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“Take in a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day.” That’s the baseline held by the bodybuilding community as the gold standard for muscle growth. In the past few years, some bodybuilders have begun to raise the bar, consuming much more protein than that. Some take in as much as three times the recommendation.
Does increasing your protein above the baseline result in greater gains in mass? Yes and no. Eating enough protein is a must for growth, and if you eat more than one gram (g) per pound of bodyweight, you’ll certainly cover all your bases, ensuring that you don’t fall short. However, eating more for the sake of it may not be as wise as cycling your intake of protein.
In this article, I explain how to move your protein around — eating less protein on some days, more on others. This type of “protein cycling” is a great way to stimulate greater protein retention and muscle growth.
TAKE IN THE PROTEIN BASELINE AMOUNT EVERY DAY: 1 G PER POUND OF BODYWEIGHT
The typical intake is highly effective at supporting muscle growth for hard-training bodybuilders. When you eat at least 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight daily (200 g for a 200-pound bodybuilder), you’re supplying your body with sufficient protein to rebuild and repair muscle tissue that has been damaged by training. When you rebuild and repair, the result is obvious — you grow.
Regardless of whether you’re training to add mass, dieting for a contest or taking a few weeks off from training, you should strive to take in the baseline recommendation. The exception to this is when you’re following the protein-cycling guidelines explained in this article.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
If you think you need 2 g of protein per pound of bodyweight, you would be consuming 400 g of protein a day if you weigh 200 pounds. That’s a lot of chicken, meat and eggs. If you rely on protein powders, that’s a lot of shakes (and gastric distress is one possible outcome of downing too many shakes).
I believe that such high daily protein consumption is excessive, although it is common among many of today’s pro bodybuilders. I don’t recommend it because this practice demonstrates a misguided understanding of how muscles grow. Growth depends on a sufficient intake of protein — not on boatloads — and it is also correlated with carbohydrate intake.
The right combo of carbs and protein tends to promote a musclebuilding state better than a diet overloaded with protein and short on carbs. Those who go heavy on protein usually eat far too few carbohydrates. Regardless of a huge daily intake of protein, shortchanging carbs may prevent the body from growing optimally. Plus, there’s a limit to how much growing a body can do no matter how much protein is consumed. I contend that 2 g of protein per pound of bodyweight daily is far in excess of any bodybuilder’s threshold for growth.
HOW MUCH IS TOO LITTLE?
P.W. Lemon, PHD, one of the world’s most reputable protein researchers, has often stated that muscle building occurs with a protein consumption of roughly 0.7 g per pound of bodyweight a day (140 g a day for a 200 pounder). If you consumed less than that on a daily basis, you probably wouldn’t make significant gains. Although 160 g might be enough protein for a 200-pound bodybuilder, FLEX still recommends 200 g for a trainer that size, just to be on the safe side.
STAGE ONE: For five days, eat less protein than usual.
Contrary to popular belief, a bodybuilder won’t shrivel up overnight if he takes in slightly less protein (0.7-0.8 g per pound of bodyweight; see “Protein- Cycling Schedule”). In fact, the body responds at first by shifting its metabolism to slow the loss of protein. In essence, when you eat less protein, your body quickly adapts and slows the rate at which protein is broken down. Slowing protein breakdown is a classic anticatabolic effect. Anticatabolism, or “muscle protection,” is half the battle in supporting muscle growth. In theory, if you could induce an around-the-clock anticatabolic state, you’d grow like a weed. Temporarily decreasing your protein intake encourages just that — a strong musclepreservation state.
STAGE TWO: Boost protein consumption after five days.In stage one, eating less protein caused a release of enzymes to ramp up anticatabolism. Now, after five days in that lowerprotein state, switch gears. The additional protein, in the presence of enzymes that are slowing the breakdown of protein, can result in the “hyperstorage” of protein in muscles. Also, a change in protein intake from less to more triggers a strong increase in protein synthesis, a buildup of new muscle tissue.
In stage two, consume 1.5-1.75 g of protein per pound of bodyweight each day (see chart). Do this for nine days during the two-week cycle. This is long enough for the body to benefit from a hyperanabolic state, an enzymatic environment that is favorable to rebuilding.
If you want to try protein cycling, follow the ranges of daily protein consumption listed in the chart. At times when you are not protein cycling, stick with the gold standard: 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. Protein cycling may give you a slight advantage, but adhering to the basic FLEX protein recommendation will also help to ensure that you’re feeding your muscles all they need for continued growth.