4 Science Based Protein Rules for Strength Athletes

Protein in the strength world is like money in the real world. It’s like a form of currency that helps you get from point A to point B. Meaning, it can help you go from sore to “not as sore”, go from scrawny to brawny (relatively speaking in addition to working out), and help you go from hungry to satiated. Plus, there are multiple ways to obtain it, much like real currency.

There’s no denying that we need protein. And this is why its often seen as the most important macronutrient in a strength athletes’ eyes. It also tends to be one of the most argued topics, which I’ve always found ironic. At the end of the day, we all have a protein requirement, why does it matter how we get it? Well, it does matter in some respects. A lot of the factors that make up an athlete’s protein requirements are dependent on their weight goals, age, training status, and activity goals, to list a few.

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This article isn’t intended as a template for any specific athlete’s protein needs, but for a friendly reminder of various ways to consume and achieve protein based off of current research.

1. Consume Enough Protein

It’s no secret that strength athletes need more protein than their non-active counterparts. But how much is enough? There have been a few different suggestions in the recent years and we’ll look at a couple of them with their requirement differences.

General Maintenance

The factors that make up this population will heavily depend on an athlete’s age, training history, metabolism, and many other factors. Science has made a few suggestions as to how much is enough for the average gym-goer training on a regular basis.

There’s a notion that 1g of protein per lb bodyweight is optimal, but in reality, studies have also demonstrated that you can function optimally (or near optimally) with lower amounts. For example, this research from 2008 suggests that .82g per lb bodyweight was sufficient for positive nitrogen balance and lean body mass retention. Additionally, a study from 1992 found no difference between a protein consumption .6 and 1.19 g per lb bodyweight on novice athletes’ mass and strength. The authors of the 1992 study, suggested that an intake of .75g per lb of bodyweight is sufficient.

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Cutting/Weight Loss

Similar to the general maintenance section, athletes who are cutting, or dieting will have many factors at play when configuring protein intakes. Eric Helms, Alan Aragon, and Peter Fitschen published an evidence based analysis covering dietary recommendations for natural bodybuilders, and suggested a protein intake of 1g – 1.4g per lb of bodyweight was sufficient for lean body mass retention.

Granted, these recommendations don’t apply to every dieting athlete, and there’s still further research that needs to be performed on this specific population. Additionally, when dieting or cutting, fats and carbohydrates must also be carefully catered to an athlete’s needs and workouts. These are factors that make it difficult to provide definitive answers.

[Did you know we’ve reviewed almost 30 protein powders? Yes, whey. Check out our in-depth list of whey protein powders that are worth your money.]

2. Space Out Consumption

Do you like multiple small meals, or a couple really big meals? Whatever your preference, evidence is still conflicted on which is optimal. Some studies have suggested that multiple smaller meals are beneficial. This study from 2014 suggested that even distribution of protein across multiple meals increased protein synthesis rates of up to 25%. In a lot of cases, it comes down to what an athlete feels best with and performs optimally with.

For example, this study demonstrated that a higher protein intake showed a greater level of muscle protein synthesis. In their research, authors had 23 healthy young males consume either 40g or 70g of protein with exercise and without exercise during their study’s protocol. This study suggested that a higher protein meal stimulated higher levels of muscle protein synthesis. Granted, both the 40g and 70g showed positive benefits, but the 70g was slightly higher. Keep in mind, these meals were predominately protein, and a mixed macronutrient meal would create a different effect. Additionally, researchers measured levels of anabolism at a total body level, and not exclusively to muscle.

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This all being said, research is conflicted with what’s best for muscle protein synthesis. Yet, professionals such as Brad Schoenfeld suggest consuming meals with at least 30g of protein spaced out every 3-4 hours often fairs best with most athletes.

3. Quality Does Matter

There’s no denying whole protein sources with full amino acid profiles fair better than those lacking a full profile. This is why things like whey protein have been shown to do well with stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Leucine, one of the essential amino acids, is often linked to triggering muscle protein synthesis. Foods with complete amino acid profiles have been shown to fair better when triggering anabolic responses. Below is a brief list of foods that contain a full amino acid profile.

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Other Meats (turkey, bison, etc)
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy Products (yogurt, milk, cheese, etc)
  • Quinoa
  • Hemp/Chia Seeds

A study from 2010 reported that quality of protein was inversely related to central abdominal fat. Authors found that the study’s population that consumed whole protein meals more often had less central abdominal fat.

4. Timing Is Best Described As “Situational”

Does timing matter? Yes, to an extent, but not as much as some supplement companies might boast. Often times studies that report a short anabolic window work with athletes at a fasted state, as there’s a greater negative net protein level, so protein consumption following fasted training stimulates a stronger anabolic response. Yet, there is some merit to timing. For example, for those training two a days, or at intense levels on a very frequent basis, then there should be consideration of protein timing, among other variables (carbs, fluids, etc).

Outside of very specific athletic needs, protein breakdown rates will occur most of the day as you eat. In Alan Aragon and Schoenfeld’s “Nutrient Timing Revisited” paper, they discuss that pre-exercise consumption of protein will elevate levels of muscle protein synthesis through a bout of exercise. This conclusion was suggested from the this 2007 study, which analyzed the effects of whey consumption pre- and post-exercise and found similar anabolic responses.

Consequently, this study from 2004 suggests a balanced protein rich meal’s breakdown lasts roughly 4-6 hours, which would then suggest the body is continuously breaking down protein for those consuming normal sized meals throughout the day.

Wrapping Up

There are a ton of factors that go into a strength athlete’s daily protein consumption. Often times, the best way to consume your protein is through methods that work best for your schedule and tastes. In reality, there a few factors that matter such as a protein’s quality, your daily needs/goals, but the finite details like timing will be completely individual.

When chasing strength and body composition goals, avoid micro managing a diet, and aim to be consistent with the way you eat that complements your goals.

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