The Muscle Development Hierarchy

Crafty marketing can make us think that designer proteins are essential for building or maintaining muscle. Spoiler alert!  Protein quality is actually #5 on the list when ranking five muscle development strategies.

Beyond esthetics, building and preserving lean muscle is crucial in athletic performance, metabolic health, injury prevention, functional fitness, and longevity. However, developing and maintaining muscle mass does not follow a one-size-fits-all approach; instead, maintaining and building muscle depends on several strategies that vary depending on the individual.

Let's delve into muscle development strategies, discuss their significance, develop practical insights, and highlight their interconnections. Together, these strategies create a comprehensive approach to muscle mass development, empowering informed decisions about fitness routines and nutrition choices. Let's embark on this journey through the hierarchy of strategies, starting with the cornerstone – strength training.

#1 Strength Training: The catchphrase, "Use it, or lose it" applies here. Our muscles have a unique capacity to rise to the challenges we present them with. When a muscle experiences stress, it will entrain itself to recruit more muscle fibers to handle that stress in the future. The muscles will build in size when all the muscle fibers are recruited at their limit because larger muscle fibers can do more work. On the other hand, if we are doing less work each week, month, or year, our muscle fibers will atrophy and become smaller because they aren't needed as much. If you're already strength training, you can revisit your strength training program's effectiveness and modify exercises, sets, and reps, or check this box and move on to the next level of this hierarchy.

Wait! What about endurance training? Cardiometabolic-enhancing endurance training is better than nothing for maintaining muscle. However, if you endurance train only, you will still lose muscle mass over the years. This muscle loss is due to the catabolic nature of endurance exercise, where you break down molecules into smaller ones to do work. Strength training gives an anabolic response that builds tissue from smaller molecules (amino acids).

#2 Total Energy Consumption: Matching energy consumption with energy needs is the next most important strategy for maintaining muscle mass. When trying to build muscle mass, energy intake may need to exceed energy needs, and that increase in energy intake would come from protein. When total energy consumed is lower than expenditure, energy reserves from the body need to make up for it. These reserves will come from muscle and fat stores. Unfortunately, one can't always choose where our energy comes from. As we go through the day, we mostly burn carbohydrates and fat as fuel. However, if we do not have enough carbohydrates to meet bodily function needs, carbohydrates (glucose) are made from protein stored in muscles. It would be great if we could turn fat into carbohydrates, but we can't.

Wait! What about Keto?  Can't ketones meet bodily function needs in the absence of carbohydrates?  Real quick. If you are truly Keto, you are also eating low protein. The body will turn proteins into glucose and bring you out of ketosis.  ...and if you are really ketogenic and eating a low in protein diet, you are not building muscle.

#3 Amount of Protein:  Although protein needs vary from person to person based on physical activity, metabolic stress, and muscle mass goals, 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight will help a physically active person hold onto or build muscle mass. Typical recommendations are lower at 0.8-1.2g of protein per kilogram, but that amount may not be adequate for maintaining and building muscle as we age. Fortunately, 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg fits nicely in a diet with around 55-60% carb, 20-25% fat, and 15-20% protein. Once confident you're getting enough protein, it's time to examine the timing of protein consumption.

#4 Timing of Protein Intake: Aligning with current research, individuals over 40 should eat three 25-gram protein allotments daily to maintain or build muscle. This amount of protein ensures that specific amino acid requirements needed to initiate muscle regeneration are met. Twenty-five grams also helps an individual meet their total protein needs. The remaining protein needs should be consumed post-workout or as snacks. Fortunately, this lines up nicely with typical eating patterns. The under-40 crowd will usually follow a similar pattern, but the research doesn't find the three-protein allotment timing vital if they get enough protein.

#5 Quality of Protein: Many companies claim their protein is the best. Well, the truth is, the protein quality is so far down on the list of importance that unless you are doing everything else right, the protein quality should be the least of concerns. There are just a couple of protein attributes to consider. First, you want to make sure that you are consuming all the essential amino acids each day. The cool thing is that amino acids pool in your body. If you don't get a complete amino acid at one meal, you can eat a complimentary protein at another meal and get all your essential amino acids. For example, beans and rice are complementary proteins. If you eat animal protein, you will efficiently get complete proteins. Plant-based eaters will want to consume proteins from nuts and seeds, soy, and quinoa or consistently eat complementary proteins to ensure they get their complete proteins. Second, you want to ensure that your protein intake contains at least 2-3 grams of the amino acid leucine to help kick-start muscle building. Meat and fish are high in leucine, while soy, seeds, beans, eggs, and cheese are all moderate sources of leucine. Fortunately, if you consume 20-30 grams of protein from mixed sources at each meal, you will usually get enough leucine.

So let's keep strength training, eat enough food, get our 1.2-2.0 g of protein per kg of body weight, consume 25 g of protein at 3 different meals and 15-25 g after hard workouts, and eat complete proteins.