Protein is the highest regarded nutrient when it comes to muscle gain and for good reason. Research has repeatedly shown that an adequate protein intake is necessary, along with exercise, to promote muscle gain. In regards to eating protein there are often three questions people wonder:
- How much protein do I need to eat?
- When should I eat my protein?
- What kind of protein?
In this article we answer each of these questions and look into some of the best protein supplements.
How much protein?
Building muscle and protein go hand in hand. Studies have repeatedly shown that high protein intake supports greater hypertrophy than controls. Currently, the bodybuilding recommendation of eating 2.2g per kg of bodyweight (1g per pound) of protein per day has been very popular for a number of years. While this is a very easy-to-prescribe recommendation, and many people see good results with it, this number may be something of an overshoot.
In a study on athletes the mean protein intake was found to be 1.5g per kg (0.68 g/lb). A more recent study on bodybuilders found that Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) was maximized between 1.7 and 2.2 g/kg (0.77 and 1.0 g/lb). Taking these data together we can come to the conclusion that following the 2.2g/kg (1g/lb bodyweight) recommendation can certainly maximize MPS but may not be entirely necessary, especially if you’re not a bodybuilder.
In short, you don’t have to eat ridiculous amounts of protein to maximize your gains. You can still see great results on less than 2.2 g/kg despite what you may hear online. In fact, it’s likely that there is some level of protein intake after which more does not result in any further MPS, or may even hinder it. As a general rule of thumb I start my diets, and the diets of my clients, around 1.5 g/kg and adjust accordingly.
When should I eat my protein?
The next consideration with protein is when to take it. Protein timing is a hotly debated topic, with sides claiming it’s critical and others claiming total protein is all that matters. My experience, and general takeaway from the research, has been that protein timing does have an effect of muscle growth – but it’s not as large as you might hope.
Stu Phillips’ research supports the notion that it is beneficial for hypertrophy to ingest 20-25g of high quality protein around exercise to maximally stimulate MPS. However, you can have it before or after your workout, there isn’t really a difference. This is good news for those of you wondering if it is worth taking a protein shake after your workout. It is! (Or you can do it prior).
With protein timing, the hope is that there are specific slivers in time, little anabolic windows, in which the protein we ingest is more likely to go straight to our muscles. There is some truth to this, especially post-workout. When we train we are breaking our muscles down and we require new amino acids to heal and grow. That’s why we are more likely to use ingested protein for MPS after we work out but that window actually spans into the next day, not just for an hour after our workout.
In general, total protein does matter more than protein timing. However, it does seem that 20-25g of protein at a time stimulates MPS more effectively than less so it is advisable to ingest protein in large boluses as opposed to small increments throughout the day. For example, on an average day I have about 4 meals and will eat ~35g of protein in each of those meals.
What kind of protein?
Animal protein has repeatedly been shown to be more effective at simulating MPS – Dairy Vs. Plant, Anabolic Response in Animal Vs. Plant Proteins. However, this does not mean vegetarians are doomed to have less muscle mass. Much of this research simply suggests that vegetarians may simply require more of their protein to achieve similar levels of muscle protein synthesis. This is thought to be a result of the amino acid composition of plant proteins lacking certain amino acids directly reported to stimulate MPS – such as leucine, which we discuss further in the “supplements” section.
One way you can tell someone is a training newbie without even looking at them is to look at their google history. You’ll undoubtedly see “Supplements for muscle building” or something along those lines. If this is you there’s absolutely no shame in it, we were all at that point once.
Hopefully everything leading up to this point in the article has enlightened you to the fact that resistance training, a calorie surplus, and adequate protein are the real game changers when it comes to muscle growth, not supplements. However, certain supplements can be helpful in making sure you are meeting these three factors effectively.
First and foremost – Protein powder is great for ensuring you’re getting enough protein to build muscle overall, and in individual meals. Supplementing with protein also makes it easier to boost your calorie intake into a surplus as most are about 120 calories per serving.
Not all protein powders are created equally. There is whey, casein, plant based, beef based, egg based, and probably more that I’m not thinking of. The point is there are lots of options.
The most popular protein powder is whey protein. Whey is one of two milk-derived proteins, the other being casein, and is the more rapidly digested of the two. Ease and speed of digestion are both big reasons why whey protein is particularly favored by strength athletes and bodybuilders.
Casein Protein is the second most popular protein supplement, is the other milk protein, and is known as the more slowly digestible of the two. Casein protein is commonly used as a pre-sleep protein supplement to ensure protein digestion occurs throughout the night. This may be a useful way to boost total muscle protein synthesis while sleeping but it is far from necessary.
Although whey and casein are the most popular forms of protein supplement they are not for everyone. People that are averse to dairy for any reason may want to look into a protein supplement other than whey or casein. The two most common alternatives are brown rice and pea blend plant protein, and egg-based protein powders. Of the two, plant proteins are often regarded as the faster digesting of the two, while egg-based is more similar in it’s digestion rate to casein.
With any protein supplement it is important to emphasize quality. Not all protein supplements are created equal and there are many bad products available on the market. Don’t worry about trying everything and trying to figure out what’s best, there are great resources for that such as LabDoor which are operated independently and grade various supplements based on their purity, label accuracy, and nutritional content.
Whey+ and Thrive Plant Protein by Legion Athletics are high quality protein, supplemented with additional leucine to drive muscle protein synthesis. I recommend Legion Athletics Supplements because they are high quality and, more importantly, they are the most transparent supplement brand I have ever come across. This is an affiliate link and if you purchase any supplements through this link you will help to support the blog!