Protein and Building Muscle

Many of us know the basic tenants of building muscle: work the muscle down some, stretch, follow it up with protein intake, and then give it a day or two to recover. Let’s take a look at the details behind how muscles build up and become stronger.

Amino acids

Why do we need protein to help build muscle? Because of the amino acids. There are twenty amino acids that make up protein. After we break down muscles, the amino acids go in and do repair work to make new protein filaments. As they repair, they make the muscles stronger and bigger.

Our bodies produce certain amino acids on their own, but others–essential amino acids, they’re called–we have to get from outside sources. A food that contains all the necessary amino acids is what is known as a “complete protein.” There are nine essential amino acids. Foods that contain complete protein include eggs, fish, meat, fish, and soy. But some of these foods help you absorb that protein better than others do.

Animal proteins and dairy are complete proteins. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, you may need to do some research to figure out which foods you can combine to get an essential protein-based meal. For a vegetarian, this may mean combining whole grains with dairy, for instance. A vegan will probably need to have a soy intake, since soybeans and soy products are the only vegan-friendly complete proteins out there. They can also combine nuts and legumes with oatmeal or quinoa.

Of course, we need nonessential amino acids to build muscle as well. But we can worry a little less about these, since our bodies already produce them.

Breaking down muscle

In order for protein to go in and do it’s thing, we have to break down the muscle a little first (without causing injury). We can do this by increasing weight and reps. The muscles will be slightly damaged and even a little swollen. Slight soreness in a good thing. When the protein and its amino acids go in to do their repair work, it leaves the muscle a little bigger and/or stronger.

How much protein?

For the average person, not trying to build muscle, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is .36 grams per pound. That’s only about 10% of your daily calories. If you’re particularly active, you may want to as much as double this amount. As you age, you’ll also want to increase your protein intake, so that you can continue to build more muscle and retain your strength.

If you’re trying to build muscle and maintain a lot of muscle, a good rule of thumb is to eat as many grams of protein as your weight in pounds. A high-protein diet is also shown promote lower caloric intake, so it can be useful if you’re trying to lose weight or simply stay fit.

But we should all should be mindful of what our protein sources are. Rather than focus on sheer amount, we should make sure our protein sources are healthy–low in saturated fats and accompanied by other important vitamins and nutrients.

Time is a factor

When you consume protein can play a role in maximizing muscle gain. According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine, the body is most receptive to protein in the four to six hours surrounding your workout. Someone aiming to build muscle will eat a protein-rich meal a few hours before workout, and then another one within two hours after the workout. And it’s best if the total protein is spread out over several meals, rather than crammed in all at once. Americans tend to have our highest protein intake during dinner, but it’s actually more effective to start the day with more protein and go lighter as we approach bedtime.

Other protein sources

As stated above, there are several foods that are complete proteins. Eating a well-balanced, mindful diet is the best way to get a complete protein intake. But there are some extra ways as well. Protein bars and shakes can offer a high protein count. Watch out, though; sometimes they come with a lot of calories, and they might not contain all the amino acids you need. A protein supplement is formulated to contain essential amino acids accompanied by almost no fat and calories. This high-concentration supplement has a 100% absorption rate and 99% utilization rate. Do your research and check the ingredient list if you take a supplement. Supplements are good for anyone, but they can be especially useful for those who are trying to build muscle or for people who don’t eat meat.