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How Much Protein is Needed to Build Muscle

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How Much Protein is Needed to Build Muscle

How much protein does your body really need to build muscle? Are some forms of protein better than others? Does the time you eat it matter?

 

Whenever I talk about protein and building muscle, I think of this video:

…and then I want a protein shake, hahah.

In all seriousness, I’m often asked how much protein is actually needed for building muscle.

Is 1 gram per pound of body weight per day enough? If we eat more, will we build more muscle?

Or should we be eating less than that? 1 gram per pound of lean mass, maybe? Is that even more than we need?

Well, let’s find out.

Why Your Body Needs Protein to Build Muscle

You may already know this, but I want to give a brief summary just to make sure.

In the body, a protein is a special type of molecule that is comprised of substances known as amino acids. Think of amino acids as the “building blocks” of proteins–without the requisite amino acids, the body can’t create protein molecules.

Now, there are many types of proteins in the body, and they perform a wide variety of functions ranging from the replication and repair of DNA, to cell signaling (insulin is a protein, for instance), to the formation of tissues and other substances like hair and nails, and more.

The building of “muscle proteins” (the types of protein molecules that our muscles are made of) requires a variety of amino acids, some of which must be obtained from food (these are known as “essential” amino acids).

When you eat a food that contains protein, your body breaks the protein molecules in the food down into the amino acids they’re comprised of, and then uses those amino acids to build its own proteins.

If you eat too few grams of protein every day, your body can become deficient in the amino acids it needs to build and repair muscle, and thus, muscle growth becomes impaired.

Now, the body has certain protein needs even if you don’t exercise. Remember that every day cells are dying and being regenerated, and this requires amino acids.

When you do exercise, however, the body needs even more amino acids to repair damaged muscle fibers and, depending on what you’re doing, grow them larger. This is why athletes need to eat a high-protein diet to maximize performance.

How high do you have to go, though?

400 Grams of Protein Per Day? Seriously?

Many years ago, before I knew what I was doing, I was stuck in a rut in the gym, and I thought maybe my protein intake was the problem.

I asked an ex-professional bodybuilder how much protein I should eat every day, and he said 2 grams per pound of body weight.

I was a bit taken aback–that would mean eating close to 400 grams per day.

He was adamant that 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight was absolutely necessary to break through the plateau and start building muscle again, so I went for it.

I manned up and doubled my daily intake to reach the 400 g/day number, and, well, it suckedI was constantly full, beyond sick of protein shakes, and eating in general just felt more and more like a chore.

But I stuck it out…and didn’t build any muscle to speak of.

Fast forwards to today. I’ve radically transformed my physique since that time, and I haven’t eaten more than 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day in many years (don’t worry, we’ll get into the numbers in a second).

The point of this little story is this:

  • If you’re having trouble building muscle, eating more protein is not necessarily the solution.
  • You don’t need to eat outrageous amounts of protein to efficiently build muscle.

The bottom line is maximizing muscle growth does require following what is generally known as a “high-protein diet,” but it does not require choking down pounds of meat and cups of protein powder every day.

So, how much protein should you actually be eating to build muscle, then?

The Protein Needs of Athletes

According to the Institute of Medicine, 10 – 35% of our daily calories should come from protein. That’s not very helpful for us, though.

10 – 35% is quite a range to choose from, and even if we went with 35%, if our daily calorie intake is too low, we won’t get enough protein, and if it’s too high, we’ll eat more than we need.

So let’s look at some of the clinical research available on protein needs, and specifically with athletes.

First, let’s look at research conducted by McMaster University.

According to their paper, protein intake of 1.3 – 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (.6 – .8 grams per pound of body weight) is adequate for stimulating maximal protein synthesisThey note, however, that more protein might be needed in the case of frequent and/or high-intensity training, and in the case of dieting to lose fat (restricting calories).

A widely cited study conducted by The University of Western Ontario concluded the same: 1.6 – 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight might be enough for athletes, but higher intakes may also be warranted depending on a wide variety of factors including energy intake, carbohydrate availability, exercise intensity, duration and type, dietary protein quality, training history, gender, age, timing of nutrient intake, and more.

As you can see, the topic is actually quite complex, and there may not be a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

“Gym lore” can actually lend some insight here, and it agrees with the above findings.

  • 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (2.2 g/kg of BW) per day has been a bodybuilding rule of thumb for decades.
  • Higher levels of protein intake, usually in the range of 1.2 – 1.5 grams per pound of body weight (2.6 – 3.3 g/kg BW) per day, are commonly recommended when “cutting” to lose fat. 

If those numbers sound really high to you, consider this research published earlier this year, and conducted by AUT University. Here’s the conclusion:

“Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM [1 - 1.4 grams per pound of fat free mass] scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.”

I’ve found this to be very true, not only with my body, but with the hundreds and hundreds of people i’ve worked with.

As you get leaner, keeping your protein intake high becomes very important. If it drops too low (below 1 gram per pound of body weight, in my experience), strength and muscle loss is accelerated.

Oh and in case you’re worried that eating that much protein is bad for your kidneys, don’t worry–it’s not.

The Type of Protein Matters

Not all forms of protein are alike. There are three important factors you should know about:

  • Different forms of protein digest at different speeds.
  • Some forms of protein are better utilized by the body than others.
  • Different forms of protein have different amounts of the essential amino acids our bodies need.

Beef protein, for example, is digested quickly and 70-80% of what’s eaten is utilized by the body (the exact number varies based on what study you read, but they all fall between 70 and 80%), and has a large amount of essential amino acids.

Whey protein is also digested quickly and its “net protein utilization” (NPU) is in the low 90%s, which means that 90-something percent of it can actually be used by your body. It also is high in essential amino acids, and in leucine in particular.

Egg protein digests much slower than whey and beef and its NPU also falls in the low 90%s. It too has a great amino acid profile.

NPU and digestion speeds are important to know because you want to rely on high-NPU proteins to meet your daily protein requirements, and research has shown that a fast-digesting protein like whey is ideal for post-workout consumption.

The bottom line is if you get plenty of fish, meat, dairy, and eggs in your diet, you’ll have no issues with meeting your body’s protein needs.

Vegans, however, have it a little tougher.

You probably expect me to start talking about “complete” and “incomplete” proteins, but the “incomplete protein” myth and the faulty research that spawned it was thoroughly debunked by MIT years agoAll protein found in vegetables is “complete.” 

What is true, however, is that some forms of vegetable proteins are lower in certain amino acids than others, making certain sources better than others.

For example, the protein found in peas and rice is superior to the protein found in hemp.

I recommend vegans eat plenty of grains (quinoa, and amaranth are probably the most popular high-protein choices), legumes (with all types of beans being the most popular choice here), and high-protein vegetables like peas. I recommend soy be eaten sparingly, for reasons given in this article on protein powders.

Supplementing with vegan protein powders, such as Sunwarrior’s brown rice protein, also makes balancing your numbers easier.

Does “Protein Timing” Matter?

The last thing I want to quickly touch on is protein timing. That is, when you eat protein. Does it matter?

Do you need to eat protein every 3 hours? Is eating protein before or after working out necessary?

  • The frequency of protein intake doesn’t matter, so long as you hit your daily numbers.

You’re not going to “go catabolic” if you don’t have protein every few hours, and eating protein more frequently won’t help you build more muscle.

If you like to eat 3, larger meals per day with several hours in between each, do that (don’t worry, your body can absorb a lot of protein at once). If you’re like me and prefer more smaller meals throughout the day, that’s fine as well.

(Check out my article on intermittent fasting if you want to learn more about the irrelevance of meal timing.)

  • Having protein before and after working probably does matter, however–it can help you build more muscle.

The reason why I say “probably” and “can” is the research is contradictory at this time.

Some studies, such as those conducted by Victoria UniversityBaylor University, and the University of Jyväskylä indicate pre- and post-workout protein consumption does help build more muscle; whereas other studies found no such benefits, such as those conducted by The College of New Jersey and Manchester Metropolitan University.

Personally, I eat protein before working out (unless I’m training fasted), as well as after, because I believe there’s enough clinical and anecdotal evidence to support doing so (and so do other smart people in this industry).

  • Eating protein before bed is a good idea as well. Not to prevent muscle breakdown, but to aid in muscle repair.

 

What do you think about protein numbers, types, and timing? Have anything else you’d like to share? Lemme know in the comments below!

 

If you liked this article, then you’ll love this book…

Eating enough protein is only one part of building a strong, muscular, lean physique. It takes BOTH proper nutrition and proper training to transform your body. 

The truth is if you know how to train, eat, and rest properly, then you can build muscle and lose fat every week…and actually see the changes in the mirror.

And that’s why I wrote Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women: they lay out EVERYTHING you need to know about diet and training to build muscle and lose fat effectively…

The Book Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews.

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admin I’m Mike Matthews and I’ve been training for nearly a decade now. I believe that every person can achieve the body of his or her dreams, and I work hard to give everyone that chance by providing workable, proven advice grounded in science, not a desire to sell phony magazines, workout products, or supplements. More about me.

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40 Comments
  • Scott

    Knowledge is power and I always get it from you Mike! It’s funny how many years I followed the myths. I also did the 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight and meals every 3 hours. I always thought the body could only absorb 30 grams of protein at a time. After 30 years of BS I can almost manipulate my body. Still learning though. Keep up the great info!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Scott! I really appreciate it.

      Yeah most of us go through that phase, haha. Many guys never make it out…

  • Fernando

    Is it 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight or pound of lean mass? This article stated lean body mass but Bigger, leaner,stronger says bodyweight. A little confused. Thanks Mike.

    • Michael Matthews

      Per pound of body weight, as stated in the article. (Check it again.)

      • Fernando

        Thanks.

        • Michael Matthews

          YW

    • Quentin

      It’s funny how grams and ounces are combined (metric and imperial). We have that over here with metres and miles. I think people are comfortable with metres now, but we still describe larger distances in miles. Off topic – but things like that fascinate me!

      • Quentin

        *I meant ‘pounds’ above :)

        • Michael Matthews

          Yeah I figured. :)

      • Michael Matthews

        Yeah it is kind of strange… I would much prefer using the metric system.

  • Brad Warren

    At the beginning of this year I weighed in at over 320 lbs and I was miserable. One day I decided that I wasn’t going to continue this way and resorted to a diet of six eggs a day with some cheese and an exercise plan that consisted of pulling a diesel tire on a log chain. Despite my low calorie and moderate protein intake my legs have grown like tree trunks but my weight loss has stalled out at 288.8 lbs. I agree that generally you don’t need as much protein to build muscle as what has been traditionally accepted and from what I have read about protein metabolism it may be something as simple as your blood type that determines the efficiency with which your body utilizes animal proteins.

    • Michael Matthews

      Great job on the weight loss. It sounds like it’s time to eat a bit better. Due to your weight, you CAN deal with a large calorie deficit, but if you’re not losing weight, let’s fix your diet…

      • Brad Warren

        Every two weeks I load up on slow digesting carbs which causes a small reduction in weight. I only take my weights and tapes once a week and this morning when I did both I was down to 386.8 and waist diameter at it’s largest point was 53″ which is a half inch reduction. I am not sure why all of a sudden I experienced this loss, I haven’t changed anything. Any thoughts?

        • Michael Matthews

          That water loss that then allows you to actually see the fat you’ve lost:

          http://www.muscleforlife.com /water-retention-and-weight-loss/

          I would recommend eating a bit more. You can run a large deficit, but let’s try to keep you around 1,500 calories per day. I would do this:

          200 pro
          70 carb
          50 fat

          (Per day)

          Have most if not all your carbs after training.

  • Quentin

    Great article as always Mike. Your new book has been really helpful too. It’s nice when the recipes are quick to make.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! I really appreciate it and am glad you’re liking the book.

      • Glen Wilson

        Another really good read! Im cutting at the minute im 69k and need to drop to around 66-67k I eat around 160-170grams protein is this enough as I see the ideal is 2.6-3.3grams per kilo. That’s roughly 170 -227g for me which is a fair few added calories if I put in too much.

        • Michael Matthews

          Thanks Glen! 170ish is fine. You could drop carbs a little and up protein if you wanted but 170 should be plenty to preserve muscle.

        • Glen Wilson

          Thanks for getting back good to know im going down the right paths!

          • Michael Matthews

            My pleasure! :)

  • Dino

    Just my experience.

    I have been trying to bulk with 400 grams of complex carbs (bananas, oatmeal, carb powder) and 1.5 grams protein per body weight. But only seeing slow muscle growth in a 3 month span.

    The last few months I have been cutting to go on my vacation next week. I have upped my protein to 2 to 2.5x my body weight (protein powder only) and eating 100 calorie yogurt cups a few times a day. I since have shed 15 lbs, (size 38 to size 34 pants); but the weird thing is my muscle are getting bigger fast. I have just about the same routine (mike’s) — but I run at least once a day on the treadmill for 30-45 minutes doing high intensity interval training.

    I thought by going mainly protein powder for meals it would preserve some muscle while letting me lose fat. But I had no idea I would gain muscle, so I’m very happy about that. I had planned on taking water pill in the next few days before I leave, but I really don’t think I need to now.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the comment Dino. Very interesting. My guess is your body fat % was a bit too high to efficiently build muscle on your bulk. You can read about this here:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com /the-best-way-to-gain-muscle-not-fat/

      Very-high-protein diets that are also low in calories work for losing weight, but that high might put a bit of stress on your kidneys (not sure as I haven’t seen a study with intake that high). Make sure you’re drinking a gallon of water per day or so.

  • ADTS

    “I know you love protein, I love protein too” The embedded video proves that not only are you a scholar, but a gentlemen too. I believe a “well-done” is in order. Great article as per usual.

    • Michael Matthews

      Hahah thanks. I appreciate it. :)

  • Danny

    Hi Mike neither my ipad or android smartphone support support flash player – where can i find video? Also is it necessary to increase protein when you have a muscle injury?

    • Michael Matthews

      Hmm not sure I found it on some random website. If you Google “kali muscle Taco Bell commercial” you’ll find it.

      No, you don’t have to eat more protein than laid out in this article when you’re injured.

  • Toni

    Great article! You don’t need gads of protein to build muscle. I eat around .8 grams per lb of bodyweight and I have had good results as a forty-two year old lady.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Next time you’re dieting for fat loss, I recommend bumping it up a bit–at least to 1 g/lb.

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  • Ram

    I don’t understand. I read the Bigger Leaner Stronger book and you said that you should eat protein every 3 or so hours and also advocate doing several small meals. But in this article you are saying that is not necessary. Did you change your philosophy?

    • Michael Matthews

      Remember I simply LIKE to eat this way, but it’s not entirely necessary, that’s all. I recommend it in my book because it’s very easy and keeps you full and energetic, that’s all.

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  • AgeUke

    Hi Mike, what’s your take on this http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/04/animal-protein-diets-smoking-meat-eggs-dairy it’s just made its way into British newspapers today.

    • Michael Matthews

      Another alarmist take on epidemiological research. Yawn. Correlation isn’t causation.

      There are so many other factors involved in the onset of such diseases. Blaming protein alone is moronic, but makes for good headlines.

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