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Protein Intake for Strength Training Gains

We know that strength training is key for maintaining and building muscle mass, but the best benefits come when these fitness endeavors are matched with appropriate nutrition adjustments.

This includes the addition of extra protein.

But even that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

How much protein do we really need? And when is it best timed with our workouts?

Check out the answers to these questions and more as Paul unpacks the appropriate role of protein in a strength training program and the specifics that research suggests regarding optimum dose and timing. 

When is the best time to take in protein - before or after strength training?

Kudos to anyone who takes up strength training and is aware that protein timing may impact the outcomes of his/her efforts. Let’s try to clear up the confusion around the urgency to gobble up proteins as quickly as possible after your last rep. The simple answer is this: protein both before and after exercise offers benefits, but protein before a workout may be better.

Resistance training - specifically eccentric movement (putting the muscles under tension while the fibers are lengthening) - is a critical stimulus needed to trigger the body’s muscle-building (or repairing) processes. It’s actually difficult to grow more muscle tissue without inducing this type of damage because it signals the needed repair efforts.

This type of damage, however, increases the body’s overall requirement for the nutrients necessary to repair/reassemble muscle tissue. That means amino acids.

The availability of amino acids (protein building blocks) in the blood is a major factor that dictates our ability to actually synthesize or repair muscle and other lean tissues. Without sufficient dietary amino acid supplies, our bodies will enter a state of chronic catabolism (tissue breakdown) to supply our vital organs with energy needed to survive and maintain critical functions. In other words, in an energy deficit - whether due to overall calorie restriction or increased calorie expenditure - we will lose muscle tissue. 

How much we lose, however, can be influenced by our dietary protein intake. A research review examining the impact of weight loss on muscle mass suggests adults may observe a lean tissue loss equivalent to 25% of their overall weight loss unless they consume protein in amounts exceeding the current RDA of 0.8 g/kg body weight per day. 

If you choose to work out before eating in the morning (or several hours after your last dose of protein), you may not reach peak protein breakdown until three hours after you finish your workout, but that protein breakdown may put you in more of a deficit than you may like.

However, if you make a point of starting your strength training workout within 90 minutes of increasing your blood’s amino acid levels (i.e. consuming an amino acid rich snack or an Essential Amino Acids supplement), you’ll not only have a jump-start on protein repair, but you may also dampen the signals that spur the sacrifice of lean tissue for energy use during your workout. 

One group of investigators showed a combination of essential amino acids and sugar (6 grams amino acids + 35 grams sucrose in 500mL of water) was more effective at stimulating muscle synthesis when given before exercise vs. after. It’s important to note these researchers previously showed that muscle protein synthesis is stimulated by essential amino acids alone - not as a result of the sugar included in the drink. 

Your choice to consistently strength train with adequate protein/amino acid consumption will undoubtedly help you preserve your lean tissue or gain more muscle - regardless of protein timing. That said, protein intake prior to working out may well give you an edge. 

How much protein is enough if I’m working out?

This is a great question and one I hear a lot from clients, whether they’re beginning to get in shape again or are beginning a more performance-focused regimen.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends modestly higher daily protein intake for active adults compared to the current RDA of 0.8g/kg/day. For active adults, they suggest a protein intake of between 1.4 and 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

A 175-pound person engaging in regular exercise would maintain lean tissue and strength best if he/she consumes at least 111-160 grams of protein per day. This can usually be achieved by eating a palm to hand-sized portion of meat, poultry or fish three or four times per day (since each ounce of these sources yields about 7 grams of protein).

Rest assured there’s no real risk in consuming this amount of protein from quality, “clean” sources unless you already have compromised kidney or liver function.   

Currently, a hot topic in the research field is targeting more specific protein doses needed to stimulate muscle repair around training sessions. Popular recommendations (demonstrated in research) have centered on maximizing skeletal muscle recovery with doses of 20-40 grams of protein from sources with complete amino acid profiles (e.g. whey or casein derived from milk or rice-pea protein isolates like VeganMax).

This recommendation is mainly derived from other evidence showing that 6 grams of essential amino acids is all that’s needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and keep amino acid levels elevated for a few hours - even through exercise sessions. (Coincidentally, 6 grams of essential amino acids is the amount that can be obtained from the larger 20 gram dose of whey or other complete protein sources.) 

The bottom line: try not to start hard workouts at a protein or amino acid “deficit,” as your lean tissue may never achieve positive protein balance to make desired recovery and muscle growth possible. Be sure you consume adequate, quality protein a few times each day - whether it’s from food, protein supplements, or essential amino acids supplements

Do you have other questions around nutrition for performance enhancement? Talk with a registered dietitian today. Thanks for reading.

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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