Did you know that protein is the last reserve of energy your body will use when all other stores are unavailable, and everything your body makes (muscle, bone, hair, nails even enzymes and hormones) is derived from the protein you eat – hence “you are what you eat… literally.” Or even better than this you are what you eat, has eaten!
What are proteins?
Proteins are relatively massive molecules in the body made from lots of smaller structures called amino acids. This order and structure of amino acids is what gives every protein its unique shape and therefore its own specific function. This is important because your body is constantly turning over old / redundant proteins into amino acids and then back into new proteins to fulfil the current demand. Proteins are most abundant in meat, fish and eggs, and the quality of the food those animals ate will greatly affect the quality of the protein you receive. I get my clients to try and opt for grass-fed, organic and wild where possible. Whilst this can be an expensive process for some people the results are worth it. I personally get a monthly meat box from Green Pasture Farms.
This unorganised mess needs to be transformed back into its previous state ready for the next workout by breaking down the ‘spent’ proteins into amino acids and reconfiguring them into new, stronger fibres. We refer to this equation of catabolic (breaking down) vs. anabolic (synthesis) as a net protein balance (or sometime net nitrogen balance, as nitrogen is a key element in amino acid structure). Anyone who is training wants to be in a positive protein balance (unless your goal is to become a skinny, muscle-less 6 year old girl?)
This example of the muscle is analogous of what’s happening all over your body. EVERYTHING is made of protein, so even your daily hormones like cortisol will be catabolised and resynthesized into other proteins (depending on the body’s signals). If you are trying to change the way your body looks, then you will need to turn over a lot of proteins to mobilise fat and repair and rebuild muscle that’s broken down by exercise. It’s not enough to train hard for your goals; if the correct building blocks aren’t present, results can’t be built.
So how much..?
This is very dependent on your lifestyle activity, training, goals and your individual biochemistry. In the early 70s in was found that 1g per kg body weight (1.0g-1 kg bw) was sufficient to maintain a positive nitrogen balance. However this was in completely sedentary males, and when given a 2 hour workout the subjects went into a negative balance after 2 days.1
The same group of researchers increase the protein feed to 1.5 g-1 kg bw and found the subjects could stave off a negative protein balance for 4 days. Incidentally the government RDA for protein is around 0.75g-1 kg bw.
At the elite level it’s been seen that weightlifters have seen gains of up to 3.5g-1 kg bw. I have no clients, and have never met anyone for that matter, whose training load would require close to this sort of dosage to see results. Not to mention the cost involved with those sorts of protein requirements.
I have all my clients hit a minimum 1.5g-1 kg bw regardless of sex and goals. Some of my guys (myself included) will aim for around 2.0g-1 kg bw, and some may have more depending on their goals. From that starting point, it’s a case of suck it (or eat it) and see.
30g per feed has been the general advice doled out to body builders and the like for years, alongside, small regular meals. This is being challenged in the industry and it’s now being suggested that a hitting daily target is the most important factor2, regardless of having small meals every 2-3 hours. In fact it’s being postulated that there is a ‘refractory’ period after protein ingestion where protein synthesis cannot be increased further by consuming protein with 3 hours of a previous feed.3 The latest evidence suggests eating a large protein dose (more than 30g) then waiting 4-5 hours before the next feed as a more efficient way of getting the best protein balance out of your diet.
Amino Acids – pre-workout nutrition
Amino acids are linked together to form proteins, and proteins are chopped down into their amino acid counterparts. We have pools of amino acids (from foods and broken down unnecessary substrates) which can be tapped into in times of anabolism to grow, and which can also increase protein synthesis through taking an amino acid supplement4. Conversely, if you are in a fasted state, those amino pools may not be sufficient and prevent you from attaining that positive protein balance we are after.
Any training done before 8am (pre-breakfast) should be fuelled by an amino acid supplement 45 minutes before the exercise. This has the benefit of up regulating fat burning hormones like glucagon, which are already being stimulated by exercising in a fasted state. Having the additional pool of amino acids present is great for protecting the muscles from catabolism; in fact the body detects a large amount of ‘building’ substrates so it turns into a more anabolic state. This is the same reason why it’s such an important supplement for those practicing intermittent fasting with the goal of body composition in mind – ALWAYS STAY IN A POSITIVE PROTEIN BALANCE.
For those training later in the day, the effect of fasting is much less pronounced so food intake should be sufficient, such as some homemade dark chocolate covered nuts.
What you consume during your workout is very much dependant on the training you’re undertaking. For example, my short 45-60min strength and hypertrophy workouts don’t really require a mid-session protein hit as I’ve pre-loaded on food or aminos, and I’m having a shake / meal post workout.
Looking at other forms of training however, which are either longer or containing periods of sustained high intensity (both are more likely to use up your glycogen stores), then some peri-workout nutrition can be of use. Typically carbohydrates are going to give you the best benefit here in terms of maximising glycogen synthesis (for next session) and optimising protein reparation, whilst preventing protein degradation.
The literature suggests that peri-workout protein is not necessary, especially if you are pre-loading amino acids, or have had a solid meal a few hours prior to training. Anecdotally, I’ve known body builders insist on taking Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) between sets, but I would tell most people to save their money and get it right before their workout. As mentioned before, carbs can be of definite benefit for those undertaking a more endurance focussed training protocol, which is reflected in this endurance activity based study.5
Arguably, the most important period of time for protein ingestion is the post workout window, roughly 1-2 hours after exercise. There is a real wealth of information in this particular area, so I’m going to try and summarise the most important points for you.
Protein (or amino acid) ingestion in the post exercise window stimulates muscle protein synthesis6 and a positive net protein balance7.
Protein and carbohydrate post-workout drinks have been shown to maximise glycogen synthesis8 and prevent protein breakdown (therefore improving net protein balance)9.
Ingesting more than 20g of protein post exercise, may result in no further benefits in terms of stimulating muscle protein synthesis, but will be oxidised as fuel.10
- Protein is required to synthesise new cells and tissues which happens much more in individuals who are attempting to lose body fat.
- Buy the best quality protein you can afford – if you care enough to look after your own body then don’t eat an animal that’s had no care given towards its body!
- Base your meal around your protein source (meat / fish) and build the rest up with vegetables and good sources of fat.
- If training in a fasted state, supplement with amino acids.
- Don’t consume protein during workouts if resistance training, but perhaps do so if training for extended periods of time.
- Consume protein within the first two hours post training, alongside carbohydrate and creatine for optimal improvements in strength and size.
1. GONTZEA, I., SUTZESCU, P., DUMITRACHE, S.: The influence of muscle activity on nitrogen balance and the need of man for proteins. Nutr. Rep. Int., 10, 35-43 (1974)
2. ARNAL, MA., MONSONI, L., BOIRIE, Y., HOULIER, ML., VERDIER, E., RITZ, P., ANTOINE, JM., PRUGNAUD, J., BEAUFRERE, B., MIRAND, PP.: Protein pulse feeding improves protein retention in elderly women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 69(6), 1202-8 (1999)
3. BOHE, J., LOW, JF., WOLFE, RR., RENNIE, MJ.: Latency and duration of stimulation of human muscle protein synthesis during continuous infusion of amino acids. J. Physiol., 15:532(Pt 2), 575-9 (2001)
4. TIPTON, KD., RASMUSSEN, BB., MILLER, SL., WOLF, SE., OWENS-STOVALL, SK., PETRINI, BE., WOLFE, RR.: Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am. J. Phys. – Endocrinology and Metabolism. 281, E197-E206 (2001)
5. IVY, JL., RES, PT., SPRAQUE, RC., WIDZER, MO.: Effect of carbohydrate-protein supplement on endurance performance during exercise of varying intensity. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. Sep; 13(3): 382-95 (2003)
6. TIPTON, KD., FERRANDO, AA., PHILLIPS, SM., DOYLE, D., WOLFE, RR.: Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. Am. J. Phys. – Endocrinology and Metabolism. 276, E628-E634 (1999)
7. RASMUSSEN, BB., TIPTON, KD., MILLER, SL., WOLF, SE., WOLFE, RR.: An oral essential amino acid-carbohydrate supplement enhances muscle protein anabolism after resistance exercise. J. App. Phys. 88 (2), 386-392 (2000)
8. ROY, BD., TARNOPOLSKY, MA.: Influence of differing macronutrient intakes on muscle glycogen resynthesis after resistance exercise. J. App. Phys. 84 (3), 890-896 (1998)
9. BORSHEIM, E., CREE, MG., TIPTON, KD., ELLIOT, TA., AARSLAND, A., WOLFE, RR.: Effect of carbohydrate intake on net muscle protein synthesis during recovery from resistance exercise. J. App. Phys. 96 (2), 674-678 (2004)
10. MOORE, DR., ROBINSON, MJ., FRY, JL., TANG, JE., GLOVER, EL., WILKINSON, SB., PRIOR, T., TARNOPLOSKY, MA., PHILLIPS, SM.: Ingested protein dose reponse of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 89 (1), 161-168 (2009)