Protein Supplements and Strength Training

For personal training clients of Paul Youldon.

I receive many questions about protein supplements, and how it can assist the athlete involved in resistance training or bodybuilding. The following article offers basic information, a science-based perspective, and some action tips.

About Protein

Dietary protein is used for building, maintaining and repairing muscle, skin, blood, and other tissues. If energy consumption does not meet energy output, dietary protein will be used for energy instead of tissue repair and building. Little protein is used as fuel when caloric supply is adequate. The best energy fuel choices are carbohydrates and fats  If carbohydrates are not adequate, protein is converted  to carbohydrates and is used as a source of fuel during exercise.

Protein contains chains of amino acids; eight are essential amino acids important for building muscle, hair, skin, nails and vital organs. Although the body produces some amino acids independently, it cannot produce the eight essential amino acids; they must be obtained through dietary intake to keep the body healthy.

Dietary Sources of Protein

  • Eggs, milk, fish, and meat
  • Canned tuna is a protein powerhouse. Three ounces of light tuna canned in water has 21 grams of protein
  • Cottage cheese is made up of casein and whey — two types of protein. A cup of cottage cheese has 26 grams of protein.
  • An 8-ounce glass of milk has 8 grams of protein. Low-fat yogurt offers healthy bacteria and 13 ounces of protein per 8-ounce serving. Cheese is also a good source of protein, though it can be high in fat.
  • Certain vegetable proteins can be eaten together or with animal proteins to compliment proteins for proper amino-acid ratios.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

  • Dietary guidelines recommend that people should consume 0.8 grams of  protein per kg of body weight. A 70 kg male would strive for (70 x 0.8) 56 grams of protein per day.
  • Strength-trained athletes should consume protein consistent with general population guidelines, or 12% to 15% of energy from protein. A person weighing 70 kg or 154 lbs may consume 2,000 kcals per day and 15 % or 300 Kcals should come from protein. With 4 kcals per gram of protein, this 70 kg male would consume 75 grams of protein per day.
  • There are some studies suggesting that during intense training protein intake can total 2.0 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight (140 grams per day for the 70 kg athlete).

Link between Weight Training and Protein Intake

Regular intense exercise such as strength training, weight training, and muscle contractions with resistance stimulates protein synthesis within the working muscle. The pattern of work stress and recovery leads to changes in the muscle structure and connective tissues. Over time and with the interplay of hormones muscles will grow and muscle tone change. Men and women respond differently due to their differing hormone levels.

Bodybuilders use supplements and aids to achieve their muscle size and definition in support of their intense weight training schedule. It is common to follow the practices of the “big” people in the weight room.

However, science takes a tough look at this subject and strives to control variables and assess the true impact of protein supplements on strength training athletes. There is often a healthy tension between scientists and practicing bodybuilders. They may not agree.

Below, I offer a summary from a well-read scientist (Robert R Wolfe), on the subject of protein supplementation, published in the Journal of Nutrition (2004).

 “Active persons ingest protein supplements primarily to promote muscle strength, function, and possibly size. Currently, it is not possible to form a consensus position regarding the benefit of protein or amino acid supplements in exercise training. Determination of whether supplements are beneficial has been hampered by the failure to select appropriate endpoints for evaluation of a positive effect. Furthermore, studies focused at a more basic level have failed to agree on the response of protein metabolism to exercise. An additional complication of dietary studies that is not often taken into account is amount of energy intake. Because of these and other complications, studies at the whole body level have not yielded a clear picture of the need for, or response to, dietary protein or amino acid supplements. Consequently, it is necessary to examine this issue at the tissue level. In untrained subjects, both muscle protein breakdown and synthesis are increased in response to exercise. Amino acid intake further stimulates muscle protein synthesis after exercise as a consequence of stimulating amino acid transport into the intramuscular compartment. The stimulatory effect of amino acids after exercise is greater than the effect of amino acids on muscle protein synthesis when given at rest. These data suggest that not only may the exact composition and amount of an amino acid supplement be important, but the timing of ingestion of the supplement in relation to the exercise must be considered in designing future studies to evaluate the efficacy of amino acid supplements.

A strong theoretical basis exists for expecting a beneficial effect of a protein supplement in active people. Amino acid intake stimulates the transport of amino acids into muscle, and there is a direct link between amino acid inward transport and muscle protein synthesis. However, some experimental data suggest that exercise may actually decrease the protein requirements necessary to maintain balance. Nevertheless, it can be speculated that a protein supplement should be useful to stimulate net muscle protein synthesis, particularly if the supplement has the optimal proportion of individual amino acids. However, experiments have yet to be performed that document such a beneficial effect of protein supplements.

Daily requirements for protein are set by the amount of amino acids that is irreversibly lost in a given day. Different agencies have set requirement levels for daily protein intakes for the general population; however, the question of whether strength-trained athletes require more protein than the general population is one that is difficult to answer. At a cellular level, an increased requirement for protein in strength-trained athletes might arise due to the extra protein required to support muscle protein accretion through elevated protein synthesis. Alternatively, an increased requirement for protein may come about in this group of athletes due to increased catabolic loss of amino acids associated with strength-training activities. A review of studies that have examined the protein requirements of strength-trained athletes, using nitrogen balance methodology, has shown a modest increase in requirements in this group. At the same time, several studies have shown that strength training, consistent with the anabolic stimulus for protein synthesis it provides, actually increases the efficiency of use of protein, which reduces dietary protein requirements. Various studies have shown that strength-trained athletes habitually consume protein intakes higher than required. A positive energy balance is required for anabolism, so a requirement for “extra” protein over and above normal values also appears not to be a critical issue for competitive athletes because most would have to be in positive energy balance to compete effectively. At present there is no evidence to suggest that supplements are required for optimal muscle growth or strength gain. Strength-trained athletes should consume protein consistent with general population guidelines, or 12% to 15% of energy from protein.”

Now What?

1. Track your food intake over a 5 day period. Determine how many grams of protein you consume each day (click here).

2. Determine your caloric needs based on your 24 hour activity profile (click here).

3. If there is a gap between protein needs and intake, take a supplement. If you overeat, the excess protein and food intake may be stored as fat.

4. When shopping for protein supplements, click here to see a review of protein supplements. Look for protein quality, taste, and assimilation.

5. Forget the Anabolic Steroids. In Canada, anabolic steroids and their derivatives are part of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and are Schedule IV substances. It is illegal to obtain or sell them without a prescription; however, possession is not punishable, a consequence reserved for schedule I, II, or III substances. Those guilty of buying or selling anabolic steroids in Canada can be imprisoned for up to 18 months. Read about Charlie Francis to hear a tale of steroid use among high profile Canadian athletes and a sad ending.

6. Final comments: eat well, workout and enjoy the benefits of a great lifestyle.