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Protein Intake: Build Muscle and Improve Your Fitness Workout

By Bonnie Campbell (Klauber), MS RD

Moving up to a new weight on the floor is always a great feeling. When you get stronger in the studio, you get stronger in your daily life too! All of a sudden you can move the furniture without waiting for someone to help. You can bring in another few bags of groceries in one trip. Clothes look and feel better. Doctors' visits end in high fives and congratulations. Increased muscle strength and power are beneficial in so many ways! Muscle building doesn’t end in the studio, though — what and when you eat and drink the rest of the day matters too.

Most likely, you've heard about the importance of protein for building lean mass. But did you know that protein is found in every part of your body, including your organs, tissues and even your hormones? Proteins are made from a set of 20 building blocks called amino acids. While your body can make several of these amino acids, nine are considered essential as they can only be obtained through your diet. When all the essential amino acids are present, this is called a “complete” protein.

These essential amino acids also happen to be key players in helping you build and repair muscle after your Orangetheory Fitness workouts. On top of that, it’s also one of the best ways to increase satiety or sense of fullness. It’s much easier to stick to your weight loss and nutrition goals when you aren’t hungry!

First off, how much protein do you need to build muscle?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American College of Sports Medicine recommend 0.55-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight for anyone doing endurance or resistance training to build and maintain lean body mass. For a 150-lb. person, that would be about 83-135 grams of protein per day.

Research indicates that you’ll improve muscle gains if you consistently spread your protein throughout the day in meals and snacks. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 0.11 to 0.18 grams of protein per pound of body weight every three to four hours to best support muscle protein synthesis and improve body composition.

Using our previous example, someone who weighs 150 lbs would need roughly 17-27 grams of protein every three to four hours in their meals or snacks. Timing your intake of one of these meals or snacks within an hour or two of your workout will optimize the immediate anabolic response to exercise, giving your muscles fuel to repair, recover and get stronger! Research also indicates that the metabolic effects of exercise can last up to 24 hours, another reason why spreading your protein intake throughout the day in your meals and snacks is key to your success.

What kinds of protein are best?

Animal protein sources such as seafood, eggs, poultry, dairy and meat contain all the amino acids required for optimal muscle building. In addition, these protein sources are easier to process and are more readily absorbed compared with other proteins.

You can also get protein from plants such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy nuts and soy milk), whole grains and a variety of vegetables. Vegetarian protein sources are an important aspect of a balanced diet, and contain many micronutrients in addition to protein, as well as fiber. Most plant sources are “incomplete” proteins, meaning that some of the essential amino acids are not present. Eating mixed meals throughout the day will help to ensure that you consume all of the essential amino acids. Soy is the major exception to this, as it is a complete plant-based protein.

Now onto application! How can you fit your protein needs into your day?

Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, low-sugar jerky, tuna and egg whites are convenient snacks to have before or after an Orangetheory class. You can also have a high protein food meal, especially if your class time is just prior to breakfast, lunch or dinnertime.

For convenience, protein powder is another quick option (whether whey protein, egg protein or plant-based protein), which you can easily make into a shake or mix into oatmeal or yogurt. Whey protein powder is a popular post-exercise choice because it is quickly absorbed and used by the body. When choosing a plant-based protein, look for one that has pea protein isolate, soy protein isolate or mixed plant protein sources that provide at least 2 grams per serving of the branched chain amino acid leucine.

Choose a variety of protein sources in your day to have a well-balanced diet. For example:

  • Eggs and mushrooms at breakfast
  • A protein shake after your morning workout
  • Chicken and broccoli at lunch
  •  Fish tacos with black beans for dinner 

This will give your body the building blocks for muscle building and recovery. For more specific information about pre- and post-workout fueling, including timing and macronutrient breakdowns, check out this article from our Medical Advisory Board.

Take stock of your daily protein — do you have a high-quality sources of protein four times every three to four hours spanned throughout each day? If not, that’s OK! Rome wasn’t built in a day. Start one meal at a time, and especially focus on the meal or snack following your workout. After a week or two optimizing that meal, move onto the next one — and before you know it, you’ll be stronger and fitter than ever!