Article last updated: September 2018 by Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer
Most experts in the fitness industry recommend a protein intake 1 gram per lb of bodyweight (or higher) and there’s a huge emphasis on the importance of a post-workout protein shake.
But is it really that important to eat that much protein to gain muscle?
Do you have to get protein post workout even though you just ate a huge meal before working out?
Keep reading to learn about my experience with different protein intakes and what I think about post-workout protein.
High Protein Intake Never Worked For Me
In my first 2 years of training (2010-2011) I had a high protein intake of roughly 200 g at 200 lbs bodyweight as advised by most bodybuilding websites.
To get 200 g of protein through food alone you could for example eat 1 pound of chicken breast, ½ lb salmon and 5 eggs.
On a hard training day where you’re really hungry it may be no problem to get all that food down, but eating like this everyday is a different story.
For me, that’s a huge amount of food to eat on a daily basis. I had to force myself to eat all that protein and I dreaded every meal, but I did it because I thought that a lower protein intake would waste my workouts.
My whole life basically consisted of thinking about progressing in my training and hitting my protein goal for that day.
And what were the results?
I added over 450 lbs to my deadlift, squat and overhead press. On paper, those gains look impressive, and one may think that I got those gains because I lifted heavy and ate a lot of protein.
But that’s not true. In the first 7 months of training I ate a high protein intake combined with a slight surplus. Strength gains were hard to come by and I plateaued in my training on a regular basis.
Also, I was constipated all the time spending half of my day on the toilet and my urine was foamy. My body was basically telling me that it can’t use all that protein, but I didn’t listen to it.
Then I changed things up. I started eating a lot of calories and that’s when I started adding real strength to my lifts.
Most of my beginner gains came when I ate a huge caloric surplus and bulked up from 200 lbs to 235 lbs – not from an increase in protein intake.
During this time I kept protein intake the same, but increased my calories a lot. I went from a skinny-fat 200 lbs to a fat (but more muscular) 235 lbs.
When I ate a huge amount of calories workouts seemed like a breeze. I could go to the gym, add 10-15 lbs to my deadlift each week, and complete the workout without problems.
The lesson here is that no amount of protein can replace the most important factors: calories and progressive training. If you want to gain weight fast and get fast strength gains, you need to focus on getting your overall calories up while training hard as often as possible.
With that said, I don’t advise any skinny-fat beginner to do a high calorie diet. Eating high calories as a novice skinny-fat guy is a one-way ticket to becoming fat instead of skinny-fat as seen in the picture above.
Once that is done, the skinny-fat beginner should do short bulking and cutting cycles which consist of 2-3 weeks of high calories and hard training followed by 2-3 weeks of lower calories to stabilize bodyfat levels.
How Much Protein
2 years ago I read Brad Pilon’s eBook How Much Protein. In his book he stated that the optimal protein intake is 70-120 g and that workouts are the primary factor when it comes to building muscle.
The reason to why Brad Pilon provided a range, rather than a strict number lies in the difference of lean mass on an individual.
A guy that has 170 lbs of lean mass most likely needs more protein than a guy with 130 lbs of lean mass, so the heavier guy should stick to the upper end of the range.
His recommendations and arguments sounded very convincing. He had peer-reviewed data to back up his claims, he has built an impressive physique naturally and he has a master in human nutrition.
But if I had learnt something during my time in fitness, it’s that you can’t just read something and trust it. You need to try it for youself, track your progress and evaluate the results.
So, I did that. I followed his recommendations of eating 70-120 g of protein per day.
This amount of protein is easy to eat. You don’t have to count anything, just eat at least 2 meals a day with a protein/fat source in each meal, such as fatty fish, whole eggs or beef.
Start your meal by eating the protein/fat source until your appetite is satisfied, then fill up on carbs.
Did this stuff work like magic? No, it didn’t, but it surely worked better than the overanalyzing approach I had prior to this.
I felt better, more energetic and I started seeing fitness as a long term goal, instead of staying up all night researching the perfect protein intake. Also, I gained more size on my arms and shoulders in my 4th year of training, compared to my first 2 years as a novice!
- Picture 1 + 2: I obsessed over protein intake
- Picture 3 + 4: I stopped obessesing about protein intake
Post-Workout Protein Intake – Is It Really That Important?
Not only did I obsess about my daily protein intake. I also obsessed about how much protein to consume post-workout.
I thought that post-workout protein is crucial for recovery and consistent muscle gains.
According to Brad Pilon, research shows that this is partly true (see: Post Workout Protein Dare):
They (the research group) had a group of guys eat a standard dinner, then go to sleep. When they woke up they had a standardized breakfast containing about 500 calories and 30-50 grams of protein (depending on the subject). Then they waited for about one and a half hours then they exercised 1 leg with 8 sets of 10 reps of both leg extensions and leg curls at 70% of their 1 rep max, with 2 minutes rest inbetween each set. The other leg did not exercise at all.
Once the subjects finished their workout they had their protein synthesis levels measured in both legs, then they fasted for 6 hours and had their protein synthesis levels measured again.
Surprisingly, after six hours of fasting the non-exercised leg had levels of protein synthesis that would be expected after a large protein meal and the exercised leg had a rate of mixed muscle protein synthesis that was 20% higher then the non-exercised leg – reaching the same levels that are found in studies where people are fed protein after their workouts, showing that resistance exercises changes the way your body uses protein, directing it more towards muscle metabolism, and that this occurs when food is followed by a workout to a similar extent as when workout is followed by food. [Witard OC, 2009].
The conclusion of this study is that post-workout protein is not necessary as long as you consume protein up to 1.5 hours before working out.
It’s important to have protein available in your body to build muscle, but it doesn’t matter if you consume it before or after your workout.
That’s great news for you if you want to lose fat. To lose fat you need to eat less overall, so my advice is that you skip your post-workout shake and meal if you ate before your workout and you’re not hungry.
I’ve done this myself with great results. At the end of 2012 I often trained in the evening after my dinner, then went back home, showered and slept without eating anything.
I did this, because I ate a huge meal prior to my workout, so I wasn’t hungry at all when I got back. By doing this I got very lean for the first time in my life:
This would NEVER happen in my first 2 years of training where I thought post-workout protein was necessary.
Conclusion: Protein Intake is Overrated
After reading this, you should have gotten an idea of my stance on protein intake and post-workout protein: it’s highly overrated.
The high protein intake made my wallet lighter, I was often constipated, I stressed all the time about getting enough protein and most importantly: high protein intake didn’t benefit me in any way.
I have been consuming about 0.5-0.7 g of protein per lb of bodyweight in the past 2 years, yet I have made great strength gains in my training and added inches to my shoulders and arms.
Next time you consider spending money on protein supplements, and you get sick and tired of eating a high protein diet, just keep in mind that the most popular supplements in the bodybuilding industry are protein powders!
And that’s why you should be careful when following nutrition advice from bodybuilding websites. Their main interest is not getting you ripped, because that would put them out of business.
Be proud but stay hungry,