Protein unpacked

From strength and power athletes to bodybuilders and weekend warriors, it seems that everyone is trying to maximize their muscle mass and athletic prowess. However, the quest to find the ultimate muscle building protocol can be complex and inherently confusing.
Modifying dietary intakes of certain nutrients is a common place to start. The nutrient synonymous with muscle gainis protein – and for good reason. The research has clearly shown that protein intake is paramount to muscle protein synthesis. After all, our muscles are made mainly of protein, and so are the majority of our body tissues.

So, it would make sense that eating barbaric amounts of protein will lead to colossal gains, right? Well, not really. Countless studies have shown that the law of diminishing returns applies to protein intake and muscle building. Researchers at the University of Stirling have discovered that muscle protein synthesis is maximally stimulated when 20 – 40g of a highly bioavailable protein source such as whey or meat is consumed after training (this range is dependent on the amount of lean body mass that is stimulated by resistance exercise). The remainder of the protein consumed was either used in non-muscle tissue protein synthesis or processed by the liver to make glucose or fatty acids – not to generate more skeletal muscle. Research has confirmed that to build muscle mass, a minimum of 1.6g/kg/d is required in healthy non-dieting adults. Protein intake above this, may be used for different purposes.

So chugging protein drinks by the litre is not only unlikely to enhance muscle building, it may also cause abdominal discomfort. So, is protein the only nutrient that is important in the overall picture of muscle growth? Certainly not! In fact, a fixation on protein in the diet can lead to the displacement of other nutrients, critical for both health and performance.

Energy surplus and carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for muscles undergoing high- intensity activity, the type of training that is responsible for muscle growth in the first place. Sufficient carbohydrate intake is essential to support high-intensity training, particularly if athletes are training for more than an hour and/or are training various times per day.

The other factor to consider in the muscle building equation is total energy intake. Although technically building muscle whilst in a negative energy balance over time isn’t impossible, various studies and the laws of thermogenics, suggest that being in energy surplus is almost a prerequisite for long-term muscle gains. A good place to begin for those seeking lean muscular gains is to consume 1500–2000kJ above their energy requirements.


For most of us, the process of muscle building is a long and rewarding journey. It is common to have unrealistic expectations of muscle gain rates, closely followed by disappointment after a few months of hard training. A realistic amount of lean mass gain that can be achieved by athletes with well-structured training programs, optimal nutrition and other lifestyle factors is outlined below.

Rate of Muscle Gain For Men and Women

0-1 years of training1-2 years of training3+ years of training
Men: 1-1.5% of total body weight / month.Men: 0.5-1% of total body weight / month.Men: 0.25-0.5% of total body weight / month.
Women:0.5-0.75% of total body weight / month.Women: 0.25-0.5 of total body weight / month.Women: 0.125-0.25% of total body weight / month.

*This article was published on Sports Dietitians Australia’s summer 2019 Re-Fuel Magazine.

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