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Can You ‘Optimize’ Muscle Protein Synthesis to Gain More Muscle? Experts Weigh In

Your body is a pro at turning the protein you eat into muscle mass—and you can help it along with these tips.

By Sarah KleinJuly 3, 2024

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Picture your muscles like a beautiful brick building: Each brick in the walls fits together just so—just like different amino acids (the building blocks of protein) combine to build muscle. When you exercise, you damage some of the brickwork, but your body repairs the damage and builds the wall back stronger. It’s a quintessential image most exercisers have learned about building muscle and strength over time.

But did you know the name for this process is muscle protein synthesis and that it’s constantly running in the background, no matter what you’re up to? Keep reading for all the fascinating details about muscle protein synthesis, plus a few strategic diet and exercise tips to optimize the process.

How Muscle Protein Synthesis Works

Let’s unpack muscle protein synthesis, or MPS, a bit further. Plain and simple: It’s how your muscles turn the protein you eat into new muscle, says David Church, PhD, an assistant professor at the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who has researched muscle protein synthesis and is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

Church equates workouts to a hurricane that can damage those brick buildings of your muscles. The storm blows through, and some of the bricks fall out or get broken. “That’s kind of what your muscle would look like after a workout,” he says. “You don’t get a completely flattened building, but you have pieces that are damaged.”

As this normal micro-damage happens to your muscles from exercise (and other stressors), new amino acids are popped in to replace them, thereby making muscle protein.

A hurricane, obviously, is pretty intense. And the intensity of your workout, the type of exercise you do, and how long you do it all affect MPS, explains sports nutritionist Laurent Bannock, creator of the Fueling Greatness podcast and blog, who has researched muscle protein synthesis and has a doctorate in sports nutrition. “Going for a walk is not going to stimulate much muscle protein synthesis, whereas bench pressing, deadlifting, interval training, repeated hill climbs will cause a lot of stress to the muscle tissue, and that stress elicits a much bigger response.”

How Do Exercise and Diet Affect Muscle Protein Synthesis?

The process of muscle protein synthesis is always happening—muscle in your body is constantly breaking down and being built—but exercise is like a dimmer switch that can turn up muscle protein synthesis, Church explains. “Exercise is the most potent natural stressor we have to enhance muscle adaptation,” he says.

When you exercise regularly, your body is constantly replacing your protein building blocks. “The body is effectively going to adapt so it can handle that stress more robustly, which is why you get bigger, faster, stronger,” Bannock says.

But it simply won’t work without the protein you eat. “If you’re not taking in any dietary protein, then you’re not getting any amino acids into the body to replace the old ones,” Church says. “You have to provide the body amino acids to make new muscle.” 

Exactly how much protein you need varies on a few factors (more on that below!), but generally, “the more physically active you are, the greater your protein needs are,” Church says.

Can You ‘Optimize’ Muscle Protein Synthesis to Gain More Muscle?

There’s no overnight shortcut to bigger, stronger muscles—just like it takes time to lay enough bricks to build an entire structure. But there are some steps you can take to support MPS so you get the most out of your workouts:

1. Time Your Protein Properly

Research has long suggested your muscles are more sensitive to dietary protein for about 48 hours after exercise. Upping your dietary protein intake during this anabolic window might increase MPS, according to the International Sports Sciences Association. That, in turn, could have some small benefits for performance if you’re an elite athlete, Bannock says.

For the rest of us, it’s practical to eat after exercise, even if our livelihoods don’t depend on shaving a few seconds off our marathon times: For starters, you’re probably hungry anyway, Bannock says, and you might be less likely to forget to properly fuel up if you make eating protein part of your post-workout routine.

Eating some protein after a workout also helps you spread your protein intake across your meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than topping off your protein stores all at once. That’s a good thing, because protein isn’t stored in your body like fat and carbs are, Bannock says. Replenishing your protein stores evenly throughout the day is also linked with faster MPS, according to a small study in The Journal of Nutrition.

2. Eat Enough Protein

Daily protein goals for building muscle can be pretty high. “Over the years, studies have recommended evenly distributing protein at about 25–40 grams per meal every three to four hours to optimize muscle protein synthesis,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Yasi Ansari, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Those benchmarks come from equations that calculate the ideal amount of daily protein for various goals, like losing weight or building muscle. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, active individuals should get around 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight each day to optimize recovery and build lean muscle mass. (Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.)

You might notice that’s a decent amount more than the National Academy of Medicine’s official recommended dietary allowance for the average healthy adult of just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. But you should consider that the bare minimum you need to exist; very few people (if any) would see any real muscle gains from eating that little protein, Bannock says.

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On the individual level, your age, body size, health status, and activity level, among other factors, all affect how much protein you need each day, Ansari says. For example, if you’re doing a lot of cardio exercise, you can aim for the lower end of the range above. If you’re doing a lot of strength training or you’re over 65 (because we lose more muscle as we age), aim for the upper end, she says.

And keep in mind there may not really be a maximum: More recent research “suggests that the body may not have a specific dose or an upper limit to the amount of protein that can be used at one time to build muscle when consumed after resistance training,” Ansari says. We need more studies—particularly studies in women, according to a 2023 article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports—to “truly understand and determine protein recommendations to support optimal athletic performance,” she says.

Not sure what all that means for you? Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about your protein needs and how to safely increase your protein intake. They can “assess your food preferences and consider your health history and activity level, and provide evidence-based protein recommendations based on your individual needs,” Ansari says. 

And if you do decide to track your protein intake, try not to get too overwhelmed by the numbers, Bannock says. “You don’t need to be counting [every] gram of protein, you just need to be roughly right,” he says. “The most important thing is the total amount of protein that you get on any day, and on average throughout the week and months and years. Getting it wrong occasionally is not really going to be an issue.”

3. Pick Nutritious, Protein-Rich Foods

From a general standpoint, Ansari recommends getting 25 grams of protein in each meal or snack from a variety of high-quality sources like eggs, poultry, nuts, legumes, and seafood, and “not going more than three to four hours without eating throughout the day to support MPS.”

What does that look like? Here are a few of her go-to examples of foods that deliver 25–40 grams of protein:

  • 1 cup of ground turkey

  • 5 ounces of chicken

  • 1.5 cups of Greek yogurt topped with granola

  • 5–6 ounces of cooked salmon

  • 1 can of white tuna

  • 1.5 cups of baked tofu, edamame, or black beans

  • Fruit smoothie with protein powder, milk, fresh fruit, and chia seeds

  • 3 eggs with sauteed chicken sausage

Protein powders, shakes, and bars can work in a pinch, but read ingredient lists and nutrition facts carefully. Many are loaded with sugar and are higher in calories than you might need, depending on the intensity of your workout, Bannock says. It’s also worth checking to see if your go-to pick is in the National Sanitation Foundation’s Certified for Sport® directory. And don’t forget that there are plenty of plant-based protein options for vegetarians, too!

4. Don’t Skimp on Rest

While exercise and diet are the two big players in MPS, you can’t build muscle without rest and recovery. 

While you’re always experiencing some degree of muscle protein synthesis, the most notable muscle growth “occurs over a period of time while you’re recovering,” Bannock says. If you don’t give yourself time to recover—either with full rest days or by varying your training sessions day to day—“you’ll end up with a depreciating set of benefits, because your stress has exceeded the body’s ability to recover and replace and regenerate,” he says.

You also need to get plenty of sleep, Church says. “If you don’t sleep, the ability to repair the brick walls is greatly reduced.”

The Takeaway

Muscle protein synthesis is how your body turns dietary protein into muscle all over your body. Your workouts cause damage to your muscles, and the protein you eat gets used to repair that damage and build your muscles back even stronger than before.

Getting enough protein is key to this process, especially if you’re looking to get stronger or faster. But as long as you’re eating around 25–40 grams of protein at each of your meals and snacks, you probably don’t have to worry too much about counting every single gram.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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