How much protein do we really need to build muscle?
Find out more about how fuelling your body with the right foods can help build muscle and improve performance.
Let’s be honest – there are no magic foods that can directly increase muscle mass, just like there are no individual foods that directly influence weight loss – it’s all about balance. And of course, hard work.
You may be thinking, “oh, but I could have a protein shake to gain muscle”, and you’re right. However, one protein shake doesn’t equate to Popeye and his one tin of spinach – you aren’t going to pop out of your shirt just by drinking a shake – there are other factors to consider too.
It all comes down to a really simple equation, which of course, involves protein.
How much protein do I need to build muscle?
Protein is the building block for muscle tissue, and is essential for:
- Maintaining healthy muscles, bones, and connective tissue
Most research agrees that to build muscle, you’ll need somewhere between 1.2 and 2.4g of protein per kg of weight per day . Therefore, the equation looks something like this:
1.2g – 2.4g protein x how much you weigh in kg = amount of protein (g) per day to maximise muscle mass
Your weight and lifestyle can help to determine the amount of protein you should use in the above calculation. An estimated recommendation is included in the table below:
*Up to 3.3 g/kg/day may help experienced lifters minimise fat gain while bulking. For resistance-trained athletes who are dieting/cutting, some studies argue that protein targets should be 2.3–3.1 g/kg/day to minimise loss of lean mass.
The reason a range is given in the above table is because the optimal amount of protein will depend on individual factors, such as your activity level, type of training, and rates of metabolism. If you’re a hard gym-goer, looking to gain muscle, you’re probably going to achieve better results by aiming for the upper end, i.e. 2.4g/kg/day. If you’re sedentary and just looking to maintain, you might opt for the lower end of the maintenance range, i.e. 1.2-1.4/kg/day. This is a good starting point, then over time, you can adjust your protein intake according to your progress.
If you are in the healthy weight category and lead a sedentary lifestyle, an example for this equation could be:
1.4 (g) x 65 (kg) = 91g
So, ensuring you include 91g of protein in your diet will help to maximise muscle gain.
The above equation and table can give you an estimate of the amount of protein you should include in your diet, but the time of day you consume your protein can also impact how much muscle you gain.
When should I eat protein to maximise muscle gain?
To trigger the muscle-building mechanisms, you want to be spreading your protein intake throughout the day, ideally every few hours . And the amount of protein you eat during these windows does have an impact on how much muscle you build. Aiming for around 25g of protein per serving is a good start, as this can help to trigger the process of building muscle. Your body will tolerate higher levels of protein if it is slow release.
Additionally, due to training’s effect on the body (such as muscle breakdown), it is also important to focus on eating/drinking protein around your workouts – though this doesn’t mean you have to chug your protein shake the second you put your weights down.
What factors, other than protein, can help to build muscle?
Other than protein, there is the obvious task of muscle building through exercise. It’s important to make sure that you are steadily increasing the number of weights, and the way you train, during your strength session training – this is known as progressive overload.
If you don’t steadily increase the number of weights and in turn increase demand on the muscle, your muscle growth will plateau. This doesn’t mean that you go from 10-20kg in a week – build up steadily to avoid overtraining. Generally, if you can do eight to ten reps on that weight with ease, it’s time to move up.
Also, protein isn’t the only thing in your diet that helps to build muscle. The other (and equally as important) factor is ensuring you are in a calorie surplus – yup, that’s right, fill up your plate!
A calorie surplus refers to eating more energy than your body burns, and it’s necessary for aiding your body in building new muscle tissue. Bodybuilders often term this as ‘bulking’.
So, what foods can you eat that include the right macros, but also increase your calorie intake?
Foods that maximise muscle gain
Here are some food ideas to help you maximise your muscle gain:
1. Lean meat and fatty fish
A mixture of lean meat and fatty fish (such as 5% fat or less) is a great source of protein and is high in calories.
The best kinds to help build lean muscle include:
- Lean cuts of steak
- Fatty fish, such as salmon
2. Plant-based sources of protein
If you follow a vegetarian or plant-based diet, you’ll need to switch out your meat and fish for other protein sources.
Plant-based sources of protein include :
It can sometimes be a challenge to consume a full amino acid profile when following these diets. Amino acids are important in promoting recovery and helping to build muscle, but a simple vegan BCAA drink could help to fulfil your daily need.
You can read more about plant-based diets and athletes in our blog.
3. Protein powder
Protein powder can be extremely useful in aiding you to hit your daily protein intake. Protein powders are readily available and come in all sorts of flavours, and most places offer vegan alternatives (these are usually pea- or soy-based).
Adding things to your protein shakes such as bananas or high-calorie, fattier milk can help to increase your calorie intake.
4. High-calorie, low-volume foods
If you’ve ever followed a calorie-controlled diet, you’ve probably eaten foods that you would class as healthy but found they are a lot higher in calories than you would’ve expected (avocado springs to mind). Including foods like these can help you to hit your higher calorie goals – but just be wary of your fat intake.
High-calorie, low-volume foods include:
- Nut butters
The takeaway (not the fast-food type)
Protein and a calorie surplus are essential if your goal is to build muscle. They work together to create building blocks for tissue growth and repair, and without them, you will not be providing your body with the tools it needs to increase muscle.
But remember, building muscle isn’t just a scientific equation, it’s a mental one too. It also involves:
Ensuring you have a good balance between training intensity, diet, and recovery periods will leave you with the best chance of meeting your goals.
- Table, M. (2005). Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids (Vol. 5, pp. 589-768). National Academy Press: Washington, DC, USA.
- Stark, M. et al. (2012) “Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-9-54.
- Vegetarian and vegan diets (no date) Food and nutrition | NHS inform. Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/food-and-nutrition/special-diets/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets (Accessed: February 22, 2023).
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