Optimal Protein for Muscle Gains – How Much Protein Do You Need and Do You Need Protein Shake?

By on July 22, 2014

When you’re interested in building muscle, people aren’t going to understand you. And right up there with the most common questions you get, will be why you eat so much protein. Don’t you know it’s bad for you and it passes right through your system? Etc. etc.

This is confusing for people trying to get started working out because they’re hearing conflicting advice. The people over at bodybuilding.com are telling them to eat more protein, but their friends and those with ‘common sense’ are telling them that they’re eating too much. What do you do?

You listen to me that’s what. Problem solved.

You should listen to me, and then you should eat all of the chicken.

Why You Should be Eating Lots of Protein

The general guidelines for your RDA (recommended daily allowance) of protein state that the average individual needs just 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of bodyweight based on studies looking at nitrogen losses in the urine (1). This is where some of the confusion comes from – see this is a) a minimum requirement and b) a recommendation based on the average individual. When you increase your amount of activity, you need more protein in your diet and there are countless studies showing this (1, 2, 3, 4). That last one is even looking at novice strength trainers and finds that they need 100% more than the RDA for optimal strength gains.

And in case you’re worried that eating too much protein is going to be harmful to you in some way… don’t be. The research now shows conclusively that higher protein diets aren’t bad for your kidneys as some thought (1, 2), and nor are they bad for bones – in fact they strengthen bones (1, 2, 3).

I could go on, but perhaps a better way to think about it is to remember that pretty much everyone with a yolked physique is eating a large amount of protein. There’s a reason that athletes still use protein shakes, despite your Mum telling you you don’t need them you know. And if that doesn’t convince you, then just take a look at these pictures of me…

So below you can see pictures from my YouTube videos. Lately I ran out of cash and stopped affording enough protein. You can see what that looked like on the left. A few years prior I had loads of money and was using protein shake twice/thrice daily – which is me on the right. My training routine barely varied during this period.

protein shake vs no protein shake


Fortunately I’ve found ways to get protein cheaper and I’m gradually earning my money back… so the protein is back and I’m growing again.

Another example is the picture below, taken when I was consuming a lot of protein shake:

1910072_1020954015141_781556_nVersus this one when I wasn’t:

the bioneer dietIt’s up to you which physique you prefer, but there’s no denying: protein is necessary for optimal gains when you’re working out.  And if you still don’t believe me, read this guy ranting about it some more.

Oh and remember that (lean) protein is also good for helping you to lose fat weight. It’s satiating, it has a ‘thermic effect’ (so you can eat more and gain fewer calories) and it increases your production of testosterone and IGF1. It also aids recovery (as your body uses it to repair microtears in the fibre – which is what triggers hypertrophy) meaning you can get back in the gym faster.

How Much Protein do You Need?

Okay so now you know you need more than the RDA, how much should you actually be consuming? Well the general advice given on bodybuilding forums is 1 gram for every 1 pound of bodyweight. For your average Joe that probably means about 160 grams. Some go further than this – to 1.4 grams and beyond – but at that point it becomes a little unfeasible.

Now for most people, using protein shake is the easiest and cheapest way to get this protein. Not to mention that it’s actually nice. This is why so many people swear by it. Whey protein comes from milk and is 100% safe, so why not use it?

Well if you’re too broke that’s one reason. While protein shake might be the cheaper option overall, it does involve an up-front investment so you might prefer to get it through your diet (which also means you can avoid the sugar content of many protein shakes for leaner muscle gain). Personally this is what I’m eating currently:

My Protein Intake

  • 3 large eggs for breakfast (39 grams)
  • 1-2 (Tesco value) chicken breasts for lunch (20-30 grams)
  • 1 can of (Tesco value) tuna flakes (20 grams)
  • Some form of protein with dinner (20-30 grams)

And this is what I look like now (yes, I did take this in the disabled toilets at Nero. What? It’s where I work…):



As you can see, I’ve definitely gains size since the picture above where I’m holding the rope and that’s in the space of about a month. It’s also been a pretty clean gain as I’ve actually lost bodyfat in that time.

You may have noticed that my protein intake is slightly less than the 1 gram per 1 pound recommended. That’s a) because I’m getting protein in lots of little ways throughout the day (from carbs, from milk, from vegetables etc.) and it’s because – and I can’t stress this enough – I’m broke. In August I’m becoming rich again (really), so I’ll be adding a protein shake on top of this.

High Quality Protein

Note that the quality of your protein also plays a role here – it’s not just about quantity. Protein is made of amino acids – carbon compounds – which are what our body recycles to make our muscles. In other words, you should be trying to eat protein that contains all the essential amino acids (EAAS – like eggs), that has branch chained amino acids (BCAAS – meaning the amino acids are in a useful form already), and that has a lower number of ‘dispensable amino acids’ (DAAs). All of this will make your protein source more ‘bioavailable’ and that means you can make better use of it.

Protein shake is great because generally it’s designed to be bioavailable and sometimes it has added BCAAs and stuff. That said, sometimes protein shake is rubbish, overly processed and full of sugar… you need to shop around to find the good stuff. My favourite of all is EAS whey protein which is what I was using in that picture above where I have the gimped expression (that could be all of them, let’s be honest). To be honest though, the Fortress stuff from Holland and Barrett worked fine for me too.

Otherwise, great sources of protein can be found in your diet. Eggs are one of the only natural sources containing all the essential amino acids in one place – but only if you eat the yolk as well. Plus the yolk is good for your HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and will aid protein absorption. Chicken, beef, tuna and other animal sources are all great. Sadly plant sources just aren’t as bioavailable, simply because animals are closer to use meaning that our body has to do less ‘recycling’ to make use of the amino acids. Sorry vegetarians – soy protein just isn’t as potent. Not to say you can’t get buff on it, just that you could get buffer on Whey (which comes from milk), Casein or Egg protein shake.

Does Protein Timing Matter?

Finally you can consider your protein timing. Basically the idea is to ensure that your body has lots of protein at the point when it’s in its most ‘anabolic state’ meaning it is producing the maximum amount of testosterone and growth hormone. This happens just after you’ve done a workout which is why many people use protein shake straight after training.

Actually though, it takes about 1-2 hours for your body to be able to actually use the protein you consume, which is why it’s actually more sense to use your protein shake before you work out. Here is a study confirming that. Likewise some people will use casein protein right before bed, because it takes longer to be used by the body providing you with a steady supply while you sleep – and we are actually in an anabolic state while we sleep. However there are mixed views on the topic of protein timing and it seems the effects are very minimal in the long term, what’s much more important is just to keep eating a lot of it.

Conclusion – You Need a Lot of Protein

So there you have it. If you’re an average Joe then you don’t need tons of protein, but it certainly won’t hurt you. For those interested in building muscle though, 1 gram per 1 pound of bodyweight is a good amount to aim for. You can still build muscle with less, but for optimal growth you should eat at least that much and maybe even more. Then make sure it’s high quality protein and you’re timing it right and that will be the icing on the cake. The meat cake.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!