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Millions of bodybuilders around the world make the precision nutrition of their hungry muscles almost a religious obligation. Are you convinced that only complete protein can build muscle?

Protein Intake Does Not Have to Be, and Even Should Not Be, Precise

Bodybuilders build and sculpt muscles, and muscles are made of protein. Millions of bodybuilders around the world make the precision nutrition (a term coined and trademarked by exercise physiologist and elite athlete trainer John Berardi) of their hungry muscles almost a religious obligation.

Muscles rebuild themselves after stress. There is a unique and limited window, the theory goes, after resistance exercise during which muscle is more responsive to insulin. The hormone transports glucose the muscle can use to make glycogen to restore its energy reserves, combining the glucose with water to "pump up" the muscle. The muscle is also extraordinarily sensitive to amino acids used to rebuild the  fibers that give it strength, but only during this limited period of time.

Believing that their muscles might somehow starve if they are not fed on a precise schedule, bodybuilders might show up for a social obligation with a tub of Greek yogurt in their backpacks. Or they might take a glutamine supplement before working out, since glutamine is essential to the growth of the enterocytes in the lining of the intestines that absorb amino acids.

Convinced that only complete protein can build muscle, bodybuilders supplement their meat-heavy diets with protein powders. And buying into the argument that a "muscle building environment" can only be maintained by consuming protein every three hours, in an intimate moment a bodybuilder's alarm might go off requiring the saying of "Sorry, dear, I have to take my protein right now" rather than enjoying one of the benefits of a lean, sculpted body.

The mythology of protein precision is a great thing for the makers of protein powder supplements. But is more protein, all the time, really what serious bodybuilders need? Here's a dissenting view based on an alternative understanding of muscle physiology.

  • Protein requirements vary drastically from person to person and from day to day. A sedentary vegan might need as little as 20 grams of complete protein every day. An elite bodybuilder might need several hundred grams of protein on some workout days. Unless you are completely sedentary, you do not need the same amount of protein every day.
  • If you don't get protein, your body protects muscle by producing growth hormone. Fasting causes greater release of growth hormone than exercise.
  • Because of the protection provided by growth hormone, the body needs complete proteins approximately every 48 hours, not every 3 hours. Excess protein is simply converted to sugar and ammonia.
  • The body provides 100 grams of its own complete protein every day in the form of swallowed saliva. During starvation, that is, eating nothing at all for more than 72 hours or so, the amount of complete protein in saliva and recycled digestive juices begins to plummet, but in the short term, the body itself can fill in the gaps left by eating other-than-complete protein.
  • Growth hormone levels are restored during sleep. Getting enough rest may be more important for most bodybuilders than getting more protein.

This is just an overview of the alternative theory of protein in muscle building. There is nothing wrong with getting your protein from powders and protein drinks, as long as sheer boredom with the taste does not cause you to go on an eating binge in search of flavor.

You just don't need protein powders as a lifeline every three hours. In fact, you can increase growth hormone by not eating all the time, and you don't have to let your need for protein dictate the terms of your life. You can enjoy the new body you create.

  • Vendelbo MH, Jørgensen JO, Pedersen SB, Gormsen LC, Lund S, Schmitz O, Jessen N, Møller N. Exercise and fasting activate growth hormone-dependent myocellular signal transducer and activator of transcription-5b phosphorylation and insulin-like growth factor-I messenger ribonucleic acid expression in humans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Sep.95(9):E64-8. Epub 2010 Jun 9.
  • Photo courtesy of wigwam on Flickr:

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