Of all the factors associated with muscle growth, the single biggest barrier to building lean mass could be adequate protein consumption.
The quality and amount of protein consumed throughout the day has a major bearing on the quality of muscle growth we are likely to experience.
To further the growth process, it’s important to ensure that the correct balance of muscle-building proteins is maintained at all times.
If we neglect this crucial aspect of bodybuilding, the continued depletion of muscle proteins is likely to make our gym efforts wasteful at best.
The Importance of Achieving Homeostasis & MPS
The major imperative of the human body is homeostasis, the maintenance or regulation of the body’s physiological equilibrium. Indeed, the biological balancing of a myriad of bodily functions (from temperature, to pH balance to blood glucose levels) is imperative to human survival.
Homeostasis also governs muscle growth. Our most metabolically active and adaptive tissue, muscle exists in a constant state of flux. It’s either being broken down or built up depending on the amount of stimulation and the quality of the raw materials it receives.
The process of building new proteins is called muscle protein synthesis. It’s what bodybuilders desire most. On the other side of the muscle remodeling equation is protein degradation. This is what happens when protein synthesis is not occurring.
The muscles function in either in a catabolic (breaking down) or anabolic (building up) state. There is no in between. Thus if size increases are high on your list of objectives, it’s important to keep the muscles anabolic at all times. This requires that muscle tissue be in a continued state of muscle protein synthesis.
We may think we eat enough protein. With the multiple daily servings of chicken, fish, eggs, beef, and the strategic incorporation of supplements such as whey protein, surely the synthesizing of new muscle will continue unabated.
However, while protein consumption throughout the day is a great start, it’s not the complete picture. Read on to learn how you can further optimize your protein intake for more impressive gains.
The Importance of Nighttime Protein
Muscle protein synthesis occurs as a result of both hypertrophy-focused training and protein consumption.3 However, while most people have their training locked down, getting enough quality protein is where many of us falter.
Both research and real world experience has shown that certain key periods for protein consumption are often neglected. One study showed that even experienced athletes are likely to pound down the protein during the day (averaging 1.2kg of protein/kg/day over three main meals) while on average talking in a scant 7g of protein before bed.4
And therein lays the problem for many. We’ve been conditioned to believe that food of any description before bed may lead to fat gain, thus neglecting one of the prime times for protein consumption.
Whether due to sheer laziness or a fear of gaining unwanted weight, cutting protein before bed has catabolic consequences when it comes to developing lean mass. Research has shown that high-grade pure proteins taken before bed will not lead to added adipose but may in fact have the opposite effect: a bump in energy expenditure due to enhanced fat metabolism.5, 8, 12
As long as we do not gorge on plates loaded with fatty steaks or 10 egg omelets, a 30-40g serving of high quality protein before bed will not only help to accelerate muscle growth, but will also keep our metabolic machinery on point – so we can build muscle and burn fat while we sleep.
The best form of protein to take at this time is casein as it’s less insulinogenic (it encourages the body to use more fat for fuel) and more sustained-release (it keeps amino acids circulating in the blood to help stimulate muscle protein synthesis and, in particular, safeguard against muscle losses).
Boost Protein Synthesis and Enhance Muscle Retention
Neglecting pre-sleep protein also deprives us of an opportunity to take in the extra protein needed to enhance muscle protein synthesis.1 Even though you may think you’ve consumed adequate protein during the day, you may find it’s not enough.
Indeed, the protein we do consume is used not only for muscle growth but for more crucial aspects of health and wellbeing such as blood cell formation and the building of thousands of different enzymes (protein molecules) to catalyze numerous bodily functions.
Only a small percentage of our daily protein intake actually goes toward muscle growth. One study tracked 30g of labeled protein in 12 healthy young men (the other 12 men in the 24 subject sample were given a placebo). It was discovered that only 57% of the labeled proteins turned up in circulation. The gut took the rest.
Of the 57% of ingested proteins only 10% made its way to the muscles.13 In other words, a 40g serving of protein will provide only 4g of protein for muscle rebuilding.
To ensure the muscles receive enough protein to sustain the rebuilding process it’s therefore imperative that we take in ample quality protein throughout the day. The best daytime sources remain those of a high biological and, in many cases, rapidly absorbed nature such as whey isolate, eggs, chicken and steak.
However, when it’s time to hit the sack the rules change. Here we need protein that serves us while we sleep.
Eating protein before bed will enable us to maximally stimulate protein synthesis by ensuring that a high number of growth-inducing amino acids continue to circulate while we sleep.10
Under normal circumstances, when awake, we would not dream of going 8-10 hours without at least three evenly spaced 30-40g servings of quality protein. However, this is exactly what many of us do when we neglect pre-sleep protein.
In fact it’s believed by many that a failure to consume adequate protein before bed is the single biggest event which precludes the ability to retain muscle size - remembering that when the muscles are not in an anabolic state of muscle protein synthesis they must therefore be in a catabolic state of protein degradation. Muscle catabolism is even more likely to occur during sleep.
Indeed, unless we consume adequate pre-sleep protein the liver and muscles will be forced to send amino acids and glucose to the blood to maintain blood glucose and tissue metabolism, to keep our biological machinery ticking along while we sleep.
Research has verified that during the 8-10 hour fasting period otherwise known as sleep, muscle protein breakdown exceeds muscle protein synthesis. Research has also found the reverse to be true when supplementing with casein protein before bed: that with a small investment of time you can double your muscle gains while increasing muscle strength.11
Best Protein Options
Lean proteins containing a full complement of essential amino acids are best before bed. Egg whites closely followed by low-fat cottage cheese (rich in casein) remain the best whole food sources. The best of the supplemental proteins is casein due to its slower absorption rate of 6.1g per hour (as opposed to 8-10g per hour for whey protein).2
For whey to maintain the same steady release of amino acids throughout the night, massive quantities of it would need to be consumed before bed (both impractical and counterintuitive when seeking to shred and indeed build more muscle).
On the other hand, casein’s slow digestion rate more effectively reduces protein breakdown and amino acid oxidation (the burning of amino acids for energy) while still boosting muscle protein synthesis (just not to the same degree as whey).
Locking in the Gains
That a high protein intake leads to sustained muscle growth remains unquestioned. Recent research from McMaster University confirms the correlation between protein intake and both peak muscle gains and fat loss when combined with high-intensity resistance training.9
Could you be shortchanging your gains by under-consuming this most precious of bodybuilding resources? If you’re not eating protein before bed then the answer is a resounding yes.
When we sleep, the body continues to function in myriad ways. Its various energy systems continue to sustain a wide range of biological processes whether we are awake or fully resting. This requires energy.
Without a steady supply of muscle-building amino acids via pre-sleep protein consumption, the muscles will fast become catabolic as aminos are steadily leeched from lean tissue to supply the body with the required energy resources.
Casein protein taken just prior to turning in is the perfect solution. Micellar casein remains the best of these products. The micelle structure of this form of casein protein is most effective in delivering a complete, full spectrum supply of amino acids over a period of 10 or more hours.
While it won’t stimulate maximum muscle protein synthesis to the same extent as whey protein, casein will prevent protein breakdown and amino acid oxidation. To avoid any degree of muscle wasting its inclusion before sleep is to be encouraged among all serious athletes.
While casein is regarded as the best of the pre-sleep proteins, I would also include a half serving of whey isolate to further stimulate protein synthesis while you sleep.
To stimulate maximum muscle protein synthesis the body needs plenty of the highly-anabolic branched chain amino acid leucine.6,7 However, with its relatively low leucine content of 8% compared to whey’s 11%, casein is not entirely suitable for this role.
By combining a full serving of casein with half a serving of whey protein isolate you’ll be providing your muscles with a full 37.5g of muscle building protein and getting the best of both worlds: maximum muscle retention and maximum muscle protein synthesis.
So be sure never to be caught napping when it comes to supplying your muscles with exactly what they need, when needed. Pre-sleep protein remains a smart supplemental strategy for smart bodybuilders and athletes at all levels. Remember that progress never sleeps and neither will your muscle gains.
- Beelen, M., et al. Coingestion of Carbohydrate and Protein Hydrolysate Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis during Exercise in Young Men, with No Further Increase during Subsequent Overnight Recovery. J. Nutr. November 2008 vol. 138 no. 11 2198-2204
- Bilsborough, S., et al. A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Apr;16(2):129-52.
- Brook, M. S., et al. Skeletal muscle hypertrophy adaptations predominate in the early stages of resistance exercise training, matching deuterium oxide-derived measures of muscle protein synthesis and mechanistic target of rapamycin complex 1 signaling. FASEB J. 2015 Nov;29(11):4485-96.
- Gillen, J. B., et al. Dietary protein intake and distribution patterns of well-trained Dutch athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2016.
- Katayose, Y., et al. Metabolic rate and fuel utilization during sleep assessed by whole-body indirect calorimetry. Metabolism. 2009(58):920-6.
- Kimball, S. R., et al. Regulation of protein synthesis by branched-chain amino acids. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001 Jan;4(1):39-43.
- Luiking, Y. C., Postprandial muscle protein synthesis is higher after a high whey protein, leucine-enriched supplement than after a dairy-like product in healthy older people: a randomized controlled trial. Nutr J. 2014 Jan 22;13:9.
- Madzima, T. A., Night-time consumption of protein or carbohydrate results in increased morning resting energy expenditure in active college-aged men. Br J Nutr. 2014; 111(1):71-7.
- Morton, R. W., et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med. Published Online First: 11 July 2017.
- Moore, D. R., Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):161-8.
- Snijders, T., et al. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. J Nutr. 2015; 145(6):1178-84.
- Swaminathan, R., Thermic effect of feeding carbohydrate, fat, protein and mixed meal in lean and obese subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1985 Aug;42(2):177-81.Thermic_effect_of_feeding_carbohydrate_fat_protein_and_mixed_meal_in_lean_and_obese_subjects (protein costs more energy to digest and process than carbs and fats)
- Trommelen, J., et al. Resistance Exercise Augments Postprandial Overnight Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016; 48(12):2517-25.