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How Much Protein Does a Climber Need (Part I)

by Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN

10 Replies

Diet Protein

How much protein does a climber need: Part I

Most people think they understand their protein needs pretty well—just get as much as you can, right? Or maybe you’re in the camp that thinks “I’m a climber, not a bodybuilder, so I really don’t need much at all. I mean, the forearms are tiny little muscles, right? It doesn’t take much to maintain them…” Either way, I’ve met only a few people who weren’t afraid to admit they didn’t really understand protein and many, many more who had solidly wrong ideas about it.

It’s not their (or your) fault; protein is difficult. The problem is that protein doesn’t really work like the other macronutrients. Whereas fats and carbohydrates are easy(ish) to account for because they provide us with energy through their breakdown, protein for the most part does not. Protein contains calories in the sense that it’ll release four kilocalories of energy when oxidized in a calorimeter (as a gram of gasoline would release 10.5 kilocalories), but day-to-day your body doesn’t run off protein like it runs off fat or carbohydrates. Sure there’s some limited conversion of protein to carbohydrate, providing a trickle of energy, but mostly the body uses protein to build and maintain itself—a process that doesn’t follow the same linear type of equation as “calories in vs. calories out“, and thus becomes difficult to understand.

In the past, we’ve resorted to using our bodyweight as a guide for our protein needs, as in “Aim for 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight if you’re a power athlete.” This “grams per kilogram” model is tried and true for estimating the minimum amount of protein we need to remain healthy (0.8 grams per kilogram, or about your body weight divided by 3 in ounces), but that’s really a different question aimed at a different problem. Today, we have enough information to discard the “grams per kilogram” model for athletes and move to a NEW model for protein.

Let’s learn why.

Accidentally Accurate

First, I should begin by saying that the “grams per kilogram” model for protein needs does work—but it works mostly by accident. Different sources quote different figures for how much protein an endurance or power athlete should consume each day, but they usually fall pretty close to a minimum of 1.2 grams per kilogram per day and a maximum of 2.0 grams per kilogram per day. Obviously, this gives quite a range for protein intake depending on your weight and the type of athlete you are, but it’s safe to assume that most athletes using this model will consume at least 100 grams of protein per day and probably closer to 120 grams.

If you eat this much protein, you’re pretty close to what the newer model would call the “ideal amount” of protein—not too high, not too low. In the newer model, though, we really don’t care how much you weigh, or what your sex is, or even what sort of athlete you are because those are all completely irrelevant to the basic metabolism of protein. You could be a twiggy 100 lbs or a bulky 300 lbs and your body is going to digest, absorb, and respond to the protein you feed it in almost the exact same way.

This seems unintuitive, I know, and anecdotal evidence clearly demonstrates that your typical athletic male is more muscular than your typical athletic female—but anecdotes be damned, it’s also the truth! When both the amount of protein and the type of stimulus (e.g., exercise) is controlled, everybody has nearly the exact same physiological response to protein. Apparently, men wind up more muscular than women solely because they have greater baseline levels of testosterone, which makes their bodies more prone to muscle growth over the long-term (this is particularly evident during puberty). But over just the short-term, when we’re looking at some men and women who have just done the same exercise and eaten the same amount of protein, we see no difference in muscle protein synthesis.

Okay, with that brief detour done about why the “grams per kilogram” model is loosely accurate, let’s move onto the new model itself.

The New Protein Model

The new protein model is…

I have a confession: there isn’t really a “new protein model”. If you Google it, you’re not going to find anything. The truth is I made that term up just to pique your interest and no such “new model” really exists—but given what we know from recent research, we should be confident there will be one soon and that it will closely resemble what I’m about to recommend. I’ll explain why that is in a bit, but I think I’ve held you in anticipation long enough.

The “New Protein Model” is this:

No matter your height, weight, or sex, ALL athletes (including climbers) should aim for about 120 grams of protein daily, divided as evenly as possible into 20 gram servings that are themselves separated by around three hours.

Okay, there it is in all it’s simple glory. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, skinny or brawny, or whether you climb, bike, swim, or pump iron. All of you can (and will) benefit from the exact same amount of protein, divided up into the same six “meals” separated by three hours. Or, to put it another way, you’re probably getting enough protein everyday—but you’re probably not getting it at the right times. With the new model, you’re going to shift your protein intake around so that you never have big gaps and you don’t pig out on protein just a couple times a day.

You’ll start your day with a protein-rich breakfast, you’ll have a protein-rich snack sometime mid-morning, and you’ll have a protein-rich lunch. In the afternoon you’ll enjoy another protein-rich snack, then you’ll eat a protein-rich dinner, and right before you go to sleep you’ll have one last protein-rich snack. In all these cases, “protein-rich” means about 20 grams of protein, which is probably a lot less than you normally get during lunch or dinner and a lot more than you get during the rest of your meals and snacks.

Easy, right? Maybe too easy? Maybe you don’t believe me. Fine, then let’s move on to the science where I can demonstrate why this is correct.

Maximize That Muscle Protein Synthesis!

The first question you probably have is, “Where the hell did you grab that 20 gram figure from?” It seems random, but it’s not—it’s based on several studies, all of which show that muscle protein synthesis plateaus when protein intake reaches 20 grams.

We have, for example, this study that showed how 20 grams of whey protein elicited virtually the exact same increase in muscle protein synthesis as 40 grams (49% vs 56% increases, respectively). Or we have this study that showed how muscle protein synthesis was almost exactly the same whether 20 grams or 40 grams of egg protein was consumed. Or this study that found eating 12 oz of lean ground beef (90 grams of protein) resulted in equivalent muscle protein synthesis as only 4 oz (30 grams of protein). Actually, in the last study the larger serving of ground beef resulted in lower muscle protein synthesis, though it was statistically insignificant.

These are three very different proteins given to mixed groups of people (young, elderly, male, female, resistance-trained, non-resistance-trained) and yet every study shows virtually the same thing: it only takes 20 grams of protein to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The only catch is that all three proteins were high-quality proteins, meaning rich in essential amino acids—but that’s not a problem for you, right? Even vegans can opt for higher- over lower-quality proteins in their meals, they just have less variety to choose from.

(We’ll cover this idea of protein quality in another article; right now, it’s only important to know that most high-quality protein sources are exactly what you already think they are: meat, fish, dairy, eggs, soy, and rice and pea proteins.)

So that’s where my 20 gram figure came from—the numerous studies that all have come to roughly the same conclusion about how much protein is necessary to “get the most” out of your muscles. On the flipside, the two studies that also looked at 10 gram doses of protein found that they were significantly worse at boosting muscle protein synthesis, so the curve rises steeply until around 20 grams and then levels out (it’s logarithmic for you math geeks out there). Thus, 20 grams is the magic number: enough to boost muscle protein synthesis to 90% or more of it’s maximum but not so much that we just waste the protein.

Okay, but what about the “every three hours” part? To answer this, we need to look at another study and then take the logic a few steps further based on what we learned from the above studies. The goal of this other study I just mentioned was to measure how the timing of the same amount of protein affects total muscle protein synthesis. To this effect, they fed all the study participants 80 grams total of whey protein and just changed when they got it and in what sub-amounts. Observe:

  • Group 1 had eight total doses of 10 grams of protein split up by 1.5-hour chunks
  • Group 2 had four total doses of 20 grams of protein split up by 3-hour chunks.
  • Group 3 had two total doses of 40 grams of protein split up by 6-hour chunks.

The results probably shouldn’t come as a shock to you, but Group 2 had significantly more muscle protein synthesis (when averaged across all 12 hours) than either Group 1 or Group 3. By itself, this is already a strong indicator that the “20 every 3” rule is solid, but for the sake of thoroughness let’s take it a step further.

One issue you bring up about the above study is that whey is a notoriously “fast” protein; in terms of the speed it can be digested and absorbed, it has few rivals. Whey is, in fact, often considered a king among proteins for this exact reason, because it is so quickly absorbed into our body—but the shadow of this monarch is that the amino acids it so rapidly releases also leave quickly. They flit into our blood so easy, but in just a few hours they’re gone. Slower-digesting proteins, on the other hand, sustain higher levels of blood amino acids for longer periods of time. With this in mind, you might wonder if that’s one reason why Group 2 fared so much better than Group 3—the quick speed at which whey is digested would surely favor a more frequent feeding window than a slower protein, which would itself benefit from longer gaps between feedings.

It seems like a solid hypothesis, but let’s consider what we’ve learned from the other studies. Of the three studies mentioned above, two used “slower” proteins: egg and beef. In the egg and the beef trials, a larger dose of protein still failed to boost muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than just 20 grams, even when measured across four hours (egg) or five hours (beef). If a slower protein was more adept at boosting muscle protein synthesis long term, then we would see boosts for these slow proteins across such a long timespan as four or five hours. We don’t, though; instead, all the extra amino acids released from the extra large doses of protein were just oxidized into energy or converted to nitrogen waste. For all those extra 20 grams of “slow protein” were worth, they may as well not have even been consumed.

Combining everything we’ve learned from the above studies, we can thus say with reasonable certainty that…

  1. There’s no reason to consume more than about 20 grams of high-quality protein in any given meal.
  2. Meals are best separated by about three hours.

…and this brings us to that special figure of 120 grams, because unless you’re waking up in the middle of the night to have a snack (or sleep less than 6 hours), you only have time for six meals divided by three hours. (e.g., 7:00AM, 10:00AM, 1:00PM, 4:00PM, 7:00PM, 10:00PM—six meals in 15 hours).

Part I Recap

So that’s the “new model” for protein. It’s tremendously simple, not very personal, and probably the easiest bit of sports nutrition you’ll ever have to worry about (though it’s still ridiculously hard to really wrap your head around why it works that way).

120 grams of protein per day, divided into six meals of 20 grams, separated by three hours.

There are caveats and nitpicky details to be sure, but this very basic statement is all you really need to know in order to maximize the potential of the protein in your diet. In the next couple parts, I’ll go over the caveats and nitpicky details just so you can see the rest of the logic in this recommendation—but if you decide to stop here (and you follow this advice) you’re going to be fine.

Move on to Part II…

10 comments

  1. James

    I’ve been mulling this article over the past few days. Let’s consider a hypothetical eating schedule:

    * 8:00AM (20g protein consumed)
    * 11:00AM (20g protein consumed)
    * 2:00PM (20g protein consumed)
    * 5:00PM (20g protein consumed)
    * 8:00PM (20g protein consumed)
    * 11:00PM (20g protein consumed)

    Eating 20g of protein just before sleeping seems a bit awkward. Doubly, 20g of protein at 5PM may be a bit awkward as you may be off to a session at the gym. Two questions:

    1. Is there a “type” of protein one can consume late at night?
    2. Is there a “type” of protein one can consume before a session? Are BCAAs good enough?

  2. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    At night, I usually find it easiest to have a protein shake. Since you’ll be entering a long catabolic period (sleep), most experts recommend a slower-digesting protein like casein because it’ll stave off muscle protein breakdown for longer—but honestly, the difference between different sources is going to be miniscule compared to everything else and just getting it in the first place. When I don’t have a protein shake, it’s because I’m having cheese and crackers, a snack I often crave at night. Most cheeses are also high in casein and slow digesting, and I just pair it with a cup of milk to ensure I get enough. Again, though, any type of protein is going to work, so use whatever is easiest and most appealing to you.

    Some people do find it awkward to consume protein right before working out, but for most it’s not an issue (though you might also want to consume some carbohydrates at the same time to prevent undue dips in blood glucose). If you find it’s really not possible then you can try BCAAs instead, but the research on the role of isolated BCAAs in muscle protein synthesis is limited. At the very least, the BCAAs will provide an alternate source of energy and help prevent muscle tissue breakdown during exercise—though carbohydrates are still better for this—and in that way contribute towards recovery and strength gain.

    Ultimately, you should do what works for you—sometimes it’s difficult to work 6 servings of protein into the schedule, but 5 servings is still going to be very effective (and definitely WAY better than the typical “low-protein breakfast, moderate-protein lunch, high-protein dinner” pattern). When you can’t get protein or it’s not practical, the next-best thing is to supply carbohydrates, which will at least prevent muscle tissue breakdown.

  3. Giorgio

    Hi,
    this article is great and makes a lot of sense to me BUT when you say “Today, we have enough information to discard the ‘grams per kilogram’ model for athletes and move to a NEW model for protein”, what do you mean when referring to ATHLETES? What defines an athlete? More than 5 hours of training per day? More than 3 training days per week? Or just a non-sedentary lifestyle?
    Maybe you already specify it along the article but I can’t find it.
    Thanks!

  4. John Sterling

    I looked at all the studies you cited and don’t see how your conclusions follow, specifically that maximizing muscle synthesis with protein is independent of weight.
    The first study just showed that the difference between men and women’s muscle growth is probably testosterone induced.
    The remaining three studies all studied people the same weight (80kg +/- 8kg) and doing the same exercises (within the study).
    All that can show is for a given weight and exercise, 20g of protein is the optimal amount for muscle synthesis. It doesn’t say anything about how much you can use if you weigh more or less or workout more or less; so:
    1) I don’t see how the studies you cite say anything about the 1.2 to 2g of protein per 1kg of body weight
    2) even just thinking about this, the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) must require more protein and be able to absorb more per meal for muscle synthesis than Paris Hilton.

    I summarized the studies you cited:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24257722
    • Oliver C Witard – 2014, “Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis”
    • Whey might be absorbed faster than plant based protein. Not sure if this leads to more muscle building.
    • Study was 48 80kg young men.
    • Since all the same weight, doesn’t show that absorption is unrelated to weight.
    • Same exercise, so can’t tell if would need more protein if worked out harder.
    • All this shows is there is a peak amount of protein you can absorb is you weigh 80kg and do a particular workout. What if you weigh more or less or workout more or less?

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19056590
    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/1/161.long
    • 2009 Daniel Moore study – “Ingested Protein dose response of muscle…”
    • “six healthy young men”.
    o They were all within 8kg of the same weight and 20-24 years old.
    • The studies were about protein intake immediately after exercise. They did not study intake at other times.
    • same exercises
    • Again, all that can be conclude is that, for a given weight and amount of exercise, only 20g of protein could be used for muscle synthesis. If you weigh more and workout harder, maybe you can use 30g – study is silent on this since they all weighed the same and did the same exercises.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19699838
    • A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects
    • J Am Diet Assoc., 2009 Sep.
    • 34 people – young, old, male, female – but they all weighed the same 80kg +/1 8kg
    • 30g was the optimal amount of protein that for muscle synthesis
    • Again, all that can be conclude is that, for a given weight and amount of exercise, only 20g of protein could be used for muscle synthesis. If you weigh more and workout harder, maybe you can use 30g – study is silent on this since they all weighed the same and did the same exercises.

  5. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    All of the studies I used to back up my conclusion (consume at least 20 grams of protein per meal for maximal MPS) demonstrate that MPS peaks at around 20 grams of high-quality dietary protein. At the time, there were no studies specifically looking at the difference in MPS between more and less muscular individuals, but within each of the above studies there was actually quite a large range, usually 80 kg +/- ~8 kg, which means that 68% of the participants weighed between 72 and 88 kg and 95% weighed between 64 and 96 kg. Thus, it’s likely that within each study there was a 15-20 kg difference between the lightest and heaviest participant—a clinically significant difference.

    Since this article was written, a study was performed specifically to examine whether very muscular and “normal” weight trained individuals had different protein requirements. One group weighed an average of 98 kg while the other weighed only 76.8 kg, but there was no statistical difference in their response, suggesting again that muscularity is not important when considering dietary protein needs. A more interesting idea this study brought up is whether whole body exercise necessitates greater protein intake—in the limited context of the study, it appears it might, but since the study didn’t really set out to address this we’re limited in how much we should derive from it. I’ll wait until I see more data that backs it, but at the very least it’s only a small difference (we’ve seen this type of small difference in other studies, too, but the other data points from those studies renders the difference insignificant).

    Are there gaps in our data? Of course; there always will be. But what we do have suggests that dietary protein needs are pretty static for adults regardless of size or sex, while younger and older athletes may have different needs. We have numerous studies to back that conclusion, and none (that I can find) that suggest otherwise.

    Is this an intuitive conclusion? Not at all. Without any prior knowledge on the subject, no one would think Dwayne Johnson and Paris Hilton have similar capacities for absorbing and using protein. Intuition isn’t always correct, however, and without sufficient education on a topic it becomes even less useful. My intuition about how the universe began isn’t likely to solve any cosmological problems, but the intuition of a PhD in astrophysics might set them down a course leading to new information.

    Finally, keep in mind that individual genetic variations can and do exist, so comparing someone like Dwayne Johnson (who is clearly much larger than most humans have the capacity to be) to a more typical person doesn’t illustrate much. Regardless of whether Dwayne can absorb and use more protein than Paris Hilton (or myself, or you, or whomever), we can guarantee he has genetic advantages that have let him become who he is; I could no more become the Rock by doing as he does than I could become a world-class climber by doing as Chris Sharma does. Since most people aren’t the Rock, however, I don’t need to worry about whether their needs are significantly different than normal, because they most likely are not.

  6. Chris Adams

    hmm.. really interesting. It just seems so counterintuitive that two individuals of different body weights would have the same total protein needs. I mean, if this is extrapolated couldn’t you say that a 90 pound individual and a 250 pound individual have the same protein requirements? Doesn’t the larger person need more protein to just to maintain more muscle mass? Isn’t this basic physics (and if it defies basic physics then…. oh boy…. I guess the low carbers are correct and you CAN just eat as much fat and protein as you want and still lose weight)? — okay false equivocation there…. but still… is this just a function of general calories as long as the anabolic signaling is covered? I’d have a really hard time accepting that both individuals have the same calorie needs.

    Thanks!

  7. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    The 90 lb and 250 lb individuals definitely have different caloric needs, but protein isn’t really a caloric contributor in the same way as fats or carbs—yes, it contains calories that can be used in a pinch, but overall our body doesn’t really want to use it that way.

    I think the easiest way to understand how protein needs remain the same is to envision whether or not a large individual would practically use 120 grams of protein per day. If that much were actually incorporated (minus a bit of loss because of overnight catabolism and other random catabolic periods where we burn small amounts of protein), we would expect it to be possible to gain almost 2 lbs of muscle per week—but clearly that doesn’t happen, even with perfect training and diet! Instead, the high dose of protein acts as a signal for muscle protein synthesis, and then an individual incorporates a percentage of that dietary protein into their muscles (and wherever else needs it). A larger individual is likely to use more on average, as will someone who has trained hard, but in either case the amount needed to signal is the same.

    I’m unaware of any studies that look specifically at this question, but I would hypothesize that a larger individual would see fewer amino acids excreted in the urine and burned for energy when an equal amount of protein is consumed (compared to a smaller individual). In this way, the larger individual may get “more” out of the same dose of protein (because less of it is wasted as simple fuel or excreted), but if the larger and smaller individual have the same goal of muscle growth and repair, then the extra “waste” the smaller individual would have is unavoidable—if they decreased their dose, they would lose some signalling benefit.

  8. Julien

    Thanks for the article, it is always helpful to increase the number of references on the complex subject that is protein.

    One thing left me dubious, though.
    The evidence you offer towards a 3 hours timing is a study comparing three different timings (1.5h / 3h / 6h), yes, but also different intakes (10g / 20g / 40g).
    After having shown that 20g was possibly better than other amounts, It would make sense that group 2 would fare better regardless of the timing.

    I think a better study to support your 3h affirmation would be one showing that 80g dispatched as 20g@3h did better than 20g@1.5h and 20g@6h.

    As it is now, I find it not enough to prove that your proposed 3h timing is the best.

    I’ll keep reading your other articles on that topic though, as climbing nutrition is indeed something I’m very interested in.

  9. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    The 3-hour window is the least studied aspect of my recommendation, and one based more on indirect data from surrounding studies than on direct studies that have tried to answer the question. I give a little more reasoning in Part III of the protein series, specifically bringing into question protein absorption speed and the refractory period, so that might be of interest. Otherwise, protein timing-wise I think it’s safe to say that we can expect a minimum of at least 2 hours and probably no more than 4 or 5; the exact figure of 3 hours could be wrong, but it’s probably not very wrong.

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