If you want to grow muscles and get stronger, you need to understand the basics. About 80% of a muscle is composed of protein (water excluded). If you want to increase muscles growth and get stronger you need to somehow create extra muscle protein. Exercise alone will not do the trick.
Build muscle mass with protein synthesis
Whether you actually create muscle protein (muscle protein synthesis, MPS) depends on two factors.
- First the amount protein synthesis, which is the the process of creating protein (“muscle”) molecules. Simplified speaking you could call this protein- or muscle production.
- Second the amount of protein breakdown, for instance when we use protein as an energy source. This will decrease your amount of proteins or muscle mass.
Whether you gain or lose muscle mass (muscle proteins) is therefore the outcome of protein synthesis minus protein breakdown. This outcome is what we call: the protein balance.
If you want to create a positive balance in muscle protein, you should either decrease protein breakdown or increase protein synthesis.
The effect of strength training on muscle growth
If you sit on the couch and do nothing, protein breakdown exceeds protein syntheses. As a result, you’ll lose muscle protein.
If you want to create a positive balance in muscle protein, you should either decrease the protein breakdown or increase the protein synthesis. Some think strength training does the job. But that is often not the case. Although strength training increases protein synthesis, it also increases protein breakdown. The latter is not that strange: a strength workout costs energy, and protein breakdown is a way to use protein as an energy source.
The protein balance after exercise is less negative than when doing nothing. But even with exercise, there is still a negative muscle protein balance, with a higher protein breakdown than protein synthesis. The first two bars in the graph below show that strength training increases the protein balance compared to being inactive, but it doesn’t get you to a positive protein balance:
The effect of chicken nuggets on muscle growth
The only way to seriously increase muscle protein synthesis to a positive balance is to eat protein. This should not be a surprise.
If you want to add a garden house to your home, you need to buy new bricks. If you don’t buy new bricks but still want to build the garden house, your only option is to break down another part of your home to use those bricks.
So, if you don’t want to break down another structure in your body for relocation, you need to consume proteins. Just like exercise, nutrition proteins increase protein syntheses by a ~ 3-fold. In contrast to exercise, consuming proteins also decreases protein breakdown. So, the positive effect of eating chicken nuggets on muscle growth is bigger then the effect of exercise. See third bar in the graph: no exercise, only protein intake.
Why you should combine strength training with proteins
Don’t get me wrong. Strength training still has a positive effect. Strength training is like opening up the possibility for proteins to do their job. The combination of strength training and sufficient protein intake is by far the fastest way to increase muscle mass and strength. This is shown in the fourth bar in the graph: strength training + protein intake.
Let’s get practical. Both for strength athletes who want to grow strong muscles and for endurance athlete who want to preserve their muscles. Having not enough proteins in your body is killing your muscles by increasing protein breakdown. Therefore, two things are important: quantity and timing.
Protein intake: quantity
Consume 1,2 to 2,0 gram protein per kilogram body weight, per day. If you weigh 80 kilos, that is about 100 to 160 gram proteins per day. For those of you who eat a lot of animal products: you are probably already close to that number. For those who don’t, seriously consider adding extra proteins to your diet.
Protein intake: timing
Not consuming proteins for longer than 4 hours seems to increase protein breakdown. You don’t want that. Therefore, distribute your protein intake over 4-5 servings and use “fast” proteins like whey-protein when possible. Use “slow” long-lasting proteins like casein-protein before going to sleep, to make sure your body has enough building blocks throughout the whole night.
Are chicken nuggets good for building muscle
In this article, I used chicken nuggets to give an example. But since I got questions like: “are chicken nuggets a good source of protein?” or “are chicken nuggets good for bulking?”, I just might add some extra words about them over here.
A chicken nugget (20g) contains about 3 grams of protein. With a portion size of 6, that equals 18 grams of protein. That may sound good from a muscle protein perspective, but I’m going to disappoint you. According to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine, Chicken nuggets are a poor source of protein and are high in fat (58%). As a result, I’m sure you can think of better alternatives.
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Literature: Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise, P. J. Atherton K. Smith
Founder of Molab, Human Movement Scientist and Freelance Content Marketer.