Most weightlifters and bodybuilders are aware that protein is essential for building muscle, but surprisingly few understand what protein is and why it is crucial to evaluate the amino acid composition of a food or supplement in addition to considering its overall protein content.
What is a protein?
A protein is a chain of amino acids that are chemically linked together. The DNA code in each cell is used to instruct the translation machinery as to which proteins to make when, and also tells that machinery which amino acids should be linked together in a specific order to produce the necessary proteins. Once the amino acid chain is constructed, the protein folds up in a shape dictated by its amino acids, and then it becomes a functional protein. Proteins do all kinds of things in the body – some of them form structures, others act as enzymes to create or break down different molecules, some are used to send messages across the body, and so forth.
The part of the body that is of most concern to bodybuilders is, of course, the skeletal muscles, which are primarily composed of protein. There are three components necessary for successful bodybuilding: weight lifting, providing fuel for the muscles to burn while lifting weights, and consuming sufficient amounts of each of the 21 amino acids to build more muscle.
What is an amino acid?
All amino acids have a core nitrogen-containing chemical structure that allows them to link together to form proteins. Then each type also has a unique chemical structure attached to the core structure. It is not necessary to understand the chemistry of amino acids to successfully build muscles; it is, however, essential to know that some amino acids must be consumed in the diet while others can be synthesized in the body.
The amino acids that must be consumed are called the essential amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids. If insufficient amounts of even one of these amino acids are consumed, protein synthesis in the muscles will rapidly stop. Yes, even if you are chugging huge amounts of protein, if your protein source is lacking in a single essential amino acid, your body cannot make proteins.
Thus, when choosing protein supplements or protein-rich foods, it is vital to ensure your protein source contains sufficient amounts of each essential amino acid. This is equally as important as ensuring you are consuming adequate amounts of overall protein.
Complete versus incomplete proteins
Nutritionists like to talk about complete versus incomplete protein sources. When they say “complete,” they are stating that the protein source contains adequate amounts of each of the essential amino acids, while “incomplete” means the protein source is lacking sufficient amounts of one or more of the essential amino acids.
One simple guideline that usually works well is that animal-based protein sources are complete while plant-based protein sources are not. This is why vegans have to be extremely careful when planning their meals. Someone sitting down to a salmon or steak dinner is sure to consume a complete protein source, but a vegan burger made from pea protein is an incomplete protein source since peas don’t contain sufficient quantities of two of the essential amino acids.
Certain essential amino acids are more essential than others
When it comes to bodybuilding, the two essential amino acids of paramount importance are leucine and methionine. High levels of these two amino acids in the diet seem to be necessary to trigger the synthesis of muscle protein and to produce the muscle mass that bodybuilders are seeking. Although all animal-based sources provide sufficient amounts of these two amino acids, whey protein is particularly rich in leucine, which is why it is such a popular protein supplement source among bodybuilders.
In addition, the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, valine, and isoleucine) deserve special mention. These three amino acids are used by muscles both as components of proteins and as fuel – your body burns them during exercise. Consuming a supplement high in branched-chain amino acids before or during a workout can boost the efficacy of that workout by fueling the muscles.
Amino acids aren’t stored for later use
Bodybuilders are generally familiar with the fact that the body stores both fats and carbohydrates for later use. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, and are broken down and burned as fuel when needed. Of course, everyone is aware that the body also stores any excess calories consumed as body fat, which is intended to be broken down and burned as fuel during times when caloric intake is low. However, the body does not store amino acids.
The amino acids you consume each day circulate throughout the body. Many are used to construct proteins, and some (chiefly the branched-chain amino acids) are directly burned as fuel. All of the excess amino acids consumed each day are broken down and excreted in your urine. If you fail to consume sufficient amounts of one or more essential acids, your body’s protein-construction machinery grinds to a halt, and fairly rapidly discards all of the other amino acids you consumed. If this state of affairs goes on for more than a few days, your body will start to break down your skeletal muscles to feed your vital organs the missing essential amino acids.
Thus, when embarking on a calorie-restrictive diet to reduce your body fat level, it is vital NOT to restrict your protein intake. If you accidentally restrict your protein intake due to your weight loss efforts, all of your hard work in the gym will be for naught as your muscles get broken down to feed your brain and liver those all-important essential amino acids.
After a hard workout, your body is feeling depleted of energy. If it isn’t rapidly supplied with both calories and essential amino acids, it may decide to divert your resources to maintaining your heart rather than building the new muscle mass you desire. One of the best ways to push your body towards muscle building is to consume a whey protein hydrolysate along with a simple carbohydrate source immediately after your workout. The whey protein hydrolysate has been broken down into amino acids before consumption, so it doesn’t need to digest, and the amino acids can rapidly enter your system, encouraging muscle-building activities.
The bottom line
- Consuming a supplement rich in branched-chain amino acids before or during a workout will provide fuel to your muscles and improve your workout efficacy.
- Consuming a whey protein hydrolysate immediately after your workout will encourage your body to build muscle mass.
- It is vital to consume complete protein sources every day to ensure your body has sufficient amounts of each of the essential amino acids.
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