Knowing how much protein to aim for each day to build muscle can feel confusing, at times. Yet it’s a top search term on Google for a reason – if you’ve been regularly exercising, you might be looking at how to tweak your nutrition to make the most of your gains.
How much protein you need a day depends on a lot of factors, including how much exercise you do. “Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle,” says Abi Roberts, sports nutritionist at Bulk.com (opens in new tab). “Our bodies use amino acids to repair and rebuild muscle tissue that’s broken down during exercise or daily activities. This process is called muscle protein synthesis.”
So, why is this important when it comes to knowing what to eat? “Breaking down the muscle and repairing it with sufficient amino acids promotes muscle growth. Additionally, protein can also help with muscle recovery after exercise, reduce muscle soreness, and improve overall muscle function,” she continues.
It’s not all about stockpiling the best protein powders (opens in new tab) – that said, protein is essential when exercising, especially if that workout breaks down a lot of muscle. In fact, one Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition study found that a high protein diet paired with an intense resistance training programme improved body composition by building muscle and losing fat better than a “normal” protein diet.
Still wondering, how much protein do I need (opens in new tab)? Keep scrolling as three top pros answer all your need-to-knows. Don’t miss our guides to the best protein bars (opens in new tab), an explainer on vegan protein (opens in new tab), and the best vegan protein sources (opens in new tab), while you’re here.
How much protein to build muscle: your guide
“If you take part in regular sport and exercise (above the government-recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week), then you will likely require a higher protein intake than someone more sedentary,” reminds Sophie Dillon, head of nutrition at Fresh Fitness Food. “This generally encompasses anyone that does regular strength and or endurance training, such as running, cycling or weight training (opens in new tab), as more protein is required to promote muscle tissue growth and repair.”
For those who exercise, the recommendations look something like this:
- Active individuals: 1.0-1.2g per kg of body weight
- Endurance athletes (including recreational runners and cyclists): 1.2-1.4g per kg of body weight
- Strength/power athletes (including regular strength trainers): 1.2-2.0g per kg of body weight
To work out how much protein you need, you simply need to times the recommended grams by your body weight. For instance, a regular runner who weights 70kg would need to do the following equation:
70 X 1.2 = 84g of protein OR 70 X 1.4 = 98g of protein
Don’t worry if you don’t like numbers – you don’t necessarily need to be counting your protein intake. Rather, she advises prioritising good sources of protein with every meal and snack.
These might look like:
Meat and dairy products are great options of “complete” proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids out body needs to repair muscle.
- Poultry, like chicken or turkey
- Fish, like salmon, cod, hake, or seabass
- Dairy, like yoghurt and cheese.
“On the other hand, plant-based sources of protein contain different amounts and combinations of amino acids but do not often contain the full spectrum of essential amino acids we require,” Dillon continues.
This doesn’t mean we can’t obtain all the protein we need from plant-based sources – rather, we must do so through clever combinations of different foods.
For example, combining peanut butter and wholemeal toast or rice and beans. “There are also several complete sources of plant-based protein, such as quinoa, tofu and tempeh,” explains Georgia Chilton, senior nutrition manager at Fresh Fitness Food.
Aim to load your plate with combinations of the following:
- Nuts and seeds, like chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and almonds.
- Wholegrains, like wholegrain rice or bread.
- Vegetables, like broccoli, kale, and spinach.
- Legumes, like lentils, peas and beans.
By making sure you get a variety of protein sources throughout your day, you will probably hit your protein requirements.
Does protein timing matter to build muscle?
Some gym goers swear by a post-workout protein shake to support their muscle-building adventures. But does the timing of your protein intake help you build more muscle?
“Largely and in everyday life, it is likely more important to focus on consuming enough good quality protein across the course of the day as a whole. However, depending on your training frequency and training status, giving protein timing a little more thought could be beneficial,” says Chilton.
That’s because we have something called an “anabolic window”, which refers to the period of time after exercise when your body is primed to build muscle. The idea is that eating your protein in this window will lead to more gains.
Many people swear the anabolic window lasts just 60 to 90 minutes after exercise, hence why downing a shake after training is appealing. But really, the anabolic window has been shown to last 24 to 48 hours, confirms Chilton. “Most people can usually get away with simply making sure to cover their protein needs within a 24-hour time frame,” she explains.
I struggle to get enough protein in – help!
Try this: Dillon stresses that meal prepping and planning your day can be hugely beneficial if you struggle to hit your protein requirements. “While there is no identified upper limit of protein, evidence shows that there is peak response when eating 20 to 30g of protein per portion, spread three to four hours apart,” says Dillon.
Essentially, that just boils down to a decent serving of protein at every meal. “My advice is to build every meal around a protein source to ensure you’re consuming protein at regular intervals, both to keep you fuller for longer and to optimise muscle repair,” agrees Roberts.
Also, don’t sweat it too much – there is protein in a huge range of vegetables, nuts, seeds and complete proteins, like poultry, fish, dairy, and so on. If you’re fuelling your body with balanced, nutrient-dense meals, you’ll likely be hitting your targets.
So there you have it – an extensive guide to how much protein to be aiming for to build muscle. Do remember that while nutrition can be hugely beneficial, so too is piling your plate with energy boosting foods and foods that boost mood, too. Nutrition is about much more than just macros and calories.
Does protein make you bulky?
Let’s put this myth to bed once and for all. While it’s commonly thought that protein shakes will make you gain weight or beef up, that’s not quite how it works.
“Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, but simply consuming more protein does not necessarily lead to bigger muscles. To do that, it is essential to engage in regular weight training, as well as ideally increasing calorie intake to achieve a surplus (consuming more calories than you burn),” explains Roberts. In short, as long as you’re not eating more calories than your body needs, you won’t gain weight. But women won’t get bulky by accident, either.
“Adequate testosterone has to be present to build significant muscle,” continues Roberts. “Women typically have lower levels of testosterone than men, which makes it much more difficult for them to gain muscle. Even if a woman was to engage in regular weight training, as well as increasing calorie and protein intake, it would still be very difficult to achieve the aesthetic of a man following the same strategy. Instead, it would likely result in a more toned and defined physique.”
With protein and muscle being so important for our health, don’t be put off eating right or strength training for fear of aesthetics.