For decades, bodybuilders have been focused on their protein intake and the intervals at which it should be consumed.
Specifically, lifters have experimented in an effort to find the optimal protein intake to enhance their performance and body composition.
It seems recent years, even non-gym rats have started focusing on their protein consumption, as seen in the rising popularity of high protein supplements and functional foods.
Is there merit to focusing on this macronutrient?
Years of research has been conducted to examine protein and its effects on athletes, determining not only if it’s necessary but also how it should be consumed for maximal benefits.
Research Shows Protein to be Anabolic
Researchers wanted to examine the effects of protein supplementation on resistance training on younger and older subjects to see if it promoted an increase in skeletal muscle mass. The meta-analysis of 22 studies, which included a total of 680 subjects, demonstrated that protein supplementation had a positive effect on fat free mass and 1RM leg press strength.1
In another meta-analysis, researchers wanted to see if protein supplementation would augment strength and muscle mass gains with a resistance training protocol. They looked at 49 randomized, controlled studies which all lasted six weeks or longer, with a total of 1863 subjects. The researchers concluded that protein supplementation significantly enhanced changes in strength and muscle size when combined with prolonged resistance training.2
Finally, a study on NCAA women’s basketball players measured the effects of protein supplementation on body composition and performance. The players were divided into a placebo group and a protein supplementation group.
The experimental group consumed whey protein before and after training. At the end of the 8-week study, researchers saw improved body composition, with increased lean mass and decreased fat mass, along with improved 1RM strength on the bench press among the protein supplementation group.3
Protein Supports Optimal Body Composition during Weight Loss
A study was done to examine the effect that a high protein diet in combination with periodized resistance training had on body composition. 49 subjects were split into a normal protein group (2 g/kg/d) and a high protein group (3 g/kg/d).
The subjects in both groups ended up consuming more protein than they were instructed to during the study, whereby the normal protein group consumed 2.3g/kg/d and the high protein group consumed 3.4 g/kg/d.
In addition to more protein, the high protein group also consumed significantly more total calories (about 400 more calories) per day than the normal protein group during the study. Interestingly, the researchers observed that at the end of the study, the high protein group lost more fat mass and % fat mass than the normal protein group despite consuming more calories.4
A 4-month study was done on 48 significantly overweight women following energy restrictive diets. The participants were split into two nutritional groups, one which consumed high protein with low carbohydrates, while the other followed a low protein with high carbohydrates plan.
These two groups were then further divided into an active lifestyle control group and an exercise group that performed both resistance training and cardio. The combination of diet and exercise was added for improving body composition. However, the higher protein groups lost more total weight, fat mass, and tended to lose less fat free mass.5
Protein Intake is Associated with Improved Recovery
A study utilizing 15 male strength/power athletes examined the effects of protein supplementation on recovery from resistance training. The subjects were divided into a placebo group and a protein group.
The protein group supplemented with a 42g protein blend (consisting of collagen, whey, and casein plus BCAAs), both pre- and post-training. The subjects performed four resistance training sessions, and their performance and recovery were measured at these sessions.
The researchers noted improved performance by way of more repetitions 24 and 48 hours after resistance training among the protein group. The measurements of creatine kinase (a marker for muscle damage) were elevated for both groups 24 hours after training, but they continued to elevate in the placebo group when measured 48 hours after training.6
How Much Protein Should You Consume in a Day?
In order to apply these results and gain the benefits of protein, it’s important to consume enough each day. While there have been a handful of suggested values to follow, it’s important to note that they’re all based on an individual’s body weight – meaning that protein intake is customized to each person.
In 2017, the International Society of Sports Nutrition published their position statement on protein and exercise. In it they stated that 1.4–2.0 g protein per kilogram of body weight per day is enough for most exercising individuals.7
The American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Dietitians of Canada published a position paper on Nutrition and Athletic Performance in which they recommended a similar range of 1.2-2.0 g protein per kilogram of body weight per day for endurance and strength athletes.8
Are you unsure of what your weight is in kilograms? You can convert your body weight dividing your weight in pounds by 2.205 to know your weight in kilograms. From there, you can multiply that amount by the 1.2-2.0 g/kg/d amount to find out the recommended protein range for your body weight.
What Does this Equate to Per Meal?
In a research review on various studies examining protein absorption, Schoenfeld and Aragon concluded that individuals should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 – 0.55 g protein per kilogram per meal to maximize anabolism.9
These ranges were based on targeting 1.6 g/kg/d – 2.2 g/kg/d protein intakes for the purposes of muscle building.
Reap the Benefits of an Ideal Protein Intake
Now that you have an idea of what your daily protein needs are, and what your ideal protein intake per meal should be, let’s put it into practice to see what these numbers would look like.
Working with the example of an 84kg lifter, the numbers would break down as follows:
If they’re aiming for the lowest end of the daily protein intake range (1.2 g/kg/d) they’d aim for about 101 g per day, and if they’re aiming for the higher range (2.0 g/kg/d), they’d aim for about 168 g per day.
If their target range per meals is in the lower range (0.4 g/kg/meal) their meals would contain about 34 g of protein and if they’re aiming for the higher range (0.55 g/kg/meal) they would consist of 46 g of protein.
Ideally, most of your protein intake will be from foods rich in essential amino acids (EAAs). Overall food sources that are higher in EAAs, like animal and dairy products, have been associated with greater hypertrophy and protein synthesis. If animal products aren’t your thing, it’s still possible to hit these daily amounts through protein-rich plant foods.
Your protein intake can come from whole foods and high-quality protein powders. When choosing a protein supplement, 100% whey isolates and micellar caseins are your best choices from a quality standpoint. These proteins are rich in EAAs and have undergone substantial clinical studies with positive outcomes. If you want to supplement with a vegan-friendly alternative, make sure the supplement you choose has the complete profile of EAAs.
If you’re looking to positively impact your body composition and performance, don’t overlook the importance of protein. Take the time to calculate your specific needs based on your body weight to ensure you’re maximizing your potential.
- Cermak, N.M., Res, P.T., de Groot, L.C., Saris, W.H., & van Loon, L.J. (2012). Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(6). Doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.037556
- Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., . . . Phillips, S. M. (2018). 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, 52(6). Doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608
- Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C., Roberts, M. D., White, A., & Dugan, K. (2016). Eight weeks of pre- and postexercise whey protein supplementation increases lean body mass and improves performance in Division III collegiate female basketball players. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(3). doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0463
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Orris, S., Scheiner, M., Gonzalez, A., & Peacock, C. A. (2015). A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow-up investigation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1). doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0100-0
- Layman, D. K., Evans, E., Baum, J. I., Seyler, J., Erickson, D. J., & Boileau, R. A. (2005). Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. The Journal of Nutrition, 135(8), 1903-1910. doi:10.1093/jn/135.8.1903
- Hoffman, J.R., Ratamess, N.A., Tranchina, C.P., Rashti, S.L., Kang, J., & Faigenbaum, A.D. (2009). Effect of proprietary protein supplement on recovery indices following resistance exercise in strength power athletes. Amino acids, 38. Doi: 771-8. 10.1007/s00726-009-0283-2
- Campbell, B., Kreider, R. B., Ziegenfuss, T., Bounty, P. L., Roberts, M., Burke, D., . . . Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1). doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-8
- American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine, Rodriguez, N.R., Di Marco, N.M., & Langley, S. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Nutrition and athletic performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(3). doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e31890eb86
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1). doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1