This guide is all about protein for muscle building and how it relates to your goal to get muscles.
You know you need it, but do you know how much protein you need, what the best sources are, and even when you should be eating it? These are all questions that anyone remotely serious about muscle growth needs to know the answer to.
So how can you get the most out of protein to build muscle? It’s not as complicated as you might think.
Find out why protein is so essential, what the ideal foods are for quality protein, what protein sources are available for vegetarians, how much you need for significant muscles growth, and what happens if you overeat protein.
Finally, I cover which type of protein is best to take in a supplement.
What Is Protein and Why Is It Important?
Protein is the most critical nutrient for building muscle; as well as for virtually all other aspects of the human body. That’s because your cells require protein to grow and function, including those that make up the muscles.
Our bodies need protein to make everything from nails and hair to muscles and even bone. Put simply: without protein, we could not exist!
When we think about protein for muscle growth, we think about the protein consumed with food. It’s in your control how much protein your body gets, and your decisions will contribute significantly to your success or failure in reaching your muscle building goals.
The function of the protein in the body is highly involved at the biological level, but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand just how vital protein is when you want to put on muscle.
The 20 amino acids in protein include nine essential amino acids which you must consume via your diet, while only four amino acids are produced within your body. Why is this important to know?
Making sure you consume all nine essential amino acids to form a complete protein source is vital. Thankfully, this is easy.
All meats, as well as eggs, are complete proteins. Vegetables, legumes, and nuts are not complete proteins and need to be paired with other protein sources to make them whole.
Repairing the muscle tissue damage that happens when you do a workout is a critical role of protein. It’s this process that indicates the early stage of muscle growth; remember, muscle grows as the tissue repairs itself after being fatigued following intensive weightlifting.
What Are the Best Forms of Protein?
To build muscle efficiently and without putting on fat, you’ll want to choose the best protein sources you can get your hands on. Thankfully, this is relatively easy and includes a lot of staple foods that you might already be eating:
- Fish (especially salmon and tuna)
- Lean white meat such as turkey and chicken
- Nuts and seeds: mainly hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and flax seeds, and peanuts, almonds and pistachio nuts
If you’re looking for the absolute most protein-rich foods you can eat in various food categories, you’ll find these near the top of the chart (protein amount is listed per average serving):
- Chicken (28g protein)
- Beefsteak (26g protein)
- Turkey (25g protein)
- Salmon and Tuna (22 grams protein)
- Greek yogurt (18g protein)
- Cottage cheese (14g protein)
- Soy nuts (12g protein)
- Pinto beans (11g protein)
Can you get enough protein without eating meat?
Don’t think you can’t put on muscle if you choose not to eat meat, but you’ll need to pay particular attention to your protein sources to ensure you’re getting enough.
Because plant-based proteins may be lacking in one or more of the nine essential amino acids to form a complete protein, vegetarians may need to eat several protein sources every day to receive all the required amino acids.
You’ll be pleased to know that studies have found that plant-based protein can build muscle just as well as meat sourced protein.
Meat eaters can also benefit significantly by adding some of these plant-based protein sources to the diet, as they all contain additional nutrients and provide other options to you when you don’t feel like another piece of salmon or chicken today.
Knowing the best forms of protein to include in your diet, whatever your dietary preferences are, means you’ll be spending less time thinking about what to eat, and dedicating more time planning when to eat and how much.
What Happens When You Eat Protein?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and it’s these that make up what we call protein. Essentially, protein consists of chains of amino acids.
Unlike fats and carbohydrates, your body can not store the protein you eat. It means that you need to be consuming protein regularly – and even more so when you’re lifting weights and wanting to build muscle. You need to be eating protein sources every day to maintain an adequate supply.
After eating a protein source, your body starts putting the nutrients to work, and the first step is digestion in the intestines. Here, protein is broken down into amino acids by enzymes, which travel to the muscle cells (and other cells in the body) through your bloodstream.
One of the most important digestive enzymes is pepsin (you might even see this included in some muscle building supplements as a way to help speed up the digestion of other ingredients).
Pepsin helps explicitly to digest protein and its this enzyme that breaks the protein right down to its purest form by literally tearing down the peptide bonds which holds a protein molecule together – this is when chains of amino acids can form.
The amino acids then join up together in different combinations into chains, and it’s here that they become different types of proteins for use throughout the body.
One type of protein formed by amino acids is the one you’re working to create: muscle proteins. Other proteins created with your broken down amino acids are hormones and antibodies; this shows just how vital your protein consumption is to the functioning of your entire body.
And if you’ve wondered whether it makes a difference if you chew your foods: yes it does, because well chewed protein-rich foods are digested faster thanks to the higher surface area of food that you’ve done an excellent job of breaking down in your mouth before swallowing; essentially giving your digestive process a helping hand!
What Happens When You Overeat Protein?
You might be tempted to eat as much protein as you can fit in your stomach. But is there any benefit to doing this? The scientifically proven answer is: no.
Too much protein is not only a waste of food and your money, but it can also have a detrimental effect on your health.
Eating more protein than you need have no benefit on building muscle, and can lead to actually gaining fat instead of muscle as your body stores the extra protein it can’t use. Even more concerning is that various studies have shown a possible link between excessive protein intake and kidney disease, prostate cancer and possibly diabetes, amongst other health risks.
All three of these reasons are enough to have full confidence that eating more protein-rich foods than you need for your muscle building goals is a waste of time.
One way that bodybuilders can end up consuming much more protein than required is of course by using protein supplements like powders and shakes. These supplements are extremely protein heavy and can make up a significant bulk of your daily intake.
Does that mean you have to stress about consuming too much protein? Not in the short term, and only if you think you’re going over the top for an extended period. Moderately excessive protein intake (that is, taking in more than you require) means the extra amino acids you’ve consumed will be excreted as urine.
But if you continue piling up the extra protein, which can also result in too many calories being eaten (even a bodybuilder has a limit as to how many calories can be burned off), you may see weight gain – and not of the muscle variety.
It’s not difficult to be smart and sensible with your protein intake, as with all aspects of your muscle growth diet: eat what you need, and don’t go overboard as the science is clear that you’ll see no further benefit.
How Much Protein is Needed to Gain Muscle?
Now that you know overeating protein is not beneficial to your muscle building goals, the question remains: how much protein SHOULD you be eating to gain muscle mass fast?
You might have read the old advice that the ultimate amount of protein consumption for muscle growth is “1 gram of protein per pound of body weight” – but that should be taken with a grain of salt these days because science has moved on.
A highly respected study found that the optimal amount of protein per pound of your body weight is 0.73 grams. This equals around 1.6g per kilogram.
This study shattered some of the myths out there that eating large amounts of protein is vital for muscle growth. The researchers found that you can only make use of a certain amount of protein within a period, and any more than that has no benefit to muscle growth, which is why excessive protein can lead to some of the risks mentioned previously in this guide.
That doesn’t mean you don’t require more protein than the average person if you’re working to gain muscle; you do, but eating it excessively will not benefit you.
The minimum recommendation for an average sedentary man’s daily protein intake sits at around 56 grams per day per pound of body weight. Increasing that to the 0.73 grams recommended in the study focused on resistance training and muscle growth means that you’re eating considerably more protein than the average person, and you need to be if you’re serious about muscle growth.
This is all sounds well and good: but how can you calculate your daily protein intake? Should you become obsessed with the numbers? There’s no need to carry an estimate to every meal, and once you have a meal plan schedule underway, you should have an accurate idea of your daily protein intake.
Making use of a protein calculator takes the guesswork away, and lets you plan your meals accordingly. A useful calculator will also include your fats and carbohydrates, resulting in a thorough understanding of what you’re consuming each day and exposing any areas that you can improve upon to maximize your gains and fat loss.
How Much Protein You Should Eat to Lose Weight?
If you want to burn fat but still build muscle, you need to be extra conscious of what you’re eating: and how much of it. The last thing you want happening is a loss of muscle mass, so maintaining enough calories and protein for muscle growth and maintenance is vital. And to do that, you need to consume protein while minimizing fat intake.
As a bonus to help you reduce the risk of overeating the wrong foods, studies have shown that a diet high in protein can help to reduce your appetite by activating a hormone that suppresses hunger. This is why you feel fuller for longer after eating a quality protein-rich meal.
Mainly, your existing high-protein muscle building diet is going to contribute to fat loss likely with little modification – unless you’re also consuming high-fat or high-carbohydrate foods which WILL result in a fat gain or at the very least, make it increasingly difficult for you to lose fat.
Protein heavy weight loss diet fads have come and gone over the years, but scientists know that when done correctly and sensibly, a diet richer in protein can contribute to losing weight. Particularly, aiming for a protein-rich breakfast has shown to be a key strategy when you want to burn off fat.
And one of the big reasons for that relates again to the way protein-rich foods help keep you fuller: a substantial breakfast consisting in part of the quality protein is more likely to help you control your food intake for the rest of the day. Permanently, protein can help manage your hunger.
Someone like you who wants to gain muscle and who burns a substantial number of calories each day working out is going to take a different approach to use protein to lose fat compared with someone who does only moderate exercise.
Put simply: you still want to eat enough to supply fuel for your workouts and fuel for your muscles to grow, rather than creating a calorie deficit as is often the goal of general weight loss plans. For a bodybuilder, that can cause muscle catabolism: the breaking down of muscle tissue – the direct opposite of the anabolic state you want to be in.
It’s always recommended that you eat a protein and carbohydrate-rich meal after a workout. Why? You need to replenish your protein supplies, and if you don’t do this within a suitable timeframe (say, 30 minutes after working out), your body might start converting proteins from your muscles into energy – reducing the proteins available for muscle growth.
Protein Quality: Whey or Casein?
Thinking about how to build muscle fast often leads guys to go crazy with supplements, particularly protein supplements. But before you go overboard, you should learn how they work and why more is not necessarily better.
If you only ever take one supplement, it’s like to be a protein supplement, and it’s one that you want to get right from the very start. Two of the most common types of protein supplements you’ll come across are those based on either casein or whey protein.
So which is the better choice of the two, and why?
Both whey and casein proteins are considered high biological value (HBV) proteins, which means they’re both have high nutritional value.
When looking at whey protein supplements, be aware that there are several forms of whey. These are whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and less commonly; whey protein hydrolysate (also called hydrolyzed whey).
Whey protein isolate has a substantial protein ratio: around 90%, and low amounts of fat and carbohydrates.
Whey protein concentrate has a lower protein content – between 70% to 80%, also contains lactose and fat. This form of whey protein is cheaper than the isolate form and is usually used in lower cost supplements.
Hydrolyzed whey has had the protein broken down through the process of hydrolysis, with the goal of it being metabolized and absorbed by your body faster. Due to the costs involved in this process, you won’t find hydrolyzed whey as widely available as whey isolate or concentrate.
When it comes to whey versus casein protein, the differences point to either form of whey being superior to casein. Why?
Casein is digested slower, and it takes longer for the amino acids from casein protein to be delivered throughout the body; this means slower protein synthesis.
Whey protein, on the other hand, is digested by your body faster, meaning your muscles can put it to use sooner than if you were consuming casein protein.
Here’s a quick summary of whey vs. casein protein:
- Both are derived from cow’s milk
- Whey is fast digesting; casein is slow digesting
- Some studies have shown that supplementing both types together can have benefits
- Whey is considered to have higher anabolic qualities due to its faster delivery of amino acids
- You can digest whey protein in just 20 minutes, while casein can take up to 4 hours to fully work
While it’s effortless to load up on proteins through supplements, powders, and shakes: this will cause more harm than good. A protein supplement is just that: a supplement to your regular diet of healthy diverse foods that also contain other essential components like fats and carbs.
Too much protein supplementation can bring about stomach upset and could see you missing out on other key nutrients simply because you don’t have the appetite to eat enough food if you’re loaded up on protein products. At the most end of the spectrum, continual overconsumption of protein supplements can result in liver and kidney problems.
Treat whey supplements (and any other form of protein) as a supplemental addition to your diet, not as a substitute for food, and you’ll be able to avoid complications.
The biology of protein may be complicated, but getting the maximum benefit from it on your muscle growth journey is relatively simple. As long as you’re aware of the highest quality protein forms, and how much you should be eating it each day (by your personal goals), then you’re on track to fulfilling your body’s protein needs, so you’re always in an optimal position for muscle gain and muscle recovery.
While there is no one single best protein for muscle building, best results in both gains and health are achieved when consuming a variety of quality proteins each day – in addition to healthy fats and complex carbohydrate foods.
Protein supplements like those based on whey or casein provide an additional boost, particularly when used post-workout when you want to be increasing protein synthesis to the maximum level as your muscle tissue begins repairing and growing.