Can You Build Muscle Without Eating a Lot of Protein?

Your body needs protein: That is a fact. And if you're physically active most days of the week, you might be wondering if training without protein, at least adequate amounts, will limit the amount of muscle you can gain.

Without enough protein you will limit your muscle growth. (Image: svetikd/E+/GettyImages)

While the answer to that question can vary depending on whom you talk to, there is one thing most experts agree on: The amount of protein you need each day depends on a variety of factors, including your age, weight, gender and activity level.

Tip

To build muscle, you need to perform resistance training at least three days each week and meet the minimum recommended dietary allowance for protein.

How Much Protein Is Enough?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, a male between the ages of 31 and 50 needs about 56 grams of protein, assuming he is eating 2,400 calories a day. And a female between the ages of 31 and 50, who eats 1,800 calories a day needs approximately 46 grams of protein.

To get a better idea of how to calculate your protein needs, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that protein should make up 10 to 35 percent of your total calories for the day. And more specifically, the recommended dietary allowance for an average adult is 0.37 grams per pound of body weight.

If you're active and trying to build muscle, using the 0.37 grams per pound of body weight equation as your baseline can help you determine your needs, especially if you're consuming a lot of calories. However, once you establish your baseline and factor in your activity level, you may find that you need more than the minimum recommended dietary allowance for protein each day.

Physical Activity and Protein Needs

The dietary guidelines are written for the average person. When you start factoring in exercise, and more specifically, resistance training to build muscle, some experts say that dipping below the minimum requirement of protein is not a good idea.

In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine says that people who exercise regularly need to eat more than the recommended dietary intake. Furthermore, they state that if you lift weights regularly and want to increase muscle mass in combination with physical activity, you should eat a range of 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per body weight.

While moderate to intense levels of physical activity do require adequate amounts of protein, going to extremes does not have any added health benefits. In other words, you don't have to eat chicken breasts at each meal and guzzle protein shakes all day to gain muscle. Generally speaking, the recommended level of protein, even on the higher end, can be met through diet alone without additional supplements.

Training Without Protein

If you hit the weight room with a goal to build muscle, but you're not eating enough protein, you may have a difficult time getting the results you desire. That's because proteins function as building blocks for your muscles.

It is also a building block for bones, skin, blood, cartilage, hormones, enzymes and vitamins. Plus, protein makes up the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood, which is a critical component in the amount of energy you have available when it comes time to exercise.

If you want to up your daily intake or protein, start with a goal to meet the minimum requirement of 0.37 grams per pound of body weight. That's only 55 grams of protein per day if you weight 150 pounds. Once you're accustomed to that level, and if building muscle is your goal, slowly increase your intake until you are at 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, which is the minimum recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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