Saturday, October 8, 2011

Strength Training May REDUCE Protein Requirements

Conventional wisdom maintains that people engaged in intense strength training have increased protein requirements making it necessary for them to consume more protein than untrained individuals.   I have believed this myself.

I just came across an elegant study by Moore et al [1] which produced evidence that a resistance training program may reduce protein requirements.

The Study Methods

Moore et al put 12 healthy untrained young males (20-24 years old) on a 12 week strength training program described thus:

“The 12-wk whole body resistance training program involved 13 guided-motion resistance exercises divided over 3 different training days, as previously described (8). Briefly, training days were divided into legs (leg press, leg curl, leg extensions, and standing calf raises), pushing exercises (seated military press, bench press, vertical bench press, chest fly, and seated machine triceps extensions), and pulling (latissimus pull-down, seated wide-grip row, seated narrow low row, and seated biceps curl) exercises. One repetition maximum (1 RM) was measured for each exercise before training and 2–4 d after the last training session to evaluate strength changes. Participants trained 5 d/wk at an initial intensity of 70% of the pretraining 1 RM with a goal of 2 sets of 10–12 repetitions during the first 2 wk. In wk 3–12, exercise intensity was adjusted to 80–85% 1 RM so that 3 sets of 6–10 repetitions were performed. All training sessions were supervised by a study investigator to ensure proper technique and exercise intensity adherence. Compliance with the training program in terms of attendance was >95% for all participants.”

Moore et al monitored the results of the training on body composition and protein metabolism using muscle biopsies, nitrogen balance markers (urinary, fecal, sweat and miscellaneous nitrogen losses), and blood assays.  They estimated dietary protein intake using diet records, except for 5 days before and during the final week of training, when the subjects received prepackaged meals of measured protein, fat, and carbohydrate content.  They maintained protein intake constant at ~1.4 g/kg/d for each subject.  Protein intake averaged 109-125 g per day throughout the duration of the study.

Unlike other studies of this type, Moore et al measured protein metabolism in both the fed and the fasting state.


Over the course of the study, the subjects increased strength by 30-90% and gained an average of 2.1 kg bodyweight.  Lean body mass increased by ~2.8 kg (6 pounds) while fat mass decreased by ~0.9 kg (2 pounds). lean mass accrued at a rate of 233 g (~0.5 pound) per week, or 33 g (slightly over an ounce) per day, an amount undetectable on a day to day basis.  Muscle fiber cross-sectional area increased by about 50%.

Moore et al found that this 12-wk training program reduced whole body protein turnover, meaning, the training reduced whole body protein breakdown and synthesis.  Although this might surpise some people, they refer to five studies showing that “resistance exercise is a potent anabolic stimulus that increases the intracellular reutilization of amino acids from protein breakdown in both the fasted and fed states (1,2,28–30). The net result would be that amino acid release from the intramuscular free pool would be reduced with resistance exercise.”

Since protein intake did not change from habitual intakes, they concluded that novice trainees adding significant lean mass do not require additional protein beyond habitual intakes.  They also surmised that since advanced trainees gain lean mass at a much slower rate, or not at all, the protein requirement of an advanced trainee is probably even lower than that of a novice.

In their words:

“Although our data do not directly address the level of protein intake at which zero nitrogen balance would occur, the significantly more positive nitrogen balance after training demonstrates a more efficient utilization of dietary protein in the trained state.”


Moore et al report a very rapid rate of lean mass accrual.  If maintained for 50 weeks in a row, an individual would gain 25 pounds of lean mass.  A subject starting at 150 pounds would end the year weighing 175 pounds, a huge transformation. 

These results suggest that the actual protein requirement for a novice trainee adding 0.25 kg (0.5 pound) lean mass per week lies somewhere below 1.4 g/kg/d.  

How far below? 

Castaneda et al investigated the effect of 12 weeks of resistance training on muscle mass accrual in older adults (average age of 65 years) with chronic kidney disease. [2]   These people consumed a diet providing only 0.6 g protein/kg bodyweight/d, less than half the amount consumed by the subjects of the Moore et al study.  

After 12 weeks of strength training, the subjects showed substantial decreases in markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6) and substantial increases in strength (about 28%) and muscle hypertrophy (about 23% increase in muscle fiber cross-sectional area).  Considering that these subjects were about 3 times the age of the subjects in the Moore et al study (65 vs. 22 years) and suffering from chronic kidney disease, this 23% increase in muscle cross-sectional area compares very well with the 50% increase found in the Moore et al study.

This study indicates that humans can gain muscle mass on protein intakes as low as 0.6 g/kg/d, which interestingly roughly corresponds to the estimated median protein requirement of 0.65 g/kg/d. [3
Human muscle consists of ~70% water, ~30% protein by weight.  The Moore et al subjects added ~33 g of lean mass daily, equating to adding ~10 g of protein to their musculature daily. 

The Moore et al subjects averaged 62 kg of lean mass at the start of the study and 65 kg at the end. [4

Using the estimated protein requirement of 0.83 g/kg/d [3], ninety-eight percent of individuals starting this program at 62 kg (136 lb) of lean mass would require not more than 50 g of protein per day.  After gaining 2.8 kg (6 pounds) of lean mass, the individual would have 65 kg (143 lb) of lean mass and a protein requirement of not more than 52 g per day.  During the training period, he would require an additional 10 g of protein per day (to accrue 33 g of lean mass daily).  Thus, from start to end, I would estimate his protein requirement as no higher than 60-62 g per day. 

Using the median protein requirement of 0.65 g/kg/d, possibly fifty percent of individuals in the Moore study would require no more than 50 g of protein per day to achieve the results reported.

Since Moore et al report the habitual and controlled protein intake of these subjects as falling between 109 and 125 g per day, by my calculations, the people in this study may have consumed 40 to 60 g excess protein every day, beyond the requirement for building 6 pounds of lean mass in 12 weeks.

According to Moore et al, their 12 subjects required and consumed about 3000 kcal per day. Sixty-two grams of protein provides 248 kcal, which constitutes eight percent of total energy intake.  It would seem possible then that adult physically active humans are adapted to food sources that provide about 8 percent of calories as protein, assuming carbohydrate requirements are met directly rather than through gluconeogenesis.

The following table provides the percent of calories supplied as protein in various foods:

From this it appears that many plant foods, like potatoes, could provide plenty of protein for supporting health and muscle growth if eaten in quantities adequate to cover caloric requirements.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the Moore et al findings make more sense than the idea that strength training increases protein requirements.   

As a general rule,  organisms adapt to demands by resisting the damage those demands inflict.  For example, using your hands for labor will result in callus formation.  Calluses are more resistant to damage than soft skin.  Tanned skin is more resistant to sun damage than pale skin.  Thus, we should expect that the body would respond to heavy physical activity by becoming more resistant to muscle protein degradation and reducing the protein requirements of muscle tissue.

Natural selection would have favored those humans that were most efficient at using available resources. Those who had tremendously increased protein requirements as a result of physical activity would have had to expend more energy on the food quest than those who became more efficient at using protein and deriving protein from less energy expensive resources (i.e. plants vs. animals). Those forced to spend more energy on the food quest would have had less energy left for reproduction; hence they would have left fewer descendants.    

Survival of the most efficient.


mike said...

Best diet makeup seems every changing. This study reported in Jl2011 (see below address) finds for mice that high protein/ low carb is at least best for cancer prevention and longer life. Do you think this may apply to some degree to humans or is study with much fault?


Gordon said...

Nice explanation for protein efficiency. My n=1 observation is similar to your concluding statement. I was an extremely high protein consumer - to build muscle I reasoned. However, now I am largely on the potato diet with continued improvements in strength and lean mass.
This may also explain how many powerful athletes can 'go meatless' and retain an efficient metabolism and physique.
Is this a season of life thing?
Mother's milk - fat
Teenage men (us warriors ;) )- meat protein
Trained adult - starch, with smaller requirements of 'medicine' e.g. liver, shellfish, some rare plant.

If this natural diet is replaced with industrial food (infant formula, sugar, fortified grain starch, oils) and inactivity (recliners and tv) we may need to start at square one?
To wit, proper fats are initially effective for recovering SADers...

Appreciate your insights as ever

Chris Masterjohn said...

Hey Don,

I was randomly surfing around and saw your comment from the end of last year on Castaneda, and left a comment myself:


Sue said...

It wasn't calorie restricted so I think can gain muscle on lower protein as long as calories not low and training. what if fat loss and muscle gain the desired outcome?

Ned Kock said...

In other words, strength training may increase nitrogen balance. Here is more evidence:

Don said...


I looked at the original study.

I find some funny things. First, they say that all diets tested came from TestDiet. I went to TestDiet looking for the 5058 diet composition:

I didn't find any '5058'diet supplied by TestDiet. A Google search found a 5058 diet by LabDiet:

But the paper says all diets were obtained from TestDiet, so I won't assume that they used this diet.

So what diet did they really use?

I can't determine whether the high protein diet was high in animal protein, gluten, soy, or ?

Naturally, I feel very suspicious when they say they got all diets from TestDiet, but TestDiet seems not to have the basic diet they claim to have used.

Next, since they claimed that the 15% carbohydrate, 58% protein, 26% fat diet worked best, I went to Fitday to figure out what that might look like.

For 2200 kcal, it looks like this:

32 ounces of roasted chicken breast (no skin, no fat added)
4 cups kale
1 cup blueberries
1 medium sweet potato
1 banana
Nothing else

you can't use any animal product with higher contents of fat than chicken breast and achieve their proportion. You can't add any fats beyond what already occurs in the meat.

283 g protein, 101 g carbohydrate, and 73 g fat.

I question the feasibility of this proportion in humans. I might have to try it to test it myself, but it is generally believed that this amount of protein will exceed the average human liver's ability to detoxify the resulting ammonia waste and produce adverse effects that will make the diet intolerable.

Don said...


The subjects of the Moore et al study lost fat while gaining muscle. Experiments have shown that animals and humans can gain muscle mass even when starving by pulling protein from internal organs to feed muscle growth. Some studies have shown muscle growth even in people consuming only 800 kcal per day. If a person has only a minor kcaloric deficit and plenty of carbohydrate in the diet, normal dietary protein will cover all needs for the typical rate of muscle gain.

john said...

There are so many studies like this but also so many elite athletes claiming to need high protein. I would like to see an experiment with differing macros in people who have triple bodyweight squats, low 10s 100m, etc. Usually higher fat is shown to lead to higher test, but I don't remember the diet specifics.

Don said...


Why would having a triple bodyweight squat increase one's protein requirement per unit of body mass?

Carl Lewis set world records in the 100 m while eating a vegan diet, according to his own report.

Ellington Darden did nitrogen balance studies on himself when he weighed over 200 pounds with 6% body fat. He found that when he consumed more than ~75 g of protein per day, the surplus went to waste.

So far as I can tell, the idea that athletes need more protein than non-athletes was invented to sell protein powders.

It never had any scientific support.

john said...

Advanced trainees don't gain muscle or strength as easily as though in the above studies. I've never done a long term self-experiment, but going strictly by what I've heard, many claim weight/strength loss from low protein: Mark Felix, Maurice Greene, Pavel Tsatsouline, Joe Mcauliffe, Tony Conyers. Martin Berkhan eats and recommends high protein. I acknowledged the scientific suppport is lacking in my comment, but it contrasts with what many people actually experience.

Carl Lewis says he had his best year when he first started vegan, which is debatable, and he does eat lots of lentils. Mainly though, he is an undermuscled sprinter who has great body architecture and relied on a naturally high top speed. And not that this has to do with his diet, but he is whiny arrogant cheater.

Anyway, are there studies that look at actual muscle and strength gain with differing amounts of protein? I think there was one on elite weightlifters, who did well with high protein intakes.

john said...

Oh, also, have you seen any studies looking at macro ratios and muscle fiber type? I saw one that found higher fat diets induced type i characteristics in type ii.

Anonymous said...

Don. Do you have a recommended diet while you are lifting weights a few times a week and looking to gain a few pounds of muscle?

How would it differ from your day to day diet?

I always thought the gallon of milk a day idea was good since if was easy to ingest massive amounts of calories.

Peter said...

Right on Don,

here's Ellington, objective personal account:

“Later in his career Dr. Schendel studied amino acids and had a hand in establishing the recommended Dietary allowances for protein. In 1970, he convinced me to do a 2-month study on my body to determine if massive protein intake was beneficial. I was consuming more than 300 grams of protein a day back then. I kept accurate records of my food intake and activity for 60 days, and even collected all my urine for the same period. Afterward, I used the Kjeldahl method for determining nitrogen in my urine, which is a measure protein utilization.

To my surprise, any time I consumed more than the RDA of protein, the excess was excreted in my urine. Dr. Schendel concluded that my kidneys were working overtime to metabolize the excess protein. He also explained that human kidneys and livers show overuse symptoms in the presence of massive amounts of protein. We know from long-term animal studies that high-protein diets will shorten life spans. So, I stopped my massive protein diet and immeadiately felt surge of energy unburdening my kidneys and liver. In the 1970s, the daily recommendation for protein was 0,36 gram of protein per pound of body weight”.

Ellington Darden

WoLong said...

Here is a quote from this paper (Impact of caloric and dietary restriction regimens on markers of health and longevity in humans and animals: A summary of available findings.
Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:107): While research suggests that neither carbohydrate restriction nor lipid restriction extend life [26-32], protein restriction increases maximum lifespan by roughly 20% [30]. This extension of life may be solely due to the reduction of the amino acid methionine [33].

References are:
26. Iwasaki K, Gleiser CA, Masoro EJ, McMahan CA, Seo EJ, Yu BP: The influence of dietary protein source on longevity and age-related disease processes of Fischer rats. J Gerontol
1988, 43:B5-12.
27. Shimokawa I, Higami Y, Yu BP, Masoro EJ, Ikeda T: Influence of dietary components on occurrence of and mortality due to neoplasms in male F344 rats. Aging (Milano) 1996, 8:254-262.
28. Khorakova M, Deil Z, Khausman D, Matsek K: Effect of carbohydrate-enriched diet and subsequent food restriction on life prolongation in Fischer 344 male rats. Fiziol Zh 1990,
29. Kubo C, Johnson BC, Gajjar A, Good RA: Crucial dietary factors in maximizing life span and longevity in autoimmune-prone mice. J Nutr 1987, 117:1129-1135.
30. Pamplona R, Barja G: Mitochondrial oxidative stress, aging and caloric restriction: the protein and methionine connection. Biochim Biophys Acta 2006, 1757:496-508.
31. Sanz A, Caro P, Sanchez JG, Barja G: Effect of lipid restriction on mitochondrial free radical production and oxidative DNA damage. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2006, 1067:200-209.
32. Sanz A, Gomez J, Caro P, Barja G: Carbohydrate restriction does not change
mitochondrial free radical generation and oxidative DNA damage. J Bioenerg Biomembr 2006, 38:327-333.

Don said...


Get a copy of Brad Pilon's "How Much Protein," link in the right hand column here. He reviews all the studies supposedly showing increased protein requirements, and shows that they provide no evidence that anyone needs more than 70-100 g protein per day, easily achieved with normal foods with no emphasis on eating protein-rich foods.


Just eat enough food to meet your energy requirements, using only whole foods. IMO GOMAD will only add fat faster than muscle. A pound of muscle contains only about 700 pound gain per week only requires a surplus of 100 kcal per day, i.e. one extra potato, banana, or similar food.

Research indicates it is rare that the typical individual will gain one pound of muscle per week, usually it is only about 1/2 pound per week. So the kcalorie requirement is only about 50 kcal per day. GOMAD supplies ~2500 surplus calories per day. If it produced only muscle, you'd gain ~3 pounds of muscle per day and 21 pounds in a week.

I await evidence that anyone can gain 21 pounds of muscle in a week.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Don. I will continue eating a lot of meat while I lift but I will not over do it. Just what is part of my regular diet pretty much.

I am watching Sparticus now and it always shows the gladiators eating some form of porridge. Not meat.

Come to think of it I wonder how we could have survived as a species only producing muscle from high protein diets. Certainly there were extended periods when only rice or potatoes were eaten.

Matt said...


I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the Colorado experiment.

Also 21 lbs in 21 days is easily possible for a genetically "gifted" healthy male doing an intense weight training program.

I'm around 235 lbs and I squat 525. I recently started the Smolov squat routing and I was easily consuming 200 g / protein a day, with no noticeable stress on my kidneys (of course I do almost daily intermittent fasts and a lot of bodybuilders / powerlifters follow the non-sense 5+ meals a day).

In fact, during my initial Smolov squat cycle, I was too sore to keep up. I was making my protein shakes with a can of coconut milk. One time, I had my coffee mug so I put my protein in it and drank it with plain water at the gym and then I wasn't sore the next day.

I'm on about 75 g immediately post-workout (occasionally it my breaking my fast), plus another ~ 50 - 100 g depending what I eat the rest of the day.

300 g seems excessive (unless your Benedikt Magnusson)

Don said...


I'm talking about typical results, not genetically gifted.

Viator was regaining mass (lost due to injury and inactivity), not building new mass. Regain is lots easier than building new mass.

21 pounds of LEAN mass in 21 days? None of it fat gain?

mturnure said...


You recommended a potato or banana as the food to supply the extra 100kcal per week to add muscle. Why is a carbohydrate-heavy food the best choice?

Also, you said that in order to add approximately 700kcal of muscle, you should eat 700 extra kcal of food. This got me wondering about how ecological efficiency comes into play here. On average, 90% of energy is wasted at each trophic level of consumption.

So when we say a certain food contains a number of kcals, have we already taken into account this inefficiency? Basically, isn't saying you need 700kcal of food to make 700kcal of muscle saying our bodies are 100% efficient in adding muscle mass? Or am I off track here?

Thanks. I am finding your blog very informative and interesting.

Chris said...

novice trainers get results anyway.
Is there a study in experienced trainers?

Don said...


This study showed that training increases the efficiency of protein utilization. There is no reason to believe that more experience training leads to less efficient use of protein.

Further, the more experienced, the lower the rate of muscle gain, therefore the lower the requirement for protein.

Brad Pilon reviews all the literature in HOW MUCH PROTEIN, linked in my right hand column here. No study has shown any improved muscle gain with protein intakes greater than the RDA.