Most people into working out know that they need protein to build muscle. But what actually is protein and what exactly does it do to your workouts? Let’s find out.
What Are Proteins?
Proteins are molecules that not only make up most of what you see as your muscles, that is only one of their functions. They also help forming bones, cartilage, skin and blood, build antibodies that defend against infections and a lot more.
In essence they are highly specialized workers and without proteins our bodies would be helpless little organic puddles.
From Amino Acid To Protein
The human body builds all the different kind of proteins it needs for these tasks by putting smaller molecules called “amino acids” into chains. Of those amino acids there are 20 different kinds and for each protein it needs the body puts them together in a specific sequence. This is similar to our alphabet, which has 26 letters. Depending on how you string those 26 letters together, you can form thousands of words, each with a unique meaning and function.
Essential Amino Acids
The tricky part about the amino acids is that 11 of them the body can build itself, while for the other nine it has to rely on food as source. Those nine are “essential amino acids”. When you digest food, your body breaks down the proteins in it to their amino acids and then uses them to build the proteins it needs itself. If the nine essentials are not in the food, the body can’t build certain proteins.
The amino acids responsible for building muscle are among the essential, which makes it clear that people working out should make sure their nutrition gives them those.
The most convenient way to go about it is to include food in your diet that is a “complete” protein source, meaning it contains all essential amino acids. Examples for complete sources would be meat, milk and eggs and of course the protein powders especially many bodybuilders use.
Vegans And Protein
For a vegan things become a bit trickier, because plant sources carry amino acids, but some are not complete or those that are may contain only very limited amounts of some amino acids. Vegans should combine different sources, like nuts, beans and soybeans to get the total coverage.
One word about soy: There is some evidence that soy may limit production of the male hormone testosterone, which plays an important part in building muscle. Scientific evidence if this really happens or not is still not conclusive, but you should keep it in mind.
How Much Protein Do I Need To Build Muscle?
The numbers you get here vary from 0.5 g up to 3 g per lb (1 g – 6 g / kg) of body weight, with the higher numbers being what you usually hear at gyms, where some people subject themselves to as much as 600 g per day.
But let’s throw some science at it. A study at the McMaster University of Ontario found that beginners with a balanced diet don’t need any supplemented protein, simply because their bodies learn to use the protein that is already there better. Older studies went as far as estimating 1.5 g per lb (3 g / kg) of body weight are necessary to increase muscle mass, while the International Society of Sports Nutrition in its 2007 stand advises those that undergo “rigorous” resistance training to aim for 0.8 g per lb (1.5 g /kg) of body weight.
You should get at least the amount the USDA considers necessary in a healthy nutrition, 0.4 g per lb ( 0.8 g / kg) of body weight. For bodybuilders and everyone into building muscle 1 g per lb (2 g/ kg) is a good upper number. More than that does nothing, as many studies see it as the threshold beyond which no positive effects are measurable.
If you have a pre-existing condition – and they can go undetected for a long time – high amounts of protein can also affect your kidneys and liver – a risk you shouldn’t take when most likely you gain nothing from it, anyway. In that regard I’d also say that you should get a checkup by your doctor, so that when you add protein to your diet you may not make the problem worse without you knowing.
When Should You Have Your Protein?
Pre-workout or post-workout? In six meals a day? I’d love to give you a simple, conclusive answer to this, but there is none. Some studies suggest pre- and / or post-workout protein supplementation is more beneficial than having protein in the morning and evening. Another said that smaller but more frequent doses of protein are better, but nobody ever compared having six doses of protein a day to having one or two before or after workouts.
It may all work and we still lack research about what works best. So all in all I can only give you a recommendation coming from my own conclusions:
- The number one thing that makes muscles perform is carbohydrates, so in my opinion having carbohydrates 30 to 60 minutes before a workout is more important than having protein.
- Protein synthesis, the process of building muscle, doesn’t just happen 30 minutes to four hours after a workout. It is a process that you can detect up to 24 hours after a workout. Therefore having enough protein on the days when you don’t work out could be of comparable importance to having it on workout days.
- Because the process of building muscle happens over long stretches of time and we don’t exactly know when the body needs the protein, smaller doses spread over the day may be a good idea. That way it has protein during the time some studies showed that muscles are more receptive to protein – right after a workout – but also during any other time.
In regard to the last one it’s interesting to note that the reasons for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness are still unclear and that it may well be a sign of your muscles rebuilding – and DOMS happen 12 to 48 h after a workout.
Are Protein Powders Better Than Protein In Food?
No, because food is more than just a source for a specific nutrient, no matter if it is carbohydrates or protein – you also need vitamins and minerals among other things. Some protein powders have them added, but this can be inferior to vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in your food.
Ok, Powder – Casein Or Whey?
So you want to use a protein powder. Fine. But it gets you right into the big dilemma: casein or whey or a mixture of both?
- Casein is the protein that makes up most of the protein in milk
- Whey is the protein that results as leftover liquid when milk is drained to make cheese
The question which one is better is as old as the question when to have your protein.The biggest difference between the two is that the body absorbs one faster than the other. Casein with a rate of 6-8 g per hour, whey with a rate of 8-10 g per hour. This is why in fitness circles people also call them “slow” and “fast” proteins.
Some now argue that whey protein goes faster to the muscles and must therefore be better. However, casein is slower, but on the other hand will then be available to your body longer. So, what to do? Studies have shown that whey protein may increase muscle mass slightly better than casein, but it is dependent on timing.
Another thing you will see thrown is around is that whey protein has a higher “biological value”. The biological value, “BV” for short, indicates how much of the absorbed protein the body can use for protein synthesis – the process of building its own proteins. As the body build muscle mass from proteins, especially many bodybuilders believe that a high BV shows how much of the protein you eat the body can use to build muscle.
The BV of whey protein is 92, for casein it’s 76 (PDF). While this makes whey look much more preferrable, keep in mind that scientists calculate the BV number under very strict and unnatural laboratory conditions. Your individual age, body composition, training experience, sex, current nutrition etc. can all have a huge influence how beneficial either casein or whey are for you as a person.
BCAA stands for “branched-chain amino acids”, which are three amino acids that play an especially important role in the building of muscle: valine, leucine and iso-leucine. Special BCAA supplements are completely useless, as any protein powder will deliver you with more than your fair share of BCAA.
Although often claimed, pure whey protein powders also do not necessarily contain more of them than other powders. A look at the tub of whey protein I have around here reveals that 1 serving (~30 g) comes with 1.4 g of valine, 2.5 g of leucine and 1.6 g of iso-leucine. The pure casein powder by the same manufacturer has 1.6 g, 2.1 g and 1.3 – already a small difference. A cheap powder, that in Europe is available at just about every supermarket and a mixture of 60% casein, 15% soy protein isolate and 13% whey isolate, makes the expensive whey actually look worse: It has 1.9 g, 2.8 g and 1.6 g.
What To Do?
If you get your protein through your nutrition all this is of minor importance for you, as the rate the body absorbs protein from food is lower than with protein you get from powders. For casein and whey proteins from powders it’s faster, but, as said above, they lack the other advantages regular foods have. No study has ever shown that getting your protein from powders is superior to getting it from food.
If you manage a rather strict eating schedule, eg. six meals per day, during the day use a whey protein powder if you want to substitute a regular meal. If you want to substitute your last and final meal of the day before you go to bed, use casein, as it will stay with your body longer. If your timing is not as strict or more irregular then go for powders that are mainly based on casein or are a mixture of both whenever replacing a meal.