The Importance of Protein for Muscle Growth and Repair
By Phil Learney


No matter how much reputation precedes you as an individual, people will still make assumptions based on initial impressions. After a decade and a half of consulting I still see the little glint of fear in people's eyes when I bring up the subject of protein. You see, personally, I don’t have the type of physique that most people aspire too, and certainly one that the majority of my female clients don’t wish to emulate.

So, why when we strike up the subject of protein am I still greeted with the fear that muscle will start to grow from every angle of our body, and our liver and kidneys will be pushed to the point of failure? Why also on the other hand do we see people shovelling back protein, yet never seeing any significant results? Why, with all the stigma attached should we even consider protein as a nutritional source or supplement?

The word protein is taken from Greek (Proteos) literally meaning ‘Of primary importance.’ Protein is the foundational structure of most living things and makes up the highest percentage of the human body's cellular structure.

When something degenerates within the body through either natural means or through forced stimulus it is a breakdown of cellular tissue. Following this breakdown the body utilises protein to begin (and with any luck finish) the repair and regeneration. If you wish to change your body and its physical appearance then it’s simply a case of applying a specific stimulus to breakdown tissue, followed by adaptation (typically when you sleep).

Training is like a business. You create stimulus in the gym much like you make a decision at work. It's based on a complex process, and the outcome more often than not is an increase in revenue (muscular and physical change in this case.) Consuming insufficient protein following a stimulus-based workout is the equivalent to making all these brilliant decisions in the workplace yet no one acting on them. No adaptation, ultimately meaning zero changes.

Let's look at the whole process as though it was business.

Muscle tissue is capital. The more of it you have the faster your metabolic rate. When you move it isn’t the movement that’s important in burning calories, it’s the quantity of muscle being used at that time and for that movement. The amount of muscle stimulated will dictate how much protein you would require in your diet to maintain this stable amount of capital.

A loss of muscle tissue over time, either through a deficiency in dietary protein or lack of muscular use, means metabolic rate slows until that muscle tissue is regained. As this is something that happens gradually over time, ‘age’ is often the excuse or reason used. Most of my clients are fitter and in better shape now than they have ever been in their lives. Age is a timescale when you will either get something right or get something wrong. The moment most of us dropped into the western culture of three meals a day managed to destabilise our physical environment sufficiently to create an epidemic of diabetes and a constant state of metabolic demise.

We must understand that every cell within the body is made up using the smaller structures of protein (amino acids.) Each of these cells requires a source of these amino acids several times daily in order to keep functioning correctly, otherwise we are faced with the catabolism or breakdown of these cells. For those of you concerned with your appearance, this will mean amongst other things; hair, skin, nails and muscle tissue is sacrificed in a hierarchal order. You’ve heard the phrase ‘If you don’t use it, lose it.’ Never has there been more validation of a statement. If you typically spend your days sat at a desk and you happen to be nutritionally deficient in basic protein requirements, the inhibited and unused muscles will simply deteriorate over time to fill in the nutritional gaps and requirements. This means you lose money but never make any. Eventual metabolic bankruptcy.

When we embark on a training routine, the whole intention is to breakdown the muscle tissue, which is in essence a catabolic process. This process drives cortisol and adrenaline (catabolic hormones) up. If this doesn’t happen we cannot achieve adaptation or change, so at this point they are very much our friend. The issue that lies is that if we drive these levels too high then these catabolic hormones will actively start to breakdown the body's own cellular tissue to use as any energy source. This is where we must focus on blunting the increase as soon as possible post workout, and also be aware of the state the body is in ‘pre’ workout.

Workouts of more than about 60 minutes without ‘peri’ (or mid-workout nutrients) will almost certainly cause muscle loss. Following selective stimulus, the idea is then for the body to re-mould itself accordingly. The body is smart and will quite happily do this if it has the raw material to elicit that repair and remoulding.

One of the simplest nutritional applications I give to my clients is ‘ If you use it up, replace it, and if you’re deficient in it, fill the gap.’ We all know when we sweat we need water (and electrolytes). If we therefore intend changing the shape of the body following protein breakdown we must replace it. Immediately after you’ve finished working out, consuming a post-workout drink with a ratio of 2:1 carbs to protein will blunt the catabolic process and drive anabolic hormones up.

This carbohydrate ingestion primes the muscle to suck up amino acids and begin the repairing process immediately. Shortly after (or alongside the carbohydrates), consuming protein allows the cells to be saturated quickly, and once again regeneration and anabolism can begin. As I mentioned at the beginning, we have this fear that protein (and particularly supplemental protein) is best left for bodybuilders. However, socially, we accepted breaking carbohydrates into its simplest form (sugar) decades ago, and consuming it mixed with water, we even regularly feed it to our kids!

Remember, protein is of primary importance. Breaking protein down into a simpler form allows us to skip the complex digestive process and make sure the body gets what it needs when it needs it. This is termed as the bioavailability of protein, similar to what glycemic index is to carbohydrates. Bodies are getting softer and bigger the world over. Lean tissue loss and cellular degeneration is at an all-time high. People are cashing in on the degenerative generation with hopes of ‘regenerative’ treatments and cures. Simple nutritional adaptation can go some way to keeping the body in a sound and healthy state.

The body has a capacity as to how much protein it can turnover at any point. Eating small amounts of protein every 3-4 hours ensures the body is saving more money than it is spending, and also makes sure the organs responsible for this turnover don’t get a huge pile of work dropped on their desk at once (stress!) Most physique athletes do not taper the level of protein required well enough, and often slip into a degenerative process all too often. Let's look at an example based on the general recommendations I would go by.

If a 100kg natural athlete were to ingest 1.8g/kg of bodyweight in protein daily, then I would be confident that this amount would be sufficient to illicit physical gain and compensate for any protein breakdown.

I would give them 40g of protein peri/post workout as a general rule, and 80g of carbs irrelevant of goals.

Now, this would leave the individual with a requirement of 140g of protein. To ease the burden on the system and to make sure we remain in a positive nitrogen balance, this would equate to:

140 / 24 hrs = 5.8g protein per hour.

Working on an 18-hour day and 6 hours of sleep, we could construct a dietary programme that gave us 18g of protein per meal every 3 hours (far less than you imagine?) This will allow for a drip feed of usable protein per meal.

As a note an average chicken breast is about 30g of protein.

This would work until we went to bed, which would mean we have a 6-hour stint to fill. Utilising a slow release protein and 36g of protein at this point would cover the 6-hour fast, providing us with a good amount of protein for nocturnal repair.

Following this structure creates the basics of physical development, and strategically overlaying fats and carbohydrates will provide any human being with a capacity for huge physical development.

Remember that protein can be converted to carbs if it isn’t required, so you’re better to shoot a little higher on protein, but I wouldn’t go crazy otherwise the diet may become VERY expensive.

One thing we can be sure of is that the resistance training revolution is well underway, and the middle ‘age excused’ population are striving to claim back the muscle tissue that was rightly theirs in their earlier years. Metabolisms are racing; cardiovascular machines are used by those who still hold onto the notion that they are the fat loss answer. The more physique-conscious people are pumping iron and creating hard and lean physiques.

Resistance training is simple… it really is! It's stimulus. Create stimulus and provided you adapt to that stimulus, you change. Simple.

The mistake typically isn’t made in the stimulus. The mistakes are being made in the adaptation, the recovery, if you will. Going back to the ‘If you use it replace it’ rule. Adapting or changing muscle tissue involves the strategic breakdown of muscle tissue (protein) and then the concurrent regeneration of it.

Phil Learney is a strength and conditioning coach, consultant and trainer based in Soho, London.
Tel: 07966 164489