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Building muscle is one of the most sought-after goals in the entirety of the health and fitness world, and the supplement industry makes billions each year selling protein powders that promise rapid muscular development. But these aids are often vastly different from each other, and come with virtually no guidance about how or when to consume them. Does the appropriate dosage change with sex, age, or exercise type? Does the timing make a difference? Does any of this matter?
All about protein:
At the very basic level, muscle development is a microcosm of weight loss. It’s a balance between protein synthesis and breakdown -- protein synthesis must exceed breakdown over time in order to gain muscle. This comes with an important caveat, which is perhaps the most important sentence of this article. You cannot build muscle if you are consistently under-eating or failing to obtain appropriate calorie intake. The human body is remarkably adapted for survival. We are biochemically wired to discourage the buildup of muscle tissue, which has some of the highest energy requirements of the entire body, in times of decreased food intake or perceived starvation. To that end, it is estimated that an additional 350 to 500 calories daily are required to gain 1 pound of muscle per week. Statements like these often cause many people’s minds to jump automatically to picture protein powders, shakes, and other supplements -- but they aren’t necessarily the end-all-be-all to muscular development.
There is nothing magical about the type of protein in these products (despite what their marketing campaigns may say), except for the fact that they are convenient. This becomes especially relevant given that the ideal window for building protein begins right before resistance training and ends in the three hours after the exercise is complete. Busy schedules do not always facilitate time for proper meals, and in these situations supplemental powders or bars can be useful.
There are several forms of protein supplements on the market, although whey and soy protein tend to be the most popular. Whey protein is derived from milk, and contains all of the essential amino acids as well as a particularly high concentration of branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s). BCAA’s -- especially leucine -- are seen as especially important in the muscle building process. Soy protein is popular among vegans for its plant-based roots, and is similar to whey protein in that it's a “fast” protein that is delivered to the muscles quickly. However, some studies have shown that soy protein is less effective than whey protein for muscle building. It’s important to note that, while these products certainly exist and are valid options, the essential amino acids as well as BCAA’s can all be obtained from normal food options. It is purely a matter of convenience and personal preference to use protein supplements.
Sports nutritionist Monique Ryan recommends 15 to 20 grams of protein before a bout of strength training, followed by another 15 to 20 grams in the hours after training. Notably, this is often less than one scoop of protein powder or one bottle of protein shake. There is no benefit to consuming protein in vast amounts that exceed daily requirements -- protein is a very inefficient source of energy, especially when compared to carbohydrates, and will be stored as fat if consumed excessively.
What about carbohydrates?
While protein is important, the timing of protein intake is far more important than the amount consumed. A large percentage of the additional 350-500 calories mentioned above should come from carbohydrates instead, as a means of stimulating both protein and muscle glycogen synthesis. Again, the importance of consuming adequate calorie needs to provide the energy to produce muscle cannot be understated. At the end of the day, weight training is another source of exercise that ultimately depletes the body’s fuel. Carbohydrates are the optimal source of energy in the body, and consistently high athletic performance cannot be obtained without them. Sports nutritionist Monique Ryan recommends 25-50 grams of carbohydrate (in conjunction with the aforementioned protein sources) before exercise, and consuming enough carbohydrates throughout the rest of the day to meet the additional caloric need.
1. Ryan, M. (2012). Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. Boulder, Colorado: VeloPress.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program