Dr. Joe Klemczewski
It should come as no surprise that in today’s quick-fix economy of thinking, bodybuilders, fitness competitors, and athletes are looking for short cuts to muscle gain. Just tell me what’s important; give me the Cliff-note version! We all want to maximize our results with the least effort. I can certainly appreciate anyone wanting maximum results, but maximum results are the fruits of maximum effort. Ever hear of that “you reap what you sow” stuff? Yeah, it’s actually true; a universal law. I think it comes between the “law of gravity” and “if you eat a Big Mac before you squat, you’ll probably puke.” So, in the pursuit of muscledom, building a foundation of knowledge to support your training can eliminate years of wasted time.
Nutritionally speaking, protein is a large part of muscle growth. Protein is made up of amino acids and amino acids are stored in muscle tissue, stimulate muscle tissue growth, and repair muscle tissue. I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone reading this column. However, there are several principals of protein utilization that you may need to work harder on and collectively they will give you results proportional to your consistency in following them. In order of importance, the principals are- 1)Volume of protein 2)Frequency of protein 3)Protein quality 4)Amino acid utilization 5)Consistency
VOLUME OF PROTEIN is the first step that you must establish in creating the best environment for muscle growth. Remember that protein is broken down into amino acids and they are the key for repair and growth. There is a level of amino acids that your brain dictates should be circulating in the blood at all times. Even though muscle growth may be your biggest goal in life, your brain needs amino acids for millions of chemical reactions taking place in your body every second! If there is a shortage in your blood stream, your brain simply harvests more from “storage.” Your liver stores a short supply for second-by-second needs, but the motherlode storage site is your muscle tissue. So, every time your blood stream is low in amino acids, more hard-earned muscle goes down the drain! This is what is coined as a “negative nitrogen balance.” Amino acids are nitrogen compounds. Eating enough protein per day is essential for providing these amino acids from your diet instead of your delts. So, simply stated, your muscles will receive the amino acids they need to recover, but it’s up to you to either supply them from food or they will be taken from muscle somewhere else in your body.
How much protein is required per day? This is a question I explored for my Master’s Thesis and found it only controversial if you look at extremes. A vegetarian who claims you can live on thirty grams a day is correct. A bicep-bigger-than-brain gym thug who says five hundred grams a day won’t kill you is also correct. If you are not active, not seeking to gain muscle, and don’t mind your body having very little muscle holding your skeleton together, eat 30-50 grams a day. If you want to convert extra protein into body fat, stress your kidneys, and create an acidic body pH (good for disease and illness) then I suggest over 500 grams a day. If you are active, seeking muscle, training hard, drink plenty of water, and want the best recovery, then I would go with 1-1.25 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass per day. For example, if I weigh 200 pounds at 10% body fat, then my lean body mass is 180 pounds. I would eat 180 – 225 grams of protein per day. If you are dieting and perhaps hitting cardio aggressively, you may want to jump up to 1-1.5 grams per pound of lean body mass to make sure you’re sparing muscle from being used as energy. If you have any general health, liver, or renal conditions, your physician should be asked before making any changes to your nutrition. These suggestions, however, are very safe and effective for keeping amino acid levels from dipping for long periods of time.
FREQUENCY OF PROTEIN consumed throughout the day is closely associated with the overall amount you eat per day. Each time you eat protein, your stomach digests it into amino acids and they are released into the small intestine for absorption. Blood levels of amino acids start rising allowing your recovering muscles to use them for repair and growth without having to harvest them from other areas of your body. Once that protein is digested and absorbed, blood levels of amino acids start leveling off and can get too low (negative nitrogen balance) unless you eat protein again. If you don’t, your body simply starts stripping other muscles to “feed” the muscles that need the nutritional support (the ones most recently worked.) This robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario occurs in more hard-training people than you can imagine. I believe it’s the number one reason most don’t ever reach their full genetic potential. Amino acids are simply shifted around the body workout to workout. Staying in a positive nitrogen balance requires eating enough protein per day, but it also requires eating protein consistently throughout the day.
The common solution is to eat every three hours. This certainly eliminates a great deal of “dead space” when your body is going without dietary protein, but it can be improved even further by addressing the quality of protein in your diet.
QUALITY OF PROTEIN takes over where frequency leaves off. There are a handful of rating systems that attempt to tell us the value of the protein we eat. Most still use the Biological Value Scale (BV) though the Protein Digestibility Corrective Amino Acid Scale (PDCAAS) is the latest and probably most complete. These scales simply tell us how much of the protein is going to be used by our body. Meat sources rank the lowest because the digestibility of the protein from the meat fiber (animal muscle) isn’t as complete as something like whey isolate. The isolate is processed, removing things like lactose, leaving a more pure source of protein with a lower molecular weight. It’s easier to break down and more of it gets absorbed.
The molecular weight of the protein dictates how long digestion has to occur before the amino acids can be used and to some extent how much will actually get absorbed. Another key to protein quality, however, is the type of amino acids that are in the protein source. Almost every protein imaginable has pros and cons. One protein source may be high in some amino acids but lower in others when compared to another source. It is a very good idea to get your protein from a variety of sources. If you want to go a step further, I would even recommend alternating whole food and engineered food meals. Whole food protein takes longer to digest, tends to fill you up due to sheer bulk, and allows you to craft other good whole foods into the meal (carbs, fat, fiber, etc.) Consuming a protein shake or bar between whole food meals is more convenient and you get the benefit of that particular protein source on a scheduled basis. Due to digestive physiology, it’s more efficient to alternate meals in this manner and the net result is more time in a positive nitrogen balance.
AMINO ACID UTILIZATION has a lot to do with protein quality and, as you’ve already learned, protein frequency. In review, getting protein into your body at regular intervals is critical to keep amino acids available for your recovering muscles around the clock. But, remember that different protein sources contain different amino acid profiles. Most of us are going to have chicken, turkey, fish, and some red meat as our protein staples. We also choose from the same supplemental protein sources available on the shelves of our gym pro shop or health food store. My goal would be that you become as educated as possible and learn to separate marketing hype and true ingredient quality. Some very inferior protein products are best sellers in the industry due to overwhelming self-promotion.
My last article explored protein blending and my bias towards this is due to amino acid utilization. Not every company has the ability to research or even has a food scientist or staff member educated enough to create unique formulations, but this is a frontier that can lead to dramatic increases in muscle growth and recovery. The principal that led to my development of a five protein blend is based on the fact that different protein sources have different amino acid profiles and molecular weights. This affects how fast or slow the amino acids leave the stomach and enter the small intestine for absorption. In essence, the gastric emptying intervals can create a functional “time-released” buffet of amino acids for your muscles to draw upon.
To summarize every step simply, start with the right volume of protein for a day. Next, break that protein intake into evenly spaced, frequent meals. Alternate and vary the type of protein sources to vary the amino acid content. Include high quality supplemented protein because of it’s high biological value rating. Starting big and working down through the details is all aimed towards keeping amino acids flowing into your blood stream as continuously as possible. Staying in this positive nitrogen balance is what will give you maximal results.
CONSISTENCY with this type of nutritional detail management is what will pay off big time. If pay this much attention to your nutrition only part time, you’ll get part time results. If you do it as perfectly as you can, then at the end of this year you may have spent 20% more time in a positive nitrogen balance then last year. Maybe 50%?! Would you take a 20% increase in potential muscle gain? How about adding that up for the next five years; what would you look like then? Sow massive effort and you’ll reap massive rewards.