Protein is one of three macronutrients that are essential for optimal health – the other two being carbohydrates and fat. Protein has a special role in bodybuilding because it contains the very building blocks of muscle tissue called amino acids. Studies show that dietary protein and a diet rich in amino acids promote protein synthesis, lean muscle growth, and muscle recovery.
For bodybuilders, protein isn’t an option…it’s a requirement. From Arnold to Phil, every bodybuilder who has set foot on the Mr. Olympia stage knows protein how important protein is to see results. Let’s take a look at what protein is, why it’s important, how much you should eat per day for muscle, and the role of carbohydrates.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Providing four calories per gram, dietary protein can be found in most animal-based foods such as chicken, steak, and fish. Plants also contain protein but not nearly as much as an animal source. What’s more, many forms of plant protein are incomplete, meaning they do not possess all of the 20 amino acids that form a complete protein.
To create a complete protein from plants, you’ll need to eat two different types of plant sources. For example, hummus and a dipping vegetables, rice and beans, and quinoa with lentils.
Whether you are a meat eater or a vegan, daily protein is a necessity is you want to pack on muscle mass.
BENEFITS OF PROTEIN FOR BUILDING MUSCLE
Studies show that the amino acids you receive from protein consumption promote the following bodybuilding benefits:
Protein Synthesis: This is when the body creates muscle protein, which fuels the growth of your lean tissue. When you have elevated levels of protein synthesis without catabolism or protein breakdown, you’ll be fueling your muscle growth. Protein synthesis is primarily boosted by two things: exercise and protein consumption. Studies show a diet rich in protein and amino acids can help to increase protein synthesis. (1)
Growth Hormone: Another important process for muscle building is the production and release of growth hormone. Just like with protein synthesis, the best way to boost growth hormone levels is with a comprehensive workout program that focuses on hypertrophy and adequate protein consumption. Studies have found that several of the amino acids that are naturally present in protein such as creatine and glutamine can trigger a boost in human growth hormone levels. (2, 3)
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Muscle Growth: Without a doubt, muscle growth is the most famous and sought-after benefit of using protein. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive correlation between a tough workout, protein consumption, and muscle growth. As mentioned above, the amino acids found within protein are the building blocks of muscle tissue, helping to support recovery and growth. The most notable amino acid for growth is leucine, which is a superstar nutrient for protein synthesis and avoiding muscle protein breakdown. (4)
Designing a workout program for growth? Read our article on how many days per week you should lift to build muscle mass.
Workout Recovery: Sore muscles can hurt your workouts by not allowing you to perform at your best. To see maximum muscle growth, you’ll need to be within that hypertrophy-focused range of sets and repetitions. If your muscles are still sore during your workout, you’re less likely to be able to push yourself. Protein consumption has been shown to speed up muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness.
Prevents Breakdown: Just as important as promoting muscle growth is stopping muscle breakdown. Intense workouts, fasted training, and low-calorie (shredding) diets can increase the risk that your body will use your hard-earned muscle as fuel. A diet rich in protein from food and supplements has been shown to have an anti-catabolic effect. In other words, protein protect muscle. (5)
HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD A BODYBUILDER EAT PER DAY?
When your goal is to pack on muscle mass, you want to consume one gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 170 pounds, you’ll want to eat 170 grams of protein between food and supplement sources. Do not focus on using only supplements to meet that number; it’s unhealthy and expensive.
Some studies claim that there is no difference after 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight, but every professional bodybuilder will tell you otherwise. What’s more, these studies usually reflect the needs of the average person. Someone using a bodybuilding-focused program is going to be putting a lot more punishment on their muscle tissue than the average Joe.
THE ROLE OF CARBOHYDRATES IN BODYBUILDING
A common mistake that new bodybuilders make is the cutting of carbohydrates. Many new and trendy diets promote a low intake of carbohydrates while increasing healthy fats. Dietary fat is essential, but so are carbohydrates, especially if you want to build muscle mass.
Complex carbohydrates during the day and simple carbohydrates immediately following a workout are important for the following reasons:
Fuel for Workouts: Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for muscle tissue. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is a type of energy that can be rapidly used by muscle tissue.
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Muscle Glycogen: Inside of your muscle tissue, you find glycogen or muscle fuel stores. Eating carbohydrates keeps muscle glycogen levels high, ensuring you can perform at your best without crashing during your workouts.
Post-Workout Recovery: Studies show that adding a simple carbohydrate source to your protein shake post-workout can accelerate muscle recovery, increase protein synthesis, and avoid protein breakdown (catabolism). (6)
WHAT ARE YOUR BODYBUILDING GOALS?
Do you want to look like mass monster, Phil Heath? Or do you prefer the Golden Age of Bodybuilding look; something similar to Frank Zane? What are your favorite sources of protein to eat each day to achieve that look? Let us know on our Facebook!
- Dan J. Weinert. Nutrition and muscle protein synthesis: a descriptive review. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2009;53(3):186-93.
- Godfrey RJ, Madgwick Z, Whyte GP. The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes. Sports Med. 2003;33(8):599-613.
- Welbourne TC. Increased plasma bicarbonate and growth hormone after an oral glutamine load. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 May;61(5):1058-61.
- Stark M, Lukaszuk J, Prawitz A, Salacinski A. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1):54. Published 2012 Dec 14. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-54.
- Baticci F, Bozzetti F. Anticatabolic properties of branched chain amino-acids in post-operative patients. A prospective study. Clin Nutr. 1990 Oct;9(5):246-52.
- Børsheim E, Cree MG, Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Aarsland A, Wolfe RR. Effect of carbohydrate intake on net muscle protein synthesis during recovery from resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2004 Feb;96(2):674-8. Epub 2003 Oct 31.