7 Rules to Optimize Protein Intake

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, Starting Strength Staff, USAW CC, HFS

In general, I am not a fan of rules, dogma, or rigid guidelines. That being said, what follows are what I consider to be the most important variables when it comes to optimizing protein intake for anyone. While there are sure to be inter-individual variability, these “rules” are pretty spot on. Without further ado…..

1) You will eat enough protein each meal. Optimal protein intake per meal will be the amount of protein that yields ~3-4g of leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA). 3-4g of leucine per meal has been shown to maximize muscle protein synthesis. If it’s maximized, it can’t go any higher with additional protein, right? This is also, of course, assuming that the protein you’re consuming either contains all the essential amino acids (like all animal derived proteins do) or you have eaten a protein rich meal within the past 4-6 hours that had all of the EAA’s present in abundant amounts. Just to give an example, whey protein (the KING of all proteins) has ~3g of leucine per 20g serving whereas brown rice protein has 3g of leucine per 40g serving. While these two doses are equivalent in their potential to drive muscle protein synthesis, they are not equivalent in calories, which may be a consideration you wish to make if you’re calorie restricted. (Note: many protein manufacturers have different leucine/serving ratios but this is a fairly accurate estimate based on most protein supplements).
2) You will optimize meal frequency. Somewhere along the line people started espousing the mantra “eat every two hours to stoke the metabolism” or “so you don’t become catabolic”, with catabolism meaning breaking down– in this case skeletal muscle- to use their constituents elsewhere in the body.  Problem with these recommendations with respect to protein intake is that there is a known refractory period to muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which we can think about on a gross level as muscle growth/recovery/building. Every time a large enough dose of protein is ingested, i.e. one that provides enough leucine and EAA’s to push the MPS reaction over the edge, there’s a 3-5 hour refractory period that must transpire before another dose of protein (at a meal/shake/etc) will yield another bout of MPS. This means that if you ate a protein rich breakfast at 8am, then ate again at 10am, the meal at 10 am would contribute nothing to MPS and then, by definition- it would be stored away as energy -either glycogen or fat depending on other variables. Ultimately, we should be waiting longer between protein dosings to optimize our results. MPS is obviously important for the athlete, but it’s also important for the gen pop- particularly the aging population who is at risk for sarcopenia, decreased work capacity, and thus a host of other comorbidities (e.g. diabetes from decreased skeletal muscle buffering of blood glucose). The literature suggests that the aging population actually sees fantastic results with higher protein intakes and they even use whey protein shakes in many of their interventions.

tl;dr-Eat 3-5x per day tops, spread out 3-5 hours.
3) You will determine optimal protein intake by taking rules 1 and 2 into consideration with total calorie intake, age, and gender. It intuits well, given rules 1 and 2, that the optimal protein intake per day is initially based on how much protein a person needs per meal to maximize MPS multiplied by the number of meals they will have per day. Other factors that are taken into consideration to increase or decrease the protein prescription (new book title?) for an individual includes the following modifiers:
a)Gender- The more male someone becomes, the more sensitive to amino acids they are, in general. This would allow a male to need slightly less protein per pound than a weight and age-matched female. That being said, lean body mass weight also plays a role in the amount of leucine needed per meal to maximize MPS, but this is literally a variation of 0.5-1g tops for a range of bodyweights between 100lbs-300lbs, so we don’t take it into consideration and 3-4g is very safe.

b) Age- In general, the more someone ages the less sensitive they become to protein, so protein levels should go up over time slightly.

c) Dietary Preferences- As the quality of protein increases (based on bioavailability, protein digestibility amino acid corrected score, and amino acid profile) the total protein needed to optimize protein intake goes down. Similarly, the more vegan someone is, the more protein they require, i.e. the more calories from protein they require to get the same effect as their meat-eating, bone crushing, bacon frying counterparts. In short, the lower quality your protein sources are (lentils/rice/veggies/wheat/soy) the more protein you require for the same effect. This is an important consideration for those who are calorie restricted/limited.

4) You will not listen to bro’s who tell you that you only need x gram of protein/day. First off, we’re definitively NOT talking about protein needs here. Protein needs refers to what you NEED to not be deficient- not to optimize performance, aesthetics, or health but merely to survive. So yea, not what we’re talking about. Secondly, the amount of protein you actually need is a fairly complex answer based on everything we’ve discussed above. Do you really think the dude with the cut-off tee who maxes out on bench press every Monday and squats high (or more likely-leg presses) has taken all this into consideration before word vomiting his opinion to you while you foam roll? Doesn’t it make more sense that he noticed your new Lululemon yoga pants (if female) or is admiring your handsome combover (if male)? Seems more likely to me…

5) You will not listen to the bros who tell you that you can only absorb x gram of protein/meal. The poor bro, he can’t catch a break. So this oft-repeated nonsense goes around and around and just will not die…until TODAY. Let me be crystal clear, you absorb and use virtually 100% of everything that enters your gastrointestinal tract from your mouth. If you don’t, you’ll know it because you’ll be having watery diarrhea post-prandial (after a meal) since the undigested and unabsorbed food will act osmotically to draw water into the large intestine and then well, you know what happens after that. Look, we’ve done the tracer studies and know that when you eat any amount of protein at a meal it all gets absorbed. All of it. Actually 110-120% of it. Yep, MORE THAN 100%. That’s because the cells the line the  bowel, the enterocytes, make proteins themselves. These are called endogenous (made within the body) proteins and yep, they’re absorbed too. Yes Virginia, if you eat 100g of protein at a meal you’ll absorb it all. Yes, it will take longer than if you only ate 20g, but you’ll absorb the first 20g of protein from the 100g at the same rate as 20g on it’s own provided they have similar total fat content and fiber content within the entire meal. That being said, the time course to which a meal is absorbed matters little to anyone, unless they compete or train multiple times per day.

6) You will not get lured into buying expensive protein with sub optimal amino acid profile. People, if you’re paying more than ~10 dollars/lb of protein you’re getting duped, as the manufacturer is preying on your ignorance. Whey is the king protein, period. It’s better than the 100 dollar fish protein from a certain manufacturer who is big in the land of shirtless dudes and vibram 5 finger clad women. Why? Because its amino acid profile is better, i.e. it has more BCAAs (leucine/isoleucine/valine) and a higher concentration of essential amino acids. Also, it’s cheaper…so that seems to be a good point in and of itself. Whey trumps casein on satiety, MPS rates, and time that it keeps plasma (blood) amino acid levels elevated. In other words, all the nonsense the bro at GNC regurgitates about casein being a slow digesting protein that is good to take at night because it slowly releases amino acids from the GI tract is BS. Well, to be fair to him (bro) or her (bra?), it [casein] does more slowly release amino acids into the blood stream from the gut, but it’s TOO SLOW to actually raise blood amino acid levels high enough to effectively drive muscle protein synthesis unless you dose it much higher than whey, which is the king of proteins. Also, whey keeps you fuller, longer (satiety) than casein, and it’s CHEAPER. Yep, whey is better than egg protein, beef protein, hemp protein (sucks), rice protein (sucks), pea protein (double sucks), and soy protein (double sucks). Whey protein concentrate, one of the cheapest options out there is where everyone should start for whey supplementation. If it doesn’t upset your GI tract, then stay there and never look back. If it does- and it will in some who are sensitive to an amino acid fraction (beta lactalbumin) – switch to whey protein isolate, which has this fraction removed. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) might actually be superior to whey protein isolate (WPI) because b-lactalbumin is a very concentrated source of leucine- so I prefer WPC in those who can tolerate it. No Virginia, WPI doesn’t always mean better and as you just learned- more expensive is not always better.

7) You will not fall into the trap of megadosing protein, because gainzZz? So far we’ve described why it’s hard to put a firm number on optimal protein intake based on numerous variables. That being said, there is definitely an upper limit- though not for the reason your doctor will try to justify. Most physicians, PA’s, nurses, etc. will all try to recite the urea cycle and scream stuff about ammonia at you whilst telling you that your kidneys and/or liver will fail with high levels of protein intake. I think every time they do this an angel gets its wings because it occurs too frequently and is so far removed from what actually happens in vivo (in the body) that I assume it’s just a religious ritual that all health care providers learn in school and pay homage to periodically. While I do not have time to layout the entire metabolic pathway for ammonia and urea, the two  toxic byproducts of protein metabolism that supposedly build up an will harm your kidney and/or liver, I will briefly state that in a healthy person- there is no upper limit for protein intake, as the excretion (removal) rate of these toxins is massively upregulated in an adaptive way that is not harmful, but is a response to a hormetic stressor, i.e. something that disrupts our homeostasis. There is no evidence of any kidney or liver damage when the excretion pathways upregulate either. Similarly, in end stage renal disease, those who ate a “very low protein diet” had worse outcomes than those who ate either a “moderate protein” or “low protein” (but higher than very low) diet. This indicates, to me at least, that protein and its metabolism is not harmful to the kidney- even if it’s function is reduced. More data continues to accrue exposing other harmful factors to the kidney, namely elevated blood sugar in those patients who don’t deal with glucose very well….perhaps because they haven’t optimized their protein intake yet 🙂

I say all this sort of tongue-in-cheek, as I do think there is an actual upper limit to useful protein intake, i.e. there is an inflection point where increased protein dosing does not yield improvements in performance, muscle protein synthesis, aesthetics, etc. This point is obviously different for many people, but I could make a pretty strong argument to avoid intakes in excess of 300g or so for anyone who is under 350lbs. Think about the 200lb bro- replete with cut off tank- who eats 400g of protein per day. While only a fraction (maybe half- depending on sources, age, etc.) will actually contribute to MPS, the other half is getting burnt (oxidized) or converted to carbohydrates and/or fat for storage. These processes are all controlled by enzymes, who will adapt (of course) to the stress imposed upon them. If/when these enzymes upregulate, i.e. increase in number and activity, the body becomes more efficient at using protein for fuel (oxidation to yield energy) and/or converting it to carbohydrates and fat. Similarly, such a robust protein intake concomitantly decreases intake of other substrates to a degree, i.e. carbohydrate and fat intake will be lower in a person who eats 400g of protein than if that same person only ate 200g of protein. This all sums to create a situation where a person is very good at breaking down protein as fuel and, God forbid, should his protein level ever significantly drop below 400g for an extended period of time- like if he were to spend a week at the Jersey Shore and only consume 100-150g of protein/day- then theoretically protein turnover would continue to be elevated since the body’s enzymatic ability to break down protein is so upregulated. Just some food for thought.


Last Minute Christmas/Holiday Gifts For the Lifter On Your List

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, Starting Strength Staff, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach

Well folks, it’s that time of year again and though this is a little late, I just want to do right by all my fellow strength and conditioning junkies out there and give the people shopping for them some gift ideas. You know, ones that don’t completely suck. For other gift ideas, check out last year’s posts here, herehere, and here.

First off, some books! I was hoping my book would be done and out by now, but after switching the original plan- an eBook– to a full fledged hard-copy, things got a lot more complicated. I’m still doing some revisions to the initial manuscript, although that has been on the backburner since it’s finals time. In any event, here are some books I think that would make any enthusiast happy to receive this holiday season:

1) Practical Programming 3rd Edition -20.95 +S/H

This book is already out for pre-sale and I honestly can’t wait for this to come out. I had a hand in some of the physiology and nutrition parts while Andy Baker and Matt Reynolds helped out with some of the programming parts. All in all, this book is going to be great and if you pre-order it (see link above), Rip will even sign your book!

2) Science and Practice of Strength training -$60.58

index1Probably one of the best texts written about the actual physiology of strength training, I consider this book to be an important staple in anyone who is serious about the iron game. If your physiology is a little soft, then you’ll want to read Brooks and Fahey’s Exercise Physiology first, however.

3 Muscletown USA 34.95

41xMznmwZLLThis is a really cool book about some of the history of weightlifting and the physical culture in America. Lots of cool stories in this one and definitely off the beaten path for most. Check out all the crazy stuff that went on back in the day at The York Barbell Club.

4 The Strongest Shall Survive -31.00

A classic from Bill Starr that, unfortunately, many have not read.

5) Reactive Training Systems Manual -39.95

Screen shot 2013-12-07 at 11.34.22 PMMike Tuchscherer shares his training philosophy with the masses in this great text. If you’ve ever wondered about auto-regulation, RPE, accumulation of fatigue, or are looking for the training template that’s going to take you to the next level, I think Mike has some of the best stuff out there. Since we’re talking about him…let’s all marvel at how strong this guy is:

What sort of holiday gift list would we have if we didn’t include some stocking stuffers?

American Weightlifting: The Documentary (film) – 19.95

This is a really cool documentary that Greg Everett has been working on the last few years. It’s actually really good and I’d give it two barbells up.

Quest Bars – 24.99 (box of 12)

imagesI’m not really dogmatic about what people shouldn’t eat food quality wise, provided they end up hitting the correct macros and calories day in and day out. That being said, it just tends to go a little smoother with a protein supplement (or two) on hand for when you’re in a pinch or in a rush. Outside of a quality whey protein supplement, I really like these Quest bars. They have 5 ingredients or less, no sugar alcohols, and the protein quality is very high. My current favorite flavor?  Chocolate Peanut Butter. Gainzzz.

Leather Wrist Wraps -22.99

I know I know, you all think I’ve lost my marbles and/or am super into bondage these days. Instead of explaining myself let me introduce exhibit A:

Yong Lu cleaning 205kg (451lbs)

Yong Lu cleaning 205kg (451lbs)

Deadlift Slippers -11.50

If you’re planning on going to a meet, you’re going to need these because you can’t pull in socks at any meet worth doing. Similarly, maybe you’re sick of ruining socks because you don’t have anything covering them. Worse yet, maybe you’re pulling barefoot and getting your nasty feet and DNA all over the gym. C’mon y’all.

Slingshot – 50.00

With a website like howmuchyabench.net, what did you expect other than something that will help you get your bench up? This “device” is a really nice way to add bench press volume that’s overloaded and that won’t beat up your shoulders or elbows. I really like my “standard” version.

Yong Lu cleaning 205kg (451lbs)

Yong Lu cleaning 205kg (451lbs)

slingshotNow what if you have someone on your list who’s literally got everything? They have the belt, a gym bag, lifting shoes, knee sleeves, wrist wraps, bands, books, etc. What the hell do you get them (besides a massage)? Here are a few cool trinkets even I would enjoy:

Mini DL jack – 65.00


This cool little contraption allows you to load your deadlift bar without having to struggle to get each additional plate on or, more importantly, off , after you rip that big PR. WestCary Barbell is a really good place to do business with as well.

Eleiko Calibrated Collars – 139.99

eleiko-collars-h1Probably one of the most annoying things about gyms these days is the lack of quality clamps they have to keep the weights on the damn bar. The spring clamps are useless, as they slide off when the weights get heavy. The lockjaw style plastic clamps might be worse because over time they don’t even stay on the bar hardly. Enter the Eleiko calibrated clamps. These things not only are rugged and keep the plates on the bar, they are exactly 5kg, which means no more worrying about how much the clamps weigh when it comes time to set a PR (you were thinking about that right? RIGHT?)

HookGrip Posters- 20.00

What better way to decorate your man (or woman) cave or home gym than with some sweet posters? I salute Comrade Klokov every morning while I put down breakfast…it’s a motivational deal of sorts. I really dig this new Apti celebration poster.

Alright folks, there you have it. A handful of gifts for any serious strength and conditioning enthusiast. Happy Holidays to everyone. Look out for some posts from my European Tour coming up shortly 🙂





28 Days Out….

Yep, that’s right….there’s 28 days until Christmas, arguably the peak of the Winter holiday season. Do you have a training guru or fitness buff you’re trying to buy a gift for? Well look no further, I’ve got you covered. In this series of posts I’ll offer up a few suggestions for your fitness-minded friends…

1) Lifting Shoes 90-200.00

Power Perfect 2.0- 150.00

Having the proper shoes to lift are a game changer for most lifters. Adidas, the foremost shoe manufacturer in weightlifting, makes some of the best shoes out there. The Powerlift version is 90 dollars and is an excellent shoe. The AdiPower is a more serious shoe running about 200 bucks, but incorporates all the bells and whistles of a high-end shoe. If you have a wide foot the Powerlift will still work for you (previous generations of Adidas were not wide-foot friendly). Get the serious trainee something they should have done for themselves a long time ago, the right shoes. The best part about this gift? They’ll last for years and years to come!

2) Iron Woody Fractional Plates– $50.00

Ask anyone who’s been training for a long time what the hardest part about training is and they’ll say progression. Progression (more weight or reps or both) is the name of the game when it comes to getting better, but all too often the smallest jump that people can make is 5lbs, which may be too much on exercises like the bench press, press, etc. Enter the fractional plates! With this kit you can make as little as 0.5 lb jumps total and keep the progression going. I’ve used these “plates” with virtually all my clients and myself and consider them a staple in my gym bag. These are an important accoutrement for all lifters!
Happy shopping!

Donny Shankle and the Olympics!!!!

Well things are getting awfully exciting here in ‘Merica. Word on the street is that Donny Shankle cleaned 225kg (495lbs) from blocks. Here is the video:

Now Donny competes in the 105kg weight class and the current records in that class are 238kg (523.6lbs) clean and jerk by Russian David Bedzhanyan and a 200kg (440lbs) snatch by Andrei Aramnau in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics. Donny’s best lifts are 173.5kg in the snatch and 208kg in the clean, as his coach Glenn Pendlay posted here.

So why all the fuss? Well this puts Donny in a prime position to qualify for the Olympics (along with Kendrick Farris and Chad Vaughn). This March they will all be lifting at the Arnold Sports Invitational in Ohio. Best of luck to all of our lifters.

Why am I picking my inaugural post to post some pics of strong dudes heaving some heavy weights in a relatively obscure sport? Well there is a strong possibility that we won’t send anyone to the Olympics in London 2012 and dammit that is just unacceptable. I know folks are going to cry all of the following excuses:

-we don’t have enough lifters (compared to other countries) because all of our best “lifters” play sports with more exposure/money like football/basketball/etc

-we don’t have enough financial incentive/support to let these lifters actually just focus on getting stronger and better (Donny is taking donations on his blog just to make it to the meet and find time to train)

-we drug test so frequently that it puts us at a disadvantage to other countries who are a little looser with their testing protocols.

These are all at least somewhat true and I feel for everyone involved, but we are ‘MERICA! We’ve got to put on some sweat pants, cue up the 80’s motivational music, and start punching some carcasses of meat so we can overcome! Cue the Rocky training montage.

I had a discussion today with a member of the USA’s ’84 and ’88 Olympic Weightlifting team and he seemed pretty upset that it was a legit possibility that no one would be representing the good ‘ol USA on the platform. I’m inclined to agree. So let’s all get behind our boys!

I think Donny has a pretty good shot at qualifying if he can snatch 175kg and clean and jerk 225kg, totaling 400kg. This would have put him 9th in the 2008 games, but hey we didn’t even have a lifter in the 20-man field back then, so GO USA BABY! We’ll see how Donny does at the Arnold the first weekend of March.

Thanks for reading!