Does Protein Build Muscle?
If you’ve set out on a muscle building journey, one thing that you will hear about at one point is protein. You may ask, ‘how does protein help build muscle?’, ‘what protein helps build muscle?’, and ‘how much protein to build muscle do you need?’
Before we answer these questions, we need to fully define protein and its role in the muscle-building process.
While it’s true, protein does build muscle, it’s not the only thing that does. Simply eating more protein and working out is not going to mean you are going to build muscle. There are other factors that must come into play if you are going to see the success that you desire.
So does protein build muscle? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients (the others being carbohydrates and dietary fat) and it supplies the amino acids that form the building blocks that all tissues are made up of.
Whenever you eat protein, it is going to be broken down in the body into amino acids, which are then utilized in slightly different ways. There are essential amino acids, which you must consume intact through food, and then there are non-essential amino acids that the body can successfully make on its own from other amino acids that you consume. There are 21 different amino acids and it’s important that you try to get all of these in every day. However, there are only nine essential amino acids including histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine, so at the least, you want to get these into your day.
While protein can supply the body with energy through a process called gluconeogenesis, this process does not take place unless dire need requires it. Essentially, your body will always turn to available carbohydrates or dietary fat if it can before utilizing protein as an energy source.
You’ll use protein for energy whenever you are on a low calorie diet (so carbs and fats are unavailable) or if you are simply not eating enough of those energy-providing nutrients and are over-consuming in protein calories
The process of gluconeogenesis (breaking down protein into glucose) is energy costly for the body and can be hard on your system, so it’s recommended to avoid this whenever you can. Eating a mixed, balanced diet will help you do so.
How Does Protein Help Build Muscle?
Now let’s answer the question: how does protein help build muscle? As you learned above, amino acids provide the structural building blocks for all tissues in the body – including muscles.
When the proper stimulus is applied through exercise (more on that shortly), protein will then be called into play to rebuild the muscles that have been broken down through exercise and help build them back up so they are stronger than they were before.
When you have an abundance of calories in your diet, your body can use the proteins to build more muscle tissue on top of what you already have.
Now, one mistake many people is thinking that the more protein they take in, the more muscle they will build. Some believe that there is an endless amount of muscle to be built and it’s just dependent on how much protein you consume.
This leads to them taking in astronomically high amounts of protein on a day to day basis, to the tune of 250 grams of protein or more. With the advent of protein powder supplements, achieving this level of protein intake is not that challenging – not nearly as challenging as it would be if you tried to eat eight chicken breasts each day.
The fact is the body can only build so much muscle in any given day assuming you are supplying it with the right workout session. If you take in more protein beyond what it needs, that protein will just be used as energy or converted to body fat.
Protein does supply calories just like fats or carbs do and in the face of any extra nutrient intake, the body will convert it to body fat.
It really does not take that many more grams of protein each day to build muscle, so it’s a wise idea to keep your intake in check. You might need an extra 20-30 grams if muscle building is your goal over maintenance, but that’s it.
The actual truth is that dieting individuals – those who are aiming for fat loss – often need more protein than those attempting to build muscle tissue.
The reasoning for this is because when you consume fewer calories while dieting, there are also fewer grams of carbs and fats available for energy. As such, your body may use some incoming protein for energy, leaving less protein left over to just maintain your lean muscle mass tissue.
By providing more protein than you actually need, you can ensure that if this does happen, you are prepared and can maintain muscle as desired.
What Protein Helps Build Muscle
Now that you understand how protein helps build muscle, what protein should you be eating?
If your goal to build muscle, you’ll want to focus on clean, natural sources of protein. If you are also trying to watch your total body fat levels (you want to build lean muscle, not just put on weight), you’ll want to choose protein sources that contain a lower amount of added fats, especially since animal fats are typically saturated fats and are also high in cholesterol.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat steak on a regular basis, but choose a leaner steak and opt for chicken more often. Like most things in your diet, moderation is key.
The one exception to this is fish. Oily fish varieties contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are incredibly important for your overall health. It’s a good idea to eat at least a few servings of oily fish per week if you can because despite being higher in fat, it’s a very good form of fat to take in.
The best protein sources to turn to include:
- Fatty fish
- Wild game meat
- Low fat dairy (cottage cheese, Greek yogurt)
- Whey protein powder
You can also look at vegetarian sources of protein such as tofu, tempeh, soybeans, beans, and lentils. These are also good sources of protein however some of them are incomplete sources (beans and lentils for example), so must be eaten with other foods like rice to get the full spectrum of amino acids in.
Tofu and tempeh are complete sources; however, for men especially, soy is believed to interfere with their overall testosterone levels, so this could potentially lead to problems with muscle building down the road.
While this isn’t to say vegetarians can’t build muscle, it is typically easier to do so if you are eating animal protein sources.
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
When looking at specific recommendations for how much protein you need to build muscle, you can usually estimate that around one gram per pound of bodyweight is going to be a good starting place.
You may go a little higher up to 1.2 grams per pound, but you really don’t need more protein than this, especially if you are taking in enough calories. In fact, many on muscle building diet plans with ample amounts of carbohydrates and dietary fats can easily consume around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight and still see excellent progression.
The Role Of Carbohydrates
We must not forget about carbohydrates in this picture. We spoke about how amino acids are the building blocks that muscle tissue is made up of, but carbohydrates are the fuel that helps the body utilize those amino acids properly. So if you don’t have carbohydrates in your diet, it’s going to be hard to put that protein to use. Think of the carbohydrates as essentially the catalysts for helping you move forward and see success.
Carbohydrates are also considered anabolic because they raise insulin (which puts you in a tissue building state) and help to decrease cortisol production.
So no muscle building diet will be complete without carbohydrates and this nutrient is quite possibly even more important than protein as far as your muscle building efforts are concerned.
Your Workout Sessions
Finally, the workouts you do need to provide an overloading stimulus. Essentially, it’s important that you are always aiming to do more than you did before. Some people will hit the gym and just do the same routine over and over again. This is unlikely to help support muscle building processes, even if you are taking in more protein because you aren’t breaking down muscle tissue like you would if you were providing an overloading challenge – something your body hasn’t faced before. So focus on that first and foremost and you’ll do much better.
So there you have the key facts to know about protein and muscle building. It’s important that you do focus on getting protein into your diet to help build muscle, but your job isn’t done there. There are other things that also need to come into play to help you see optimal results as well.