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Lies, fabrications and outright fiction everywhere you turn — you might think you’re in the midst of a political convention. No, it’s just a general discussion about protein in an ordinary gym. At its core, protein is a simple nutrient. The amino acids from dietary protein represent the bricks that lay the foundation a body uses to create new muscle tissue; if you fall short of the appropriate protein intake, you won’t grow. Simple, see?
That’s why protein has withstood the test of time among bodybuilders. It’s vital for growth, and greats from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Ronnie Coleman have made it the cornerstone of their mass-building plans.
Still, there’s quite a bit of misinformation passed around at gyms and on the Web regarding everything from how much protein is needed, to how much can be digested, to what form is better for bodybuilding. Here, we sort through the fact and fiction for you, tackling the seven most common misconceptions and setting the record straight.
#1 | POWDERS ARE BETTER THAN FOOD
Protein powders are easy to absorb, and absorption is an important part of the mass-building process. However, whole-food animal sources of protein, such as eggs, dairy, fowl, red meat and fish, have complete, though somewhat different, amino-acid profiles. Some are higher in certain amino acids than others, and this may be a reason why bodybuilders like Jay Cutler claim that serious mass can’t be built without red meat. Cutler tells FLEX, “When I exclude red meat, I can’t add the mass and grow like I do when I eat it daily and sometimes twice daily.” Is it the iron, B vitamins or creatine in the meat? Maybe. It’s also likely that the unique amino-acid combinations allow greater protein synthesis.
For optimal mass gains, don’t succumb to living mainly on powders. Choose a wide variety of foods and include powders before and after workouts, and at times when convenience is essential. The variable amino-acid concentrations among different foods may exert unique effects on you that result in better growth, as opposed to sticking with one or two protein foods or a couple of foods and a protein powder.
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#2 | PROTEIN NEEDS ARE STATIC
Bodybuilders trying to gain mass tend to stick to the same protein intake day in and day out. For example, a 200-pounder may eat as many as 300 grams of protein a day, with plenty of calories coming from carbohydrates in order to create a caloric surplus. Of course, protein and calories are the basics of muscle building. However, you can stimulate your body by mixing things up: one or two days out of every 10 or so, consume up to 400, 450 or 500 g of protein. Ideally, do this on training days to better stimulate growth. Changing levels — specifically, instigating a surplus of amino acids in the blood — can cause an increase in protein synthesis, the buildup of muscle mass in the body.
Remaining faithful to the same protein intake day in and day out is OK, but varying protein intake with an occasional day or two of a very high consumption can lead to greater gains.
#3 | EVERYONE NEEDS A GRAM OF PROTEIN PER POUND OF BODYWEIGHT
Although the typical recommendation of a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is as close to a rule of thumb as there is — which is why we often tout it in the pages of FLEX — it’s not etched in stone. For true hardgainers who bust their butts in the gym, that number should be increased by 50%, to 1.5 g per pound of bodyweight. Keep in mind that you won’t grow — regardless of how much protein you consume — if you are slacking in the gym or training like a wuss.
The key is to match your protein intake with your training. If you’re a beginner, you probably don’t train as hard as someone with a lot of experience — and you probably shouldn’t anyway — so you may be able to get by on slightly less than a gram per pound of bodyweight. If you are a hardgainer or train with intensity on par with your favorite pro, start with 1 g per pound per day, but don’t hesitate to move it up from there if you fail to make significant visible gains.
#4 | YOU CAN DIGEST ONLY A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF PROTEIN PER MEAL
Somewhere along the way, the idea that a body can handle no more than 30 g of protein per sitting wedged its way into nutrition circles. That’s an old wives’ tale. Do you think Arnold Schwarzenegger grew on 30 g of protein every three hours, the equivalent of eating only four or five ounces of chicken at each meal?
Think again. Protein digestibility and the amount your body can handle per meal is tied to how much you weigh and how hard you train. The more you weigh, the more you need; the harder you train, the more you need. In turn, the more you need, the more you’ll be able to digest, absorb and assimilate. A 200-pound male will, in general, need more protein than a 160-pounder and should be able to digest more per meal. Digestibility is also linked to the amount of protein you consume on a regular basis. The more protein you eat regularly, the better your body becomes at digesting large protein meals.
#5 | DAIRY-BASED PROTEINS PROMOTE FAT GAINS
This myth just won’t go away. The idea that dairy-based proteins — low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese and yogurt — lead to gains in fat or added water retention is, well, wrong. Dairy is perfectly fine. It’s a great source of protein, and some research even shows that dairy, when combined with a low-calorie intake, could possibly coax fat loss.
The dairy misconception could be connected to the fact that most cheeses, including nonfat cottage cheese and nonfat sliced cheese, contain excessive sodium, which has the potential to initiate water retention. However, even that’s overblown, because bodybuilders need more sodium. It drives glycogen storage and indirectly supports growth by interacting with potassium to turn on pumping mechanisms within cells that govern the exchange of nutrients that lead to muscle repair. Plus, sodium is not the culprit many mistake it to be. If you suddenly change your sodium intake, abruptly increasing it, water retention is likely to be the result. However, if you consume dairy on a regular basis and maintain a relatively consistent sodium intake, you will adapt and probably avoid noticeable fluid retention.
#6 | PROTEIN CAN’T BE USED AS AN ENERGY SOURCE
This misconception relates to dieting bodybuilders. Some trainers advise against cutting way back on carbohydrates, insisting that a lack of carbs causes a loss of muscle tissue. However, by increasing protein intake while dieting, you offer your body alternatives to muscle tissue for use as fuel. Where a low-calorie or low-carb diet can cause muscle tissue to be broken down, an increase in protein consumption “attracts” the body to use dietary amino acids found in protein as a substitute for those in muscle tissue. It does so by burning some amino acids directly and by a process known as gluconeogenesis, in which amino acids are converted into glucose. The myth breaker: increase protein when carbs go down, and you’ll protect against muscle loss.
#7 | COMPLEMENTARY PROTEINS PROMOTE GROWTH
A cup of cooked oatmeal yields 6 g of protein, a medium bagel provides 11 g and two cups of cooked spaghetti supplies about 16 g. That may be a fact, but the type of protein derived from nonanimal sources might not be the best at creating or supporting protein synthesis. That’s because they are not complete proteins; they don’t contain all the essential amino acids the body needs to build mass.
The entire spectrum of amino acids, including all of the essential amino acids, can be found only in foods that are animal based. Fowl, fish, red meat, milk and eggs are best because they are complete proteins; they contain all of the amino acids the body needs to grow. The proteins found in nonanimal sources are called complementary, or “junk,” proteins; they lack sufficient essential and required amino acids that are ideal for creating anabolic and recovery environments within the body. – FLEX