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300 eggs. 20 chickens. 15 gallons of milk. 25 pounds of Tuna. That’s what a recent news report tallied that the line-up at a physique contest consumed – in one day. So, it’s hardly surprising that most people view bodybuilders as protein junkies, shovelling the stuff into their oversized frames by the bucketload. The reality for many bodybuilders is not that different. In fact, a huge supplement industry thrives off the desire for extra protein.
But just how much do you really need?
It’s time to get the facts.
THE GREAT BODYBUILDING DEBATE
Welcome to the great bodybuilding debate, one that has been raging for well over half a century. The question of how much protein iron pumpers need to build muscle has pitted a conservative group who contend that little more than the RDA against hardcore gym bros who regularly double or even triple that number. On the face of it, consuming more protein to build muscle makes sense. After all, the more protein you consume, the more amino acids are available to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. So long as you’re training hard, you’ll be building muscle.
But there are problems associated with taking in too much protein. For one thing, it can lead to increased fat storage. Excess protein can also result in an abundance of urea in the body. That urea must be eliminated from the body through the liver and kidneys. So, taking in too much protein can put these two vital organs under unnecessary strain.
A study out of England investigated the health effects of consuming more than the RDA of protein. It was shown that an extra 5 ounces of protein ramped up the risk of kidney complications by 250 percent.
Protein also has a diuretic effect on the body. It can help with losing excess water but may also reduce blood volume. As a result, the blood is more viscous. This can increase blood pressure and put a strain on the cardiovascular system.
To understand how much protein we need to build muscle, we need to know what happens in the body when we consume this macronutrient.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EAT PROTEIN?
When you consume protein, your nitrogen balance increases. Protein is the only one of the three macronutrients that contain nitrogen. So, we know that our nitrogen levels are directly correlated to our protein levels within the body. If we are in a state of positive nitrogen balance, then we have a sufficient amount of protein to build muscle. On the other hand, if we are in a state of negative nitrogen balance, then we are likely to break down muscle mass. And, if we are in a zero nitrogen balance situation we are going to maintain our current level of muscle mass.
It is possible to have your nitrogen levels tested to see whether you are in a positive, negative, or zero state of balance. Yet, recent research indicates that we don’t even have to go to the trouble of keeping ourselves in a state of positive nitrogen balance.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS
One four-week study compared the protein consumption of two groups. The first group took 0.61 grams of protein per pound of body weight, while the second group consumed 1.19 grams per pound of body weight. Both groups followed the same workout program for the study period. Testing at the end of the study found that there was no difference in either strength or muscle size between the two groups. The authors of this study concluded that bodybuilders should take between 0.75 and 0.85 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
A second study compared an intake of 0.77 grams per pound of body weight in one group with 1 gram per pound of body weight for three months. This time the study participants were conditioned athletes. Yet, once again, there was no difference in the key markers of muscle mass, strength, and hormonal makeup between the two groups.
Neither of these studies involved super intense hardcore bodybuilding training. However, a third one did. The participants in this study were bodybuilders who were working out for 90 minutes each day, six days per week. Yet, the researchers found that when the protein intake exceeded 0.82 grams per pound of body weight, there was no increased benefit in terms of muscle gain or strength enhancement.
SO, HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO YOU REALLY NEED?
The research that we’ve considered in the preceding sections seems to indicate that the high protein intake levels that are generally recommended by the fitness industry appear to be overinflated. Whether this is motivated by the supplement industry’s desire to make as much money as possible, I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Prominent figures in the bodybuilding world recommend as much as 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. For a 200 pound guy, that would work out to 400 grams of protein per day. That is an excessive amount of protein that would probably lead to gastric discomfort, bloating, and, probably, gas.
The truth about protein intake is that your intake should be based on your unique circumstances. Factors to consider include your level of training experience and your training intensity. The more stress you put on your muscles, the more protein synthesis you need to rebuild that muscle. The harder your train, the more nitrogen your muscles will also consume. To get back to a positive nitrogen balance, you will need more protein.
Your protein intake will also depend on your body composition goals. Are you wanting to lose fat, maintain your current weight or add muscle mass? Each will require a different amount of protein intake. Similarly, if you are on a high fat or a low carb diet, you will need to adjust your protein intake to stay within your caloric guidelines. So, your protein intake needs to be directly related to the eating protocol you’re following.
To meet your unique protein needs, you should think in terms of a continuum rather than a single number. Based on the studies considered and real-life experience, I recommend that hard trainers bodybuilders should work within a range of between 0.8 and 1.3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. For a 200 pound guy, that puts you on a continuum between 160 and 260 grams of protein per day. That protein should be consumed out over five to six evenly spaced meals.
- Many fitness industry protein guidelines are overinflated.
- Too much protein can damage the kidneys and liver.
- Adjust your protein intake according to your training intensity & goals.
- Work on a protein consumption continuum of between 0.8-1.3 grams per day.