Most lifters are probably making a couple of basic mistakes with protein intake and, as such, leaving plenty of muscle on the table.
I’ll go out on an IQ limb here and assume that most of you who’ve been reading my articles for years might think I’m at least a little bit smart. Well, the truth is I’ve been very stupid, at least in one area. And I’m hoping it’s not generally reflective of my overall smarts.
I’ve effed-up on protein, you see, for a long time. As conscientious as I am about almost every other aspect of diet, I’ve failed to follow a couple of simple protein rules regarding dosage and timing, rules that I’ve preached others to follow multiple times. As a result, I’ve left a lot of potential gains on the table. Or, more aptly, left a lot of protein shake at the bottom of the blender.
Here then are my crimes, crimes I freely admit. I throw myself on the mercy of the court.
One of my favorite protein adages is that you can’t build a house without bricks. It means you can’t build muscle without protein or, more specifically, amino acids. Work out as hard, as often, as perfectly as humanly possible, but without adequate protein, you’re largely wasting your time, at least as far as building muscle is concerned.
And that’s what I’ve been guilty of, time and time again. This is particularly egregious on my part because, as a contributor to T Nation, I get free Metabolic Drive (on Amazon). All I want. I could take a bath in it, battery-powered rubber duckies leaving behind a vanilla wake as they propelled across a glistening protein pond.
But no, a lot of times, I neglect to hit my grams-of-protein numbers. There are days when I may only have a couple of eggs for breakfast, skip my mid-afternoon shake, or even eat the occasional vegetarian dinner that falls woefully short of protein. This is especially bad because I know full well what the requirements are, or science’s best guess as to what the requirements are.
Exercise scientist Robert Morton compiled 49 protein studies comprising 1,863 protein-chugging men and women. He found a direct relationship between total protein intake and fat-free mass, aka muscle.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, but what was notable was that his research pointed to a specific number, and that number may prove to be as significant as Avogadro’s constant, the golden ratio, or the speed of light. Well, maybe not that important, but pretty important as far as muscle is concerned.
That number is 1.62 grams, as in 1.62 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
That, to the best of our knowledge, seems to be the optimal number of grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a lifter should ingest each day to maximize size and strength. There are probably outliers (including big-time steroid users) who might benefit from more protein per kilogram, but their numbers might be insignificant. For the vast majority, however, I believe Morton is spot on.
Let’s look at how much protein that would equal for people of various body weights:
- 110 grams a day for a 150-pound lifter
- 129 grams a day for a 175-pound lifter
- 147 grams a day for a 200-pound lifter
- 166 grams a day for a 225-pound lifter
And so on.
My bodyweight is in-between 200 and 225, so I should’ve been consistently pounding down somewhere in the neighborhood of 155 grams of protein per day, but I wasn’t consistent about it. That means I’d be doing the old muscle-building cha-cha-cha: two steps forward, one step back.
Which brings me to my second big mistake…
Often, in a pathetic attempt to hit my protein intake numbers, I’d disproportionately load up on protein during a single meal. For example, I might drink a Metabolic Drive (on Amazon) shake in the morning with 60 or 80 grams of protein in it with the idea of loading up so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting “enough” protein at lunch or my midday snack/shake.
This is a “crime” because I know it doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work well.
A Japanese study found that when protein intake is “asymmetrical,” i.e., we take in more protein at breakfast (or dinner) than during other meals, we experience less muscle protein synthesis than those who had roughly proportional amounts of protein for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, even if the total protein intake was equal.
Another study, this one conducted by T Nation contributor Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., concluded much the same thing. He found that lifters interested in maximizing muscle protein synthesis should consume protein at a minimum rate of 0.4 g/kg spread across a minimum of four meals. This would allow them to reach the “magic protein number” of 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram, but in a “symmetrical” manner.
Here’s what that would look like for the body weights used in the example above:
- A 150-pound lifter would need to eat about 27 grams of protein per meal for 4 total meals.
- A 175-pound lifter would need to eat about 31 grams of protein per meal for 4 total meals.
- A 200-pound lifter would need to eat about 36 grams of protein per meal for 4 total meals.
- A 225-pound lifter would need to eat about 41 grams of protein per meal for 4 total meals.
So, I should ideally be taking in between 36 and 41 grams of protein per meal to hit my goal and stop this nonsense where I try to double-up my protein at a single meal or two. The latter is like working out 4 or 5 times in one day so you could take the rest of the week off, i.e., stoo-pid.
Oh, and in case there are any readers out there who still believe in the old “25 grams of protein per sitting is all the body can handle” myth, put down your Palm Pilot, turn off the CRT TV, and stop stacking your floppy discs for a second while I try to relieve you of that outdated protein belief.
Researchers used to think that ingesting more than 20 to 25 grams of protein per meal would lead to protein oxidation or protein transamination, where the amino acids in the protein are “shuffled” to form different compounds.
No, not so much. The current theory is that “excess” protein (any amount that isn’t picked up by the liver and ferried to muscle) just enters the bloodstream where it’s free for the picking by any body tissues needing them. True, at some point, consumption of higher protein doses (really high) would lead to some oxidation of amino acids, but it’s certainly not the fate of all ingested protein/amino acids.
There. My secrets are out. My protein crimes revealed. My stupidity laid bare.
Of all people, I should have known better. In truth, I did know better, but I was too damn lazy when it came to doing what needed to be done. But henceforth, I promise to honor protein and keep my Metabolic Drive (on Amazon) intake optimal all the year. I will not hypocritically shut out the lessons that I’ve long espoused.
I strongly suspect, though, that I’m not alone in committing these protein blunders. Am I right?
- Morton RW et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018;52:376-384.
- Yasudea J et al, Evenly Distributed Protein Intake over 3 Meals Augments Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy in Healthy Young Men. J Nutr. 2020 Jul 1;150(7):1845-1851. PubMed.
- Schoenfeld BJ et al. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Feb 27;15:10. PubMed.