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Well beyond even my earliest days in bodybuilding, it’s been a cornerstone concept of conventional dietary wisdom that to gain muscle you have to pile on the protein throughout the day, every day. True, there’s no disputing that working muscles, especially in the bodybuilder and athlete, require a greater amount of protein. But the issue becomes one of amount, what amount might be optimal, and whether it really is essential to never miss a protein meal, especially after a workout. The emerging truth may surprise you.
Certainly I’ve preached in my Extreme Muscle Enhancement that avoiding starvation and paying attention to proper meal cadence should generally rule nearly every day of a bodybuilder’s life. But giving the digestive system a rest from all that protein has its place because it resets your metabolic ability to build muscle.
Science is now supporting this idea. In fact, recent research confirms that dietary protein has influence on serum myostatin, and thus on muscle growth and size. Recall that the substance myostatin is a negative modulator of muscle growth. So the less myostatin you have, the more muscles are free to grow.
In a recent study, scientists focused on how dietary protein activates satellite cells. Satellite cells are precursors to skeletal muscle cells and thus play a key role in the body’s adaptive response to exercise. They examined 21 healthy male subjects, randomized them to two groups consuming either 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or only 0.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, and then had them lift weights. They then performed muscle biopsies from their legs and measured the post-exercise recovery. What they found was that satellite cells along with myostatin decreased significantly soon after exercise cessation in both diet groups. But then something interesting and almost contrarian happened at 48 and 72 hours. Although satellite cells and myostatin returned to baseline levels in the higher-protein group, the levels remained lower for longer in the lower-protein group. In fact, at the 72-hour point, myostatin protein expression was significantly elevated in the higher-protein group, whereas myostatin expression was significantly reduced at 72 hours in the lower-protein group. So while this study failed to demonstrate that dietary protein directly modulates a post-exercise increase in satellite cells, what they did find is that dietary protein concentration most certainly influences post-exercise myostatin levels. More specifically, extrapolating a bit, a carefully placed low- (not high-) protein diet may actually reduce myostatin levels and thus increase muscle. This indicates that the low myostatin state triggered by the exercising was spurring activation and differentiation of satellite cells.
But don’t be confused, because you still need that immediate blast of post-workout whey protein. Published clinical research by Hulmi and colleagues back in 2007 predated this other study and showed that protein ingestion immediately after resistance exercise suppresses myostatin expression. Myostatin expression increased significantly one hour after resistance training in a placebo group but not in a group administered whey protein.
OCCASIONALLY SKIPPING A PROTEIN MEAL OR EVEN ENGAGING IN A STRUCTURED FAST OF MORE THAN ONE MEAL, WHEN DONE CORRECTLY, WILL ACTUALLY STIMULATE MUSCLE GROWTH.
The real question then becomes, is it really necessary or even optimal to take in excess protein at the 48-hour or 72-hour time points if your body doesn’t feel like eating more protein? when protein intake is moderate in amount, periodic, and spaced, continuous high-protein feedings can induce a chronic low-grade metabolic acidosis. Recent research suggests that skipping protein meals from time-to-time to allow the body to equilibrate, as with my method of structured fasting, would be better.
But there’s yet another nuance to consider. Remember that getting big muscles is one thing, but you don’t want that big gut as well. To me, bodybuilding is as much about abdominal development as it is about biceps and quads. I mean what’s the point of having great pectoral development when just below it is a beach ball? Just like you should be tuned in to listening to your body when it comes to your training, you should also be acutely clued in to how your body is responding to your diet. When your body is forced to process heavy amounts of protein it’s telling you it doesn’t want, the most logical outcome is a buildup of body fat. Don’t kid yourself, excess protein can be stored as fat. Albeit energetically unfavorable, when the body is put in a position of being forced to process calories it isn’t calling for, the destination is body fat.
All things taken together, I think the take-home message here is to listen to your body and give it a break now and then from all that protein. By skipping the occasional protein meal, not only will you not lose muscle, you may actually stimulate new gains!