How much protein do you need to build muscle?

Updated: Jun 29

You decided to build some muscle and you know that signing up to a gym or start working out alone won't cut it and you’re determined to play all your cards to build muscle in the most efficient way.

You also know that you should probably eat more protein but here’s where the confusion starts.

Key takeaways:

  1. To build muscle efficiently we need to focus on improving muscle protein synthesis.

  2. When trying to build muscle eating more protein and training with resistance training it’s your best shot

  3. There are many important reasons to increase your protein intake other than increasing muscle protein Synthesis.

  4. Eating 1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight per day allow you to make the best gains.

  5. During a calorie deficit, increase your protein up to 2-2.2 grams/kg of bodyweight.

  6. Spread your protein over 3-5 meals/day which will lead you to eat 0.2-0.5 g of protein per kg of body weight per meal or 20-40 g / meal.

  7. Some protein has a better amino acid profile and better stimulate Muscle Protein Synthesis. Animal protein has all the necessary amino acids to build muscle. Vegans should mix different sources or supplements with a protein drink (Such as brown rice and pea protein) if this is not possible.

  8. Protein powder is totally ok to use and can provide a valid implementation for busy people who would otherwise struggle to eat enough protein from whole sources.

Is not just about the amount

When people ask ‘’How much protein do I need?’’ Unfortunately, they are missing part of the matter.

You see, our body needs protein for various processes and muscle building is one of them.

Imagine building muscle like building a wall, every brick wall is an important component of the wall, but first, not every brick wall is created the same, in fact, some are better than others (more on this later) and second if a brick wall was damaged, you wouldn't want to use it, especially at the beginning of the construction.

Our body produces new protein and breaks down the old ones every day so that a state of biochemical balance (homeostasis) is maintained and the body has enough protein to satisfy the demands of our life.

It’s like our body is naturally replacing the old, damaged brick wall with new, fresh ones, every single day.

The process of adding new brick walls is called Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) and the process of breaking down the old brick walls is called Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB).

This process is called Muscle Protein Turnover and the difference between MPS and MPB is called Net Protein Balance.

In this article, these terms will be used deliberately so I just wanted to make sure we understand each other.

Over a long period of time, how’s your balance?

Every day you might add more new brick walls than you break down and in this way, your wall will start to grow.

Great! You’re on the right track to adding size to those muscles.

But what happens if you are adding new brick walls very slowly and you’re not replacing old brick walls fast enough?

Your wall will stop growing.

If you want to build muscle, you need to make sure the balance between MPS and MPB is positive.

So, can we not just slow down the MPB?

Research on rats shows that suppressing MPB genetically does not result in an increase but rather a decrease in muscle size. I find this interesting!

It also seems that we can’t influence too much MPB and that we can indeed influence MPS through Resistance Training and Nutrition.

I want to mention that, if you don’t train at all and you still want to build muscle, you can skip the part of the timing of distribution of protein over the course of a day and focus on protein quality and quantity.

How to maximise Muscle Protein Synthesis?

There are different ways to make sure your MPS is working at full speed.

Wouldn’t it be good if our muscles grew just by eating more protein?

Unfortunately, our body doesn’t work like that.

The muscle protein synthesis remains quite elevated in the hours after a resistance training workout and the nutrients in your blood are directed towards your muscle.

In this article we’ll focus on the Dietary aspect of Protein to build muscle but if you want to dig into the research, here are some of the non-dietary factors that influence MPS.

A higher amount of Training Volume increases MPS than lower training volume

Training a muscle group 1xweek vs 3xweek promotes superior hypertrophy stimulus

Training Age lower the MPS over time

Resistance exercise with short (1 min) inter-set rest duration attenuated myofibrillar protein synthesis during the early postexercise recovery period compared with longer (5 min) rest duration, potentially through compromised activation of intracellular signalling.

The picture below shows how improving your nutrition can allow you to increase MPS but it can also help you to regenerate your muscle after workouts, restore the reserve of glycogen in your muscle and liver, reduce fatigue and boost your immune health.

All this combined will enhance your recovery and lead to lower injury risk and allow you to tolerate more training volume, which will end up in having a better MPS response and more muscle.

Can you absorb more than 30 g/meal?

I call this Protein Absorption Confusion.

As coaches, we’re used to coming up with catchy names.

Let’s make some clarity first.

Protein starts being digested in the stomach and are broken down into their mini building brick wall blocks (amino acids and di- and tripeptides) and absorbed in the small intestine.

Some people, when they ask this question, they usually want to know ‘’how much protein will be used to build muscle after a certain meal’’ and ‘’can you convert more than 30g of protein/meal?’’

In regards to protein absorption, virtually all the protein that are eaten are absorbed by healthy subjects.

For this study, it seems clear that a dose of 20 of protein is enough to fully stimulate MPS in healthy subjects although, we also know that larger individuals need larger amounts of protein so it’s better to focus on recommendations based on protein per kg of body-weight.

For this study instead, it’s clear how lean, untrained subjects lost more fat and were able to increase their Lean Body Mass when eating 2.4 g of protein/kg of body weight/day compared to 1.-2 g / kg of body weight/day.

P.S. This study is another example of how people can perfectly tolerate larger doses of protein/meals and the idea that a maximum absorption dose is 20g/meal is a myth.

If you’re not sure maybe this review will change your mind.

As the author states: ‘’Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM scaled upwards with the severity of caloric restriction and leanness’’.

That’s a lot of protein every day! If you apply this to a normal life circumstance you will realize that you will end up consuming more than 20 g / meal in some meals.