One of the most widely debated topics in the weightlifting community is over how much protein you really need to build muscle.
Also, can you build muscle without protein? The truth is that you do need a certain level of protein intake to facilitate muscle growth, but exactly how much will depend on your body and your goals.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to figure out how much protein you need and talk about some ways to get protein into your diet.
How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle?
In my experience, most people tend to overestimate how much protein they really need in their diet for muscle protein synthesis. More protein is not always better.
To support muscle growth, you really only need around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This may seem low compared to some other estimates you may have heard, but study after study has shown that anything past this really does not provide much benefit.
That being said, there may be cases where you want to increase your protein intake. Here are some basic guidelines for protein consumption, depending on your goals:
Gain Muscle Mass
To gain muscle, you should consume 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 200-pound man will consume 160 grams of protein per day.
If you are trying to gain muscle, chances are that you will be in a calorie surplus. Because you are eating more calories, your body is able to use more of the protein you eat for healing and building muscle.
This is known as the protein-sparing effect and occurs when your body can rely on just your carbohydrate intake for its basic energy needs.
Maintain Body Weight
To maintain body weight, you should eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. So a 200-pound man will consume 200 grams of protein per day.
If you are trying to maintain your body weight, you are essentially trying to lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time. While this is possible, it will be a more difficult and slower process than eating in a surplus.
Since your body will not have excess energy, you should eat a higher amount of protein to better assist in the muscle-building process.
To lose weight, you should be eating between 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
If you are trying to lose fat or cut down, you will need to be in a caloric deficit. Since your body is lacking energy, it will break down your body fat and muscle tissue for energy.
To protect the muscle mass that you have and support your training, it may be beneficial to increase your protein intake.
Also, you have to consider that protein is a complex structure made up of amino acids that requires energy to break down. It is estimated that 25% of all the protein calories you consume are burned away thanks to the thermogenic effect of protein. So consuming additional protein may allow you to feel more satiated while staying within your calorie limits.
Do You Need Protein Post Workout?
Another common myth when it comes to protein is that you need to consume a certain amount of protein during a certain time window after your workout to build muscle.
The theory goes that unless you consume protein in this “golden window”, you are leaving all of your gains on the table and doing things wrong.
The truth is that as long as you are meeting your protein and calorie needs on a daily basis, you should be more than fine from a muscle-building perspective.
There is some truth here through. During the hours following training, your body is more “primed” to make use of any protein consumed. However, at this point, you are really splitting hairs.
If you want to make things as optimal as possible, then having a meal with protein and carbs after your workout may provide marginal benefits. For most people, just hit your protein and macro goals throughout the day and you will be okay.
Is Eating Too Much Protein Bad?
Another claim often heard in the fitness community is that eating too much protein can cause kidney damage.
Your kidneys do play a vital role in your body. The kidneys operate as your body’s “filter” and have to work to filter all of the excess nutrients in your body.
Therefore, if you were eating excess protein, your kidneys would have to adjust to deal with the extra protein. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you have healthy kidneys, your kidneys will just go through what is called hyperfiltration and adapt to your increased protein intake.
The only case where excessive protein intake you really be a problem is if you are already suffering from some sort of kidney condition. In that case, you may want to limit your protein consumption to what you need.
Another aspect to consider is that if you are consuming too much protein, you may not be consuming enough fats or carbs. Healthy fats and carbs are essential to the everyday functions of your body and should be taken seriously as well.
Protein Rich Foods
When it comes to finding good protein sources, you have plenty of options at your disposal.
Here are some of the most common dietary protein sources. All of these are great options since they are highly bioavailable and are mostly whole foods:
Leaner cuts of beef (flank steak, 93% lean ground beef)
Fish (Cod, Salmon, Tilapia, Tuna)
Nuts and seeds
Dairy (Greek yogurt, low-fat cheese)
As you can see, there are tons of options out there. Even if you have some kind of dietary restriction, it should not be hard to find a good protein source that you can fit into your everyday diet. Whether it be you cooking your meals yourself, or quality meal delivery services, these common protein sources should be staples in your diet.
There are lots of protein supplements on the market, here are the main ones you should be aware of:
Protein powders are high-protein supplements usually made of whey. However, they can also be made from other protein sources and can even be offered in vegan options.
These powders are usually consumed in the form of protein shakes but there are dozens of creative ways online that people have found to eat their protein powder. The numerous flavors also make it easy to design recipes or find a flavor that you like.
Most protein powders will typically offer around 20-30 grams of protein per serving.
Essential Amino Acids
Essential amino acids or EAAs as they are often called are another type of protein supplement that helps provide your body with all of the essential amino acids that it cannot produce on its own.
You can get these same amino acids from whole food sources, but many people prefer having the piece mind of having all their bases covered by one supplement.
Similar to protein powders. EAAs come in powder form and are meant to be mixed with a liquid before being consumed.
The main benefit is that EAAs are said to increase levels of protein synthesis and help keep the body in an anabolic state.
With lifting weights and going to the gym becoming more popular, many companies have begun to produce high-protein snacks. These are some of the more popular options:
Protein ice cream(Usually around 6-8g of protein in ice cream)
Protein peanut butter cups
The flavor on these options tends to be hit or miss but there are plenty of options out there for you to try.
Can You Build Muscle Without Protein Powder?
While protein powder is a convenient source of protein for most people, it is not required to build muscle.
As long as you know what you are doing with your diet, you should be able to hit all of your protein goals with relative ease just by eating whole foods.
However, if struggle with appetite or time constraints, it may be worth looking into a quality protein powder.
Having the option just drink a good portion of your daily needs during a pinch is very convenient.
Personally, I have a protein powder but only use it on days when I was unable to cook or went out to eat and did not get enough protein.
How Do I Train To Build Muscle?
Assuming that you are getting enough protein, the next step to build muscle mass is strength training. To build lean muscle, you have to stimulate your muscle fibers via weight training. Generally, I think that people tend to over-complicate weight training.
To train effectively for muscle growth, just follow these basic principles:
Train Close To Failure
Your body does not want to naturally build muscle, you have to force it to adapt via hard training. Unless you are really pushing your body, your muscles will have no reason to want to grow.
This does not mean every last rep has to be a grinder or that you have to max out every set, but you should be pushing yourself to within a few reps of failure.
Progressive overload is another key principle that you need to use to build muscle. All progressive overload means is that you are progressing in some way in the gym. This can be mean adding an extra rep or more weight, as long as you are doing better than last time.
For this reason, it is important that you keep a close eye on how your lifts are progressing. As you get stronger, progress will slow down but you should still be making incremental gains month after month.
Perform Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are those that work for several muscular groups at once. These are exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, row, etc. Since these work large amounts of muscle mass, it makes sense that the majority of your training volume should be made up of these exercises.
That being said, isolation exercises still have an important role to play. To address weaknesses or imbalances, isolation exercises are still key.
Just do not fall for the trap of only doing isolation work, even if you just do a basic routine consisting of the squat, bench, and deadlift you will make incredible gains.
Train In the 6-12 Rep Range
Technically, as long as you are pushing yourself to near failure, you will make muscle gains. But to speed things up, it is best to stick to reps in the 6-12 range.
If you want to focus more on hypertrophy, go higher in this range. If you want to focus more on strength, go lower.
Use Proper Form
I know that I have stressed the importance of adding to your gym numbers in some ways, but gym PRs are worthless unless you do them with the proper form.
You want to be in total control of the weight while you are both lifting it and lowering it.
Improper form made lead to short-term progress but you are just creating bad habits that you will have to correct in the long run.
Not to mention, improper form can easily lead to an injury and months out of the gym where you could lose your gains.
Which Program Should I Do?
When you are just starting out, any basic program like 5×5 or nSuns will work just fine. YouTube is also a great source to find good beginner/intermediate programs.
If you want something more unique and instructional, I think that MAPS Anabolic is one of the better online programs on the market.
As you can see, protein is one of the necessary building blocks for building muscle. You do need to keep track of how much you consume, but chances are that you should be able to hit your protein goals with some minor tweaks to your diet.
Protein supplements are useful but do not fall into the trap of thinking that you need them to gain muscle.
As long as you’re hitting 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight and running a proper program, you should be gaining muscle mass.