How Much Protein Do You Really Need to Build Muscle?

Bodybuilders are crazy.

Mostly in a good way.

They’re meticulous about their diets. They train hard. They’re always trying to get better.

Sometimes, however, they take good advice too far.

When they learn that protein is important for gaining muscle, it’s not uncommon for them to start eating 300-400 grams per day. That’s the equivalent of 19 chicken breasts.

Not only is this unnecessary and unpleasant, it can hinder your progress.

On the other hand, some people don’t gain as much muscle as they could, because they don’t eat enough protein.

Let’s look at how much protein you need to eat to build muscle.

Why ‘How Much Do I Need?’ is the Wrong Question

Most studies on protein intake are more relevant to starving Africans than they are to you.

The majority of research has focused on determining the minimum amount of protein you need to avoid getting sick. Researchers are less concerned with how much protein will help you increase your strength or muscle mass.(1-6)

The Recommended Daily Allowance, or “RDA” of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram, or 0.36 grams per pound. If you eat less than that, you’ll likely run into health problems eventually.(7,8)

Research has consistently shown that strength athletes and bodybuilders need more protein than average people.(1-6)

Why Bodybuilders Need More Protein than Normal People

The latest studies indicate that if you’re trying to gain muscle, you’ll generally get the best results by eating anywhere from 1.2 – 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That’s 0.55 – 0.82 grams per pound.(2,9,10)

That’s about 50-125% more protein than most people need to stay healthy.

There is some evidence that you might benefit from eating slightly more than this. In one study, weightlifters who ate 2.7 g/kg gained slightly more muscle and had higher markers of protein synthesis than the people who ate 2.2 g/kg.(11) There are some problems with this study, however, that make it less than convincing.

Another study found that the lifters who ate 2.4 g/kg, rather than 2.2 g/kg had slightly more muscle mass and strength at the end of the study. However, the results weren’t significant except for their bench press.(12)

The majority of research shows that you don’t generally need more than about 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram.

Some researchers have suggested that bodybuilders don’t need to eat more protein than sedentary people, because they become more efficient at using protein.(13) That’s partly true.

As you get used to lifting weights, your body becomes more efficient at using protein, and you generally need less than when you started.(14,15)

However, most research shows you still need more total than the average person to build the most muscle.

Why More Protein is Not Always Better for Building Muscle

You’ve probably heard that to gain muscle, you need to eat at least “one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight,” or about 2.2 grams per kilogram.

As you just learned, most evidence shows you don’t need to eat that much to make the best gains.

You might be tempted to eat far more protein than you need, even more than one gram per pound, “just to be safe.”

Here are three reasons not to:

1. If you eat too much protein, you might not be able to eat enough carbohydrate to fuel your training. If that happens, you’ll probably hinder your gains.

2. Eating massive amounts of protein will often leave you uncomfortably full. This can make it hard to eat enough total calories to build muscle.

3. Protein is generally more expensive than carbohydrate or fat. (Though it’s a lot cheaper if you learn to cook instead of living on whey protein).

There’s little evidence that everyone needs to eat “one gram per pound,” or that “more is better” if you’re trying to build muscle. That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating slightly more protein than you need.

Here’s how to find the right amount for you.

How to Set Your Protein Intake to Build Muscle

You’ll probably get excellent results if you eat 1.4-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass.

That’s 0.64-1.0 grams per pound of lean body mass.

I like to set protein intake based on your lean body mass. That’s because your protein needs are more related to how much lean tissue you’re carrying, rather than your total body mass.

If you don’t want to figure out your body composition, you can use your target body weight. That will give you a slightly higher protein intake, but it’s a good “surrogate measure of lean mass plus a small safety buffer,” writes Alan Aragon.(16)

Here’s how to adjust your protein intake within that range based on your situation.

  • If you’re a novice or young person, then you might benefit from eating slightly more protein, or around 1.8-2.2 grams per kilogram. (That’s 0.8-1 gram per pound). You’re going to gain muscle faster, so you’ll be able to use more dietary protein.
  • If you’re a woman, you can probably eat slightly less protein, or around 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram. (0.6-0.8 grams per pound). You’re not going to gain as much muscle as most guys, so you probably don’t need as much protein.
  • If you’re an intermediate to advanced lifter, you’ll probably get optimal results from eating somewhere in the middle of this range, which is 1.6-2.0 grams per kilogram. (0.7-0.9 grams per pound).

There is no “perfect” amount of protein you need to eat to build muscle. As long as you’re close to this range, you’re probably fine.

You’re Probably Eating Enough Protein to Build Muscle

That’s the real takeaway.

If you don’t eat enough protein, you won’t recover as quickly between workouts and you won’t build as much muscle. That’s usually not a problem if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Most research indicates that you’ll make the best gains by eating around 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram, but there’s nothing wrong with eating slightly more, and there may be some benefits of doing so.

If you want to eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, that’s fine too. As Aragon says, “…one gram per pound of target bodyweight is a simple and relatively fail-safe baseline protein intake from which to adjust according to individual response.”

As long you’re eating enough protein to make optimal gains, but not so much that you’re causing problems, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay if you eat below your target one day and slightly more the next.

You’re probably eating enough protein, so stop worrying about it.

 

References

1. Phillips SM. Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. Br J Nutr. 2012;108 Suppl 2:S158–67. doi:10.1017/S0007114512002516.

2. Phillips SM, van Loon LJC. Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1(6):647–654. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.619204.

3. Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein During Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes: A Case for Higher Intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013.

4. Kreider RB, Campbell B. Protein for exercise and recovery. Phys Sportsmed. 2009;37(2):13–21. doi:10.3810/psm.2009.06.1705.

5. Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. Protein and amino acids for athletes. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):65–79. doi:10.1080/0264041031000140554.

6. Phillips SM, Moore DR, Tang JE. A critical examination of dietary protein requirements, benefits, and excesses in athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2007;17 Suppl:S58–76. Available at: https://www.aptonovo.com/carlossilvapersonaltrainer/artigos/proteina%20excesso%20e%20recomendacoes%202007.pdf.

7. Rand WM, Pellett PL, Young VR. Meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77(1):109–127. Available at: https://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/77/1/109.full.

8. Layman DK. Protein quantity and quality at levels above the RDA improves adult weight loss. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004;23(6 Suppl):631S–636S. Available at: https://pmid.us/15640518.

9. Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(3):509–527.

10. Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4:8. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-8.

11. Willoughby DS, Stout JR, Wilborn CD. Effects of resistance training and protein plus amino acid supplementation on muscle anabolism, mass, and strength. Amino Acids. 2007;32(4):467–477. doi:10.1007/s00726-006-0398-7.

12. Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, Falvo MJ, Faigenbaum AD. Effect of protein intake on strength, body composition and endocrine changes in strength/power athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006;3:12–18. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-3-2-12.

13. Phillips SM. Protein requirements and supplementation in strength sports. Nutrition. 2004;20(7-8):689–695. Available at: https://www.clalit20plus.co.il/nr/rdonlyres/629a6867-8a04-47d2-98bc-7210d843cd3c/0/2004_proteinrequirementsandsupplementationinstrengthsports.pdf.

14. Hartman JW, Moore DR, Phillips SM. Resistance training reduces whole-body protein turnover and improves net protein retention in untrained young males. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2006;31(5):557–564. doi:10.1139/h06-031.

15. Moore DR, Del Bel NC, Nizi KI, et al. Resistance training reduces fasted- and fed-state leucine turnover and increases dietary nitrogen retention in previously untrained young men. J Nutr. 2007;137(4):985–991. Available at: https://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/4/985.long#TBL2.

16. Aragon AA. Challenging the protein intake guideline of 1 g/lb. The Alan Aragon Research Review. 2013:10–12.

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