The Two Biggest Protein Mistakes

Are You Sabotaging Your Gains?

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.

Crime Number 1: Not Consistently Hitting Protein Numbers

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…

Crime Number 2: An Unbalanced Protein Intake

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.

A Special Note for Flat-Earthers

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.

A Plea for Mercy and a Promise of Redemption

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?

MD-Buy-on-Amazon

References

References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
7 Likes

Definitely guilty, not taking in enough.

Need to be more diligent and and consume at least one more shake per day. Known this for ever.

I appreciate the reminder.

1 Like

I’m 76kg, age 62 and get more than 150g every day, as much as 200g often, especially on lifting days. Building strength for sprinting and powerlifting.

Guilty here, protein is about the only macro I track, and fail miserably. I need 35g per meal, so will start thinking of it like that now.

Thanks for the info

Bry

I do better overall when protein intake is at or above the recommended values in this article, I do not eat nearly as much in total. If I eat less than the values, say 100g only for several days, I honestly feel like my muscles begin to ache. Could be mental but I am finding as I get older I need more protein in general, probably not absorbing as much and processes are probably not as efficient in using/repairing as they used to be. I am finding with age I can still physically keep up with the younger guys, but my real limits are recovery more than anything else. So most of my energy and focus is starting to work on the little things for recovery (sleep, adequate protein, stress reduction, etc…) because the little things are now my biggest payoffs.

1 Like

Getting to the absolute number isn’t that hard for me. I generally do it mostly over 3 meals though – 50 grams a meal is a pretty easy target for me to hit. Add in another snack where I have a bit of protein and unless I have a very unusual day, I’m often a good bit over my number for protein for the day.

I wanted to share this with you all… I had a client of mine want an idea of what this looks like and this is what I wrote up for her.

Achieving 129 grams of Protein a Day with 31 grams of Protein per Meal

Meal Ideas:

1. Breakfast Ideas:

  • Scrambled Eggs and Spinach: 4 large eggs (24g) scrambled with a cup of spinach (5g).
  • Greek Yogurt Parfait: 1 cup of Greek yogurt (23g) layered with berries and a sprinkle of chia seeds.

2. Lunch Ideas:

  • Grilled Chicken Salad: 150g of grilled chicken breast (47g) on a bed of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and a light vinaigrette dressing.
  • Tuna Wrap: One can of tuna (30g) mixed with light mayo, spread on a whole wheat wrap with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber.

3. Dinner Ideas:

  • Steak and Quinoa: 150g of sirloin steak (40g) with a side of quinoa (8g) and steamed broccoli.
  • Salmon and Asparagus: 200g of grilled salmon (45g) with a side of roasted asparagus and a lemon drizzle.

4. Snack Ideas:

  • Cottage Cheese Bowl: 1 cup of cottage cheese (28g) with sliced strawberries and a sprinkle of nuts.

Supplement Guidance Using T-Nation Products:

  1. Metabolic Drive: A high-quality protein powder designed for muscle growth and overall health. Ideal for a post-workout shake or a convenient snack.
  • Usage: Mix 2 scoops with water or milk to get approximately 40g of protein. Consume after your workout or as a mid-morning/afternoon snack.
  1. Mag-10: A rapid recovery formula that boosts muscle protein synthesis, reduces muscle soreness, and enhances overall muscle function.
  • Usage: Drink one serving (which provides 20g of protein) immediately post-workout to accelerate recovery.
  1. Plazma: A workout drink formula that provides fast-absorbing protein and carbohydrates. Helps in reducing muscle soreness and improving performance.
  • Usage: Drink one serving before or during your workout. Each serving provides 15g of protein.
3 Likes

So I just finished my (every 2 years) CECs to maintain my ACE personal training cert. (27 years so far!) and in Nancy Clark’s book “Sports Nutrition Guidebook”, 2020, she does indeed note “Your body can only use 20 to 25 grams of protein at one time to build muscle” (Phillips and van Loon 2011). Are you referring to any specific studies or…? Hoping you can clarify as I’m a protein junkie! Thanks!!

Absent a study, just think this through on it’s own with what you know about biology.

Let’s say that number is true: 20-25g of protein at one time to build muscle. Does protein digest ONLY at one time in your guts? We have MANY feet of intestine: big and small. Protein hangs out there for a while. If the body digests 25g of it “at one time” to build muscle, there is still protein around through the digestive process for when the body is ready to engage in more muscular building.

To say nothing of the fact that protein isn’t JUST used for building muscle: it IS a fuel source. It’s not a great one, sure, but it can certainly be utilized. Gluconeogensis is the process the body undergoes when it converts protein into glucose. So there’s STILL a role for it.

3 Likes

Huh, common sense wins again! Thanks! I guess the key here is exactly what you noted “at one time” and who knows precisely how long that is. Some say 2 hours, and my digestion is slow, so I’m thinking a continuous flow (not an IV protein drip)! Thanks!

1 Like

Yeah, I’m right in the same cell block with you. Great article, TC. Always well cited. I have a question, though. What is your take on bodyweight for both protein and caloric purposes. Specifically, if you know you should be at say 205 but are at 225, e.g., should your intake be for what you are or what you should/want to be? Also, Is it different for calories versus protein?

What about someone who only eats two meals per day? I would assume you would have to get 50% of your protein requirements at each meal.

no, 25%, four times is still better.

I am terrible for skipping meals due to being too busy or just having a poor appetite. I must discipline myself to having 30-35 grams 4 times daily. I’m doing well muscle wise at 58 years old but it seems wise to cover all bases.

My biggest protein sin is probably relying too much on shakes. I’ll mix up a five scoop (120g protein) shake with a carb-focused breakfast, but only drink ⅕ to ¼ of it then. Less, if I’m having eggs too. Another roughly equal amount ~3-4 hours later, within a half hour of my workout. Nuts and cheeses during the day, and a half pound of meat (usually chicken) for dinner. I’ll drink the rest of the shake in swigs, spaced out over the afternoon and evening to help with appetite suppression. I aim for, and usually hit or exceed, 1g/lb I weigh.

Heya,

Everyone is different, having thrown up that disclaimer along with the following: Gear users can use more protein more efficiently than “natural” lifters…I would think there wouldn’t be much disagreement, but this is the internet after all.

In my experience, the more lean body mass you carry, the more protein you can use, not in EVERY case, but the vast majority. Those who came to use less protein after getting to a certain lbm setpoint, don’t really count, IMO.

After 5+ decades of training, competing, coaching, etc., in most cases, the more protein, the more muscle…not ALL cases, but MOST. Like with anything, what works for YOU, is what is most important.

I do a minimum of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight currently, 61 years old, 6’1", 250 lbs, <10% bf, TRT+ (I have been as high as 350 lbs for powerlifting, and 285 lbs on stage >real weight, not the usual bs<, and would be much higher protein, along with MUCH high gear use)

Being consistent in your nutrition is as important as being consistent to/in the gym, IMO.

Always a pleasure TC.

Take care.

The other thing about protein that makes it important, beyond its muscle building power, is its satiating effects and how that helps us eat more realistic portions. Almost every successful diet/eating strategy that I have ever seen work increased protein intake. If you overconsume protein, it is the least efficient to be converted for energy, so you’re not likely to gain as much as if its overconsuming fat or carbs. Think about overeating protein - how hard that can be if using whole food sources. 15oz of sirloin is ~750 calories, ~25g fat, and a whopping ~130g protein - most people will tap out around this or less (yes some can eat massive amounts but 15oz of sirloin is an above average serving size). If you were to eat even half of that (7.5oz) in Nacho cheese Doritos you’re looking at 1055 calories, 60g of fat (mostly vegetable or seed oils), and a measly 15g of protein. For reference that is about 2/3 a regular size bag of Doritos. For me, the sirloin would shutdown my hunger, and perhaps even my desire to eat anything more, the Doritos would inspire me to find other things to enjoy it with, like an empty calorie soda or 2, and perhaps ice cream afterwards. I am not advocating to eat 130g protein at a sitting, I am just giving examples of how real food that is protein based can have tremendous leverage over hunger and overeating compared to processed junk.