From the first time many people start weight lifting, the notion that they need to start choking down more chicken and guzzling protein shakes to gain muscle or lose weight begins, and while an increase in protein may be necessary to help maximize recovery and stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the actual timing of protein has a very small effect in the grand scope of your overall nutrition and fitness goals. But for those who want to take advantage of that 1% advantage, the timing of protein throughout the day can have a small yet meaningful effect.
Muscle Protein Synthesis
Muscle protein synthesis is and adaptive response that enables the repair and remodeling of skeletal muscle. When you force a muscle to contract against a load, mechanical stress causes microtrauma to the skeletal muscle, which activates a complex cellular signaling process called mTOR. mTOR is the controller of muscle protein synthesis and there is a direct correlation between mTOR activation and muscle growth and skeletal muscle repair.
MTOR is activated by three factors:
- Mechanical Stress (Strength Training)
- Growth Factors (IGF, growth hormone, metabolic byproduct)
- Amino acids (Protein consumption)
Maximizing skeletal muscle protein synthesis should be the ultimate goal for anyone looking to build muscle and recover faster. Research has indicated that to maximize protein synthesis ~15 g of an essential amino acid may be required. The most important of these amino acids which signals the mTOR response, is the amino acid leucine. Leucine is responsible for the effect of dietary protein on protein synthesis and 15 g of essential amino acids would contain 3.2 g of leucine. 3.2 g of leucine is approximately the maximal dose to stimulate protein synthesis and should be aimed for at each meal.
The length of time that muscle protein synthesis occurs following a maximal leucine dose is usually around 2-3 hours. This would mean that for someone who is very serious about gaining an advantage by timing their nutrients, they should be consuming a sufficient protein dose every 2-3 hours per day.
But what about post-workout?
Some research does indicate that consuming a protein dose following exercise will increase the percent change of muscle protein synthesis. Because of this it is not a bad idea to time your doses of protein so that you get a maximally dosed (3.2 g leucine) following a training session.
Not all proteins are created equal. The amino acid profiles between all foods differ greatly and so will the amount of leucine content. So to get the maximal dose of leucine required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the type of protein you consume will be important. Some of the best proteins that have high leucine contents are:
- Whey protein (12% leucine)
- Milk (9.8% leucine)
- Casein protein (9.3% leucine)
- Eggs (8.6% leucine)
- Beef (8% leucine)
In the end, the meal frequency and nutrient timing play a very small role in comparison to overall caloric intake and macronutrient ratios. Focus on mastering your calories and hitting your macronutrient goals before you get ahead of yourself and start obsessing on the timing of your protein. But if you are looking for a slight edge in your nutrition and training, the timing of protein can provide you with some benefits.