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Protein Super-Dosing: Sound Strategy Or Pseudo-Science?

You know you need protein, but how much? Responsible lifters need to learn the truth about daily protein intake. Strike a macronutrient balance and crush your goals!

Protein is good. Ergo, it follows that more protein is more good, right? That's the premise under which it appears that many of us operate, and it seems like it would be easy to figure out whether this makes sense. But there's more to the question of protein super-dosing than a simple yes or no.

First Principles ///

Before we get into anything else, I need to explain how muscles actually grow. Two processes compete within your muscles at all times: protein breakdown and protein synthesis. The signaling for each of these operates more or less independently. To increase muscle mass, the gap between these two processes must be widened by lowering muscle protein breakdown (MPB), while raising muscle protein synthesis (MPS).

These processes can be differentiated by looking at how much dietary or otherwise exogenous protein incorporates into muscle, and how much is excreted. There are a variety of different ways this has been done historically, and it's how scientists can determine the dietary protein levels needed to maximize MPS.

Achieving maximum MPS requires more than just eating a certain amount of protein. Timing, protein type and insulin response create a whirlpool of anabolic effects, making it a complicated process to achieve a maximum anabolic state. The question is not how much protein you should consume, but how to keep free amino acid levels at the right level, at the right time, for the right duration. There's more to this than simply spiking levels with whey or casein hydrolysates throughout the day. Done the wrong way, this can actually increase muscle protein breakdown.

The Rest of the Story ///

It would be easy to point to things famous bodybuilders have said over the years, invoking the likes of Ronnie Coleman or Dorian Yates to argue that you need at least 2-4 grams of protein per pound of body weight in order to grow. Before you go that route, however, there are a few things you need to understand. First off, Coleman and Yates don't need to read this article, because whatever they used to do, whether it was right or wrong, they grew. If you want to mimic their respective styles, you'd have to go even farther back and choose a different set of parents in order to secure yourself the same genetic advantages they had.

Here is where we get to the other part of this whole thing: decreasing muscle protein breakdown. Despite the power of growth signals like insulin, the negative regulators of growth (like myostatin) have far more influence on hypertrophy. Resistance training causes specific adaptations to decrease negative regulators. It also increases the amount of protein reused within the muscle. More specifically, it decreases amino acid turnover. We grow more muscle, but we also lose less muscle, too.

If you subjected professionals like Yates or Coleman to tracer method studies and biopsies, their rate of muscle growth would be the same as — or slightly higher than — the average-sized lifter, and that rate would still be optimized with 1 gram per pound of protein per day. The rate at which they lose muscle, however, would be significantly lower — along the lines of 10 times less. Unlike us, they lose nearly none of their hard-earned muscle mass.

The reason? Lower protein turnover.

The Super-Dosing Lifestyle ///

If anything I said thus far has resonated, and you starting putting the pieces of the puzzle together, you're likely wondering whether super-dosing your protein will have any effect at all. If that's the case, you're also wondering whether there's any reason at all to keep spending so much money on tubs of casein and whey, and pounds of fish and beef.

Typically, when people begin super-dosing with protein, they do so because they've tried everything else, and they're desperate. At first, you'll feel great. You'll recover more quickly from your workouts; you'll tighten up; and your training will improve for a few weeks. After that things go downhill fast. You start losing your appetite, become lethargic, and your gains stall.

All this excess protein makes you feel good initially, for a number of reasons. First, you were likely eating too few calories, not too few grams of protein. When dietary protein levels go above the 1 gram per pound mark, the only metabolic change that occurs is protein oxidation. Your body starts getting energy from protein, and it begins replenishing glycogen reserves by converting the amino acids into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. This excess protein neither makes you bigger nor stronger. Rather, your body finally gets enough substrate to use for energy, and it can now shift from catabolic to anabolic to get you growing again.

Pick Your Poison ///

Does toxicity exist at high dietary protein levels? Well, there's no evidence of this in the scientific literature. Kidney function is normal, if not enhanced, and bones become stronger. So, why not get all your extra calories from protein? Why not keep your carb and fat levels low or moderate and make up the difference with protein, consuming three or more grams per pound of body weight every day?

Well, if you're concerned with building strength or mass, there's plenty of reason to forego this extra protein. In nitrogen retention studies, when less nitrogen is flushed from the body than is taken in — and in which higher doses of protein don't cause greater levels of nitrogen excretion — the body doesn't incorporate the unaccounted-for protein into muscle tissue. It reaches the point where it can no longer clear the massive amount of urea. If your body can't get rid of this, it builds up throughout the day in your system.

This sounds bad, of course, but the only real consequences are the aforementioned loss of appetite and lethargy. If you hit the gym after work, you're screwed, because that's when urea buildup begins curbing enthusiasm and focus. The saturation point, taken from the accumulation of data, appears to be around 1.3 grams per pound, so there's a little wiggle room between optimum and inferior. So, what we have here is the fact that scientific research and empirical data make it clear that going beyond the 1-gram-per-pound mark is unnecessary, wasteful and potentially detrimental for strength and physique athletes.

Of course, I'm not opposed to high-protein diets in all situations. Because of dietary protein's ability to accelerate metabolism, preserve muscle mass, curb appetite and avoid being stored as fat, increasing protein content in the diet—or shifting macronutrients in favor of higher amounts of protein—is ideal for losing body fat, whether you're a physique competitor or an obese beginner.


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Shawwn

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Shawwn

So if you are only supposed to have 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, what should your macros be? My macros as of late have been 45% carbs, 35% protein, and 20% fat, eating at least 200 grams of protein a day, while weighing 145 pounds.

Mar 20, 2013 5:59pm | report
PDeV1

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PDeV1

this is a good one. For bulk? Me I'm around 3200 calories, slow bulk (last three months I've took 3 pounds, but loose around 1% bf I think, I'll get results in 2 weeks) So around 5 pounds muscles. I think not more than 1,2 1,5 gr of protein by bodyweight. Fat is kind of low, 20%. I have a 35% protein, 33% carbs and 32% fat.

Mar 21, 2013 9:38am | report
dbman4

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dbman4

stop focusing on percentages. Hit your protein and fat goals and then fill the rest with carbs or whatever else you feel like filling your calories with

Mar 21, 2013 10:23am | report
vanillaicing

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vanillaicing

Keep focusing on percentages, thats the way the NASM recommends it. It is much better to do percents of macros than a random calorie fill.

Mar 21, 2013 12:58pm | report
mmatrain93

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mmatrain93

AMDR is 45%-65% carb, 20%-35% fat, and 10%-35% protein.. It starts getting unhealthy to fall out of these ranges. They're there for a reason.

Mar 21, 2013 5:22pm | report
BatteryBackup

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BatteryBackup

I do a fair amount of running and cardio along with weight training. While my reps and weight go up, my body mass doesn't and I feel like I'm going to hit a plateau if I don't gain more mass. I feel like my MPB is equal to my MPS and I am eating a sufficient amount of nutrients. Am I going to have to drop my cardio down to lower my MPB or is there another solution?

Mar 20, 2013 8:14pm | report
awlareau

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awlareau

if you do too much cardio you may have to. To maintain muscle mass, you should be doing no more than 30 mins of HIIT cardio a day. Long distance cardio for long periods of time or HIIT cardio much more than 30 mins a day is detrimental to muscle growth. That is why sprinters are very muscular and marathon runners are very skinny.

Mar 20, 2013 9:13pm | report
robwein83

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robwein83

Aelareua, sounds like you've been listening to Layne Norton. Good man.

Mar 22, 2013 6:41am | report
awlareau

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awlareau

One thing I would like to comment about is that for athletes the recommended amount of daily protein is 1.2g/kg weight/day and bodybuilders is 1.7g/kg weight/day. This is otherwise an excellent article, and I hope a lot of people read it because I know sooooo many people who grossly overestimate the amount of protein they need.

Mar 20, 2013 8:17pm | report
Egleaves22

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Egleaves22

The ADA, FDA, and CDC say .8 g/kg LBM is the max for any normal person. 1.2 g/kg LBM is elite athletes such as marathon runners or football players, and 1.7 g/kg is professional bodybuilders (who are also juicing like no tomorrow). So unless you're a pro bodybuilder with freakish genetic ability to absorb and anabolic "help" you simply cannot absorb that much in a day (max rate is ~9 gm/hr for whey for a normal person).

Mar 21, 2013 6:15pm | report
awlareau

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awlareau

Sorry I forgot to add for my protein intake amounts that it is for LBM thanks for the correction. Also though your body can only process about 9gm/hr you should take slightly more than that because all the protein you ingest doesn't get processed. So if you take in 9gm/hr that doesn't necessarily your body is processing 9gm, it may only be processing 7 or 8 of that 9 you took in. But of course don't take in much more than that.

Mar 22, 2013 9:24am | report
JFort93

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JFort93

Where are the sources for the "scientific research" or "empirical data" that is referred to through out this article? Also never answered "how to keep free amino acid levels at the right level, at the right time, for the right duration" which was referred to as "THE question."

Mar 21, 2013 12:14am | report
Patman23051

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Patman23051

I agree, this was the answer I was hoping to take away from the article.

Mar 21, 2013 10:30am | report
Veronikite

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Veronikite

indeed

Mar 21, 2013 5:32pm | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 11'9"
  • wt: 141.54 lbs
  • bf: 25.4%
fredzz1003

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fredzz1003

I always use amino 2serving and whey after train :)

Mar 21, 2013 12:50am | report
KevinC17

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KevinC17

terrible article, didn't answer any of the questing that were asked. if the saturation point is around 1.3 grams/lb then shouldn't we do 1.3 grams/lb? for someone 200lbs with this saying not to go over 1g/lb that makes a 60 gram difference. Also like Jfort93 said it asked the question about how to keep free amino acid levels at the right level, at the right time, for the right duration but never answered that. how do we decrease protein turnover? it says that pros have 10 times less protein turnover but dosn't address how that is achieved. is it genetic or is it bc of the high protein diet?
didnt talk at all about the difference between taking in Xgrams/lb or body weight or Xgrams/lb of lean muscle mass. when i weighed 300lbs and was 30% bf did i need 300 grams of protein and when im 245 and 15% bf even tho i have the same amount of muscle now do i only need 245 grams of protein?

too many questions too little answers

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Mar 21, 2013 7:15am | report
vkartikv

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vkartikv

Absolutely spot on! Too many questions asked, hardly any answers. Lack of references to backup the 'facts' which makes it seem more like opinion..

Mar 21, 2013 9:20am | report
Joedzilla

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Joedzilla

I wanted to keep reading more about it, i hope you guys can make a more extended article about this; its really interesting and informative.

Mar 21, 2013 8:37am | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 14'6"
  • wt: 174.16 lbs
  • bf: 11.0%
dajunglebrotha

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dajunglebrotha

WHAT?!

Mar 21, 2013 9:25am | report
dajunglebrotha

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dajunglebrotha

WHAT?!

Mar 21, 2013 9:25am | report
dajunglebrotha

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dajunglebrotha

WHAT?!

Mar 21, 2013 9:25am | report
Patman23051

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Patman23051

If the question is not "how much protein you should consume" but "how to keep free amino acid levels at the right level, at the right time, for the right duration", why does this answer the first question? I'm really interested in a good article on the second question.

Mar 21, 2013 10:41am | report
ZAD11

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ZAD11

Terrible article indeed! There are no sources that back up these so called "facts". None of what this is saying really makes any sense. I hate these "scientific articles" that claim to come out with a "breakthrough" study that goes against what we've always been taught in muscle building. These articles basically say what we're doing now won't work at all. There's a time and place for scientific research but a lot of times you have to rely on common sense.

Mar 21, 2013 11:09am | report
Zoso1116

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Zoso1116

Not a bad article, but after years of researching this kind of stuff and having studies claiming different optimal numbers of protein I decided to just stick with my personal philosophy on bodybuilding which is trial and error.

If protein overdosing is working for you, stick with it. If it's not helping than it's unnecessary. Like the author said, everyone is different so try out different things, take notes, and with time you'll know what is optimal for you.

Mar 21, 2013 1:28pm | report
robj841

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robj841

300 grams of protien works for me

Mar 21, 2013 1:53pm | report
Showing 1 - 25 of 31 Comments

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