How much protein do bodybuilders really need? It’s a question I’m asked a lot. I chose to turn this into an article to help other individuals with the same question. The answer is in two parts, a direct answer to the question and a look at his training approach.
Q: Hi, I’m a 19-year-old guy that’s been training for 1 year and I wondered how much protein I need to build muscle. I’m a hard training bodybuilder currently training on a three-on/one-off training program and using about 12 sets per body part.
A: Thanks for the question. To answer your question, it’s important to understand what protein is. The human body is about 60% water. After water, the body is primarily made of protein (as well as fat and various other compounds). Protein is the main component of muscles, bones, organs, skin, and nails. Excluding water, muscles consist of about 80% protein, making this nutrient especially important for bodybuilders and athletes. Most modern authorities agree that .75 to 1g of protein per pound of body weight is ideal. Here’s the math: If you weigh 200lbs., that’s 175 to 200g per day.
How do you time your intake? Even though some current thinking tries to shoot holes in the ideas of protein timing, it makes sense to break your protein needs down into smaller servings taken every few hours. What’s wrong with following a protein timing approach? The answer is: nothing. Go ahead and have a protein shake first thing in the morning. Have another one right after your workout. Make sure you’re eating whole food sources several times a day, and make sure your last meal/snack of the evening contains protein.
Many bodybuilders/athletes will consume a slow-digesting casein protein shake before bedtime. This makes sense, you’re about to “fast” for at least 7 hours. Go ahead and have a small shake! The bottom line here is that protein is the most important macronutrient for bodybuilders and athletes, don’t deny your body what it needs. (1, 2)
You should also make sure you’re eating enough carbs to fuel your workouts and support recovery. You didn’t mention what your diet looks like, but I suggest a clean bulk approach if you’re trying to build muscle mass.
One other thing I’d like to touch on is your training program. Muscle growth is as dependent on recovery as it is anything else. Yes, you want to train hard. Yes, you want to eat right, including maximizing your protein intake. But 12 sets for both large and smaller muscles? You’re doing 12 sets for back, and then another 12 sets for biceps? You’re over-training. That’s way too much work for the smaller muscle groups.
Follow this approach instead: 12 sets for legs, chest and back. Drop to 8 sets for deltoids, 6 sets for biceps and 6 sets for triceps. You can do 6 sets for abs and if you do direct forearm work, 4 sets are plenty. Make sure you use compound exercises and work in the 6-8 rep range. Also, make sure you’ve built in progression by adding weight to the bar once you’re easily hitting 8 reps two workouts in a row.
By Jim Brewster
- Dragan GI, Vasiliu A, Georgescu E. Effects of increased supply of protein on elite weightlifters. In: Galesloot TE, Tinbergen BJ, eds. Milk Proteins. Pudoc, Wageningen, The Netherlands 1985:99-103