A certain portion of the WODalicious set prefer Internet research and box chatter (aka “bro science”) to fact checking and peer-reviewed scientific stud­ies conducted on humans by experts, not that I have a hatchet to bury. It’s like picking your box by the number of cars outside in the parking lot. One nutritional example of this is dietary protein.

Protein Needs According to History

In graduate school at UC Berkeley, I was privileged to have a Cambridge-trained nu­trition scientist as a professor, Dr. Kenneth Carpenter, who should have been knighted for his contribution to the history of nutri­tion science, including protein. He shared with me that protein was at the center of science wars.

In the late 1800s, Swiss scientists assessed the amount of protein lost (as measured in urine) during and after climbing a Swiss mountain and found no increased losses1. German scien­tists were protein zealots who thought it was a muscle fuel source (wrong). They advocated protein intakes based on muscular intensity of occupation: a mechanic needed more than a lawyer (duh for us today), with the heaviest workers needing 150 grams per day2. These “high” protein needs of high-muscular work occupations were challenged by Russell Chit­tenden, a scientist at Yale University who may have done the first protein dosing study in athletes. He placed his Ivy League athletes on a fixed daily protein intake of about 64 grams for five months (downsized from 115-200 grams per day) and noted they maintained their strength and physique, and felt better3.

How Much Protein: One Modern Meal at a Time

To achieve maximum muscle growth and strength, athletes can rely on a stout body of evidence (none yet from CrossFit athletes) that has defined the daily protein needs of individuals who train intensively as between 0.6-0.81 grams per pound of body weight, and 0.81-1.2 grams per pound of body weight (under periods of calorie/carbohydrate restriction to achieve fat loss)4,5. Note: adding in “better training through chemistry” aka anabolic drugs — a reality in CrossFit — leaves us with a big, free-range goose egg of scientific knowledge.

Protein sourcesBut those numbers profile protein intake in a single day. In today’s world where food is everywhere (even in insulated food suitcases), who eats all their protein in one meal? How much protein should you eat and when? We had only bro science on this topic until about 2009.

In the late 2000s, Dr. Stuart Phillips’ lab at McMaster University in Canada put on the proverbial miner’s helmet to conduct a pio­neering — and still overlooked — study6. The question: After intense resistance exercise, what protein dose leads to maximum muscle protein synthesis or anabolic response?

First, they recruited six young males already adapted to resistance training (a range of four months to eight years). The metabolic response to intense resistance is quite differ­ent in a person who has already endured the initial phase of training. Secondly, the guys were not small, with an average weight of 190 pounds, but they also weren’t mastodons. Before they were injected by muscle biopsy needles, the young men were put on a moder­ate protein diet for two days: 0.63 grams per pound of body weight per day. Then these willing lab slaves were pounded through five identical training sessions on different days to assess five different doses of whole egg-derived protein, consumed right after an intense leg training session: 0, 5, 10, 20, and 40 grams. The leg training involved four sets each of leg press, knee extensions, and leg curls, at a weight that would produce muscle failure within 8–10 reps — not exhaustive training but a demanding workout. After the WOD, the subjects were hooked up to catheters and injected with a form of L-leucine that could be “traced” to determine its fate: If it was incorporated into muscle, or if it was being burned as fuel, and the first biopsy of one of their thigh muscles (quadriceps).

The zero protein dose was inferior to the 5-gram dose for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) during four hours post-exercise, and the 5-gram dose was less than 10 grams, and even the 20-gram dose was greater (almost twice) than the 10-gram dose. But then things changed. At a 20-gram dose of whole egg protein, some of the leucine that was being injected had been lit up and used as metabolic kindling, directed away from anabolic pathways in muscle and used as a calorie/fuel source. At the 40-gram dose, even more leucine had been thrown into the whole-body incinerator, and MPS was no higher than with 20 grams. More protein did mean more amino acids in the blood, but no greater anabolic response.

Before graduates from More Is Better University grab their diplomas, ask this sacrilegious question: “If I take in more than 20-25 grams of protein after an intense WOD, will I be wasting the difference?” Yes. “But they used egg protein and I use whey protein!” Wait for it…

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, a similar study was done examining the maximal MPS/anabolic response to whey protein isolate (WPI), stirred in at three dif­ferent doses: 10, 20, and 40 grams of protein7. In this study, the subjects were also young men, 48 of them, all with at least six months of resistance training experience. Their WOD consisted of eight sets at 10 repetitions on leg-press and leg-extension machines, with one leg, at 80 percent of their one-rep max, and two minutes of rest between each set. Just like their Canadian mates, quads were sampled. After sacrificing their legs to sci­ence, they took one of the four drinks: 0, 10, 20, or 40 grams of protein, solely from WPI. Four hours later, biopsies were taken again. Again, 20 grams yielded a bigger MPS spike than 10 grams (10 grams was no better than zero protein, by the way), but the hefty 40- gram dose was no better than 20 grams. As with the egg protein study, the top tier dose of 40 grams fanned the flames of amino acid waste disposal, producing a five-alarm fire that burns the most expensive macronutri­ent known to humans — protein. In the study with whey, as has been shown with other whey protein studies,8,9 blood insulin spiked twice as high during four hours with the 40-gram dose, and the 20-gram dose was three times higher than the 10-gram dose. Insulin spikes after intense training are an athlete’s best friend. But that’s another story for another time.

How Much Protein: Half-Day Dining

We now know, through these leading-edge studies, that doses greater than approxi­mately 20 grams of protein, from egg or whey protein isolate, are wasteful (and expensive), at least during a period of four to five hours. So the “egg men” — the scientists who did the egg study — and some very sharp Australian and Swiss colleagues — pushed the edge again10. This time they allocated 80 grams of protein (from WPI) over a 12-hour period, but chopped it up into different dosages and timings. Twenty-three young males (with a minimum of two years of resistance train­ing under their lifting belt, and an average weight of approximately 180 pounds) were put through a leg extension resistance training WOD and then given a WPI drink on one of these schedules throughout the following 12 hours: a) eight servings of 10 grams WPI every 1.5 hours (eight doses); b) four servings of 20 grams every three hours (four doses); and c) two servings of 40 grams every six hours (two doses). Quad biopsies? Of course. Guess which dosing schedule in this ultra low-carb half-day session was magical? Number 20, meaning 20 grams of protein. It fostered a 31 percent higher MPS than the nibbling (10 grams x 8 drinks), and 48 percent more than gorging (40 grams x 2 drinks). The 40-gram doses also led to an approximately 3x higher insulin spike than the other doses, too.

Applied Protein Science

If you’re a CrossFit athlete competing against yourself or others from box to Games level, there are some nuggets to consider: If you are a young male (twenties), with a body weight around 170-190 pounds and experienced at CrossFit training and not adding carbs to your post-workout protein dose, Protein Powderdoses of ap­proximately 20 grams of egg or whey protein per meal every 3-3.5 hours are your sweet spot. To date, less than half a dozen studies have been published on athletes engaged in CrossFit training (a recent study showed that supplementing CrossFit training with resvera­trol — one of the wonder supplements hawked by every web site and late-night infomercial a few years back — basically erases most of the cardiovascular benefits of eight weeks of CrossFit among middle-aged males11).

If you are older, weigh more than 210-220 pounds, or add carbs to your post-WOD protein dose, we don’t know (I could guess but I save that for the lottery). If you are a female, we are also clueless, but sticking with 15-20 grams of protein per meal may be an educated guess. If you are vegan or rely on non-egg or whey protein, we also don’t know. We do know that humans can digest and absorb up to 90 grams of protein from lean ground beef (likely not grass fed), and that a 90-gram dose is no more muscle anabolic than 30 grams12. Most importantly, no studies have yet asked the ultimate ques­tion: “If protein is delivered at 20-25 grams per dose, every three to four hours (and at a daily dose of 0.8 grams per pound of body weight), will performance and muscle gains be greater than the same daily amount but divided up in different doses and times?” My protein dose recommendation: Aim for 18-25 grams of protein per meal, 25-30 grams per meal if your body weight is greater than 225 pounds, and space out the doses by three to four hours. And take the protein while you are naturally awake. Sleep is underrated!

REFERENCES

  1. Fick A, Wislicenus J. (1866) On the origin of muscular power. Philos Mag 1866; 31:485-503.
  2. Atwater WO, Bryant AP. (1900) Dietary studies of university boat crews. USDA Office of Experiment Stations Bull. No. 75.
  3. Chittenden RH. (1904) Physiological Economy in Nutrition. F.P. Stokes, New York, New York.
  4. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJC. Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci 2011:29:Sup1. S29-S38.
  5. Churchward-Venne TA, et al. Nutritional regulation of muscle protein synthesis with resistance exercise: strategies to enhance anabolism. Nutr Metab 2012; 9:40
  6. Moore DR, et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr 2009; 89:161–168.
  7. Witard O, et al. Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise. Am J Clin Nutr 2014; 99:86–95.
  8. Pal S, Ellis V. The acute effects of four protein meals on insulin, glucose, appetite and energy intake in lean men. Br J Nutr 2010; 104:1241–1248.
  9. Morifuji M, et al. Comparison of different sources and degrees of hydrolysis of dietary protein: effect on plasma amino acids, dipeptides, and insulin responses in human subjects. J Agric Food Chem 2010, 58, 8788–8797.
  10. Areta JL, et al. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J Physiol 2013; 591:2319–31.
  11. Gliemann L, et al. Resveratrol blunts the positive effects of exercise training on cardiovascular health in aged men. J Physiol 2013; 591:5047-59.
  12. Symons TB, et al. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates

Anthony performed his master’s research in nutritional and exercise biochemistry at UC Berkeley. He has worked in the nutrition industry since 1975. He was co-founder of EAS, the company that introduced creatine monohydrate and HMB to most of the world. He has been a co-investigator on more than 25 published university studies related to nutrition and muscular performance. He is the founder and CEO of Vitargo Global Sciences, LLC, exclusive marketers of Vitargo on several continents.

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