How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle And Burn Fat?

How much protein do you really need to build muscle and burn fat? You can literally ask this question to ten different “experts” and get ten different (and often contradictory) answers.

For example, a bodybuilder may tell you to eat two or more grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. A fitness enthusiast will argue that one-gram per pound is more than enough. And research has shown that one half of a gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight is adequate for muscle building.

With all of this conflicting information out there, it’s no wonder that proper protein intake has become one of the most controversial topics in all of sports nutrition.

I, too, was once utterly confused about optimal protein intake. But now, after years of experimenting, I have total clarity on this heavily debated topic. And you will too, in just a few minutes.

Protein Intake Experiment

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my protein experimentation began when I first started training, some 25 years ago. I had just picked up a barbell for the first time, in an attempt to get bigger and stronger for football.

In hindsight, I knew nothing about nutrition and just ate what my mom had on the dinner table.

My mother was a vegetarian, so my protein intake was relatively low. During my attempt to “bulk up”, the only nutritional strategy I was conscious of was simply eating larger portions of mom’s food.

After two months of this simplistic protocol, I had gained 6 pounds. I didn’t take body composition tests back then, but looking back, I’m confident that the majority of this weight was muscle based on the strength gains I had made.

At about the same time, my friend’s older brother, Anthony (who was a competitive bodybuilder), took notice of my passion for building muscle. He decided to take me under his wing.

In addition to bringing me to the gym with him, he also changed my diet. He was adamant that I increase my protein intake. I complied. Looking back, however, I now realize that even though I continued to make gains in the gym, my rate of progress was about the same as it was before I increased my protein intake.

Doubling my intake of these foods built up my grocery bill more than my biceps

The next phase of my protein experimentation began when Anthony moved away. I had lost my mentor and training partner and was forced to find my own way. Luckily, I was training in a gym full of competitive bodybuilders who were generous with their advice.

Since I had my sights set on my own competition, I emulated the nutritional approaches of the other competitors in my gym. This resulted in my increasing my protein intake once again. But surprisingly, my rate of progress did not improve.

For the next several years, I would continue to increase protein intake more and more. Eventually, I hit the bodybuilding “holy grail” of 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.

At the time, I was shocked that I wasn’t getting any bigger, leaner or stronger because of my high protein intake. And quite frankly, I was sick of carrying around and eating so much meat all day long.

I wanted to cut back, but I was nervous to go against the conventional wisdom. I was so brainwashed that I was convinced that my muscles would start shriveling up the moment I decreased my protein intake.

But one day my desire to eat less meat was stronger than my fear of muscle loss and I went for it. I cut back to one and a half grams per pound of bodyweight.

Guess what happened? Nothing! I didn’t lose any muscle or strength. This was pleasantly surprising and gave me the confidence to reduce it further.

Next, I went down to one gram per pound. This was literally half of the protein I was eating six months prior. My results? The same! No loss in muscle and strength and my rate of progress remained exactly the same.

This got me curious about how far I could take this little experiment. I reduced my protein intake to half a gram per pound of bodyweight. Still no difference!

I continued to decrease until I got down to .25 grams per pound of bodyweight. This was the first time where I actually saw a difference. At .25 grams per pound of bodyweight, I wasn’t recovering as well and had lost a little muscle.

In essence, this experiment took me full circle. I started on a low protein diet when I was a kid, increased it to inhumanly high levels, and eventually scaled it back down to relatively low levels again.

Here are the lessons I learned during this journey:

1) ½ gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is all you need to build muscle. Increasing beyond that has little effect on muscle growth.

2) If your carb tolerance is poor, you may need to increase your protein intake in order to reduce carb consumption and still get enough calories. In this case, going up to one gram per pound is advised.

3) The most important factors in muscle building are your total caloric intake and your resistance training routine.

During my protein experiment, every time my training wasn’t dialed in or my total calories dropped too low, muscle building was adversely affected.

But when my training was “spot on” and calories were adequate, gains in muscle and strength were steady and predictable.

4) Protein shakes are just for convenience. I don’t care what the protein manufactures say about biological value and amino acid profile, drinking protein shakes is not superior to eating whole foods.

And since eating protein from natural food sources increases satiety, I can argue that whole food protein is superior to shakes.

I only recommend protein drinks that are in their most natural state. Her extreme approach however is not necessary

5) Extremely high protein intake may be unhealthy. Some of my client’s blood test results showed elevated creatinine and BUN levels when following high protein diets. For those of you who don’t know, these are kidney function tests.

Years later when I had a kidney stone, the urologist told me, “I’ve been testing and working with kidney function for over 25 years. Don’t follow those high protein bodybuilding type diets. They overburden your kidneys.” Maybe there is some truth here.

6) Most of the research done on optimal protein intake for muscle building is funded by protein manufactures or the meat and dairy industries.

These industries have a vested interest in higher consumption of protein. Thus, these studies are biased, and they are not to be totally trusted.

7) Protein timing is not important. I was once guilty of drilling into my clients’ heads that they MUST eat protein every 2 ½ to 3 hours in order to provide a steady supply of amino acids for optimal muscle building and maintenance.

This required my clients to eat five to six protein-based meals per day. I have now discovered that there is no noticeable difference in bottom line results if my clients eat protein twice per day rather than six times per day. As long as they intake their required daily amount, they get good results.

8. Post-workout protein doesn’t have to be whey. The experts tout that following a workout, you must quickly intake a “fast acting protein”.

This seems logical enough, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter if your protein is fast or slow acting during this post-workout window. In over 20 years of varying my post workout shakes, I’ve never seen a bit of difference in actual results.

I know the above points may go against what you’ve read. But I can assure you that I have studiously investigated this issue for decades. I stand by these results. They are the real deal.

My opinion is that the high-protein craze that has been standard operating procedure for the fitness industry for so long now is no more than a strategy for the huge protein industry to make more money.

With billions of dollars of books and powders sold each year, it would make sense that they would do everything they can to boost profits as high as possible.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the high-protein approach is just honest (but misguided) advice that has been handed down from one bodybuilding generation to the next.

Whatever the truth is, I can assert with confidence that extremely high protein diets are no more effective that the approach I have outlined above.

Are you nervous? Do you not believe me? You might be brainwashed just like I was. Hey, how about this: don’t take my word for it, try your own experiment!

Ingest a lot of extra protein for a month. Keep everything else the same. See what happens. Did you build more muscle? Get stronger? Leaner? I doubt it.

Following my moderate protein recommendations will save you cash and force you to focus on what’s most important— training properly, getting adequate recovery, eating the optimal amount of protein and consuming the right amount of quality calories for your goals.

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Comments

  1. I was trying my best to up my protein and so I turned to protein shakes. During those few months I went through painful bloating, constipation, and what I assume were my kidneys signaling to cease the over consumption of protein. Now that I eat a fairly unprocessed diet filled with whole foods, which I was doing before but supplementing with the protein shakes and bars, my body is balancing itself once more and the pain is no longer an issue. Plus the mental strain of vigorous macro managing was too much. Counting calories, lifting 3x a week alternating with running 3x a week, and a whole foods approach have been a sustainable lifestyle. Thank you for this. Sometimes I feel bombarded by the protein pushers.

  2. You’re bang on, brother. For years I chugged down every concentrate of protein out their, and chewed on protein bars…not one iota of a difference whenever i completely stopped the elevated protein intake….so much money gone down the drain….the only potential benefit is the placebo effect that makes people work out harder, whether they are upping their protein intake, or drinking whatever overly hyped product is on the market.

  3. I am an ectomorph and have been at .50g per lb of bodyweight and i have seen immense results in 4 pounds. Gained 25 lbs of fat/muscle too. My body has not lost any strength gains, its weird. People always say that 1g/lb is optimal for everyone but if i see great results with what i am doing why should i change it.

  4. i meant to say in 4 months* sorry for not proof reading it before hand

  5. This is great. I am going to give a half gram per pound a try. Really getting tired of force feeding myself a pound of meat at every meal. Thanks for the article.

  6. I do believe in protein shakes, but it depends which type/brand. I use Promasil, and have been advised by my friends father, that is a hardcore dietitian and personal trainer, that each body is different for the amount of protein is needed (obviously). Im 6’4 an 203lbs and has suggested I take 60Grams a day, plus eat healthy adding natural foods with protein in the mix (but not over doing it). I just started lifting again last May 2012, after 3 years of dealing with back injuries from and accident. I have gone from 189lbs and an estimated 20-25% body fat, to 203lbs and an exact 17% body fat.

    All Im saying is the “protein craze” is a myth. Yes, manufactured protein (i.e. protein shakes) help, but like any manufactured vitamin if you don’t eat foods with the natural substance, your body won’t absorb the manufactured item as well. Don’t burn through your wallet. I only spend about $250-300 a year a protein, plus what I eat in food.

  7. Awesome! Screw bro science lol, I’m glad you took matters into your own research and found that not everyone is always correct. Everyone will always tell you to do it a different way. I see myself eating 105g of protein (I weigh 124) and freak out cuz it’s not enough of 1/1.5 grams per body weight. But I’ll try to shoot near 100. This makes things less stressful =)

    • John Alvino says:

      @Chelle: Hey Chelle, glad I could help you out. Being healthy shouldn’t be stressful! When in doubt, keep it simple. Best of luck to you

  8. Rob Beckett says:

    So nice to read someone who has real life experimentation results. I get between 80-100g of veg based proteins daily, mid 40s, lifting for 2 1/2 years and I bench in my 4th set 325 lbs. I only took in 70-80 the first 1 1/2 years at most. Yellow Pea, Brown Rice, Pumpkin Seed and Hemp Proteins plus normal foods like oatmeal and quinoa. So nice to read common sense and listen to all the knuckleheads blow off all the crap they read in muscle mags which would have everyone take in 300g of whey a day if they could. Money money money for all the sup companies who are the ones who own the muscle mags haha Cheers

    • John Alvino says:

      @Rob Beckett: Hey Rob, thanks for the feedback, brother. I fell for all of that high protein crap back in the day. Now I eat like you do and have lost no muscle or strength. High protein is a scam!

  9. You are my hero ;) Thanks for your brave post. When I was a bodybuilder (female), all I ate was oatmeal in am, broccoli, rice and cubed chicken (probably 1/2 breast) on top for lunch, repeat for dinner. That’s it! Lots of water and the rest starchy carbs in between. Homemade tortilla chips, stuff like that. I was HUGE! Ripped and 17% bf. I had never heard of whey protein.

  10. Hi John,
    Very interesting experiment!
    I was wondering, we’re you counting plant protein in those 0,5 g per lbs? And if so, approximately how much came from animal protein?

  11. I’ve read this article twice and understand what your saying but If you are counting calories are you not in affect monitoring your protein intake to gain weight ? I’ve always heard that 50% protein 35% carbs and 15% fat will keep you lean and help bulk.

    • John Alvino says:

      @Adam: Don’t buy into the hype. Unless you have a real issue with digesting and assimilating carbs, eating healthy, natural carb sources will not pose a problem. Keep protein moderate and you’ll build just fine

  12. I eat, maybe, 80 to 90 grams of protein through whole foods.

    I weigh 160 pounds.

    The muscle is being built right on schedule. :-)

    I laugh at powders and health bars.

  13. I’m willing to try this as an experiment but where do the rest of my calories come from. I’m currently on Leangains type of IF and it’s working great for me. The truth is that I would like to reduce my protein, but with the program calling for a limit on carbs and fats on certain days: I’m not sure where to add calories.
    Any suggestions?

    • John Alvino says:

      @Joey: Hi Joey, calories come from protein, carbs, or fats (and alcohol). If you’re eating low carb, you’ll have to keep your protein and fat levels a bit higher. My point is that high protein is unnecessary. If you want to try lowering yours, you’ll have to add some healthy carbs (yams, potatoes, etc) back in. Let me know how you make out

  14. Oh and yeah, I’m 32. Dunno if that changes anything.

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