Protein is obviously the most important macronutrient to focus on for building muscle.
In the nutrition world, things are either oversimplified or overly complicated with emphasis placed on things that do not really matter.
One of the things that can be confusing for people is that for protein and muscle growth, multiple things are required. But each of these things matters to varying degrees.
The four main aspects of protein for muscle growth are:
1) Total protein intake
2) Protein distribution
3) Protein quality
4) Specific timing
If you are trying to maximise muscle growth, you need to nail all of these factors. Alternatively, if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, without worrying about specifics, you’ll need to understand which step is most important.
That is why I like to lay it out in the pyramid as shown below.
The most important aspects are at the base of the pyramid. If you focus on the base of the pyramid, it coincidentally makes it easier to achieve the other aspects.
Total Daily Protein Intake
The priority factor when it comes to protein for improving body composition is consuming enough protein.
Muscle growth occurs when the net protein balance is positive. Meaning that the muscle protein synthesis is greater than muscle protein breakdown. In order for this to occur, there must be a sufficient amount of protein available.
Daily protein recommendations:
- Sedentary individuals not prioritising muscle gain: 0.8-1.5g/kg BW/day (theoretically there is no specific number. 0.8g/kg BW/day is roughly the RDI, but there are arguments that people benefit from higher amounts).
- Lifters trying to maximise muscle gain: 1.6-2.2g/kg BW/day.
- Exceptionally lean lifters or those in a large calorie deficit: 2.3-3.1g/kg BW/day.
Therefore, the average person trying to gain muscle should aim for 1.6-2.2g/kg of body BW/day.
- Eg. 60kg person would require 96-132g/day.
Based on research that utilises fat-free mass instead of total mass, it is safe to say that people with more body fat require slightly less, and those who have less body fat require slightly more protein.
Protein Distribution Across the Day
Distribution is the second most important factor. It is ideal to distribute protein intake evenly across 4-6 meals throughout the day. Though, consuming it across 3 meals showed similar results.
Combining both factors mentioned so far means that aiming for 0.4-0.55g/kg of protein per meal, over 4-6 meals would be optimal. This means a 60kg person would require 24-33g of protein per meal.
Getting to at least that 0.4g/kg mark is important since if the protein is of decent quality, it ensures that you are reaching the leucine threshold, which allows maximal muscle protein synthesis to occur.
Distributing protein intake across the day increases the availability of protein for muscle protein synthesis to occur.
There is no reason you cannot go above that number in a meal though. Spreading your meals out across the day allows you to maximise muscle protein synthesis more times throughout the day. This ideally leads to more muscle growth.
Protein distribution helps but isn’t a deal-breaker. There are plenty of examples of people making great progress with higher/lower frequencies of protein consumption. It also appears to be more important for muscle growth rather than muscle retention.
If the distribution was a higher priority, we would see people who did intermittent fasting lose muscle like crazy, even when consuming enough total protein and calories. But that is not what we see. This makes it clear that while it is a factor, it is nowhere near as important as total protein and calories.
Protein is a complex molecule that can break down into 20 smaller molecules; called amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids, they are essential because the human body cannot create them and therefore, they must be consumed through food.
Of these 9, there are 3 amino acids that are particularly important for muscle synthesis: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. Foods that contain high amounts of these amino acids include dairy, dairy derived products, animal protein and soy protein.
There is a leucine threshold of 2-3g (or 0.05g/kg body weight) in a sitting to maximise muscle protein synthesis. This is often the equivalent of 25-35g of protein.
Protein quality matters significantly when researched under sub-optimal conditions. For example, if 2 groups have low intakes of protein and one group receives whey protein but the other group receives a protein source with an amino acid profile that is less suited for muscle growth (e.g. it could be lower in leucine), there is a noticeable difference.
But, when total protein intake is high enough, coming from a variety of sources, there seems to be no noticeable difference outside of extreme circumstances. This is partly due to the abundance of amino acids available, which solves the issue of any individual amino acid being low in one meal.
One of those examples of where it matters more is a plant-based diet. Under those circumstances, it can be a bit harder to consume enough leucine. But this can be overcome through specific planning. Another alternative can be to consume even more total protein, which makes it easier to get more leucine in.
Finally, protein timing, though this is the least important it still makes a difference. Many people talk about the importance of consuming protein within the “anabolic window” post-workout. It’s thought to maximise the exercise-induced muscle adaptations and repair the damaged tissue.
This is another area of nutrition where people take an extreme stance on either side. Some people act as if you NEED to get protein in within 30 minutes of your workout. Others act like total protein intake is all that matters.
Like most areas of nutrition, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
This means that if you have a large amount of protein pre-workout, there is no rush to get it in directly post-workout. If you had been fasting prior to the workout, it becomes far more important to have protein post-workout.
If you were not training fasted and were also consuming 4-6 protein rich meals per day, it is likely that you would meet these criteria without even thinking about it.
Practically, the main thing to focus on and try to achieve most (if not all) days is to consume enough total protein. While it is hard to put a number on it, this seems to cover >90% of the outcomes you get from protein.
The next priority is to distribute it across the day. Ideally, you split it over 4-6 meals. But 3 is almost as good as 4, with the difference being barely noticeable.
If it is significantly easier for you to consume 3 protein-rich meals or snacks, in comparison to 4, and you do not really care about the marginal difference, it might make sense just to have 3. If you want all the muscle gain you can get, it might make sense to have 4-6.
Protein quality matters, but it is normally taken care of without thinking if you meet the prior two criteria and have a decent variety of protein sources. If you are limited to plant-based sources though, it can take a bit more planning or a higher total protein intake.
Protein timing is a small factor but is relatively easily taken care of as well. If you spread your protein intake out across the day, it is likely to meet this criterion without much thought as well.
Building a habit of post-workout protein intake is not necessarily a bad thing though. By adding that habit, it makes it easy to meet these criteria and means you never miss this window of opportunity. That said, it is not necessary, and it also is not necessarily a small window either.
A lot of these factors blend in well with each other. If you focus on regularly consuming high quality protein throughout the day in decent amounts, you meet all these factors without thinking about it. But if that is not going to happen for whatever reason, then it makes sense to prioritise based on what is most important, combined with what would be the most realistic for you.