The Essentials of Muscle Building, in Order (Part 3)

In the first post of this series, we discussed the importance of progressive overload with high mechanical load, while in the second post we talked about how important getting in enough daily/weekly calories is if you want to continue to make gains past the beginner stage. This post is now going to reveal the third most important aspect of building muscle.

Total Daily Protein

You have probably heard many times by now how important protein is for building muscle (and, as I discussed in the Hierarchy of Importance for Fat Loss, how even more important it is for fat loss), but I still needed to put it as #3 on this list because it is just that important.

Now, I could have grouped total daily calories together with total daily protein into one big group and labeled it as Diet, but that would be misrepresenting the information in my opinion. Since you have an even greater amount of protein during a calorie deficit (to preserve your muscle mass), but you are still losing weight and not really gaining muscle, it is not the protein in and of itself that allows you to gain muscle mass.

The reason that total daily protein comes after total daily calories is because you can increase your protein to an absurdly high amount, but if you are not a beginner and still have a calorie deficit, then you will not gain much muscle, if at all.

On the other hand, by increase your caloric intake, you can actually decrease your protein intake a bit, especially if the increase in calories is due to an increase in carbs. This is because by taking in more carbs, your body will then use more carbs, proportionally, throughout the day for energy and oxidize less protein for energy, thus saving and increase your net protein. If you lowered your carbs and increased your protein intake, then your body would respond by oxidizing more protein for energy which would allow less to go towards building your muscle. This is why total calories come first, but total protein is close behind. (As a side note: increasing your fat intake does not make the body burn more fat for its energy needs. Only by decreasing carb/protein intake or fasting for a time period like 4-16 hours will increase percentage of fat used for energy. Furthermore, if you have a lot of fat to lose, then you will already be using a lot of fat at fuel.)

So how much protein should you have?

My most typical recommendation is one gram of protein for each pound of your body weight. If you weight 150lbs, then eat 150g of protein per day. However, I have no problem going higher than that towards 1.5X or sometimes even 2X your body weight in grams of protein. Yes, that is a lot of protein, but most of the time it doesn’t hurt and in some cases can help. One thing that you have to watch out for eating that much protein, though, is that you still get your total daily calories in, since protein is the most filling macronutrient.

At this point some readers might be wondering why I recommend using your body weight as the indicator of the amount of protein instead of using your lean body mass only, since the extra fat that you carry does not increase your protein requirements? I do this for a few reasons:

  1. It is much more convenient and easy for people to use their total body weight since they do not have to estimate their body fat percentage and subtract their fat mass from their total mass.
  2. I personally think that 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass is not enough protein every day for serious lifters, so I would have to complicate the number by saying 1.3g of protein per pound of lean body mass…
  3. This measurement of protein will be fairly accurate unless the individual has a very high body fat percentage, in which case this method will over-estimate the amount of protein he needs. In my opinion, this is a good thing, since a higher amount of protein will help this person lower is body fat percentage in the long-term. (Though since this article is addressing muscle building and not fat loss, this method should be decently accurate anyway. In any case, a higher protein amount is almost never a bad thing for building muscle unless you lower your carbs unintentionally by doing so, which we already talked about above.)

Now that you know how much protein to have, when should you have it?

This question really does not have as clear of an answer as the previous one, but I’ll do my best.

If you are training with a high-frequency lifting schedule like HST or some other program that has you lift almost every other day, then where you place your protein intake becomes of little importance. Since protein synthesis (the process of taking the protein you are eating and using it to build onto your muscles) stays elevated for at least 24-36 hours after a lifting session, by lifting very frequently you almost always have elevated protein synthesis (which is exactly one aspect that HST was designed to do). Thus, you can eat your protein/meals anytime.

The only time you should consider protein timing during high-frequency training is before and after you lift. While there is at least one study showing some positive results to fasted training, not enough research has been done yet for me to suggest that fasted training is superior to fed training (since there is an increase in protein breakdown in fasted lifting, which might outweigh the increased PWO anabolic response). Therefore, I would suggest that you make sure that you have a pre-workout meal consisting of around 50g of protein and 15-30% of your carb intake for the day 30mins to 1.5hours before you lift, depending upon how long it will take the meal to digest (how big the meal was, how much was solid/liquid, etc.).

Your post-workout meal will be your first meal after you lift, and I usually try to have it 30 mins to 1.5 hours after I lift, though the timing isn’t really important if you had a good pre-workout meals as some of that will still be digesting and the protein still absorbing. I would recommend anywhere from 50g-100g of protein post-workout and around 20-40% of your daily carbs. Of course, this meal can be broken up into smaller meals if you so choose. The main point here is essentially to eat a lot of food around the time you lift.

As a final point, there is some evidence showing that consuming leucine (an amino acid found in high concentrations animal protein, and the main amino acid responsible for protein synthesis) continuously for hours (like eating protein every 2 hours) will actually allow the elevated protein synthesis from leucine to drop back to baseline, with no increase with further consumption of leucine (it’s a desensitizing effect essentially). This data suggests that you might want to eat your pre-workout meal as either your first meal of the day or after not eating protein for at least a few hours.

While these pre- and post-workout meal recommendations apply to any types of training for the most part, other details of protein timing can come into play if your lifting schedule is less-frequent.

If you lift once every 3 days, for example, then the hours before your next lifting session, protein synthesis has most likely normalized back to its baseline level. So, let’s say that you lift Monday at 5pm and then again Thursday at 5pm. From the middle of Wednesday to the middle of Thursday, protein synthesis is no longer elevated from the training (I do not want to specify exact times since it depends on the total amount of Work involved in Monday’s workout and other factors, but this is a good estimation). It would make sense then to skew Monday’s, Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and some of Thursday’s calories and protein to the left, so that you are eating more calories/protein when you have the highest levels of protein synthesis and less calories and protein when protein synthesis has gone back down. Of course, you could just eat a lot all of the time and fill all the hours will a lot of calories and protein, but I am detailing this plan as a method to minimize fat gain / end up with a better body composition.

If you want even more in-depth details regarding meal/protein frequency, Lyle’s post is a nice source to read over.

The two take-home points for all of this are:

  1. Eat before and after training (if you ate a good pre-workout meal, eating an intra-workout meal is not necessary since the pre-workout meal will still be digesting).
  2. Eat more calories and protein when you have elevated protein synthesis to help your body build muscle and eat less calories when protein synthesis is lower to minimize fat gain (if you are on a low-frequency lifting schedule, which will probably be the minority of you).
  3. Eat a lot of protein, at least 1g / pound of body weight up to around 2g / lbs, depending on the individual.
  4. Do not eat your meals too close together, as amino acid concentrations, specifically leucine, might not have fallen back to normal. The relative  change in AA concentrations is what matters, it seems.