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What is the optimal way to eat to build muscle? The first thing you need to understand with protein requirements is that there is no magic number that everybody should consume. It will depend on genetics, nitrogen balance, hormone levels, and training volume. However, for a lot of people, sticking between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body weight is usually about right. Sometimes the requirements are even higher; however, this is less common. I’ve outlined six things you need to consider when deciding upon your protein intake.
1. CARBOHYDRATE INTAKE
One of the most influential factors in deciding your protein requirements is carbohydrates and the amount you’re consuming. In short, you could say that carbohydrates are “anabolic” since they are “protein sparing.” In theory, if your diet is high in carbs, it should mean that you require slightly less protein, and if you are on a low-carb diet then you will need more protein to help retain a positive nitrogen balance. This occurs as your body will naturally look to stored glycogen as its primary fuel source, which spares your amino acids for key roles in recovery and growth. Without enough glycogen from carbohydrates, your body is more likely to then start converting protein into glycogen via gluconeogenesis, which will influence the amount of protein you require to recover properly and build muscle.
2. HORMONE PROFILES
The endocrine system is an extremely powerful operation that influences just about everything, including your ability to synthesize protein. When you consume protein, which is high in the amino acid leucine, you will stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the driver behind muscle recovery and growth. The more “free testosterone” you have within your system (in theory), the more you’re able to utilize protein. This is why those with naturally high levels of testosterone grow easier on a high-protein diet.
In relation to muscle protein synthesis, testosterone has a direct impact on the way this process works by binding to cells on the surface of the muscle cell and driving muscle protein synthesis further. With that said, if you have had tests to show that you naturally produce a lot of testosterone, or have a high libido, then the chances are you will do better consuming protein at the higher end of the scale I suggested at the start of this column.
3. TRAINING VOLUME
If your training volume increases significantly, then you will potentially require more protein to ensure there are enough amino acids present within your body to facilitate your full recovery— otherwise, you will quickly fall into a state of overtraining. This is when I have seen some people require even more than that 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body weight. Their training volume has significantly increased where the demands are so huge they simply cannot do without the extra protein. I’m generally speaking about those who train six times per week at an extreme level of intensity. In relation to a more typical bodybuilding training split, if you find that your recovery is lagging and your muscles are always sore, then you might need to consider consuming higher levels of protein as your body clearly isn’t recovering quickly enough.
4. GUT HEALTH
I’ve written thousands of articles and published multiple books throughout my career, and I’ve always maintained that gut health is absolutely imperative to your success in relation to your diet. If your gut is not working properly, then this will influence your ability to process and assimilate nutrients, including protein.
If you suffer with constant bloating, frequent gas, or abdominal pain, then you should have your gut checked with a comprehensive test. This will highlight anything which your gut doesn’t like or needs in order to function properly. As a by-product, this will then have a positive influence on your ability to process protein efficiently, which is going to speed up your recovery and ability to gain size.
5. QUALITY OF PROTEIN
As I mentioned earlier, you require protein that is rich in the amino acid leucine in order to spike muscle protein synthesis, which is the key reason for consuming a lot of protein to recover and build muscle. Pork, for instance, is very, very low in leucine—which means that you would have to consume almost a kilo in one sitting just to consume enough leucine. Obviously, you cannot do this because it will then affect your overall calorie intake for the day, which then becomes counterproductive to your overall nutrition strategy.
The best sources of protein when it comes to leucine content are egg whites, whole eggs, lean poultry, oily fish, white fish, and whey protein. By focusing on this you will maximize the effect that your protein intake has, which in a way means you’re being more efficient with the protein you’re consuming.
6. CALORIE INTAKE
Let’s not forget that your calorie intake will probably fluctuate from one day to the next throughout the week, depending on things like the body part you’re training that day and your current goals. Your protein needs will then also fluctuate depending on what you do with your fat and carb intake.