“Will increasing the protein content of my diet make me bulk up?” I hear this A LOT, both because I work for a company that makes protein powder and because I’m a woman. I’m not saying that men don’t potentially have the same misconception, but the idea that increased dietary protein will lead to huge muscles isn’t always a negative for men, where it is almost always perceived as a negative for women.
For the purpose of this discussion, “bulking up” means gains in muscle mass as opposed to gains in fat mass. This distinction is important because while both involve increases in total caloric intake, gaining substantial muscle mass also involves alterations to both your frequency and type of strength training.
First, let’s talk about why there may be the claim that protein supplementation leads to bulk, and then address why this claim is a misconception. While we’re at it, let’s address why increasing dietary protein makes a lot of sense for climbers in terms of performance and recovery and discuss the best way to go about increasing protein in your diet.
Protein supplementation, and increased dietary protein, is often associated with the bodybuilding and crossfit communities, where increased muscle mass is either the goal (bodybuilding) or a means to an end (being a competitive crossfit athlete). This association often leads to the assumption that increased protein is a major driving factor in muscle gain. Whether it’s through outlandish claims or the imagery chosen for ads, creative marketing from protein powder companies doesn’t exactly help dispel these assumptions.
So here we go, I’m going to say it: Increasing the protein in your diet, either through supplementation or whole foods, will not by itself make you jacked.
The marketing simply isn’t true and there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes for crossfit athletes and bodybuilders than simply eating more protein. That begs the question, “What does lead to substantial increases in muscular mass?” Gains in muscle mass require significant alterations to both diet and training. In terms of diet this means an increase in not just protein intake, but more importantly total caloric intake. For example, to increase muscular mass a bodybuilder would need to both increase protein intake (say from 35% to 45% of total calories), and increase their total calories from 2500 to 3000 or more. Coupled with changes to your diet are necessary changes to 1) the frequency of strength workouts in your weekly program 2) the types of movements in your training (compound movements get a heavy emphasis), 3) repetition scheme and weight used (i.e., 4×4 at 80% 1RM) and 4) overall effort (often to failure).
What then will increasing my protein intake do and how might it benefit my climbing?
Think recovery, recovery, recovery. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein in “healthy” adults is 0.8g/kg body weight per day. The RDA values for protein are set at “the level of protein judged to be adequate…to meet the known nutrient needs for practically all healthy people” (Institute of Medicine, 2005). It’s critical to note that not only are the RDA values outdated, but they also fail to take into consideration the amount of protein required by endurance and strength athletes to adapt to training stimulus (Phillips and VanLoon, 2011). Specifically, the RDA recommendation does not 1) offset the oxidation (use as energy) of protein or amino acids during exercise and 2) include protein to promote muscle synthesis and repair after intense training (Campbell et al., 2007). Increased protein for strength athletes (climbers) is primarily required for the synthesis of new muscle and/or to repair muscle damage (Phillips et al., 2006; Moore et al., 2009); resulting in increased strength and a quicker turn-around between hard days.
How much protein should a climber be eating and is there a limit to the benefit of increased protein intake?
Research suggests that there does seem to be a threshold above which increased daily protein intake has no benefit. A study examining the impact of differential amounts of total daily protein on whole body protein synthesis in trained strength athletes found that protein synthesis was reduced in athletes on a “low” protein diet (0.86g/kg/day) relative to medium (1.4g/kg/day) and high (2.4g/kg/day) protein diets, but there was no difference in whole body protein synthesis between medium and high daily protein intakes (Tarnopolsky et al., 1992). Supporting this older study, a recent review and meta-analysis of 49 studies and 1863 participants, found that total protein intakes beyond ~1.6g/kg/day did not lead to further strength gains (Morton et al., 2018). Additionally, and possibly more importantly, there are not only limits to the benefits of total daily protein intake but also to the amount of protein consumed in a single sitting. Moore et al., 2009 demonstrated that the positive impact of protein intake on muscle protein synthesis plateaus at 20g with higher amounts of protein (up to 40g) causing no further increase in protein synthesis.
Are all proteins created equal? What types of protein should I be adding to my diet?
Protein quality can be judged by a number of factors, but for athletes the three most important criteria are 1) digestibility, 2) essential amino acid (EAA) content, and 3) branched chain amino acid (BCAA) content. Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are essential, meaning they cannot be synthesized (produced or created) by the body and must come from our diet. Of these essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine are known as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Unlike most other essential amino acids, which are broken down in the liver, BCAAs are transported directly to skeletal muscle where they play a critical role in muscle recovery and synthesis. Leucine, isoleucine and valine, the three BCAAs, work together to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and reduce the rate of muscle catabolism, or breakdown – exactly what we’re looking for to maximize recovery.
Look for protein sources that are easily digestible and high in EAAs, specifically the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine. Great options include meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, legumes and most commercially available protein powders.
So what should climbers take away from this?
- Aim to consume moderate amounts of daily protein in the 1.4-1.8g/kg/day range (this is 84-108g for a 60kg (132lb) climber)
- Daily protein should be taken throughout the day in ~20-25g doses to maximize strength gains and recovery. Aim to consume 20-25g of protein every 3-4 hrs for a total of 4-5 snacks or meals.
- What might this look like in the course of a day? Here’s an example. I’ve purposely included both meat and vegetarian options to make the point that this is possible for meat eaters and vegetarians alike:
- 7a Breakfast: Breakfast burrito (whole wheat tortilla, 2-3 eggs, black beans, salsa, avocado)
- 10a Snack 1: Turkey wraps (hummus and red pepper wrapped in a slice of turkey)
- 1p lunch: Canned salmon w/ spicy mayo on a spinach salad or sandwich w/ lots of veggies
- 4p snack: Protein shake
- 7p dinner: Curried veggies and garbanzo beans over lentils and brown rice.
My Final Answer.
No, just increasing the protein in your diet won’t make you bulk up. If that is your goal, it’ll take changes to your training and more total calories to give you the arms of your dreams. However, more dietary protein in combination with training will have a positive impact on your strength to weight ratio and, more importantly, improve recovery by stimulating muscle protein synthesis and repair.