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Protein Synthesis | The Key to Building Muscle

Protein Synthesis | The Key to Building Muscle

Protein synthesis seems to be thrown around in the fitness industry without a true understanding of what it actually is. You see it mentioned on supplement packages, in magazines, in articles, but there can be confusion on the concept if you do not know how to properly optimize protein synthesis. If you can learn how to optimally stimulate protein synthesis, your body composition will make profound changes. Are you getting the most out of protein synthesis?

What Is Protein Synthesis?

Protein synthesis is the assimilation of amino acids to carry out certain processes within the body. It is one of the most fundamental biological processes that occurs in muscle tissue and in other parts of the body. Protein synthesis in fitness refers to muscle protein synthesis versus referring to whole body protein synthesis. So if you hear the term protein synthesis, assume it is referring to muscle protein synthesis. After breaking down muscle tissue from intense training sessions in the weight room, muscle protein synthesis aids in the reconstruction of new muscle tissue. If you are able to effectively stimulate protein synthesis, this in turn will lead to greater muscle hypertrophy, more strength and better recovery (1).

How Do I Optimize Protein Synthesis?

Protein synthesis is recognized as the key process that occurs within the body in producing more muscle mass, but how can you reap all of the benefits of protein synthesis? If you observe the first word in the term, it’s a dead giveaway that protein plays a major role in the process. The consumption of adequate protein will be the key to stimulating as much muscle growth as possible. Out of all the amino acids that make up protein, leucine has been identified as the king of all amino acids. Leucine works as a signal to initiate protein synthesis (2). The concept of getting enough leucine in a single meal is known as reaching your leucine threshold. An effective dose of leucine needed to stimulate protein synthesis has been found to be between 2-4 grams of leucine. Depending on your bodyweight, you can either be looking at the upper or lower range of that dose.

protein synthesis

The quality of a protein source is often determined by the amount of leucine in that specific protein source. For whey protein, you need to consume about 25-30 grams of protein in order to get 2.5-3 grams of leucine. For most animal meat, you’ll need to consume about 35-40 grams of protein in order to get a similar amount of leucine. Other proteins coming from grains or vegetable-based sources are much lower in leucine and require a greater amount of total protein needed in order to get an adequate amount of leucine. Consuming enough protein at each meal is crucial for optimizing the protein synthesis response. So if you were to look at the composition of your meal, make sure that you have a significant amount of protein on your plate.

Protein Timing And Spacing

It’s often debated on how important nutrient timing can be in the grand scheme of things. However, research is showing that protein timing can lead to greater muscle growth (2,3). Protein synthesis can last a longer or shorter time period depending on the person. Research suggests that the longer you have been training, the shorter the response may be. In more trained individuals, it becomes even more essential to optimize protein synthesis in order to prevent plateauing. Amino acid levels have been shown to be increased after 5 hours, but protein synthesis has been shown to be elevated for only 3 hours (2). This means that it would seem wise to consume a good source of protein every 3 hours.

protein synthesis

If we look at what makes up a day for the average person, people normally eat cereal for breakfast, a light lunch with some snacking in between, and then maybe something like a steak for dinner with the family. The only time that that individual is reaching their leucine threshold is at dinner and possibly a small response at lunch time. Now, if that person were to space out that protein intake and have protein at every meal, they could stimulate much more protein synthesis. A study done by Norton et al.(2008) argued that an increase in muscle mass correlates with a protein per meal basis (3). For this reason it is critical to consume protein throughout the day in order to stimulate protein synthesis as much as possible.

Consuming protein post-workout is important to start the rebuilding process as soon as possible following a workout. Whey protein or BCAAs are great supplements to take post-workout due to the fact that they are both easily digested and contain a good amount of leucine spike protein synthesis. These supplements are also good for consuming in between meals to keep protein synthesis elevated.

Take-Home Message

Understanding protein synthesis can be a game-changer in terms of your results and improvements in the weight room. Getting enough protein at each meal and stimulating protein synthesis several times throughout the day can help you break through possible plateaus, increase muscle mass, increase strength and increase recovery.

Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.

  • Falvo, M.J., et al. (2005). Effect of protein supplementation on strength, power and body composition changes in experienced resistance-trained men. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 37:Suppl 45.
  • Norton, L., and Wilson, G.J. (2009). Optimal protein intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis. AgroFood Ind Hi-tech. 2:54-67.
  • Norton, L.E., Wilson, G.J., et al. (2008). Effects of four different isonitrogenous protein sources differing in leucine content on muscle protein synthesis. Experim Biol. Supp.



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