Protein and Muscle: The Basics

WHAT’S THE best way to build muscle? There are plenty of ideas out there, but a review in Sports Medicine, by McMaster University researcher Stuart Phillips, boils it down to the essentials. Here are a few key points:

  • Your muscles are in a constant state of flux, being broken down and rebuilt continuously. To build muscle, you need to make sure the rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) exceeds the rate of muscle protein breakdown (MPB).
  • Resistance training triggers a rise in MPS. Eating protein also triggers a rise in MPS. Combining the two produces the best possible response.
  • Timing matters: the synergistic boost in MPS is biggest if you eat immediately following exercise, and gradually declines over the next 24 to 48 hours.
  • There’s an upper limit to the useful dose of protein. In healthy young people, about 20-25 grams (or, depending on body size, about 0.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight) triggers the maximal rise in MPS, whether you’re at rest or post-exercise. In older adults, a larger does of up to 40 grams can be useful after exercise.
  • There’s reasonable evidence that an amino acid called leucine is the key trigger that stimulates MPS. Whey protein (one of the two proteins found in dairy products, along with casein) is particularly high in leucine.
  • The current evidence doesn’t support claims that other amino acids like glutamine and arginine increase muscle growth.

So to sum up: get a good (but not crazy) dose of protein at each meal and after workouts – a tuna sandwich will do, for example. Seems pretty simple when you put it like that!

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