In his lab, Prof. van Loon tests various supplements and muscle-building exercises and studies the mechanisms of atrophy – the loss of muscle mass. Based on the data from his research and other scientific works in this area, four important rules about muscle growth can be deduced.
1. Your muscles are built from what you eat.
You’ve probably heard that protein is essential for building muscle. In 2009, Professor van Loon developed a technique to determine how amino acids—the building blocks of protein—become part of our bodies.
To do this, cows are given specially labeled amino acids and milked, and casein, one of the main proteins of dairy products, is isolated from milk. The casein is then given to the person, and blood samples and muscle tissue biopsies are periodically taken from the person to trace the amino acids from the digestive tract to the bloodstream and muscles.
Using this method, scientists found that within an hour and a half after taking 20 g of casein, 55% of the amino acids were in the bloodstream. About 20% of them entered the tissues of skeletal muscles and stimulated their growth. Within five hours of protein intake, 11% of the amino acids had become part of the muscles.
2. How Much Protein You Eat, and When You Do It Matters
Amino acids from protein play a dual role in building muscle: providing building blocks and signaling the anabolic “Grow up!” signal. The last is the amino acid leucine. It is irreplaceable: our body does not synthesize it. Therefore, the amino acid must be supplied with food, moreover, in sufficient quantities. Ideally, each dose of protein should contain 700-3,000 milligrams of leucine.
But leucine alone is not enough for muscle growth. All amino acids are needed, moreover, in a certain amount.
To maintain and build muscle, it is advised to consume 1.4–2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. In a recent review of scientific papers, scientists named a more accurate amount, upon receipt of which protein synthesis is accelerated to the limit, – 1.62 g / kg of body weight per day.
Of course, you can only eat it some at a time. The daily applied nutrition creatine protein intake should be divided into equal parts (0.25 g/kg of body weight) according to the number of meals. For example, if you need to eat 130 g of protein per day (for 80 kg), you can divide it into six parts and take 20 g every three hours and 30 g before bed.
You need to eat more at night. Another study involving van Loon showed that 30-40 grams of casein before bed increased muscle protein synthesis, while less protein had no such effect.
3. Protein is powerless without movement
With age, muscle mass begins to go away. After 30 years, a person loses 3-8% of muscle per decade, and to maintain their muscles, they have to consume more protein. However, the point is not only in age-related changes in the body but also in the way of life of a person.
As the study showed, muscles in older people go non-linearly. They do not just gradually disappear but do it in leaps – precisely during those periods when an aged person observes bed rest during an illness. At such moments, part of the muscles leaves and does not come back.
Immobility kills muscles in young people too. In one experiment, young people lost 1.4 kg of muscle mass in a week of strict bed rest. It takes more than eight weeks of regular strength training to build up that amount.
In another experiment, van Loon found that complete immobility for just five days reduced muscle by 3.5% and strength by 9%. But the losses are greatly reduced or absent if you stimulate the same muscles with electrical impulses. Electrical stimulation even helps comatose patients, reducing protein breakdown and preventing muscle atrophy.
Without movement, no amount of protein will help you maintain muscle mass, and you can do it at any age with strength training. And another study by Luna confirms this: in six months of strength training twice a week, older people far over 70 have increased 1.3 kg of lean muscle mass.
4. Thorough chewing is the key to success
If you’re getting your protein from foods and not in powder form, it makes sense to chew it thoroughly. So, the study showed that after consuming ground beef, the percentage of amino acids in the blood rises faster than after a steak with the same amount of protein. In addition, within six hours of eating minced meat, the level of amino acids in the blood was 61%, and in the case of steak – only 49%.
Scientists did not find a difference in protein synthesis, but this may have been because muscle biopsies were taken only six hours after eating. Accelerated synthesis is usually observed after 1-2 hours.
It is logical to assume that since the muscles receive more building material and an incentive for growth, they will grow faster. However, only further research can determine this for sure.
In any case, chewing thoroughly is good for digestion, so you won’t lose anything by spending a few extra minutes devouring your steak or breast.