One of the most frequent questions I get from athletes is how to get more protein. In their minds they are thinking that if they stuff more protein into their mouths, that it magically goes to their muscles and they will automatically get stronger. Body builders, especially, want to see hypertrophy of their muscles (without all the work). This question is especially prevalent with vegetarian or vegan athletes because they think that without meat, egg whites, or skim milk in some form, they are at risk of having a protein deficiency.
The advertising you see in magazines and health food stores plays into this fear because, of course, there is a product to sell. Protein supplements come in many forms, all with the same goal, to get you to buy their product. The fallacy is that if you want to develop a muscle, you have to overload it by putting more stress on it than it can handle. This is the ONLY way a muscle will get bigger and stronger.
OUR BODIES ARE PRETTY SMART!
Our bodies are built for economy. They will get rid of anything they don't need. If you don't need bulging biceps (or if you already have them and are not currently using them), the body will not let that muscle get a "free ride." The most vivid example is seen when you put an arm or a leg in a cast. In this case the body doesn't (and can't) use the associated muscles. When you take the cast off six weeks later, you will be struck with what you see. The arm or leg appears to have withered away. In addition, what you can't see is that the bone has also lost mass or bone density.
Now, is this permanent? No! To rebuild those muscles and bone, all you have to do is start using them and the body responds by putting on additional muscle and bone ONLY to the extent that it needs. So, for every day usage, a normal-size muscle is attained. With heavy, extreme usage, a bulging muscle is the result.
SO, WHERE DO I GET MY PROTEIN?
So where do our bodies get the raw materials (protein) to do this if you are not eating another animal's muscle (protein)? Easy! It comes from plants. The best examples are the biggest and strongest animals, elephants, horses, giraffes, rhinoceroses -- every one of them vegans! (They also happen to be the longest-living animals, another lesson buried here.) Vegetables and grains are complete proteins which means that they contain all the amino acids necessary to build muscle from scratch or to add on bigger, stronger muscles.
For example, the limiting amino acid in plant foods is methionine, one of the so-called essential amino acids. If you were to eat only rice for, say, a large male's 3000 calorie day's allotment, you would get 1.1 grams, way above the minimum daily requirement of .11 grams (about TEN times as much)! In fact, this points out one of the problems with consuming the excess protein you get from eating animal protein, that of getting TOO much protein. This leads to kidney disease and osteoporosis as the human body cannot store protein and is damaged when it has to break down excess protein.
A SIDE EFFECT OF HIGH PROTEIN INTAKE
One of the major causes of the epidemic of osteoporosis in this country is excess protein. As is generally recognized, protein is made up of amino acids. These acids are, logically, acidic -- that is, they have a pH of less than 7, which is neutral. The human body cannot operate in an acidic environment -- it must be alkaline, that is, above 7 or about 7.2. So when you take in protein powders, pills, or animal protein such as egg white, fish, dairy, poultry or beef, this acid load has to be neutralized. Our bodies have the perfect buffering system. We use the same mechanism you see advertised on tv ads for Tums and other antacids for "acid stomach", which is calcium. And where do we store our calcium? In our bones. Our bones are very active living tissue, and calcium is constantly moving in and out of them, so if we consume a high acid meal, especially animal protein, our bones are called upon to give up some calcium to neutralize or buffer this acid so that we can keep the heart beating, muscles contracting, and nerves firsing. These processes all stop if we go into acidosis, a state of too much acid.
THE ROLE OF GENES
This process of building muscle is fairly straightforward: Overload a muscle and it responds by getting bigger and stronger. Is there a limit? Of course, there is. You see this in natural body builders where genes play a role in limiting or enhancing the building of hypertrophic muscles. In order to go beyond genetics, some body-builders have to resort to the use of anabolic steroids, something our body produces naturally but insufficient in the minds of some competitive body-builders. This comes with many health risks, and, unfortunately, many focus on short-term gains and would rather risk their health in the long run.
What about women? Women are sometimes advised to get into weight training to gain or maintain muscle and bone strength, but their fear is the opposite: that they might develop these huge, bulging muscles that they find unattractive on a female. Well, they need not worry because, again, their genes control the limits of muscular development. And for those women who want to develop, say, calf or pectoral muscles, popping protein isn't the answer. The same principles apply: you've got to overload those muscles.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
How much weight to lift and how often? The body in its present state can handle "x" number of pounds. Add about 10% and work the muscle to exhaustion and then stop. Give it at least 48 hours but no more than 3-4 days to recover and rebuild, then do it again. Gradually, that muscle will be able to handle "x" plus "y" pounds. Continue this progression and you will see the muscle grow. Remember that rest and recovery is just as important as the overload. Eating a diet of vegetables and fruit will provide all the raw material necessary.
So, this is the secret to greater muscular development. The more weight the muscle has to push, the bigger and stronger it will get! You get to choose!
Ruth E. Heidrich, Ph.D.