does this mean there’s a limit to protein synthesis and protein affecting muscle gains?
Yes, There Is A Limit
Studies do show that there is a limit to where protein synthesis maxes out. And that no more protein is necessary in order to contribute to muscle gain.
The days of consuming crazy amounts of protein are over!
I remember when I used to consume over 300 grams per day, and I only weighed 170.
I’ve even heard of some people at my gym trying to hit 500 grams per day!?
What do they plan on doing? Drowning themselves in a tub of protein powder?
Protein is great but it’s not the answer to all your gains. Remember training in a caloric surplus and making progress on all your lifts accompanied with a protein intake of .6 – 75g/lb of bodyweight will pack on some serious muscle. Anything above .8 g/lb is honestly just a waste. It is not harmful to your body and you may certainly do it, but it provides no added benefit.
So stop with the 1.5g/lb or 2+g/lb of bodyweight.
That’s exactly what the supplement companies want you to think so you can keep drinking there overpriced protein shakes as they sit on a private island somewhere laughing themselves to the bank.
Does The Type Of Protein Matter?
Is all protein the same or is it created equal?
Animal vs Plant Protein? Which one is better?
If I eat 10 grams of protein from a cookie, will that be the same if I eat 10 grams of protein from lentils? What about 10 grams of meat?
The first thing you need to understand about protein is that all proteins are comprised of amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which link together to form a chain of protein molecules which makes up the muscle.
When it comes to amino acids, there are two types. NEAA and EAA.
The first type is called Non-Essential Amino Acids or NEAA. There are 11 in total. You don’t have to worry about these because our bodies produce these on their own.
But there are certain amino acids that our body doesn’t produce. These are called Essential Amino Acids or EAA for short. In total there are 9 essential amino acids that make up complete proteins. When attempting to build muscle, it’s best to eat complete proteins that are rich in the 9 amino acids.
The list goes:
Of the 9 essential amino acids, the three most important for building muscles are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. This is why you often see BCAA supplements comprising of these three.
Now we know that we need the 9 essential amino acids, how do get them?
By eating them of course! Eating the correct foods will help you get the full chain of amino acids and help you pack on that muscle!
Obviously different foods have different amino acid profiles, so which foods contain the best profiles?
It is widely known that meat and dairy have all the essential amino acids needed to build muscle.
But does this make them better protein sources than plants?
Doesn’t research show that most plant-based foods don’t contain the full branch of 9 amino acids?
While the majority of plant-based proteins may be short in a few of the essential amino acids, it is nothing to fright over.
So have no fear vegans. Not to mention there are plant-based foods that are complete and stacked with all the necessary proteins.
For example, soy and quinoa are 100% complete proteins and really helpful for building quality lean muscle! Soybeans, tofu, soy milk, tempeh, and others are just a few examples of soy-based proteins you can chow down on.
And although it may be true that foods like seeds, nuts, beans, and grains may not be complete proteins, there is a simple and easy solution.
All vegans have to do is combine different sources of protein throughout the day. This way, the different amino acid profiles will balance out and complete each other so you can happily stack on the gains.
Not to mention, you don’t even need to combine counterbalancing amino acids during each meal. As long as you get the combine different foods throughout different parts of the day and reach your protein goal you’ll have no problems getting all the BCAA’s you need.
Here some great meals you plant eaters can chow down on and get all the protein and amino acids you need.
- Breakfast – Whole grain toast and peanut butter in with a handful of almonds.
- Lunch – Two slices of seitan and couscous
- Mid-Day Snack – Black bean pasta and protein shake
- Dinner – Grilled tofu and brown rice
So while the type of protein matters, as long as you mix and match foods, vegans will have no problem getting the complete proteins.
Animal protein doesn’t necessarily trump plant protein. Don’t let the industry fool you.
Just look up vegan bodybuilders on Google, and you’ll see guys like Nimai Delgado, Jon Venus, Ryan Nelson, and many more who are jacked out of their mind! All from eating plants!
When you eat foods comprised of protein no matter if it’s a little or a lot, its up to your body to absorb it.
When the food hits your stomach, it digests and breaks down your food into amino acids by using enzymes.
After the amino acids are broken down they are reconstructed and sent into the bloodstream in order to create cellular structure. Those cellular structures are your muscles.
Many have argued that there is a ceiling limit to the amount of protein your body can absorb, break down, and send on its merry way to make muscle.
You’ve probably heard of people claiming that your body can only process 20 grams of protein in an hour, or that you shouldn’t eat more than 30 grams of protein in a sitting.
Some proteins are absorbed faster than others. Whey protein is among one of the fastest, which is why many people advise drinking a quick whey protein shake after a workout so your body can absorb it.
I once had a friend who told me to only take one scoop of protein powder because the second scoop would not be absorbed. But was he right?
Not exactly. A study conducted by NHNRC found that there was no difference in protein metabolism between regular individuals and individuals who consumed 80% of their daily protein in one sitting.
So don’t worry, even if you eat a crapload of protein at one time, it won’t go to waste. It may just take more time to digest and process.
That being said, there is evidence that does show spreading your daily protein intake evenly throughout the day may help in the process of making gains.
So if you can, try to eat protein at every meal.
And don’t forget that eating protein before and after a workout is a good way to fuel up and recover.
But don’t fall into the trap of the 4 scoop protein shake.
It’s All About The Money
I hate to say it, but those protein shakes you’ve been consuming every day and for almost every other meal is a waste of your money.
But what about the protein I need? As long as I hit my protein goal I’m okay right?
Well… yes, that’s correct. As long as your getting around .6 g/lb -.75 g/lb of protein per day, you’ll be able to pack on some serious muscle. But that doesn’t mean protein powders are some pixie dust that magically makes you pack on muscle.
You have to realize, these supplement companies are all about the money.
Protein powders were really made to have you hit your protein goal in case you haven’t eaten enough during the day. Sadly, the supplement companies have turned their products into amazing marketing tools by saying the more you consume the more muscle you’ll pack on. The truth is, supplements are not a replacement for actual meals that are dense in both calories and protein.
Ever wonder why protein and creatine powders tell you to consume the serving sizes on the container multiple times a day?
So you end up buying more in a shorter period of time!
Take creatine, for example, the bottle I have says taking one 5 gram scoop of creatine before my workout, one during my workout, and one right after my workout. Then it proceeds to say “also take during the day whenever you feel the need to.”
If I follow the directions that means that I’m going to consume upwards of 20 grams of creatine a day! Ridiculous considering studies show that you only need about 3-5 grams per day to help increase strength and muscle gains.
You guys have to realize that the supplement companies are all about the money. Supplements are expensive. Protein powders cost a minimum of $65 for a container of 5 lbs, and often times much more.
Food is cheap! You can go to the grocery store and high protein foods in large quantities for cheap. Stuff like tofu, beans, quinoa, pasta, nuts, vital wheat gluten, and much more. Don’t fall into the trap of drinking two protein shakes a day.
Even when I do make a protein shake, I usually only use half a serving size (around 11 grams of protein.)
Protein powders and shakes should be used if you’re running short on time and need a quick boost of protein in your day. They are not to be used as your main/only source of protein.
The same goes with all other supplement companies out there.
Be careful and watch out for their scammy marketing gimics. Not to mention, a lot of whey protein powders are amped up with unhealthy additives and addictive properties. Whey protein powders have been shown to increase the risk of testicular cancer.
Be careful about what you put into your body! You should know this better than anyone!
So when it comes to protein intake what do we need to remember?
- Consuming between .6 – .75 grams per lb of bodyweight is best to build lean muscle
- Anything more than .8 grams per lb is not necessary. This is where protein synthesis maxes out.
- Eat in a caloric surplus of 300 – 500 calories
- Eat organic whole foods (avoid processed)
- Animal protein or plant protein doesn’t matter. As long as you’re combining the 9 essential amino acids.
- Nutrition is necessary for building muscle. Great workout paired with poor nutrition will still lead to poor results.
Remember, putting on muscle mass does not have to be a complicated process. It’s very simple. Progressive lifting, solid nutrition, and adequate rest is all it takes.
So why does no one like this formula?
Because it requires hard work paired with consistency. And anytime you have something that takes time to achieve, you have people selling products or ideas that will give you a shortcut.
Stop falling for these scammers.
You can achieve anything you want as long as you put your mind to it. Eat your protein, get your rest, and get to working out!