Remember what it feels like when you’re doing everything right in the gym and still lacking a muscular physique. All those hours of lifting heavy weights, sweating, and grinding through that pain but to no avail. While so many people focus and prioritize their training, most people don’t give much attention to their nutrition. The most important macronutrient (carbs, fat, and protein) among the three is PROTEIN that plays a major role in muscle growth. So let’s learn about how much protein for muscle gain is actually needed for active people.
What’s Protein and Why It’s Essential for Muscle Gains
In simple words, Protein is the building block of all major functions happening inside your body and serves as a fuel providing as much energy as 4 kilocalories (kcal) per gram.
This one nutrient alone plays a major role in determining your overall health and well-being. If you keep your foundation strong with adequate daily protein intake then you are doing yourself a huge favor by keeping your bodily functions always at top levels.
For our purpose of muscle gains here, what makes protein essential is its high amino acid profile and its ability to preserve your muscle mass with adequate daily intake. Protein is found in each and every cell in the body and is crucial for growth and maintenance.
There are many benefits of eating a high-protein diet for maintaining and increasing muscle mass. That means that once you start working out regularly with progressive overload as the main focus in your training, your body needs more protein to repair the damage done to your muscles in the gym and then actively repair that damage using protein as the main nutrient. This crucial process then results in muscle gain once the body is finished repairing the muscle damage.
A calorie surplus diet (eating more calories than you burn) when combined with high protein intake results in faster muscle gains. On the other hand, when your goal is to maximize fat loss while maintaining muscle, a higher protein diet will be the only thing preventing muscle loss when eating in a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you eat).
The takeaway from this is that be consistent in keeping your protein consumption high to support your intense workouts for your body to recover faster and build stronger muscles.
Why Is Eating More Protein Important for Overall Health
Including high-protein foods in your diet for building lean muscle on a daily basis leads up to numerous health benefits. Eating a high-protein diet is absolutely safe for active people with healthy kidneys (proof here). This is because their body demands higher amounts of protein with increased physical activity from progressive overload training in the gym to gain muscle. So, all the extra protein consumed is effectively used by the body to grow, repair, build muscle, and all other bodily functions.
How Much Protein for Muscle Gain Do You Need and How to Calculate
There is a lot of conflicting information online about the right amount of protein intake for building muscle. Some people say you should eat insanely high amounts of protein every day to have a greater chance of muscle gains while some people stand by or are obsessed with a particular number for their protein intake.
The data we should really look at when finding the answer to this universal question is the different scientific studies done on this crucial topic.
While it’s not right to look at just one study and conclude the answer to the right amount of protein for muscle gain, it definitely helps at getting closer to perfection when
There’s no single answer or any single study that can be referred to as the ultimate source for knowing the protein needs of everyone. However, by looking for patterns that are repeated across different scientific studies, we can surely come close to finding the right answer.
The amount of protein needed in a person’s diet is related to a few factors, the important ones being their physical activity levels and body weight. It has also been proven by research that there is an increase in muscle mass when resistance training or regular sports activities is combined with increased protein and nutrient intake in the diet.
So, let’s get right to the answer in two different scenarios.
For active people of healthy weight looking to build muscle while eating in a calorie surplus or maintenance diet, a protein intake of 1.8 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day OR 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is adequate and the best way forward, as recommended by the famed “protein-researcher” and scientist, Dr. Eric Helms, based on the last 5 years of his research studying protein.
For active people of healthy weight looking to maintain muscle while losing fat and eating in a calorie deficit, a higher protein intake of 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day OR 1 to 1.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day is optimal. (Study)
|Type of Diet in Active Persons||Protein Needs (in grams/KG/day)||Protein Needs (in grams/LBS/day)|
|Calorie Maintenance or |
Calorie Surplus (Bulking)
|1.8 – 2.2||0.8 – 1|
|Calorie Deficit (Cutting)||2.3 – 3.1||1 – 1.4|
Let’s understand this better with an example. A person weighing 80 kg or 176 lbs who regularly lifts weights and eats in a calorie surplus of around 3000 calories per day for lean bulking, needs approximately between 144 to 176 grams of protein every day to build muscle.
Athletes having a healthy body fat percentage (15% or lower) with the goal of maintaining maximum muscle mass should aim towards the higher end of the protein range while athletes with a higher body fat percentage who are primarily focused on improving strength and performance can aim towards the lower end of the protein range.
It’s important to know that the above equation for calculating daily protein intake only works for active individuals with a body fat percentage of less than 20%. If you are over that body fat range or in the overweight/obese category then your first goal should be to eat less in a calorie deficit of 20 to 25% to lose your body fat and once you’re at a healthy weight then you can use the above numbers to calculate your protein intake.
If you are not used to eating a high-protein diet, then you may find it hard, in the beginning, to meet your protein intake to maximize muscle growth. Therefore, the best suggestion for meeting your daily protein needs from this study is to take evenly spaced protein feedings of 20 to 40 grams every 3 to 4 hours during the day to positively affect the muscle protein rates inside the body. This will ultimately result in muscle gains when done consistently.
The one last important thing you will ever need to know about optimal protein intake…..
Is that these are not solid numbers but just estimates to refer to as a guide for getting your protein intake right.
No matter how many studies, works of literature, or scientific papers are published on this subject, the answer to the exact amount of protein intake will never be the same to suit everyone’s needs. Don’t get confused when you read another article or find another source telling you about different protein intake numbers or claiming to have found the golden number for protein intake. That simply doesn’t exist as we have learned from the examples of nearly a century of case studies and this topic will continue to get researched in the future with different results. So, the wise thing to do is not to overcomplicate this and follow the simple estimates of protein intake as shown above.
Is there a best time to eat protein for muscle gain?
Yes, there is. The same study above and many others also recommends that pre and post-workout protein consumption is a highly effective strategy to help one increase strength, build muscle, and recover faster from intense workouts. So, if it helps meet your protein goals, eat protein-rich foods or supplement with one both before and after your workouts to keep progressing towards your goals.
Taking protein before sleep has also been scientifically proven to improve overnight muscle protein synthesis in which protein is produced to repair muscle damage caused by intense exercise.
If you’re on a special diet like Intermittent Fasting where you only have a few hours to eat all your meal or you end up eating more than 50 grams of protein in one meal, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Our bodies have the ability to absorb very high amounts of protein in a meal with no upper limit as concluded by this study.
Your total protein intake over the course of the day is much more important than timing for optimizing muscle growth. So, don’t obsess about taking protein shakes every hour or eating high amounts of protein in one meal.
How to know the protein content of each food and track protein intake effectively?
The best way to do both is by using the app, MyFitnessPal.
To calculate the protein content of any food, you simply write the food’s name in the app to search for it or by scanning the QR code of the food item from its packaging. The app will show you the exact nutrients for each food you log inside like the carbohydrates, fat, and protein content.
This is the simplest way to stay on track with your goals and using this app is as easy as it can get. Believe me, I have been using this free app for years to track my calories and macronutrients and it works great! You can also use other popular calorie tracking websites like CalorieKing to find the nutritional information on all the foods that you plan to include in your daily meals.
How high should you go before your protein intake becomes excessive or dangerous?
There is a lot of conflicting information online, in sports magazines, or even given out by some social media influencers supporting the safety and benefits of very high protein diets of 300 to 400 grams per day. Stop now and don’t listen to any of this BS.
Yes, there is a limit to your dietary protein intake to keep things safe and this scientific research gives the perfect answer.
The suggested maximum protein intake is approximately 25% of your total calories/energy for the day at about 2 to 2.5 grams per kilogram of protein per day.
Going over this limit is not recommended when done regularly and any excess protein is converted by the body into glucose which is then used for energy or stored as fat. Do note that this doesn’t apply when dieting to lose body fat when you need to temporarily increase protein intake to higher levels than the suggested maximum protein intake above.
So, keep in mind to stay in the ‘safe zone’ for protein consumption for optimizing your long-term health and with time, see your muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Best Sources of Protein to Optimize Muscle Growth
Whether you are a vegan or prefer animal protein, there are a few superfoods that provide the most protein per serving. Include these foods in your daily nutrition and start seeing amazing visible results in your muscles. Now, in order to understand the best sources of protein, let’s first learn about the amino acids (also the building blocks of life) and their role in choosing the best protein foods available.
Protein contains both essential amino acids (EAA) and non-essential amino acids (NEAA). EAA are the ones that cannot be made by the body and must come from the foods we eat to prevent any deficiencies. On the other hand, NEAA is the one that our bodies can produce even when we don’t get them from the foods we eat.
All foods that are abundant in essential amino acids come from animal-based sources like meat, fish, and eggs because of which these foods are known as complete protein foods that help our bodies to repair and grow. Plant-based foods like rice, soy, tofu, nuts also contain protein but they may not have all the EAA’s present inside them.
So, to get the most nutritional benefit, it is best to combine animal and plant-based foods in your diet. You do not have to eat both EAA and NEAA in every meal but to keep a balance of both in your nutrition throughout the day is necessary. If you are strictly a vegan then you may stick to the plant-based sources of protein listed below or a plant-based protein powder and make sure you are getting all EAA’s in your diet through supplementation.
The best and healthiest vegetarian sources of protein are:
- Legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits
- Peanut butter
- Soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, white beans, mung beans, tofu
- Chickpeas, cowpeas, lima beans, pigeon peas
- Lupines, wing beans
- Almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts
- Cotton seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds.
Protein intake from animal sources has a definite edge over plant-based sources as they have better absorption rates with a higher protein content per food along with the essential amino acids required by our bodies.
The best and healthiest animal sources of protein are:
- Lean meats and Poultry like boneless, skinless chicken and turkey breast, pork loin and pork chop, lean beef sirloin, duck
- All White-Fleshed Fish and Seafood like salmon, shrimp, tuna, sea bass, cod
- Milk and milk products/ dairy like plain non-fat Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat milk
- Eggs and egg whites
If you are confused about which source of protein is superior for daily supplementation, then both soy protein and whey protein are the best choices. This study has concluded that soy protein produces similar gains in strength and muscle as whey protein does.
What about protein powders and drinks?
If you eat a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods like the ones we discussed above, you do not need a protein supplement.
However, if you find it hard to meet your daily protein needs through your diet then a high-quality whey protein supplement is the best bet for you. Dairy proteins like whey and casein are considered superior to other protein supplements largely due to higher amounts of EAA leucine and the branched-chain amino acids found inside dairy proteins.
If on some days you find yourself getting caught up in work or whenever you simply lack the time or motivation to eat healthy, in these situations a high-quality protein drink or whey protein powder can come in handy to instantly boost your energy and mood. Remember to only use them as a means to support your diet of real foods, taking them responsibly, and using them only as a small part of your daily protein consumption.
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