Is Protein Supplementation Necessary to Build Muscle?


This website is about learning how to build muscle by weight lifting. I give you a path to follow that has worked for me, and I think will work for everyone. I believe in certain bodybuilding truths.

So the honest answer to this question is that it depends.

What it depends on is how seriously do you wish to take getting fit and building muscle? It is widely accepted that protein provides the building blocks necessary for your muscles to grow. For example who needs more protein, a 12 year old soccer player or a 25 year old weight lifter?

The answer is the 12 year old. Why? No matter how effective and successful you are as a bodybuilder, you will never grow at the same rate, physically, as you did as a pre-teen. And what makes this growth possible in the 12 year old, among other things, is sufficient amounts of protein. So you may ask yourself, why doesn’t the 12 year old need to protein supplement? Well for starters, who says they don’t, but the real answer is because, with the normal eating habits of the average 12 year old, they will get sufficient protein by way of regular diet and food consumption.

Now the question becomes, knowing this, why does the 25 year old weight lifter need to supplement? Again, who says they need to? But this is where it starts to get real interesting. And, to be honest, the older you get, the more complicated. This is why your level of seriousness about muscle building and health starts mattering.

Have you ever tried to keep up with a 12 year old? Especially a 12 year old interested in being active? You have no chance. Their level of activity far exceeds what a 25 year old does, and someone my age (52) isn’t even playing the same game. The point here is that they burn so many calories in a day, that coupled with their higher level of metabolism due to age, they can eat what ever they want, and more importantly, whatever amount they want. This means if they are getting their daily protein requirements in the form of gallons of chocolate milk, packets of string cheese and McDonalds happy meals it’s acceptable. When you do not need to be concerned with your calorie count, where you get your protein no longer matters.

How about the 25 year old weight lifter?

I have an article about how to determine your protein needs. To summarize, there is a fairly wide range of thought about how many grams per day you need. The RDA set by the federal Food and Drug administration for adults is .38 grams per pound of body weight. But they double it to .76 for preteens. So you can conclude that even the government realizes that “growth” takes more protein. How much more? Some will tell you 1 gram a day, and some well known internet bodybuilding sites will go as high as 2.5 (guess what they sell?). The point is you need more if you are lifting to build muscle than you would need if you aren’t.

The REAL question is can this 25 year old get it through regular diet and food consumption? This is where the tire hits the road. It depends.

For argument sake, let’s pick 125 grams a day as the protein number we want. You can go to thousands of websites that deal in healthy eating and they will almost all say that this is a number that you can hit without supplementation. They are right. What they will also tell you is that consuming excess protein will lead to fat gain so be careful. This is a MASSIVELY misleading statement. Fat gain is not a function of too many proteins, carbs OR fat. Its about too many proteins, carbs AND fat. Too many calories! It does not matter in what FORM they come in.

125 grams of protein is 500 calories (each gram of protein is 4 calories, same as a gram of carbs, with fat being 9 calories per gram). This means that to get his (or her) 125 grams they will have allocated 500 calories, MINIMUM for protein. So here’s where the diet dilemma starts. To get this 125 grams of required muscle building protein what does this lifter have to eat? And can they eat that, enjoy it enough to make it a life style and not consume too many calories that result in fat gain?

I will use me as the real life example (though I am NOT 25!) Based on my age, weight, gender and activity level I KNOW I need around 2650 calories a day to maintain my current muscle size and not gain any fat ( you can determine this number for yourself here). I also shoot for about 180 grams of protein a day. I have tried every style, strategy and type of eating, and to get my protein number I have to exceed my daily calorie requirements by 30%. For me personally, that’s unacceptable.

What you have to factor in is to get what you need, can you sustain it, indefinitely? I tried and I couldn’t. I eat as much healthy high protein food as I can and I still come up quite short on my desired protein amount. So I supplement. I do it because what dieticians and other health minded people overlook is the protein supplements available today are more refined and pure in form and prepared in such a way that they are better tasting than a lot of other high protein natural foods and most importantly, have less calories.

For example, I consume 2 Labrada Lean Body RTD shakes a day and 1 Detour Low Sugar Chocolate Chip Caramel Bar. These 3 items combine for 110 grams of protein and 870 calories. This means that I only need to get 70 grams of protein from my diet. This also means that I have 1780 calories (2650 minus 870) to get it in. I can eat all kinds of stuff and NOT exceed my daily calorie needs and hit my protein number.

By the way my protein supplementation of 110 grams at 4 calories per gram works out to 440 calories of the 870 that gets "allocated" to protein, the remaining 430 is in carbs and fats.  An additional benefit to getting 430 of non protein calories in this fashion guarantees it's high quality carbs, healthy fats and nutritionally loaded.  Not always so easy to get in traditional natural protein sources, that taste as good. 

To further illustrate how protein supplementation works for me look at this chart:

                                                           Cal                     g protein

Labrada Lean Body RTD              260                         40

Detour Low Sugar Bar                 350                         30

Labrada Lean Body RTD              260                          40

Daily Total                                        870                         110

Or to get the same 110 grams of protein from food I would have to eat:

Tuna 14 ounces                            750                          108

Chicken breast 4 pieces             560                          108

Pinto Beans 7 cups                    1855                         105

18 Hard Boiled Eggs                  1350                         108

22 cups steamed broccoli         1100                         110

22 cups Brown rice                     5060                         110

55 Baked potatoes                      6325                         110

As you can see the tuna and chicken work nicely. And there are days that is where I get all my protein. But how much chicken, tuna and turkey can you eat in a day? Everyday?

So I get around 70 grams of protein a day from the 1780 calories a day of “food” that I eat. I get the other 110 grams from protein supplementation that accounts for 870 more calories. I could chose to either consume less protein a day, which I have tried and I lose muscle size and strength, or get it from natural sources, which I have tried and can’t sustain the amount of tuna fish I need to eat.

So should you protein supplement? It depends. Are you 12 years old? If not, how serious are you about becoming more fit and staying that way? If you are real serious, then ask yourself this: Do I like chicken and tuna fish? A lot?