Like the majority of serious bodybuilders and athletes, I used to eat a ton of protein, 300 or more grams a day, most from protein supplements. Even though I spent a ton of time working out hard too, I saw less than optimal changes. The question is why?
After years of intensive research and experimentation, I’ve finally figured out what the “secret” is: There’s a muscle-building equation that you’ve got to satisfy in order to get bigger, and most protein supplements are addressing only half of it. At best, they’re only giving you 50% of the muscle gains you’re capable of achieving. Many fares even worse (or not at all)!
You see, in order to get bigger muscles, you’ve got to reduce the breakdown (“catabolism”) of the muscle you already have, and increase the building (“anabolism”) of new muscle. When anabolism exceeds catabolism, the result is a net gain in muscle mass. You need a protein that works BOTH sides of the muscle-building equation, to slam the brakes on muscle protein catabolism as it hits the gas pedal on muscle protein anabolism.
Anabolism And Anti-Catabolism
Short of using dangerous, expensive and illegal steroids, in general, the best way to reduce the catabolism of your hard-earned muscle (in particular, muscle protein) is to eat (and NOT to overtrain).
The protein in the food you eat signals your body to reduce the catabolism of its muscle protein. In fact, suppression of protein catabolism is the central means by which your body maintains protein balance in the face of fluctuations in dietary protein intake over the course of a day. As I said earlier, however, slowing down muscle protein catabolism is one half of the muscle-building equation.
High Protein For Anabolism
To increase the size of your muscles, you’ve got to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, as well. In fact, stimulating the synthesis of new muscle protein is the more important half of the muscle-building equation.
You can stimulate muscle protein synthesis by performing the right kind of Workouts, and it can also be stimulated by certain anabolic drugs – testosterone and related steroid drugs (e.g., nandrolone), growth hormone, etc. Post maturity, for most people, no matter how intelligently you exercise and eat, your muscles grow only very slowly. There’s a reason for this.
As you emerge from childhood your muscles lose much of their ability to respond to the food you eat with an increase in protein synthesis. The growth signals that normally allow this to occur when you’re a youngster severely weaken in intensity as you enter adulthood. It’s as if Mother Nature has locked away your muscles’ protein-synthesizing “machinery,” allowing you to build muscle only to a very limited extent as an adult. Pretty crummy huh?
Protein, whether from your own tissues (e.g., muscle) or from food, consists of amino acids linked together in chains. Amino acids are the principal means by which we humans get nitrogen, for growth. Building muscle is about protein balance. If you make more muscle protein than you break down (positive muscle protein balance), your muscles will increase in size and strength (slowly, but with time).
Low Protein For Anabolism
Conversely, if you make less muscle protein than you break down (negative protein balance), your muscles will tend to get weaker and smaller. Thus, a positive protein balance indicates an anabolic state. Since protein contains nitrogen, we can estimate your protein balance by measuring your nitrogen balance. Technically speaking, however, the two should not be considered equal.
In any case, a positive nitrogen balance is generally taken as a sign of an anabolic state with an overall gain (retention) of nitrogen for the day, whereas a negative nitrogen balance indicates a catabolic state.
Another way to estimate your protein balance is by measuring your body’s balance of particular amino acid, leucine. A positive leucine balance indicates protein anabolism (“building”). Or, at least, a positive leucine balance reflects a state (i.e., increased availability of leucine inside your muscle cells) that promotes protein anabolism. Conversely, a negative leucine balance indicates protein catabolism (“breaking down”).
Muscle Growth Quality & Quantity
You don’t eat all the time; there are fluctuations in your protein intake, such as between meals and while you sleep. Your body preserves its protein balance and keeps the total amount of protein in your body from shrinking in the face of fluctuating intakes of dietary protein by increasing or decreasing tissue protein breakdown according to how much protein you feed it.
In general, you lose tissue (e.g., muscle) protein between meals, but after a protein-containing meal, you regain what was lost through a decrease in protein breakdown. The production, or synthesis, of tissue protein, typically doesn’t change too much after a protein-containing meal; yet, because protein breakdown is reduced, the result is a net increase (gain) in protein such that balance is achieved.
Stimulation of Muscle Protein Synthesis
Stimulation of muscle protein synthesis is the means by which resistance training (lifting weights) makes muscles grow, and it’s also how some of the most powerful muscle-building hormones used by athletes operate (e.g., testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor-1).
The oft-quoted Boirie study showed that your body needs a protein source where the amino acids are both slowly trickled into your blood and one where proteins enter your bloodstream very quickly following its consumption.
Leucine For Maximum Protein Synthesis
Another issue is that your proteins should contain a lot of the BCAA leucine. Leucine is perhaps the most potent amino acid in terms of its ability to stimulate protein synthesis.
Most “experts” argue that faster isn’t necessarily better when it comes to protein absorption and building muscle. We say that the sooner a protein is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, the more likely it will be wasted. And they’re right: The sooner the protein you eat is digested and absorbed into your bloodstream (as amino acids), the greater the risk of losing the amino acids.
That is, more amino acids will tend to be “burned”, or oxidized, for fuel. Thus it may not be advisable to consume a protein supplement that is all whey unless it is combined with other foods to slow digestion/absorption.
Both protein quality and quantity determine a net anabolic effect on muscle tissue. Animal and human studies indicate that the higher the protein contents of the diet, the greater the suppression of muscle myofibrillar protein breakdown.
Which Protein I am Using Right Now?
I am now using Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein. This product contains some of the highest quality proteins available (milk isolates, whey isolate, micellar casein, milk protein peptides, egg albumin, whey peptides, and additional glutamine). Each serving (31 grams) dials in 24 grams of protein, with around 1 gram of fat and 3 grams of carbohydrates.
Unlike many other protein supplements, this proprietary mixture of proteins is specifically formulated By Optimum Nutrition to help you stimulate muscle protein synthesis, not merely reduce protein breakdown.
Stimulation of muscle protein synthesis is by far the most important half of the muscle-building equation. But both sides of the equation must be addressed in order for you to see results.