The Importance of Protein in Building Muscle

Bob Feaster, R&D Technologist @ Reflex Nutrition - Dec.30.20

You might have building muscle as one of your goals. If so, you’ve probably scoped out a guide, or have a PT to help you on your way with a gym programme largely focused around resistance training. But have you considered how your protein intake might impact your ability to build muscle? You might be getting enough protein naturally in your diet, however if you are looking for big gains in your muscle mass then a supplementary protein might be helpful (to avoid the need to eat copious amounts of chicken, eggs or lentils!). Before you start taking on a supplementary protein, getting educated on why protein is important is a must. 

Let’s start at the beginning. 

What are the building blocks of protein?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. When you eat foods containing protein, the protein is broken down into amino acids which are left to help the body repair muscles that may be damaged from an exercise session (1).

Where can I find Amino Acids?

There are 22 amino acids in total, 9 of which are classed as essential (meaning that they cannot be produced by the body) and must be consumed in the diet. Amino acids are found in all food products that contain protein, however the number of them in each vary per product. For example, meat, fish, whey, eggs, and some legumes are considered “complete” protein sources, meaning that they contain an adequate dosage of all the 9 essential amino acids. This is why you might see some people consume lots of these foods when looking to build muscle. Foods such as nuts and seeds do not contain all the essential amino acids, so while a handful of nuts might be a great snack, you wouldn’t be able to rely on this to get all 9 essential amino acids, and you would need to eat them alongside other sources of amino acids to provide a ‘complete’ protein.

One of the big misconceptions is that people following a plant-based diet need to take protein supplements. You don’t need to if your diet is varied with different legumes and nuts, however if it is not, you may struggle to consume all of the essential amino acids and have an adequately high net protein intake, which is when protein supplementation is recommended. Plant protein supplements include pea, sunflower, rice, soy and hemp protein - our recommendation would be a pea protein. Our Plant-Based Protein contains 21g of protein per serving from a blend of peas, brown rice and pumpkin seeds which will give you all 9 essential amino acids. 

The two most popular amino acid supplements on the market these days are BCAAs and EAAs. BCAAs are three branch-chained amino acids; leucine, isoleucine and valine, and are associated with a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (2). EAAs are the 9 essential amino acids, mixed in a suitable ratio for your body to use – this includes the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

What is protein synthesis?

Muscle protein synthesis is the process in which protein is produced to grow, repair and maintain muscle mass that may have been damaged in response to exercise, primarily some form of resistance training (3).

To achieve muscle growth, muscle protein synthesis must outweigh muscle protein breakdown (4). One way to promote muscle protein synthesis is through resistance training (providing a stimulus), and increasing protein consumption may help how effectively the body goes about doing this (5). This is good news. As long as you are getting enough protein in your diet, you will aid the process of muscle protein synthesis, and lead to muscle growth.

How does protein help build muscle?

Consuming protein will provide the body with essential amino acids that are required for muscle growth (muscle protein synthesis). Combining regular resistance training with an adequate protein consumption will set you on path for muscle growth(6).                                                                            

When protein is consumed, the amino acids are absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to the muscles that are damaged during resistance training. The amino acids help to repair the muscles to a condition that is stronger than what it was previously.

Muscle damage is what you would expect from resistance training. Lifting weights and putting muscles under stress will cause micro-fractures to your muscles, which the body then repairs, causing them to grow bigger and stronger than the state they were in before.

Ready to stock up on protein? 

Shop now! Or not sure which protein to choose? Read our guide on the different protein sources.