Ask Eirik: How Much Protein Do I Need to Build Muscle?

fit-manOver the years I’ve gotten a lot of questions about protein requirements for strength trainees and bodybuilders. The rate at which these questions have been popping up increased following the publication of my lengthy article about protein powders last year, in which I made that case that whey protein supplements do more harm than good. Yesterday, I got another e-mail containing a question about protein. This time, instead of answering back, I decided to put up a post here on the blog, so that more people get to hear my take on this issue.

The question:

Hi –
I was reading your blog about protein powders and getting all the protein you need from real food. I have switched off of protein powders first because it’s expensive, 2nd it’s confusing, 3rd I felt bloated all the time. How much do you recommend for protein intake on workout days? I’m not a severe body building, but am 50 years of age and want to keep building muscle. Thanks, Kevin

My reply:

Hi Kevin,

Two days ago I posted an article here on the blog entitled You Probably Need More Protein Than You Think. In that article I took a look at recent research which suggests that human protein requirements have been significantly underestimated, and I briefly talked about why it’s important to consume enough protein.

I’ve written several articles about protein in the past. The general recommendations I’ve put fort in those articles are as follows:

  • Derive >20% of your calories from protein.
  • For most people, 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight works well.

Some people need more protein than others. The exact requirement of each individual is largely determined by the following factors:

  • The inflammatory status of the body
    Inflammation elevates protein needs. People who are sick or wounded need extra protein in order to produce inflammatory cytokines and rebuild damaged tissues.
  • Activity levels
    Exercise, in particular high-intensity resistance training, increases protein synthesis.
  • Training background and fitness levels
    The protein requirement of an athlete is partly determined by that athlete’s training background and fitness levels.
  • Sex
    Men need more protein than women.
  • Age
    Children need more protein than fully-grown adults, as they require extra protein for growth. The protein requirements of elderly people are also somewhat different from that of younger individuals.
  • Levels of muscle mass
    Individuals who carry a lot of muscle mass require more protein per kilogram of body weight than individuals who carry low levels of lean mass.

As you can see, you need a lot of information to accurately determine a person’s protein needs.

People who perform heavy strength training on a regular basis require more protein than sedentary people; however, unlike what some bodybuilders seem to think, they don’t need massive amounts. Several studies indicate that a protein intake of 1.6-2.0 g/kg/day is sufficient to maximize muscle protein synthesis and optimize strength gains and hypertrophy (1, 2, 3. 4). This is consistent with my own experience, both as a strength coach and lifter. Some need slightly less, while some may need slightly more. Protein requirements are particularly high for novice lifters, as well as strength trainees who start training again after a lengthy break. In general, it’s a not a problem to eat more protein than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight, but the added benefits of doing so are probably small (for most people).

All of that being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to count how many grams of protein you take in every day. It has been shown that humans, as well as many other animal species, prioritize protein when regulating food intake (5, 6, 7). Your body has systems in place that regulate how much protein you need and crave. If you are fairly healthy and know how to listen to the signals your body is giving you, you can simply let your appetite guide your protein intake. If you crave protein, eat protein, if you don’t crave it, then don’t eat it.

I hope that helps.

– Eirik

Do you have a question for me? If so, then feel free to post a comment on the blog or send me an e-mail via the contact form. If your question is about a topic I think a lot of people are interested in, then I may answer it here on the blog. I’ve already written about many different subjects related to health and fitness here on the site, so before you shoot me a question, please do a search to see if you can find an answer to your question in any of my articles.

Comments

  1. “Your body has systems in place that regulate how much protein you need and crave.” Yes! This rule of thumb has worked for me for many years. I can usually gauge pretty well how much meat to put on my plate, but if I happen to take too much the family dog gets the excess since there’s no upside whatsoever to being a member of the clean plate club.

    • Same here.

      I remember when I first started getting into strength training a little over 10 years ago, I was led to believe from reading fitness and bodybuilding sites that it’s important to take in x grams of protein every day, so consequently, I started counting how many grams of protein I was taking in, sometimes forcing myself to take in more than I really needed. What a waste of energy and time.

  2. Spot on Eirik. Good post and very informative.

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